Didn’t you just love O-lan?

Deborah Friedell

  • Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck’s Life in China by Hilary Spurling
    Profile, 340 pp, £15.00, April 2010, ISBN 978 1 86197 828 8

Pearl Buck was the favourite novelist of both my grandmothers, which like their shingle haircuts and their trust in authority, their Coca-Cola brisket, has always seemed an example of the unassimilable foreignness of their lives to mine. An entire generation fell in love with Buck: they made her dozens of books international bestsellers and gave her the Nobel Prize. No writer was more often translated or, while she lived, more admired. No writer since Marco Polo has done more to shape how the West thinks about China. ‘What Dickens had done for London’s 19th-century poor,’ Hilary Spurling writes in her new biography, ‘Pearl Buck did for the working people of 20th-century China,’ with American affinity for the Chinese swelling just as Japan invaded the mainland. It didn’t last, of course, any more than Buck’s literary reputation lasted; but Spurling gives a sense of how it came about.

Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker Buck was the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries from West Virginia who saw themselves as divine farmers and the heathens of Zhenjiang as so many ‘fields ripe for the harvest’. Protestant missions to China had begun in the early 19th century and were spectacularly ineffectual, supposedly taking 18 years to win their first native-born convert. Buck saw this as evidence of Chinese sagacity: why should they worship a god so obviously less powerful than their own, who couldn’t even save himself from execution? As an adult, she would call for an end to foreign missions, whose leaders she dismissed as ‘narrow, uncharitable, unappreciative, ignorant’, ‘lacking in sympathy for the people they were supposed to be saving, so scornful of any civilisation except their own, so harsh in their judgments upon one another, so coarse and insensitive among a sensitive and cultivated people’. Fighting Angel (1936), one of her strangest and best books, is a portrait of her father as a fanatic, yelling on street corners, passing out pamphlets to people incapable of reading them. Unable to save souls, he longed for martyrdom, nearly succeeding during the Boxer Rebellion. She was ashamed of him and feared him; comfort was to be found with her Chinese amah and playmates, and she married as soon as she could.

Her first, unsatisfactory husband was a hearty New York agricultural statistician, whose main attraction was that he was ‘not at all religious so far as I could see’. To research his first books on farm economy they interviewed peasants around the country, with Pearl serving as her husband’s translator. At first, she found the exercise just one more example of cultural arrogance: ‘I had often wondered secretly what a young American could teach the Chinese farmers who had been farming for generations on the same land and by the most skilful use of fertilisers and irrigation were still able to produce extraordinary yields.’ But farmers welcomed conversations about seed varieties and pesticides more readily than talk about Jesus. She romanticised them from the start: ‘They were the ones … who made the least money and did the most work. They were the most real, the closest to the earth, to birth and death, to laughter and weeping.’ John Lossing Buck determined that 79 per cent of the Chinese labour force were farmers, with an average family farm of 2.62 acres. (In the United States, 40 acres had always been seen as the minimum for subsistence farming, as in ‘40 acres and a mule’.) This ‘hand-to-mouth existence works very well in normal years,’ he wrote, ‘but in years of low crop yields it is often a hard-won race with starvation before the first cutting of barley in spring.’ From this research came The Good Earth (1931), the story of Wang Lung the farmer, who survives pestilence, floods and famine, who grows rich because of the impossible sacrifices of his wife, O-lan, the kind of woman who gives birth in the morning, silently and alone, and is back hoeing wheat fields by afternoon. (‘“So you have chosen this time to breed again, have you?” She answered stoutly. “This time it is nothing. It is only the first that is hard.”’) Other farmers buy their shoes in town; ‘Wang Lung’s woman made all the shoes for himself and for the old man and for her own feet and the child.’ If a jar leaked, ‘she did not, as other women did, cast it aside and talk of a new one. Instead she mixed earth and clay and welded the crack and heated it slowly and it was as good as new.’ When she finds two pearls, she gives them to her husband so he can take a concubine; when her children are starving, she kills her newborn daughter so that the others might survive. ‘Didn’t you just love O-lan?’ Oprah once asked her bookclubbers.

The success of the early books, Spurling concedes, was ‘not in spite but because of their bland, trite, ingratiating mass-market techniques’: all the exoticism of China, but in the style of the popular American novel, with its valorisation of land ownership and female sacrifice.

‘It is the end of a family – when they begin to sell the land,’ he said brokenly. ‘Out of the land we came and into it we must go – and if you will hold your land you can live – no one can rob you of land.’

Everybody wants a little bit of land, not much. Jus’ somethin’ that was his. Somethin’ he could live on and there couldn’t nobody throw him off of it.

‘Land is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything,’ he shouted, his thick, short arms making wide gestures of indignation, ‘for ’tis the only thing in this world that lasts and don’t you be forgetting it! ’Tis the only thing worth working for, worth fighting for – worth dying for.’

The first of these quotations is from the end of The Good Earth. The second is from Of Mice and Men, the last from Gone with the Wind. The argument is the same in each, but Buck doesn’t sound like Steinbeck or Mitchell or Dreiser, or anyone else. She had grown up bilingual, but thought most easily in vernacular Mandarin, and admitted that she was never comfortable writing in idiomatic English. Critics thought that too many childhood Bible stories had stilted her sentences: ‘He ate and drank of his love and he feasted alone and he was satisfied’ is how she describes a man with a prostitute. But readers admired the King James cadences: this was what great literature was supposed to sound like. Spurling, like some of Buck’s other biographers, charitably suggests that she first thought through her books in Chinese, translating as she went along; what sounds biblical is actually an attempt to represent Chinese characters.

When Buck won the Nobel Prize in 1938 (‘Wo pu hsiang,’ she said. ‘I don’t believe it’), she thought it was a gesture of support for the Kuomintang: ‘Oh how sore this is going to make the Japanese!!!’ a friend telegraphed. But China sent no delegates to Stockholm: Chinese literature relied on set forms and stock phrases, which Buck had ignored, and she made their country seem ugly. Where were the cedar groves, imperial palaces, dynastic temples, jade the size of sparrows’ eggs, plum blossoms dancing in the wind? Where were the slender maids with eyes like a painted phoenix and eyebrows like willow leaves? O-lan’s ‘hair was rough and brown and unoiled’, ‘her face was large and flat and coarse-skinned, and her features too large altogether and without any sort of beauty or light.’ For gargoyle value, the New Republic found ‘an Oriental’ to review the novel, who refused to sanction it: how could Wang Lung possibly have questioned O-lan’s chastity before their marriage? ‘A woman is always a virgin when she marries in China … Since Mrs Buck does not understand the meaning of the Confucian separation of man’s kingdom from that of woman, she is like someone trying to write a story of the European middle ages without understanding the rudiments of chivalric standards and the institutions of Christianity.’

Buck was gracious; she didn’t protest; she wrote a novel, Kinfolk (1950), about a Chinese professor living in splendour on the Upper West Side who is dismissive whenever Americans suggest that China is troubled: ‘An unfortunate impression … due, I am afraid, to bestsellers about China – written by Americans. A very limited point of view, naturally. It is quality that is meaningful in any nation, the articulate few, the scholars. Surely men like myself represent more perfectly than peasants can the spirit of China.’ His American-born children are charmed by his vision of China as ‘one beautiful cloud of Confucianism’, and so decide to return to their native land – to find themselves surprised by ‘so many poor, so many dirty, so many ignorant people’. Kinfolk was published just after the Communist takeover, and though the new government would have no quarrel with stories about poor peasants, they wouldn’t allow Buck to re-enter the country. She ‘contradicts Marxist theories by regarding China’s poor and rich as individuals rather than as members of opposed classes’, officials decided, and she had said too much about her preference, however qualified, for Chiang Kai-shek. She was denounced as an imperialist, and her books were forbidden, though pirated versions proliferated anyway.

The longer she stayed away from China, the more she came to sentimentalise the hardships she’d known there: wasn’t the lonely American housewife less well off than the Chinese women without washing machines, who ‘chatter and laugh together while they beat their garments with a wooden paddle upon a flat rock’? Her childhood letters are full of bandits, but in her memoir, My Several Worlds (1954), she remembers that ‘in the world of our hills and valleys and even in the city we needed no police.’ In China, family and clans took care of children whose parents died; there were no insane asylums, because families cared for all their members; ‘as a matter of fact’, the Chinese produce fewer insane people than elsewhere, because ‘the family system provided individual security without disgrace and thus removed one of the main causes for modern insanity, the lost individual.’ There was no need for social security: ‘again, the family as a whole cared for its members who were jobless.’ Buck tried to convince American readers that the Chinese were their natural allies. Indeed, she argued, Americans were more like the Chinese than the British: they shared a ‘continental mindset’, were pragmatic, materialistic, ‘instinctively democratic’, whereas the British were more like the Japanese, authoritarian islanders, insular and repressed, intent on domination, overwhelmed, like Germany, by homosexuals.

Spurling is one of the most prominent biographers to have argued that ‘what we need now is a shorter, tighter, more sharply focused form,’ and her book tautly covers only what was most interesting about her subject. By focusing on China, Spurling is able to skim over the years when Buck became her own spokesperson, the celebrated author of Pearl S. Buck’s Oriental Cookbook. She gave herself over to good causes, writing articles, giving speeches and launching fundraising appeals for famine relief, disarmament, women’s rights, desegregation of the armed forces, Indian independence, the liberation of Korea. When adoption agencies refused to place a mixed-race infant she’d heard about, ‘I started my own damn agency’ – the first international, inter-racial adoption agency in the United States, still in existence. Critics who had cooled to her books said they felt guilty putting her down: she was just such a good lady. The best thing about Spurling’s focus is that it allows her to glide over most of Buck’s books – about India, Russia, Germany, Korea, American sculptresses who can’t decide between perfection of the life or the work, mountaineers who find that fame’s not what it’s cracked up to be – which other biographers have sifted sufficiently already. (My maternal grandmother always claimed that Peony was Buck’s best novel, but that’s probably because it’s the one that says nice things about Jews: ‘Leah was good, one of those rare creatures born both beautiful and good together.’)

Spurling’s method also allows her not to dwell on the dreariness of Buck’s personal life – all the men who let her down, including a Svengali dance instructor, 40 years her junior, whom she gave control of her estate – and her almost pathological guilt after she put her daughter, Carol, in an institution when an untreated metabolic disorder led to severe mental retardation. Buck was unable to have any other children – though by the end of her life she had adopted seven – and thought literary success a poor substitute for the life she really wanted. ‘I would gladly have written nothing if I could have just an average child in Carol. Average children seem such a wonderful joy to me – I wouldn’t ask for a clever, bright child if I could have had her just average.’ According to Buck’s definitive biographer, Peter Conn, on the way to the Nobel Prize ceremony she told her sister that she would ‘much rather be having a baby than going to Sweden’: ‘Nothing means overwhelmingly much to me, since the fundamental inevitable for me must remain inevitable.’

And yet, in old age, it gave her pleasure to think that she had been a bridge to the East. When Harold Isaacs surveyed his countrymen for Scratches on Our Minds: American Views of China and India (1958), he found that for most Americans, the book or the film of The Good Earth had been the ‘major source of their impressions’ of the Chinese. ‘China was a place on the map to me with 400 million people who wore inverted dishpans for hats, rode rickshaws and ate rice with chopsticks. Then I read The Good Earth. Pearl Buck made people out of the Chinese for me,’ said one respondent, who might as well have been speaking for all of them. Isaacs’s survey found that Americans now thought of the Chinese as being like Wang Lung and O-lan: ‘persevering’, ‘practical’, ‘hardworking’. One set of stereotypes had been replaced by another.