By Leslie T. Chang
Sunday, July 18, 2010; B07
Journey to "The Good Earth"
By Hilary Spurling
Simon & Schuster. 304 pp. $27
In the winter of 1930, an American missionary's wife wrote a novel about a Chinese peasant family. Showing the manuscript to no one, she sent it to a small New York publisher. The book was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club, became a bestseller and won a Pulitzer Prize. So obscure was the author that until she lectured at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel, some people wondered if she existed at all.
Pearl S. Buck's extraordinary journey from obscure missionary to global celebrity is the subject of Hilary Spurling's new book. This elegant, richly researched work is at once a portrait of a remarkable woman ahead of her time, an evocation of China between the wars, and a meditation on how the secrets and griefs of childhood can shape a writer. At a time of heightened interest in China, Spurling's biography is a compelling tribute to the woman who first focused American attention on the country.
The daughter of Presbyterian missionaries stationed in the port city of Zhenjiang, Pearl grew up wearing loose Chinese trousers and cloth shoes, attending Chinese plays and funerals, and speaking a street slang her parents did not understand. "When I was in the Chinese world," she later wrote, "I was Chinese, I spoke Chinese and behaved as a Chinese. . . . When I was in the American world, I shut the door between." Spurling perceptively explores the influences on young Pearl's imagination: Chinese folktales, the novels of Dickens, her mother's stories of an America Pearl had never seen. Before the girl was 10, she knew she wanted to be a writer.
After attending Randolph-Macon, the women's college in Lynchburg, Va., Pearl returned to China and married John Lossing Buck, an agricultural economist. She proved an indispensable partner in his rural surveys, interviewing farmers and developing a deep sympathy for them. When she wrote "The Good Earth," she claimed that the story was fully formed in her mind and poured out in a rush. "Its energy was the anger I felt for the sake of the peasants and the common folk of China," she said. "My material was . . . close at hand, and the people I knew as I knew myself."
Reading "The Good Earth" today, one is struck by how little it has aged. The story of the farmer Wang Lung's struggles in an unforgiving world is as lean and finely wrought as a fable. Details linger in the mind -- the preciousness of a handful of tea leaves, the absolute quiet of a village when starvation comes. Spurling makes clear how revolutionary Buck's achievement was. Most Chinese intellectuals and writers were embarrassed by their country's poverty; that a foreigner was exposing it distressed them all the more. "It is always better for the Chinese to write about Chinese subject matter, as that is the only way to get near the truth," said the famous writer Lu Xun, expressing what became the standard Chinese judgment on Buck's work. When she won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1938, China's delegation withdrew from the ceremony in protest.
In contrast, Buck became enormously influential in the United States. Long before most observers, she warned of disaffection with Chiang Kai-shek's regime. "Unless something happens to change it," Buck wrote in 1928, "we are in for a real revolution here in comparison to which all this so far will be a mere game of ball on a summer's afternoon." She set up a foundation to promote East-West exchange and organized wartime relief for China. She attacked discrimination against women, blacks and the disabled long before such views became mainstream.
Spurling makes clear that the boundless energy Buck brought to public causes hurt her as a writer. For decades, she turned out one or two books a year but did little to develop her craft; her working method was to produce a first draft at phenomenal speed and leave all revision to her editors. Her best books, including "The Good Earth" and biographies of her parents, came early. After 1934, she never lived in China again -- and as her distance from her subjects grew, her novels turned didactic and stale. A final attempt to revisit China in 1972, the year before she died, was turned down; long after her death, Spurling notes, it came out that Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had personally signed the order banning her return.
In our age of intensive China-watching, what does Buck have to teach us? She eschewed ideology; she avoided taking sides; she steered clear of experts and officials. Her understanding of the country was built on years of patient observation, living in backwater cities and befriending students, housewives, servants and farmers. She did not let her affection for the country cloud her judgment. But in her best work, she insisted on seeing the Chinese as individuals, and she made us see them, too.
Leslie T. Chang is a longtime China correspondent and the author of "Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China."