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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