Lin Yutang, the peony and Mae West

By Helen Wang, published

Having come across the name and words of Lin Yutang (1895-1976) several times this week, I pulled my old copy of The Importance of Living from the shelf, blew off the dust, and was delighted to find Appendix B: A Chinese Critical Vocabulary. It's written for the general reader, and includes 81 specific terms and many more in and amongst:
eg. 48. yan: voluptuous, georgeously beautiful, dazzlingly beautiful, passionate. eg. the peony, Mae West.
eg. 67. shou: thin, slender. This is a strangely beautiful word in the Chinese language. Slender rocks and bamboos are always painted together. It expresses non-sensuous beauty.

A Chinese Critical Vocabulary (Appendix B in The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang, 1938)
In my efforts at translation of Chinese literature, for instance in the translation of The Epigrams of Chang Ch’ao, I have constantly run across phrases or terms that are extremely difficult to render into English. This has made me think that perhaps a list of Chinese critical terms with explanatory comments will be both useful and enlightening. It will also be enlightening because the Chinese critics seem to have evolved a technique for the enjoyment of nature and art and literature, and an examination of their critical vocabulary will reveal this technique and their aesthetic feelings about things. One is often forced to write bad English in trying to express such Chinese aesthetic ideas or notions, as for instance when one speaks of ‘enjoying the snow’. ‘singing the wind’, awaiting the moon’, ‘playing water’, ‘facing wine’, ‘sleeping flowers’, ‘pacing the moonlight’, ‘pacing spring’, ‘pillowing water’, ‘lying down travelling’, and so on. One needs to explain that ‘awaiting the moon’ means that one goes out to the courtyard after supper to look at the crescent moon, but it has not yet come up and so one has to wait for it, or that ‘lying down travelling’ means mentally travelling while lying in bed. And when one speaks of ‘the moon being suspended at the roof-corner’ or ‘over the tree-tops’, of course the phrase is figurative. But there are more abstract and elusive ideas that are more difficult to paraphrase, as for instance when a Chinese artists speaks of the ‘five grades of qing’ (purity): ‘pure and inspired’, as when one looks at the moon over the hills and is disgusted with the busy life and thinks of going away to be a recluse; ‘pure and charming’, as when one has books in one’s study and has flowers well arranged in his vase; ‘pure and poor’, as when one is somewhat sad and forlorn living out in a dreary valley and forsaken by his relatives; ‘pure and crazy’, as when one loves secluded spots and rare persons and books; and ‘pure and rare’, as when one has read the classics of the ages and finds himself at home among rocks and springs, and ‘his writing smells of haze and coloured clouds, and his conduct is far removed from the dusts of the busy world’. I am trying in the following to interpret briefly some of these aesthetic notions under seven heads. First, the emotions and personality of the man; second, aesthetic notions borrowed from physical objects in general; third, types of beauty characteristic of spring; fourth, types of beauty characteristic of summer; fifth, types of beauty characteristic of autumn; sixth, types of beauty characteristic of winter; seventh, the beauty of perfect naturalness, which is the highest form of beauty attainable by human artists. The list is, of course, far from complete and deals chiefly with the most characteristic aesthetic ideals. But while an intensive study of this critical vocabulary will increase one’s understanding and enjoyment of Chinese paintings, a great majority of the terms have moral connotations also. All human personalities can be described in aesthetic terms, and they usually are in the Chinese language.

I. The Perceiving Artist
All painting, all poetry and all art are based upon two elements, which are called, in Chinese, jing or the scene, the picture; the qing , or the sentiment or mood of man.

A. Expressions concerning man’s style and specific charms of culture

B. Concerning one’s talent or character or spirit

C. Concerning human emotions and feelings

D. Some general ideas about culture

In contrast to these approved cultural qualities, there are a few expressing disapproval worthy of mention. Some of these are: fu (musty), yu (strait-jacket), suan (sour) all refer to the doctrinaire and slavish follower of rules and conventions; suan, or ‘sour’, in particular refers to ‘pedantry’. Ban (wooden), zhi (straight) and dai (stagnant) refer to ‘stiffness’ of style and conduct. Lu (colloquially pronounced lou at Peking, meaning ‘exposed’) refers to ‘inartistic plainness’ in writing, or painting, or diplomacy. A good boxer is said to be ‘not lou or pulou, ie he never lets people know how good he is until the occasion comes for putting his skill into use. The first condition in the training of a boxer is ‘never to swagger’. Fou, from the idea ‘floating on water’, means superficiality plus instability, lack of depth and lack of seriousness. Lou, shu, pi are common terms for ‘vulgarity’ in contrast to ya, ‘refinement’ or ‘elegance’. These seems especially to refer to the uncultured state, like unweeded ground, as in the saying of a Qin scholar that ‘after having not seen a cultured friend for three days, one’s pilou, or vulgarity, sprouts up again’.

II. Aesthetic notions borrowed from physical objects in general

III. Types of beauty characteristic of spring
Of the types of beauty modally associated with the different seasons, those of spring and summer are comparatively less striking and peculiar as aesthetic notions than those of autumn and winter. Most of these words are used indifferently as adjectives and nouns.

IV. Types of beauty characteristic of summer
In general, summer suggests luxuriance and full power. Some of the notions classified under summer, like qi, qiao can just as well belong to autumn.

V. Types of beauty characteristic of autumn
In general, the autumn season stands for simplicity, maturity and conservation; in contrast to summer luxuriance, an autumn scene suggests ethereal thinness, crispness and the penetrating, yet exhilarating, coolness of the autumn wind. Here the image of a clear autumn moon and an enticing autumn lake undoubtedly plays an important role. Autumn also suggests the tragic mood. In autumn, one is supposed to have outgrown the luxuriance of summer and begun to love simplicity, peace and contentment. Like the farmer, one no longer tills and no longer runs about in the scorching sun, but begins to gather in and take stock of what he has got. If we could only learn to live our life in harmony with the rhythm of nature! But we will not. We want to run for ever in the scorching sun. The feeling for the dreary beauty of autumn was perfectly expressed by one of the great Yuan dramatists:
Dry vines, old trees, evening crows –
Small bridge, flat banks, water flows –
Old road, slim horse, west wind blows –
And as the sun westward sets,
Forlorn love, far away, no one knows!

VI. Types of beauty characteristic of winter
The beauty of winter is chiefly that of old age, of cold splendour, of quiet and seclusion.

VII. The beauty of complete naturalness
The highest art is like nature. Hence all traces of ‘axe- and chisel-marks’ must be obliterated. Such works can only be done by a master, with complete seeming artlessness and absence of effort, as in a poem where we feel there is no labour at embellishments, because the simple beauty of the sentiments is absolutely adequate.


# 1.   

Helen, thank you for copying this excerpt. I'm not incredibly familiar with Lin Yutang's scholarship, but what I have read I've found engaging. Why can't more academics be engaging in their writing? Moreover, Lin Yutang's English is refined almost to the point of distraction - some convoluted grammar, but he must have known the frustration of having people say, "Wow, you're English is so good!" while he was trying to make a point.

His point about having to write bad English in order to explain classical Chinese poetry is very poignant - though perhaps accidentally so. I find that no matter how many English-speaking academics and poets try their hand at it, a decent majority of classical translations come out sounding horribly stilted. I've probably read ten wimpy translations of Du Fu, Xie Lingyun and Tao Yuanming. Ezra Pound couldn't avoid the tendency entirely; Kenneth Rexroth did a fair job, I thought, and so did Gary Snyder. But then, they were often putting themselves before the poem, weren't they?

Canaan Morse, September 8, 2012, 2:32a.m.

# 2.   

His comment doesn't refer only to poetry, and I took it in the broadest sense. I hadn't looked at this book for years, and then carried on reading into the early hours... It was first published in 1938, and I couldn't help noticing that my copy is a 16th reprint of March 1949. It was reprinted at least 8 times during World War II. Phenomenal.

Helen Wang, September 8, 2012, 7:11a.m.


Your email will not be published
Raw HTML will be removed
Try using Markdown:
[link text](
End line with two spaces for a single line break.