Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel, 2

In good news, it snowed for five minutes last night and I was out in it. ❤ Yeah, it’s cold but? (Scratching my head trying to figure out what’s bad about that…). One thing I’m learning from typing the Pearl Buck project is 1) I used the passive voice much more back in the 80s. You’re free to read into that. 2) I used more — and fancier! — words — I hadn’t benefited from the tutelage of Truman Capote yet. I have begun editing…but gently. That 34 year old Martha has a right to her voice. And if this gets too boring let me know. After getting so close to Pearl Buck in the past and reading all these Chinese novels, I think it really matters if my audience is having a good time which, as Pearl Buck said, comes from a combination of entertainment and education. ❤ But she was an English teacher, after all…


Here’s where we left off yesterday: “…amazingly few literary critics are able to obey that simple basic rule of criticism—to ask, ‘What does the novelist want to do and has he done it?’” (“Advice to a Novelist About to Be Born”)

This gives the critic a new perspective, and a new question. With this question in mind, it’s difficult to operate under the assumptions one might use evaluating the work of “a generation.” Pearl Buck never claimed a place for herself among the writers of her “generation,” among whom were the “Lost Generation” writers who wrote about what Buck considered “purposelessness.” 

I read modern American novels rather assiduously, as a matter of interest, and I find…evidence of whaat I have been trying to say in the lack of interest in life. The characters are almost universally subordinated to the incident and environment. That is what apparently interests the readers is how much characters hop, skip and jump, not how they feel and are…It may seem a curious contradiction to say on one hand that people demand nothing but amusement from literature, and then to say that literature which only amuses them does not satisfy them…with all our childlike love of a good time, we never really. have a good time unless we feel we are improving ourselves, too…Perhaps it is literature which today has become void of philosophy, so devoid that it has no inner light, so that people reading this have caught no real illumination…(Interview; “Literature and Life,” Saturday Review of Literature, 3/13/38, 3-4)  

Clearly, for Pearl Buck, the purpose of a work of fiction is to entertain and to instruct, a mission shared by Chinese writers since the Han dynasty.

The novel in China developed pretty much on its own until the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries when, after thousands of years of virtual isolation, China sent a few students to foreign countries to study in the universities of the United States, France, Russia, Great Britain, and Japan. Chinese students made contact with all these different literary traditions — and languages. This contact coincided with a period of tremendous upheaval and social reconstruction in the world’s largest nation. Until this time, the influence of any foreign literature on the literature of China had been negligible, confined to the inclusion of various religious mythologies — mostly Buddhist but also Muslim and Christian — in existing Chinese folk stories. 

In the twentieth century, Chinese writers began consciously imitating foreign writers. 

How did the novel develop in these two widely separated parts of the world, what the history, what the sources, who the authors? I need hardly tell you that it developed with complete independence. France, Russia, Spain, and other countries made their contributions to the English novel, but there was no early contributions either to or from China…the Chinese novel grew, enlarged, took on life without any contribution of note from other civilizations until the very recent past when western influence has been so strong in all phases of Chinese life. (Pearl S. Buck, “East/West and the Novel, 1932)

In her Nobel Prize lecture which considered the Chinese novel and its development she said of herself:

When I came to consider what I should say today, it seems that it would be wrong not to speak of China. And this is none the less true because I’m an American by birth and ancestry and though I live now in my own country and shall live there since it is there I belong. But it is the Chinese and not the American novel which has shaped my efforts in writing. My earliest knowledge of story, of how to tell and write stories, came to me in China…yet it would be presumptuous to speak before you on the subject of the Chinese novel for a reason wholly personal. There is another reason why I feel that I may properly do so. It is that I believe that the Chinese novel has an illumination for the western novel and the western novelist. 

The novel in China doesn’t trace its history back to a Platonic or Aristotelian set of dramatic unities, the famous and useful dramatic triangle where the action builds to a climax then drops down to a resolution. It was required only to tell a story and the story was supposed to be entertaining, provide a good moral example, and earn money for the teller. As C. T. Hsia writes in his book, The Classical Chinese Novel, the pre-twentieth century Chinese novel is everything the modern western novel reader isn’s supposed to like. 

The modern reader of fiction is brought up on the practice and theory of Flaubert or James; he expects a consistent point of view a unified impression of life a conceived and planned by a master intelligence, an individual style fully consonant with the author’s emotional attitude toward his subject matter. He abhors explicit didacticism, authorial digression, episodic construction that reveals no cohesion of design, and clumsiness of every other kind that distracts his attention (Hsia)

The novel of Old China had conventions of its own. First, the novelist or storyteller had to pay his dues to the deities. Every major novel written before the twentieth century begins with either a mythical story or a moral parable which serves to involve the supernatural in the plot. This helps the storyteller when it comes time to end the story and provide a moral conclusion for what might have been a lot of very loosely knit, barely related episodes. It gives the storyteller a vehicle for changing the direction of a plot if it isn’t working. The supernatural can intervene at any time in much the way fate appears to intervene in human life. The effect of THAT is one of bewildering realism. 

31 thoughts on “Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel, 2

  1. Fascinating. I know so little about Chinese literature. The final paragraph caught my attention. It made me think of the few South American novels I have read. I must say that I struggle with supernatural realism.

    • I struggle with that South American magical realism, too, but I was cool with it in 100 Years of Solitude. Otherwise? I don’t know how it became a legitimate genre other than just a writing device, but nobody asked me. 😉 Magical realism doesn’t describe what happens in the Chinese novels. When the “supernatural” is involved it’s not magical. I’d describe more as an explanation for fate, if that makes any sense. In the great Chinese novel, “Red Chamber Dream,” the protagonist isn’t human. He is a piece of jade left over when the sky was finished. The character himself is fully human, not a rock, but it gave the writer a cool way to open the story and when the time was right, a way out. Most of all, these old novels are very very entertaining. One of the best things I brought back from China and “meeting” Pearl Buck was access to them.

      • Wow! Jade as a protagonist. I may see if I can find Red Chamber Dream. Not sure if it is for me or not. And I want to hear about you trip to China to “meet” Pearl Buck.

        Over the years I have dipped my toe into novels about China. I have found enough to want to know if I was offered a chance to time travel I would visit Shanghai before WWII. Amazingly heartbreaking how dramatically the that war and then the Cultural Revolution changed that country.

        Oh, THIS is why I love blog friends. I would never have this conversation with my closest friends. They don’t venture far past best selling Chick Lit.

        • Ah, I didn’t meet Pearl Buck in China. I never read her work until a year or so after I came “home.” (I’m home now, finally). In China I taught English and really didn’t know where I was most of the time having categorically rejected the chance to learn anything about China in my world history classes in high school. Boy, did I get a lesson. 😀

          I never expect my friends to share my interests. Once in a while I meet someone who does and WOW!!! Otherwise? I guess we all edit ourselves. So I’m really happy this is meaningful for you.

          I’m going to pitch my own book, As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder. It started on this blog, then one of my blogging pals went to my Chinese hometown (Guangzhou) and wrote that he wished he knew what it looked like in the 80s. I realized that I knew the answer to that question and it inspired me to finally scan all the pictures the Good X and I had taken in China. That led to the book. It came out at the end of 2019. I had a great time for a while doing readings and appearing on the radio, but then, Covid. I was there in 1982, just 9 years after it opened to the US. I loved it so much. I had a broken heart and homesickness for years after I came “home.”

  2. I am like so many, completely ignorant when it comes to Chinese literature. I too was taken by the last paragraph – it certainly caught my imagination!

    • Well anyone who has patience for this kind of dense stuff will know more about Chinese fiction. I started reading it when I came home. GREAT stories. And then when I started this project, I had to go to LA China town to buy books and ask my former colleague — who was living in Macau — to buy books for me. The library at my university had a pretty good collection, too. It was so fun to enter that completely new world of writing.

  3. I am really enjoying this Pearl Buck project of yours, Martha. Not being a student of Western literature, I am oblivious to all the dramatic unities conventions. Your explanation of Old China novel conventions illuminated something in me. I’m a fan of digressions and loosely knit, barely related episodes. 😉

    • Me too. I think the episodic novel is fun and a lot less manipulative, but those Chinese old guys still had to find a way to hold their stories together. I hit a wall this morning in my typing so I don’t know where I will go next. I’m glad you’re enjoying it!

  4. The quotes from “East/West (1932) and the Nobel Speech stood out most to me. In the past year my own research on Chinese history. The first American I think of when I read about Pearl Buck, and see her picture, is Eleanor Roosevelt. When I explored further it made sense why I made this connection. And for snow…its making its smaller debuts to prepare you for days of writing…and please don’t start snowshoeing just yet. Wait until after our class is at least half over! 🤗🥰❤️❄️

  5. I really enjoyed the interview quotes and had to double check the years. I wonder what she would say now. Do American novels still exhibit the “lack of interest in life” or not? I would think not, but I’m no expert. I’ve always thought of fiction as entertainment and not as a form of instruction. But, who knows, maybe I’ve been instructed and didn’t realize it. 🙂

    • I think there has always been a two-track idea about fiction. Snobby intellectual fiction and stuff people actually like to read. There is a definite cross over and always that squishy thing about “what is literature?” which is seriously a pretty precious question. I wasn’t the star of my grad school program, obviously. So much was just fancy/schmancy elitist bullshit. I figured this out as an undergraduate reading Godey’s Lady’s Book on microfilm and saw hundreds of 19th century American writers that never made it into any survey course in any college or university. Yet they were well loved in their time and most were women. ❤

      • And who set(s) those “standards” for fiction…maybe along the lines of if it’s “good” or “serious” literature, then you have to suffer while you read it. If you like to read it, it can’t be highly valued. Not surprised that hundreds of female writers were well loved by their readers, but were never recognized and studied as they should have been. ❤️

        • “Silly novels by lady novelists” they were described by George Eliot (I thought Mark Twain but I checked and was wrong). It’s good.

          https://commonreader.wustl.edu/c/silly-novels-by-lady-novelists/

          Really silly books exist in our time and silly movies but I think there’s a place in literature for escape. A lot of the popular fiction in the 19th century was not “silly” but it had a very strong moral tone; the purpose was to make some kind of editorial point, like being married to an alcoholic is a horrible experience too bad divorce is so difficult and why can’t women go to medical school? Now Women’s Lit is a genre and I’m not sure how I feel about THAT (but no one asked me). The protagonists in all my novels are men, and a male friend asked me how I could write about men since I’m not one? The “good guy” in my last (and most recent) novel is a woman and it was hard to write her as part of who we are is how we’re perceived by the people around us. The story is set in the 18th century.

          • Writing for your female character in the context of the 18th century does change it up. I hadn’t thought about it that way (look what I’m learning here 🙂). That link by George Eliot is fascinating. She had a lot to say and wasn’t afraid to say it – and I like that! I also love her word choices…”feminine fatuity”!! Some of what she describes reminds me of the romance novels of the 20th century (“bodice busters”). Loved her edgy humor too. Ahead of her time, especially in having higher expectations for female writers. Thanks for sharing this.

            • My pleasure. Those novels are just as good in their genre as any other novel. It was a big wake up for me when I went to the Historical Novel Society Convention a few years ago and learned that “Bodice Busters” is the main kind of story in historical fiction, especially written by women. Blew me away. I never went to another. I don’t write that. 🙂

              • I also coined them “Heaving White Mounds” books. 😃 My husband’s cousin wrote some of those for Harlequin a long time ago and she did fairly well. My father-in-law read a few (seeing as it was family and all…) and was quite “shocked.”

                • I love that “Heaving white mounds.” It was so grotesque at the conference. At the end of the book signing (at which two of my friends showed up) the costume party was beginning and suddenly there were all these comparatively large women running (figuratively) around with corsets OUTSIDE their clothes, like faux Fanny Hills I guess. It was bizarre. The guy sitting next to me (signing HIS books) was a former CIA guy who’d written bout the Middle East. He said, “See what I told you? A bunch of women writing bodice rippers. I see you don’t write that.” OH well. If I could write one, I might be able to buy a couple acres closer to the Refuge. I don’t think I could.

                    • Yeah, that was one of the creepier things I’ve seen in recent years. I can’t write one. I think to write them, you have to enjoy reading them (or be more cynical than I am). I read one. It kind of made me sick. I’d have to think up a really good pseudonym, too. Georgiana Bustier or something.

                    • It’s a good pseudonym, not enough to make me write one. I tried once. I posted it here but I can’t find it. Probably took it down. It turned into a short story. Then I tried again and got another short story. I’m too cynical about romance to write one. Last night I cracked myself up thinking of trying again and getting only as far as, “He stared in disbelief at the heaving mounds of gelatinous white flesh that strove to break the bodice boundaries.” Then I realized Woody Allen already did it.

                    • 😂😃😂😃 Topics such as this are fun for the imagination. The possibilities are endless…for amusement purposes (and we do need that!)

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