News that China is launching an English-language television service in America started me thinking about how closely we Americans are now entwined with life in China. We hear news about China almost every day and see Chinese faces on TV news frequently. Most of this familiarity is linked to politics and world events, but don’t let’s forget the pioneers who first led Americans to think about Chinese life and to begin to understand Chinese people. One of the most important—a woman writer now almost forgotten—is Pearl Buck.
Pearl Buck grew up in a missionary family in China. From an early age she realized she was different from the children around her. Pearl could feel people staring at her. She remembers how she felt walking to the market one day when she was about six years old. As she passed two boys one of them made a face and yelled “foreign devil”. Pearl knew her blonde hair and blue eyes made her look strange and different to the Chinese children around her. Her family lived near other missionaries and had quite a comfortable life, but she had no friends her age and always felt isolated and alone. Her beloved nurse, Amah Wang, taught her to speak Chinese and told her many Chinese folktales. As she grew up, Pearl was able to read and write both English and Chinese and felt equally at home in both languages. She knew many Chinese folktales, but she also read and reread the complete works of Charles Dickens, one of her family’s prized possessions.
When Pearl went to the United States to attend college, she realized how little she knew of American life. She could tell her classmates stories about life in China—about how many Chinese people were so poor they sometimes let their girl babies die. Once when Pearl was picking flowers near her house, she found the bones of a baby girl who had been buried secretly. She could never forget the poverty and suffering Chinese people endured, but the American students she knew found her stories weird and horrible.
Pearl moved back to China and married a man who worked with the Chinese to develop modern agricultural methods. She and her husband lived in a small Chinese city and again were feeling isolated. In the turmoil of Chinese politics and anti-Western feelings, Pearl had a hard time feeling accepted by either Chinese friends or the missionary community she had grown up with. She turned to writing and produced one of the best-selling novels of the era in The Good Earth which tried to present an honest picture of the lives of average Chinese people. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. The novel has been translated into many languages and remains in print to this day. In 1937, she won a Nobel Prize for Literature, the first American woman to do so. Still, critics complained about her literary qualities and politicians attacked her ideas.
Politically Pearl Buck was controversial. After she moved permanently to the United States in 1935, she became an advocate for civil rights and women’s rights. Horrified by the fate of mixed-race children, she started an adoption service for these children, many of them fathered by American soldiers in Asia during World War II. During the Cold War she was called a Communist in the United States and was refused permission to visit China with President Richard Nixon. The reputation of her books has fluctuated both in China and the U.S. over the years, but there is no denying that they strengthened ties between the two countries by introducing hundreds of thousands of Americans to the lives and struggles of Chinese people living half a world away. Now we can see the lives of these people played out on our TV screens every day, but we owe a lot to the pioneers who started introducing us to them.
Today is foggy and rainy in San Francisco, a perfect day for sitting inside with a cup of tea and thinking about all the women over the years who have done the same. Today I am going to start honoring some of those women by starting a series of “Woman of the Week” posts on this blog. And because this is St. Patrick’s Day weekend, I’ll start with a famous Irish woman you’ve probably never heard of –Maria Edgeworth. She may be forgotten now, but in the earth 19th century her books had made her so famous that once when an American reader wanted to reach her, she addressed her letter to “Maria, Ireland” and it was safely delivered.
One day in 1847, a procession of porters approached the estate in Longford where Maria Edgeworth lived. They brought a hundred and fifty barrels of flour and rice sent from Boston. They were from some of the children of Boston who had read Maria’s stories and wanted to help the famine stricken children of Ireland. The address on the barrels was “To Miss Edgeworth for her Poor”. Even the porters who hauled the barrels to the house would not accept payment for their efforts. In gratitude to these men Miss Edgeworth knitted a comforter for each of them.
Maria’s stories were known all over the English-speaking world going through one edition after another. They remained in print until the end of the 19th century and generations of children grew up reading them. They introduced characters like Lazy Lawrence, who always tries to avoid doing any work while the hard-working widow’s son Jem takes over his tasks. In the end Jem achieves prosperity while Lawrence falls in with criminals and comes to a bad end. And who could forget Rosamond, the girl who begs her mother to buy her a beautiful purple jar that she sees in the chemist’s window instead of purchasing new shoes. Alas, the purple jar turns out to be plain glass when the purple liquid is poured out, and Rosamond’s shoes become so worn and uncomfortable that she can’t go on an outing with her father.
The Edgeworth family wasn’t “really” Irish. They were landlords who had come from England 200 years before Maria’s birth and lived in Longford in central Ireland. Maria’s father, Richard Edgeworth had gone to England as a very young man and married his first wife there. Maria was the third child in this young family, but she soon became an elder sister as Richard Edgeworth married quickly after his first wife died, then again, and again. In the end he had survived four wives and had 22 children. Perhaps Maria had enough experience in childcare as she was growing up to cure her of the desire to have children of her own. At any rate, she never married but spent much of her life helping raise the children in her own far-flung family and writing stories to help other families raise theirs.
But despite her fame as a writer for children, Maria Edgeworth was much more than that. She was deeply concerned with social conditions and politics. She helped to run the large Edgeworth estate and deserves much of the credit for keeping the family out of debt despite the reckless spending of her brother Lovell, who inherited the estate after the death of their father. When the potato famine hit Ireland in the late 1840s, Maria tried to help their tenants by purchasing new seed for them and arranging emigration for some families. She supported Catholic emancipation, unlike many other landlords, and struggled to make Ireland a more just society where both Catholics and Protestants could live in peace. Let’s honor her today for all the good that she did, although we are still struggling to solve some of the social problems she worried about.
Year after year history keeps repeating itself. I’ve been writing a biography of Margaret Fuller, the 19th century feminist, writer, and foreign correspondent. It’s fascinating to discover how the same patterns of reaction to women continue two hundred years after Margaret was born. Recently Bonnie Hurd Smith, a historian who often writes about the importance of history in everyday life, wrote an article about Why Women’s History Matters in which she points out that young women today are still struggling to take themselves seriously and find the courage to do determine their own goals in life. As she says “We women are still taught to put everyone else first, and then we beat ourselves up when things don’t go well for us.” Today women’s history is seldom taught in schools except for a few elite colleges and universities. Girls growing up do not have role models to show them that women have struggled through the centuries for the right to participate in society and use their talents fully. Margaret Fuller had to fight all her life for the right to be accepted as one of the leading American intellectuals of her time. In the years since her death, many biographies still treat her life as a search for finding romantic fulfillment. Her life story degenerates into gossip about her happy marriage late in life to a younger Italian man. Despite the range of her activities and the extent of her influence in her times and on generations that followed, many people still judge her life only on the basis of her marriage as though everything else she did was merely marking time waiting for “Mr. Right”. We owe it to the girls of today to let them know how many women in the past have built their own lives and struggled to reach the point where we are today. Only then will we be able to empower all women to make a life for themselves.