Pearl S. Buck is going home again. Not to her birthplace in West Virginia, not to her farm in Pennsylvania or her alma mater in Lynchburg, Va., but to her beloved China where it all began.

The way is long. Since her final departure from China, the journey has taken 58 years over a path strewn with the relics of war, revolution, communist politics and even her own death. Some last-minute delays may intrude. But there seems little doubt that the storyteller of the Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning 1931 classic "The Good Earth" is, in a sense, going home this year, the 100th anniversary of her birth.

She could never forget her overwhelming sadness upon leaving China for the last time in 1934. She sensed it might never be possible to return even for a visit to the adopted land where she lived the first half of her long life. She knew already that anti-Western sentiment was rising, that war was certain and that in America she would seek a divorce from agriculturist John Lossing Buck.

"Yet, when the last moment came, the final departure from house and garden, I took nothing with me. I could take nothing," she wrote in her 1954 autobiography, "My Several Worlds." "I felt compelled to leave it all exactly as it was, as though I might be coming back... ."

And so she is, in spirit anyway, though older, hard-line officials still debate whether to rehabilitate her.

Pearl Buck will be honored publicly this fall with the opening of a cultural center in her former house in the Yangtze River town of Zhenjiang, where she grew up from infancy as the child of Presbyterian missionaries.

The old family home, until recently a clubhouse for workers at a semiconductor factory, has a new coat of paint and some new furniture. It will open in October under the name Zhenjiang Friendship House/Pearl S. Buck Former Residence, according to Hsu He-Ping, a 12-year veteran at the government travel agency, the China International Travel Service, in Zhenjiang. He is credited with preserving the house.

"The climate for a full reassessment of Pearl Buck seems to be improving; officials at the highest levels are interested in the matter right now," said Hsu, who flew in directly from Shanghai to speak at the Pearl S. Buck Centennial Symposium at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg last weekend and to gather artifacts from Buck's years in the United States.

A forthright, energetic man, Hsu seems undaunted by political controversies still swirling about Buck's reputation in China. Hsu explained in perfect English that "folk exchanges" for tourists and students such as the creation of the cultural center have the green light.

However, for political reasons, Buck's work has been banned since the communist takeover in 1949 and none of her 100 books is now officially available. The result is a whole generation of well-educated Chinese who are unaware of her. Hsu was one of them.

"I only learned about Pearl Buck after Western tourists to Zhenjiang in the 1980s kept asking me about her and her former home and I couldn't answer because I didn't know," he recalled. Tourists sent him some Pearl Buck books. That was the beginning. He recruited the mayor of Zhenjiang to the cause, found the family home and helped organize a successful literary conference of about 20 Chinese scholars in February 1991, later hailed as a modest beginning at Buck's rehabilitation.

Literary scholars particularly welcome the opening of the former Pearl Buck residence in Zhenjiang since several other efforts to honor the author's 100th birthday on June 26 have been squelched in China, albeit with a velvet hand.

Most notably an international literary conference on Pearl Buck, set for last August an hour's drive away from Zhenjiang, at Nanjing University, was abruptly canceled.

"All the letter said was that there wasn't enough scholarly interest," reported Elizabeth Lipscomb, a disappointed Randolph-Macon English professor who had planned to go.

Prof. Liu Haiping, dean of the foreign languages department at the university that would have hosted the conference, said last week only that Buck remains controversial. "She is still politically incorrect," said Liu, who is in the United States this year on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania.

Like Hsu, Liu was unfamiliar with Buck's work until prodded by Westerners. "I was embarrassed on my first U.S. visit to Harvard in 1983-84 when everyone asked me what I thought of Pearl Buck and I had never read any of her books.

"Yet she had taught at Nanjing University for 10 years and in my department!" he recalled. "All I knew before was that she was regarded as an enemy of the people." He set out to find out why, reading his first Buck novel in the United States and later discovering she had been widely read in China before 1949.

"Many of her books were translated into Chinese in the early 1930s," Liu said. "For 'The Good Earth' alone there were eight translations by eight different presses and one of them went into nine editions." After his return to Nanjing, Liu and his colleagues began translating up to 10 of her books into Chinese with the hope of publishing some during the centennial year. But he has no expected publication date.

Liu seems convinced that Buck is an important literary figure for China, worthy of thorough analytical study, though this doesn't mean he embraces her point of view.

While Buck helped bridge the gap between two cultures, "she doesn't use the class struggle analysis," Liu explained. Wang Lung, the peasant protagonist in "The Good Earth," became a landlord, after all. "And she left out Western imperialism as a cause of the problems in China," Liu said.

James C. Thomson, who knew Buck during his own early life in China as the child of missionaries, agrees. The Boston University professor and former National Security Council aide said "Aunt Pearl" was a product of the old Imperial China and her values were shaped by her Confucian tutor. In her later years, she even told Thomson that a strong emperor was what China really needed.

Also shaping the Chinese view of Buck is her own family origin, which is "not correct," Liu said. It seems one just can't shake the taint of being the child of missionaries.

Even her humanitarian efforts are suspect to some. In 1964 Buck founded the Pearl S. Buck Foundation at her farm in Perkasie, Pa., which today arranges about 150 adoptions a year and provides overseas support to some 6,000 mostly Amerasian children, many of them the offspring of U.S. servicemen.

But to some Chinese critics, this is no more than the kind of work the hated missionaries did, Liu explained.

Most distasteful of all, Liu said, is Buck's criticism of Mao Zedong, which can't be ameliorated by unflattering remarks she also made about Chiang Kai-shek in her 1954 autobiography.

Liu wondered if some of the vitriol in her attacks on Mao was stimulated by concern that she would be blacklisted herself by the redbaiter Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the same era.

Whatever the reason, top Chinese officials denied her a visa to visit at the time that President Nixon reopened China in 1972. She died of lung cancer a year later.

But now, at last, China's door may open to Pearl Buck once again.

"China is changing; you can't help but feel it when you are there," said Donn Rogosin, general manager of public television station WSWP in Berkeley, W.Va., and a former scholar at the East-West Center in Hawaii. Rogosin is making a public television documentary on Buck for release this fall.

He too experienced frustration in dealing with Chinese officials over Buck's legacy. Though he went to China twice recently to line up four required government permissions to film Buck's old haunts on location, the approvals never came, forcing him to use old missionary-era home movies for the Chinese footage. He's philosophical, however.

"The changes are coming in China; and a new view of Pearl Buck has got to be one of them."

She's earned the recognition, Thomson said. "Whatever anyone says about her, no non-Chinese writer since Marco Polo in the 13th century has had such an influence on so many people on the subject of China." Her genius is that she never lost sight of the central position of the peasant in China, as have so many modern Chinese movements.

It was because of "The Good Earth" that Americans knew who the bombs of the Japanese were falling on in World War II, Thomson said. "They were falling on Wang Lungs."