'Pearl Buck In China': A Child Across The Good Earth

Pearl S. Buck i i

A portrait of Pearl S. Buck taken during the 1920s, during the time she lived in Nanking. As a child, she lived in a small Chinese village called Zhenjiang. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Pearl S. Buck

A portrait of Pearl S. Buck taken during the 1920s, during the time she lived in Nanking. As a child, she lived in a small Chinese village called Zhenjiang.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ever since her 1931 blockbuster The Good Earth earned her a Pulitzer Prize and, eventually, the first Nobel Prize for Literature ever awarded to an American woman, Pearl S. Buck's reputation has made a strange, slow migration. These days, it's her life story rather than her novels (which are now barely read — either in the West, or in China) that's come to fascinate readers.

The big shift was set in motion almost 15 years ago, when literary scholar Peter Conn lifted Buck out of mid-cult obscurity in his monumental biography called, simply, Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography. Now, award-winning biographer Hilary Spurling has made a case for a reappraisal of Buck's fiction and her life. Spurling claims that Buck had a "magic power — possessed by all truly phenomenal best-selling authors — to tap directly into currents of memory and dream secreted deep within the popular imagination."

Spurling's book is called Pearl Buck in China, and after reading it, I've been motivated to dust off my junior high copy of The Good Earth and move it to the top of my "must read again someday" pile. Following Conn's lead, Spurling further succeeds in making Buck herself a compelling figure, transforming her from dreary "lady author" into woman warrior.

Pearl Buck In China
Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth
By Hilary Spurling
Hardcover, 320 pages
Simon & Schuster
List price: $27
Read An Excerpt

Spurling's biography focuses almost exclusively on Buck's Chinese childhood, as the daughter of zealous Christian missionaries, and young adulthood, as the unhappy wife of an agricultural reformer based in an outlying area of Shanghai. Buck was born Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker in 1892 and, from her earliest days, she was much more than a cultural tourist. She roamed freely around the Chinese countryside, where she would often come upon the remains of abandoned baby girls, left for the village dogs, and she would bury them. Buck's first language was everyday Chinese, and she grew up listening to village gossip and reading Chinese popular novels, like The Dream of The Red Chamber, which were considered sensational by intellectuals, as her own later novels would be.

Buck's father, Absalom, was often away, traveling over his mission field (an area as big as Texas), preaching blood-and-thunder sermons to often hostile Chinese passersby. After the first "ten years he had spent in China," Spurling tells us, "[Absalom] had made, by his own reckoning, ten converts." The young Buck and her family lived at subsistence level in houses that were little more than shacks and apartments on streets thronged with bars and bordellos. They managed to survive the Boxer Rebellion and the subsequent violence that heralded the advance of the Chinese Nationalists.

By the time she arrived as a charity student at Randolph-Macon Women's College in Virginia, Buck was indelibly alienated from her American counterparts. "Girls came in groups to stare at me," wrote Buck, remembering her first harsh college days some 50 years later. She was set apart not only by her out-of-date clothes made by a Chinese tailor, but also by her extraordinary life experiences, which encompassed firsthand knowledge of war, infanticide and sexual slavery.

Hilary Spurling i i

Hilary Spurling has also written biographies of Henri Matisse and Ivy Compton-Burnett. Graeme Robertson hide caption

itoggle caption Graeme Robertson
Hilary Spurling

Hilary Spurling has also written biographies of Henri Matisse and Ivy Compton-Burnett.

Graeme Robertson

As Spurling deftly illustrates, that alienation gave Buck her stance as a writer, gracing her with the outsider vision needed to interpret one world to another. Buck's unconventional childhood also seems to have made her resistant to group think: In midlife, as a famous novelist, she made enemies criticizing the racism of the mission movement; she also shocked contemporaries by writing in her memoir, The Child Who Never Grew, about her brain-damaged daughter Carol, at a time when such children were quietly institutionalized and publicly forgotten.

Spurling quotes liberally from some of Buck's domestic novels, which defied the mores of her time by depicting sexual despair and physical revulsion within marriage. And, finally, she earned herself no points with China's new leaders when she likened the zealotry of communism to that of her father and his missionary colleagues. Writing in 1954 about an encounter with a breathless Chinese communist woman, Buck said: "And in her words, too, I caught the old stink of condescension."

Pearl Buck in China, similarly, rescues Buck and some of her best books from the "stink" of literary condescension and replaces that knee-jerk critical response with curiosity.

Excerpt: 'Pearl Buck In China"

Pearl Buck In China
Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth
By Hilary Spurling
Hardcover, 320 pages
Simon & Schuster
List price: $27

Pearl Sydenstricker was born into a family of ghosts. She was the fifth of seven children and, when she looked back afterward at her beginnings, she remembered a crowd of brothers and sisters at home, tagging after their mother, listening to her sing, and begging her to tell stories. "We looked out over the paddy fields and the thatched roofs of the farmers in the valley, and in the distance a slender pagoda seemed to hang against the bamboo on a hillside," Pearl wrote, describing a storytelling session on the veranda of the family house above the Yangtse River. "But we saw none of these." What they saw was America, a strange, dreamlike, alien homeland where they had never set foot. The siblings who surrounded Pearl in these early memories were dreamlike as well. Her older sisters, Maude and Edith, and her brother Arthur had all died young in the course of six years from dysentery, cholera, and malaria, respectively. Edgar, the oldest, ten years of age when Pearl was born, stayed long enough to teach her to walk, but a year or two later he was gone too (sent back to be educated in the United States, he would be a young man of twenty before his sister saw him again). He left behind a new baby brother to take his place, and when she needed company of her own age, Pearl peopled the house with her dead siblings. "These three who came before I was born, and went away too soon, somehow seemed alive to me," she said.

Every Chinese family had its own quarrelsome, mischievous ghosts who could be appealed to, appeased, or comforted with paper people, houses, and toys. As a small child lying awake in bed at night, Pearl grew up listening to the cries of women on the street outside calling back the spirits of their dead or dying babies. In some ways she herself was more Chinese than American. "I spoke Chinese first, and more easily," she said. "If America was for dreaming about, the world in which I lived was Asia…. I did not consider myself a white person in those days." Her friends called her Zhenzhu (Chinese for Pearl) and treated her as one of themselves. She slipped in and out of their houses, listening to their mothers and aunts talk so frankly and in such detail about their problems that Pearl sometimes felt it was her missionary parents, not herself, who needed protecting from the realities of death, sex, and violence.

She was an enthusiastic participant in local funerals on the hill outside the walled compound of her parents' house: large, noisy, convivial affairs where everyone had a good time. Pearl joined in as soon as the party got going with people killing cocks, burning paper money, and gossiping about foreigners making malaria pills out of babies' eyes. "'everything you say is lies,' I remarked pleasantly…. There was always a moment of stunned silence. Did they or did they not understand what I had said? they asked each other. They understood, but could not believe they had." The unexpected apparition of a small American girl squatting in the grass and talking intelligibly, unlike other Westerners, seemed magical, if not demonic. Once an old woman shrieked aloud, convinced she was about to die now that she could understand the language of foreign devils. Pearl made the most of the effect she produced, and of the endless questions — about her clothes, her coloring, her parents, the way they lived and the food they ate — that followed as soon as the mourners got over their shock. She said she first realized there was something wrong with her at New Year 1897, when she was four and a half years old, with blue eyes and thick yellow hair that had grown too long to fit inside a new red cap trimmed with gold Buddhas. "Why must we hide it?" she asked her Chinese nurse, who explained that black was the only normal color for hair and eyes. ("It doesn't look human, this hair.")

Pearl escaped through the back gate to run free on the grasslands thickly dotted with tall pointed graves behind the house. She and her companions, real or imaginary, climbed up and slid down the grave mounds or flew paper kites from the top. "Here in the green shadowswe played jungles one day and housekeeping the next." She was baffled by a newly arrived American, one of her parents' visitors, who complained that the Sydenstrickers lived in a graveyard. ("That huge empire is one mighty cemetery," Mark Twain wrote of China, "ridged and wrinkled from its center to its circumference with graves.") Ancestors and their coffins were part of the landscape of Pearl's childhood. The big heavy wooden coffins that stood ready for their occupants in her friends' houses, or lay awaiting burial for weeks or months in the fields and along the canal banks, were a source of pride and satisfaction to farmers whose families had for centuries poured their sweat, their waste, and their dead bodies back into the same patch of soil.

Sometimes Pearl found bones lying in the grass, fragments of limbs, mutilated hands, once a head and shoulder with parts of an arm still attached. They were so tiny she knew they belonged to dead babies, nearly always girls suffocated or strangled at birth and left out for dogs to devour. It never occurred to her to say anything to anybody. Instead she controlled her revulsion and buried what she found according to rites of her own invention, poking the grim shreds and scraps into cracks in existing graves or scratching new ones out of the ground. Where other little girls constructed mud pies, Pearl made miniature grave mounds, patting down the sides and decorating them with flowers or pebbles. She carried a string bag for collecting human remains, and a sharpened stick or a club made from split bamboo with a stone fixed into it to drive the dogs away. She could never tell her mother why she hated packs of scavenging dogs, any more than she could explain her compulsion, acquired early from Chinese friends, to run away and hide whenever she saw a soldier coming down the road.

Soldiers from the hill fort with earthen ramparts above the town were generally indistinguishable from bandits, who lived by rape and plunder. The local warlords who ruled China largely unchecked by a weak central government were always eager to extend or consolidate territory. Severed heads were still stuck up on the gates of walled towns like Zhenjiang, where the Sydenstrickers lived. Life in the countryside was not essentially different from the history plays Pearl saw performed in temple courtyards by bands of traveling actors, or the stories she heard from professional storytellers and anyone else she could persuade to tell them. The Sydenstrickers' cook, who had the mobile features and expressive body language of a Chinese Fred Astaire, entertained the gateman, the amah, and Pearl herself with episodes from a small private library of books only he knew how to read. This was her first introduction to the old Chinese novels — The White Snake, The Dream of the Red Chamber, All Men Are Brothers — that she would draw on long afterward for the narrative grip, strong plot lines, and stylized characterizations of her own fiction.

Excerpted from Pearl Buck In China by Hilary Spurling. Copyright 2010 by Hilary Spurling. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc., NY.

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Pearl Buck in China

Journey to the Good Earth

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