Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel, part 4

And so we commence the next chapter in the Pearl Buck project… Here goes

If Fiction Wasn’t Literature in China, What Was?

Lavish expressions may contain abundant truth but fail to direct and drive the meaning home.” 

Lu Chi(261-303) “On Literature,” Anthology of Chinese Literature, ed. Cyril Birch)

Until the early twentieth century, “real” literature in China was essays and commentaries based on The Four Books or The Five Classics the authoritative Concucian texts from the 3rd century. written around 300 ce. Students who mastered these ancient texts, and mastered the technique of writing the “eight-legged” essay, would pass the various levels of civil service examinations and could become government officials.

Ideally, this was an egalitarian system of putting people into government jobs. Those who entered the examination were not necessarily wealthy, nor were they necessarily sons of well-educated men. The Books were available to everyone (who could read). The precepts taught in the Books informed the thoughts of all Chinese.

The first level of exam, the Municipal Exam, was offered frequently in major cities. The exam itself was a grueling experience. Scholars were locked in “cells” for hours while they wrote their answers. At various breaks, they turned in parts of their answers to the examiner, a scholar who had passed one or two levels of examinations. Many talented men (who would be good leaders) never passed and, naturally many untalented men did pass. As these were human beings in government, there was a certain amount of corruption in the process leading to it being frequently reformed. 

Classical Chinese fiction, especially The Scholars and Hong Lou Meng, criticizes the system for its many failings and absurdities, yet, the Chinese system provided the inspiration for the British Civil Service Exam and its child, the United States Civil Service Exam.  


This attitude isn’t unique to China. Even Aristotle had to write a defense of the theater back in the day. I suppose there has always been a tension between the “serious” (which is something that gets us somewhere) and the “frivolous” (that which ‘merely’ entertains us). We’re living in a strange twilight zone in which many people can’t discriminate between entertainment and legitimate information. Perhaps that’s what everyone was concerned about over the eons.


Yesterday I held a conference with myself and decided it was time to clean out the garage, so I had the glorious experience of cleaning out junk. It’s difficult to be sufficiently rhapsodic about this experience but it yielded a few wonders. I found my Chinese language textbooks, a “fanzine” my brother and his friends produced in high school using silk-screen and a mimeograph machine, and my “data base” of quotations for the Pearl Buck project (featured photo and below).

It is a very complex project — this is only one set of note cards. There’s another for each book — an annotated bibliography — I read that goes into the project.

I was happy to find my Chinese language texts but sad to realize that once upon a time, I could do this:

It really is “use it or lose it.” I can still understand spoken Mandarin well enough to know when the subtitles don’t match in a movie, but that I could ever read this well? And this is only the middle of the book and there are two books.

11 thoughts on “Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel, part 4

  1. If that’s junk, it’s very cool junk. My kind of junk for sure – when such wonders are discovered! I will be catching up on your Pearl Buck series – which I find fascinating (locked in cells for exams…ouch!). Life snatched me out of the blogosphere for a while. I’ve missed it.

  2. Entertainment or legitimate information~ exactly. The old saying (that I know you heard a million times; and witnessed it), “I know it, but I’m not good at tests!” Equality~fair should not be equal. But kudos for the desire for equality ~I could completely digress. I find your knowledge and their culture fascinating. And seeing your artifacts was satisfying to me. There’s something about the written learning, old notes snd projects, that make my brain and heart happy. I bet with practice your Mandarin would come back. At this moment I’m waiting on 4 girlfriends, part of my former hiking group in Arkansas, to get here. I took a pretty bad fall on Wednesday. But am thankful nothing is broken and I even cleaned my gutters today. My hiking may be limited. But my spirit is happy. I’m not used to having guests. It should be a good reunion. We’re all vaccinated and ready for nature. Hugs and love from me and Finn. Stay safe and have a good weekend. 💛💚🤗❤️

  3. I have friends who refuse to read anything but history, biographies, and political commentary. They opine that anything else is a waste of time and of no value. They do the same with their TV watching – only the “reality” shows, the news, and nature shows. They look at me and my SciFi/Fantasy books watching shows like Star Trek or The Witcher and just shake their heads… I can only imagine the same attitude among Chinese scholars…. I do love your card file! I dream of organization!!

    • Snobs exist in all times. I’m kind of a snob but my wonderful little annual job kind of depends on that. 🙂 I tried watching nature shows during the early days of the pandemic, but watching a moose abandon her calf in a rushing stream just because she was pregnant with the new one and had to get across (“Fuck you, kid. You’re on your own.” “But MOM!!!”) hit too close to home. I know what nature is, but man, watching it on TV is no way to decompress during rough political times and a deadly swirling microbe! 😀

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