Liberal Cosmopolitan: Lin Yutang and Middling Chinese Modernity. By Qian Suoqiao. (Leiden: Brill, 2010. x + 271 Pp. Hardback, ISBN 978-9-0041-9213-3.)
Article first published online: 3 SEP 2013
© 2013 Journal of Chinese Philosophy
Journal of Chinese Philosophy
Volume 40, Issue 1, pages 211–214, March 2013
How to Cite
Hill, M. G. (2013), Liberal Cosmopolitan: Lin Yutang and Middling Chinese Modernity. By Qian Suoqiao. (Leiden: Brill, 2010. x + 271 Pp. Hardback, ISBN 978-9-0041-9213-3.). Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 40: 211–214. doi: 10.1111/1540-6253.12020
- Issue published online: 3 SEP 2013
- Article first published online: 3 SEP 2013
Over the past twenty years, as scholars have sought new conceptual models for understanding Chinese literature, many have turned away from the author or figure study in favor of broader thematic studies. Although this trend has produced many fine books, one unfortunate side effect has been that the fundamental work on individual authors has sometimes fallen by the wayside. Many important writers, such as Lao She (1899–1966) and Ba Jin (1904–2005), are represented in English only by monographs from the 1970s and early 1980s that cry out for revision. Other authors have fared worse, as in the case of the fascinating writer and man-about-Shanghai, Shi Zhecun (1905–2003), who has never been given treatment more sustained than an article or book chapter.
Qian Suoqiao's study Lin Yutang (1895–1976), then, is a welcome addition to scholarship on the literary and cultural history of modern China. Liberal Cosmopolitan successfully situates the story of Lin Yutang against the backdrop of both 1920s–1930s Chinese literature and intellectual history and American literature of the 1930s through the 1950s. Qian sets out to undo an array of stereotypes about Lin that variously dismiss him as a liberal of weak convictions or—during his years in North America—a peddler of vapid, sanitized images of Chinese culture. Although Qian's approach gestures at times toward American Studies, his main goal is to bring Lin Yutang back into the canon of Chinese literature and to understand Lin's importance in terms of the post-Mao era.
Chapter 1 (“Introduction”) and Chapter 2 (“Chinese Modernity: Nationalism, Imperialism, and the Liberal Cosmopolitan Alternative”) lay the groundwork for Qian's later discussions of Lin Yutang. Much of the Introduction surveys the troubled reception of Lin Yutang in 1980s and 1990s China. Qian argues, however, that a new reading of Lin Yutang's “literary and cultural practices may still point to a middle ground for the deep schism between liberal intellectuals and New Leftists today, by recognizing the prominence of global imperialism and market commercialism (a New Leftist emphasis) while insisting upon liberal cosmopolitan principles of individual integrity and rights” (9). Chapter 2 returns to the scene of the late Qing, surveying ideas about Chinese modernity held by Zhang Zhidong (1837–1909), Liang Qichao (1873–1929), Gu Hongming (1857–1928), and major figures of the New Culture and May Fourth movements. This chapter, however, meanders too much for my taste; as a reader, I would have preferred a clearer argument that could draw together this useful collection of sketches from nineteenth- and twentieth-century intellectual and cultural history. It would also mean that readers would have an easier task discerning the significance of the “liberal cosmopolitan alternative” presented by Lin Yutang when a detailed discussion of his work finally begins on page 57.
The book leaves many of these impressionistic discussions behind in Chapter 3, which offers useful discussions of Lin's tireless work to launch and maintain important journals such as Lunyu (The Analects), Yuzhou feng (Cosmic Wind), and Renjian shi (This Human World). The chapter argues that Lin's efforts are evidence of an important “liberal experience [that stands] in contradistinction to the totalitarian sectarian politics [found] in Chinese modernity” (p. 77).
Qian continues documenting the ins and outs of Lin's cultural politics in the following chapter, “‘Little Critic’: ‘Returned’ Professionals and the Cosmopolitan Modern.” Detailed examinations of Lin's 1930s publishing projects and the people involved in The Analects journal provide a more nuanced understanding of what Qian calls the “Lunyu [Analects] phenomenon,” which drew together writers and intellectuals of very different persuasions “with diverse ideological and educational backgrounds” (p. 98) and writers commonly associated with both the “Beijing” and “Shanghai schools” (Jingpai and Haipai). Although many of the people associated with the “Lunyu phenomenon” wielded considerable social capital by virtue of their time spent abroad and/or their command of a foreign language, Qian demonstrates that they also had to rebut charges that they were too Westernized, especially when those accusations came from Lu Xun, who, despite his own extensive experience abroad, had the audacity to style himself as a man who was only “coming from the countryside” (p. 111).
Chapter 5, “A Cross-Cultural Aesthetics of Life,” looks at Lin's work to translate key concepts between Chinese and English, including xingling, which he rendered into English as “self-expression”; xianshi, which he called “leisure” in English; and “humor,” which Lin famously translated into Chinese as youmo. Lin's cross-cultural fusions of ideas drew from English writers like George Meredith (1828–1909) and Chinese classical-language prose, especially the work of Yuan Hongdao (1568–1610) and Tao Yuanming (365–427). In Qian's view, Lin's approach to problems of aesthetics offered a welcome alternative to the agenda of an “elite intellectual class obsessed with ‘salvation of the nation'” (159).
Qian's account shifts in Chapter 6 to Lin's work in the United States as the wildly successful author of such works as My Country and My People (1935) and The Importance of Living (1937), works that established him as a witty and very non-threatening “Chinese philosopher” on call for the American public. Qian correctly points out that Lin's prolific work in this period has largely either been left out of discussions of Asian-American literature or subordinated to a nationalist narrative in the Chinese-speaking world that declaims Lin's successes as a local writer who made good on the world stage by introducing Chinese culture to the English-speaking world. Drawing from the archive of the John Day Company, Lin's main publisher, Qian shows the complex and often surprising arguments and negotiations between Lin and his editor, Richard Walsh, about how to represent a version of China that would be sufficiently “authentic” and appealing to the American reading public. Here we learn not only of the successes of My Country and My People but also of another book that Lin composed in 1941 and 1942. Although Lin thought this new work, which he tentatively called A Man Thinking, to be the greatest work he ever produced, it was summarily rejected by Walsh and other publishers and never saw the light of day. As a reader, I found this chapter the most engaging for its use of archival materials. Indeed, it seems that Lin's relations with his publishers could easily serve as the subject of a more in-depth, free-standing academic study.
The seventh chapter of the study takes up Lin's debates with other intellectuals, mostly American, on the problems of imperialism and the appeal of the Communist Party of China. As World War II dragged on, Lin became an ever fiercer critic of Euro-American imperialism in Asia, and his comments upset important readers who had taken him to be only a harmless “Chinese philosopher.” The author details how Lin also clashed with a number of “Chinahands,” including Agnes Smedley (1892–1950) and Edgar Snow (1905–1972), who supported the Red Army in its fight against Japan and the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang). Just as Lin had staked out an independent position among intellectual camps in 1920s and 1930s China, once again he found himself looking for a middle ground that satisfied neither the anti-Communist “mainstream” nor leftists who supported Communist revolution. Some readers may take issue, however, with Qian's definition of “Chinahands”—a spelling that I have never seen in any other context—as a group that places Smedley and Snow alongside men like Owen Lattimore (1900–1989) and John King Fairbank (1907–1991), who (unlike Smedley and Snow) played significant roles in U.S. diplomacy and policymaking in East Asia. A broader definition such as “China experts” or “popular authorities on China” would probably create less confusion for readers.
On the whole, Liberal Cosmopolitan serves as a very useful introduction to Lin Yutang's career in China and North America. Through its use of Lin's own words, the book does much to puncture the pieties of literary and intellectual history that uncritically lionizes the New Culture and May Fourth movements and excludes writers like Lin Yutang from the canon of modern Chinese literature. The book also compiles a useful bibliography through its comments on many major figures in Chinese and American literature of the interwar and post–World War II years. Scholars and students looking to undertake work on Lin would do well to start with Qian's book and also to make reference to John Diran Sohigan's unpublished dissertation, “The Life and Times of Lin Yutang” (Columbia University, 1991).
Unfortunately, however, Liberal Cosmopolitan is poorly written and poorly edited, enough so to diminish its scholarly contribution. I take no pleasure in criticizing the writing of a non-native speaker of English, but it is nonetheless the case that anyone who spends an hour or two with this book will run across errors in grammar and problems with phrasing and style that should not appear in a scholarly publication. Brill—and editors who oversee its myriad series—would serve authors and readers better by requiring professional copyediting on all manuscripts.