Somehow in the midst of Christmas cooking, cleaning, shopping, gifting, and merriment I stole a few minutes to take down a book from my Pearl Buck collection, one that had avoided my attention for quite a few years. (I am very grateful to my mother-in-law Ruby who helped me assemble this collection from used book sales over many years.) "Once Upon a Christmas" looked to be a collection of sentimental, seasonal stories and I felt that a short peruse might satisfy like a seasonal glass of eggnog laced with bourbon.
I was pleased to discover among the various Christmas stories a few memories by Pearl Buck of some of the Christmases she spent in China as a child and young woman. Their inclusion in this collection led me to think about the themes of home and family that recur in her books and writings. I was reminded that I had not yet written about Pearl Buck for Bookwagon and that an end-of-year posting was appropriate.
Pearl Buck was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1938 and was commended for "her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces." Her second novel, "The Good Earth" which describes the hard life of peasants and common people in twentieth-century China had been wildly popular in the United States and around the world upon its publication in 1931. Despite its popularity, the critical response to this novel and to subsequent novels by Pearl Buck was mixed. For a variety of political, cultural and literary reasons, the Nobel Prize award was controversial at the time and has remained so since. Pearl Buck wrote for thirty-five more years, and much of her work from this time is considered pedestrian and ordinary. The quality of so many of her later books has not helped her literary reputation. Still, her early writing, born of her life in China as a child and young woman, and rooted in the society and literature of China, is extraordinary and deserves to be read and regarded as literary treasure.
Pearl Buck was born in China to missionary parents from West Virginia. Her mother and father chose to spend their lives bringing Christianity to an alien and distant part of the world, living there and raising their children there. Of seven siblings, only Pearl, an older brother and a younger sister survived yto adulthood. They were raised in an impoverished household, steeped in Christianity and Western culture but speaking Chinese as early as they spoke English. She played with Chinese friends, and experienced first-hand the public and private lives of Chinese farmers and townspeople. She observed and was affected by dramatic, dangerous, and tumultuous times as China emerged from a longstanding traditional society and struggled to establish itself in a modern world dominated by Western powers, global forces and foreign ideas.
Pearl returned to the United States to attend college in Virgina but upon graduation returned to China where she taught, wrote, married, and raised a family of her own. She socialized with and befriended Chinese intellectuals and writers. Her life in China, from her birth and early childhood through her marriage and development as a writer is vividly described in Hilary Spurling's book, "Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth", one of the best books I read in 2010. I recommend this book to anyone who has enjoyed a Pearl Buck novel and for others interested in China, the American experience with China, and twentieth century Chinese and American literature.
Reading Pearl Buck's novels of China is as close to reading modern Chinese literature in the vernacular as most of us English readers will experience. Pearl Buck was as fluent in Chinese as she was in English. Having lived her entire life to adulthood in China, she was as familiar with and shaped by its literature, politics, and history as other Chinese intellectuals and writers were and more familiar with China than she was with American society and literature. When we read "The Good Earth", we are almost reading a Chinese novel written in English, not one translated into English. It provides a very rare opprtunity for us Enlgish speaker/readers to enter another literary culture directly. I would inlcude "The Good Earth" and a few other Pearl Buck novels in an introductory course to modern Chinese literature.
Spurling's book illuminates the challenges of growing up within two culutres, the stresses of a childhood shaped by the missionary experience in an alien and mostly unwelcoming environment, and the toll of a difficult marriage and a special-needs child. She describes Pearl Buck's early works as derived from these experiences and as reflective of the Chinese world that Pearl lived in and acutely observed. Pearl moved back to the United States when war broke out between China and Japan. She was forty-two and never returned to China. As an adult, Pearl broke with the missionary movement that had embraced and motivated her parents and their generation of westerners in China. She recognized the contributions that Western missionaries had made in areas of education, women's rights, and health care but she was sensitive to and critical of the attitude of superiority that accompanies an evangelical movement.
Pearl opposed and resisted Western domination in Asia but did not adhere to the Communist Party doctrine. By the 1940s, she had alientated the Communist and leftist powers in China and was at the same time suspect to the gowing conservative, anti-communist forces in the United States. Consequently, her popularity suffered in both China and the United States.
I suspect that Pearl Buck was essentially a foreigner in the United States for the second half of her life and her writing about America reflects an alienation and a disconnection from American culture. Upon rereading her novels, I am struck by her attention to the details of home, family, and social relationships whether writing about Asia or America. These are all very important themes in Chinese literature and it is interesting to see them played out in her later writing about a very different society.
For many reasons, then, including her unique perspective on the world, her bicultural identity, her gifts of language and writing, and her expression of themes and concerns common to human society regardless of culture and history, she deserves attention. She has much to offer the contemporary reader. It isn't right to dismiss her writing based on how a Maoist regime in China labeled her or how a reactionary American political response to Chinese ideas and influences branded her. There probably is a real disparity in the quality of her total body of work. Some of that can be explained by her cultural displacement in the second part of her life and some of it by her need to write continuously, both for financial and for personal reasons. But among her many books are important treasures and you do yourself a disservice to ignore them.
Read a few of her books and determine for yourself what she has to describe, what she has to say, and how she serves to combine and merge her Chinese and American perspectives in her best novels. Begin with "The Good Earth (1931) and continue on to "Dragon Seed" (1942) about Chinese resistance to the Japanese invaders in the 1930s or "Pavilion of Women" (1946) about marriage and family in traditional Chinese society). If you enjoy what you read, and value the unusual opportunity to read in English a very Chinese experience of life, you might want to explore some of her other work written later when she could not return to China and settled permanently in the United States. You could read through "Once Upon a Christmas", perhaps in the middle of some busy Christmas week, and see that Pearl Buck continues to have much to share with us and to teach us. Best of all, she tells good stories!
Happy New Year and Happy Reading!