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|
In search of Pearl
|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.
|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.
|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.|
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, 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.
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.
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:
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.