Mistaken Identity (One of a Series)

One of the books lying around the house I grew up in was Lin Yutang’s My Country and My People (1936). I remember, from the time that I was small enough to be wondering about such hazy questions as whether it was better to be an optimist or a pessimist, the impression passages like this one made on me:

Taoism, in theory and practice, means a certain roguish nonchalance, a confounded and devastating skepticism, a mocking laughter at the futility of all human interference and the failure of all human institutions, laws, government and marriage, and a certain disbelief in idealism, not so much because of lack of energy as because of a lack of faith. It is a philosophy which counteracts the positivism of Confucius, and serves as a safety-valve for the imperfections of a Confucian society. For the Confucian outlook on life is positive, while the Taoistic outlook is negative, and out of the alchemy of these two strange elements emerges that immortal thing we call Chinese character. Hence all Chinese are Confucianists when successful, and Taoists when they are failures. … Taoism and Confucianism are the negative and positive poles of Chinese thought which make life possible in China.

It sounded like perpetual motion (an engineering puzzle somebody had put in my head): a way to draw energy from the unpredictability of success and failure and keep things cycling round.

So far we have been dealing with three of the worst characteristics that paralyze the Chinese people for organized action. These characteristics are seen to spring from a general view of life as shrewd as it is mellow, distinguished by a certain tolerant nonchalance. It is evident that such a view of life is not without its virtues, and they are the virtues of an old people, not ambitious nor keen to sit on the top of the world, but a people whose eyes have seen much of life, who are prepared to accept life for what it is worth, but who insist nevertheless that life shall be lived decently and happily within one’s lot. … They are tremendously interested in this commonplace world, and they have an indomitable patience, an indefatigable industry, a sense of duty, a level-headed common sense, cheerfulness, humor, tolerance, pacifism, and that unequalled genius for finding happiness in hard environments which we call contentment–qualities that make this commonplace life enjoyable to them.

I probably missed the point, for Lin was engaging in a description of “the character of the Chinese,” and I read him as proposing a solution to the problem of how to live. I concluded that I wanted to live among people like that.

Years later, having absorbed and forgotten Lin Yutang, I was reading and reciting Parker Huang’s Twenty Lectures on Chinese Culture, written as a second-year language textbook for Yale. In one chapter Huang mentioned the existence of dozens of ethnic minorities in China, each of them having its own language and culture. But the biggest nationality, he said, was the Han, who were 一個愛和平,講禮貌,能吃苦的民族 (“a peace-loving people, sticklers for politeness, who can endure a lot”) — never mind what this implies about the other 民族. The bell of reading reminiscence rang and I said to myself again that these were definitely my people.

As on the day when I read an article about feminism and realized that everything it said was self-evident to me, I was already on the team mentally but no membership card ever arrived in the mail.