Lin was born in the town of Banzai, Pinghe, Zhangzhou, Fujian. This mountainous region made a deep impression on his consciousness, and thereafter he would constantly consider himself a child of the mountains (in one of his books he commented that his idea of hell was a city apartment). His father was a Christian minister. His journey of faith from Christianity to Taoism and Buddhism, and back to Christianity in his later life was recorded in his book From Pagan to Christian (1959).
Lin studied for his bachelor's degree at Saint John's University in Shanghai, then received a half-scholarship to continue study for a doctoral degree at Harvard University. He later wrote that in the Widener Library he first found himself and first came alive, but he never saw a Harvard-Yale game. He left Harvard early however, moving to work with the Chinese Labor Corps in France and eventually to Germany, where he completed his requirements for a doctoral degree in Chinese philology at the University of Leipzig. From 1923 to 1926 he taught English literature at Peking University.
Enthusiastic about the success of the Northern Expedition, he briefly served in the new Nationalist government, but soon turned to teaching and writing. He found himself in the wake of the New Culture Movement which criticized China's tradition as feudal and harmful. Instead of accepting this charge, however, Lin immersed himself in the Confucian texts and literary culture which his Christian upbringing and English language education had denied him. He maintained friendship and debate with Hu Shi, Lu Xun, and Zhou Zuoren, key figures in the Shanghai literary scene of the 1930s. He was a key figure in founding journals and introducing the Western concept of humor, which he felt China had lacked. His writings in Chinese were critical of the Nationalist government, to the point that he feared for his life. Many of his essays from this time were later collected in With Love and Irony (1940). In 1933, he met Pearl Buck in Shanghai, and she introduced him and his writings to her publisher, Richard Walsh, head of John Day publishers, who published Lin's works for many years.
After 1935 Lin lived mainly in the United States, where he became known as a "wise and witty" popularizer of Chinese philosophy and way of life. Lin's first best sellers were My Country and My People (simplified Chinese: 吾国与吾民; traditional Chinese: 吾國與吾民) (1935) and The Importance of Living (simplified Chinese: 生活的艺术; traditional Chinese: 生活的藝術) (1937), written in English in a charming style. Others include Between Tears and Laughter (啼笑皆非) (1943), The Importance of Understanding (1960, a book of translated Chinese literary passages and short pieces), The Chinese Theory of Art (1967). The novels Moment in Peking (simplified Chinese: 京华烟云; traditional Chinese: 京華煙雲) (1939), A Leaf in the Storm (1940), and The Vermillion Gate (simplified Chinese: 朱门; traditional Chinese: 朱門) (1953) were well received epics of China in turmoil, while Chinatown Family (1948) presented the lives of Chinese Americans in New York. Partly to avoid controversial contemporary issues, Lin in 1947 published The Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su Tungpo which presented the struggle between Su Dongpo and Wang Anshi as parallel to the struggle between Chinese liberals and totalitarian communists.
Lin's political writings in English sold fewer copies and were more controversial. Between Tears and Laughter (1943) broke with the genial tone of his earlier English writings to criticize Western racism and imperialism. After Pearl Harbor, Lin traveled in China and wrote favorably of the war effort and Chiang Kai-shek in Vigil of a Nation (1944), and was criticized by American China Hands such as Edgar Snow.
He was interested in mechanics. Since Chinese is a character-based rather than an alphabet-based language, with many thousands of separate characters, it has always been difficult to employ modern printing technologies. For many years it was doubted that a Chinese typewriter could be invented. Lin, however, worked on this problem for decades and eventually came up with a workable typewriter—brought to market in the middle of the war with Japan. He also invented and patented several lesser inventions such as a toothbrush with toothpaste dispensing.
He was nominated and served briefly as president (or chancellor) of the Nanyang University created in Singapore specifically for Chinese studies complementary to the English-oriented University of Singapore. He did not, however, choose to continue in that role when Nanyang (South Seas) University became a focus of the struggle for control of Singapore between the Communist-directed left and the liberal, social democratic right. He felt he was too old for the conflict.
With his unique facility for both Chinese and English idiom, Lin presided over the compilation of an outstanding Chinese-English dictionary, Lin Yutang's Chinese-English Dictionary of Modern Usage (simplified Chinese: 林语堂当代汉英词典; traditional Chinese: 林語堂當代漢英詞典) (1972), which contains a massive English index to definitions of Chinese terms. The work was undertaken in Hong Kong, where Lin served for a time at the newly founded Chinese University of Hong Kong.
His many works represent an attempt to bridge the cultural gap between the East and the West. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times in the 1970s.
Dr. Lin was buried at his home in Yangmingshan, Taipei, Taiwan. His home has been turned into a museum, which is operated by Taipei-based Soochow University. The town of Lin's birth, Banzai, has also preserved the original Lin home and turned it into a museum.