Sunday, April 14, 2013

Review of The Wisdom of China ed. by Lin Yutang

Initially published as The Wisdom of China and India, publishers later separated the massive tome into its two natural halves, The Wisdom of India and The Wisdom of China.  Focusing on the major schools of thought from Eastern philosophy, the Chinese half is full of names familiar to the West: Laozi, Confucius, Zhuangzi, Mencius, Mozi, and others.  The book also features a large number of selections from personages most would be unfamiliar with: Luxin, Sizi, Shenfu, and so on.  Lin’s translations and introductory material invaluable, this is perhaps the best introduction to Chinese philosophy available.

Divided into sections based on theme rather than philosopher, readers will find mysticism, democracy (Chinese style), universal love, familial piety, everyday life, and a large number of other subjects broached.  Starting with the Daoists, moving through the teachings of Mozi, touching upon Mencius, and moving to Confucianism, Lin has included all of the big names expected, as well as large number of names the majority of Westerners probably have not encoutnered.  So while these philosophers’ works can be found in many, many other books (including Lin’s own The Wisdom of Laotse and The Wisdom of Confucius), the inclusion of lesser known ideologists to fill the political, spiritual, and social spaces of Chinese thought makes this book all the more comprehensive and valuable.  (I would estimate 70% of the book relates to the “famous” philosophers mentioned above, the remaining 30% to lesser known personages.)

Not just essays, Lin selects many different forms of writing from Chinese history.  Philosophical assay, proverbs, poetry, epigrams, etc. from thousands of years of recorded history form the content.  Borrowing the translations of others when appropriate but translating the majority on his own, Lin’s input into the collection is priceless.  A treasure to the West, his native insight into the selections opens doors of thought that the Western mind has rare access to.  After all, who better to introduce Chinese thought than a mind innate to the culture?  Lin’s style is as impeccable as his other books and needs no further discussion.

Now the caveat.  Readers looking for in-depth material on Confucius, Laozi, Shenfu, etc. should look elsewhere.  The Wisdom of China is intended as an overview of Chinese philosophy.  By presenting selections from larger texts, Lin is able to strike at the main points underpinning the major ideologies, but does not offer deep or comparative analysis across a broader spectrum.  This is not to say Lin’s opening and closing commentaries are not ineffective, rather that his aim is to present the main pillars of the various ideologies. One must also remember, in 1942 books on Chinese thought were few and far between.  The amount increasing exponentially in the decades since, Lin’s was one of the first and remains one of the most influential. 

In the end, The Wisdom of China is a wonderful companion piece to the perennial philosophy of India if an overview of Eastern philosophy is your aim, and of Chinese philosophy if your interests are more specific.  The wisdom of the Middle Kingdom is presented in extensive sample form, giving the reader a solid but relevantly brief introduction to the philosophies underpinning Chinese history, and by analogy, life.  Though globalization is currently making huge inroads, the spirit of familial piety, of passive resistance, and of the importance of life’s softer side nevertheless still run redolent through the culture.  The Wisdom of China, given Lin’s skill with English and personal knowledge of the material, is still one of the best introductions to this mode of thought, and should be picked up by anyone with little knowledge Chinese philosophy but who is interested in more. 

(Two notes should be added here.  Firstly, Buddhism, though a large influence on Chinese thought, is not to be found in this collection.  The rudiments originating in India, one must look to that half of the text for relevant information.  Secondly, Lin later published a book called The Importance of Understanding which presents excerpts from Chinese culture along more artistic and literary lines.  None of the material repeated between these two volumes, it also is worth looking into if you are interested in Chinese thought.)

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