"Anyone who visualizes the author of a major dictionary as a pedantic recluse reluctantly and absent-mindedly raising myopic eyes from dusty tomes would be pleasantly startled by even a brief encounter with Dr. Lin Yutang," a New York Times reporter once wrote. "From longer acquaintance with Dr. Lin one realizes that he has avoided being dehumanized by scholarship, debilitated by boredom or stress, or corroded by bitterness, chronic anger, envy or easy cynicism. . . . The basic reason is childishly simple. He loves life. It has given him the two things he considers most essential to happiness. `They are,' he says, `the opportunity simply to be myself and the opportunity to do the work I really like."'
For the most part, the work Lin liked to do best throughout his long career as scholar, translator, educator, lexicographer, and humanist was to write. Totally bilingual or, as he himself once described it, alternately "thinking with the brush in Chinese and thinking with the typewriter in English," Lin spent several decades preparing a Chinese-English dictionary of modern usage, the completion of which he considered the crowning achievement of his career.
Yet while it was his last major achievement, it was certainly not the only one. During the 1930s, for example, Lin wrote two best-selling nonfiction works, My Country and My People and The Importance of Living, both of which attempted to clarify the nature of Chinese character and thought for Western readers. The author's delightfully sly sense of humor, amiable tone, and excellent command of idiomatic English, combined with an underlying seriousness of purpose, quickly made him a favorite among readers and reviewers alike. As M. H. Bro of Christian Century observed: "[My Country and My People] is not just a great book about China but a great book about life. . . . Although the author appears in the chapter headings to cover the whole range of human interest, it is not his complexity which astounds one. It is his simplicity. He wastes no words. He chooses deliberately."
T. F. Opie of Churchman stated: "No one who wants to know either old or new China need go beyond the covers of My Country and My People. . . . The whole gamut of matters Chinese, is here treated with a deftness, a frankness, an intelligence, a subtlety, seldom matched in any work." Peter Fleming of the Spectator agreed, as did the Nation's Younghill Kang. "This book," Fleming wrote, "although its quality is uneven, is worth all the other modern books about China put together." Kang noted that "My Country and My People is not just another book on China. It has something to say, and says it with charm and humor."
The New York Times' R. E. Kennedy remarked that "reading Mr. Lin's book is a tremendous experience, and one feels deeply grateful for the enlightenment derived from it. No one but a Chinese could have given such an honest, faithful, unprejudiced account of the people."
Finally, Nathaniel Peffer of the Saturday Review of Literature wrote: "Mr. Lin has lived in Europe and America and measured the ways of the West with a critical eye. He is widely read in Western literature, has an impressive erudition, and has not only `learned' Western culture but understands it. Withal he has the mellowness, the wisdom, and the humor of his race. . . . His book is therefore the best tha has been written on China in English, and I recommend it to all those who want a true and sensitively perceived picture of China."
In The Importance of Living, Lin offered readers a Chinese philosophy of life "written with a chuckle," in the words of a Christian Century reviewer. Books critic Florence Ayscough called it "an all revealing book: not alone is a civilization portrayed, but a personality as well. A wise, whimsical, witty, ironical personality: that of the author."
The New Republic's R. M. Lovett commented: "[The Importance of Living] is a more didactic and calculated treatise than My Country and My People and lacks something of the spontaneous charm of the latter. It is too long, and somewhat overwritten. . . . [But] for the rest, Mr. Lin has written a wise and beautiful book."
Carl Crow of the Saturday Review of Literature claimed that "Dr. Lin has performed the inestimable service of distilling the philosophy of generations of Chinese sages and presenting it against a modern Occidental background, which makes it easily readable and understandable. It is, in fact, a charming text book on living which anyone can read with pleasure and profit."
In his review of The Importance of Living, J. S. Bixler of Atlantic also praised the usefulness of Lin's overview of Chinese philosophy. He wrote: "When a book by an Oriental has the style of a sophisticated contribution to the New Yorker, we are put at once on our guard. If this atuhor has become so completely one of us, we ask, can he have anything to say for himself? . . . But if the reader suspects this book he soon changes his impression. . . . [Lin] preaches a gospel that applies to all men, and behind his sense for the apt American word is the artist's awareness of the universal."
Straub, Deborah A. "Yutang Lin." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2003.