Foreign Daughter of China

By Nancy Powell

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Posted August 19, 2010 in Arts & Culture

“I belong to China for I have lived there from childhood to adult…happy for me that instead of the narrow and conventional life of the white man in Asia, I lived with the Chinese people and spoke their tongue before I spoke my own, and their children were my best friends.”

Pearl S. Buck

My Several Worlds, 1954

Pearl S. Buck flirted with two cultures her entire life—a beloved personality in China but unread by its citizens; force fed to high school students but largely ignored beyond the classroom until The Good Earth caught Oprah’s attention in 2004. Whatever feelings exist for Pearl Buck, there is no doubt that she was an early advocate for the rural Chinese, a champion of civil and racial equality way before such thought was considered chic. Furthermore, she is now the subject of Anchee Min’s new book, Pearl of China, detailing Buck’s formative years in China at the turn of the century.

It is curious that Min should embrace Buck so wholeheartedly after being forced to rebuke Buck as a youngster and whom Madame Mao dubbed as an “American cultural imperialist.” Ironic considering that Mao championed peasants’ rights over the bourgeois, but sweet that Min has finally come to terms with someone so endeared in her native country for her “Chinese” life among the people.

Min’s new work moves seamlessly across two women’s lives, molding Min’s personal experiences into historical focus through the eyes of its main character, Willow Yee. Pearl of China starts with Willow as a youngster at the turn of the century, raised as a thief in the small village of Chin-Kiang. Willow and her family become drawn into the fabric of the Christian faith as a means to an end—namely, to sate their hunger. She runs into blond-haired, blue-eyed, precocious youngster Pearl during one of her thieving runs, and while resentment brews between the two girls, Pearl eventually befriends Willow just as Absalom and Cary, Pearl’s parents, “adopt” Willow into their fold. Willow’s family blends their own longstanding cultural traditions into the new faith, and life expands beyond the confines of their little village. The first part ends with Buck’s departure for the United States for collegiate studies and Willow’s arranged marriage to a man much older than she, from whom she eventually escapes.

Min devotes the second half of the novel to Buck’s return as a young, unhappily married woman and Willow’s career as a newspaperwoman and her own subsequent marriage to Dick Lin, a fellow editor and mouthpiece for Mao’s PR machine. At this point, Pearl of China moves at a Forrest Gump pace, throwing Willow and Pearl into a fast-forward historical montage of epic events that forces one to infer the finer details from Wikipedia, shameful after such a brilliant first half. The last quarter picks up steam again with Min’s depiction of life in Maoist China, where Min is at her best.

Throughout the novel, Min veers too much on the side of reverential regard for Buck, constantly reminding the reader of Pearl’s innate Chineseness. “Pearl once said that she felt . . . like she owned more than one world,” writes Min. “I like the idea and envied her.” Nevertheless, Min does an admirable job in imagining Buck’s youth and early adulthood in colonial China. For someone forced to denounce Buck in the first half of her life, Min has come full circle to realizing Buck’s significance in her own cultural identity. If anything, Pearl of China should capture enough of the imagination to pique renewed interest Pearl Buck . . . at least until the writer becomes dust in the attic of American thought.

Pearl of China by Anchee Min, Bloomsbury, Hardback, 288 pages. List Price $24.


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