In China, Too

Pearl S. Buck, an American-born writer who was raised in China and continues to live and teach there with her husband, reflects on the social and cultural changes transforming China's young people.
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It is rather alarming, even sitting in one’s armchair on the opposite side of the world, to observe the youth of America and England through the various newspapers and periodicals of the times. Especially when one’s days have been spent, placidly enough, among the ultraconservative parents and grandparents of a remote spot in the Far East, where the covert glance of a man for a maid is an outrage, and the said maid is an outrage, and the said maid is at once fastened yet more securely behind barred courtyard doors.

Dancing on six inches or so of floor-space, the discussion of knees and necks and petting parties, the menace of the movies and the divorce question, are a far cry from this tranquil corner of my cool, wide veranda. I look through the shady screen of drooping mimosas and, bamboos, upon the quiet street of small town in the far interior of China. High brick walls almost hide the curling roofs of the staid, respectable neighbor homes about me. All I can see of the flapper age of maiden within is when a curtained sedan-chair stops behind the spirit wall protecting each great carved gateway. If one watches keenly enough from the corner of one’s eye, one may see a slender figure in peach-colored brocaded silk, with tiny embroidered shoes, and smooth jet hair decorated with seed-pearls, slip shyly through the gate. Fragile, long-nailed fingers stained a deep rose, a satin-smooth, painted cheek, and dark, downcast eyes—an instant, then the curtains are drawn, and the chair-bearers go trotting down the street.

Sometimes it is a ponderous dowager, in plum-colored satin, with proud drooping eyelids, opium-stained teeth, and a long bamboo pipe, silver-tipped, which she uses as a cane. She leans heavily on two girl slaves, and is supported into the chair. If her eyes fall on one, their glance passes haughtily through to the space beyond. What! notice a foreign devil! A flash of ruby and the curtains are drawn close, and the chair-bearers trot off again albeit not blithely, under the royal weight.

I never see, on this narrow, cobbled street, the barbarous sights whereof I read in the modern magazines. Yet all day long, people are passing. In the early morning, blue-coated farmers, and sometimes their sturdy, barefoot wives, come to town, carrying on either end of their shoulder-poles great round baskets of fresh, dewy vegetables, or huge bundles of dried grass for fuel; caravans of tiny, neat-footed donkeys patter past, with enormous, cylindrical bags of flour or rice crossed upon their backs, swayed down from excessive burdens borne too early. Sometimes their nostrils have been slit, that they may pant more rapidly under the weight of their cruel loads.

Wheelbarrows squeak shrilly along; the more loudly the better, for each wheelbarrow man cultivates his barrow’s squeak assiduously for good luck’s sake. They are brawny men, with swelling muscles, bare to the waist, their backs dripping and brown in the heat of the morning sun; a length of blue cotton is thrown lengthwise across their shoulders. Sometimes the barrow’s load is a substantial country mother, in to shop or to visit a town relative, herself on one side of the wheel, and her bedding, a couple of cocks, a bundle of garlic, a basket of cakes, an immense oil-paper umbrella, and an odd child or two, on the other side. Sometimes an unearthly squalling racks the air, and it is a wheelbarrow with a stout middle-aged hog strapped firmly on either side of the wheel, with his legs waving violently, and squealing in the utmost agitation and outrage. A wheelbarrow, in short, may carry anything, from a lean itinerant missionary, with a six weeks’ supply of bedding, food, and tracts, to a double basket of squawking fowls—geese, perhaps, with yards of neck protruding from the loosely woven reeds, and viewing the passing landscape excitedly.

Smiling, snag-toothed old men hobble along my street, with wrinkled brown faces, and sparse white queues braided up with a good deal of black string. They pass the time of day with each other by solicitous inquiries as to when the last meal was enjoyed—a curious outgrowth of a land of frequent famines. Everywhere are fat brown babies tumbling about in the dust, for the most part naked and glistening in the warm sun, and grubbing among the cobbles and gutters. They ought to die, when one considers the amount and quality of the dirt they constantly consume from grimy fingers and unspeakable faces, not to speak of immensely long cucumbers and great turnips, gobbled rinds and all. But apparently they live to grow fat; although I have occasionally called one by his name of Little Two, to be answered with a broad grin that he is Little Three, Little Two having died of an excess of watermelons the previous summer. But where one drops out, two spring up to fill his place.

They play about promiscuously in the grime, until, in a few miraculously short years, the boys turn out in long gowns, and the girls in embroidered coats, with smooth black bands of hair about demure faces. They have apparently forgotten their playtime together, and ignore each other with the most perfect good breeding. The little girls go into seclusion with apparent docility, until such time as the great red bridal chair shall call them forth to the rule of a mother-in-law; and the boys turn to school or an apprenticeship, depending upon the family means and social position.

All a very placid and well-regulated existence. Yet I am vaguely troubled by a sort of undercurrent of change; as, for instance, yesterday, when little Hsu Bao-ying came to visit me. I have known her since she was a mite, with a fat, solemn dumpling of a face, with no nose to speak of. At that time, her feast-day garb was a pair of ridiculously small red-cotton trousers and a little coat to match; a pair of shoes made to resemble improbable tigers, and a cap like an embroidered doughnut, with a tiny pigtail done up in cerise yarn sticking through the hole. Her parents are of the good old conservative type, not believing in overmuch book-knowledge for a girl, and with an eye to a good husband and mother-in-law for the child. An older married sister, advanced in views through a five years’ residence in Shanghai, had teased them into sending Bao-ying to a boarding-school in the nearest city. When the child left last for school, last autumn, she was a tractable, meek, sweet-faced little thing, rather frightened at the prospect of leaving home. She had the patient air which all little Chinese girls have who are enduring foot-binding. I had never heard her volunteer a remark, and in my presence she had always been particularly awed and reverential—an attitude I have ever found very pleasing in the young.

Yesterday she came in a delicate blue satin of a more fashionable cut than I had ever seen; her feet were unbound and in little clumping, square, black-leather foreign shoes. She was evidently very proud of them; they looked like shoes for a very rough little American boy, and had steel taps on the heels. They stuck out most oddly from her exquisite brocaded skirt.

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