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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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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