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Pearl S. Buck: A Bridge between East and West
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“She was a human bridge between Eastern and Western civilizations.” — Richard Nixon.[1]

 

In the late 19th century, some Americans felt themselves to be facing a “Yellow Peril.” This xenophobic idea expressed itself in anxiety that Asians, especially Chinese, would invade lands and disrupt Western values.[2] Later, during the 20th century, the English writer Sax Rohmer produced a series of novels depicting the villain Dr. Fu Manchu, a stereotype embodying the “Yellow Peril” and the most notorious personification of Western views towards the Chinese.[3] According to Zhuang Xinzai in the article, “Mrs. Buck and Her Works,” Western novels always depicted Chinese characters “as an archetype: men with long pigtails and women with bound feet, all skinny with running noses and dirty, ugly faces. Their deeds are always connected with theft, burglary, raping, plotting and assassinations. For centuries, this has been the image the Western mind has [had] of the Chinese.”[4] These stereotypical depictions of Chinese people became deeply rooted in Westerners’ minds. At the same time, stereotypes of the Chinese also came from Western missionaries who went to China to preach Christianity and to teach English and Western technology since the 1870s. Edward Said wrote, “To Asia are given the feelings of emptiness, loss, and disaster that seem thereafter to reward Oriental challenges to the West” as “Asia speaks through and by virtue of the European imagination, which is depicted as victorious over Asia.”[5] With the widespread influence of the stereotypes created by literature and missionary reports, there was no doubt that the Chinese, in the view of a Westerner, could be no better than a beggar, a thief, and a murderer. Chinese immigrants suffered widespread discrimination and violence from Americans and were forced to work under abysmal conditions as white people considered them economic competitors and racial inferiors.[6]  Worse, partly due to the widespread influence of the “Yellow Peril,” the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 outlawed all Chinese immigration to the United States and denied citizenship to those already settled in the country. In 1888, U.S. President Grover Cleveland, who supported the Chinese Exclusion Act, proclaimed the Chinese “an element ignorant of our constitution and laws, impossible of assimilation with our people and dangerous to our peace and welfare.”[7]

However, a shift in Western views of China came with the emergence of Pearl S. Buck, an American who grew up in the Chinese countryside. The special experience of living in a Presbyterian missionary family in China allowed her to present the real China and Chinese people to Westerners through the lens of both an American and a Chinese person. Even though Buck was fully immersed in Chinese culture, she was doomed to be a bystander due to her American heritage. This unique experience of detaching herself from both Chinese and American worlds led to her future success as a cross-cultural writer and humanitarian.

Growing up in China, Buck was tremendously influenced by Chinese culture. Writing of her literary heritage she concluded, “It is the Chinese not the American novel which has shaped my own efforts in writing. My earliest knowledge of … how to tell and write stories came to me in China,”[8] When she was a child, her family’s cook introduced Buck to Chinese novels —The White Snakes, The Dream of the Red Chamber, All Men Are Brothers—from which she drew on strong plot lines and stylized characterizations and applied them to her own fiction.[9] Meanwhile, her nurse, Wang Amah, had an inexhaustible collection of tales of demons and spirits. From them, Buck was able to learn classical Chinese literature even though she was born in an American missionary family.

In addition to the cook and Wang Amah’s contribution to her cross-cultural work, it was Buck’s Chinese teacher, Mr. Kung, who inculcated her with a deeper understanding of Chinese values and spirits. Mr. Kung became her tutor in the autumn of 1902, teaching Buck Chinese calligraphy and reading aloud to her “in his beautiful polished Peking Mandarin” the ancient classical texts of Confucius, Mencius, and the canonical poets.[10] As a shrewd, kind, and considerate scholar, Mr. Kung gave Buck a solid grounding in Confucian ethics and their contemporary implications while providing context for the books they were reading and clarifying the relationship of China’s past to its present and future.[11] “He also instilled in her a sharp sense of the hatred and humiliation smoldering behind the deferential faces of his proud and pious people, and of their perfect right to feel as they did,” as Hilary Spurling pointed out in her book Pearl Buck in China.[12] In a sense, it was Mr. Kung’s education that partially transformed Buck to think and behave like the Chinese as he taught her the national spirit of China and emphasized the importance of the past for the Chinese. In her article “China in the Mirror of her Fiction,” Buck said that “one must still dig into the past to understand the China of today.”[13]

From the time Buck began to read, she was intrigued by Chinese classics as well as English fiction. She devoured the works of Charles Dickens as well as Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and George Eliot.[14] However, while Buck was enthusiastically exploring both Western and Chinese literary canons, her two worlds were never open at the same time. Like many children who have to navigate a divided cultural inheritance, her childhood was split between “the small white clean Presbyterian American world of my parents and the big loving merry not-too-clean Chinese world, and there was no communication between them. 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. When I was in the American world, I shut the door between.”[15] Not only did the door between her two worlds close, but her way of exclusively integrating into one of them was shut as well. “She felt like both an insider and outsider on both sides of the Pacific,” biographer Peter Conn commented.[16] However, this unique experience provided her with an unparalleled advantage as a cross-cultural writer: she was able to see the similarities and differences between Chinese and Western culture and infused them together into her own works.

It seemed that it was her destiny to be the one to break the cultural and racial barriers between China and the Western world. She concluded that “American people are totally ignorant of China, nor have they any great desire to learn more about this ancient and mighty nation who will and must affect our own nation and people in the future more than any other.”[17]  She was committed to opening the door and breaking the barrier between these two cultures. Her first book, East Wind West Wind, was published in 1930 and critics commented that it was “the direct result of Pearl S. Buck’s writing in English while thinking in Chinese.”[18]

In her book The Good Earth, published in 1931, she portrayed the character Wang Lung, a farmer who had devoted his entire life to his beloved land. Unlike previous books about China by other Western writers, The Good Earth illustrated the daily life and family drama of common Chinese people. The Good Earth was a best-selling novel in 1931 and 1932, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1932, and was influential in Buck’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.[19] In awarding the prize the Nobel Committee said:

By awarding this year’s prize to Pearl Buck for the notable works which pave the way to a human sympathy over widely separated racial boundaries and for the studies of human ideals which are a great living art of portraiture, the Swedish Academy feels that it acts in harmony and accord with the aim of Alfred Nobel’s dreams for the future.[20]

 While reviewers saluted the novel for rigorously avoiding stereotypes and for rendering Chinese life as recognizably human and even ordinary, Buck received censure from the missionary community and some Chinese scholars, with the former scolding her for not adopting “the missionary point of view” and the latter accusing her of revealing the truth about poverty and inequality in China which they found embarrassing.[21] However, disapproval didn’t stop Buck from writing. Instead, she wrote prolifically about China throughout her life with more than 70 books published in her forty-year career.

After the popularity of The Good Earth, Buck devoted her life to humanitarianism in order to save her fellow human beings in a more practical way, whether through child adoption saving one person at a time, or through fundraising which allowed her to save millions of people in China. Her motivation for doing humanitarian projects came from her family. Raised in a missionary family, Buck had inherited a sense of vocation from her parents, but she turned it toward humanitarian purposes. Conn argued that Buck could be seen as a “secular humanitarian” whose aim was to break racial barriers to achieve equality for the whole world, not only in America. After witnessing the racism that existed in America, Buck was first committed to breaking racial barriers between the Western world and the Eastern world with her distinctive personal experience in China. In her book, My Several Worlds, she claimed that she had contacts with various Asian cultures and people at a fairly young age: “The actual earth was Chinese, but around China clustered a host of other nations and peoples, whose citizens I frequently saw and some of whom I knew well.”[22] Her family physician was an Indian from whom she learned about Indian gods, Indian languages, the woes of India, as well as the dreams of its people. Japan was also quite familiar to Buck as she learned of it from a Japanese woman who lived near her house in China. Since Buck was surrounded by such diversity during her childhood, she didn’t consider race a barrier or obstacle for people to communicate and unite. Therefore, when she returned to America, which she referred to as her home country, she was amazed at the existence of racism and was determined to eliminate it from American culture. In order to achieve this, she used her personal income and held fundraising events to financially support her humanitarian projects.

Among all of her humanitarian work, the most significant was her support for mixed-race children. Buck was especially concerned and committed to child adoption in Asia, partially because she had witnessed the death of many children during her childhood. As Spurling described, “sometimes Pearl found bones lying in the grass, fragments of limbs, mutilated hands, once a head and shoulder with parts of an arm still attached. They were so tiny that she knew they belonged to dead babies, nearly always girls suffocated or strangled at birth and left out for dogs to devour.”[23] According to Pearl, millions of Asian children had died from disease and starvation unknown to Americans.[24] These experiences impelled Buck to help and speak for children in Asia, who were disregarded by most Westerners.

In the second half of her life, inspired by her identity as an insider and outsider simultaneously in her dual worlds, Buck campaigned tirelessly for biracial children who were considered to belong to no group. There was no doubt that her childhood experience in China significantly shaped her view of being a minority in a nation: “in China I had all my life belonging to a minority race… I have suffered some of the inevitable experiences of those who are in the minority in any country.”[25] Buck had visited several Asian countries in her 70s, where she had seen many biracial children born to American military fathers and Asian mothers, which motivated her to serve these unique children.[26] In Korea alone, there were fifty thousand half-American children, who were abandoned on the streets and in orphanages, becoming beggars and wanderers as their Asian mothers were ashamed of them, and their American fathers were gone after the wars.[27] Buck initially asked adoption agencies to help them, saying, “the casualties of war and occupation, these new children born without family, and their faces had haunted me, their look so lost.”[28] Buck considered these children not only a mission for herself but also “a responsibility to be shared with Asia.”[29]

However, when she realized no adoption agency was willing to accept a mixed-race child since it was difficult to find adoptive parents to “match” them, she became indignant as she considered basing parental love on race, creed or color a stupid thing.[30] To support these disregarded mixed-race children in Asia as well as colored children in America, she started two organizations: Welcome House in 1949, the first interracial and international adoption agency in the United States with Martin Luther King Jr. on the board, and the Pearl S. Buck Foundation in 1963, which developed social programs for Amerasian children in their home countries.[31] Emily Cheng commented in her article that “these two organizations were significant in their commitment to racial equality and broke with the status quo of matching adoptive parents and children to approximate biologically formed families.”[32] More importantly, according to Cheng, was that “Buck’s vision of adoption sought to perform a kind of democratic equality not only between white and Asian but also between black and Asian.” Buck’s use of the term “Amerasians” meant to include black Americans as she urged black families to adopt half-black Amerasian children and placed mixed-race Asian children in black homes.[33] From 1951 to 1959, Welcome House placed 131 children for adoption and Buck herself adopted seven children, four of whom were of mixed-race from Europe, Asia, and the United States.[34]

Considering the entirety of her life, Pearl S. Buck was undoubtedly a successful cross-cultural writer and humanitarian. This was attributed to her unique life experience as both an insider and outsider in China and America: instead of fully integrating into one culture, she became the bridge that connected Chinese and Western cultures together. Meanwhile, her personality also played an essential role in her success as Buck was extremely persistent and concentrated on devoting her life to breaking barriers. Remarkably, she strived to help biracial children through fundraising and child adoption organizations even into her 70s. Her conviction to break barriers was also represented in her literature as she kept writing prolifically about China even though she received much literary criticism. Buck’s passion to work towards a new horizon was so strong that nothing could stop her from introducing her “hometown” to the broader Western world. Moreover, through her sonorous words and actions, Buck empowered people to think beyond race and embrace cultural differences. True to her special name, she was an undeniable visionary with a boundless worldview. Living such a melodramatic, productive, and consequential life, although not fully appreciated by society, Pearl S. Buck is undeniably worthy of more attention from the general public and deserves to be remembered as a person who passionately built understanding across cultural and racial barriers.

Zijun Liu is a senior at Stony Brook School who enjoys studying the figures who have contributed to the history of China-US relations and ancient Chinese history. Zijun Liu is an avid calligrapher and practices this ancient art form as a lens to view modern history.

 


[1] Quoted in The New York Times, “Pearl of the Orient”, March 15, 2006. https://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/05/books/review/pearl-of-the-orient.html.

[2]“Asian Immigration: The ‘Yellow Peril.’” Omeka RSS. Accessed January 21, 2020. https://digitalgallery.bgsu.edu/student/exhibits/show/race-in-us/asian-americans/asian-immigration-and-the--yel.

[3] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Sax Rohmer.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., May 28, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sax-Rohmer.

[4] Peter J. Conn, Pearl S. Buck: a Cultural Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 130.

[5] Edward W. Said, “ORIENTALISM” The Georgia Review 31, no. 1 (1977): 169. Accessed January 20, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/41397448.

[6] The Chinese-American Experience: An Introduction. Accessed January 22, 2020. http://immigrants.harpweek.com/ChineseAmericans/1Introduction/BillWeiIntro.htm.

[7]“A Ragged Tale of Riches.” The Economist Accessed January 23, 2020. https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2003/06/19/a-ragged-tale-of-riches.

[8] Theodore F. Harris, Pearl Buck: a Biography: by Theodore F. Harris in Consultation with Pearl Buck (New York: Day, 1969), 218 and 236.

[9] Hilary Spurling, Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 4.

[10] Pearl S. Buck, My Several Worlds (London: Methuen & Co. LTD, 1954), 50.

[11] Spurling, Pearl Buck in China, 50.

[12] Spurling, Pearl Buck in China, 50.

[13] Pearl S. Buck, “China in the Mirror of Her Fiction,” Pacific Affairs 3, no. 2 (1930): 155. Accessed January 20, 2020. doi:10.2307/2750144.

[14] Spurling, Pearl Buck in China, 54.

[15] Buck, My Several Worlds, 10.

[16]Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography.” C. Accessed February 11, 2020. https://www.c-span.org/video/?79388-1/pearl-s-buck-cultural-biography.

[17] Sheila Melvin, “Pearl's Great Price” The Wilson Quarterly (1976-)30, no. 2 (2006): 25. Accessed January 24, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/40261074.

[18] Pearl S. Buck, For Spacious Skies; Journey in Dialogue, (New York: John Day Co, 1966), 138.

[19] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Pearl S. Buck.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., November 27, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pearl-S-Buck.

[20] “The Nobel Prize in Literature 1938.” NobelPrize.org. Accessed January 23, 2020. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1938/ceremony-speech/.

[21] Conn, Pearl S. Buck: a Cultural Biography, 126-127.

[22] Buck, My Several Worlds, 4.

[23] Spurling, Pearl Buck in China, 3.

[24] Pearl S. Buck, "Save the Children for What?" The Journal of Educational Sociology 17, no. 4 (1943): 195-99. Accessed January 20, 2020. doi:10.2307/2262871.

[25] Buck, “Breaking the Barriers,” 445.

[26] Buck, For Spacious Skies, 41.

[27] Buck, For Spacious Skies, 43 and 100.

[28] Buck, For Spacious Skies, 69.

[29] Buck, For Spacious Skies, 43.

[30] Adoption History: Pearl Buck, "The Children Waiting: The Shocking Scandal of Adoption," 1955. Accessed January 24, 2020. https://pages.uoregon.edu/adoption/archive/BuckTCW.htm;

 Pearl S. Buck, For Spacious Skies, 45.

[31] Emily Cheng, “Pearl S. Buck's ‘American Children’: US Democracy, Adoption of the Amerasian Child, and the Occupation of Japan in The Hidden Flower,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 35, no. 1 (2014): 181-210. Accessed January 23, 2020. doi:10.5250/fronjwomestud.35.1.0181, 181-182; The Reporter, “New exhibits, tour at Pearl S. Buck site in Hilltown”, October 11, 2019.

https://www.thereporteronline.com/arts_and_entertainment/new-exhibits-tour-at-pearl-s-buck-site-in-hilltown/article_236c2510-dbab-11e9-9366-f335839a973d.html

[32] Cheng, “Pearl S. Buck's ‘American Children,’” 182.

[33] Cheng, “Pearl S. Buck's ‘American Children,’” 188.

[34] Adoption History: Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973). Accessed January 24, 2020. https://pages.uoregon.edu/adoption/people/buck.html.

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