Pearl Buck: a guide to modern China

Growing up on a dairy farm we did not have many books. Most of our reading material was a large number of agricultural magazines such as Hoard’s Dairyman and the Guernsey Cattle Club magazine. Of the few books we had, Pearl Buck’s, The Good Earth, sat prominently upon the living room shelf more as decoration than as anything to read. I never saw my parents take it off the shelf to read it. I read it several times. It introduced me to the world of China, peasant life, love, and conflict. Only years later did I come to understand that my mother admired Pearl Buck because of her humanitarian work and adoption agency for mixed race children.

This was my first introduction to China, a distant exotic place of trial and discovery. Pearl Buck won the Nobel Peace Prize for this book in 1937. She was the first woman to do so and was an early feminist which put her at odds with her missionary friends and husbands.

She died in 1973. I wish I could have met her. In a way though I have met her through her writings. When she was at the peak of her writing skills she wrote an essay about her return to America titled, “On Discovering America.”

“I HAD LIVED ALL MY LIFE AN AMERICAN AWAY FROM America. Then I returned, a sort of immigrant among immigrants, except that I came to my native land. But it was as new to me as though I came from Sweden or from Italy or Greece. I knew almost as little what to expect before I landed. But we all have pictures, we immigrants, of what the America is to which we come. They must be pleasant pictures, or we would not have come. People do not easily leave all they know unless they hope for something much better. Of course I suppose most of us hoped for a better chance for a living, for more money, for more education, for more room. Some of us came for freedom, freedom to think as we liked, to be ourselves unhampered by family and traditions. Some of us, like me, came because we wanted to come home, never having known what it was like to be at home, having lived always among an alien race, spoken a foreign tongue and walked the streets and roads of every day as a foreigner. We have all come to the America we each thought we saw. I wish I could find out what other people have found in America. But I only know what I have found. I came from China, a land of long homogeneity and of unity, except perhaps for that least important of all, political unity. The Chinese are of the same general race. They have had an unbroken history of thousands of years. Their religions are the same, organized into three great types, mutually tolerant, non-evangelical, and mellowed by long human experience to a philosophy of humanism. Social customs are firmly fixed and such impacts as come from modern usages come against a solid whole which they can penetrate only gradually and therefore without great upset. Even the language is not really diversified, because three fourths of the people speak one language, or some form of it. Out of this great security of long established unit I came to America. Now I had my picture of America, too. It was made up of visual images of my mother’s much loved country home, of which she told me many stories, of a land of great plenty and ease, from which came money for the poor Chinese, because all Americans were rich and Christian. It would not have occurred to me that there were illiterate Americans, or unwashed or poor Americans, or criminals. As I grew older and understood better inevitable human nature this picture was modified and reason did indeed compel me to understand that heaven existed nowhere. But still something of this early picture persisted.

Her essay, while being a warning to America serves as an admonition to China today as it enters a time of prosperity and addiction to materialism.

In her essay she is baffled by the intolerance American whites have for blacks. She had lived all her life in a mono-racial culture so this was new but incomprehensible to her.

I grew up in a valley in the State of Washington that was quite anti-Asian. Japanese farmers in our valley were rounded up during WWII and taken to internment camps. When they returned to the valley after the war they found that their farms had been confiscated and many had to buy them back again.

Later when I was at Stanford University I was exposed to the history of CHinese in America by 5th and 6th generation Chinese classmates. I took a class on Chinese in American film. It was an eye-opening experience and I saw the bigotry of Americans toward American Chinese who were just as American as me. Charlie Chan was an object of mockery and prejustice. Chinese immigrant came to California in 1849 during the Gold Rush. Soon they were outlawed from working gold claims for themselves. hey were relegated to the tailing and dredge piles where little gold remaining. The Chinese operated laundries and provided domestic services for those who stuck it rich in the gold fields. Later the Chinese applied their heroic skills to building the railroad through the Rocky Mountains. Stanford University was built with railroad money and the blood of Chinese labor.

In the State of Washington  where I grew up there were Chinese Riots in Tacoma and Seattle in 1885.

The Tacoma riot of 1885 took place in the present day U.S. state of Washington, which was a territory at the time. It involved mobs expelling Chinese immigrants from the city of Tacoma, Washington. The riots in Tacoma were part of a broader wave of anti-Chinese violence in the American west during 1885 and 1886.

In October 1885, protesters in Tacoma announced that all Chinese in the city would have to leave by November. In early November, a mob of whites, led by the Tacoma Mayor Jacob Robert Weisbach and backed by the Tacoma Police, moved into Chinatown and ordered that the residents leave the city. The mob marched the Chinese to a railroad station and stuck them on a train to Portland. In Tacoma, few citizens resisted the mob action as Chinese hatred was widespread.

Because of the strong ties to shipping between China and Portland, the Chinese were tolerated. A few weeks ago, before coming to China, I visited the Lone Fir Cemetery, where many Chinese are buried in Southwest Portland. In 1947 the city paved over the graves and a building was placed over them. The building was removed in 2007 but the graves are still covered. I left a burning candle on the pavement before I left.

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About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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