IT’S HARD to get Pearl Buck right. She was the first Nobel Prize winner to have lived in China, having been there for over half of her life at the time she won the prize, and only the third laureate, after Rudyard Kipling and Rabindranath Tagore, to have strong ties to any part of Asia. She’s a figure of obvious stature, but it’s easier to list the ways in which she has been overpraised or underrated, misunderstood or misjudged, than to say just where she should fit into the ranks of American writers.
Was The Good Earth (1931), her most famous work, more influential than any Western book on China since The Travels of Marco Polo? Maybe so, but some of the initial praise it received now makes one cringe. The citation for the 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature talked of its “primordially primitive peasants” who led a changeless existence through “countless centuries.” Compared to that, I prefer Oprah Winfrey’s 2004 Book Club endorsement of The Good Earth as “juicy as all get out.”
On the other hand, prominent Chinese intellectuals objected to Buck’s realism (perhaps they didn’t want outsiders to know that Chinese farmers could have sex) or resented that it was a foreigner who got the earliest Nobel for writing about China. Yet the seven pirated translations of The Good Earth into Chinese sold more copies than any other foreign book had up to that point.
The gatekeepers have not admitted The Good Earth to the pantheon of Great American Literature (though it is in the Valhalla of CliffsNotes). Their comments have often been mean-spirited, condescending, sexist — and to some extent probably justified, at least in saying that her fiction is middlebrow and without modernist stylistic complexity and irony. It hasn’t helped Buck’s literary reputation that her most enthusiastic readers have been women. William Faulkner later referred to her as “Mrs. Chinahand Buck,” reflecting the assumption that a woman writing on China could not be a serious novelist. American literary men had likewise dismissed Uncle Tom’s Cabin (a book that has long been popular in China, but that’s another story) and ridiculed the “damned mob of scribbling women” who wrote to promote moral politics and support their families. Some have even speculated that, just as Uncle Tom’s Cabin led to the Civil War, The Good Earth created a sympathy for China that sparked the war with Japan. Not so: it was another Pearl, the one whose name ends with “Harbor,” that did the trick.
To get the right balance, we need to look at the set of books Buck wrote before and just after she left China for New York in 1934, never to return. Americans in China didn’t produce anything as rich as Kipling’s Kim or Forster’s A Passage To India, but if you want to understand the American Raj in China, read Buck’s outwardly simple stories. Their moral critique of the American presence in China also illuminates the problems Americans have continued to have in comprehending third-world nationalism.
The Good Earth and Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China (1937) are the two most significant popular books about China published in the West in the years before the war. Neither one got China quite right. On the eve of the Japanese invasion, Red Star presented Mao’s argument that the only way to build a strong nation and resist Japan was a revolution to destroy feudal society and liberate what Snow called the “dark-living Chinese peasantry.” Buck knew and rejected this argument. Mao’s 1927 “peasant” uprisings in Hunan erupted just a few hundred miles from the Nanking University bungalow where she would write The Good Earth. Her novel featured the man who introduced himself as “Wang Lung the farmer.”
“Peasants” were what you saw in feudal Europe — Jeffersonian America had “farmers” — and because Buck did not see China as feudal, The Good Earth uses the word “farmer” and only “farmer,” not “peasant.” Wang Lung does not need revolution, only hard work, good luck in choosing a wife, strong sons, and rain. The book shows us not class oppression but a petty capitalist family enterprise, though one that depended on a good deal of female oppression.
Who had the last word? Buck’s China was changeless (the Nobel citation got that right after all) and shows no basis on which to build political power. Snow saw that Mao understood how to create power, but not that power, even assuming it is legitimately earned, corrupts. Reading Buck suggests that Mao’s power turned China’s farmers into peasants. Ironically, in the post-Mao reforms of the 1980s, the Chinese farm family turned out to be still capable of planning, producing, and investing in good capitalist style. Wang Lungs were the basis for China’s economic miracle.
But Buck had more to say. If Mao’s revolution was wrong for China, so was American uplift. In 1932, Buck addressed a New York luncheon for Presbyterian supporters of mission with a talk titled “Is There a Case for the Foreign Missionary?” Her answer was a barely qualified “no.” Fighting Angel (1936), the memoir-biography of her missionary father, is devastating about the “imperialism of the spirit” that characterized both his lonely evangelical mission and the American national mission to uplift and Americanize China.
The Exile (1936), Buck’s aggrieved memoir of her mother, returns again and again to the contrast between her father’s need to control the churches he established and the love and beauty that her mother freely gave to her family and her Chinese friends. Only through racial domination, Buck implied, could her father feel sexually and emotionally competent. Her mother did see the need for China to change, but not for outsiders to change it. “So little needs really to be changed in these villages,” Buck has her mother cry, but, “oh, if the people would not kill their girl babies and keep their women ignorant and bound of foot and if they would not worship blindly through fear only […] it's a beautiful country if only they use what they have!” She concluded that she should have been a missionary to her native land rather than to China.
Buck carried out her mother’s wish; her own civilizing mission was to America. She wrote often and forcefully on race, gender, and immigration and tried to get America to lead the international assault on colonialism. In the 1940s, she criticized Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists for incompetence and corruption and the Communists for undermining the traditional Chinese family. The FBI built a thick file on her, and she feared that the Red Scare of the 1950s would destroy her ability to earn a living. So it was shrewd as well as compassionate of her to take up the cause of Asian orphans, and typical of her to do it so effectively. Yet when she tried to follow Nixon to China in 1972, Beijing refused her a visa on the grounds that she had been unfriendly to the Chinese people.
Local authorities in China have recently turned the houses where she lived into tourist attractions and scholars there are doing serious research. But as China has warmed up, the American reevaluation has sputtered. There is good news. Peter J. Conn’s 1996 Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography laid out the evidence beautifully. LARB contributor Maura Cunningham’s smart and balanced 2012 piece for the online magazine ChinaFile (6/18/12), “Re-reading Pearl Buck’s ‘The Good Earth,’” nicely expands on her surprise as a young scholar that an old book could be so relevant to contemporary China. Hilary Spurling’s Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth (2010) is a satisfying study, and Jonathan Spence’s review of it in The New York Review of Books (10/14/10), the best essay on Buck I have read, shows a wary admiration for Buck which does her justice.
But Buck remains a wandering spirit in search of the right home. China studies and American literature programs don’t offer one. You won’t find her on my or my colleague’s reading lists for Chinese history courses, and there is no volume for her in the “Library of America” series, which reprints America's “best and most significant writing.” The Library has volumes for Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck, Buck’s fellow middlebrow writers and American laureates (their Nobel nods came in 1930 and 1962, respectively), and, equally properly, there is a volume for Harriet Beecher Stowe, another “scribbling woman.” A selection of Buck’s China books (some of which are out of print) and her essays on feminism and race would help to get her right.
Charles W. Hayford is an Independent Scholar who has recently stepped down from editing Journal of American-East Asian Relations