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Pearl S. Buck



Pearl S. Buck

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Nobel Prize in Literature

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck (June 26, 1892 — March 6, 1973) also known as Sai Zhen Zhu (Simplified Chinese: 赛珍珠; Pinyin: Sài Zhēnzhū; Traditional Chinese: 賽珍珠), was a prolific American sinologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer. In 1938, she became the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, "for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces." With no irony, she has been described in China as a Chinese writer.

Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker Buck was born in Hillsboro, West Virginia to Caroline (Stulting; 1857-1921) and Absalom Sydenstricker, a Southern Presbyterian missionary. The family was sent to Zhenjiang, China in 1892 when Pearl was 3 months old. She was raised in China and was tutored by a Confucian scholar named Mr. Kung. She was taught English as a second language by her mother and tutor.

The Boxer Uprising greatly affected Pearl Buck and her family. Buck wrote that during this time, …her eight-year-old childhood … split apart. Her Chinese friends deserted her and her family, and there were not as many Western visitors as there once were. The streets [of China] were alive with rumors- many … based on fact- of brutality to missionaries … Buck’s father was a missionary, so Buck’s mother, her little sister, and herself were …evacuated to the relative safety of Shanghai, where they spent nearly a year as refugees… (The Good Earth, Introduction) In July 1901, Buck and her family sailed to San Francisco. Not until the following year did the Sydenstrickers return to China.

In 1910, she left China once again for America to attend Randolph-Macon Woman's College, where she would earn her degree (Phi Beta Kappa) in 1914. She then returned to China and married an agricultural economist missionary, John Lossing Buck, on May 13, 1917. She lived with him in Suzhou, Anhui Province, a small town on the Huai River (There are two cities in China with the same English name 'Suzhou', one in Anhui while the more famous one is in Jiangsu Province. The one where the Bucks had spent several years was in Anhui). It is the region she described later in "The Good Earth."; her book was very much based on her experience in Suzhou, Anhui. She served in China as a Presbyterian missionary from 1914 until 1933. Her views later became highly controversial in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, leading to her resignation as a missionary.

In 1920, she and John had a daughter, Carol, who was afflicted with phenylketonuria. The small family then moved to Nanjing, where Pearl taught English literature at the University of Nanking. In 1925, the Bucks adopted Janice (later surnamed Walsh). In 1926, she left China and returned to the United States for a short time in order to earn her Masters degree from Cornell University.

From 1920 to 1933, Pearl and John made their home in Nanking (Nanjing), on the campus of Nanking University, where both had teaching positions. In 1921, Pearl's mother died, and shortly afterwards her father moved in with the Bucks. The tragedies and dislocations which Pearl suffered in the 1920s reached a climax in March 1927, in the violence known as the "Nanking Incident." In a confused battle involving elements of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist troops, Communist forces, and assorted warlords, several Westerners were murdered. The Bucks spent a terrified day in hiding, after which they were rescued by American gunboats. After a trip downriver to Shanghai, the Buck family sailed to Unzen, Japan, where they spent the following year. They later moved back to Nanking, though conditions remained dangerously unsettled.

In 1935 Pearl got a divorce. Richard Walsh, president of the John Day Company and her publisher, became her second husband. The couple lived in Pennsylvania.

Humanitarian efforts
Buck was an extremely passionate activist for human rights. In 1949, outraged that existing adoption services considered Asian and mixed-race children unadoptable, Pearl established Welcome House, Inc., the first international, interracial adoption agency. In the nearly five decades of its work, Welcome House has assisted in the placement of more than five thousand children. In 1964, to provide support for Asian-American children who were not eligible for adoption, Buck also established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, which provides sponsorship funding for thousands of children in half a dozen Asian countries. When establishing the Opportunity House Foundation to support child sponsorship programs in Asia, Buck said, "The purpose...is to publicize and eliminate injustices and prejudices suffered by children, who, because of their birth, are not permitted to enjoy the educational, social, economic and civil privileges normally accorded to children."

While the historic site works to preserve and display artifacts from her profoundly multicultural life, many of Buck's life experiences are also described in her novels, short stories, fiction, and children's stories. Through them she sought to prove to her readers that universality of mankind can exist if man accepts it. She dealt with many topics including women's rights, emotions (in general), Asian cultures, immigration, adoption, and conflicts that many people go through in life.

Pearl S. Buck died of lung cancer on March 6, 1973 in Danby, Vermont and was interred in Green Hills Farm in Perkasie. She designed her own tombstone, which does not record her name in English; instead, the grave marker is inscribed with Chinese characters representing the name Pearl Sydenstricker.



Type of novel: Novel
Author: Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973)
Type of plot: Social chronicle
Time of plot: Early twentieth century
Locale: Northern China
First published: 1931


With a detached, pastoral style, this novel follows the cycles of birth, marriage, and death in the Chinese peasant family of Wang Lung. The good years of plentiful harvest, marriage, and healthy children are balanced by the times of near starvation and stillborn progeny. Wang Lung finally finds himself a wealthy man, but his grown sons for whom he has worked so hard have no respect for their father's love of the good earth; they plan to sell his hard-earned property as soon as he dies.



Principal Characters

Wang Lung, an ambitious farmer who sees in the land the only sure source of livelihood. But at the end of his life his third son has left the land to be a soldier and his first and second sons callously plan to sell the land and go to the city as soon as Wang dies.
O-lan, a slave bought by Wang's father to marry Wang. She works hard in their small field with Wang, and during the civil war violence she loots in order to get money to buy more land. She dies in middle age of a stomach illness.
Nung En, their oldest son, who, when he covets his father's concubine, Lotus Blossom, is married to the grain merchant Liu's daughter.
Nung Wen, their second son, apprenticed to Liu.
The Fool, their feebleminded daughter.
Liu, a grain merchant in the town.
The Uncle, who brings his wife and shiftless son to live on Wang's farm. Secretly a lieutenant of a robber band, he also brings protection.
Lotus Blossom, Wang Lung's concubine, who is refused entrance into the house by O-Lan.
Ching, a neighbor hired by Wang Lung as overseer, as the farm is extended.
Pear Blossom, a pretty slave taken by Wang after the death of his wife.


The Story

His father had chosen a slave girl to be the bride of Wang Lung, a slave from the house of Hwang, a girl who would keep the house clean, prepare the food, and not waste her time thinking about clothes. On the morning he led her out through the gate of the big house, they stopped at a temple and burned incense. That was their marriage.
O-lan was a good wife. She thriftily gathered twigs and wood, so that they would not have to buy fuel. She mended Wang Lung's and his father's winter clothes and scoured the house. She worked in the fields beside her husband, even on the day she bore their first son.
The harvest was a good one that year. Wang Lung had a handful of silver dollars from the sale of his wheat and rice. He and O-lan bought new coats for themselves and new clothes for the baby. Together they went to pay their respects, with their child, at the home in which O-lan had once been a slave. With some of the silver dollars Wang Lung bought a small field of rich land from the Hwangs.
The second child was born a year later. It was again a year of good harvest.
Wang Lung's third baby was a girl. On the day of her birth crows flew about the house, mocking Wang Lung with their cries. The farmer did not rejoice when his little daughter was born, for poor farmers raised their daughters only to serve the rich. The crows had been an evil omen. The child was born feebleminded.
That summer was dry, and for months no rain fell. The harvest was poor. After the little rice and wheat had been eaten and the ox killed for food, there was nothing for the poor peasants to do but die or go south to find work and food in a province of plenty. Wang Lung sold their furniture for a few pieces of silver. After O-lan had borne their fourth child, found dead with bruises on its neck, the family began their journey. Falling in with a crowd of refugees, they were lucky. The refugees led them to a railroad, and with the money Wang Lung had received for his furniture they traveled on a train to their new home.
In the city they constructed a hut of mats against a wall, and while O-lan and the two older children begged, Wang Lung pulled a ricksha. In that way they spent the winter, each day earning enough to buy rice for the next.
One day an exciting thing happened. There was to be a battle between soldiers in the town and an approaching enemy. When the wealthy people in the town fled, the poor who lived so miserably broke in the houses of the rich. By threatening one fat fellow who had been left behind, Wang Lung obtained enough money to take his family home.
O-lan soon repaired the damage which the weather had done to their house during their absence; then, with jewels which his wife had managed to plunder during the looting of the city, Wang Lung bought more land from the house of Hwang, He allowed O-lan to keep two small pearls which she fancied. Now Wang Lung had more land than one man could handle, and he hired one of his neighbors, Ching, as overseer. Several years later he had six men working for him. O-lan, who after their return from the south, had borne him twins, a boy and a girl, no longer went out into the fields to work but kept the new house he had built. Wang Lung's two oldest sons were sent to school in the town.
When his land was flooded and work impossible until the water receded, Wang Lung began to go regularly to a tea shop in the town. There he fell in love with Lotus and brought her home to his farm to be his concubine. O-lan would have nothing to do with the girl, and Wang Lung was forced to set up a separate establishment for Lotus in order to keep the peace.
When he found that his oldest son visited Lotus often while he was away, Wang Lung arranged to have the boy marry the daughter of a grain merchant in the town. The wedding took place shortly before O-lan, still in the prime of life, died of a chronic stomach illness. To cement the bond between the farmer and the grain merchant, Wang Lung's second son was apprenticed to Liu, the merchant, and his youngest daughter was betrothed to Liu's young son. Soon after O-lan's death Wang Lung's father followed her. They were buried near one another on a hill on his land.
When he grew wealthy, an uncle, his wife, and his shiftless son came to live with Wang Lung. One year there was a great flood, and although his neighbors' houses were pillaged by robbers during the confusion, Wang Lung was not bothered. Then he learned that his uncle was second to the chief of the robbers. From that time on, he had to give way to his uncle's family, for they were his insurance against robbery and perhaps murder.
At last Wang Lung coaxed his uncle and aunt to smoke opium, and so they became too involved in their dreams to bother him. But there was no way he could curb their son. When the boy began to annoy the wife of Wang Lung's oldest son, the farmer rented the deserted house of Hwang, and he, with his own family, moved into town. The cousin left to join the soldiers. The uncle and aunt were left in the country with their pipes to console them.
After Wang Lung's overseer died, he did no more farming himself. From that time on he rented his land, hoping that his youngest son would work it after his death. But he was disappointed. When Wang Lung took a slave young enough to be his granddaughter, the boy, who was in love with her, ran away from home and became a soldier.
When he felt that his death was near. Wang Lung went back to live on his land, taking with him only his slave, young Pear Blossom, his feebleminded first daughter, and some servants. One day as he accompanied his sons across the fields, he overhead them planning what they would do with their inheritance, with the money they would get from selling their father's property. Wang Lung cried out, protesting that they must never sell the land because only from it could they be sure of earning a living. He did not know that they looked at each other over his head and smiled.
Buck's most popular and widely read novel. It depicts a simple picture, the cycle of life from early years until death. Some Americans who first read the book thought the simple detailed descriptions of everyday Chinese life were "too Chinese" and, therefore, unappealing. Then, too, some Chinese felt that the author's portrayal of their people was inaccurate and incomplete. Most Chinese intellectuals objected to her choice of the peasant farmer as a worthy subject of a novel. They preferred to have the Western world see the intellectual and philosophical Chinese, even though that group was (and is) in the minority. Buck's only answer to such criticism was that she wrote about what she knew best; these were the people whom she came to love during her years in the interior of China.
The theme of The Good Earth is an uncomplicated one with universal appeal. The author tries to show how man can rise from poverty and relative insignificance to a position of importance and wealth. In some ways, the story is the proverbial Horatio Alger tale that so many Americans know and admire. The distinctive feature of this novel is its setting. Wang Lung, the main character around whom the action in the novel resolves, is a poor man who knows very little apart from the fact that land is valuable and solid and worth owning. Therefore, he spends his entire life trying to acquire as much land as he can in order to ensure his own security as well as that of his family and descendants for generations to come. Ironically, he becomes like the rich he at first holds in awe. He has allowed himself to follow in their path, separating himself from the land. The earth theme appears repeatedly throughout the book. Wang Lung's greatest joy is to look out over his land, to hold it in his fingers, and to work it for his survival. Even at the end of the novel he returns to the old quarters he occupied on his first plot of land so that he can find the peace he knows his kinship with the land can bring him.
Buck's style is that of a simple direct narrative. There are no complicated literary techniques such as foreshadowing, flashbacks, or stream of consciousness. Neither are there any involved subplots to detract from the main story line. Wang Lung is, as has been noted, the central character, and all the other characters and their actions relate in one way or another to him. The Good Earth is structured upon characterization; it is a book of dramatic episodes which are projected through the sensitivities and experiences of those characters. It may be said that a strength of the author's characterization is her consistency, that is to say, all of her characters act and react in keeping with their personalities. None is a mere stereotype, as their motives are too complex. O-lan is typically good, but there are aspects of her personality which give her depth, dimension, and originality. When she does some seemingly dishonest thing such as steal the jewels she found at the home of the plundered rich, or kill the small baby girl born to her in ill health, she is consistent with her character in the context of these situations. She is realistic, and she sees both acts as producing more good than evil.
One of the most obvious and significant Chinese customs which appears repeatedly in the novel is the submission of the wife in all things to the will of the man. Girls were born only to be reared for someone else's house as slaves, while boys were born to carry on family names, traditions, and property. Such were the conditions in China when Buck wrote The Good Earth. Since that time, along with many other changes, the status of women in China has improved, although the old ways die hard.
The novel may be criticized as having no climax. True enough, there is no single momentous decision. Instead, dramatic interest is sustained by well-placed turning points which give the story new direction. One such point is Wang Lung's marriage to O-lan, which is followed by their first satisfying years together. Later, in the face of poverty, destitution, and little hope of recovery, Wang Lung demands and receives the handful of gold from the rich man and is thus able to get back to his land. At this point we see how very much Wang Lung's land means to him and what he is willing to do to have it back. In the closing pages of the novel, the quiet servitude and devotion of Pear Blossom, his slave, brings him the only peace and contentment he is to know in his last years.
The success of The Good Earth is apparent. Pearl Buck won the Pulitzer Prize for it and it has been dramatized as well as made into a motion picture. It is widely read in many languages, undoubtedly because of its universal appeal as a clear portrayal of one man's struggle for survival, success, and ultimate happiness.



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