A few years ago we were speaking at a conference in Lushan National Park near Jiujiang City in Jiangxi Province. We had driven to the park from Shanghai and it was an amazing trip across the area in Anhui Province that Pearl Buck wrote about in The Good Earth.
Lisa’s sister, an English teacher, had told us to watch out for anything related to Pearl Buck since she teaches a unit related to the writer. We were speaking in a conference sponsored by UNESCO for World Heritage Site Managers. After a couple of days in the symposium, they took us on a tour of
the park. To our amazement, one of the first buildings we visited was the childhood home of Pearl Buck. It was fascinating to see her home, even more so since we were trying to capture all the nuances to report back to Lisa’s sister. Pearl Buck grew up as the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries in China and learned Mandarin while learning English. After attending college in West Virginia, she returned to China to live and write at University of Nanjing.
I read The Good Earth in high school and remember it positively but the specifics had long been lost from my memory. Seeing the landscape with farmers still tilling the rice paddies with oxen is a reminder of how little things have changed for many Chinese people who work the land. When we returned to the U.S., I read the classic novel again and it is still a poignant story. This time I read the digital Kindle version on my iPad. Not only is it available as a digital book, it was republished by Oprah’s Book Club as a printed book in 2004. The eighty-year-old novel is a classic that led to the author’s Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. After reacquainting myself with The Good Earth, I moved on to Hilary Spurling’s Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth. It was also well written and a reminder of how Pearl Buck’s books took on tough topics at a time when most people took no notice of the plight of women around the world. Pearl Buck’s stories from the 1930s and 1940s give a glimpse of what China was like before and during the Boxer Rebellion, Japanese occupation, and Nationalist period. She wrote about racism, child abandonment, drug addiction and many other problems while also sharing the arduous lives of farmers and villagers.
Anchee Min, a Chinese-born writer, who now lives in San Francisco and Shanghai has written many great contemporary novels about the years from the Cultural Revolution to the present. Her 2010 book, Pearl of China, is an interesting view of Pearl Buck’s life and her relationship with a Chinese girl, Willow. Ms. Min also wrote a memoir, Red Azalea, that is an extraordinary look inside the political propaganda machine of the Chinese in the early years of the revolution for she played a starring role in Chinese political films as a young girl. Anchee Min is married to Loyd Lofthouse, another great writer who has several Kindle books of historical fiction about China.
If you think you will visit China, read before you go. I did it backwards, reading the books after returning, which still provides more depth to the experiences we’ve had, even if in hindsight. China is very accessible these days as a travel destination. Foreign travelers appear to be welcomed all over the nation’s twenty-two provinces. We’ve visited only eight so far, but I will hope to see more in the future and return to some of these amazing places that inspired great writers to provide insight into China’s rich and varied history.
– Tim Merriman