Lin Yutang on passion - is qing the right word?

By Helen Wang, published

Another Lin Yutang moment - this one relates to tragedy and tragic figures in Chinese literature

"It is passion that is the soul of life, the light in the stars, the lilt in music and song, the joy in flowers, the plumage in birds, the charm in woman, and the life in scholarship. It is as impossible to speak of a soul without passion as to speak of music without expression. It is that which gives us inward warmth and the rich vitality which enables us to face life cheerily.

Or perhaps I am wrong in choosing the word ‘passion’ when I speak of what the Chinese writers refer to as qing . Should I translate it by the word ‘sentiment’, which is gentler and suggests less of the tumultuous qualities of stormy passion?

Or perhaps we mean by it something very similar to what the early Romanticists call ‘sensibility’, which we find in a warm, generous and artistic soul. It is strange that among the Western philosophers so few, except Emerson, Amiel, Joubert and Voltaire, have a good word to say for passion. Perhaps we are arguing about words merely, while we mean the same thing. But then, if passion is different from sentiment and means something tumultuous and upsetting, then we haven’t got a Chinese word for it, and we still have to go back to the old word qing. Is this an index of a difference in racial temperament, of the absence among the Chinese people of grand and compelling passions, which eat up one’s soul and form the stuff of tragedy in Western literature? Is this the reason why Chinese literature has not developed tragedy in the Greek sense; why Chinese tragic characters at the critical moment, weep, give up their sweethearts to their enemy, or, as in the case of Ch’u Pawang [pinyin: Chu Bawang?], stab their sweethearts and then plunge the knife into their own breasts? It is a sort of ending that will be found unsatisfying to a Western audience, but as Chinese life is, so is Chinese literature. Man struggles with fate, gives up the battle, and the tragedy comes in the aftermath, in a flood of reminiscences, of vain regret and longing, such as we see in the tragedy of Emperor Tang Minghuang [aka Xuanzong], who after granting the suicide of his beloved queen to placate a rebellious army, lives in a dream world in memory of her. The tragic sense is shown in the remaining part of the Chinese play long after the denouement, in a swelling crescendo of sorrow. As he travels in his exile, he hears the distant music of cowbells in the hills on a rainy day and he composes the ‘Song of Rain on Cowbells’ in her honour; everything he sees or touches, a little perfumed scarf that still retains its old scent, or an old maidservant of hers, reminds him of his beloved queen, and the play ends with him searching for her soul with the help of Taoist priests in the abode of the Immortals. So then, we have here a romantic sensibility, if we are not allowed to speak of it as passion. But it is passion mellowed down to a gentle glow. So it is characteristic of Chinese philosophers that while they disparage the human ‘desires’ (in the sense of the ‘seven passions’), they have never disparaged passion or sentiment itself, but made it the very basis of a human life, so much so that they regard ‘the passion between husband and wife as the very foundation of all normal human life’."

Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living (1938), ch.5, pt 2: Passion, wisdom and courage: Mencius


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