Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth

Hilary Spurling
Pearl Buck with her daughter. Image (partial) found on

As a small child lying awake in bed at night, Pearl grew up listening to the cries of women on the street outside calling back the spirits of their dead or dying babies. In some ways she herself was more Chinese than American.

Excerpted from Chapter 1, Pearl Buck in China: A Journey to the Good Earth by © Hilary Spurling (courtesy Simon & Schuster, June 2010). All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Family of Ghosts

Pearl Sydenstricker was born into a family of ghosts. She was the fifth of seven children and, when she looked back afterward at her beginnings, she remembered a crowd of brothers and sisters at home, tagging after their mother, listening to her sing, and begging her to tell stories. “We looked out over the paddy fields and the thatched roofs of the farmers in the valley, and in the distance a slender pagoda seemed to hang against the bamboo on a hillside,” Pearl wrote, describing a storytelling session on the veranda of the family house above the Yangtse River. “But we saw none of these.” What they saw was America, a strange, dreamlike, alien homeland where they had never set foot. The siblings who surrounded Pearl in these early memories were dreamlike as well. Her older sisters, Maude and Edith, and her brother Arthur had all died young in the course of six years from dysentery, cholera, and malaria, respectively. Edgar, the oldest, ten years of age when Pearl was born, stayed long enough to teach her to walk, but a year or two later he was gone too (sent back to be educated in the United States, he would be a young man of twenty before his sister saw him again). He left behind a new baby brother to take his place, and when she needed company of her own age, Pearl peopled the house with her dead siblings. “These three who came before I was born, and went away too soon, somehow seemed alive to me,” she said.

Every Chinese family had its own quarrelsome, mischievous ghosts who could be appealed to, appeased, or comforted with paper people, houses, and toys. As a small child lying awake in bed at night, Pearl grew up listening to the cries of women on the street outside calling back the spirits of their dead or dying babies. In some ways she herself was more Chinese than American. “I spoke Chinese first, and more easily,” she said. “If America was for dreaming about, the world in which I lived was Asia… I did not consider myself a white person in those days.” Her friends called her Zhenzhu (Chinese for Pearl) and treated her as one of themselves. She slipped in and out of their houses, listening to their mothers and aunts talk so frankly and in such detail about their problems that Pearl sometimes felt it was her missionary parents, not herself, who needed protecting from the realities of death, sex, and violence.

She was an enthusiastic participant in local funerals on the hill outside the walled compound of her parents’ house: large, noisy, convivial affairs where everyone had a good time. Pearl joined in as soon as the party got going with people killing cocks, burning paper money, and gossiping about foreigners making malaria pills out of babies’ eyes. “‘Everything you say is lies,’ I remarked pleasantly… There was always a moment of stunned silence. Did they or did they not understand what I had said? They asked each other. They understood, but could not believe they had.” The unexpected apparition of a small American girl squatting in the grass and talking intelligibly, unlike other Westerners, seemed magical, if not demonic. Once an old woman shrieked aloud, convinced she was about to die now that she could understand the language of foreign devils. Pearl made the most of the effect she produced, and of the endless questions—about her clothes, her coloring, her parents, the way they lived and the food they ate—that followed as soon as the mourners got over their shock. She said she first realized there was something wrong with her at New Year 1897, when she was four and a half years old, with blue eyes and thick yellow hair that had grown too long to fit inside a new red cap trimmed with gold Buddhas. “Why must we hide it?” she asked her Chinese nurse, who explained that black was the only normal color for hair and eyes. (“It doesn’t look human, this hair.”)

Pearl escaped through the back gate to run free on the grasslands thickly dotted with tall pointed graves behind the house. She and her companions, real or imaginary, climbed up and slid down the grave mounds or flew paper kites from the top. “Here in the green shadows we played jungles one day and housekeeping the next.” She was baffled by a newly arrived American, one of her parents’ visitors, who complained that the Sydenstrickers lived in a graveyard. (“That huge empire is one mighty cemetery,” Mark Twain wrote of China, “ridged and wrinkled from its center to its circumference with graves.”) Ancestors and their coffins were part of the landscape of Pearl’s childhood. The big heavy wooden coffins that stood ready for their occupants in her friends’ houses, or lay awaiting burial for weeks or months in the fields and along the canal banks, were a source of pride and satisfaction to farmers whose families had for centuries poured their sweat, their waste, and their dead bodies back into the same patch of soil.

Sometimes Pearl found bones lying in the grass, fragments of limbs, mutilated hands, once a head and shoulder with parts of an arm still attached. They were so tiny she knew they belonged to dead babies, nearly always girls suffocated or strangled at birth and left out for dogs to devour. It never occurred to her to say anything to anybody. Instead she controlled her revulsion and buried what she found according to rites of her own invention, poking the grim shreds and scraps into cracks in existing graves or scratching new ones out of the ground. Where other little girls constructed mud pies, Pearl made miniature grave mounds, patting down the sides and decorating them with flowers or pebbles. She carried a string bag for collecting human remains, and a sharpened stick or a club made from split bamboo with a stone fixed into it to drive the dogs away. She could never tell her mother why she hated packs of scavenging dogs, any more than she could explain her compulsion, acquired early from Chinese friends, to run away and hide whenever she saw a soldier coming down the road.

Soldiers from the hill fort with earthen ramparts above the town were generally indistinguishable from bandits, who lived by rape and plunder. The local warlords who ruled China largely unchecked by a weak central government were always eager to extend or consolidate territory. Severed heads were still stuck up on the gates of walled towns like Zhenjiang, where the Sydenstrickers lived. Life in the countryside was not essentially different from the history plays Pearl saw performed in temple courtyards by bands of traveling actors, or the stories she heard from professional storytellers and anyone else she could persuade to tell them. The Sydenstrickers’ cook, who had the mobile features and expressive body language of a Chinese Fred Astaire, entertained the gateman, the amah, and Pearl herself with episodes from a small private library of books only he knew how to read. This was her first introduction to the old Chinese novels—The White Snake, The Dream of the Red Chamber, All Men Are Brothers— that she would draw on long afterward for the narrative grip, strong plot lines, and stylized characterizations of her own fiction.

Wang Amah, Pearl’s nurse, had an inexhaustible fund of tales of demons and spirits that lived in clouds, rocks, and trees, sea dragons, storm dragons, and the captive local dragon pinned underneath the pagoda on the far hill, who lay in wait for a chance to squirm free, swamp the river, and drown the whole valley. They inhabited an ancient fairyland of spells, charms, incantations, sensational flights, and fights with “Wonderful daggers that a man could make small enough to hide in his ear or in the corner of his eye but which, when he fetched them out again, were long and keen and swift to kill.” But even as a small child Pearl liked her fairy stories more closely rooted in reality, and she pestered Wang Amah to tell her about when she was little and how she grew up into a flawless young beauty with pale porcelain skin, plucked forehead, black braided hair that hung to her knees, and three-inch-long bound feet, so lovely that she had to be married off early for fear of predatory soldiers. By the time Pearl knew her thirty or forty years later, Wang Amah was wrinkled and practically toothless (the heartless little Sydenstrickers laughed when she knocked out all but two of her remaining teeth in a fall on the cellar steps), with scanty hair, heavy flaps of skin over her eyes, and a protruding lower lip. She was strict but kind and dependable, a source of warmth and reassurance, the only person in Pearl’s household who ever gave her a hug or took the child onto her lap and into her bed for comfort.

She had been the daughter of a small tradesman in Yangzhou with a prosperous business destroyed in the seismic upheavals all over China that left at least twenty million people dead after the Taiping Rebellion. Wang Amah lost her family—parents, parents-in-law, husband—and with them her means of subsistence. She scraped out a living in the sex trade until hired by Pearl’s mother to look after her children (an appointment badly received by the rest of the mission community). The traumas of her youth resurfaced in her new life as a sequence of thrilling set pieces, starting with her miraculous escape, when she was lowered on a rope down a dry well to save her from Taiping marauders, and going on to the firing of the great pagoda in her hometown, which was burned to the ground with all its priests inside it. Interrogated by Pearl about the smell of roasting men and whether the Chinese variety smelled different from white flesh, Wang Amah replied confidently that white meat was coarser, more tasteless and watery, “because you wash yourselves so much.”

Even the dire process of having her feet bound became heroic in retrospect. Wang Amah explained that her father made her sleep alone in the kitchen outhouse from the age of three so as not to disturb the rest of the family by her crying at night. Rarely able to resist Pearl’s coaxing, she took off the cloth shoes, white stockings, and bandages that had to be worn, even in bed, by women with the infinitely desirable “golden-lily” feet that enforced subjugation as effectively as a ball and chain. Pearl inspected the lump of mashed bone and livid discolored flesh made from forcing together the heel and toes under the instep, leaving only the big toe intact. She had witnessed the mothers of her contemporaries crippling their own daughters’ feet and even suspected she might have ruined her chances of getting a husband by failing to go through the procedure herself. She watched her nurse put the bindings back on without comment. It was one of her first lessons in the power of the imagination to cover up or contain and make bearable things too ugly to confront directly. It was the same lesson she learned from the body parts she found on the hillside. The potent spell Pearl cast later, as a phenomenally successful writer of romantic best sellers, came in large part from this sense of a harsh hidden reality, protruding occasionally but more often invisible, present only beneath the surface of her writing as an unexamined residue of pain and fear.

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