‘Pearl Buck in China’ Is an Incisive Exposé of Missionary Life in China

An American raised in China by missionary parents, Pearl Buck occupied the dynamic space between two dramatically different cultures. Her unique life experiences provided fodder for an impressive number of books and shaped her voice as an author. (One critic commented that the “beautiful cadences” of Buck’s prose were a result of her “having written in English while thinking in Chinese.”) These experiences, however, were hard-earned.

In Pearl Buck in China, biographer Hilary Spurling shows how Buck was sometimes accepted by both cultures and sometimes by neither, and how this lifelong tension informed and motivated her writing. As a child, Buck played with the daughters of Chinese farmers and mingled with the household servants, thus earning the scorn of other missionary families. Yet at the same time, her blond hair and blue eyes evoked fear among many Chinese. Buck and her family members were frequent victims of intense xenophobia, and at times it was too dangerous for her to leave the family’s compound.

In 1910, Buck travels to the US for college, where her new classmates mock her conservative attire. They do not ask about her life in China, and she doesn’t share. Instead, Buck assimilates, becoming president of her college class and a member of the most exclusive sorority. Still, it is a lonely four years; she finally feels at “home” when she returns to China. However, the saying “you can’t go home again” rings true; Buck stands out among the missionary community with her “frivolous hairdo and flirtatious outfits.” Her own perspective has changed, as well. Spurling describes Buck’s return to China as a “spiritual dislocation” because, for the first time she “saw China as an adult though Western eyes.”

In the ’30s, Buck becomes an international celebrity as the best-selling author of The Good Earth and the first America woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Good Earth singlehandedly transformed America’s perception of China, which had been a vision “of dirty, scavenging beggars and sinister, slit-eyed, yellow-skilled villains.” No matter what she did for China’s public image, however, Chinese leaders fret about her portrayal of their country and, late in her life, deny her a visa to return.

Spurling highlights a striking feature of Buck’s worldview, and thus her writing — her visceral aversion to condescension. She sees condescension in the American missionaries who dismiss traditional Chinese beliefs and in people (both in China and the US) that marginalize individuals living with disabilities, such as her daughter, Carol. Buck personifies the opposite of condescension — a deep respect for all of humanity, warts and all. She once described Chinese farmers as “so charming, so virile, so genuinely civilized in spite of illiteracy and certain primitive conditions of life.” Buck does not find this poverty quaint or aesthetic. She is able to appreciate and admire farmers without condescension, to bear witness to people’s pride while also acutely understanding their suffering. It is this magical ability to humanize that she brings to her books.

Pearl Buck in China does an expert job of linking Buck’s life experiences to the life choices she makes, her development as an author, and specific excerpts from her books. The only decision that creates an unresolved dissonance is her decision to work as a missionary in China after she marries John Lossing Buck in 1917. Buck has many reasons to be adverse to the missionary life. Spurling describes in detail how Buck, her siblings and her mother suffered while her father put his missionary work above everything, including his marriage and the health and safety of his family.

More practically speaking, Buck was witness to his distinct lack of success in converting many Chinese people, and she herself expresses skepticism of his methods and approach. It seems strange, then, that she decides to follow in his footsteps for a few years. Is she just playing an accepted role in order to navigate the early years of her marriage? Is this her strategy for fitting into life in a part of China that is new to her? Or is she so profoundly unhappy during these years that religion is her only solace and evangelizing her only outlet?

In any case, what is clear is that Buck later does a 180. She eventually comes to the view that “church people’s ignorant and hostile dismissal of Chinese philosophy and culture made [their] position fundamentally untenable, if not actually immoral.” Although not its central topic, this biography turns out to be an incisive exposé of missionary life in China.

Describing her childhood, Buck says that “When I was in the Chinese world, I was Chinese, I spoke Chinese and behaved as a Chinese and ate as the Chinese, and shared their thoughts and feelings. When I was in the American world, I shut the door between”. Spurling writes that, “Keeping that door closed was the price of survival for Pearl as a child, but she spent the better part of her adult life trying to open it, and keep it open”. In China, villagers are shocked when she replies to them in Chinese: “How strange! We can understand English, it’s the same as Chinese”! Much the same could be said of Buck’s American readers, who could now understand some of the hopes and dreams and fears of Chinese people, and realized that they were not that much different than their own.

Buck lived a fascinating life, but this biography will mean more to you if you have read The Good Earth recently or if you are familiar with Chinese history during the first half of the 20th century. (After all, her life in China spans momentous points in Chinese history – the Boxer Rebellion, the physical and philosophic battle between the Nationalists and the Communists, the war with Japan, the beginning of the end of foot binding, and the acceptance of pai-hua — the ordinary speech of the people — as a medium for literature.) Spurling assumes a certain level of historical knowledge and, while she does explain portions of The Good Earth’s narrative, she certainly doesn’t give us the Cliff’s Notes version. Don’t let scare you away. Pick up The Good Earth, devour it as so many readers have around the world, and then read this insightful biography.

RATING 6 / 10