...a good review of a book I will probably read this summer:
China’s Strangled Babies, Dark Secrets Pervade Pearl Buck Bio
Review by James Pressley
May 13 (Bloomberg) -- Hilary Spurling’s magnetic new biography, “Burying the Bones,” suffers no romantic delusion about the China that shaped American novelist Pearl Buck: It was a harsh land where brides were sold into slavery and newborn girls were strangled and left out for the dogs.
The title alludes to how Buck as a little girl gathered the babies’ bones -- hands, limbs, even a head -- in a string bag and buried them. Four of her siblings also died young, carried off by dysentery, cholera, malaria and diphtheria. When she was eight, her missionary family fled the Boxer uprising of 1900. They returned after the movement was crushed, and lived through the decades of upheaval and war that followed.
Yet from this crucible of flood and famine, poverty and disease, Buck emerged with a novel that gripped a generation and gave a voice to China’s illiterate masses. Published in 1931, “The Good Earth” won the Pulitzer, sold tens of millions of copies and remains in print. Buck became the first American woman honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Today Buck is largely forgotten, deprived of a place in U.S. letters and feminist mythology, Spurling says. This amnesia is regrettable, for Buck has much to teach us about the world’s most populous nation.
Spurling focuses on Buck’s years in China and relegates to a postscript the second half of her life, when she cranked out bestsellers in the U.S. Though there’s nothing didactic about this fluid account, here are some lessons I drew.
You may never fit in: Chinese was Buck’s first language, and as a child she slipped in and out of neighbors’ houses dressed in a Chinese jacket and trousers. Buck said she first realized she was different at age 4 1/2, when her Chinese nurse tried to hide her yellow mane inside a red cap.
“It doesn’t look human, this hair,” the amah said, explaining that black was the normal color for hair.
Learn the lingo anyway: Language is the key to any culture, and a linguistic battle cut to the heart of a social and political debate that swept China in the 1910s. This was the fight between wen-li, a classical written language accessible only to the elite, and pai-hua, the speech of everyday life. Dissidents seeking to abolish centuries of oppression demanded the use of pai-hua in professional and educational publications.
One Chinese writer defended Chinese novels, which Buck read avidly and scholars long considered vulgar. She thought out “The Good Earth” in Chinese, translating as she wrote into fast, simple English that “sounds biblical but is pictorial,” as a friend of hers put it.
‘Survival by Laughter’
Keep smiling: Buck was immersed in the squalor and cruelty of rural China. A stench hung over the mud-walled settlement where she lived as a missionary’s wife; people drew drinking water from the same ponds where they washed and often defecated.
“The only effective response was to fall back on survival by laughter,” Spurling says.
Her encounters with villagers gave her much to smile about. She was the first white woman they’d seen, and they marveled at the size of her feet and nose, pawed at her clothes, and were agog when she answered their questions.
“We can understand English,” they exclaimed. “It’s the same as Chinese!”
Don’t expect thanks: Buck transformed how the West viewed China. Americans who once saw Chinamen as comic characters or Fu Manchus suddenly encountered a stoical farmer caught in a “cycle of prosperity and destitution” familiar from the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, Spurling says.
Reviews in China were less enthusiastic, partly because Buck exposed the country’s poverty. The perceived slight lingered, even when she attempted to get a visa following U.S. President Richard Nixon’s opening to China in 1972. Her application was rejected because she had, in the words of a Chinese diplomat, “taken an attitude of distortion, smear and vilification toward the people of new China and its leaders.”
Keep a bag packed: The summer Buck turned eight, an imperial edict backed the Boxers by declaring “war and death to all foreigners.” She kept her clothes folded on a chair by her bed in preparation to flee. In 1927, her family barely escaped marauding soldiers during battles between Chiang Kai- shek’s National Revolutionary Army and northern warlords.
Political spasms convulsed China throughout the 20th century, and unrest continues to bubble up. Last summer, the western region of Xinjiang witnessed the country’s deadliest ethnic violence in decades.
You can learn much from Spurling’s poised account, which is written with sweep, pace and insights into what Aldous Huxley called the “enigmatic lesson” of history: “Nothing changes and yet everything is completely different.”
...majestically enthroned amid the vulgar herd...
read, my name is number 4, tom
she's amazing. i never knew englitch was her second language.
There's an interesting article in Wiki about her role in the conflict between Fundamentalists and Modernists back in the'30's. Her comments lead to the end of her career as a missionary:
in a November 1932 speech before a large audience at the Astor Hotel, later published in Harper's, Buck decried gauging the success of missions by the numbers of new church members. Instead she advocated humanitarian efforts to improve the agricultural, educational, medical, and sanitary conditions of the community. She described the typical missionary as "narrow, uncharitable, unappreciative, ignorant." In the Harpers article along with another in Cosmopolitan published in May 1933, Buck rejected the doctrine of original sin, saying "I believe that most of us start out wanting to do right and to be good. ... We are not often intentionally evil." She asserted that belief in the virgin birth or the divinity of Christ was not an essential prerequisite to being a Christian. Even Christ's historical reality or whether Christianity is the one and only divine truth is irrelevant. She said that the only need is to acknowledge that one can't live without Christ and to reflect that in one's life. Macartney quickly called on the Board of Foreign Missions, under the presidency of Charles Erdman, to denounce Re-Thinking Missions and asked for their response to Buck's statements. Erdman responded that the Board was committed to historic evangelical standards and that they felt that Pearl S. Buck's comments were unfortunate, but he hoped she might yet be won back to the missionary cause. She would eventually resign as a Presbyterian missionary in May.
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And I thought that it was just a car!