Thursday, June 20, 2024

Pearl S. Buck, The Pearl of Humanity

Pearl S. Buck – Pulitzer Prize winner, Nobel Prize laureate, writer, columnist and humanitarian.

The issue of authenticity has for long been a widely debated topic in the field of writing. The question of whether or not a person can write about a topic he or she does not have a personal knowledge of has raised two schools of thought. The first school believes that there needs to be authenticity when writing or to put in a nutshell, “a middle-class white man cannot write about a working-class black woman.” The other school is somewhat more liberal and expounds the philosophy that it is possible to write from a perspective that might not reflect the writer’s actual situation.

Of course in cases like that of Pearl S. Buck, both schools of thought would be placated. Being a Caucasian American woman, some might see her writings on China to be the case of an outsider looking in and then giving an interpretation of the situation. Yet, to consider her as an outsider in Chinese society would not be strictly true as she spent most of her life in China. When one ignores ethnicity and national background, we can safely say that Pearl S. Buck was a Chinese as any pure bred Han. And so, this missionary’s daughter like a colossus bestrode two different worlds.

The missionaries’ daughter

The Sydenstricker Family in 1894 – Pearl is standing in the front.

Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker was the fourth child born to Abraham and Caroline Sydenstricker, both Southern Presbyterian Missionaries on June 26, 1892 in Hillsboro, West Virginia. Her birth occurred when her parents were taking a sabbatical from missionary work in China and she was barely three months when she accompanied her parents back to China.

Her early education was definitely a unique one and it probably helped her adapt and understand Chinese culture. She was first taught Chinese language and customs by her tutor, Mr. Kung, before being educated in English by her mother.

Pearl Sydenstricker’s education in Chinese demonstrates that her family life was not one of the usual foreigners living in China at that time. While most foreigners lived in extra-territorial concessions where they built or attempted to build Little Britain, Little France or Little America inside China, the Syden-strickers were the typical missionaries who lived amongst the people to whom they were preaching.

Hence her early life was spent in the small city of Zhenjiang in Jiangsu province. Abraham Syden-stricker spent most of his time away from his family as he went across the countryside looking for Christian converts. At the same time, her mother, Caroline, established a small dispensary, which ministered to local women.

If one were to think that the Sydenstrickers lived an idealistic pastoral life in an exotic locale, then such a thought would be a mistake. Life in China was not always pleasant and nothing proved that more than the Boxer Rebellion in 1905. With their anti-foreign agenda and invectives, the Boxers ran rampage across China in a drive to kill the, as they called them, “foreign devils.” Although they were accepted by the Chinese community and definitely did not live like the other foreigners in the concessions, the Sydenstrickers were not immune to the xenophobia of the Boxers and so were forced to flee to the relative safety of Shanghai.

That early incident left a mark on the young Pearl Sydenstricker’s mind. It taught her that, in spite of having only an experience of life in China, she was still a stranger – an alien in the only place she ever knew as home. Throughout her life, she stood between two worlds without ever being completely part of one of the other. If one were to look at things such as race and religion, then the Caucasian Christian Pearl Sydenstricker could be said to be American. But as far as education, upbringing and exposure were concerned; she was Chinese through and through.

Being raised in China, she was made keenly aware of the injustices in the Chinese social system especially the injustices that were perpetrated against women, and she worked for Door of Hope, which was a shelter for Chinese slave girls and prostitutes. At the same time, she was also sympathetic to the racialist discrimination faced by the Chinese people in the West.

An American sojourn and back to China

When she was growing up, the young Pearl was especially fond of stories, and the earliest tales told to her were Buddhist and Taoist legends from her nurse. Later on, her mother introduced her to the works of Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Walter Scott, William Thackeray and, perhaps aptly, Charles Dickens.

Her early exposure to literature awoke in her the lifelong love and passion for writing. As she later recalled in My Several Worlds: “Even then I had intended to be a teller of tales, a writer of novels, though how that end was to be achieved I did not know. One longs to make what one loves, and above all I loved to hear stories about people. I was a nuisance of a child, I fear, always curious to know about people and why they were as I found them.”

When she was 17 years old, she enrolled in the Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia. There she excelled in her studies, especially in her writing, and she won two literary prizes. However, she also experienced a realisation that her experience and upbringing made her different from the other girls in the school. Her skin colour and ancestry had made her a stranger in China while her experiences made her a stranger in the United States.

When she graduated in 1914, Pearl wanted to remain in the United States, and spent some time teaching at Randolph-Masson. However, the call of China and in particular the call of a seriously ill mother were too strong to resist and she soon found herself going back to China. There she took care of her mother and studied written Chinese. She also became a counsellor to Chinese women and helped them solve their problems while listening to their views.

Marriage and the writing begins

John Lossing Buck was an agriculture expert from New York who was in China teaching American farming methods to Chinese farmers under the auspices of the Presbyterian Mission Board. He met Pearl Sydentstricker in 1915 and two years later on May 13 1917, Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker became Pearl Buck or (as she is now known in history) Pearl S. Buck.

After her marriage to John Lossing Buck in 1917, the couple moved to Nanxuzhou in Anhui province. There in the impoverished rural community, Pearl Buck found the setting and people that would later feature in her magnum opus The Good Earth.

Amidst the farmers drawing out a living on the soil that is their livelihood, amidst the women who were their wives, Pearl Buck drew out the characters of Wang Lung, O Lan and the others that would be part and parcel of that memorable book.

A lifelong lover of literature and writing, Pearl Buck began contributing stories and essays to publications such as Nation, The Chinese Recorder, Asia and The Atlantic Monthly in the 1920s. In 1930, she published her first novel, East Wind, West Wind with the John Day Company.

East Wind, West Wind is a tale of the changes undergone by a Chinese family and the mix of culture. It is also notable for being a faithful, non-didactic and non-stereotypical portrayal of Chinese people.

And here is where Pearl S. Buck really shines as a writer. Her accounts of China at that time are perhaps amongst the most realistic of that time. Her upbringing and experiences in China meant that she was able to relate the Chinese experience to her readers. Yet there was no hint of bigotry that was prevalent in many portrayals of Chinese people at that time. There was no evil, slant eyed, buck toothed Chinaman, there was no sultry Asian vixen. What Pearl S. Buck gave us was the lives of the rural Chinese – in all their beauty and all their ugliness.

The Good Earth

That attitude is most obvious in her 1931 novel and probably the jewel in her crown, The Good Earth. The novel follows the life of Wang Lung, a farmer, who is married to a former slave O Lan. We are invited to share Wang Lung’s life, as he toils the land, raise his children, is forced to move to the city due to a famine and then as political turmoil rises, move back to the rural areas.

At the same time, we see how dependant the family, and indeed all Chinese peasant families, are on the soil – the “good earth” of the tale. The novel was one of the earliest depictions of Chinese peasant life brought to the attention of Western readers and one of its strengths was Pearl Buck’s style of writing. It should be noted that there was a distinct lack of commentary in the novel from the author. She did not comment on certain things that were prevalent amongst Chinese society in those days such as foot binding or of rich men taking concubines. Although, the humanitarian and feminist Pearl would have been opposed to such practices, she preferred to let the story speak for itself rather than ruin it with commentary.

Back in the USA and public acclaim

Pearl S. Buck receiving the Nobel Prize from King Gustavus V of Sweden in 1938.

The Good Earth became the best selling book in 1931 and 1932, which led to her winning the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1932. In 1934, she left China to move to the United States – to be closer to Richard Walsh, a publisher at John Day, who was to be her second husband and to be closer to her daughter, Carol, whom she had placed in an institution. In 1938, she became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and thus became the first woman to win both the Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer Prize.

After she moved to the United States, Pearl bought Green Hills Farm in Bucks County in Pennsylvania, and it was there that she and Richard Walsh adopted six more children. Ever the humanitarian and keen believer in social justice, Pearl immediately became involved in the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movement. She published essays in Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as well as Opportunity, the journal of the Urban League.

Having been brought up in China, a particular cause dear to her heart was the fostering of understanding between Asia and the West. Thus in 1942, she and Richard established the East and West Association, which was dedicated to cultural exchange. As a person who loved children, her chagrin was raised when adoption services in America at that time discriminated against Asian and mix-raced children. Outraged, she set up the Welcome House in 1949, which was the first inter-racial adoption agency.

Pearl S. Buck with some women during her testimony to the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization in 1943.

Having been brought up in a foreign land and yet at the same time having been immersed in their culture and experiences, Pearl was a lifelong opponent of bigotry and prejudice. Her liberal views were definitely not popular with many and she found herself placed under FBI surveillance.

But that did not deter her from the cause. In 1964, she established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation to address the issue of poverty of children in Asian countries as well as to provide support for Amerasian children who were not eligible for adoption.

Although Pearl passed away in March 1973, her legacy still lives on. Today the Pearl S. Buck International is still going strong and still dedicated to “her commitment to improving the quality of life and expanding opportunities for children and promoting an understanding of the values and attributes of other cultures, the injustice of prejudice, and the need for humanitarianism throughout the world.”

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