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.

Hainan Island, Part Five, Mr. Shi and the Vietnam War

I was a kid when the Vietnam War started and it followed me into young adulthood. It was an insoluble problem which, as it happens, my dad was involved in solving. He was a wargamer with the Department of Defense which is why we lived in Nebraska for six years. His job was at Strategic Air Command Headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base. Basically, my life was paid for by the Vietnam War. My dad hated the war, and as his job was using game theory to predict various outcomes, and none of the outcomes were good, he was constantly advising the Joint Chiefs of Staff (under JFK) that getting out was a good idea. Good idea, but not very “politic.” It was during JFK’s reign that the US became entrenched in a losing battle.

This went on for years and years and years. We moved to Colorado, dad went to work for NORAD (North American Air Defense Command) and I went to high school, joined speech club (which included debate) and, naturally the topic was whether the US should get out of Vietnam. It wasn’t just debate. There were protests everywhere against the war. Young men left the country to avoid the draft. Others came up with medical conditions to get out of it. Others were legitimate conscientious objectors. Many got a deferment by going to college. Some joined ROTC so they could be officers when they went. Others just joined up. Many more were drafted. The war split the country, alienated family members and changed the nation. Why do we have an all-volunteer military now? So no one can bitch about a war. That’s why.


After the opera we all went to Mr. Shi’s new house. The smoke holes flanking his front door were Chinese characters (featured image), two characters for each smoke hole. They said, “Self-Reliance.” I, of course, heard Ralph Waldo Emerson, but apparently he was quoting Chairman Mao. The explanation for this was very interesting and complicated. Mr. Shi was sending two messages with those smoke holes. One, “I am a good Chinese” the other “I don’t trust any of you. I will take care of myself.”

Mr. Shi was a Malaysian Chinese who’d come back with his family to Hainan when Chairman Mao sent out a call for overseas Chinese to return to rebuild the Fatherland. During the 50’s Mr. Shi worked hard to rebuild the village of All Beauty and worked as a teacher. He had a good education and he spoke English. While English wasn’t desirable at the time, there were times when it was good for the Party to have someone around who could speak and read it. Then came the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and anyone who spoke English or had an overseas background was suspect. Mr. Shi was arrested, imprisoned and tortured. His wife died.

A common story, but continually shocking to me how people spoke of it matter-of-factly because it was an experience shared by so many. “Yes, yes, those were hard times.”

Mr. Shi took us inside, lit the kerosene lamp and offered us coffee. Hainan Coffee is incredible, and I wanted it, but not at night. He made it anyway. Like Vietnamese coffee, it’s usually drunk with sweetened, condensed milk. I was already not sleeping because of the rat and my nausea, but OH WELL. I’m very happy now for each opportunity I had to drink Hainan Coffee. There are some good stories just about the coffee, and I wish I had some now.

We sat around the table and talked. Mr. Shi told us his story (which I’ve just related) and then the topic went to the problem of the Vietnam War.

China invaded some Vietnamese cities in 1979. The situation was incredibly complicated and even after doing some research into it, I can’t follow the players. It’s enough to say, I think, that it was partly a result of the split between Moscow and Beijing. It involved several Cambodian tribal factions and the Khmer Rouge with whom the Chinese were allies, a relationship that had at least to appear to have been abandoned when China decided to normalize relations with the United States. But for years following, there was a Chinese presence in Vietnam and deadly skirmishes on the border. (The linked article is excellent and says everything I didn’t know back in 1983)

It was also something no one was supposed to talk about. But we were on Hainan Island only a few hundred miles away from the border where the action was taking place.

I sat at Mr. Shi’s table in the lamp light and listened to the same arguments I’d heard growing up, in high school, on the news, from anti-war *peers and I thought, “What? I’ve traveled so far to hear THIS conversation?”

“What do you think, Ma Sa?”

“There’s no answer to Vietnam,” I said. “Except leaving them alone.”

My response was shrugged off as typically irrelevant foreigner non-comprehension, and I returned to appreciating the irony.

This song says it all…


*Since my dad was working for the DOD, and Vietnam had paid for my life, put food on my table, paid for my education, and because I believe humans are intrinsically belligerent and power hungry, I had no position on the war other than I believed that if a person was old enough to be forced to carry a gun in defense of whatever, that person should be able to vote. At this point in my life, I think the cleverest thing our government has done is make an all-volunteer military and market it as a “job.” It is no longer reasonable to protest a war since the people fighting it joined up on their own free will.

Hainan Island, Part Four, Opera

All Beauty had no electricity, but when the Hainan Opera came to the village for two nights, they brought a generator. The stage in the village (most villages had stages built for propaganda speeches and plays during Mao) was lit, decorated, transformed. Everyone brought chairs and stools from home. For five fen (cents) we bought funnel shaped paper filled with tiny, salted mussels (popcorn?).

As we settled down to watch, an older man with a crew cut, pulled his chair near ours and greeted our friends. He was an English teacher at the local school. Mr. Shi.

The Chinese audience for Chinese opera (or any concert) never gives the artists their full attention, and following this tradition, Zhu, Fu and Mr. Shi were soon engaged in a very animated conversation. The ex and I hopelessly tried to follow the story on the stage. I couldn’t begin to read the “captions” projected on the side of the stage, Chinese characters. I wasn’t fluent enough to keep up. (One of the wonderful aspects of Chinese is that though there are hundreds if not thousands of different languages spoken in China, everyone writes the same way.)

When I asked my friends what was going on in the opera, Zhu said, “It doesn’t matter. It’s just an old culture thing.” Blessings on the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution for that. My friends knew as little as I did about the vivid cacophony on stage

Strangely, maybe, I really liked the opera. The beautiful costumes, the stylized movements punctuated by banging gongs and drums, the makeup, the masks — wondrous. When I came back to the United States I saw several as they traveled the country. My favorite — and the favorite of most Chinese children — is the Monkey King.

Painting of the Monkey King on a ceiling in Beijing

Next — A new angle the Vietnam War

Hainan Island, Part Three: “Ho Gai Da Mi!”

Jim, my ex-husband, likes kids and there were a lot of them in All Beauty. Jim got the idea of learning to say, “What is this?” in Hainanese then letting the kids take him around the village and teach him words.

Everyone was fascinated by his beard. Jim let the kids examine it and then asked them, “Ho gai da mi?”


This went on the our first day on All Beauty. “Ho gai da mi? Ho gai da mi? Ho gai da mi?”

Jim learned words for lots of things. Chest, book, tree, beds, baby, chicken. At dinner the little kids asked their mom/aunt, “They don’t have these things in America? The American doesn’t know what a tree is or a book or anything.”

Our friends told us later and taught Jim to say, “What do you call this?”

I don’t remember that phrase, unfortunately. We did learn a phrase that is absolutely profound and beautiful to express the sensation of having no clue at all about what’s going on, “Ah-kyak-a-looie.” It literally means, “As a baby duck listens to thunder.”

“What Did You Talk About for an Hour with the Old Mother?”

Four Generations

I had some good friends in China but now I know that my best Chinese friend was the old woman in this photo holding the little girl in blue on her lap. She was my friend Zhu’s mother-in-law, simply called, “the old mother.” She was born on Hainan Island, did not speak Mandarin, Cantonese or English. She lived with Zhu and Fu in their one room apartment. Luckily, when their baby was born they got a bigger place to live.

I cannot fully explain our friendship. We just liked each other. One evening I went over to find Zhu. She wasn’t home. I didn’t go back to my apartment, I stayed some time with the old mother looking at movie magazines (in Chinese) and arguing about female beauty as we looked at one movie star after another. I know we were joking. I said I liked every Caucasian actress and she told me all of them were ugly, but especially Ingrid Bergman. We howled laughing. I don’t know why or how, but it was funny in exactly the same way to both of us. All of these women — Asian and Western — were millions of miles away from us.

I liked spending time with her and my friend Zhu always said, “What do you talk about? You have no common language?” I think the truth is that we simply liked each other. I don’t think that’s always a rational thing, that we like someone “because of this and that.” I think sometimes heart speaks to heart.

We were invited to the Old Mother’s village on Hainan for Chinese New Years. The government gave us permission to go. We went on a ship down the Pearl River to the South China Sea, then across the Gulf of Tonkin to Hainan Island. We were in the bottom of the ship with other Chinese passengers. My bunk was 6 inches away from a florescent light that was on all night. When someone asked the old mother why she was traveling with foreigners she said, “What foreigners? This is my son,” she pointed to Jim, “they’ve been studying in America for a long time.”

The saga of that journey is for another post, perhaps, along with other stories about our time on Hainan. But for now know that we made it to the village of All Beauty, Fu’s ancestral village. We even got a rides all the way there (amazing). When we got off the lorry that was our last ride, we had a quarter mile walk to the village. The Old Mother was quite bent from arthritis in her spine caused by the unbelievably hard and colorful life she’d lived, including a stint as a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese in WW II. A few yards from the village she stopped. She slowly forced her back to straighten. She took my hand in a gesture of affection, possession and support and forced herself to walk the rest of the way with her back nearly straight. She would not lose face in front of her relatives this way.

We stayed for a week, and the last night, after a delicious meal, the whole family sat in the main room. Everyone was tired from a week of festivities and conversation and showing the foreigners around. We sat in the dim light of a kerosene lamp that hung from the ceiling. The old mother held my hand. I noticed that people were dozing. The little kids were already asleep. “Sleepy,” I said gesturing around the room. “Sleepy.”

The Old Mother looked around and understood me. “Hoile,” she said. Hainanese for “sleepy.”

“Hoile,” I repeated.

“Sleepy,” she said.