A man should not marry after thirty years of age; should not enter the government service after the age of forty; should not have any more children after the age of fifty; and should not travel after the age of sixty. This is because the proper time for those things has passed.
How can I know what those who come after me and read my book will think of it? I do not even know if I myself afterwards can even read this book. Why therefore should I care?
The Preface to Water Margin, though attributed to Shi Nai'an, was, according to Lin Yutang, actually forged by the seventeenth-century critic Jin Shengtan (see Lin's My Country and My People, 1935; p. 325). The translations used in this section are from The Water Margin: Outlaws of the Marsh, trans. J. H. Jackson (Tuttle Classics, 2010), ISBN 978-0804840958, unless otherwise noted.
A man should not marry after thirty years of age; should not enter the government service after the age of forty; should not have any more children after the age of fifty; and should not travel after the age of sixty. This is because the proper time for those things has passed. At sunrise the country is bright and fresh, and you dress, wash, and eat your breakfast, but before long it is noon. Then you realize how quickly time passes. I am always surprised when people talk about other people's ages, because what is a lifetime but a small part of much greater period? Why talk about insects when the whole world is before you? How can you count time by years? All that is clear is that time passes, and all the time there is a continual change going on. Some change has taken place ever since I began to write this. This continual change and decay fills me with sadness.
Variant translation by Lin Yutang: "A man should not marry after thirty if he is not already married, and should not enter the government service if he is not already in the service. At fifty, he should not start to raise a family, and at sixty should not travel abroad. This is because there is a time for everything; done out of season and time, there may be more disadvantages than advantages. One wakes up at dawn completely refreshed, washes his face and puts on the headdress, has his breakfast; chews willow branches [for brightening his teeth], and attends to various things. Before he knows it he asks is it noon, and is told it is long past noon. As the morning goes, so goes the afternoon, and as one day passes, so pass the 36,000 days of one's life. If one is going to be upset by this thought, how can one ever enjoy life? I often wonder at a statement that such and such a person is so many years old. By this one means an accumulation of years. But where have the years accumulated? Can one lay hold of them and count them? This shows that the me of the past has long vanished. Moreover, when I have completed this sentence, the preceding sentence has already vanished. That is the tragedy." (The Importance of Understanding, 1960; pp. 83–84)
What excites pleasure in me is the meeting and conversing with old friends. But it is very galling when my friends do not visit me because there is a biting wind, or the roads are muddy through the rain, or perhaps because they are sick. Then I feel isolated. Although I myself do not drink, yet I provide spirits for my friends, [...]. In front of my house runs a great river, and there I can sit with my friends in the shadow of the lovely trees. [...] When they come they drink and chat, just as they please, but our pleasure is in the conversation and not in the liquor. We do not discuss politics because we are so isolated here that our news is simply composed of rumors, and it would only be a waste of time to talk with untrustworthy information. We also never talk about other people's faults, because in this world nobody is wrong, and we should beware of backbiting. We do not wish to injure anyone, and therefore our conversation is of no consequence to anyone. We discuss human nature about which people know so little because they are too busy to study it.
Variant translation by Lin Yutang: "When all my friends come together to my house, there are sixteen persons in all, but it is seldom that they all come. But except for rainy or stormy days, it is also seldom that none of them comes. Most of the days, we have six or seven persons in the house, and when they come, they do not immediately begin to think; they would take a sip when they feel like it and stop when they feel like it, for they regard the pleasure as consisting in the conversation, and not in the wine. We do not talk about court politics, not only because it lies outside our proper occupation, but also because at such a distance most of the news is based upon hearsay; hearsay news is mere rumour, and to discuss rumours would be a waste of our saliva. We also do not talk about people's faults, for people have no faults, and we should not malign them. We do not say things to shock people and no one is shocked; on the other hand, we do wish people to understand what we say, but people still don't understand what we say. For such things as we talk about lie in the depths of the human heart, and the people of the world are too busy to hear them." (The Importance of Living, 1937; pp. 218–219)
My friends are all broad-minded, and well educated, but we do not keep a record of our conversations. The reason for this is (1) we are too lazy, and do not aspire to fame; (2) to talk gives us pleasure, but to write would give trouble; (3) none of us would be able to read it again after our deaths, so why worry; (4) if we wrote something this year we should probably find it all wrong the next year.
I have only [written the Water Margin] to fill up my spare time, and give pleasure to myself; [...] I have written it so that the uneducated can read it as well as the educated [...]. Alas! Life is so short that I shall not even know what the reader thinks about it, but still I shall be satisfied if a few of my friends will read it and be interested. Also I do not know what I may think of it in my future life after death, because then I may not able to even read it. So why think anything further about it?
Variant translation by Pearl S. Buck: "Alas, I was born to die! How can I know what those who come after me and read my book will think of it? I cannot even know what I myself, born into another incarnation, will think of it. I do not even know if I myself afterwards can even read this book. Why therefore should I care?" (All Men are Brothers, 1933; p. xiii)
Chinese novelists were afraid to let people know that they could condescend to such a thing as the writing of novels. [...] Because such literature was written for pleasure and self-satisfaction, its creation was determined by a true creative impulse and not by love of money or fame. And because it was ostracized literature in respectable circles, it escaped the banal influence of all classical, conventional standards. So far from giving the author money or fame, the authorship of a novel could endanger a scholar's personal safety. At Kiangyin, the home of Shih Nai-an, the author of All Men Are Brothers, there is still a legend about what Shih did in order to get himself out of trouble. In this legend, Shih was credited with the gift of foreknowledge of events. He had written this novel, and was living in retirement, having refused to serve the new Ming Dynasty. One day the Emperor came with Liu Powen, Shih's classmate and now the Emperor's right-hand man. Liu saw the manuscripts of this novel on his table, and recognizing Shih's superior talent, Liu plotted for his ruin. It was a time when the security of the new dynasty was not yet ensured, and Shih's novel, advocating as it did the common "brotherhood of all men," including the robbers, contained rather dangerous thoughts. So one day, on this basis, Liu petitioned the Emperor to have Shih summoned to the capital for trial. When the warrant came, Shih knew that his manuscripts had been stolen and realized that it would mean his death, so he borrowed five hundred taels from a friend with which to bribe the boatman and asked the latter to make the voyage as slowly as possible. Therefore on the way to Nanking he hurriedly composed a fantastic supernatural novel, the Fengshenpang, in order to convince the Emperor of his insanity. Under this cover of insanity, Shih saved his own life.
Lin Yutang, My Country and My People (1935), pp. 269–271