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The unlikely rehabilitation of Pearl Buck (in China)

Politicians in the image-conscious Nationalist government that ruled China from 1911 to 1949 were infuriated by The Good Earth’s depiction of starving peasants, concubines, and banditry. When MGM began filming the movie version in China in 1934, government officials were determined to prevent the portrayal of anything they considered embarrassing. [Later, communists objected because she was a well-known anti-communist.]

As China has grown stronger and more confident during the past two decades, the old sensitivities about Pearl Buck have gradually receded. “The Party has done a 180-degree turn on Buck,” says the author’s son, Edgar Walsh. “They now see her as a friend of China and someone who has always been supportive of the Chinese people.”

The rehabilitation dates from the late 1980s, when an odd assortment of Chinese scholars and local government officials realized that Buck’s work had both intellectual and commercial value. One of the first to do so was Professor Liu Haiping, of Nanjing University, who is now an internationally recognized Pearl Buck scholar. “I went to the United States in 1984 and everyone asked me about Pearl Buck,” he explains. “But I didn’t know who she was. I didn’t even know she had taught at my university for 12 years! So I decided to find out about her.”

Pearl Buck's most popular work, The Good Earth, was the best-selling novel of both 1931 and 1932. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, was made into an acclaimed Hollywood movie in 1937, and was instrumental in leading the Swedish Academy to award her the Nobel Prize for literature in 1938, making her the first American woman to be so honored. The book became so influential in the United States that some scholars credit it with contributing to the 1943 repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which had barred virtually all Chinese emigration to the United States since 1882.

Other scholars go even further, claiming that Buck’s writings so changed the average American’s impression of Chinese people in the years before World War II that Americans became eager supporters of China in its war against Japan. As the Chinese scholar Kang Liao wrote in 1997, Pearl Buck “single-handedly changed the distorted image of the Chinese people in the American mind through literature. Chinese people were no longer seen as cheap, dirty, ridiculous coolies or sneaky, vicious, insidious devils. The majority of Chinese were seen for the first time in literature as honest, kindhearted, frugal-living, hard-working, gods-fearing peasants who are much the same as American farmers.” In 1992, historian James C. Thomson Jr. called Buck “the most influential Westerner to write about China since 13th-century Marco Polo.”

Read entire article at Wilson Quarterly