Leacock and Lin - Chinese Humour

 Taipei 2017
“If we could only learn to live our life in harmony with the rhythm of nature.
But we will not. We want to run forever in the scorching sun.”  
Lin Yutang

Knowing that I like to study the resident sense of humour when travelling, my friend Jane Tsai said “definitely Lin Yu-tang would be the Chinese author that you are looking for” after I told her I would be going to Taipei in the fall of 2017.

“When I was growing up, he was the revered master of humour in China and Taiwan,” she said. “You should have fun exploring his work.”

Jane pointed me to two of Lin’s books: My Country My People, an attempt to address some myths “Westerners” had about the Chinese, and The Importance of Living, a book that promoted the inherent rationality of human beings. Lin wrote both in the mid-1930s as those humans swirled toward the brutal irrationality of war.

In his books, Dr. Lin tried to build a porthole to Oriental mentality and, particularly, the thinkers of the past. Though a scholar with graduate degrees from Leipzig and Harvard, Lin eschewed the label of philosopher and presented himself instead as a humble purveyor of the thoughts of Confucius, Buddha, and others. 

“I often study the joys and regrets of the ancient people,” he said. “As I lean over their writings … (I) see that they were moved exactly as ourselves.”

Lin tells his readers that respect for the learnings and wisdom of the past is a feature of daily Chinese life.  This shows in the “the premium generally placed upon old age in China” where “it is a privilege of the old people to talk, while the young must listen and hold their tongue.”

Always wrapped in an amiable case for tolerance and open-mindedness, Lin’s books pull up many ideas from the past that sparkle with a thoughtful kind of optimism and can still charm today.

“The mature Chinese is always a person who refuses to think too hard or to believe in any single idea or faith or school of philosophy whole-heartedly,” he writes. “Only an insane type of mind can erect the state into a god and make of it a fetish to swallow up the individual’s right of thinking, feeling and the pursuit of happiness.”

In the early 21st century, we might find solace in his suggestion that when a small man “casts a long shadow,” it means the sun is about to set on him and in his hope that as machines assume a bigger role in our world, we will be edging “nearer to the age of leisure, and man will be compelled to play more.”

Lin also spends a lot of time thinking about the craft of writing, and perhaps because he sought to speak to one culture from a footing in another and to give voice to ancient times today, he stressed the need to keep the perceptions of the audience in mind. He reminds us that writing and reading are acts “consisting of two sides, the author and the reader.”

But as the “scorching sun” comment above suggests, the Professor couples his lessons on writing and scholarly research with a case for finding time to just take it easy, to slow down, to live “in harmony with the rhythm of nature,” and to contemplate life with a smile.  He argued that to achieve brilliance, we need, like good wine, to sit still, let time pass, and mellow.  It occurred to me that this slowing down and taking life in a light-hearted way advice might also be useful in any quest to be a clear thinker and humorous writer.

Amused and intrigued, I wanted to know more and searched for other quotes and biographical material.  I learned that though Lin was born on the Mainland (1865) and died in Hong Kong (1976), he spent the last ten years of his life in Taiwan.  He designed and built a house on the slopes of Yangminshan mountain just north of Taipei, and his body  lies entombed in the garden behind the home. Now known as “Lin Yu-tang House,” it serves as a library, museum, and education centre open to the public.

If my trip to Taipei had not been short, work-related, and laden with meetings, I would have made plans to visit Lin Yu-tang House from the outset. 

But when I arrived in Taipei, I learned that a visit to the House would mean walking several miles up winding roads from the closest subway stop. 

I couldn’t see how a visit to the place could fit into my tight four-day schedule and tried to push the idea out of my mind.

But this grew harder and harder to do that evening as I read more and more of The Importance of Living and particularly when I came upon sections that spoke directly to my interests in the Chinese sense of humour, mused on the craft of humour writing, and, to my surprise  - talked about Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock.  Under the dark clouds of his times, Lin suggests in The Importance of Living that the world’s humorists might be the key to averting war and says that Leacock, in particular, should be called upon to ensure peace.

“Send for instance, five or six of the world’s best humorists to an international conference, and give them the plenipotentiary powers of autocrats,” Lin says. “and the world will be saved.”

He puts Stephen Leacock in the chair of this imagined peace conference explaining the Canadian humorist would win the world over with a general apology for the foibles common to all of humanity, “gently reminding us that in the matter of stupidity and sheer foolishness no nation can claim itself to be the superior of others.”

Lin admired Leacock and many other Western humorists.  In their writings, he saw the means of tying man’s dreams to the physical world saying while it is important to dream, it was equally important to retain the capacity to laugh at those dreams and integrate them with the realities of life.

Lin did not immediately see a parallel in Chinese literature and even undertook to create his own, original wording to translate the notion of Western humour for the Chinese.  Yet, when describing Chinese culture and its ideal human manifestation, he cites “the happy go lucky, carefree scamp,” and his views and insights on humour and humour writing draw on Chinese philosophy as much as the literature of the West.

In reading these references, I realized that the tangled lines and box-like symbols of Chinese writing make people laugh and feel not in literal meanings but rather in the memories and images that those sounds and words evoke.  Recognizing this, Lin notes that Chinese poets and scholars always gave themselves evocative names, like – Tu Fu (“The Guest of Rivers and Lakes”) and Su Tungp’o (“The Recluse of the Eastern Hillside”) and other names with original meanings like the “Carefree Man of a Misty Lake” and “The Old Man of the Haze-Girdled Tower.”  Single Chinese words can alone compel one envisage multifaceted acts like walking out into a courtyard after a full meal, staring at the sky, and waiting for the moon to rise.  Other words can evoke nuanced images such as a man travelling the world in his imagination while lying in bed.

Knowing that the ancient Chinese poets had access to tools like these, it becomes easier to understand how their work became so powerful and enduring.

I learned as I read and loved the thinking, the style, and soft wisdom of Lin’s books.  I had to find a way to slip out of my meetings for a few hours and make a quick visit to Lin Yutang House.  With the help of a volunteer translator and a fist of New Taiwanese dollars, I arranged with a cab driver to take me up the mountain on the understanding that he would wait while I made a heated tour of the property and home.

As our cab moved through Taipei, it became clear that neither the driver nor the ambient traffic recognized the need to make this a quick trip. Clogged streets in a big Asian city shouldn’t shock, but light rain and slippery streets slowed everyone a bit on this day, and my driver kept pulling over in the midst of traffic, chatting in Mandarin and pointing out the sites.  I grinned, nodded, and gently waved to keep going.  When he stopped on an overpass and tried to get me to photograph the National Palace Museum, I grew a bit tense, glared, and shook my head.

As we moved on and climbed the mountainside, rounded the wet curves, and looked out on the city, I tried to forget my schedule and relax.  Giant, colorful flowers filled the cab, maybe there to offset smoke in the front and the sweaty tourists in the back, and I pointed my nose toward the pleasant part of the air and thought about Lin Yutang’s counsel.

Spotting his house as we approached, I pulled out my phone, checked my watch, and plotted my hasty tour of the site.  On this drizzly weekday afternoon in October, only a few others were at the site and it took a while to find someone who could sell me a ticket.

Coming back to the counter, I noticed that my cab had disappeared and wondered exactly what the helpful Chinese speaker back in Taipei had actually said to the driver.  Not sure when he would return and not wanting to run up the fare, I checked out the house as quickly as I could.  The exhibitions do not consume a lot of floorspace.  Arguably, the best part - Dr. Lin’s study - lies immediately to the right of the entrance.  With crammed bookshelves, an old desk and padded chairs, it certainly feels like a philosopher’s thinking chamber.  The other rooms hold furniture and photos, paintings and sculptures, clothing and personal items. I took pictures with my phone, finished my tour in about fifteen minutes, and again looked out front hoping to see my taxi and wondering if the staff could call another. 

The cab driver didn’t come back for another hour.  During this time, I kept going around the house again and again.  I made three tours of the rooms, checked out the café, and circled the exterior twice. Slowing down a bit more each time, I always noticed something I had missed before, and each time appreciating the experience and Lin Yutang a little more.

In his den, I noted the eclectic collection of books, most in Chinese, which I assumed were poetry or philosophy for no other reason than their aged appearance. The books in English were a mix of popular novels, history, and academic works.  I recognized manuscripts of Lin Yutang’s Chinese-English Dictionary, and this seemed to exemplify his role as a bridge between two worlds. 

In the other rooms, I realized that the paintings and calligraphy were actually works done by Lin himself, and when I saw the photos of his wife, I could feel the affection and warmth of life in this home. The glass cases that at first seem an odd, haphazard assortment actually spoke in a thematic way to that blend of thinking, doing, smiling, and relaxing expressed in his books. The variety of pipes, for example, reminded me of Lin’s funny essay on smoking and his tribute to its capacity to relax and induce reflection.

I knew that Dr. Lin had invented, built and sold a Chinese typewriter, the first workable model some suggest, and I had noticed drawings of the device when I first made my tour of the House.  The second time I paused in front of the display and absorbed that this was only one of a number of inventions and that Lin was not merely a tinkerer who built a particular tool for his own trade, but had a creative mind that dipped into many arena.

“Today human progress still consists very largely in chasing after some form or other of lice that is bothering human society,” he said in speaking generally of the process of invention.

I had checked out the courtyard with its waterfall when I first arrived, but now I noticed how it affected the entire home and how most rooms felt its calming influence. It reminded me of the home’s purposeful design as an integrated feature of the natural world.  Built in layers, it starts with the park-like mountainside property rim, followed by the outer walls around the gardens, then the main structure and its rooms, and finally the courtyard in the middle.

“This is the house, in which there is a garden, in which there is a home, in which there are trees, above which is the sky, in which is the moon,” as the Lin Yutang House publicity states.

 As I strolled around outside, I noticed the tangle of tree roots and the random rock piles that seemed to flow around the building and embrace it.  The property slopes down at the back, and the author’s tomb sits in the gardens below the rear balcony.  It gleams and stands out as a shiny badge in the midst of the green and reminds you that there is something special here even though the rest of the home feels humble, natural, and otherwise unadorned.  

Standing at Lin’s grave for the second time, instead of looking down, I turned to a break in the leafy trees that framed a view of the valley, and immediately, I thought of Lin’s claim that the poorest man on a mountainside lived a richer life than the wealthiest one in the city.  I knew he must have looked at this view when he formed those thoughts.

Coming back to the entrance, I saw my smiling cab driver waiting by the entrance.  I went over to him and signaled that I wanted a little more time.  Inside once again, I peered into the only room I had not explored, initially thinking it was an administrative office.  The narrow hall actually holds a reading room, space for lectures and research, and a modest bookstore. I bought a few copies of My Country My People and The Importance of Living as gifts for people I like, and the young guy who sold them to me offered to take my photo outside the house.

He told me to stand in the sun for better light.  I did, but it didn’t feel quite right.
Heading back to town and the blazing sun of meetings and work, I resolved to seek out the shade once in a while, slow down a bit, and align a little with the rhythm of nature, smile, and laugh more. 

“For if this earthly existence is all we have, we must try the harder to enjoy it,” said Lin, a man who often waffled on the subject of religion and blind adherence to beliefs.

Out the cab window rainwater bubbled in streams along the roadside, and I thought about Lin’s ode to “Three laughs at the Tiger Brook,” a story represented by a famous painting in Taipei’s National Palace Museum. The painting shows three religious leaders laughing with the realization they had just passed into tiger territory engrossed in conversation. Their unity in humour and the story came to represent the ideal of harmony among Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism in ancient China and is an enduring symbol of the potential for peaceful co-existence and life in harmony with nature. 

This time as we went onto the highway overpass by the National Museum, I asked the driver to slow down and pull over so I could take a photo.

Of Fubs and Feathers

Scroll Down for Other 2017 Shortlist books

“Dick’s out of town,” she says. “He’s at another fub.”

My wife has her own way of describing my book events.  

Fub – short for Finger Up Butt.

I’ve sure done my share of standing around, ignored.  Book signings in empty stores, roundtables as the least popular panelist, and readings before an open bar. 

Awkward ? Yes. But not “ahhh-ch-ward.”  

At least I could say I have never had to perform parrot sex in front of my parents.

On the eve of his 2017 Leacock Medal win, Gary Barwin entertained his mom, dad, and others chewing on poultry at Orillia’s Mariposa Inn with an animated reading from Yiddish for Pirates.  The chosen excerpts told of piracy and persecution, love and lashings, the Torah and torrid parrot sex.

I know no one who doesn’t laugh at the book’s premise: a pirate story told by a five-hundred-year-old kibitzing African grey from a perch in a Florida seniors’ residence.  With a sip from the fountain of youth and hundreds of years to learn, the narrator, Aaron, absorbed many languages, many stories, and enough Yiddish to give life to his reminisces of high seas adventure on the shoulder of his master Moishe. Moishe, or, when opportune, Miguel, was a Lithuanian Jew whose life leads him through Inquisition-era Spain to the captain’s chair of a Caribbean pirate ship.

I like to laugh, read engaging stories, and even to listen to old timers parroting their memories. I enjoyed the book in this way.  But I can’t help reading stuff like Yiddish for Pirates through the lens of the Leacock Medal and my aspirations to be a writer with fewer fubs.

Obviously, the premise creates a powerful vessel that is easy to recognize as something different.  But it could have run off into a sea of clichés and corniness in my hands. 

Gary Barwin avoids the reefs with skill and imagination worth studying.  A composer, poet, and artist as well as author of twenty books, he executes the parrot and pirate idea with great creativity, and this might be expected. But he also brings in his affection for Yiddish culture and his knowledge of history in an elegant way that informs and inspires without ever pushing the story off course or taking the wind out of its sails by saying stuff like “avoid the reefs,” “off course,” and “taking the wind out its sails” – too much.

With the same mastery, Barwin uses the Spanish Inquisition, piracy, and people of another era to raise touchy issues of today and suggest why the persecuted might find recourse in terrorizing violence.  A parrot seeking a partner after months at sea, oblivious to the willingness, gender, and precise sub-species of the other also speaks to the interface of casual sex, loneliness, biology, and the mores of other animals.

Some book reviewers laud Barwin for a “postmodern” style and his “deconstruction” of the novel.  I think reviewers just like to say “postmodern” and “deconstruction” when they can.  It is particularly impressive if you can do it twice in one paragraph.

But I see Yiddish for Pirates as an homage to classic novels.  Aaron certainly reminds me of the narrator of Don Quixote, a translator of a second-hand account written in Arabic; and much in Moishe’s story (the book’s full title is Yiddish for Pirates: Being an Account of Moishe the Captain, His Meshugeneh Life and Astounding Adventures, His Sarah, the Horizon, Books and Treasure, as Told by Aaron, His African Grey) echoes Gulliver’s Travels (originally Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts by Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships).  The book also sits well beside earlier Leacock Medal works like Morley Torgov’s that introduced others to Jewish community and cares with humour and kibitzing stories.

Leacock looking down as Gary performs Parrot Sex 
Aaron, in fact, tells the reader at the outset that his tale will follow well-worn storytelling paths and will raise model questions like “and then what happened?” and “what happened next?” and “what is this treasure and where’s it buried?” Does he get “the girl?” And, additionally, what about all the balmelocheh, alter kaker, meshugeh, farkakteh, sheyneh, keneynehoreh, shvants, roytkop, sheygets, oysgedarteh, kvelled, meshugener, shmeckel stuff and parrot sex in between?

It hooks you and reflects the force of Yiddish for Pirates, which all flies out of that funny premise and the parrot narrator.  We don’t expect perfect grammar.  Whole sentences. Words that we should recognize.  Or even word-like sounds.  We accept candor and cover-ups equally.  It sets the stage for unconstrained and bold story telling.  

So my lesson here is that when feathered, you can be unfettered – and be more entertaining in book writing and book readings.

I will think about this a lot when I try to write future fiction, and maybe, I should buy a parrot costume and practice thrusting motions for my next fub.

Writing Exercise
Recount a 17th century expedition up the Ottawa River through the mouth of a voyageur’s edgy pet beaver Fub - throw in some aboriginal science fiction. (Here is my shot at it).

We're All in This Together - Amy Jones

(Scroll or click for other 2017 Leacock Medal finalists)

I put my hands around We're All in This Together, a shortlisted-2017-Leacock-Medal book, in an awkward, hesitant way - arms outstretched and wary.

Committed to reading the finalists and medal winners to come, I know I must take these new arrivals into the family. But part of me doesn’t trust them.

Even though many of the past Leacock honorees are imperfect and rough, I will defend them all when pushed.  I have too much invested to just throw them into the trash when something different comes along.

This new book, by Thunder Bay writer Amy Jones, also had a reputation.  It was said to talk of a young woman’s flight from home, return, and struggle with a chaotic cast and past.  It sounded like many other novels including some recent medalists and runners up.

Last year’s winner Republic of Dirt and shortlisted When the Saints are a pair.  I liked both, but from different angles. The first because it told its story through distinct mouths and minds, and the second because it made me laugh a lot.  The 2013 medal conqueror Dance, Gladys, Dance choreographed quirky characters into a family-like ensemble as well.

Before taking on Amy’s effort, I had been seduced by her shortlist sister Take Us to Your Chief and had already made up my mind that this other book had to be the mundane one. 

What could this new book do - other than make things more crowded and messy?

You can’t choose family.  So, I went home, spent a few nights with her, barreled ahead, and did my duty to the Leacock Medal community - like a chore to be completed just because it was time.

But the book is not the way it seems from the outside; it foams with a crazy kind of beautiful that “drops, bangs and flips” its way into your heart and radiates an edgy hopefulness. It blends a lighter version of dysfunction-based humour with a graceful invocation of different perspectives. It sneaks up and plants richer situations and people in your head before you know what is happening.   And if you’re a wannabe humour writer, you learn, change.

Different perspectives always come closer to the truth than one, and We’re All in This Together makes those synergized truths easy to absorb with quality writing and, as Amy notes often, not-a-screenplay authenticity.

Purported protagonist Finn Parker, a young woman with a master’s in English, ESL teaching time in Japan, and a technical writer job in Toronto, has distanced herself from her family, particularly her identical sister, who shared Finn’s DNA, appearance, and boyfriend.

But news that their mother Kate is in hospital in a coma brings Finn home. Sixty-three-year-old Kate went over Kakabeka Falls.  In a barrel.  

Finn and her mother provide touchstones in the story that follows, but many other characters take centre stage and many times, events are told seamlessly from different experience and different information bases, and, again, this is the feature of We’re All in this Together that sets the book apart in the Leacock Medal pantheon for me.  The characters really are all in this equally.

It is done so well – despite courting a “Jump the Shark” ending -  that I now wonder how it is possible to really care about characters if the author doesn’t use these techniques. 

I also like that the Leacock Medal shortlist recognized a story set in Thunder Bay.

My sister lived with her first love in the Lakehead city, and my son worked out of there forty years later. I have even written a book myself about a young woman with some career and family turmoil set in Thunder Bay and feel attached though I am Ottawa-distant. 

The city is a unique place.  Surrounded by the Kakabeka-kind of natural wonders, it also has an artistic and cultural side, a function, perhaps, of its separation from others and the magnified community that comes with it.  

So, another part of me, the one twinned with the distrustful side, wants to see the Leacock Medal evolve and thrive in the era of viral videos of people falling, chat room meetings, Facebook photos, and bumbling book blogs.  

This part embraces We’re All in this Together eagerly, and my two views come together and recognize the book as a place that fits those new techniques with the past to form something entirely different and better.

If this was a movie, I might clutch onto this excuse to revisit my own past, hop on a plane, and go to Thunder Bay.  But this is not a movie, and I spend all my money on books.

Writing Exercise:  

Describe events leading up to the April 2017 attack on the Champs-Élysées from the perspectives of attacker, the murdered police officer, and a Canadian bureaucrat walking up the Avenue to his hotel.

Drew Hayden Taylor - Take Us to Your Chief

May 2017 

The Leacock Medal
and Other Living Things

“Imagine if we all looked at the water, at the earth -  as living things,” he said. “Maybe, just maybe, it would be different, better.”

Mohawk Elder Ka'nahsohon Deer opened the 2017 meeting of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO with a song, a solo on a water drum, and those words about climate change, toxins in the environment, and the perspective of Indigenous people. His comments stuck in my head that week, in part, because they were echoed by my Kindle at night when I laid in the hotel bed reading Drew Hayden Taylor’s book Take Us to Your Chief.

In his first pages, Taylor, a resident of Ontario’s Curve Lake Reserve, says he wants this book to move the boundaries of aboriginal literature and to invite more of us to see life in all things. Take Us to your Chief opens this door by presenting science fiction with a twist. Lots of aliens, space travel, and the like.  But always with a substantive First Nations reference, angle, or association. 

A 2001: Space Odyssey-style artificial intelligence realizes it is an aboriginal consciousness, and this has consequences. Orwellian Big Brother is linked to the ubiquity of dream catchers, time travel is facilitated by petroglyphs, and aboriginal radio broadcasts lead to fights over roasted raccoon drumsticks. In the process of applying skill, a smart sense of humour, and the Indigenous bent to the space and robots subjects, I think Taylor moved the boundaries of science fiction as much as those of aboriginal works.
For me, the transcendence of the Take Us to Your Chief stories comes from the humour, the poignancy, and the craft. I will buy hard copies of the book and push them into the hands of people I like not because of the cultural references or even the different point of view, but because it is fun to read - even when  passing through the reality of teen suicide and the perils of alcohol.

This is important because the book is short-listed for the 2017 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, and while the award has other criteria, influences, and agendas, being fun to read is a persistent one and the one I think is most important.
Nevertheless, I would bet that Take Us to your Chief might grab a few extra points in this year’s Leacockian competition because of its Indigenous associations and purpose.
Not that you could brand the Leacock Medal as an excessively First Nations friendly institution. The award carries the image of another era when homogenized small town Canada, the Mariposa of Stephen Leacock’s works, was celebrated as something distinct from the country’s aboriginal societies. Even though the inaugural Leacock Medal winner Ojibway Melody speaks with admiration of the Indigenous people around Georgian Bay, the book does so with the posture of something separate and observing. W.P. Kinsella’s Leacock Medal book The Fencepost Chronicles celebrated aboriginal humour and experience, but did so through the pen of an outsider censured for cultural appropriation, and passages in at least one early medal winner carried more than a little prejudice and offense.
But one element, besides the fun-to-read bias, of the Leacock Medal history bodes well for Take me to your Chief and may have helped it get onto the 2017 short list. 
A love of community.
It runs through most of the past winners of the medal and is glaring in the backdrop of Mariposa and Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches.
Leacock put an appreciation of community at the core of effective humour writing.
In defining humour as “the kindly contemplation of the incongruities of life and artistic expression thereof,” Leacock did not demand, as some feared, that all humour be “kind,” but rather that we understand that all humour is peculiar to a community of shared experience and belief – our own kind, our kin.  For a long stretch, the accepted notion of “our kind” as reflected in the winners of the Leacock Medal, like many other Canadian institutions, did not shout recognition of many of the communities that form both modern and ancient Canada.  
Take Us to your Chief invites us into the affection and humour of the broad aboriginal community and, in doing so, to stretch the boundaries of our own.
Slowly, iteratively, over the years, the Leacock Medal has added a bit to its definition of “our kind” and, each time, added to its own credibility and that’s why I would give a few extra points in grading this book’s potential for success in this year’s competition. 
Like water and the earth, I think the Leacock Medal might be a living thing – one that must evolve and adapt to survive and to be different, better.

Writing Exercise
Tell how your life changed when you learned that your aboriginal parents had adopted you as a baby and that you were in fact an alien.