What Do Lin Yutang and Lin Biao Have in Common? They Were Both Memory Holed

Global Voices, a quite useful and smart blog, on January 30 posted Two Versions of Mao’s China: History Retouched as Propaganda, which has an set of uncanny “before and after” photos of the sort we’ve become all too familiar with. It’s not surprising to see Lin Biao being airbrushed out of posters and photos after he went from being Mao’s “closest comrade in arms and successor” to falling (literally) from grace.

But a set of photos further down the page caught my eye. The original 1927 version (the one on the bottom) shows Lu Xun (front row right), his wife, brother, Sun Fuyuan, another friend, and Lin Yutang (back row center), but in the second version, dated 1977, Lin and the other friend have been artfully “disappeared.”

Lu Xun With (1927) and Without (1977) Lin Yutang
Lu Xun With (1927) and Without (1977) Lin Yutang

I’m afraid that for too long Lin Yutang was also airbrushed out of Western accounts of China before the 1949 Revolution. Until the work of Qian Suoqiao, now of Hong Kong City University, Lin couldn’t get much scholarly respect. Since Qian is a friend, I should write a little more about his heroic contributions at some point in the future, but for now, let’s just appreciate the irony of the two airbrushed Lins.

The caption on the Global Voices photos, presumably using information from the original Chinese posting, says that Lin escaped to Taiwan in 1949. Lin actually left Shanghai in 1936 to come to the United States and Europe after the success of his My Country and My People, partly in fear of reprisal for his caustic comments on the Nationalist government. He and Lu Xun had fallen out several years earlier after an initially warm friendship. Qian’s book, Liberal Cosmopolitan: Lin Yutang and Middling Chinese Modernity (Brill: 2011) starts by explaining the absence of Lin from PRC standard histories, which is understandable. Lin was thoroughly anti-Communist, and did not come back into favor in the PRC until the 1980s.

What is a little harder to explain is why Lin, one of the most learned and productive non-academic scholars of his generation, was not just passed over with little or no mention, but looked upon with amused dismissal. I don’t want to get carried away — Lin doesn’t strike me as a first rank thinker and Qian Suoqiao and I have had friendly disagreements over Lin’s politics during World War II. But he was and is an extraordinarily interesting writer.

One beginning reason for his neglect is that academics are the score keepers for these literary games. Lin was popular, and a popularizer gets no points. True, he probably wrote too much and too quickly, but he had to make a living. Also, after he left Shanghai, he wrote primarily in English, which somehow was taken to mean that he did not belong in the realm of Chinese literature. His style was clear and elusively ironic, hard to pin down, and his novels were middle-brow, not literarily modern. Nor did his opposition to the Communist Revolution do him any good in the eyes of most Western China Hands. His public trapped him in the role of a wise translator of a comforting Chinese culture, not a political commentator. Then in the 1950s, China writers of all stripes found that the American public didn’t want to read novels about Red China. So Lin, along with most pre-war China Hands, had to retool.

In any case, I should write soon about the Lin Yutang Conference which Qian Suoqiao organized in Hong Kong a while back. William Sima wrote it up nicely in China Heritage Quarterly 29 (2012) but I’d to add a few more thoughts at some point.

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