Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Forgotten Pearl Buck 賽珍珠

Few weeks ago, I finally made it to the Green Hills Farm in Hilltown, Bucks County of eastern Pennsylvania.  It was Pearl Buck’s home for most of the last 38 years of her life after she left China for good in the summer of 1934.  

Who is Pearl Sydenstricker Buck 賽珍珠 (1892-1973)? Acclaimed British writer Hilary Spurling wrote about the first half of Pearl Buck’s life in her 2010 biography Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth (British title is Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China): Buck is virtually forgotten today.  She has no place in feminist mythology, and her novels have been effectively eliminated from the American literary map.  In the People’s Republic of China her fiction remains unique because it accurately depicts the hard lives of an illiterate rural population ignored by the Chinese writers who were Buck’s contemporaries and subsequently obliterated from the record by the Communist Party doctrine.”  

Spurling went on and quoted Mike Myer’s March 6, 2005 New York Times article Pearl of the Orient:  “In China she is admired but not read; in America, she is read but not admired.”  Indeed, like many Chinese, I heard of Pearl Buck when I grew up in Taiwan about her writings of China.  I heard about her award of Nobel Prize in Literature with the citation "… for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.”.  But like many Chinese, I have not read any of Pearl Buck’s work.   I only came to know her a more in last decade through some writings of our friend and famed writer Anna Wang 孟絲 (see for example, 永遠的賽珍珠.)  Hilary Spurling’s insightful biography of Pearl Buck help us appreciate more who Pearl Buck really was and how her Chinese root changed her as well as many others’ life.

Sydentsrickers in China: It all began when Pearl Buck’s parents, Absalom Sydenstricker 賽兆祥 and his wife Carrie, were dispatched to the Imperial China by the Southern Presbyterian Mission and landed in Shanghai in 1880.  To appreciate the attitude of average Chinese and the Chinese government towards foreigners and Christians, let us not forget this was only 4 decades after Qing Dynasty suffered humiliating loss in the First Opium War of 1842.  One huge impact of the defeat was the signing of the first unequal treaty that stipulated among others, cession of Hong Kong Island and extraterritoriality (non-diplomatic personnel included) that awoke the nationalism in China.  Let us also not forget this was less than 20 years after Qing Dynasty put down the Taiping Rebellion led by the heterodox Christian convert Hong Xiuquan that engulfed the very region for over a decade.

Both Absalom and Carrie spent the rest of their lives in China. They stationed mostly in Zhenjiang 鎮江 of Jiangsu province 江蘇 where a Pearl Buck Museum was erected in 2008.  They had also spent many years in Tsingkiangpu 清江浦 (now Huaiyin 淮陰) in early years where Pearl Buck spent her childhood.
Like many pioneer missionaries, the Sydenstrickers lived through chaos and turmoil of the Imperial and the Republic China including the 1900 Boxer Uprising (against foreigners and Christians), KMT's Northern Expedition 北伐, and the purge of Communists. Many times, they confronted violence and escaped death.  They also endured internal rivalries and fought battles with Mission authority.  Most of all, they lost four out of their seven children that severely challenged Carrie’s faith in God. 

Growing Up in China:  Born in Hillsboro, West Virginia on June 26th, 1892 during her parents’ furlough, Pearl Buck was the 5th child.  Her life in China began when she was three month old.  Her childhood appears to be interleaved between curious ventures and playful mingling with the locals.  Wang Amah, her family’s loyal housekeeper, brought her up and told the young curious Pearl Buck countless Chinese folk stories and tales.  It is hard to imagine how young Pearl Buck managed to deal with the stares, cursing and hostility of many locals, not to mention the threats of terror and lawlessness in those days. 

One of her ways of handling it appeared to be by suppressing the unpleasant and horror memories.  Another is through prayers.   Touring Green Hills Farm, visitors would find statues of Guanyin 觀音菩薩 - the Goddess of Mercy bodhisattvain in some rooms of her house.  Spurling offered a clue in her biography with the following passage when Pearl Buck’s mother felt seriously ill after giving birth to her youngest sister Grace (Pearl was 8 years old): “Pearl prayed in her father’s church and also, on Wang Amah’s advice, to Kuanyin in the local temple, a small dusty inconspicuous goddess who looked after women in childbirth.”  

Since her young age, Pearl Buck had been pressured to straddle two worlds.  She had problems blending in with her southern classmates when she spent her third grade in West Virginia on her father’s furlough.  Few years earlier in Zhenjiang, she also had problems blending in with those sheltered daughters of foreign business men and diplomats.  In her adolescent years, she had attended Church school in China for locals where she was the only foreigner.  She had also attended schools for foreigners where she would be “a Chinese in Caucasian figure.”   Throughout her college years in America, she never felt at home either, although she did excel and was able to quickly assimilate and disguise her true self successfully.  

In some respects, Pearl Buck's experience was not dissimilar to what many first or second generation immigrants have to go through.  She did however have a much tougher challenge, being a perpetual outsider – a Chinese with Caucasian appearance and an American with Chinese inside (Pearl Buck herself had said “By birth and ancestry I am American, but by sympathy and feeling, I am Chinese”.)  It is thus not surprising that she often appeared to be detached, a powerful means to protect one’s inner self.   “All her life she had been able to absent herself, withdrawing from reality, often seeming to friends and family to be a prisoner of her imagination, present only in body in the actual outer world.”, so wrote Spurling. 

Mrs. Buck in China: Pearl Buck’s first husband was John Lossing Buck who went to China at the end of 1915 as an agricultural missionary. They met at her parents’ summer house in Kuling 牯嶺 of Mount Lu 廬山,JiangXi 江西 Province.  Pearl rushed into her marriage with Lossing Buck against her parents’ objection who noted that “Lossing had never read a book in his life and an agricultural degree was hardly what the Sydenstrickers considered education.” 

At age 25, Pearl Buck began a new life after marrying to Lossing Buck in 1917 and moving to the town of Nanxuzhou 南徐州(宿州) of northern Anhui 安徽北部 where Lossing Buck’s agricultural experimentation station was located.   Nanxuzho region was a poor, isolated, dusty flat land.  Three decades later in late 1948, the determining Battle of Xu-Beng 徐蚌會戰, aka Huaihai Campaign 淮海戰役, of the Chinese Civil War between Nationalist and Communist China was fought in the area with more than half a million casualties. The area is spotted with villages of “thatched clay houses that cracked apart in heavy simmer rains and dissolved in winter floods.”  Humans and animals slept together in a single unventilated room with the door closed and a charcoal stove burning in winter.” wrote Spurling.  

Despite the harsh environment, Pearl Buck seemed to have embraced the challenges and shared the sense of a purpose with Lossing Buck in changing people’s life.  She appeared to be aspired from her intellectual and literary contacts throughout early years of the Republic with hope.  As her husband’s assistant and interpreter on field trips, she saw through her own eyes of farmers’ life as etched on their faces and bodies.  Meanwhile, Lossing Buck had found his calling and buried himself in gathering, processing and analyzing soulless data that eventually produced the most accurate record of China’s agriculture in early 20th century. 

Two years later, church funding for Lossing Buck’s work was cut off but an invitation from the private, church-run University of Nanjing, 金陵大学came fortuitously.  Pearl Buck’s time in Nanxuzhou was probably physically the toughest part of her life, been deep into the rural, poverty stricken China.  However it provided her first-hand looks, irreplaceable experiences and endless imagination for her later writings, especially her defining work The Good Earth.
Pearl Sydenstricker Buck in China: Pearl Buck’s years in Nanjing were not easy ones.  When she returned from U.S. in late 1920, she had a benign uterus tumor removed and was told that she could never have babies again.  Her marriage was a failure with her husband being perpetually absorbed into his research and showing no interest on her beyond the basic duties of a traditional wife.  Her only birth daughter Carol required constant attention due to her disability in physical and mental development. Her mother had passed away and her father came to stay with her after being forced out his mission in Zhenjiang.  She started to write seriously and published some of her work that seemed to be her only escape from the reality.   

The disillusion and disappointment at the promise from revolution and new republic had probably taken a toll on Pearl Buck as well.  The traumatic experience of being rescued and evacuated during the 1927 Nanjing Incident left her a bad impression with Nationalist Army. She did not have a favorable impression of Chiang Kai-Shek either.  Spurling told us in the biography what Pearl Buck wrote about Chiang Kai-Shek after Dr. Sun Yeat-Sen’s funeral (June 1, 1929) in Nanjing: “I stood near watching his face, so strangely like that of a tiger, the high forehead sloping, the ears flaring backward, the wide mouth seeming always ready to smile and yet always cruel.  But his eyes were the most arresting feature.  They were large, intensely black and utterly fearless.  It was not the fearlessness or composure of intelligence, but the fearlessness, again, of the tiger, who sees no reason to be afraid of any other beast because of its own power.”  

The Good Earth - Writing in English while Thinking in Chinese: Pearl Buck’s second novel The good Earth was published on March 2nd, 1931.  It was a smashing success and stayed on the best seller list in U.S. for 2 years.  It was unexpected as Americans were known to lack in interest and were ignorant of outside world, let alone for their century old distorted view of stereotypical Chinamen.  The only explanation I could offer is the timing: powerful story of struggles and triumphs of starving farmers ten thousand miles away in a strange land might have rouse American reader’s spirit who found themselves in the midst of the Great Depression.  While one could debate about the literary accomplishment of Pearl Buck, there is no dispute that this missionary daughter had single handedly open the eyes and hearts of Americans to the mythical China.  

Ironically but not surprisingly the novel wasn’t received well in China.  To begin with, most people do not like to have their ugly sides be exposed to the public by a “foreigner” no matter how honest the depiction is.   Chiang Kai- Sheik’s Nationalist government withdrew their delegation from the ceremony in Stockholm for her Nobel Prize award in 1938.  Mao’s communist China banned her work and denied her application to return to China for her “attitude of distortion, smear and vilification towards the people of new China and its leaders.”

Her reception by the Chinese literary elites was not any better.  The legendary Lu Xun 鲁迅 supposedly had said “the best writing on China had to be by the Chinese… she was just an American woman missionary who happens to have grown up in China", discounting totally the fact that Pearl Buck was more Chinese than many contemporary Chinese intellects and writers.  Of course, Pearl Buck did not do herself much favor when she criticized Lao She’s 老舍 immensely successful 1936 novel Richshaw Boy  駱駝祥子.  She wrote “I think a Chinese intellectual who is very far from the common people has written what he thinks a rickshaw boy thinks and feels.  But I do not believe it is the way the true rickshaw boy thinks and feels.”  

Out of China: After her 1929 summer trip to U.S. when she reluctantly settled her 9 years old disabled daughter Carol at the Vineland Institute in Vineland, New Jersey, southeast of Philadelphia.  Lossing Buck had decided long ago to stay at China for his interest and career leading an immensely successful university Agriculture Economics. The final straws came when The Manchurian Incident of Sept 18, 1931 and The Shanghai Incident (or the Shanghai War) of Jan 28, 1932 broke out successively.  Pearl Buck was convinced there was no future for her in staying in China.  Pearl Buck made her 2nd to last journey to U.S. in summer of 1932 after The Good Earth was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the Novels and became an overnight international celebrity. Her income in 1932 from her books alone was estimated to be $100,000, equivalent to more than $1 million dollars today.

In the following summer, Pearl Buck returned to China.  This would be the last time she touched the soil of China.  She made her final voyage out of China on May 30th 1934, sailed to Vancouver and then traveled to New York.  In spring of 1935, Pearl Buck bought the Green Hills Farm in Pennsylvania, divorced Lossing Buck and married Richard Walsh who “traded Ruby for Pearl” as reported by a news headline; Ruby was the name of Walsh’s first wife. 

Pearl Buck was prolific.  She has written and published many more books and work throughout her life including the sequels of the Good Earth trilogy. She was awarded the 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature, the first American woman to have done so.  She was financially successful but her literary heart was never plowed as deep again like it was when she was in China.  In another word, she probably fell victim to her own success – too quick to fame and fortune.

She remained active for the next three decades in many fronts including civil rights, fighting against social injustice.  She was not shy in speaking of her mind and cared for the weak and less privileged. Her 1932 New York speech “Is there a place for the Foreign Missionary?” was another example which led to her resignation from the mission movement.  She founded the Welcome House in 1949, the first international, interracial adoption agency to help the most discriminated Asian-American and mixed-race children. 

Entered the Empress Dowager:  Pearl Buck seemed to lose grip on her life gradually after her husband Richard Walsh’s death in 1960.  She met and was charmed by Ted Harris, a questionable character who treated her like a royalty (with her money, I bet). For him, she broke off with Welcome House early 1964, found the Pearl S. Buck Foundation and made Harris the President.  She became more and more distant from her (adopted) children. There were stories that she often hosted parties in her imperial gown (might be the one I saw on display in the 2nd floor of her Green Hills Farm house?). 

Spurling wrote in the biography that “The gap between reality and imagination became a recurring theme and focus of Pearl Buck’s writings.”  Some had also noted that in Pearl Buck’s fictions and writings, the boundary of fictional and real characters had often become blurred.  Perhaps towards the end, Pearl Buck travelled more than in between the two physical worlds - China and America.  Did she travel in between fiction and reality as well?  Did she imagine herself becoming like her long time heroine Empress Dowager Cixi慈禧太后? Did she realize that Ted Harris would then be the infamous Li Lianying 李蓮英, CiXi’s most trusted head eunuch? 

Pearl Buck died on March 6, 1973 at age 80 in Danby, Vermont where she spent her final three years with Ted Harris in a self-imposed exile.  It was a result of serious allegations of mismanagement and misconducts by Harris at the Pearl Buck Foundation.   She was buried in the garden of her Green Hills Farm under a plain stone slab engraved with nothing but her Chinese name in Seal script 賽珍珠. It is pronounced as Sai ZhenZhu. ZhenZhu is the Chinese word for Pearl.  Sai is taken from the first syllable of her family name Sydenstricker).

No comments: