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)

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.

Shui Hu Chuan and the Scarlet Emperor Beans

In a little while my side kicks and I will head over the mountain to experience all the wonders of the civilized world. Huh?

The beans in the featured photo — all but one — came from Pearl Buck but one from Tu Fu. If you ever doubt that nature is a clock, think about this. I ate the first beans from my plants last year on exactly the same date.

Old printed version of the Shui Hu Chuan



Among Pearl Buck’s achievements was the translation of one of the all time great novels written anywhere, Shui Hu Chuan or The Water Margin which she translated and titled All Men Are Brothers (she hoped…) The novel — written in the 14th century — is said to have been written by Shi Nai An, but as Pearl Buck writes in her introduction, “Like many of the Chinese novels it developed rather than was written, and to this day the final author is unknown.” About Shi Nai An, “…little is known…” It’s almost like Shakespeare, the debate about who really wrote this monumental work. Pearl Buck writes, “One Chinese scholar at least gives as authority for Lo Kuan Chung’s (author of the Three Kingdoms) the fact that Shui Hu Chuan is so evil a book that the curse was laid upon the author that for three generations his descendants were to be deaf and dumb and sine for three generations Lo Kuan Chung’s descendants were deaf and dub therefore he must be the author.”

Shui Hu Chuan was banned. Booksellers who sold it had their businesses destroyed. Moral education has always (apparently) been a “thing” in China.

But it’s an amazing story. Some people say it’s the “Chinese Robinhood,” but I only see a very superficial similarity there. There are “robbers” and they are better men than the so-called “good” guys. Chinese authors in the olden times wrote for different reasons than we usually think of authors writing. They often wrote to entertain themselves (I get that) and may have read their stories to friends for their entertainment. Since fiction was forbidden, it couldn’t really have another purpose. Shi Nai An wrote in his preface (we’ll just go along with the idea that he wrote the book):

“In this book are seventy chapters. When my friends were gone and I sat alone under the lamp, I wrote in idleness. At time when the wind blew and the rains fell and no one came then also did I write.”

These old Chinese novels don’t follow a linear structure, but tend to be episodic in nature which, personally, I like a lot. Sometimes that line Western literature seems compelled to follow seems arbitrary. I don’t see my life as having been linear, but a string of episodes, many of which really were/are pretty random. The “story” of Shui Hu Chuan is difficult to summarize but basically it’s the story of a rebellion against a corrupt government, but the rebels are a pretty sketchy bunch themselves, though extremely lovable. Song Jiang, their leader, is a true hero. Among his many gifts is the ability to write good poetry.

One of the stories in Shui Hu Chuan — the story of Wu Song who was an amazing hero and compelling character — was taken as the beginning of another long novel, Chin Ping Mei, Plum Blossom in a Golden Vase, written in the 16th century. This book was also banned, but for obscenity. Pearl Buck alludes to this book in one of her novels, Pavilion of Women.

Shui Hu Chuan is still a best seller in China. It’s been made into movies, cartoons, comic books and a video game. When I was in China, it was sold on the street in what I guess we’d call graphic novels and the little kids LOVED the stories. I do too. There are tigers, halberds, horses, mountains, cudgels, poetry, beautiful (but evil) women, cannibalism, inescapable destiny, and magic. It’s probably the perfect story. 😉

Scarlet Empire Bean Update

Pearl Buck — one of the three Scarlet Emperor Beans in my garden who survived the spring frost — has lived up to her name. I guess most people who’ve heard of Pearl Buck know The Good Earth but maybe not that she adopted a lot of children or that there’s an organization even now in her name, Pearl S. Buck. She adopted seven children and fostered many, many more. It seems only right that Pearl Buck, the Scarlet Emperor Bean, has more flowers on it than I’ve seen on a bean in my four years of growing them. Pearl Buck was also a very prolific writer. So, not only did Pearl Buck, the Scarlet Emperor Bean, make it through two frosts, but she’s living up to her name in other ways.



I wasn’t self-motivated to learn about Pearl Buck. My thesis advisor, Dr. Richardson, said, when I got home from China, “Why don’t you write a book about Pearl Buck?” It was a good idea. I’ve always been interested in popular literature as opposed to the arty-farty stuff (some of which I like, too). Before I started the project, I hadn’t even read The Good Earth. And Pearl Buck had — this is my assessment based on reading most of what she wrote — never loved anything as much as she loved China. I started reading and writing and, in my old trunk, is a manuscript discussing Pearl S. Buck as part of the Chinese literary tradition. There’s a good case for that, but, really, who cares? It was the first book I ever attempted and most of the time I had no idea what I was doing.

Other people have since written “that” book.

I did have a fancy typewriter that would delete whole sentences if I told it to as well as making corrections. It had a little micro-processor, I think. About two years into that project, when I was living in San Diego near Balboa Park, some guys moved into the apartment above ours (me and the good-X) He was (as was the Good X) a computer guy and he had a Macintosh. “You want to borrow it while I’m in Japan?” he asked one day. “It’ll make your work a lot easier.”

I was hooked.

Still, there was no Internet. Old time research was a lot more colorful and less a matter of finding answers. I did my research in the library at San Diego State and at the public library in San Diego where I found everything I wanted in 3-D form, actual old Asia magazines. I had a nice little file box to carry my 3 x 5 cards on which I wrote notes and quotations. It was a serene way to do research with elements of discovery that no longer exist. It’s really NOT the same to “Google” something as it was to sit at a long library table in the late afternoon with a stack of old magazines from WW II. And, then, too, there’s this.

Pearl Buck’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech which I stole from the San Diego Public Library. No one ever said anything about it…



It was from these magazines I learned about WW II, beyond what I was taught in school or the fragmentary stories of my dad and uncles. I learned that the Japanese attempted to conquer China (never learned that in school) and then, in great detail, of the Rape of Nanjing. The magazine was Asia Magazine and its main push was to involve the United States in helping China eject the Japanese. It wasn’t successful, but Pearl Buck and her husband were the owners/editors, and I know from reading through every issue that Pearl Buck was desperate to save the place she viewed as “her” country.

Pearl Buck grew up in China, the daughter of a Presbyterian missionary. There were few trips back to the United States, and China was home. Besides being taught at home by her mother, she had a Chinese tutor. At the time she returned to the United States, she was teaching at Nanjing University.

That she was in the United States at all was the result of a combination of things — but one was the whirlwind of the Japanese invasion of China. Two years after she left, the Japanese would occupy Nanjing in the most horrific way. Pearl Buck wrote graphically about that, an event that may have escaped the notice of most Americans who were struggling with the Great Depression. China must have seemed very far away. Pearl Buck’s impassioned plea for American intervention seems to have been not much more than singing in the wind.

I visited her house in Pennsylvania back in the 1980s. I’d read about her house and how and why it was designed in a certain way, notably that her desk looked out a window onto a Chinese style garden. When I went into her office and looked out the window, I saw what she had done to assuage her life-long homesickness for China. She truly saw “China” through those windows.

She sought a visa to return to China in 1972 after Nixon’s visit, but her attacks on Chairman Mao had made her persona non grata in the PRC. It wasn’t until 1992 that she was “rehabilitated” and allowed to “return”. Of course, by then she was dead, but perhaps the most important part of a writer’s life is the books, the legacy of their ideas, transcribed and shared. You can read about it here: Pearl Buck’s Return to the Good Earth.

But what did she say about writing? That had the longest-lasting effect on me.

“[writing] is a process proceeding from within. It is the heightened activity of every cell of [the writer’s] being, which sweeps not only himself, but all human life about him, in him, in his dreams, into the circle of its activity. From the product of this activity, art is deducted, but not by [the writer]. The process which creates is not the process that deduces the shapes of art. The defining of art…is a secondary not a primary process…for the novelist the only element is human life as he finds it in himself or outside himself.” Pearl S. Buck, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

Why I stole the book…