Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Part 7

Where we left off yesterday: Fiction seemed to open doors to the future. Like fiction everywhere, Chinese fiction provided a mirror of human experience, and may have played a part in bringing about the end of Confucian dialectics, especially works such as The Scholars and Hong Lou Meng.


Chinese fiction has particular heroes/protagonists. There is the Confucian rebel, a muscle-man, who might also be a scholar. Such a hero is Song Jiang in the Shui Hu Chuan. Song is the model of filial piety, risking his life to see that his father is well and supplied with all the things he needs. In spite of his disappointment in government and its officials, when the emperor asks Song Jiang to lead his gang against the enemies of China, the Tartars, Song Jiang does what he emperor requests. This kind of hero is the kind of hero Western readers can understand and appreciate.

Bao-yu, the hero in Hong Lou Meng, is a different type, but such characters do exist in the western tradition. He is an intelligent, pleasant, interesting man who sees nothing of value in what society thinks is important. He is “disillusioned” in the Buddhist/Taoist sense of the word. Bao-yu is, in fact, an immortal and knows nothing on the earth is permanent, that all things pass away, which makes it difficult for him to adapt even though he doesn’t remember his origins as an unneeded piece of jade used to build the sky. All he knows is that what everyone wants him to do seems stupid and futile. His actions look like rebellion against the family system and Confucian scholarship. To Jia-Zheng, Bao-yu’s father and honorable official, and to the rest of his human family, Bao-yu seems lazy because he doesn’t apply himself to studying the things he should. In hopes that Bao-yu’s life won’t be a total disgrace, Jia-Zheng takes him to the schoolmaster:

I have come here today,” he [Bao-yu’s father] began, “because I felt the need to entrust my son to you personally, and with a few words of instruction. He is no longer a child, and if he is to shoulder his responsibilities and earn a place in the world, it is high time he applied himself conscientiously to preparing for his exams. At home, he spends all his time idling about in the company of children. His verses, the only field in which he has acquired any competence, are for the most part turgid juvenilia at their best, romantic trifles, devoid of substance… For the present I would humbly suggest a course of reading and exegesis of primary scriptural texts, and plenty of compositions. If he should show the least sign of being a recalcitrant pupil, I earnestly beseech you to take him in hand and in so doing to save him from a shallow and wasted life.

On this note he rose, and with a bow and a few parting remarks, took his leave… when [the teacher] returned to the classroom, Bao-yu was already sitting at a small rosewood desk in the southwest corner of the room, by the window. He had two sets of texts and a meagre-looking volume of model compositions stacked in a pile on his right… “We must see to it that you apply yourself with zeal from now on.” (Cao Xueqin, Hong Lou Meng)

What does Bao-yu really think of all this? Well, considering that Bao-yu is essentially a piece of jade, not a mortal, his feeling that the whole thing is stupid seems reasonable. But, unlike the reader, the other characters in the story don’t know Bao-yu’s true identity. This creates an interesting tension within the story. The family’s reactions illustrate an idea which had long existed in Chinese life and is one of the reasons for the schism between fiction and “literature.” Important things are serious; anything that is not serious cannot be important. 

Bao-yu, a being outside the “red dust” (the transient reality in which sentient beings live), is able to see, with the eyes of an immortal, what is and what is not important. The scholarly life is not important. What’s important is the here and now and doing what he likes. He knows that the people he knows and loves are fated to pass out of his life soon and forever which it’s important for him to spend every possible moment with them.

Carved onto the rejected jade from which Bao-yu originally came is this verse:

Unfit to mend the azure sky,
I passed some years on earth to no avail;
My life in both worlds is recorded here;
Whom can I ask to pass on this romantic tale?

Hong Lou Meng (trans. Gladys Yang)

The wonder of it is that now Hong Lou Meng is, itself, an object of intense scholarship. My favorite in this short and random list is, “Towards a New Paradigm of Redology.”


I’m kind of sorry younger Martha didn’t finish this project, but I can see why. It’s huge and her credibility was/is questionable.

I’m stopping here. Looking forward at the last two pages of this thing, I see it just peters out. I wonder where it all went. I remember writing about the anti-Japanese war and the May Fourth Movement and the struggle to create a written Chinese language that could be taught more easily to people, but it’s no where to be found. Could I start writing it now? I don’t know. The world has moved on and I have moved on, too. The only thing from this I understand better than I did at 36 is that Bao-yu was right, but so were a lot of other guys all around the world from many generations… “Drink! for you know not whence you came nor why: drink! for you know not why you go, nor where…” The Rubaiyatt of Omar Khayyam.

The jade pendant in the featured photo was a gift from a student in San Diego, the first student from the PRC that I taught in the US. The words are, “Bamboo whispers peace.” I felt very guilty about this gift and gave her a Navajo pendant made of Montana moss agate. There’s nothing kenspeckle about any of this, I’m afraid.


And now I’ve found more… Women in Chinese fiction and Pearl Buck. Shui Hu Chuan. More. I think it can all wait forever or until I get interested again.

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.

Heavy Blue Notebook

In a conversation with myself yesterday (I know, I know) I thought of this big blue old-school notebook and said, “You should just type that stuff up and put it into a book with the other little books in your Chinese cabinets.” So I dug it out of the old trunk that came over from somewhere with someone in my family and looked at it.

It’s the Pearl Buck project that I never finished. The notebook itself is an interesting relic — it and the printer paper which is that paper that had holes on both sides. Some of it is on regular legal sheets where I had typed it with my electronic typewriter. It was a cool typewriter with enough memory to erase a whole line of typing. The printer appeared when my neighbor loaned me his MacIntosh computer and printer while he was out of the country. He had to talk me into it, saying, “You’ll like it” to my “I don’t see why I need a computer.” This was 1985. Along with the project is a small file box filled with index cards with sources and annotations. That has been retyped onto some of these pages.

Looking at it yesterday I see I got lost in the project and it veered from Pearl Buck to Chinese literature. It wasn’t a total detour since the thesis of the project is that Pearl Buck is at least as much a representative of the Chinese literary tradition as the Western.

Though she spent her childhood and much of her adulthood in China, she was not allowed to return in 1972 when she applied. She had refugeed to the US in 1934 during the Anti-Japanese War. In recent years, she’s been “redeemed” in China.

[Pearl S. Buck] remained a Communist Party non-person until, in 1991, anticipating the centenary of her birth the following year, a group of Chinese scholars committed to the importance of her representations of China, proposed a national conference to re-consider her work and legacy. The proposal was approved by the provincial authorities in Jiangsu, where Buck had lived through most of her years in China, but then quashed at the ministerial level in Beijing. In 1997, another proposal was — how shall I put it? — semi-approved: Buck could be discussed but not named in the conference title. Instead, discussions of Buck’s writing were smuggled in under the rubric “Chinese-American Literary Relations.”(Peter Conn, “What the Remarkable Legacy of Pearl Buck Still Means for China” Atlantic Monthly, 2012)

It might have been that my little project could have “mattered,” if I’d finished it but two things came in the way, the major one was technology the secondary one (which was related to the first) was marriage. My neighbor came back, reclaimed his computer and printer, and I was left with the typewriter that was no long sufficient. The Good-X and I went shopping for a computer. I wanted a Mac. After all, my work was saved on disks the Mac could read (imagine that, disks…) But he was a Commodore fan and wanted me to have an Amiga, and as he was the breadwinner, he won. I began the task of retyping the whole thing (god forbid that computer systems in 1988 were universal) and gave up.

Thinking about that now, I wonder why the Good X who wasn’t going to actually USE that computer had anything to say about it at all? Just because he was a programmer? Hmmmm…

Anyway, “my” book has since been written and in China which is awesome and how it should be. But I was wondering; would you all go crazy if for a while you read something about Pearl Buck every time you opened my blog? I promise; it’s interesting and strange. And, if Bear, Teddy and I have a good ramble I will interrupt this program for a word from my sponsor (me). I need a project, and this seems like a good one. And, when I finish, I can jettison the historical notebook and its contents, lightening the old trunk by a good 7 pounds.

Szu-ma Chien, Scarlet Emperor Bean

I’m finally learning “who” these beans are. Four poets and a historian. Since plants are not ego-driven by identity and originality, welcome the return of Li Bai, Tu Fu, Bai Juyi, and Li Ho. The fifth is the great historian, Szu-ma Chien. Wang Wei is still in the house as are his compatriots who are 20th century Chinese writers, including Pearl S. Buck. Why? you ask — reasons will unfold soon enough.

So who is Szu-ma Chien and why is he included now?

Sometimes when you’re involved in learning things you find a hero and as I was trying to figure out where in the world I’d been for a year in the People’s Republic of China, and reading all the history I could, I hit on Ssu-ma Chien and found him to be one of the most amazing, brave and noble men I’d ever “met.” So, what was his story?

I bought Selections from Records of the Historian on September 4, 1982, soon after my arrival in Guangzhou, probably at the Youyi Bingguan or Friendship Store. I don’t think I read it, though, until I got back to Colorado the next year. I bought it because the introduction said, “The Records of the Historian, written two-thousand years ago by Szuma Chien of the Han Dynasty, is the greatest historical work China has produced. Thanks to Szuma Chien’s rich experience of life, his enlightened approach to history and his brilliance as a man of letters, he was able to make a discriminating selection of material and to write a new form of history.”

So what happened to him that made him “noble” “brave” and so on? He offended the Emperor by defending a general who had “been defeated in battle and had surrendered to the Huns. For this he was punished by imprisonment and castration.” In Chinese culture castration was worse than death and most men would have taken their own lives rather than suffer the shame of castration; face was everything and a man without, uh, you know, male parts had no “face”. So why didn’t he kill himself? Because his recording of history was more important than his pride. Stopping work? No. He continued writing while he was imprisoned. The humiliation didn’t end there but in a paradoxical honor. In 96 BCE he “…was pardoned and appointed palace secretary, a post slightly higher than grand historian (his former post) but one usually held by eunuchs. Humiliated and distressed, he nevertheless went on writing the history and completed the work in 91 BCE when he was 55.” (Records of the Historian, preface by Wang Po-hsiang)

Szu-ma Chien inspired me to think about my own work seriously, to consider if I would accept such a horrible punishment and humiliation just to keep writing. Szu-ma Chien “told” me I should, that true history told with a living voice, is THAT important.

The book consists of reports and anecdotes of people important both to Chinese history in a large sense and in the smaller sense, to Szu-ma Chien’s time. Szu-ma Chien’s writing (translated by Gladys Yang and Yang Hsien-yi) is energetic, very alive and I think you’ll like it when you finally get to meet the heroic bean who bears his name. I’m going to enjoy looking into this book again!