Rediscovering Pearl Buck, America’s Chinese Writer

Pearl Buck was born in West Virginia to missionary parents who took their three-month-old infant daughter to China in 1892 “to answer a call from the Lord.” She grew up, as she described it, in both the “small, white, clean Presbyterian world of my parents” and a “big, loving, merry, not-too-clean Chinese world.” In a very real sense, Buck actually was Chinese – except for college, she spent her first 42 years the Middle Kingdom. Mandarin was her first language, and she mentally composed her prose in Chinese before writing in English. In her memoir, she wrote, “When I was in the Chinese world I was Chinese, I spoke Chinese and behaved as a Chinese and ate as the Chinese did, and I shared their thoughts and feelings.” 

Pearl Buck

The Good Earth

In 1931, Buck wrote The Good Earth, which for the next two years became the best-selling book in the United States, later winning the 1932 Pulitzer Prize. The story tells the tale of a Chinese peasant family’s changing fortunes as they negotiate a precarious existence through a rural famine, one made harrowingly real by Buck’s attention to detail and insight into the darkness of the human heart. Her depictions of harsh rural Chinese life may have been rooted in her life growing up in the countryside, as well as in the stories she heard as a high school teenager in Shanghai where she volunteered at The Door of Hope, a Christian relief organization for destitute girls.

The Good Earth, offered generations of Americans a mostly sympathetic view of the Chinese people, heavily influencing the West’s understanding of life in China. But the Chinese government did not seem to appreciate that it was the book’s focus on the hardships of rural Chinese life that had elicited a sympathetic reaction in Western readers. When MGM shot a movie version in China in 1934, the Chinese government was concerned that the film might depict a country of ignorant peasants. MGM complied with government requests to include anachronisms such as tractors instead of water buffalo and that the village women wear flowers in their hair. Despite this cooperation, the director’s house was burned to the ground and the film destroyed with sulfuric acid just before the crew returned to the USA. Buck blamed the sabotage on government actors, and the final movie version had to be shot in the USA.

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Logo of State of Irregularity Gonzo Global Inc

Click here to download a free sample of my novel, Gonzo Global Inc, a satire of globalization in which Mexican tap water is exported to the United States and sold as a laxative under NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). The full text is available here.

Taiwan then and now: Vern Sneider’s 1950’s novel, A Pail Of Oysters

Vern Sneider was a 1950’s writer whose hands-on experience in post-WWII reconstruction helped form the storylines for his novels. The U.S. Army had sent Sneider to Princeton University to study Taiwanese society in preparation for a post-invasion U.S. military administration of the island – which was later aborted. Instead, Sneider was assigned to Japan and Korea. His experience as a commander of a Japanese village formed the basis for his well-known first novel, The Teahouse of the August Moon, set in Okinawa. That book was later made into a Pulitzer-prize award-winning play and a hit Hollywood movie starring Marlin Brando.


On the heels of this success, and after spending time in Taiwan, Sneider wrote A Pail of Oysters (1953), a novel critical of Taiwanese military rule. Though brilliantly insightful, his second book was not destined to meet with the same success as his first. While it was no surprise that the governing Kuomintang (KMT) banned it in Taiwan, not as foreseeable was that copies were reportedly stolen from libraries and bookstores across the United States, perhaps by Taiwanese sympathetic to the KMT government. And given the book’s indictment of an anti-communist U.S. ally during the McCarthy era, the China lobby and U.S. military persuaded Congress that the book presented a negative and biased view of the U.S. government’s activities in Taiwan. John Caldwell, a former director of the U.S. Information Service, in testimony to Congress, described it as a “thoroughly dishonest book.” And, despite positive reviews, Hollywood producers were not enthusiastic about adapting A Pail of Oysters’ sad tale into a movie. What might have been a post-WWII classic was quickly buried.

The book was only republished in January 2016, on the 69th anniversary of the 1947 2-28 incident (a massacre of thousands of civilians by the KMT), and just one month after president-elect Donald Trump took a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ying-wen. As the book states in its introduction, “the conflict over Taiwan’s future – whether or not its leaders should bind the island more and more to the fortunes of China – is closely connected with the debates about Taiwan’s past. Americans, many of whom know little about Taiwan, might be asking again what, if any, role the United States should play.”

Plot summary

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Vietnam: Graham Greene’s The Quiet American in 1950’s Saigon

Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American in the early 1950’s while working in Saigon as a foreign correspondent. The book is an exploration of the competing moral visions of two friends, Fowler and Pyle, set against a backdrop of war, espionage, and their love for the same 20-year-old Vietnamese woman. It has been described as prophetic in its depiction of misplaced American ideals leading to misguided foreign interventionism. Whatever one thinks of this view, it is true that considerations for the sensitivities of American audiences have led to movie productions with substantial thematic changes (1958) and a delayed release around the time of the Iraq War (2002).

2002 film adaptation with Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser and the 1958 treatment of Graham Greene's The Quiet American
2002 film adaptation with Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser and the 1958 treatment of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American

For part of his stay in the city, Greene resided at the high-end Hotel Majestic located by the Saigon River at the foot of Dong Khoi Street, at that time called the rue Catinat. It was built in 1925 in a mix of French Colonial and French Riviera styles. The luxurious lobby flaunts decorative stained glass, white columns, chandeliers, plush rugs and a pianist. Greene might have relaxed by the courtyard pool on the first floor where today tourists laze under the shade of patio umbrellas amidst rows of red and white lilies. One can imagine the author, after a drink or two and sheltered from the busy Saigon streets, drifting into a cocoon of narrative reflection conducive to weaving a tale like The Quiet American.

A love triangle: Fowler, Phuong and Pyle

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Indonesia: Banda Neira: Paradise and Practicality in Somerset Maugham’s The Narrow Corner

Nutmeg farms are stunningly beautiful. The smell of cinnamon, cloves, pepper and nutmeg fill the air.

The Narrow Corner on James Weitz's literary tourism blogIn Somerset Maugham’s 1932 novel, The Narrow Corner, three worldly travelers, all practical-minded criminals of a sort, dock at the remote Dutch colonial island of Banda Neira, called Kanda Meira in the book, during a journey through the Spice Islands of the Banda Sea. They encounter two naïve tropical island dropouts from Europe, Erik and Firth, who seem to be living in dream-worlds of their own making. A collision of world-views occurs, leading one of the characters to his death.

Literary travels - The 1933 film

The story’s clash between idealism and practicality is, even today, reflected in Banda Neira’s idyllic setting and fascinating history. The idealism: Here and in other nearby Banda Islands, crystal clear waters, coral reefs and colorful fish make for amazing diving. Beautiful old Dutch colonial houses with wide front porches dot the island. Nutmeg farms are stunningly beautiful. The smell of cinnamon, cloves, pepper and nutmeg fill the air. There are no McDonalds, no Starbucks or other fast food chains. Credit cards are accepted by only one business. The island itself is of such insignificant size, that Apple Maps does not even credit the land-mass with a name.

The local Banda dialect (different from the original Banda language) is a beautiful lilting language, so similar in its intonation to Italian, and to some extent in its pronunciation, that it sounds like, well … Italian. “We hear that all the time,” one Bandanese told me. Speakers seem to use gentle accentuation to soften disagreements or complaints or sometimes to emphasize a point. Below are audio samples of Bandanese making daily conversation on a small boat and playing music and singing by the sea.

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George Orwell’s Burmese Days and Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma

Dropping George Orwell's name in Burma opened no doors this time.
George Orwell, "Burma Days" and
George Orwell, “Burma Days” and Emma Larkin, “Finding George Orwell in Burma”

George Orwell. The very name is associated in the English lexicon with critiques of despotic totalitarian rule. The author’s 1940s writings on tyranny and the individual were so lucid and true, one wonders how he penned such potent prose. Two reasons are usually given– 1) the strict regimen of the British boarding schools he attended and 2) his experiences during the Spanish Civil War, where he saw facts twisted into communist propaganda and where he was wanted by the Russian police force. Emma Larkin, in Searching for George Orwell in Burma, suggests a third reason– Orwell’s “work as an imperial policeman contributed to his ability to write about oppression.” Larkin’s idea is that Orwell’s years in Burma provided him insight into how authoritarian institutions insidiously undermine individual identities and personal relationships. She makes an intriguing case, presenting first and second-hand accounts of Orwell’s life in Burma as well as some discoveries of her own and juxtaposing them with his writing.

To fully appreciate Larkin’s idea, one first should get one’s head around the fact that before becoming a writer, before empathizing with the down-and-out in Paris and London or authoring his famously chilling insights into the psychology of authoritarian governments, Orwell was in fact, for five years, a British colonial cop with a toothbrush mustache who beat his Burmese coolies “in moments of rage…. Orientals can be very provoking” as he put it. But Orwell also wrote about coming to see British imperialism as an “evil despotism” and about the part he played in it. “For five years I had been part of an oppressive system, and it had left me with a bad conscience.”

Literary tourism - Burma police officers mess.
Burma police officers mess.

Following Orwell’s Trail

Larkin visited the cities and regions where Orwell worked. In Mandalay, where he received his training, he lived in the Police Officers’ Mess, a large red brick building that is still standing just a few blocks off the southeast corner of Mandalay Palace, now used to house visiting high-ranking police officials. I walked onto the grounds, and tried to go up the stairs to take a look at the rooms where Orwell had quartered. A smiling guard who spoke no English held up his hand and shook his head. I smiled back and showed him the cover of Larkin’s book with George Orwell’s name on the front, to which he responded by tapping out the positions of shoulder insignia on either side of his neck. His communicative gestures were more effective than mine. I walked out of the compound, but not before taking a quick photo of the building. On the second floor near corner is the room where Larkin writes that a police officer in training killed himself, perhaps influencing events in Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days. (Belief in ghosts is common in Burma, and the room’s whited-out windows seemed to suggest it might be in permanent disuse.)

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