Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Pearl of China by Anchee Min

The month of May coincidentally saw the publication of  two books, both of which tell the story of  the much-loved American writer, Pearl Buck's life.  Anchee Min's "Pearl of China" is the lighter one of the two and an excellent novelisation of Buck's early- to- mid years in China, but those wanting a more indepth version of Buck's life would likely be satisfied with Hilary Spurling's biography "Burying the Bones".

The story of how Anchee Min came to write this fictional account of Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck’s persecutions during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, is very touching.  When Anchee Min was still a school girl in Shanghai, China, she was asked to denounce Pearl Buck.  Anchee Min had no idea how to go about denouncing someone she had never met or whose books she had never read (her request to read Buck's "The Good Earth" before writing the denouncement had been turned down).  Fast forward to 25 years: at one of Anchee Min's readings in a bookshop in the US a lady pressed a copy of "The Good Earth" into Anchee Min's hands and stated that Pearl Buck had made her love the Chinese.  In her hotel room that night, Anchee Min finally got a chance to read "The Good Earth" and was so moved and felt so guilty for denouncing Buck all those many years ago she decided to write this biography as a means to atone for that sin.

I have always enjoyed anything written by Anchee Min.  This lady has such a flair for historical fiction, she makes it fun, informative and so,so real, you never forget a thing.  Also, she is a meticulous researcher, so although her work is labeled fiction, chances are that a lot of the details are true.  For instance, in the case of Pearl Buck's life, Anchee Min, apart from pouring over public records and Buck's personal correspondence, she also visited Pearl Buck's family home in Chin-Kiang, China and interviewed families that had contact with Pearl's family.

The character, Willow, also the narrator of this story, is an amalgamation of the friends that Pearl had in China.  Through Willow we learn that Pearl's father Absolam was a missionary to China and that his whole life was spent trying to convert Chinese people to the Christian faith.  His long-suffering wife Carie was terribly homesick for America but because Absolam refused to leave China she stayed on too and her work with the Chinese people made them so indebted to her that many of them converted to Christianity just to show Carie their gratitude.

Ever since she was very young Pearl wanted to be Chinese and not American, so much so, she had her Chinese nanny make her a crocheted, black cap which she would wear all of the time to keep her blonde hair covered.  She spoke Chinese like a native and even preferred to eat Chinese food over anything western.  Pearl and Willow became friends after Willow's father, a beggar, decided to join Absolam's church for the free food. Later, he was genuinely converted and became a Christian.

Pearl and Willow remained good friends despite Pearl's various long trips to the US and Willow's unhappy marriage to a man who was several years her senior.  When Pearl came back for a longer stay (married and with a mentally-disabled child, Carol) their friendship became even stronger although it was not without its trials.  You see, for a while both Pearl and Willow were in love with the same man: Hsu Chih-mo who was considered to be China's Shelly. When it was obvious that Hsu Chih-mo loved Pearl, Willow decided to let go of him.   Part of Pearl's attraction to Hsu Chih-mo was the fact that he was a Chinese man who was unafraid to speak his mind...his passion for poetry and life really appealed to her, but also, her American husband Lossing Buck didn't seem at all interested in their marriage and soon deserted her for a young Chinese woman called Lotus.

Willow in turn married Hsu Chih-mo's friend and admirer who worked in  the Communist party. Those were very trying times for Willow as Mao and especially, Madame Mao seemed to have made it their mission to dishonour Pearl Buck and turn her into an enemy of the Chinese people.  Knowing Willow was Buck's friend they asked her to denounce Buck as a cultural imperialist, something Willow refused to do and  was imprisoned, tortured, starved and set to cleaning sewers (something that is very believable if you've read historical accounts of lives during Mao's rule of China)

 "Pearl of China" provides a quick glimpse into Chinese history in the 20th century.  We are taken through 80-plus years of China's history from the Boxer Rebellion to the Japanese invasion;  the war between the Nationalists and Communists and the establishment of the Mao era and on to the Cultural Revolution and China's opening to the West and surprisingly none of it feels rushed...I guess that is a testament to the great skill of Anchee Min as a fictional writer of history.  Her descriptions of places, people and time are always so engaging, you hardly notice the passing of the years!

Pearl Buck's life has been the subject of  many books but most of her biographers have been Westerners. Anchee Min hopes her book will allow readers to see how Pearl Buck is viewed in China by the Chinese people.   You come away from this book realizing the extraordinary hold China had on one of the most influential women of the 20th century, and how much she empathized with the Chinese people (especially the peasants).  She was the first author to write about the Chinese peasants and anyone who has read "The Good Earth" knows she did so movingly, empathetically and powerfully.  Not only is "The Good Earth" a very moving read, but one could say it was a very powerful force in helping Americans move beyond the bigotry, contempt and ignorance with which they had long viewed the Chinese.

Had Pearl Buck not been forced to leave China for the US during the Boxer Rebellion I feel certain she would have lived in China for the rest of her life. She always, always wanted to return to China and forty years later she came close to returning (as part of Nixon's entourage on a State visit to China in 1972) but Madame Mao saw to it that Pearl was refused a visa. Pearl died the next year at home in Pennsylvania. I wouldn't be at all surprised if she died from a broken heart.

If "Pearl of China" whets your appetite for more of Pearl Buck (and I have no doubt it will), I would highly recommend reading Hilary Spurling's " Burying the Bones"....I heard an audio version of the book and was very satisfied.

13 comments:

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Jennie said...

Oooo... I'll have to look for this. When I was studying in China, I walked past the house she lived in while teaching at Nanjing University when I walked from my dorm to my classroom. We also took a field trip to see her family home in Zhenjiang.

I love Buck's work, and am a huge Anchee Min fan, so this book must be read! Thanks for telling me about it!

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Bhaswati said...

How coincidental that I should read this review soon after finishing "The Good Earth". Buck's portrayal of rural China and the simple yet tough life of a farmer is a sincere and moving yarn of the love of labour.

The book shows the protagonist, Wang Lung, bringing home a second wife, the young and beautiful, Lotus. I wonder, if it was inspired by Buck's own life, as you mentioned in the review?

Ami said...

I've always been a huge Pearl Buck fan. "Letter from Peking" is one of my all time favourite books, and I would rank it above even "The Good Earth". I've also read a couple of Pearl Buck's autobiographical works: "My Several Worlds" and "A Bridge for Passing". I've also read a book on Hsu Chih-mo "Bound Feet and Western Dress", though that is more about his first wife. I never came across any link ups between the two of them..so it will be interesting to read this book. Lovely review!

Lotus Reads said...

Jennie, hi! You are lucky to have seen all of that! When and if I visit China I would certainly enjoy seeing where she lived and taught. Do the Chinese have Pearl Buck tours, do you know? Somehow I think not, but maybe some foreign (US) tour operators, based in China might, no?

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Bhaswati!!! Apparently Pearl Buck was totally moved by the plight of the peasants (she saw a lot of them because her father was a evangelist and preached to the peasants). Before "The Good Earth" there hadn't been even one Chinese (or non-Chinese) writer to have written about the peasant class....Buck's novel was a seminal piece and an outstanding work of fiction. And yes, to answer your question, I am sure a lot of the characters in there were based on people she knew. For instance, her nanny was rescued from the sex trade and had lotus feet. Pearl's family being missionaries went out of their way to save the destitute so Pearl's world was filled with people whose sufferings she saw on a regular basis - something that other foreigners in China would simply not be privy to.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Ami!!! I am embarrassed to admit that I have read only a couple of Pearl Buck's books. You have made me very curious about "Letter from Peking" and thanks to your endorsement I am going to pick it up. And OMG, I read "Bound Feet and Western Dress" ages ago but when I was reading "Pearl of China", I did not make the connection between "Bound Feet" and Hsu Chih-mo's wife!!! Thank you for reminding me about the book, I'll need to go through it again!

Sanjay said...

Enjoyed reading your review as always Lotus.
What do you think makes people give up their faith and convert to a different faith to show gratitude?
Perhaps the same way as Pearl wanted to be Chinese and not American?
I pondered this but being an agnostic, it is hard to answer something like this for me that is.

Lotus Reads said...

Tough question you post Sanj :) I know I wouldn't change my faith to show gratitude, but then again, it depends how desperate the situation was, how valuable the help rendered and most importantly how strong they felt about the religion they were born into. I suspect for most converts, the religion they are born into doesn't have a strong hold on them.

Sanjay said...

Thanks for the response and you put it quite well.
Wonder if the time the book referred to was the time that the communists banished any sense of religion the Chinese had? I have to confess to not knowing much here.
I thought they had more of a philosophy rather than a religion?

Madeleine said...

Hi Angelique :)

Keeping in touch through our book blogs.
The first book my mother put in my ands at age 9 was a novel by Pearl S. Buck, nice memorie...I have "PEARL" by Anchee Min althoughI have not read tis book yet.
Thank-you for your review.

Lotus Reads said...

Always SO HAPPY to see you Madeleine!!!