Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Pearl of China, by Anchee Min

After what felt like an endless list of Og Mandino books to be recorded for Malaysian Association for the Blind, I was very cheered to move on. Pearl of China's cover suggested to me a lightweight novel for young readers, but I quickly realised my error. It is in fact a historical novel about Pearl S. Buck, told from the Chinese perspective, and told well. After several months of recording with little enthusiasm, I began looking forward to the hours in the booth with this book.  It took me half a session just to record the final chapter, having to overwrite passages read with a quavering voice.  

Pearl Sydenstricker came as an infant with her Christian missionary parents to Chin-Kiang (today Zhenjiang). Her parents sent her back to the US to attend college, after which she returned to China, where she stayed until the Communist Revolution in 1934. She was, culturally and linguistically, Chinese. 

Anchee Min, a Chinese woman who migrated to the US when in her mid-20s, is especially well-equipped to address the lives, loves and challenges of a bi-cultural woman. In terms of the novel's accuracy, she confesses that the Chinese narrator, Willow Yee, is a composite character whom she created from the identities of several of Pearl's Chinese friends, and she shifted the dates of a couple of events to aid the story's flow. Otherwise, she claims to have stayed very close to the historical record.  

Pearl's father, Absalom Sydenstricker, was a fiercely driven missionary who often disregarded the needs and wishes of his wife and daughters in his zeal to minister to the Chinese. Pearl returned to China after college with a new fiance in tow -- Lossing Buck -- and, to Willow's dismay, Lossing was the agricultural version of Absalom. He aimed to save the Chinese peasantry by introducing new, modern farming methods, and he expected Pearl to assist him in this mission, much as Absalom looked to his wife as a helpmeet. 

Their marriage, if Anchee Min is anywhere near the truth of the matter, was a predictable train wreck. Lossing admired Pearl's ability to speak several dialects, but he himself was tone-deaf so would never master any of them, making him entirely dependent upon her for interpretation and translation. He was no more at ease with the local customs: He couldn't abide the Chinese festivities at their wedding. He chased the children out from under the bed on wedding night, where they were hiding to promote fertility. Perhaps Lossing's most signal failure of assimilation was his rejection of Chinese culinary culture.
Lossing was disgusted when he saw all the chopsticks reaching for the same plate. He said he would rather starve... he didn't even notice what she cooked for him. Unlike the Chinese, who lived to eat, Lossing ate to live.
To Willow's further distress, Pearl followed her husband to China's poorest province, Anhui, because the Governor there felt he had nothing to lose by giving the foreign agriculturist's suggestions a go. Unfortunately, the farmers were less receptive.
"How is your agriculturalist?" I asked.
"Well, he is turning into a disillusionist," Pearl replied. "Lossing resents the attitudes of Chinese farmers. He feels less sympathy toward their misery because they are closed to his ideas. His efforts didn't succeed and the farmers quit his experiments." 
Pearl sympathised with the peasants who saw her husband as a foolish man."Lossing believes that if his method works in Iowa, it must work in Anhui."

Although Lossing's missionary vision was a failure (he and Pearl went their separate ways after a few years), Absalom's was not. Perhaps by his sheer force of character, determination and passionate faith, he converted first a few and then ever more Chinese to Christianity (or their synchretised version of it).  Carie, Pearl's mother, drew people to the worship of Christ by her gentle ways, music lessons, and first aid treatments.  The people of Chin-Kiang may have been in awe of Absalom's booming Old Testament patriarch's voice, but they saw Christ's words in action when they were with Carie. When the foreigners came under threat, first from the Nationalists following Chiang Kai-Shek and then from the Communists led by Mao, the people of Chin-Kiang defended their pastor's family. When Pearl and her sister Grace and their children finally fled Maoist persecutions in 1934, Pearl probably hoped to return to China in the near future. Absalom stayed behind with his church while his daughters sailed for America.  

For the rest of the novel, Willow and Pearl stay in touch by letters, for which Willow suffers persecution and imprisonment. Pearl is now rejected as a foreign cultural imperialist by Mao and his wife, who is spearheading the Cultural Revolution. Pearl Buck's application for a visa to return to China with President Nixon at the time of his landmark visit in the 1970s was denied. This, Anchee Min believes, was the handiwork of the vengeful Madame Mao. Pearl died a few years later, and in the very moving denouement, Willow brings some soil from Carie's grave in Chin-Kiang to scatter on Pearl's grave in Pennsylvania, marvelling at the Chinese landscaping and greenhouse full of camellias surrounding her best friend's American home.  By taking some soil from Pearl's grave back to China, she will have successfully reunited their souls.

In the Author's Note, Anchee Min says that although Pearl Buck's story has been written many times, it's always been from the western perspective. She wanted to write about Pearl and  the impact of her work from a Chinese point of view. Although many Chinese during those years following the Boxer Rebellion blamed foreigners for many of the evils that befell them (and often rightfully so), this is a very refreshing portrayal of a family of foreigners who earned the abiding respect and love of the people with whom they lived. 

Her name is very familiar to me, but I've not yet read any of Pearl S. Buck's novels.  The Good Earth won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1932, and she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. It's high time I read some of her work, and I thank Anchee Min for this historical novel to give me the nudge that I needed.

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