Pearl Buck was a baby when her parents relocated to China. What she babbled was Chinese; what she experienced were Chinese customs and lifestyles. She was so attached to traditional Chinese culture that she had the epic description of the lives of Chinese peasants in her book. A portrait of Confucius and The Book of Rites, the datong article, are still hanging in the house in which she lived.
As a world-class cultural celebrity, Pearl Buck lived in an ordinary small town – Perkasie, Bucks County, in eastern Pennsylvania. Her residence was called Green Hills Farm. Pearl Buck is the only American female writer to win both a Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel Prize. She died in 1973 and was buried near her estate.
According to her wishes, her tombstone was engraved with only Pearl S. Buck and the dates of her birth and death. All merits or demerits of her life would be left for future generations to judge. This fully exemplifies her personality and her sentimental feelings for China.
On Christmas Eve in 1948, in an orphanage in the United States, there was a two-and-half-year-old boy with an ethnic mixture of East Indian and American. No family would adopt him because of the color of his skin and his background. After several twists and turns, the orphanage found Pearl Buck. When Buck heard of the boy’s situation, she did not hesitate to accept him – the first Asian mestizo child that she adopted.
This boy was David Yoder. He said:
“When Pearl Buck adopted me, she was almost 70 years old. In my eyes, she was a loving grandmother and I lived with her for two years at Green Hills Farm. She told us stories and taught us Chinese culture. Those days of living with her were so wonderful and yet so ordinary that I never have dreamed of being so lucky.”
“In college, when other people around me heard that Pearl Buck was my grandmother, their eyes were filled with envy.”
A full young life
Pearl S. Buck was born on June 26, 1892 in West Virginia. Her father, Absalom Sydenstricker, was a Southern Presbyterian missionary. Among seven children in the family, she was the only one born in the United States. Six other children were born in China, but four of them died at a young age. Pearl, an older brother Edgar, and a younger sister Grace survived to adulthood.
When Pearl was 4 months old, her parents took her to Huiyin, Anhui (now Qingjiangpu, Anhui) in China. She learned Chinese as her first language and her mother taught her English later. Therefore, Pearl loved to read Chinese classics and she studied the teachings of Confucius. When she resided in the United States, she had a plaque with Confucius’s portrait in her study.
In 1910, 17-year-old Pearl majored in psychology at Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Virginia. After she obtained her bachelor’s degree in 1914, she returned to China. In 1917, she married John Lossing Buck, a missionary, and Pearl joined her husband in missionary work.
John was an agricultural economist and taught agricultural technology and farm management courses. He was also the founder and the head of the Department of Agricultural Economics of the University of Nanking. With the publication of his book Farm Economy, John was considered a China expert.
Winning both the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize
After her marriage, the Buck family moved to Su County of Anhui Province. Her life experiences there later became the background of her world-famous book The Good Earth. In 1921, the Buck family moved to Nanjing and Pearl taught English literature in many universities. In 1930, she published her first novel, East Wind, West Wind, and began her life as a writer.
At Nanking University, the Buck family lived in a small two-story building provided by the university. Pearl’s book The Good Earth was published in 1931 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. The novel is considered to be one of her most outstanding works. Writing about peasant Wang Long’s life story made Pearl Buck the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction writers. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.
Pearl published more than 1000 pieces of work, including poetry, plays, and novels. Her book Earth Trilogy, with a Chinese theme, Foreign Guest, and East Wind, West Wind made great contributions in the field of literature and won warm praise.
Nobel Literature Prize judges said that she provided an epic-like description of Chinese peasants and made a pioneering contribution in using China as a topic. Pearl also won the William Dean Howells Medal in 1935, and served as president of the Writers Guild of America.
Translation of Chinese classical literature – ‘Outlaws of the Marsh’
In the late 1920s, Pearl Buck translated the 70 chapters of Outlaws of the Marsh. She was the first person to translate this classical literature into English, publish it in the West, and promote it to the world.
Her connection to China made her translation the most accurate, most exciting, and most influential English version of Outlaws of the Marsh.
She believed that the main contradiction of Outlaws of the Marsh was the struggle between the people and corrupt officials. In Pearl’s eyes, the 108 outlaws from Liangshan were similar to Robin Hood from medieval England. They did not plan to rebel, but were persecuted by the circumstances.
They were forced to rise up and resist. They were resourceful, brave, skilled citizens. They only rebelled against the evil forces and lawless society. It took Pearl five years to finally translate Outlaws of the Marsh into more than 1000 pages of English. She tried Grand Theft and Just Hero as titles, but was not satisfied.
Shortly before the book’s publication, she was inspired when she thought of the famous quote in the Analects of Confucius: “Within four seas are brothers.” So her two volumes of translated work were titled All Men Are Brothers. This was a full English translation of Outlaws of the Marsh and it topped the American monthly book club list at that time.
Pearl was fluent in Chinese and thought highly of classical Chinese novels. In her Nobel Prize award ceremony speech, she used Chinese classical novels as a theme. She said:
“The Chinese classical novels are just like novels of any other country in the world; they are irresistibly charming. A well-educated person should know about classical works, such as ‘A Dream of Red Mansions’ and ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms.’”
Half a lifetime of dedication to children’s charities
Pearl Buck’s life was filled with success in her career, but she was rather unfortunate as a mother. In 1921, she gave birth to a baby girl, Carol, who suffered from a mental health issue. This possibly contributed to her devotion in later life to the adoption of children.
In 1926, she took a short break from her work and went back to Cornell University in the United States to earn a master’s degree. Afterwards, she immediately returned to Nanjing, China. Her husband John insisted on doing missionary work and teaching in China.
As a result, she and John were divorced in 1934 due to significantly different goals in life. Her first novel, East Wind, West Wind, was published by the John Day Company in 1930. The publisher and chief editor Richard Walsh eventually became Pearl’s second husband in 1935.
After that, she became a full-time writer at the Green Hills Farm in Pennsylvania. Richard Walsh graduated from Harvard University and had travelled all over China. He was very helpful to Pearl’s writing career. Pearl Buck raised relief funds for refugees from China after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937.
In the early 1940s, she engaged in some of the relief activities. The first was The Book of Hope group, a U.S. government organisation for Chinese medical aid. One hundred American women raised $100 per person, a total of $10,000. On this basis, Pearl decided to set up her own organisation.
After returning to the United States, Pearl also became involved in human rights activities. In 1942, Pearl and Richard founded the East and West Association, dedicated to cultural exchange and understanding between Asia and the West.
In 1949, Pearl established the Welcome House, an international adoption agency, out of concern for Asian and racially mixed children who were being discriminated against. The agency has helped more than 5,000 children to be adopted by American families in its 50 years of operation. In 1964, she also established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation in order to help children who did not meet adoption standards.
A firm anti-communist
Pearl Buck had been naturalised in China and also had strong feelings for China. After the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, she fought for the Chinese people’s war against aggression. Many Americans had learned about China through her novels.
She was awarded the Order of Brilliant Jade, issued by Chiang Kai-shek from the Government of the Republic of China, for her financial assistance during the Sino-Japanese War. Because of her firm stance against communism, her literary works have long been suppressed and have been attacked by the mainland cultural sector.
When President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, Pearl Buck’s deep understanding of Chinese culture made her one of the most qualified individuals to accompany President Nixon to China. However, when she applied for a Chinese visa, she was rejected by the Chinese regime as “an unwelcome guest.”
After that, Pearl did not set foot in China again, a country that had once nurtured her. In her study, there is still a wooden jewellery box with Chinese characteristics – a gift from former President Nixon after his visit to China.
Nostalgia for Chinese culture
Pearl Buck loved Chinese culture. In her former residence, the Green Hills Farm, there is a statue of Bodhisattva Guanyin in her study and two other rooms. A tour guide states that Guanyin brought Pearl “peace and joy.”
Pearl’s works are filled with the sentimentality toward her days in China. She gives passionate descriptions of Chinese scenery and she even recorded her favorite delicious Chinese dishes: Zhengzhou Yellow River carp soup, steamed fish of Hangzhou, Changsha smoked fish and smoked beef, Chaozhou apricot salted fish, Suzhou steamed crabs, Beijing sweet and sour fish, and Dongting Lake dried shrimp.
In the Green Hills Farm, there is a cook book by Pearl, published in 1992, with her photo on the front cover wearing traditional Chinese clothing and holding a Chinese porcelain bowl to introduce Chinese recipes in the book.
A bridge between Eastern and Western civilizations
Pearl Buck spent nearly 40 years in China; it can be said that she spent half of her life in China. Mr Nixon praised Pearl in his eulogy for her as “a bridge of Eastern and Western civilisations, a great artist, a sensitive and compassionate person.”
Her description of rural China was the most comprehensive and in-depth description of Chinese villages, helping an entire generation of Americans and Westerners to broaden their horizons. In the late 1950s, the American sociologist conducted a survey in which two-thirds of Americans surveyed said their impressions of China from 1931 to the mid-1950s were from Pearl S. Buck.
Pearl Buck’s insight into China, the Chinese people, Chinese history, and the future of China has finally been recognized by today’s people and still shines its unique light after more than 80 years.
Translated by Natashe Yang.
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