Speaking for China


Pearl Buck in China

By Hilary Spurling

New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010, 303 pp., $27.00, hardcover

Pearl of China

By Anchee Min

New York: Bloomsbury, 2010, 278 pp., $24.00, hardcover


Reviewed by Rebecca Steinitz

Over the years, I’ve wondered about The Good Earth, Pearl Buck’s 1931 Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller.  When I read it as a child, the saga of Chinese peasant life offered a spellbinding glimpse into a world of otherness: younger sons, foot binding, famine.  As I grew older and discovered literary theory and postcolonial feminisms, I grew skeptical of the white American author who mined not just a Pulitzer but a Nobel Prize out of Chinese soil.  Now it appears time to reassess again.  While I haven’t seen anyone reading The Good Earth on the bus yet, two similarly named recent books suggest that Buck may be back.

The answer to the question “Why Buck now?” seems fairly obvious: as a resurgent China harnesses its increasing economic, political, and military might, it seems only natural that American interest in the country should rise, inspiring a new look at the author who, in Hilary Spurling’s words, “transformed the West’s understanding of China.”  If Buck “opened a door between the American and Chinese worlds that had been firmly closed,” as Spurling claims, her biography, Pearl Buck in China, and Anchee Min’s novel, Pearl of China, open the door to a new understanding of Buck—and, for neophyte readers, of twentieth-century China.  Yet some of the most interesting questions these two books raise have less to do with geopolitics than with literature and, more specifically, the relationship between biography and fiction—an issue at the heart of Buck’s writing.

Pearl Buck in China is a literary biography of the good old-fashioned kind: detailed, vivid, highly readable, and largely admiring of its subject.  Indeed, for the first half of the book, which discusses Buck’s life in China up through the writing of The Good Earth, I was thoroughly convinced of her virtue and genius. The daughter of a zealous American missionary and his long-suffering wife, Buck lived primarily in China from the age of three months until her midthirties when, in the wake of revolution, civil war, and widespread violence against westerners, she returned to the United States for good.

But while Buck’s mother longed for her West Virginia home, planting American flowers in her garden and waging a vigorous campaign against Chinese dirt and pollution, Buck experienced China as home.  Raised largely by her Chinese nurse, she dressed in Chinese clothes, ate Chinese food, played with local children, and spoke Chinese fluently.  With the Chinese tutor her parents engaged when she was ten, she read Confucius and learned about Chinese history, garnering an understanding of Confucian ethics and China’s resentment of western interference that sharply diverged from the evangelical Christian perspective of her family’s missionary community.

Though China was Buck’s passion, it was never an idyll: her family lived through famines, epidemics, and the Boxer Rebellion, and her mother’s work with local women gave her first-hand knowledge of the dire consequences of poverty and patriarchy.  Marriage to Lossing Buck, a missionary who became a well-known expert in Chinese agriculture, started off happily, but quickly became a source of frustration; her work-obsessed husband mirrored her fanatical father, who had ignored her mother’s needs in his determination to extend the reach of his ministry.  Their first child had severe developmental delays which sent her into a deep depression and caused further conflict with her husband, who wanted to institutionalize the girl.  Buck’s personal difficulties in the 1920s and 1930s played out against the backdrop of political change and civil war, which made life in China increasingly untenable for westerners, even one as China-identified as Buck, who moved in the same circles as young Chinese writers and activists. At this time she won a history prize for an essay entitled “China and the West,” in which she “articulated for the first time the hard-hitting positions she would take later on the achievements and failures of the mission movement, and the imperialist and racist implications of American foreign and domestic policy,” writes Spurling.

Personal frustration and political turmoil were the context in which Buck began to write professionally.  Obsessed with Dickens and Chinese popular novels as a child, by the age of ten she was writing a novel and regularly winning children’s writing contests in the Shanghai Mercury; at Randolph-Macon College, she won prizes for best story and poem.  As an adult, Buck found an escape in writing as well as a way to make money and share her passion for China.  The Good Earth was her second novel, published in 1931, when she was 39, and, as Spurling puts it, “The book’s impact was phenomenal.”

After chronicling this great achievement, Pearl Buck in China speeds up, covering the last half of Buck’s life in thirty pages.  This can be read as a reflection of the fact that, after 1934, Buck was never again in China, but it also seems as if Spurling is trying to skim over these years.  While Buck became an esteemed human-rights activist, wrote more bestselling novels, many of them about China, enjoyed a happy second marriage with her publisher (after a scandalous affair), and adopted six more children, she also became somewhat of a caricature of herself.  Spurling has to admit that most of her fiction, churned out at the rate of 2,500 words a day and heavily edited by her husband, was “polemical,” “psychologically simplistic,” “bland,” and “trite,” though she tries to justify it on the grounds that Buck wanted “to maximize the number of her readers.” In the 1950s, she fell out of favor on all sides, condemned by the Communists in China and as a Communist in the US.  Always a distant mother, she became increasingly estranged from her children, especially after her second husband’s death, when she fell under the thrall of Ted Harris, an Arthur Murray dance instructor.  She installed him as head of the foundation that bore her name and eventually moved with him to Vermont, where she spent the last years of her life in a new kind of exile, living above the antique shop he ran, “often seated at a window in Chinese silk robes, drawing five or six thousand people each summer as the town’s sole tourist attraction.” In short, the case for Buck peaks with The Good Earth, but then becomes the sad story of a frustrated woman who lost the land of her childhood and tried to regain it by speaking for those who still inhabited it.

One of Spurling’s central claims is that Buck’s writing, both fiction and nonfiction, was deeply rooted in her own life.  Sometimes those roots were biographical: “She herself reworked the story of her mother’s death in three biographical books and two novels,” writes Spurling, and This Proud Heart (1938), the story of a woman who escapes from an unsatisfying marriage into art, was “the nearest she ever came to a deliberate self-portrait.” At other times, her books were grounded in the Chinese lives she witnessed and heard about.  When Anchee Min fictionalizes Buck’s life, then, she follows in Buck’s own footsteps.  The question is whether she takes us anywhere new.

In recent years, novels about novelists have become something of a vogue.  Some are as silly as the Victorian mystery series starring Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins as detectives; others, like Michael Cunningham’ The Hours and Colm Toibin’s The Master, have become celebrated literary works in their own right.  If novels like the Dickens-Collins detective stories use the recognizable figure of the author as an anchor for made-up events, fiction based on a writer’s real life seems motivated by the desire to definitively affirm the episodes and themes about which biography ultimately can only speculate—and perhaps the fact that novelists spend their careers creating such definitive affirmations is what makes them such appealing subjects for historical fictions in the first place.

What is frustrating, then, about Min’s representation of Buck is that it hardly goes beyond biography and history.  Pearl of China tells the story of Buck’s childhood and early adulthood through the eyes of her fictional Chinese best friend, Willow (who, Min claims in an author’s note, is based on several actual friends of Buck’s, whose names she withholds because she wants to protect their families in China).  With its depiction of Pearl as a rascal of a girl whose “black knitted cap hid her blonde curly hair,” Pearl of China has entertaining scenes and some absorbing descriptive moments:

The southern China rain didn’t come in showers.  It came like a spreading thick fog.  When I stuck out an arm, I could feel no drops.  But once I stepped outside, wetness would wrap me.  In ten minutes of walking, moisture would soak through my clothes.  If I wiped my face with a hand, water would come off.  Very slowly, my hair would droop.  Strands of hair would paste against my skull.

Too often, though, the book marches through the events of Buck’s life against a backdrop of Chinese history, telling rather than showing, in prose that is frequently pedestrian.  Deviations from fact seem either pointless (a single mention of Buck’s first adopted daughter that gets her age wrong), or clichéd (the depiction of a romance between Buck and the Chinese poet Hsu Chih-mo which Spurling claims was “unlikely,” given that “none of his biographers has found a shred of evidence” for it).  A conversation between Pearl and Willow about Chinese literature is less literary than didactic, designed to make sure readers know enough about Chinese literature to appreciate the achievement of The Good Earth:

Pearl liked the story but resented the novel’s bitter hopelessness.  She preferred stories that offered hope in the end, however tragic.  “The character must believe in himself, and he must have the stamina to endure.”

“Beautiful, heart-wrenching tragedy has been central to the Chinese tradition for thousands of years,” I reminded her.  “Both novelists and readers relish what you call hopelessness.”

Willow (and, it would seem, Min) is a true believer in Pearl Buck, who is the novel’s heroic paragon.  But crucial to this representation is the fact that once Buck leaves China, she essentially disappears from the novel.  At that point, ironically, Pearl of China comes alive.  The daughter of a thief who prostituted his wife, Willow grows up to be a writer, editor, and active participant in China’s literary and political worlds; her husband, a writer and closet Communist when she meets him, becomes one of Mao’s intimates.  The last third of the novel continues its sprint through twentieth-century Chinese history, but, as Willow’s story, is significantly more compelling.  A Christian—Willow and her father are converted by Buck’s father—she resists Communism, tangles with Madame Mao, loses her husband, suffers terribly for refusing to denounce Buck, and ultimately is sent back to the town where she and Buck grew up, where a ragtag bunch of Christians, former warlords, and Communists wangle their ways through the last days of the Cultural Revolution.

Min is most famous for her memoir of the Cultural Revolution, Red Azalea (1993), and she has written several historical novels set in China: this is material she knows deeply and personally.  Like Spurling’s biography, Min’s novel succeeds in making us admire Pearl Buck, albeit at a distance and only to a degree; more compellingly, it makes us consider the real women of twentieth-century China.  If in The Good Earth Buck shared their stories, Pearl in China reminds us that they are fully capable of sharing their own stories, in both biography and fiction.

Rebecca Steinitz is a writer, editor, and writing coach in the Boston Public Schools. She writes regularly for Literary Mama and the Boston Globe, and she is the author of Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary, forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan.


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