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."