What the Remarkable Legacy of Pearl Buck Still Means for China

The American author of The Good Earth, who lived in China for decades, highlights the Chinese government's continuing struggle to define its relation to its own people.

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American writer Pearl Buck at her desk in Philadelphia in 1968. (AP)

In the summer of 1934, Pearl Buck boarded a ship in Shanghai that was bound for America. She was 42 years old, and had lived for 34 of those years in China, mostly in cities along the Yangzi River. Pearl and her first husband, John Lossing Buck, both taught at Nanking University, and lived in a house on the campus. In a small third-floor room, stealing hours from teaching, housework, and the care of her mentally disabled daughter, Buck wrote her first published work. Her second book, The Good Earth, the best-selling American novel of both 1931 and 1932, catapulted her overnight from obscurity and semi-poverty into international celebrity and wealth.

A couple of years later, Buck determined to move permanently to the U.S. She had made the sorrowful decision to place her daughter in an American institution, and she wanted to live nearby. Her marriage had disintegrated, and she intended to re-marry in the States. She also knew that China was becoming increasingly dangerous. Japan, which had forcibly annexed Manchuria in 1931, and bombed Shanghai in 1932, would inevitably undertake a full-scale invasion.

Buck left China with great reluctance. China had been her home. Fluent in both spoken and written Chinese, she had developed a deep affection for the country and its people, and had accumulated scores of friends. When she sailed from Shanghai in 1934, Buck took it for granted that she would be able to come back to visit the people and places she was leaving behind.

History had other plans. Instead of bringing peace to China, Japan's defeat in 1945 ignited four years of civil war between Nationalists and Communists. The Communist victory in October 1949 provoked a bitter response from the United States government, which refused to recognize Mao's regime and banned all travel between the two countries. For more than two decades, neither Pearl Buck nor any other non-governmental U.S. citizen could legally set foot in China.

Then, in 1972, in one of the most dramatic and consequential reversals in 20th-century diplomacy, Richard Nixon traveled to China and shook hands with Mao, initiating a process of rapprochement that would ultimately lead both countries to normalized relations.

The 79-year-old Pearl Buck, who had frequently told friends that she remained "homesick" for China, saw a last opportunity to return to the country in which she had spent more than half her life. She applied for a visa, sent telegrams to Zhou Enlai and other Chinese leaders, and hectored White House staff for presidential support. In May of 1972, after months of silence, a low-level Chinese bureaucrat stationed in Canada sent this refusal: since "you have in your works taken an attitude of distortion, smear and vilification towards the people of new China and its leaders, I am authorized to inform you that we cannot accept your request for a visit to China."

In fact, Pearl Buck had never vilified or smeared the people of China. Probably no other writer on either side of the Pacific had done as much to rally American support for the Chinese throughout the 1930s and 1940s. But she had aroused the hatred of the Communist Party leadership. She had broadcast her anti-communism in her essays and novels, attacking internal Communist repression in such books as The Three Daughters of Madame Liang (1969), which told the truth about the Cultural Revolution when many on the Western left kept their eyes shut. She also denounced the Chinese invasion of Tibet in the novel Mandala (1970) and in a story called "The Commander and the Commissar" (1961).

A few months after Nixon's trip, in the spring of 1973, Buck died. She remained a Communist Party non-person until, in 1991, anticipating the centenary of her birth the following year, a group of Chinese scholars committed to the importance of her representations of China, proposed a national conference to re-consider her work and legacy. The proposal was approved by the provincial authorities in Jiangsu, where Buck had lived through most of her years in China, but then quashed at the ministerial level in Beijing. In 1997, another proposal was -- how shall I put it? -- semi-approved: Buck could be discussed but not named in the conference title. Instead, discussions of Buck's writing were smuggled in under the rubric "Chinese-American Literary Relations."

Gradually, between 1997 and 2012, Buck was treated with diminishing official hostility by the government. Her childhood home in Zhenjiang (or at least a reasonable facsimile of that home) was restored and opened to the public. So too, the cottage on Lushan, or Mount Lu, in which Buck and her family spent some of their summers. The Party's motives were probably mixed. Particularly at the local and provincial level, there seems to be a greater willingness to take seriously Buck's portrayals of China as part of the larger cultural history of the country and its 20th-century relations with the West. Beyond that, and at a somewhat less abstract level, China has been keen to seize every opportunity to capitalize on potential tourist interest.

Finally, in May of this year, Pearl Buck was more or less rehabilitated. The faculty of Nanjing University gained approval and raised funds for the restoration of the campus house in which Buck had lived. Supervised by distinguished architects and historians, the renovations have been meticulously carried out.

The re-opening of the house was marked by an international conference. Senior academics from a dozen Chinese universities gave papers on Buck's life in China, her writing, and the controversies that have roiled the cultural waters around her for so many decades. Several Western speakers also participated, among them Hilary Spurling, whose recent biography of Buck was widely acclaimed; Donn Rogosin, a prize-winning filmmaker who has produced a documentary for public television on Buck's life; and Janet Mintzer, president of Pearl S. Buck International, the agency that continues Buck's humanitarian work with impoverished children and families throughout East Asia. I gave a talk on Buck and education.

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Peter Conn holds the Vartan Gregorian Chair in English at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is also a professor of education. He is an affiliated member of the Center for East Asian Studies.

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