THE END OF LIFE
By Lin Yutang
THE END OF LIFE, being the first section of the last chapter “Epilogue” of Lin Yutang’s My Country and My People, published in New York by the John Day Publishing Company, 1935.
Lin Yutang，林语堂（1895-1976）, Chinese philologist and author. His My Country and My People has won for him both in America and England the reputation of being one of the ablest interpreters of China and her civilization.
In the general survey of Chinese art and Chinese life, the conviction must have been forced upon us that the Chinese are past masters in the art of living. There is a certain whole-hearted concentration on the material life, a certain zest in living, which is mellower, perhaps deeper, anyway just as intense as in the West. In China the spiritual values have not been separated from the material values, but rather help man in a keener enjoyment of life as it falls to our lot. This accounts for our joviality and our incorrigible humor. A heathen can have a heathenish devotion to the life of the present and envelop both spiritual and material values in one outlook, which it is difficult for a Christian to imagine. We live the life of the senses and the life of the spirit at the same moment, and see no necessary conflict. For the human spirit is used to beautify life, to extract its essence, perhaps to help it overcome ugliness and pain inevitable in the world of our senses, but never to escape from it and find its meaning in a life hereafter. When Confucius said in reply to a question by a disciple on death, “Don’t know life—how know death?” he expressed there a somewhat bourgeois, unmetaphysical and practical attitude toward the problems of life and knowledge which has characterized our national life and thinking.
This standpoint establishes for us a certain scale of values. In every aspect of knowledge and of living, the test of life holds. It accounts for our pleasures and our antipathies. The test of life was with us a racial thought, wordless and needing no definition or giving of reasons. It was that test of life which, instinctively I think, guided us to distrust civic civilization and uphold the rural ideal in art, life and letters, to dislike religion in our rational moments, to play with Buddhism but never quite accept its logical conclusions, and to hate mechanical ingenuity. It was that instinctive trust in life that gave us a robust common sense in looking at life’s kaleidoscopic changes and the myriad vexatious problems of the intellect which we rudely ignored. It enabled us to see life steadily and see life whole, with no great distortions of values. It taught us some simple wisdom, like respect for old age and the joys of domestic life, acceptance of life, of sex, and of sorrow. It made us lay emphasis on certain common virtues, like endurance, industry, thrift, moderation, and pacificism. It prevented the development of freakish extreme theories and the enslaving of man by the products of his own intelligence. It gave us a sense of values, and taught us to accept the material as well as the spiritual goods of life. It taught us that, after all is said and done, human happiness is the end of all knowledge. And we arrange ourselves to make our lives happy on this planet, under whatever vicissitudes of fortune.
We are an old nation. The eyes of an old people see in its past and in this changing modern life much that is superficial and much that is of true meaning to our lives. We are a little cynical about progress, and we are a little bit indolent, as are all old people. We do not want to race about in a field for a ball; we prefer to saunter along willow banks to listen to the bird’s song and the children’s laughter. Life is so precarious that when we know something truly satisfies us, we hold on to it tight, as a mother hugs her baby close to her breast in a dark, stormy night. We have really no desire for exploring the South Pole or scaling the Himalayas. When Westerners do that, we ask, “What do you do that for? Do you have to go to the South Pole to be happy?” We go to the movies and theaters, but in the heart of our hearts we feel that a real child’s laughter gives us as much real joy and happiness as an imaginary child’s laughter on the screen. We compare the two and stay at home. We do not believe that kissing one’s own wife is necessarily insipid, and that other people’s wives are necessarily more beautiful because they are other people’s wives. We do not ache to reach the foot of the mountain when we are in the middle of the lake, and we do not ache to be at the top of the hill when we are at its foot. We drink what wine there is in the pot and enjoy what scenery there is before our eyes.
So much of life is merely a farce. It is sometimes just as well to stand by and look at it and smile, perhaps better than to take part in it. Like a dreamer awakened, we see life, not with the romantic color of yesternight’s dream, but with a saner vision. We are more ready to give up the dubious, the glamorous and the unattainable, but at the same time to hold on to the few things that we know will give us happiness. We always go back to nature as an eternal source of beauty and of true and deep and lasting happiness. Deprived of progress and of national power, we yet throw open our windows and listen to cicadas or to falling autumn leaves and inhale the fragrance of chrysanthemums, and over the top there shines the autumn moon, and we are content.
For we are now in the autumn of our national life. There comes a time in our lives, as nations and as individuals, when we are pervaded by the spirit of early autumn, in which green is mixed with gold and sadness is mixed with joy, and hope is mixed with reminiscence. There comes a time in our lives when the innocence of spring is a memory and the exuberance of summer a song whose echoes faintly remain in the air, when as we look out on life, the problem is not how to grow but how to live truly, not how to strive and labor but how to enjoy the precious moments we have, not how to squander our energy but how to conserve it in preparation for the coming winter. A sense of having arrived somewhere, of having settled and having found out what we want. A sense of having achieved something also, precious little compared with its past exuberance, but still something, like an autumn forest shorn of its summer glory but retaining such of it as will endure.
I like spring, but it is too young. I like summer, but it is too proud. So I like best of all autumn, because its leaves are a little yellow, its tone mellower, its colors richer, and it is tinged a little with sorrow and a premonition of death. Its golden richness speaks not of the innocence of spring, nor of the power of summer, but of the mellowness and kindly wisdom of approaching age. It knows the limitations of life and is content. From a knowledge of those limitations and its richness of experience emerges a symphony of colors, richer than all, its green speaking of life and strength, its orange speaking of golden content, and its purple of resignation and death. And the moon shines over it, and its brow seems white with reflection, but when the setting sun touches it with an evening glow, it can still laugh cheerily. An early mountain breeze brushes by and sends its shivering leaves dancing gaily to the ground, and you do not know whether the song of the falling leaves is the song of laughter or of parting tears. For it is the Song of the Spirit of Early Autumn, the spirit of calm and wisdom and maturity, which smiles at sorrow itself and praises the exhilarating, keen, cool air—the Spirit of Autumn so well expressed by Hsin Ch‘ichi:
“In my young days,
I had tasted only gladness,
But loved to mount the top floor,
But loved to mount the top floor,
To write a song pretending sadness.
“And now I’ve tasted
Sorrow’s flavors, bitter and sour,
And can’t find a word,
And can’t find a word,
But merely say, ‘What a golden autumn hour! ‘”
conviction, firm belief; being convinced.
past masters, people having practiced skill.
zest, keen enjoyment; gusto; relish.
mellower, made softer or more genial by experience.
joviality, the act of being merry, joyous, or jolly.
incorrigible humor, sympathetic laughter which is so strong that it is beyond correction.
heathen, pagan; irreligious person.
the life of the present, living only for the present moment; not caring about the past or the future.
envelop, combine in one wrapper; include.
extract its essence, take out from life its essential element.
a life hereafter, a life after this life that we are living.
disciple, a follower who has learned to believe in the doctrine of his teacher.
“Don’t know life—how know death?”“未知生焉知死，”—Confucius’s Analect.
bourgeois, of the class between the gentry and the laborers, a class addicted to comfort and respectability.
unmetaphysical, not abstract and not related to metaphysics, which is the science of being and the theory of knowledge.
scale of values, a graded system of measuring relative worth, importance, utility, desirability, etc.
civic civilization, civilization built up around a city; the civilization that has grown up with the growth of cities.
robust, strong and healthy.
kaleidoscopic, varied and many-colored. A kaleidoscope is a tube in which figures are produced by reflections of pieces of colored glass and varied by rotation of the tube.
myriad, vastly numerous.
vexatious, annoying; distressing; disturbing.
distortions, twisted or pulled out of shape.
pacificism, love of peace; advocacy of the abolition of war.
freakish extreme theories, queer radical ideas, that run to extremes.
vicissitudes of fortune, irregular changes of luck; uncertainty as to how things may turn out.
superficial, not going deep; of or on the surface only; of not much true meaning.
cynial, sneering; incredulous.
indolent, lazy; slothful.
saunter, walk in a leisurely way.
precarious, uncertain; insecure; dependent on circumstances or unknown causes or conditions.
Himalayas, the mountain system 1,600 miles long between India and Tibet. The highest peak of this system is Mount Everest, 29,002 feet high. Several have been the attempts on the part of alpine climbers to scale to the top of the mountain, but as yet none of these attempts have been successful.
on the screen, thrown on the screen in a theater.
insipid, tasteless; uninteresting; dull.
farce, absurdly futile proceeding, pretense, mockery.
yesternight’s, last night’s.
dubious, uncertain; doubtful.
glamorous, of magical enchantment; of delusive or alluring beauty and charm.
cicadas, insects noted for the prolonged shrill sound made by the male.
pervaded, spread through; permeated; saturated.
reminiscence, remembrance; act of recalling past experiences.
exuberance, luxuriance; overflow; excess.
squander, spend wastefully; scatter.
shorn,the past participle of shear, strip bare;cut off as with sword or clip off as with shears.
premonition of death, forewarning that death is not so far off, that death is in the offing.
symphony of colors, harmony of colors; such a delightful mixing of colors that one color brings out the richness of another.
resignation, uncomplaining endurance of sorrow or other evil.
exhilarating, enlivening; gladdening.
Hsin Ch‘i-chi， 辛弃疾（稼轩）, poet, Sung dynasty, died 1198.
- In what way are the Chinese “past masters in the art of living”?
- What scale of values results from the Chinese practical attitudes towards the problems of life and knowledge?
- How is the Chinese viewpoint colored by the fact that the nation is old?
- What is the spirit of early autumn? How does it characterize Chinese life?