Book review: My Country and My People, by Lin YuTang

If your aim for learning Chinese is to become accepted as part of the community, your study needs to go beyond just learning how to communicate, instead extending into understanding Chinese culture, why people say what they say, do what they do, and think what they think.

One of our goals at our Chinese language school in Wudaokou, is to support all our students as they not only learn the language, but also gradually develop a fuller understanding of Chinese culture. We can learn culture through observation the society around, through reading books and watching films, and obviously through discussing differences and similarities with Chinese people. With so many books on Chinese history and culture to choose from, we want to help you find the really good books that are worth reading. On that note, here is a review of My Country and My People, by Lin YuTang. Review by Nick D. (a 1on1 Mandarin student)

Here are a few interesting comments:   On the “family system” as the centre of Chinese life: “The Chinese are a nation of individualists. They are family-minded, and the family mind is only a form of maginified selfishness. It is curious that the word ‘society’ does not exist as an ideal in Chinese thought.” (p.169) “It takes the right of contracting marriage out of our hands and gives it to those of our parents; it makes us marry, not wives but ‘daughters-in-law’, and it makes our wives gives birth, not to children but to ‘grandchildren.’ (p.173) “In the end, as it worked out, the family became a walled castle outside which everything is legitimate loot.” (p.177) “There are three muses ruling over China. Their names are Face, Fate and Favor.” (p.191) (Favor from officials or others in positions of power, in contrast to justice – p.192; which can be related to ideas of guanxi, and provides scope for corruption.)

On the problem of communication: “The Chinese, versed in this literary training, have learned to read between the lines, and it is the foreigners’ inability to read between the lines….that causes foreign correspondents to curse both China and themselves for their inability to make head or tail of such cleverly-worded and apparently harmless public statements.” (p.231)

A nice time-warp comment on rural and urban living: “The average poor Chinese in the country has more space of his own that a New York professor. But there are Chinese living in cities as well, and not all of them own huge gardens.” (!!!) (p.322)

My favourite, both for time-warp and for prophecy: “Even if cataclysmic upheavals like a communistic regime should come, the old tradition of individuality, toleration, moderation and common sense will break Communism and change it beyond recognition, rather than Communism with its socialistic, impersonal and rigoristic outlook break the old tradition. It must be so.” (p.75)

Paperback and Kindle versions are both available from Amazon.com Let us know if you have also read and enjoyed this book, or found other similar books particular helpful in understanding Chinese culture.

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About Jonny

Jonny Willson came to Beijing in December 2010 and studied Chinese at 1on1Mandarin 2 years before beginning to work there. His background is in Maths and Analysis (Oxford University, followed by a PhD in Edinburgh (Heriot-Watt University)), and was previously a Credit Risk Analyst with the Royal Bank of Scotland. In his free time he likes to read, watch films, play badminton and run.