Monthly Archives: November 2012

Who was Pearl Buck? Finding the American author’s home and legacy in China


For almost 25 years I have been captivated by the work and life of Pearl Sydenstricker Buck. Pearl Buck was an American author who spent the first forty years of her life in China. Her experiences and insight into China came alive in her many novels and stories, the most famous being The Good Earth which was published in 1931. Her stories, novels and personal experiences have arguably played a huge role in the outside world’s understanding of China. Although it’s been nearly forty years since she passed away, her stories continue to move people and bridge positive relationships between China and the West.

Pearl S. Buck
The daughter of a Presbyterian missionary born in 1892, Pearl not only grew up and lived in China but knew the country intimately, inside and out. Because of her father’s missionary work, the Sydenstrickers were quite isolated and lived primarily only among local Chinese people rather than in a segregated world among other foreigners. Indeed, Chinese and English were both her first languages and she learned the ways of the people around her.  China was her home.
China being her foster country, she had a unique perspective of it that only few other foreigners could intimately understand. To say the least, her relationship with China was always tumultuous because of the many changes and growing pains that China experienced within her lifetime. In 1900 at the age of eight, her family made a near escape from her hometown of Zhenjiang to Shanghai during the Boxer Rebellion when angry boxers and the Empress Dowager Cixi declared war and death to foreigners across the country to put an end to foreign and imperialist influences in China. Again in 1927, her family barely escaped out alive from Nanjing when Nationalist troops, Communist forces and warlords turned on foreigners residing there. Hiding with a poor Chinese family who risked their own life harboring the fugitives, the Buck’s home was looted and the family escaped at the last possible moment when an American warship came to rescue remaining trapped residents in the city under siege.  When Pearl Buck finally left China in 1934, perhaps she didn’t realize that she would never return to China ever again. Political unrest and strife between Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist troops and Communist factions plagued the country along with Japan’s invasion of China and the Second World War, likely making a return to China near impossible. The establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 effectively closed off China to the outside world for more than twenty years. At the height of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that reigned in Marxist reform throughout China, Pearl Buck and her writing were denounced as imperialist by ideologues and school children across the country. Hoping to travel to China with American President Richard Nixon in 1972 when relations between China and the US began to warm, it is said that Pearl Buck’s request for a visa was personally denied by Madame Mao who hoped to succeed her husband politically. Said to be heartbroken, Pearl Buck never again returned to her home in China. She died the following year in 1973.
In the nearly forty years since the fateful decision that prevented Pearl Buck from returning to her home in China, her reputation as a friend and advocate of China has been restored. Her more famous works are available in both Chinese and English and American and Chinese organizations work together to honor her life in both her home and adopted countries. Recently I had the opportunity to witness this cross-cultural collaboration to memorialize her life and accomplishments both in the US and in China.

In search of Pearl
I first encountered Pearl Buck when I was in the 8th grade and read a copy of The Good Earth ( I will henceforth refer to Pearl Buck simply as Pearl as I feel as if I am writing about an old friend). Never a very avid reader, I remember being completely hooked from the beginning of the story of Wang Lung, a poor Chinese farmer who awakens with excitement on the day he’s going to meet and marry his bride Olan who is a servant slave girl at the estate of the wealthy family of the village. The ups and downs their family endures through famine, revolutions, family fortunes and misfortunes unexpectedly enchanted the 14 year old reader in me who never personally knew such tragedy or hardship. Pearl had so beautifully crafted the story so that I felt I personally was witnessing the trials and tribulations of the couple. Yet she wrote the story in simple enough language so that I never felt like the book was unattainable or for more educated and well-read minds than my own. After first reading The Good Earth, I slowly found a new appreciation of books and literature and people’s life experiences through the written word.  Time and time again and through the years, I would come back and reread The Good Earth- as a young adult and again when I moved to China two years ago. Each time I would pick it up, I knew what I was getting myself into and that I was reading the story to know my emotions were in check. I knew I was reading it so I could cry and feel the sadness at certain points in the saga. Yet still I would catch myself unexpectedly, uncontrollably and shamefully sobbing while reading it at certain parts. Each time I have read it, I have gained new and unique perspectives based on my own experiences in my life at that given time.
Pearl Buck’s headstone at her home in Pennsylvania. She transformed her garden and landscaped it with bamboo and other native Asian plants to remind her of her faraway home.
Pearl’s grave with her name Sai Zhenzhu in traditional characters.

I feel I’ve had a personal connection with Pearl and that somehow she has eluded me throughout my life. How is it that I feel this deep sense of connection and awe for a person who died two years before I was even born? Initially it was only her novel and words that moved and captivated me. I gradually started to learn more about the life and who the person was who wrote the book I have always loved.  Having just finished her biography, it now makes sense to me why I unsuspectingly had admiration for her and felt a connection. Certain strange and unexpected coincidences in her life happen to cross paths with my own. Imagine my surprise two weeks before moving to China in 2010 when I accidentally drove by Pearl Buck’s home in Buck County, Pennsylvania near where my sister Rachel lives. The next day, I dragged Rachel there with me. We paid our respects to her at her grave and also learned in a talk that Pearl taught at a university in Nanjing, China which was where I too would soon be moving to teach at a university. Here in Nanjing, I have tried to discover a little of Pearl’s China. I know that I am living here an entire century later, but I believe the whirlwind changes taking place here now may be similar to the search for identity and its place in the world that China was seeking to find during Pearl’s time. During a transition point in my life, China has comforted me and provided me with a never ending source of eye-opening perspectives and discoveries. Here in China I have developed into a confident educator who reaps much satisfaction from sharing and exchanging experiences with my young Chinese adult students. I like to think these are parallel to experiences Pearl had.

This past month, I finally crossed a big item on my must-see Pearl Buck homage list. With the company of a friend, I finally visited Zhenjiang, the hometown in China of Pearl Sydenstricker. The trip was two years in the making. Several times over the past two years, busy schedules got in the way of my pilgrimage to Zhenjiang. Only 20 minutes away by high speed train from Nanjing, I was running out of excuses not to visit Zhenjiang and knew I was just going to have to make the time.
Exploring the network of alleys in Zhenjiang.

Pearl’s home in Zhenjiang is now one of the major tourist attractions of the city. It was renovated and opened by the local Zhenjiang government in 1992. I later learned that the home that I visited was not actually her childhood home but the home where her parents resided after Pearl had grown up, married and moved to Anhui Province with her husband Lossing Buck. Nevertheless, it seems that the local tourism board of Zhenjiang and the museum really took pains to preserve the home to its true, original state as well as to bring to life the world Pearl lived in as girl and adolescent.  As such, they have wonderfully memorialized and paid homage to their Sai Zhenzhu, Pearl’s name in Chinese. Only a five minute walk from the train station in Zhenjiang, a large road sign indicates to tourists and Pearl Buck enthusiasts the proximity of the residence. Tucked back on a hill, we had to poke around on little side streets and alleys before we located her home. This part I appreciated as we got to experience the everyday hubbub of local Zhenjiang citizens. Dogs were running around, motorbikes were skirting up the side streets, locals were playing cards and the strong aroma of vinegar wafted in the air (Zhenjiang is apparently famous across China for its vinegar).  This gave me a sense of how life may have been around the Sydenstricker’s home as Pearl herself experienced it back in the day.

At last finding the Sydenstricker’s home.
Pearl’s childhood bedroom

Walking into the Sydenstricker’s home, I was transformed to another time. The home is just as much a tribute to Pearl’s parents and other people who shaped her formative years as it is to Pearl herself. On the lower level of the house, I entered the dining room where the dinner table was set with fake plastic dishes of cooked chicken fillets, cheese and other American dishes that Pearl’s mother Carrie favored. Also on the lower level of the house was Wang Amah’s room. Part of the family for many years, Wang Amah was the Sydenstricker’s housekeeper and the children’s ayi or nanny.  I found it fitting that Wang Amah’s room had a prominent part in the house so visitors could understand that she likely also had an influential role in Pearl’s upbringing, shaping of her identity and worldviews and her lifelong love and attachment to China as her home.  After viewing Wang Amah’s room, I wandered upstairs to Pearl’s parents’ modest room. Her father Absalom’s bible prominently sat in a corner of a night side table in their room and a separate adjacent room has been turned into his study. After pausing in her parents’ wing of the house, I finally wandered over to the wing of the house that had been dedicated to Pearl herself. Her writing desk where she likely penned many of her literary works was right there for me to touch and try to absorb her thoughts. Finding myself at the foot of her bed, it was a surreal moment as if I was looking down at a little girl from 115 years before who unknowingly would someday move and affect countless lives by eloquently sharing her unique experiences and world.

Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) played a major role economically during Pearl’s lifetime.

Following a visit to Pearl’s home, we wandered around the city of Zhenjiang itself. Located on the south bank of the Yangtze River, I learned that Zhenjiang was not some backwater town where the Sydenstrickers took up post miles from any other foreigners. Because of its prominent position on the Yangtze River, its strategic location near Nanjing, and its easy access to Shanghai upstream, it garnered American and British interest as early as 1861. British and American consulates, the Asiatic Petroleum Company as well as Standard Oil all had vested interests in Zhenjiang. Today, tourists can wander through the cobbled streets of the old quarter peeking into the gate of the old British consulate which was rebuilt following its destruction by fire caused by an angry mob in 1889. Cafés and restaurants now checker this preserved part of the city.

A reminder of Zhenjiang’s and China’s tense relationship with foreigners.
A coolie in Zhenjiang during the time of Pearl’s childhood.

Sipping a coffee in an open-air café in the restored Jianyuan Gardens, I was bemused by the irony of countless tourists snapping a picture of the apparently rare sighting of a foreign tourist visiting the hometown of one of Zhenjiang’s most famous former residents. It is said as a little girl, Pearl herself was unaware of her difference from her Chinese brethren until she was about four and a half years old. Instructed to tuck in her blonde hair into a cap, she was told that only black hair and eyes were normal. Feeling slightly uncomfortable myself with being the subject of several random strangers’ photographs, I then imagined what a frightful and crazy scene it must have been for locals back in the 1890’s when a little blonde haired, blue eyed, pale skinned apparition effortlessly spoke flawless, local Zhenjiang dialect. I suppose the feeling of “otherness” and being a waiguoren, or a foreigner, was a feeling Pearl Buck must have struggled with throughout her formative years growing up in China. Or did she? Maybe she didn’t blame any of her Chinese brethren for seeing her differently. She understood that China was going through a transformation throughout her years there and also likely understood the mixed feelings and curiosity many Chinese felt towards foreigners. Intimately understanding the Chinese experience and mindset, Pearl Buck was in a unique position to help foreigners new to China understand Chinese perspectives. It was ultimately this gift that is forever memorialized in her writing.

Sometimes my Chinese students ask me to recommend English language novels for them to improve their vocabulary and to help them learn about American culture. Perhaps they find it strange when I recommend a novel from someone who wrote so intimately about their own part of the world. I think younger Chinese readers will especially be touched by the careful, detailed and loving portrayal of different aspects of Chinese life from before their time.  What a wonderful gift Pearl Buck’s writing and legacy have left not only to readers from outside of China, but to China itself.

Some of today’s locals from Zhenjiang. These boys followed us in the late afternoon until we reached the Peal Buck Museum. As they wandered into the museum, they curiously looked at the pictures, clothing and writings of a young Pearl Buck.
Pearl Buck places to visit:
In China:
Pearl S. Buck Former Residence and the Pearl S. Buck Museum
6 Runzhou Shan Lu, Zhenjiang
The museum is located right next to the residence. Both the residence and the museum are free of charge. Visiting hours of both attractions are 9 am- 11:30 and 1:30-5.Pearl S Buck Memorial House
Nanjing University, Nanjing
Nanjing University recently turned Pearl Buck’s home during her years in Nanjing into a memorial. Pearl lived with her husband and two daughters in Nanjing from 1920 – 1933. She taught English literature at both Nanjing University and the National Central University (which is now Southeast University in Nanjing). I have yet to find and visit this location but shall update with any information I find!
Pearl S. Buck Summer Villa
Lu Shan or Mount Lu
Pearl, her siblings and her parents spent many summers on Mount Lu to escape the oppressive heat in Zhenjiang at the summer villa Pearl’s father built in northern Jianxi Province. It is apparently at this summer residence where Pearl penned The Good Earth.
In the US:
Pearl S. Buck Residence
520 Dublin Road, Perkasie, PA 18944
In Bucks County outside of Philadelphia, this is where Pearl Buck resided with her second husband Richard Walsh and with their growing family of adopted children from 1935 until her death in 1973. Here you can visit her grave, tour the home and also learn about her work in starting the first international, interracial adoption agency and in advocating for an end to discrimination and poverty of children from Asian countries.
The Pearl S. Buck Birthplace
U.S. 219
Hillsboro, West Virginia 24946
Born in Hillsboro, West Virginia in the hills of Appalachian Mountain, Pearl moved to China at the age of three months in 1892.

For Further Reading:

If you can’t visit any of the Pearl Buck residences, enjoy these books.
The Good Earth by Pearl Buck
First published in 1931, this book then went on to get Pearl Buck both a Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Although the Good Earth itself is probably Pearl Buck’s most famous novel, it is the first of a trilogy. The other two volumes in the trilogy include Sons and A House Divided. This is a good place to start with her literature.
Published in 2010, this biography of Pearl Buck gives intimate details about Pearl Buck’s life in China as well as her complex relationship with the country following her return to the US and in the following decades.
Coming of age during the Cultural Revolution, Chinese author Anchee Min was instructed to denounce Pearl Buck in school in the late 1960’s. Years later after having moved to the US and after being a published author herself, Min finally read a copy of The Good Earth. Moved by Pearl Buck’s intimate portrayal of the peasant experience in China, Min set out to visit Pearl’s hometown and get first-hand accounts of Pearl and her life in Zhenjiang. What came out from it was this novel which is a fictionalized account of Pearl Buck’s life from the perspective of her childhood and lifelong friend.