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.