Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel — Now What?

I apologize for any repetitiveness, but now that I’ve put about 12 hours into typing this tome, I’m not backing down. It seems somewhere in the process, I turned a corner and started over? Or had a clearer picture? If I were to counsel that young woman I think I’d say, “Sweet Cheeks, you have so much information here, you’ve done the best research possible in these times with your language limitations, but you’ve got to pull it together.” She’d say, “I know, but HOW????” As I am now the secretary to that woman, and she’s nowhere to be seen, and I have only this immense vestige of her efforts, here goes, again…

One good thing that happened in the evolution of this mammoth project is that 36 year old Martha got a stapler which means this section at least is all together and finished… Or not. 😉


“My grandmother taught me many good stories, but she said I should never give them away. I should always get paid fo telling them. Of course, when I was tell them, I couldn’t tell them in just any way, like I told you that one, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, all over the place. When I was learning to tell a story I had to start at the beginning every time. If I made a mistake or changed it as I was telling it, I had to go back to the beginning again. This is the way we learned to tell stories.” Sylvia Lee, Navajo Indian Jewelry Maker, Tucson, Arizona, February 6, 1988

The Chinese Oral Tradition

The Beginnings of the Chinese Novel

The electric lights blaze, ignited by a generator carried on a ship down the Pearl River and across the South China Sea, then on a truck across the bumpy roads of rural Hainan Island. The village itself has no electricity, event though it is February, 1983. It is the New Year Holiday, Spring Festival. Small Children perched on their grandmothers’ laps or on small stools balanced on stone benches watch in amazement as the fantastically costumed characters march back and forth across the stage. 

Gongs, drums, cymbals, horns punctuate every action, every exaggerated sound. It’s the resurrected Hainan Opera, back in operation after the years of silence imposed by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. 

The story enacted is hundreds of years old. The bandit leader, Song Jiang, and his follower, Wu Sung, are talking in their hideout on the edge of the Liang Shan Marsh. They are speaking Hainanese, a language which no Beijing native would understand. Next to the stage is a projected line of characters; those who cannot understand the actors can read the words. 


Sylvia Lee, quoted above, was a woman I met in Tucson. We got lost in a conversation which probably didn’t help her sales much, but… Her father was a Navajo Code Talker in WW II. He was captured by the Japanese. The camp guard was also a prisoner, a Chinese man, whose last name was Li. He always made sure that Sylvia’s father had food and, at some point, if I remember right, helped him escape. When he came back to America, Sylvia’s father changed his name to Lee in honor of that Chinese guard.

The little clip below is the Wenchang Doll Opera which I DIDN’T see, but the time I spent on Hainan was in a village a few miles from Wenchang.

6 thoughts on “Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel — Now What?

  1. I’m glad that the “Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution” didn’t eradicate this tradition! Too often these arts are lost. The oral traditions are waning… I suppose to understand Pearl Buck one does need to understand China, at least superficially, if not the heart of the people.

    • The Cultural Revolution USED this tradition — I’m typing about some of that now. It’s pretty interesting. I think I’m glad my gears were involuntarily shifted. 🙂

  2. My family would agree with Sylvia’s grandmother on storytelling. Her Dad fascinates me~I’ve watched a movie about the Navajo Code Talkers, based on true stories. The Wencheng Doll Opera is mesmerizing. The music, their costumes, the tradition,…I have such a deep respect for their way of life. And the beautiful ways they share stories and wisdom. It’s colorful, regal, fun, and interesting.

    • It’s very cool. I never saw the puppet opera because it was still banned when I was there. Strangely enough, when I was on Hainan Island, the big subject was the Vietnam war, not ours; the Chinese Vietnam war.

      • Although it’s about a Japanese and British man, there’s a beautiful movie I watched titled, “The Railway Man”. For some reason I felt it was a good time to share this (or maybe I have?). It was a story I never knew. I just love history. And learning! 💛

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