Daily Archives: 1 December 2017

Pearl Buck as Egalitarian Feminist

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 792-816:

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck was an extraordinary woman whose significance in the histories of the United States, of women, and of feminism remains to be fully registered. Luce’s importance has been clear for some time, even if rarely analyzed in relation to his missionary background. Buck is most often remembered as an overrated novelist and as a major influence on American images of China. She was both. But she was also more than that.

Buck was, as James C. Thomson Jr. has observed, the most influential interpreter of China to the West since Marco Polo. The Good Earth, published in 1931, was the first and foremost vehicle for her most widely disseminated message, which was that Chinese people were as fully human and endowed with dignity as the average American, and equally worthy of respect. Buck wrote more than seventy other books, fifteen of which were Book-of-the-Month-Club selections and many of which have been published in hundreds of editions. Her writings have been translated into at least thirty-six languages. She is one of the most famous American writers of any generation, and by far the most widely translated female author in American history.

Buck’s anti-imperialist, antiracist, and even feminist credentials are impeccable. She advocated independence for India well before it was achieved, opposed the confinement of Japanese Americans, campaigned for the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and criticized the Kuomintang without romanticizing the Chinese Communists. She demanded that women have access to birth control technologies and as early as 1941 had articulated most of the ideas about women later popularized by Betty Friedan’s 1963 volume The Feminine Mystique. Buck founded and financed the first adoption agency specializing in transracial adoption, and designed a program to rescue the mixed-race offspring of American soldiers—especially African Americans who fought in the Korean War—from neglect and rejection in Asian societies. She was a major figure in the reconsideration of the American missionary project itself. In these and other activities, Buck was “an evangelist for equality,” in the words of biographer Peter Conn. Buck was, for “three decades,” affirms another biographer, Hilary Spurling, a campaigner “for peace, tolerance, and liberal democracy, for the rights of children and minorities, for an end to discrimination on grounds of race and gender.”

Buck especially touched American women of her generation, above all those who read magazines like Reader’s Digest and Saturday Evening Post. As late as 1966 readers of Good Housekeeping voted her as one of the most admired women in America, surpassed only by Rose Kennedy, mother of the recently martyred president. In 2004, Oprah Winfrey renewed The Good Earth’s status as a best-seller by choosing a new edition for her own highly influential Book Club. In a typical reflection of 2010, the young writer Deborah Friedell observed that Buck was the favorite novelist of both of her grandmothers.

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Filed under China, democracy, education, Japan, Korea, migration, military, publishing, South Asia, U.S.

Missionaries as Foreign Correspondents

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 263-84:

American churches sent missionaries abroad from early in the nineteenth century, but the numbers increased rapidly in the mid-1880s. From then until World War II, missionaries were the primary source of information for most Americans about the non-European world, especially Asia. Newspaper correspondents, travel writers, National Geographic Magazine, world’s fairs, and the public representations of diplomats and businessmen all contributed impressions of non-European peoples. Missions were different; they provided a more intimate and enduring connection. Local churches often financed particular missionary families, with whom they regularly corresponded for many years. Religious periodicals kept foreign scenes constantly in front of readers in millions of American homes. The lectures delivered by missionaries on furlough were widely attended events in local communities as well as at regional and national meetings of denominations and cross-denominational organizations. The bravery and heroism of missionaries was the stuff of countless pamphlets and periodicals and memorials. The “Memorial Arch” on the Oberlin College campus, honoring the thirteen Oberlin graduates and their five children killed in the Boxer Rebellion, is a well-known example.

World War II and the decolonization of Asia and Africa catapulted missionary-connected Americans into positions of unprecedented importance because they were so far ahead of the global curve. That is why so much of this book is about the 1940s and 1950s. Knowledge of distant lands suddenly became much more functional. Individuals with experience abroad in business or diplomacy were also in demand, but their numbers were smaller and their language skills rarely as well-developed. After World War II, the public had many more sources of information about foreign countries. Never again would missionaries serve as the leading edge of American society’s engagement with the remote regions of the globe. But in the short run, missionary expertise was much in demand.

When former missionary Kenneth Landon was called to Washington in 1941 to advise President Roosevelt on the situation in Southeast Asia, he discovered that the US government’s entire intelligence file on Thailand consisted of a handful of published articles that he himself had written. When Edwin Reischauer was installed as the head of a military language training program in 1942, he noticed, upon arriving in Washington to take charge of his unit, that every person in the room was, like him, a child of missionaries or had spent time as a missionary. The China and Arab sections of the Foreign Service included a number of missionary sons. The Office of Strategic Services—predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency—employed many missionaries and missionary children. The ability of OSS agent Rosamond Frame to speak the nine dialects of Mandarin she learned as a missionary daughter in China opened discursive doors that would otherwise have remained closed.

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Filed under Africa, China, education, Japan, Korea, language, publishing, religion, U.S.