Lin Yutang, a Classical Liberal Voice for a Free China

First Published: 2021-03-13


China’s star seems to be rising on the global stage with the claim of strong economic growth, extending its military reach in Asia, and snuffing out the remaining freedoms in Hong Kong. But while Chinese president, Xi Jinping, hails China becoming “great again,” it remains, nonetheless a totalitarian system seemingly surveilling everything and everyone, rounding up well over a million Uyghurs and placing them in concentration camps, and crushing the remaining freedoms in Hong Kong.

What President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party do not want the people of the country to do is to read about the importance of individual liberty, real market freedom, and limited government, most of all not by any Chinese, themselves. This week I discuss a Chinese classical liberal whose, especially, political writings have been virtually banned by the Chinese government since Mao Zedong came to power in 1949. That person is Lin Yutang (1895-1976).

In the 1920s and 1930s, Lin Yutang was one of the most brilliant writers in China, and then with his two books, “My Country and My People” (1935) and “The Importance of Living” (1937) he became a best-selling celebrity in America, a country to which he then moved and lived for several decades. Here was a witty and sarcastic and clear writer who intertwined his essays and both his fiction and non-fiction books with insightful and clever analysis and critique of all forms of political paternalism and governmental arrogance to presume that politicians can and should run our lives.

And added to this is, Lin Yutang was a vocal critic of Chairman Mao and the Chinese Communist movement beginning in the 1930s and 1940s as brutal and inhuman totalitarians. The political “left” in America did all their power to undermine his public stature, and the Chinese Communists did everything to prevent his influence, not just in China but other parts of Asia, as well.

He remains a brilliant writer, who even classical liberals and libertarians seem to have forgotten. He should not be.

Lin Yutang, a Classical Liberal Voice for a Free China

by Richard Ebeling

China Rising! The news media has stories every day about China’s continued positioning as a geopolitical and economic “power” on the international stage. Beijing says its economy will have strong growth in 2021, as it increases military spending to back up China’s gunboat diplomacy in East Asia, and stifles any remaining residues of democracy and civil liberties in Hong Kong.

Domestically, the stranglehold of the Chinese Communist Party under the leadership of President Xi Jinping is tightened over the lives and actions of its own citizens. Demonstrating its commanding power over everyone in the country, every time a fear emerges about a new outbreak of the coronavirus, the central authority locks down whole cities and entire provinces with their tens of millions of people, and orders them to stay home and do what the government tells them to do . . . or else.

China’s Surveillance State with Concentration Camps

The communist regime is the surveillance state, par excellence, with informers on the ground, drones in the air, and censors everywhere watching and restricting what 1.4 billion people can say, see, and read over virtually every form of news and social media. Yes, human ingenuity is never to be discounted in finding ways around Big Brother’s eye in the electronic interstices of the internet and other means of communication. But Beijing is always working to find ways to shut down such crevasses and crannies in the system, and keeps most people in line through intimidations, arrests, and consumer and employment penalties that reduce the life chances and opportunities of the mass of the population.

What awaits any and all who challenge the communist regime or gets on President Xi’s “bad side,” as he works hard to “make China great again” at home and around the world, has been witnessed in roundups, mass detention, terror and torture of the Muslim Uyghur minority in the western region of the Xinjiang (Sinkiang) “autonomous region.” Estimates are that over one million have been incarcerated in “reeducation” concentration camps, and at least thousands more have been murdered by the government. The only “autonomy” enjoyed by the Uyghurs in their own lands is the “freedom” to renounce their religious faith, stop using their own languages and dialects, give up their own social identity and immerse themselves into the majority Han Chinese culture, and loyally accept and follow the orders of President Xi and the Communist Party. (See my articles, “The Uyghurs as Victims of Chinese National Socialism” and “Economic Armaments and China’s Global Ambitions”.)

China’s Journey from a Dynasty to Communism

This is all the latest chapter in China’s more than one-hundred-year tragedy. The Qing (or Manchu) dynasty was overthrown in 1911 by a revolution that became headed by Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) as a declared Chinese “republic.” However, the country soon splintered into regional warlords practicing various degrees of plunder on the peoples under their sway. Sun Yat-sen spoke of democracy, but turned to Soviet advisors in 1923, with the introduction of Soviet-style one-party methods of rule and indoctrination.

Following Sun’s death, his successor, Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) attempted to militarily unify the country and subdue the warlords under his Nationalist (or Kuomintang) government, with its capital established in Nanking (Nanjing). Under Soviet tutelage, the Nationalist and Chinese Communist Parties had been in an alliance in this drive to politically unify the country. But Chiang got wind of an intention of the Communists to undertake a coup against his leadership, and, instead, in April 1927 violently and brutally purged the communist cadres, driving the survivors into the countryside and into the mountains.

Thus began a more than 20-year struggle between the Nationalist government and the communist insurgents that finally led to the communist conquest of the Chinese mainland by the end of 1949, with Chiang’s government retreating to the island of Taiwan. Mao Zedong (1893-1976) emerged as the leader of the reorganized Chinese communist movement in the 1920s and 1930s, with its own revolutionary “capital” in the remote “cave-city” of Yenan, following the famous year-long “long march” in 1934-1935 of Mao’s forces from south-central China to the “northwest” in Shanxi province, being dogged along most of the way by Nationalist Army attacks that failed to defeat Mao’s forces.

Mao’s Communists Made into “Agrarian Reformers”

Who were these “communists” and what did they stand for became one of the great international political controversies and coverups of the 20th century. We know, now, that Mao was a despicable human being, and a brutal political tyrant and power-luster, who imposed Stalin-like dogma, terror, and obedience on both the Communist Party members and the innocent multitudes of people who came under de facto communist rule in various parts of the country, even long before his “triumph” of becoming the Red Emperor of all of China in 1949.

Following the establishment of the “People’s Republic” of China, the country was put through decades of destruction including mass killings of the “oppressor classes,” collectivization of the land, indoctrination madness, various purges of anyone suspected of not being loyal to Mao and the Party, all of which culminated in, first, the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), with its government-created famine that may have taken the lives of upwards of 30 million people, and then, second, in the destructive Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, until the time of Mao’s death. Some estimates have placed the total death count under Mao’s rule at, perhaps, 80 million innocent men, women, and children. (See my reviews of Mao: The Unknown Story and Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine and Laogai – The Chinese Gulag and Red in Tooth and Claw: Twenty-six Years in Chinese Communist Prisons.)

This was not the Mao and the Chinese communist movement that many in America and the West were told about. In the 1930s and 1940s, dozens of American and European correspondents portrayed Mao as a down-to-earth democrat and the Chinese Communist Party not really “communist,” but a movement for “agrarian reform.” Among the worst of these were Edgar Snow’s (1905-1972) Red Star over China (1937) and Agnes Smedley’s (1892-1950) China’s Red Army Marches (1934) and China Fights Back (1938) and Battle Hymn of China (1943). For a time, Smedley was literally in bed with one of Stalin’s top Soviet spies in Asia.

Lin Yutang Tells About Mao’s Treachery and Terrorism

But there were some voices pointing out the reality and the truth about the nature of the Communist Party in China and its totalitarian ideology. In July 1937, after having first occupied Manchuria in 1931-1932, the Japanese Imperial Army initiated a full-blown invasion of China, practicing extreme cruelty on both Chinese civilians and soldiers. Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government formed an alliance with Mao’s Red Army to fight the Japanese. Western reporters generally presented the war effort as one in which the Nationalist Army was cowardly and led by corrupt generals, while the Communists were dedicated warriors heroically opposing the Japanese wherever they could in their areas of the battlefront.

But one prominent Chinese best-selling author who was well-known in the West and then living in the United States, returned to China to report on the course of the war against Japan and the situation on the Chinese home front, and told the truth about Mao and the Communists. This was Lin Yutang (1895-1976), who on coming back to the U.S., published, The Vigil of a Nation (1944). Based on what he personally saw and from multiple corroborating stories from those he interviewed, he reported that the Communist forces avoided fighting the Japanese to conserve their military strength for the expected civil war when the conflict with Japan had ended. Even worse, the Red Chinese military leaders tacitly coordinated their own guerrilla sorties and attacks against their Nationalist Chinese “allies” with Japanese offensives on the Nationalist Army; the Chinese communists killed civilian representatives of the central Chinese government in their process of seizing control over more territory not in Japanese hands.

Instead of the impressions created in the mainstream foreign press accounts of life in the Communist paradise in Red-controlled areas of China, Lin Yutang explained that the large majority of people living under Mao hated their Marxist masters, who imposed slave labor, brainwashing indoctrination sessions, confiscation of peasant’s food and property, and undertook mass murder. To set examples that no one should oppose and all had to show unswerving obedience to their Chinese communist rulers, hundreds of people would be killed at a time, often being buried alive. Or as Lin Yutang expressed it, “for one who is not with them is regarded as against them and stands in danger of ‘liquidation’.”

Lin Yutang’s only compliments to the Chinese Communists were their “slickness” in propaganda. “While they do not even pretend there is freedom of the press or of thought or individual rights in Yenan and have established the most rigorous party dictatorship, they have succeeded in making themselves out as steady champions of freedom of the press and constitutional democracy” among foreign correspondents residing in the Nationalist wartime capital of Chungking (Chongqing), and those specially selected and allowed to come for orchestrated visits to communist-controlled territory and to even meet the illusive Mao in Yenan.

Lin Yutang the Victim of Leftist Smears for Telling the Truth

His book immediately caused a firestorm in the United States. From the recognized “Chinese philosopher” speaking to the West in his, My Country and My People (1935) and The Philosophy of Living (1937), Lin Yutang was ridiculed and rejected as an “enemy” of the true interests of the Chinese people in the reviews of The Vigil of a Nation; he was made out to be a dupe and lackey of Chiang Kai-shek’s corrupt government and someone weakening the war effort against the Japanese.

Lin Yutang responded to his critics by presenting more specifics about the reality of life under the Chinese communists in a revised version of The Vigil of a Nation in 1946, with a summing up:

“The Chinese Communist regime [allows] no freedom of speech, no freedom of belief; it rules by regimentation and by terror, by secret agents and local commissars in the army and in civilian administrations; it goes through the farce of packed popular elections; it terrorizes the population that dares to dissent or refuses to co-operate; it enforces complete party discipline, the party dominates everything, and party members have exalted privileges; it carries out ‘purges’, ‘liquidations’, in a drastic and unscrupulous manner; and finally replaces the landlord and employer with the state as the master. Consequently, the people are terrorized.”

Little that happened in the decades after Mao’s victory in 1949 was not anticipated in Lin Yutang’s analysis and warning about life under Chinese communism in the midst of the Second World War. Since Mao’s death in 1976, many reforms and improvements have occurred in China. And for many people, these improvements in the standard and quality of living are real. But China is not a free market society. The economy is overseen, managed and manipulated by the State. Traditional Marxian “internationalism” has been replaced with Chinese National Socialism, with an emphasis not so much on a global “class struggle,” but on China reasserting its historical greatness and place on the international scene, with gunboat diplomacy in the South China Sea, colonialism-type acquisition of control over foreign ports with use by Chinese military personal, and attempts to control trade and access to needed resources around the world in neo-mercantilist fashion.

In this rush for increased and intensified political and economic nationalism, Chinese communism has morphed into a de facto Marxo-fascism. Rather than class conflict, China’s President Xi now heralds national rivalry for a new global Chinese hegemony to replace America’s diminishing prominence in the world, sometimes echoing a sort of rhetoric common in the interwar period from Mussolini in fascist Italy.

In all of this, the individual human being has little or no importance in the rush to reassert China’s global place in the sun. The collective takes precedence and priority over any one person and his own self-interests. The group comes before the individual, the “I,” is lost within the “We.”

Lin Yutang, a Voice for Liberalism in China and the U.S.

Lin Yutang was not only an outspoken anti-communist determined to speak out against and oppose his country’s ruin at the hands of Mao and his henchmen. Though he made very clear the general political and economic dangers from socialism and communism in, The Secret Name: Communism is the Secret Name of the Dread Antagonist (1958).

Lin Yutang’s father was a Chinese Christian minister. After earning his undergraduate degree at St. John’s University in Shanghai, he did part of his graduate studies at Harvard University and then earned his doctoral degree at the University of Leipzig in Germany in the early 1920s. After returning to China, Lin Yutang worked as a professor, an editor, author, novelist, translator, and social critic, living for a time in Beijing, but mostly in Shanghai.

He was a forthright advocate for personal freedom, economic liberty, rule of law, and limited government; in other words, a classical liberal in the China of the 1920s and 1930s, when his country was facing authoritarian rule by the Kuomintang government in Nanking and totalitarian tyranny from the rising Chinese communist movement. He spoke for civil liberties and sanctity and autonomy of the individual with great wit, charm, and a gay and easy writing style in both his essays and his fiction works.

Indeed, he is often credited with introducing the art of humor into modern Chinese literature, and used it very effectively in subtle jabs at Chinese government practices, policies, and personalities in monthly essays that appeared in a Shanghai periodical that usually were successful in avoiding the ire of the Chinese government censors. Living and working in Shanghai’s foreign-administered “International Settlement” made life easier to write and speak freely, also. Critics of the Chinese government or the warlords could “disappear” or be found dead. (See my article, “The History of Shanghai is a Tale of Successful Capitalism”.)

Lin Yutang burst onto the international literary scene with his book, My Country and My People (1935), which was an overnight best-selling success in the United States in which he presented his interpretation of Chinese life, culture, attitudes and ways of living never presented in the same way in the West. Its publication brought him to America for a decades-long sojourn in the U.S. This was followed by a second huge best-seller, The Importance of Living (1937), where Lin Yutang offered a vision of the harmonious life of a free human being living in a modern world of everyday conformity that limited the spontaneity and creativity of people’s minds and spirit.

He did not believe that somehow the Chinese were inherently different than, say, Americans in wanting to be free, if only they could be liberated from the heavy hands of political control. He explained that when the Chinese government kept out of people’s affairs, local communities lived in harmony and prospered. The Chinese people, he said, had very successfully governed themselves in their respective towns and villages. Explained Lin Yutang:

“If the thing called ‘government’ can leave them alone, they [the Chinese people] are always willing to leave the government alone. Give the people ten years of anarchy, when the word ‘government’ will never be heard, and they will live peacefully together, they will prosper, they will cultivate deserts and turn them into orchards, they will make wares and sell them all over the country, and they will open up the hidden treasures of the earth on their own enterprise and initiative.”

China’s Problem: Unrestrained “Parental Government”

The problem, he pointed out, is that since ancient times China had never had a constitution formally limiting government nor had the Western idea of civil rights. Instead, the Chinese political order was based on political paternalism, or as Lin Yutang called it, “parental government,” which was meant “to look after the people’s interests as parents look after their children’s interest, and to whom we give a free hand and in whom we place unbounded confidence . . . We give unlimited official power without the thought of safeguarding ourselves.”

He contrasted that with the Western view of government. If in China the presumption was that the government was a caring parent, in the West it is presumed that every political figure is a potential plunderer and the purpose of the political system is “to prevent him from carrying out his crooked intentions.” Lin Yutang went on:

“In other words, instead of expecting our rulers to be gentlemen and to walk in the path of righteousness, we should assume them to be potential prison-inmates and devise ways and means to prevent these potential convicts from robbing the people and stealing the country. One can readily see that the latter [Western] system is more likely to be effective as a check for political corruption than waiting for a change of hearts in these gentlemen.”

Do Not Count on Honest Men in Government

What Lin Yutang wanted for China was the Western-type idea that arbitrary government needed to be replaced with a government of laws rather than men, in which there were favors for none and an equality of rights to freedom for all. He drew attention to the ancient Chinese philosopher, Han Feitze (280-233 B.C), an early formulator of Chinese “legalism;” that is, the importance of an impartial system of law in place of arbitrary government by those in political power.

He pointed out that the number of truly honest, trustworthy, and knowledgeable people able to hold any public office is always far fewer in number than the amount of such offices to be filled. Hence, it is always certain that dishonest, unscrupulous, and incompetent people will be manning the vast majority of positions in government. He quoted from Han Feitze:

“You can expect generally about ten honest men in a country (which is a pretty good average). But there are on the other hand probably a hundred offices. As a result, you have ten honest men and ninety crooks to fill all the positions. Hence there will be more likelihood of a general misrule rather than a good government. Therefore, the wise king believes in a system and not personal talents, in a method and not in personal honesty.”

Thus, Han Feitze concluded that it was essential for clearly defined functions and responsibilities to be assigned to those appointed to political or bureaucratic office, with limited discretion for personal enrichment and abuse while holding their governmental position.

View Politicians as Potential Crooks Needing Jail Time

Indeed, Lin Yutang wondered why anyone would want any other type of political system than one of liberty for the individual, with narrowly defined responsibilities and duties assigned to those in government. Said Lin Yutang:

“The idea of a government by virtue and by benevolent rulers is so fantastic that it cannot deceive a college sophomore. One might just as well regulate motor traffic on Broadway by trusting to the drivers’ spontaneous courtesy, instead of by a system of red and green lights.

“The plain, inexorable political and historical truth is that when you treat officials like gentlemen, as we have been doing in China, one-tenth of them will be gentlemen and nine-tenths of them will turn out to be crooks; but when you treat them as crooks, with prisons and threats of prisons, as they do in the West, considerably less than one-tenth succeed in being crooks and fully nine-tenths of them succeed in pretending to be gentlemen. As a result, you have at least the semblance of a clean government . . . What China needs, then, is not more morals but more prisons for politicians.”

He was writing this for an American audience about China in the midst of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, with its premise and presumption of growing government paternalism and increasing encroachments on personal responsibility and decision-making due to political planning and regulation of people’s lives and ways of earning a living. Certainly, some of his readers must have caught the connection that if it would be good for China to be free of political paternalism, maybe Americans should be more concerned about losing their liberty here at home.

Liberty Requires Less Police, and Fewer Lawyers and Soldiers

During the Second World War, Lin Yutang published several books, and in Between Tears and Laughter (1943) he pointed out that for many Chinese common sense suggested that less government was the only way to more liberty. Too much government means undermining the essentials of a free society:

“The Chinese believe that when there are too many policemen, there is no individual liberty; when there are too many lawyers, there can be no justice; and when there are too many soldiers, there can be no peace. Peace can be obtained only by putting government in reverse. Since this is a mixed world of mixed characters [some good people and some bad people], let there be a government to put a few fellows in jail. That is all government exists for . . .

“Americans, who are intensely practical, may agree that government by police, particularly secret police, is higher repellent. They may agree that government by law, though workable, may be slightly inadequate and fall short of the highest ideal [of self-controlling and mutually respecting individuals]. They know that a government by a series of verbotens in the Prussian style is not good enough for the democratic individual and that the good life is something more than obeying a series of ‘Thou shalt nots.’ They know that in a mature, full-grown democracy, peace and order ultimately depend on the decency and self-respect of the individual.”

Liberty Endangered by Subordination of the Individual to the State

In another of his wartime works, With Love and Irony (1941), Lin Yutang insisted that what threatened the world were not guns and planes and bombs, though certainly they bring their destructiveness to people’s lives. What is far more important a danger to a healthy and good future for mankind was the loss of the idea of human freedom, the ordinary person’s individual rights to live his life in peace, unmolested by governmental power:

“What threatens civilization today is not war itself or the destruction of war, but the changing conceptions of life values entailed by certain types of political doctrines. These doctrines directly impinge upon man’s ordinary, natural privileges of living and subordinates them to the needs of national killing. The importance of killing supersedes the importance of living, from the totalitarian standpoint.

“It cannot be denied that from the point of view of the State, organized for war and conquest, totalitarianism has everything to be said for it, but from the standpoint of the individual as the ultimate aim served by civilization, and for purpose of enjoying the ordinary blessings of living, it has nothing to be said on its side. It is neither the machine nor the war that is destroying modern civilization but the tendency to surrender the rights of the individual to the State which is such a powerful factor in contemporary thinking . . .

“Only by recapturing the dream of human freedom and restoring the value and importance of the common man’s rights and liberties of living can the undermining threat to modern civilization be averted.”

China Does Not Want Heard a Liberal Nonconformist

This is the type of spirit and voice of liberty in China that both Mao Zedong and, now, Xi Jinping are determined to not be heard and read by the Chinese people. While some of his purely fictional and literary works are not completely prohibited anymore in China as they were under Chairman Mao, Lin Yutang’s political writings on behalf of the freedom, dignity and tolerance of the individual human being are still banned in the country of his birth.

The Chinese communist government does not want its more than one billion subjects to hear about, as Lin Yutang entitled one of his later works, The Pleasures of a Nonconformist (1962), in which he expressed his concerns about the “philosophers who would submerge man in a well-planned state machine.” In too much of modern society, “man is thought of less as an individual than as a fraction of a percentage of some economic statistical data. Collectivist thinking tends more and more to encroach upon the individual’s liberty.”

Lin Yutang warned that “even in countries where a free economy exists, the man is usually thought of as a member of a class, or a union, or an age group or income group, or a member of some giant organization. In some countries, the state itself becomes a machine which swallows up the individual . . . The important truth of the individual is forgotten: that which makes John Brown is John Brown, not what he shares with others in the same group or class or community, but in the irreducible difference from everybody else.”

Bad Governments Worse Than Man-Eating Tigers

In one of the other essays in this book, Lin Yutang tells a story about the ancient Chinese philosopher, Confucius (551-479 B.C.):

“Once he was walking on the mountains and he came across a woman weeping by a grave. He asked the woman what her sorrow was, and she replied, ‘We are a family of hunters. My father was eaten by a tiger. My husband was bitten by a tiger and died. And now my only son.’

“‘Why don’t you move down and live in the valley? Why do you continue to live up here?’ asked Confucius. And the woman replied, ‘But there are no tax collectors here!’ Confucius added to his disciples, ‘You see a bad government is more to be feared than tigers.”’

If the Chinese people were allowed to freely read and discuss and act upon the ideas of a liberal individualist such as Lin Yutang, they might think twice if the road they are being led down by Xi Jinping and the Communist Party is the one best for them as unique and distinct human beings. But then some of them may decide to go up into the mountains, even where there may be tigers, because agents of the government might not so easily reach them there. And, who knows, they might even come down again and follow Lin Yutang’s other advice of supplying more prisons to house their power-lusting and plundering and paternalistic politicians.

Dr. Richard Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Dr. Ebeling is the author of Austrian Economics and Public Policy: Restoring Freedom and Prosperity  (2016); Monetary Central Planning and the State (2015) as well as the author of Political Economy, Public Policy, and Monetary Economics: Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian Tradition (2010) and Austrian Economics and the Political Economy of Freedom (2003). And the editor of the three-volume, Selected Writing of Ludwig von Mises, published by Liberty Fund.

He is also the co-editor of When We Are Free (Northwood University Press, 2014), an anthology of essays devoted to the moral, political and economic principles of the free society, and co-author of the seven-volume, In Defense of Capitalism (Northwood University Press, 2010-2016).

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