Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Part 5

Yesterday we left off here: 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.  

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

[The thousands of years old Chinese examination system] might be one of the most difficult things for a modern western reader to understand, but Pearl Buck had plenty to say about this:

“…In centuries past in China the novel was not considered literature. Confucius makes it quite plain that a story is worthless for its own sake, and only of value when it teaches or illustrates a moral principle. No reputable scholar in old days would write a novel or be seen reading one, and not until the comparatively late date of Chien Lung in the 18th century was fiction given a formal place in national literature. There are various reasons for this disapproval of fiction.

As I said, Confucius set his seal against it; it (fiction) was supposed to have an immoral influence and turn the mind away from philosophy and virtue and make it soft. Practically it had no value to the reader, for the examinations of the state were in the classical literature, and the preparation for these examinations was so vast that it took all the years of a man’s life, and the serious and ambitious man could not afford to divert himself. Moreover, the successful passing of these examinations was the only way for an able man to rise, and he had necessarily to exclude anything which did not help him directly to his aim. Instead, therefore, of finding some of the acutest and most sensitive and powerful minds turning to the novel as a means of expression as we find in English novel history, in China we find such minds occupying themselves in the study of classics and making commentaries upon them.”

(Pearl Buck pretty sure but not absolutely this came from the Nobel Prize Lecture)

It’s pretty difficult (for me) to find a parallel in Western culture, but imagine Plato’s Republic and imagine having to read it in Attic Greek which is not the language spoken by anyone in your world. This would be the ONLY book you would be encourage to read. From certain important passages you would be expected to write essays commenting on the content of these passages. To be an educated person, you would be educated in THIS book. Any other philosophy would be considered inferior or corrupt. Imagine that your success in life, government, business, family relations, everything, depended on examinations on which you write commentaries based on remarks from this work. Imagine writing your thoughts in an essay form as codified and as the structure of a Petrachan sonnet. Imagine an examination so difficult that it could take your whole lifetime to pass. This passage is from the novel, The Scholars, a satirical novel written in 1750 by Wu Jingzu:

The third examination was for candidates from Nanhai and Panyu Counties (these are in Guangdong Province). Commissioner Chou (who had passed the exam after he was sixty years old) sat in the hall and watched the candidates crowing in. There were young and old, handsome and homely, smart and shabby men among them The last candidate was thin and sallow, had a grizzled beard and was wearing an old felt hat. Kwangtung (Guangdong) had a warm climate, still this was the twelfth month, and this candidate wore only a linen gown, so he was shivering with cold as he took his paper and went to his cell. (I lived in Guangdong and I was never colder in my life than in winter there.) Chou Chin made a mental note of this before sealing up their doors. During the first interval, from his seat at the head of the hall, he watched this candidate in the linen gown come up to hand in his paper. The man’s clothes were so threadbare that a few more holes had appeared since he went into the cell. Commissioner Chou referred to the registrar of names and asked, “You are Fan Chin, aren’t you?”

Kneeling, Fan Chin answered, ‘Yes, Your Excellency.”

“How old are you this year?”

“I gave my age as thirty. Actually, I am fifty-four.”

“How many times have you taken the examination?”

“I first went in for it when I was twenty, and I have taken it over twenty times since then.”

“How is it you have never passed?”

“My essays are too poor,” replied Fan Chin. 

Wu Jingzu The Scholars

Imagine a civil service system which awarded government positions of the highest responsibility to those who were able to do well on exams based only on Plato’s Republic, whether or not they showed any aptitude or interest in such positions. If you did not spend all your time studying former successful examinations, which had been published in books and capably commented upon by other scholars, and if you didn’t practice the essay yourself, you would be considered foolish, degenerate, lazy, decadent, irresponsible, etc. (To be continued…) 


The exam was tied up in so much of Chinese culture. If a person NEVER passed he brought shame on his family, past, present and future. It was the ONLY way for a man to advance in society. Tremendous consequences and rewards — even for the future of the family — were tied to it.

As I typed this yesterday I had to laugh at my 36 year old person’s reference to Plato’s Republic. 36 year old Martha had not yet taught composition at the college and university level. She had not realized the tremendous power and utility of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. She didn’t know that she would base ENTIRE composition classes on that ONE essay (and its remakes through time including The Matrix and The Lion King). She didn’t know that there is, probably, only a finite number of stories humans ever come up with and that the struggle to just SEE something as it is is a common — and important — archetype.

Once, during my future career (13 years later?) teaching “The Allegory of the Cave,” a student — Chris — said, “Why are you making us read this old stuff?”
I said, “It’s important. It’s something we all struggle with.”
“No it isn’t. We’re living NOW!!!”
“I know. Just write the paper, OK?”

WEEKS maybe MONTHS later, in the early evening, I was walking across the campus at San Diego State. I heard someone behind me calling out, “Dude! Dude! Wait, DUDE!” Whoever “Dude” was, it wasn’t me. The running feet got closer and closer. Someone grabbed my Levis jacket. “Dude! Dude!” I turned to see the disgruntled student, Chris.

“What’s up?”

“DUDE!!! The ‘Allegory of the Cave’? Dude, that’s my LIFE.”

“It’s all our lives, Chris.”

Which makes me think that there might be a little something in those old texts. During Mao, Confucianism was repressed as something “old,” but it is now reborn and alive and well in China and there are even Confucian schools here in the US now. Maybe it wasn’t the exam; maybe it was the consequences attached to it.


I appreciate everyone with the patience to read this stuff. Among the books I brought back from China is The Scholars which I enjoyed a LOT. While the satire isn’t totally accessible to me (clearly) some of it is. It’s also beautifully illustrated.

Probably there will be some kind of celebration when I finish typing this — but who knows where I might find more of it!

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.

Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Oral Tradition, Part 3

Where we left off yesterday: “Last time I stopped at the point where, ordered by his master, Bao Xing went to the kitchen with a teapot in his hand, but, no sooner had he raised the door curtain than he exclaimed in alarm ‘Aiya!’ Well…’ Liu paused for a moment… All at once, my heart sprang into my mouth. What did he mean? What had happened? Staring at Liu, I thought over and over again that it must be an assassin or a man’s head dripping with blood. To my surprise, Liu answered the riddle. “The water on the stove hadn’t boiled yet!” (Liu Shaotang, Catkin Willow Flats, “An Encounter in Green Vine Lane,” Trans. Alex Young, 1984)

Many critics look at the changes in the approach to fiction as a progressive thing, beginning, in all cultures, with a story told by one person to another person. The story might be fiction, but is just as likely to be a true story, or a true story that evolved into a legend. Then, there someone with a pen, stylus, stick, hammer and chisel and some surface (wax, stone, papyrus, whatever) who writes these stories down just as they’re told. Maybe they’re eventually printed (as in China) and story tellers can buy these printed stories and use them to tell their stories better, to help them remember all the episodes and to learn new stories. Then, perhaps someone else with writing tools or a printer will sit down and allow his mind to act imaginatively on the old tale as it’s told. Yet, he retains in the structure of his revision the structure of the original oral story. It accrues, simply by being written, a kind of authority the oral tale cannot possess. 

From this comes the completely imaginative novel which might still be written in the style of the oral story, or letters, sermon, poem, opera, epic, ballad. From there some other person will realize that there are many new and different things he can do; that this written fiction is a completely new form, not necessarily related at all to an oral story. Presumably, all of this “progress” is related to generalized literacy in a civilization. A nation without a literate population has little use for printed stories. 

In China, the oral tradition endured, and in super-modern China, teahouses with story-tellers have enjoyed a rebirth of popularity. That said, the persistence of what has been regarded in some cultures by some critics is considered a “backward” literary form, has made it difficult for modern Chinse scholars to reconcile the Chinese tradition to the Western tradition (Martha in 2021 doesn’t know why they should…) which is considered more “sophisticated” and “advanced.” What many scholars view as an evolution of the novel has been stymied somewhat in China because Chinese Communist policy insisted for some time that foreign things and values are bad, and only truly Chinese things are good (notwithstanding a huge Soviet influence on Chinese fiction during the mid-twentieth century). This has led to the (possibly) unreasonable insistence that Shui Hu Chuan is as good as any novel produced in the West. (For what it’s worth, 21st century Martha thinks it might be and thinks this judgement depends on who’s looking…)

As C. T. Hsia said in his introduction to Chinese Classical Fiction:

Whatever the critical fashion in Communist China, it seems to me self-evident that we cannot accord the Chinese novel full critical justice unless, with our due awareness of its special characteristics that can only be fully understood in historical terms, we are prepared to examine it against the Western Novel…The modern reader of fiction…expects a consistent point of view, a unified impression of life as 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. But, of course, even in Europe the conscious practice of fiction as an art was a late development, and we cannot expect colloquial Chinese fiction, with its humble oral beginnings, to have been designed for the cultivated modern taste. (Hsia)

The general human tendency to regard new things as more developed than old things prejudices us in favor of the new, but maybe the long, episodic novels of old China truly ARE difficult to read, even for Chinese.

After writing continually for five or six weeks, I felt really discouraged and could not continue. All those shallow and stupid novels of interminable length, they really couldn’t get me interested and I haven’t written about them since. (Hsia)

(Twenty-first century Martha has read a few of these interminable novels and they interested me enough to read a couple of them in more than one translation. C.T. Hsia’s education and training was similar to mine [if you don’t make a big deal out of the VERY prestigious schools he attended and at which he taught and the VERY notable exception that he was Chinese.] You can read about him here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._T._Hsia

But if art is an imitation of life, isn’t life difficult to read and difficult to follow? Does life have a consistent point of view or “cohesion of design”? If it does, it is not apparent to any of us living our lives.

Because the written novel has lost some of the sensory power and involvement that was part of the oral novel it must simplify itself  so it can be as understandable as the story teller’s tea-house version. The second question involves someone looking at the Classical Chinese story/novel in relation to the Western novel. Is a novel written to tell a story or to illustrate a form? Some modern critics have devalued the story, but Pearl Buck did not. She believed — based on her close relation to Chinese fiction written in the 1920s and 1930s as well as her personal experience — that story is the most important part of a, well, a story. It should teach something, challenge assumptions and be entertaining. She wrote:

No, happily for the Chinese novel, it was not considered by the scholars as literature. Happily, too, for the novelist. Man and book, they were free from the criticisms of these scholars and their requirements of art, their techniques of expression and their talk of literary significance and all that discussion of what is and what is not art as if art were an absolute and not the changing thing it is fluctuating even within decades! The Chinese novel was free. It grew as it liked out of its own soil, the common people, nurtured by that heartiest of sunshine, popular approval and untouched by the cold and frosty winds of the scholar’s art. (Buck, Pearl S., “The Chinese Novel,” Nobel Prize Speech, 1938)


The novel throughout the world has had an interesting history. Once I thought it was a very interesting coincidence that it emerged in various places at the same time, but that wasn’t it. It was simply labeled “the novel” at the same time. The word “novel” itself means “new” like we have gotten to enjoy the company of a novel virus for the past two years.

The first REAL novel in English is considered to be an 18th century product. It’s debated, of course, but it’s generally thought to be Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. When I was in grad school in a course on “The Early Novel,” I was told it was Pamela by Samuel Richardson. Older stories are contenders (because it’s important to be first, right?) including The Monte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory written in 1485.

I have no strong opinion on any of this. My life after China took me into realms of literature that weren’t taught in any school I ever attended. But I have to bless Wikipedia (to which I give $6/year to keep going) for a really cogent and concise discussion of what makes a novel a novel. Here’s everything Wikipedia has to say and it’s pretty much exactly what I learned in graduate school.


Differing definitions of the novel

There are multiple candidates for first novel in English partly because of ignorance of earlier works, but largely because the term novel can be defined so as to exclude earlier candidates. (The article for novel contains a detailed information of the history of the terms “novel” and “romance” and the bodies of texts they defined in a historical perspective.)

Length

  • Critics typically require a novel to have a certain length. This would exclude Oroonoko, arguably a novella.

Content and intent

  • Critics typically require a novel to be wholly original and so exclude retellings such as Le Morte d’Arthur.
  • Critics typically make a distinction between collections of short stories, even those sharing common themes and settings, and novels per se, which typically has a single protagonist and narrative throughout. This might also lead to the exclusion of Le Morte d’Arthur.
  • Critics typically distinguish between the romance, which has a heroic protagonist and fantastic elements, and the novel, which attempts to present a realistic story. This would, yet again, exclude Le Morte d’Arthur.
  • Critics typically distinguish between the allegory (in which characters and events have political, religious or other meanings) and the novel, in which characters and events stand only for themselves, and so exclude The Pilgrim’s Progress and A Tale of a Tub‘.
  • Critics typically distinguish between the picaresque, made up of a connected sequence of episodes, and the novel, which has unity of structure, and so exclude The Unfortunate Traveller.

Owing to the influence of Ian Watt‘s seminal study in literary sociology, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957), Watt’s candidate, Daniel Defoe‘s Robinson Crusoe (1719), gained wide acceptance.


I’ve also been thinking about episodic structure in a novel. It’s really a lot like life.

I was thinking about my friend, Alex, who recently died after suffering Alzheimers for several years. I didn’t know him when he was himself, but what I knew of him I liked very much. Last year he and his wife bought themselves one of my paintings. Each of us lived our whole lives without knowing each other, but then our lives converged to a limited extent and then, at the conclusion, I came home with all of his paints, which judging from the care with which he stored them, meant a lot to him. I thought “out of the thousands of episodes in our lives, the whole thing ended with me cleaning an old tackle box to get the cat pee smell off of it, giving up, and putting the paints with my own.” It might not be over. I took photos of the box as it was given to me and IF the enzymatic cleaner works, I’ll put everything back, meanwhile, I have on my windowsill a carpenter pencil onto which he carved his name. It’s ONE story comprising several episodes. The story could conclude (and might!) with me using Alex’ paints to do a painting of one of his favorite places to climb and giving it to his wife.

The difference between an episodic novel and a collection of short stories is that an episodic novel is ONE story that (apparently) digresses from time-to-time to follow a character. This means that it can jump back and forth in time, sort of “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” but it will end in a timely resolution that satisfies every subplot/episode Music does this all the time; a melody can vanish and re-emerge later, changed, maybe, slightly, but carried through an entire symphony. We even name the episodes of a symphony.

Personally, I like the episodic structure, and one of my novels — The Brothers Path —uses it (best-selling writer that I am). :-p I was briefly in a writers’ group at the time and was told by everyone (except the teacher!) NOT to do that. My classmates had totally bought into the arbitrary definition of what a novel is supposed to be. I think the word “novel” needs to be changed; it isn’t “novel” any more.

The review recently posted about As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder, about the year I spent teaching in China, said this and it made me very happy. It says:

“There is no chronological story here – the anecdotes jump around the timeline as fancy (and photo prompts) take the author, and the author also carefully restricts herself to only discussing events and situations within her own personal experiences, which does leave some anecdotes unfinished and some questions unanswered, but gives the reader total confidence that she refrains from straying into speculation for the sake of tidying the story… real life is messy and we don’t always find out what happens next!” http://bookshineandreadbows.wordpress.com/2021/10/17/catch-up-quickies-12 )

The next section in this adventure is about what the Chinese DID revere as literature back in the day, and the day was really long. 36 year old Martha has written about old Chinese examination system, it, itself, and how it was viewed by the writers of Chinese fiction. Please let me know if that interests anyone at all. I am totally capable of writing in stream of tedium, and I don’t want to. 🙂

Here are pretty pictures from Dream of the Red Chamber or Hong Lou Meng.

Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Oral Tradition, 2

Here’s where we left off yesterday: From the Chin Ping Mei (Plum Blossom in a Golden Vase) the listener (reader) is supposed to learn that a life given over to sexual satisfaction will lead to a grisly death and a curse lingering on a family for many generations. Karma is an important part of these stories, and there is a continuing admonition to the listener not to do anything to disgrace his ancestors or make life difficult for his children — never mind making his own next life one in which he must repay all the debts of the current life…

A story could be a tool of subversion. China, historically, has practiced a rough form of democracy. If the excesses of an imperial regime became too excessive, if people were taxed too heavily, if the rivers flooded and it seemed nature conspired against the peace and prosperity of the average person, the Chinese considered that Heaven’s mandate had been taken from the Emperor’s family. A new imperial family would always rise out of the ensuing revolution and reform society. More than once the old stories of the bandits in Shui Hu Chuan or the Romance of the Three Kingdoms were used to arouse peasant sentiment against a corrupt ruling house.

The entertainment imperative had a very strong effect on the development of story in China. Where most of the stories from the English oral tradition such as Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight have receded into the rarified world of academia, Chinese classical stories are still very much alive for the Chinese people in written forms that are believed to be close to the “originals.” The “novels,” transcriptions of orally transmitted tales, are still read and loved in the six and seven hundred year-old versions and not by graduate students on the brink of a thesis on some arcane aspect of “Medieval Chinese Literature,” but by everybody from kids to grannies. 

The books retain the qualities of oral fiction with strong plots, essential to story tellers so they can keep the momentum going from day to day. Usually they have an episodic organization rather than a great “unity of design” found in novels which were never part of the oral tradition.

An episodic story structure allows the story teller to interject: “Let’s leave so-and-so for now and see what is happening at such-and-such” if he sees the audience is getting bored. Because of the enduring oral tradition, Chinese fiction retained a certain episodic quality which western novels lost long ago. 

Then, because the story teller interprets the story to his audience, he can create a character with much less descriptive language. Story tellers have their bodies, faces, gestures with which to show a knife being raised into the air or lovers embracing. Watching and listening to a story teller involves more senses than simply reading a story in solitude under a tree somewhere or on a sofa or train. Watching and listening to a story teller involves more of our senses. Sympathetic characters, taken directly out of the oral context, become two dimensional, colorless, flat like paper dolls. 

Watching a ghost story unfold can be really scary, but it’s difficult to write in an equally and immediately frightening way. A written story is more abstract than something being read aloud to us or recited or interpreted dramatically.

In the early 1980s, when I was in China, many places did not have electricity, and it was not reliable in many places that did have it, even where I lived in Guangzhou. Many of the old people would rather spend an evening listening to a story than watching television, which wasn’t dependable anyway. The story teller was an important person in their lives. 

*Liu Shaotang, a twentieth century Chinese novelist, describes one of his childhood writing teachers. In this passage fro “An Encounter in Green Vine Lane,” Liu described the effect of a story teller’s narrative style on his listeners:

At the entrance (to the teahouse) hung a blackboard posted with playbills, announcing that there were two performances every day. The one during the day featured “The Cases of Prefect Bao [Xing]” performed by the celebrated Liu Jingtang, Jr., while the night show, “Strange Tales of Liaozhai,” were recounted by the master storyteller, Zhao Yingpo. Zhao was good at telling ghost stories and his narration was horrible and bloodcurdling. Some, while listening to his performance would, more often than not, be so frightened that they would rather pee in their trousers than pluck of their courage to go outside. Nor did they dare go home without someone to accompany them In a small alley, they would panic at the mere rustle of leaves in the wind. However whenever Zhao performed in this teahouse, under the spell of his mastery, would never miss a chance to listen, even at the risk of peeing their pants once again. (Liu Shaotang, Catkin Willow Flats, “An Encounter in Green Vine Lane,” Trans. Alex Young, 1984)

Liu then illustrates the way the story teller could manipulate his audience to make sure they came back to hear more of the story:

(Bao Xing went out) of the chamber with a teapot in his hand. Walking through the winding corridor, he came to the kitchen. But as soon as he pulled aside the door curtain, he exclaimed “Aiya!” if you want to know what happened next, please come again tomorrow and I’ll explain it in detail. (Liu Shaotang, Catkin Willow Flats, “An Encounter in Green Vine Lane,” Trans. Alex Young, 1984)

Liu Shaotang writes that he was so worried about what happened to Bao Xing, that he missed school the next day to be able to arrive early for the noon time recitation. He arrives just a few minutes late, terrified that he has missed the critical denouement. The story teller is saying:

“Last time I stopped at the point where, ordered by his master, Bao Xing went to the kitchen with a teapot in his hand, but, no sooner had he raised the door curtain than he exclaimed in alarm ‘Aiya!’ Well…’ Liu paused for a moment… All at once, my heart sprang into my mouth. What did he mean? What had happened? Staring at Liu, I thought over and over again that it must be an assassin or a man’s head dripping with blood. To my surprise, Liu answered the riddle. “The water on the stove hadn’t boiled yet!” (Liu Shaotang, Catkin Willow Flats, “An Encounter in Green Vine Lane,” Trans. Alex Young, 1984)

* A note on Liu Shaotang: He was born in 1921 which means he would have been THIS little boy during the period Pearl Buck was teaching at Nanjing University. Pearl Buck’s daughter, Carol, was born in 1920. It’s clear from Liu’s description that all his neurons were firing anticipating the resolution to the mystery!


There’s a garden out in front of my house that I have not had any contact with in ages. As far as it’s concerned, I’m over it. I think it’s the drought. I felt all summer that there was something wrong with pouring water on a bunch of flowers lined up against a south-facing wall.

My thoughts went back to the garden belonging to the president of my college (featured photo). His apartment was two floors below ours and he had a rose garden. One of my friends explained what a luxury this was because, during the reign of Chairman Mao gardens like that were, at the very least, severely criticized. Arable land should be used for food. That whole way of thinking seemed to me, later, to be the off shoot of a horrible famine caused by Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” in the 1950s when everyone — peasants, everyone — was put to work making steel leaving only the elderly and children to till the fields. There was mass starvation and no one knows for sure how many people died but estimates go up to 55 million.

China doesn’t have much arable land in comparison to the population, so a drought or flood has always had enormous consequences. There was a famine in China in the 30s and Pearl Buck wrote about it. The US government airlifted food to the Chinese, but it was food the Chinese wouldn’t eat, didn’t even recognize as food. Apparently the US had a surplus of dairy products and was dropping large amounts of cheese. OK, as a cheeseatarian I’d be very happy with that, but the Chinese didn’t make or eat cheese — or much milk. To them it was as if the US was giving them rotten milk. Pearl Buck wrote letters and articles decrying this and telling the government what they SHOULD send. I don’t remember if anything changed because of her out-cry. But, when I was a kid and left something on my plate, the grownups said, “Eat your peas. Think about the starving people in China

Caveat: There is a lot of stuff in this section that I would not write today, but I’m trying not to edit 36 year old Martha too much.

Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: More on the Oral Tradition

Story Teller with his clapper

Here’s where we left off yesterday: “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.”


The “oldest continuous culture” in the world is really a composite of different cultures, even different ethnic groups. The language that has historically tied China together is its written language. Yet, even in China’s recent history a large percentage of the population was illiterate or just marginally literate. How could such a diverse group have formed a largely unified culture over four thousand years without television? The answer, as Chairman Mao and his followers understood very well, is the traveling story teller. 

During the early years of the twentieth century, when China struggled to redefine itself politically, to throw off feudalism and the Emperor, one of its chief methods was using storytellers. Storytellers told every kind of story — old stories like The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and new stories being written by authors such as Lu Hsun, Lao She, Ba Jin, writers who openly criticized the old faily system, religious superstition, the Japanese, the Emperor. Propaganda or news, if put into a story, caught and held the attention of masses of illiterate people and changed China. Earnest, educated, young people travelled from town to town making speeches and telling stories. In the late 1930s and early 1940’s Lao She wrote plays, operas and stories for storytellers expressly to arouse the Chinese people to resist the Japanese invaders. 

It has been a long time since traveling story-tellers existed in the Western World weaving a spell around their listeners. The story-teller was a gateway to a world beyond our ancestors tedious, boring, physically grueling, monotonous lives. For a non-Chinese to truly understand the magic of the traveling Chinese story-teller, it’s helpful to listen to spoken Chinese in any dialect. Most people know that Chinese is a “tonal” language — almost like singing — which means that a person reciting a story is something very special; words are almost sung, strongly inflected and rhythmic, enchanting to listen to even if a person doesn’t understand the words.

When the story teller came into a village, he announced his arrival by banging something. In some places these things wre two bamboo sticks; in the north of China they were two pelvic bones from a large animal. In some places the story teller banged a drum, keeping time to the rhythm of his voice. Everyone would stop what they were doing and run to hear. 

What stories did the story tellers tell? Just like people today, people were interested in stories that made them feel emotions. The audience loved ghost stories, murder mysteries, war stories, love stories — and history. Suspense, romance, intrigue and tales of derring do. 

If the story teller were any good, he would be able to stay in a town or village for a long time, tantalizingly balancing information with suspense, yearning with satisfaction. To keep a roof over his head and soup in his stomach, a story teller had to entertain his audience, but the culture — that is the political and religious arms of the culture, added another requirement. Stories were supposed to be enlightening in some way, to teach a lesson. 

Many stories began with a parable; each chapter or recitation began with a rhyme pointing (sometimes pretty cryptically) to the main reason for telling the tale. 

From the Chin Ping Mei (Plum Blossom in a Golden Vase) the listener (reader) is supposed to learn that a life given over to sexual satisfaction will lead to a grisly death and a curse lingering on a family for many generations. Karma is an important part of these stories, and there is a continuing admonition to the listener not to do anything to disgrace his ancestors or make life difficult for his children — never mind making his own next life one in which he must repay all the debts of the current life.


Until I started studying this stuff I didn’t fully understand the relationship between being able to read and freedom. It was a huge long project taking the skill of reading into the narrow mountain valleys of China. Even in the 1980s many of the peasants from whom I bought vegetables in the market in my village couldn’t read or write. That says a lot because my town — Shipai, a village near Guangzhou, now part of a very fancy part of Guangzhou — was not remote and the encircling villages were not a big challenge to reach. At least three generations of hard-working teachers struggled to bring literacy to the peasants. My most cherished friend from that time, an old woman from Hainan, couldn’t really read or write, just a few characters. She was a member of the anti-Japanese resistance during the anti-Japanese war. I wish my Chinese were much better and more literate than it is, but as one of my Chinese friends pointed out, “You do all right, Martha. Look at the Old Mother.” We had illiteracy in common. 🙂

The people who went into the countryside to teach reading to the peasants had incredible obstacles, one of which is the complexity of written Chinese. They developed a simplified Chinese based on colloquial Mandarin — Bai Hua — that was easier to teach and learn. Still, in order to read a newspaper, a person needs to be able to read about 2000 characters — out of 50,000!!!

Those bringing literacy to the peasants also had to overcome a lot of resistance to change and the reality that working in the fields takes all a person’s time, especially in the more remote regions where fields were terraced, accessible only on foot with a buffalo. There was no motorized transport of any kind, a situation that still existed in places when I was there. Chairman Mao was very aware of all this and as his army went through China they built stages in many of the villages where they could perform “stories”. I think I wrote about the literacy thing in this book somewhere, but I don’t know where so maybe this is it. Anyway, it’s pretty scary to think that all a person would know would be what another person would tell him/her.

I couldn’t fit the word “scorch” into this post. 😦

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.

Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel, 3

Here’s where we left off yesterday in our meandering discussion of early Chinese fiction: 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. 


In *Shui Hu Chuan (The Water Margin, translated by Pearl Buck as All Men Are Brothers), was written in the 14th century. The story opens with a somewhat rash Imperial Commander who has been sent to a sacred mountain in search of a Taoist master who has the ability to cure the entire nation which is, at that moment, suffering from a terrible plague. The commander succeeds in his question, having unknowingly spoken directly to the master who was disguised as a small boy on a buffalo. On his way down the mountain, the commander finds a small temple that has been sealed with paper. He questions the monks about why the temple is sealed. The monk replies that 108 demons are sealed inside. Curiosity gets the better of the commander who commands that that the temple be opened. Against the protests of the monk, the temple — a Pandora’s Box — is opened freeing the 108 demons to roam the world creating havoc. These 108 demons are the bandits and robbers who populate the Shui Hu Chuan.

Hong Loui Meng, written in the 18th century, is probably the most famous and most studied of the older Chinese novels. It opens with the story of Pao Yu, the main character. Pao Yu is not actually a mortal but the human incarnation of a piece of jade which was rejected when the sky was completed. Depressed over his rejection, Pao Yu is noticed by wandering Buddhist and Taoist monks who give him the opportunity to exist in the world of men, the “Red Dust.” Because he is not an ordinary mortal, he cannot be expected to act like one. This the reader knows, but, of course, the other characters in the novel can only guess Pao Yu’s destiny. In this way, the author is able to tie all of the episodes in the story together to make his statement at the end, that, essentially, while the Red Dust and its ways are all-right for mortals, it’s no place for gods. 

*Chin Ping Mei, a “spin-off” of the Shui Hu Chuan, was written in the 16th century. It begins with a Confucian exhortation against dealing with women (!), and, finally, as the ultimate example, the author launches into Chin Ping Mei itself:

Let us then purify our senses, and put upon us the garment of repentance, that so contemplating the emptiness and illusion of this world, we may free ourselves from the gate of birth and death and falling not into the straits of adversity, advance towards perfection. Thus only may we enjoy leisure and good living and still escape the fires of Hell. I am brought to these reflections upon the true significance of wine and women, wealth and ambition, remembering a family which, while flourishing, sank at length into a state of deepest misery. Then neither worldly wisdom nor ingenuity could save it and not a single relative or friend would put forth a hand to help. For a few brief years the master of this household enjoyed his wealth, and then he died, leaving behind a reputation which none would want. 


And THAT folks seems to be a wrap — that’s page 5 and there is no page 6! There is a page 7, 8, 9 etc. but I cannot see from this how younger Martha got to page 7. I’ve looked everywhere, even to the point of finding yet ANOTHER version. It seems that 36 year old Martha Kennedy was seriously into revision. As I typed this it struck me that it just rambles with no direction, and I wonder if that’s not something “she” noticed and that’s why I have three versions of this? NO idea — but I may jump straight to the twentieth century. We’ll see. What appears to be the newest revision of this tome IS the most engaging so maybe I’ll just go there? It’s better… Oh Martha, Martha, no wonder you didn’t finish this. 🙂

* The Shui Hu Chuan is still incredibly popular in Asia — cartoons, feature films, Kung-fu versions. It’s a wonderful adventure story — or compilation of stories. To me, it’s like an Icelandic saga, and I love Icelandic sagas.

** The Chin Ping Mei is a notorious book. An unexpurgated version has come out in English, but the one I read, translated in the 30s, had all the juicy bits translated into Latin. I could expend a lot of energy decoding it or move on. All this righteous stuff is really just a way to turn this extremely racy book into a moral lesson. Pearl Buck included the Chin Ping Mei in her novel, Pavilion of Women with the story that originally it had had poison on the corner of each page so that the evil magistrate (if I remember right) would die when he finished reading it, and, of course, he had to read it. Poisoned books are legendary across cultures — there is another more well known in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. It really discourages a person from reading.

I scored a copy of Clement Edgerton’s 1939 translation of Chin Ping Mei at a used book store. It’s the same version I read so long ago while working on the Pearl Buck project. Used books are great. In this case because someone else would have gotten the poison ( ha ha) and because the person who had this book apparently loved it. He inscribed it with his name in English and in Chinese. The featured photo is one of the new editions and my old books. You’d think the BIGGER book has more in it, but the old book is printed on very thin paper and the type is set close together. I don’t think there’s much difference in quantity of content, but in the new edition the juicy bits are in English.

On the subject of translation, I’m with Goethe. He wrote a very nice poem (which I can’t find now) about this and there’s also the story of how his secretary read to him a story written in French. Goethe said, “That’s a good story.” His secretary laughed and said, “That’s the French translation of your story.” I think it’s better to read a translation than not read the stories at all. Sure, maybe something — maybe a lot — is lost, but not everything. I have two translations of Hong Lou Meng. One is the translation officially sanctioned by the CCP published in an incredibly beautifully illustrated two volume set. The other is a much longer, more complete, less censored and didactic translation put out by the Oxford University Press. The both tell the story, and the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) version says in the illustrations much of what is left out in the words. There is also — in China — a whole field of scholarship over Hong Lou Meng. I like best the writer’s explanation for why he wrote it. Basically because he had nothing to do, was very poor, and writing it was a way to entertain himself and his friends. I feel that with all my heart. There is contention about who wrote it, but generally it is believed to be Cao Xuexin, the impoverished son of a disgraced official. It’s a wonderful book. It’s something I wish I could experience for the first time — again. ❤

I listened to this song all the time back in the day because I was getting sick of “sitting around here trying to write [that] book.”

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. 

Pearl S. Buck, Here Goes

In 1984, I had just returned from a year teaching in China. I was regretful at having returned to the US, (apparently) “stuck” in a marriage the wasn’t working and would ultimately end, kind of lost and looking for something meaningful and engaging. My thesis advisor and his wife came to our apartment in Denver for dinner and as we talked, he said, “You should write about Pearl S. Buck. No one is and someone should. You could do that project.”

Surrounding us were packing boxes. The Good-X had just gotten a job in San Diego and we were moving. Just a few weeks after we moved, I got a teaching job at a language school attached to San Diego State University and access to a wonderful library. I had a beautiful typewriter that could erase a whole LINE of type or just a word; even just a letter! State of the art!

I began the project. I remember a few things from that time — one, for a while my typewriter sat on the floor. Then, we found our real apartment and the dining room table (like now) held the writing tools. I remember a Saturday afternoon when I was really stuck under a mountain of research and not sure at all WHERE I was going with this or WHAT I was doing and I thought (and wrote in my little journal), “I don’t know. Maybe this is the way I write a book.” I realized that’s what I was doing.

So. now I’m typing it onto my MacBook, trying NOT to edit that 30 something woman who wrote it. Just because I’ve written a LOT since then and am older, doesn’t make me the god of this project. I want to let it unwind as she wrote it. There are better works about Pearl Buck out there now. She became interesting in the 1990s (my thesis advisor was right) both here in the US and in China, and China became a lot easier to visit. The have also restored a house that is believed to have been hers, though (as I read yesterday) there’s some skepticism about that. Anyway, she’s not in that house, not even the house in Pennsylvania that is a National Historic Monument. She’s in her books and in the great work still being done by the Pearl S. Buck Foundation helping children.

Here goes…


Most ninth grade students have heard of Pearl Buck. My mother’s generation, born in the early years of the twentieth century, smiles when you mention Pearl Buck’s name. My mother wrote in the margin of a book of selected quotes, “You can’t beat Pearl Buck.” The clerk in the used bookstore where I did most of my shopping for Pearl Buck’s novels back in the 1980s when I originally wrote this manuscript smiled whenever I purchased one. More than once she launched into a paeon of reminiscence about the time she read this or that novel as a young girl. 

Pearl Buck’s books are very readable, enjoyable, and difficult to put down. They show deep sensitivity into universal human feelings. the motives of the characters, their problems, and their lives are vividly depicted and true in all the languages into which the novels have been translated.

The Good Earth — Pearl Buck’s most famous novel and the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature — brought the lives of the Chinese peasant into average American homes, giving them an enduring interest and sympathy for China. 

As China opened its doors to the West, Americans have been eager to enter — as tourists, scientists, business people, and teachers. How much of this feeling of goodwill could be traced to Pearl Buck’s novels is certainly impossible to gauge, but it was one of her hopes as a writer to bring her two worlds together. 

In 1972/73 Pearl Buck was denied a visa to enter China. Already in her eighties, with little chance to appeal the decision of the Chinese Bureau of Foreign Affairs, she wrote an open letter to the Chinese people. During her life, the Chinese had access to her books, and she had every reason to believe that her letter would be read by someone in China:

…I shall never see you again, my beloved people of China. My feet will never again tread the hills, the villages, the cities I know so well. Yet, though this is true, it no longer matters…You formed me, you fed me, you shapped me as I am forever…All that China gave me, the friendships, the beauty, the excitement, the dangers — Yes, there were dangers to my very life and the lives of my family and we were saved by Chinese friends — all my experiences for many years, I have poured into my books. My books have taken me, and you with me, far and wide upon our earth. I am glad for your sake that I am the most widely translated author my country ever had, for that means that you, too, are also widely known. To the best of my ability, I have tried to speak for you…

As the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1938), Pearl Buck achieved a large share of fame and notoriety, but not as an author of “great” fiction. Critics generally agreed that The Good Earth was her first and last great novel, and that, perhaps, she should not have been given the Nobel Prize but that it should have gone to one of the more “deserving” contenders:

Outclassed by earlier prize winners like William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Mann… who have won it before her, Pearl Buck would be placed below such U.S. possibilities as Theodore Dreiser, Carl Sandburg, Van Wyck Brooks…but politics have always played a big part in the Nobel Prize selectios…in politically conscious Europe, Pearl Buck is famed for The Good Earth and for her pungent telling attacks on dictators, for her tribute to the common people of China. (Time Magazine, 11/21, 1938)

It may be that when evaluating literature in the rarified atmosphere of a graduate program, Pearl Buck doesn’t stack up against Mann, Yeats, or Shaw. Still, the eyes of the clerk in my used book store don’t mist over at the sight of The Magic Mountain (which I also bought in her store) or “Major Barbara.” I couldn’t imagine her — sensible, book-loving, well-educated woman that she was — rhapsodizing with a stranger over hours spent as a girl, beneath a tree, reading “The Double Vision of Michael Robartes.”

Critics of Pearl Buck’s Nobel Prize also contended that she wasn’t even really an American writer. After all, she had spent all but four years of her life, roughly 40 years, in China. 

I’m happy to make a sweeping generalization and admit that, in many respects, her novels don’t fit into the mainstream of fiction being written at that time in the West. Her influences were not the same as those of Western writers. Her work fits much better into the mainstream of work being written in China at that time. She claimed the same herself, writing that except for an acknowledged “debt to Dickens,” her novels rely more on the traditions of Chinese fiction. In them one sees the influence of the traveling storyteller and the thoughts of the twentieth century “literary revolutionists” who were rapidly redirecting the development of the novel in China. Like many of her Chinese contemporaries, she wrote out of two traditions and found her own voice.

What criteria would Pearl Buck have wanted the critics to use looking at her work? “…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?’” 


I hit this point in my typing this morning and took advantage of some current technology (back in the 80s I was reading microfilm, haunting the library at San Diego State and buying used books to read sources) to see what books were selling in the 1930s. I remember them from my childhood when I was riding my bike to the library in Bellevue, Nebraska to find something to feed my then-voracious appetite for novels — readable, engaging writers like Edna Ferber, Rebecca West, Daphne du Maurier, Rachel Field, John Galsworthy, and John Steinbeck. (Source)

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival

The first Chinese holiday I experienced was Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Festival. It means a lot to me every time it rolls around. Last year I took a walk out in the fields to watch the full moon rise. I don’t know what I will do today. Something in me has changed and I find myself resisting everything that’s scripted, organized, seasonal, prescribed. Events in our world have made me skeptical of our traditions and customs, and I wonder how much of life we live by rote so that when an immense change falls into our world we are unable to respond. I don’t know. Probably a bogus theory, but part of me says, “I’m doubtful about all your traditions and rituals. We have to figure this out.”

But in all that is nature and nature — with some hiccups — is a parade of change. Here where there are four seasons, there’s a clock behind it yet…

The clock of fall arrives today/tomorrow and freezing is forecast. I’ve covered the tomatoes and had a long talk with my now 12+ foot tall beans as well as taking in the dried pods filled with next year’s beans. I also saw, to my surprise, new growth, small leaves coming out in several spots. This hasn’t happened in a while, but now I understand that with some pods ripened, my beans are ready to put out more.

All their energy has gone into this for the past six weeks:

My beans are not Chinese. They originated in the mountains of Mexico and Central America. Because “Scarlet Emperor” beans sounded so very Chinese that my first beans — four years ago? were named for Chinese emperors. After that? Chinese writers — Cao Xue Xin and Li Bai. The next year — last year — I named them all for Tang Dynasty Chinese Poets. They were a huge help during the lockdown and it was wonderful letting them “speak” through “their poetry” on my blog. As beans, they were amazing and brave, surviving an early snowstorm (with my help). This year I planted their offspring. Along with the poets, there are a couple of fiction writers. Lao She (who killed himself during the Cultural Revolution) succumbed partly to frost, down to the root in June, but recovered, to my total amazement. He was the first to produce ripe seeds for next year. Pearl Buck has been the most prolific and she was one of two beans I was able to successfully cover from spring frost in June. The rest? Li Bai, Tu Fu, Li Ho suffered some frost damage or were replaced by beans I stuck into the ground have all done well. Wang Wei went out as a 3 inch plant and was easily covered when necessary. He has all done very very well. Today he gave me three pods. There are two beans who sprouted in the garden from seeds that I haven’t named.

So, with these lovely and inspiring beings out there acting with perfect faith in the future, I wish everyone a Happy Mid-Autumn Festival. It is the festival of remembering distant friends, and since the past year and half have increased the distance between us, it could be everyone. Here is my celebratory post. I hope you enjoy it.


Quiet Night Thoughts
Li Bai, Tang Dynasty (1300 years ago…)

床前明月光
疑是地上霜
举头望明月
低头思故乡

Moonlight before my bed
Like frost on the ground.
Lifting my head, I see the moon,
Lowering my head, I miss my home.

***

The canals between the rows of cabbages reflect the full moon. I ride my “Wu Yang,” a locally made “Five Rams” bike. Flash, flash, flash—the moon, the dark, the moon, the dark, the moon shines from the still water. Beside me dark lorries roll, their headlights dimmed. The bicycle has the right of way. Mist sifts across the road between the white-painted trunks of eucalyptus trees. The moon in south China is not the moon anywhere else. Even poets have said so.

“Teacher, why are you smiling?”

“Because I’m here. I’m teaching and I’m in China.”

“You’re smiling because you are here? Or do you laugh at our poor English?”

I am stunned. “You speak English well.”

“No, no we don’t. We know our English is very poor.”

“No, truly, it’s very good.”

“You are being kind. Our English is poor.”

I do not yet know about the trap of Chinese humility.

“Don’t you miss your home?”

I think momentarily of the Rocky Mountains and a few friends, but no. Ever since reading Richard Halliburton’s travel adventure books from my mother’s library I have wanted to go on “the royal road to romance.” That my first road led to a Chinese university was a stroke of good luck I never could have imagined. I smile constantly and this makes my students suspicious.

“I’m happy. I love China. I love to teach.”

“How can you love China and love America?”

What is patriotism? My own country could not possibly give me THIS opportunity. I am my own world.

“I love them both.”

“And us?”

I look behind me at the large character poster above the chalkboard. “Noble Spirit, Proud Beauty,” it says in English.

***

“The Moon Festival is the festival of distant family and friends,” I am told by one of my graduate students. “The Chinese eat round things because they look like the moon. The children carry moon-shaped lanterns. We recite poetry and think of people far away. We know our relatives and friends at home are doing the same, so though we are far away from each other, we look at the same moon. You will love it.” 

Outside the door to my apartment I find an ornately decorated box. Inside are mooncakes, a gift from my students. They are filled with red bean paste with a perfect round egg yolk in the center. The moon.

***

Just a week later I take the train to Hong Kong to meet up with two friends from Colorado, one a wealthy old man I am fond of; the other is my former boss who is traveling with him. My old friend was born in China, near Tianjin. His father was a missionary for the YMCA. His family left China during the Japanese invasion. The old man sends me out to find some cotton undershirts for him and a cane. He has just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and walking is increasingly difficult. On my way back to the ship, I stop in a bakery and buy mooncakes. When I hand him the brightly printed shopping bag with its picture of the Moon Goddess, Chang O, his eyes glow with pleasure. “Oh my, oh, Martha! Mooncakes! I have not had these since I was a child.” Time and memory distill in his blue eyes and slide down his channeled cheeks. His hand reaches for mine.

***

There is no way for me to go back. Even the boy who carried my heavy trunk up three flights of stairs to my apartment is now a man in his sixties who writes me from Toronto telling me how Qi-Gong helps him with his aches and pains. I remember his stories of the Cultural Revolution when he was sent north to work in a machine shop in Luoyang. He spent ten years in mind-numbing drudgery staying up late to learn English from the Voice of America. His ancestry was mixed, his mother bourgeois, his father a poor peasant, a Party member. When the Gang of Four was overthrown, he was too old for college, so he worked as an interpreter, assistant, and spy for the Wai-Shi Ban, Foreigner’s Office, at my university. I helped him come to the U.S. to study and he got a B.A. from NYU. 

“Dear Sister,” he writes in an email. “You are a better Chinese than me. I forgot Mid-Autumn Festival! Thank you for your good wishes!”

***

Time and space are not convergent only at the outer edge of the universe; they converge everywhere, every moment. I search the Internet looking for cheap tickets to China. I imagine going back when I retire, but with perfect certainty I know there is no way. 

China is a bus on which I am riding that has stopped for no reason on Chong-Shan Wu Lu (5 Sun Yat-Sen Road) in downtown Guangzhou on a late spring afternoon. Through the window I see a public telephone. It is an old black phone on a wooden desk in front of a building. A Chinese man in glasses and a white shirt sits behind the desk taking tickets from people waiting for their turn to make a call to someone far away. In the shadows, I notice a tall, dignified, white-haired, blue-eyed, white man in a blue silk padded coat. He is leaning against a building as all the raging race of China’s modernization passes in front of him. We make eye contact for a fraction of a second before he abruptly turns and goes inside. That is China; that man, that blue coat, that furtive moment, and now it is something else.

*Originally published in Business Communication Quarterly Volume: 70 issue,188-191 June 1, 2007. Now included in As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder.