Sheila Melvin, writing in the Spring 2006 issue of Wilson Quarterly, chronicles the ups and downs of Pearl Buck’s reputation in both the U.S. and China.
Although she had been born in West Virginia in 1892 while her missionary parents were home on leave, China was the country where she had grown up, first married, and written her most famous novel, The Good Earth (1931). Chinese was her first language, the one in which she mentally composed sentences before putting them to paper in English. China had provided much of the material for many of her 70-odd books, mostly novels but also plays, short fiction, children’s stories, biographies of her parents, essays, and poetry. China had inspired her humanitarian work. And it was in China that her adored mother, her father, two brothers, and two sisters lay buried….
Her most popular work, The Good Earth, was the best-selling novel of both 1931 and 1932. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, was made into an acclaimed Hollywood movie in 1937, and was instrumental in leading the Swedish Academy to award her the Nobel Prize for literature in 1938, making her the first American woman to be so honored. The book became so influential in the United States that some scholars credit it with contributing to the 1943 repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which had barred virtually all Chinese emigration to the United States since 1882.
Other scholars go even further, claiming that Buck’s writings so changed the average American’s impression of Chinese people in the years before World War II that Americans became eager supporters of China in its war against Japan. As the Chinese scholar Kang Liao wrote in 1997, Pearl Buck “single-handedly changed the distorted image of the Chinese people in the American mind through literature. Chinese people were no longer seen as cheap, dirty, ridiculous coolies or sneaky, vicious, insidious devils. The majority of Chinese were seen for the first time in literature as honest, kindhearted, frugal-living, hard-working, gods-fearing peasants who are much the same as American farmers.” In 1992, historian James C. Thomson Jr. called Buck “the most influential Westerner to write about China since 13th-century Marco Polo.”
Although she was an intellectual educated in both the Chinese and Western classics, Buck took up her pen with a populist approach, one that was phenomenally successful with the public even as it earned her the derision of the literary elite, many of whom considered her writing too lacking in stylistic complexity and irony, too didactic and moralistic, and—perhaps most important—too extraordinarily popular to be awarded the Nobel Prize. William Faulkner, who won the Nobel himself 11 years after she did, wrote to a friend that he would rather not win it than be in the company of “Mrs. Chinahand Buck.” …
Early antipathy of critics in the United States toward Buck has had a lasting influence, as have Buck’s prolific output and her popularity with readers, either of which is often reason enough within the American academy to regard an author with slight contempt. Perhaps more critical to her legacy is that as a consequence of her rejection by the critical establishment, she has not been included in college syllabuses, though she remains a perennial favorite on high school reading lists. And at a time when critics and academics seek to add diverse authors writing about their own cultures to the literary canon, a white American writing about China can’t compete with the likes of Chinese author Maxine Hong Kingston, as critic Edmund White maintained in The New York Times in 1993. But while Buck remains largely ignored in America, she is finally finding a home in China.
As China has grown stronger and more confident during the past two decades, the old sensitivities have gradually receded. “The Party has done a 180-degree turn on Pearl Buck,” says the author’s son, Edgar Walsh. “They now see her as a friend of China and someone who has always been supportive of the Chinese people.” …
Another powerful source of interest in the rehabilitation of Pearl Buck’s reputation in China is the local elites in the places where she once lived. Foremost among these former homes is her childhood home of Zhenjiang, a city on the Yangtze River about an hour’s drive from Shanghai, where she is now regarded as something of a patron saint, or at least as the city’s best hope for enticing foreigners to visit and invest. Buck lived in Zhenjiang for nearly 20 years as a girl and young woman, mostly in her family’s nondescript Western-style house in the city’s rural outskirts.
In 1992, the Zhenjiang government renovated the house, which miraculously had survived the chaos of the 20th century, and opened it to the public, with financial assistance from Zhenjiang’s sister city of Tempe, Arizona. In 2002, Zhenjiang marked the 110th anniversary of Buck’s birth by convincing the provincial government to declare her former residence a historic landmark. And in 2004, it unveiled a monument to Buck and even renamed a city park “Pearl Square” in her honor, a rare distinction in a nation of “People’s Squares.” …
Buck’s rehabilitation in Chinese academic circles and at the grass-roots level finally led to a reevaluation of her work by the government. In the early 1990s, cultural officials refused to let a PBS affiliate from Buck’s home state of West Virginia film a documentary about her, but in 1999, when the U.S.-based Chinese actress Luo Yan sought permission to film an adaptation of Buck’s novel Pavilion of Women, it was easily granted. The script—about an unhappily married Chinese woman who falls in love with a Western priest—raised no hackles, and the makers were allowed to film in protected historic sites. The movie attracted large crowds and considerable publicity in China, where it fared much better than in the United States.
Since then, China’s Central Television network has produced several documentaries and docudramas about Buck, including one that aired this past summer in which she is played, rather fittingly, by an American expatriate named Aly Rose who learned fluent Chinese while living among Chinese peasants. And events related to Buck are regularly covered in the national press. When Oprah Winfrey chose The Good Earth for her book club in autumn 2004, the English-language newspaper China Daily reported on the selection, noting that “the Pearl S. Buck phenomenon used to be controversial and rejected by both the Chinese and American literary worlds,” but that it has recently become “a friendly cultural bridge between the East and the West.”