Bucking Stereotypes

by Kenneth Champeon, May 7, 2005 | Destinations: China / Beijing

"'Go with your wife into that room where your mother lived and died, who conceived and bore you, and beget there your two sons.' "So the two moved into it and were content."

I know what you're thinking: the Bible, right? Wrong. This passage is taken from Pearl S. Buck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Good Earth. Since its publication in 1931, it has become a classic account of rural Chinese life. Millions of copies have been sold and its story has been made into an Academy Award-winning film. Largely because of its success, Buck won the Nobel Prize in Literature and hobnobbed with mucky-muck muckrakers like Eleanor Roosevelt.

What is so good about The Good Earth? First of all, it revolutionized the way Westerners thought about Asians, who had previously been portrayed as subhuman, somewhat menacing -- at any rate foreign, Other. Indeed, the film version used Western and not Asian actors in the lead roles, a peculiar and unconvincing practice that continued at least until Sir Alec Guinness' portrayal of a desi in A Passage to India.

Buck does not merely Westernize her Chinese characters, but humanizes them. That is, to the extent that one can humanize slavery, concubinage, opium addiction, and foot-binding - practices liable to send a shudder through many a Main Street spine. But Buck depicts without judging. She also gives to the heretofore-inscrutable Oriental universal human emotions, including ambition.

Secondly, The Good Earth tells a universal story. It is popular for the same reason that the Bible as literature is popular, namely that everybody has at one time or another identified with the struggles of one of its characters. Every family has a bad egg and a black sheep. Every man desires an extra woman. Everybody cries out, "Why hast thou forsaken me?"

Finally, the novel is written in an accessible yet stirring language. Readers raised on the vocabulary and cadences of the King James Bible will instantly be attracted to it, as will fans of Buck's contemporary William Faulkner. The Biblical connection does not stop there, though. The book even features a plague of locusts.

The Good Earth is about one Chinese farmer named Wang Lung and his lifelong effort to transcend his lowly origins. The novel opens with Wang Lung marrying a slave girl of the House of Hwang, seat of the local fiefdom. As Wang works his land, his wife cares for Wang's decrepit father. She also produces babies like an assembly line produces Cadillacs. Then, every farmer's nightmare: drought strikes and people starve. The family packs up and moves south. Wife takes to begging, Wang straps on a ricksha.

Wang's big break comes when the rabble breaches the gates of a local palace, and the frustrated farmer absconds with handfuls of gold. He and his family return to the farm and Wang starts to buy land pawned off by the House of Hwang, whose weakness for constant inopiation and fancy foods precipitates its decline.

Wang does not steal the gold outright. He merely wanders into the palace and discovers a fat (literally fat) cat offering his money for his life. The sheer scale of the cat's fatness spurs the wispy Wang on to extortion, a step up on the moral scale from theft. Were he merely to have stolen, his role in the story as Honest Abe would have been compromised. Through a combination of hard slog and this happenstantial capital, Wang becomes a fat (not literally fat) cat in his own right. He brings a high-maintenance mistress into his home, sends his three sons to school, and becomes a benefactor to neighbors and relations. He never gambles or drinks serious drinks. His only regret is that his wife the housecleaner and incubator never received much gratitude, and only when she begins to die does she get it. Wang's father dies soon after. But Wang is installed at last as the new head of the now fallen House of Hwang. The credits roll.

Why the "good" earth? Well, Wang believes that the earth is the source of his livelihood, so to abandon the earth is to abandon life. This despite the fact that the earth occasionally provides nothing but dust, deluges, or plagues. But Wang believes such calamities to be caused not by the good earth, but by the bad gods. Ours is not to judge his view, but perhaps we can judge Buck's. In some ways, the novel is a kind of "back to nature" pamphlet, arguing that breaking your back all day in the fields of an indifferent earth is the true path to the promised land, while all other paths lead to opium and corruption.

But while Wang extols the earth, he gladly takes up residence in the posh House, and it would be hard to imagine him pining after his former hardscrabbling. Farming at one's leisure and farming for fear of starvation are very, very different things. And without that convenient coughing up of a golden hairball back in the palace, Wang might very well have made a premature return to the earth, i.e. six feet under it.

The critical reception of The Good Earth was mixed. Western reviewers largely praised and often gushed over it. Asians often condemned it. The usual anti-Buck arguments were that a) the American Buck was presumptuous to write about the Chinese and wrote about them erroneously, or b) she should have not presented the farmer as diligent and noble, the aristocrat as decadent and mean. Bear in mind that less than two decades after the novel's publication, the Communists had staged their own lucrative ransacking. The last thing China needed for a celebration of Mao's 38th birthday was a Westerner glorifying the proletariat. Notably, though, a sour reviewer in the leftist Nation said that Buck didn't go far enough in conveying the peasants' misery. After all, Wang lives the American Dream. He goes from rags to riches thanks to toil, frugality, and the guiltless acceptance of unearned cash. "The rich," Wang muses - wrongly, "need not fear anything" -- except the occasional sickle-wielding mob, or, to be up-to-date, the occasional box-cutter-wielding pilot.

Buck was the daughter of two virulent missionaries, but rebelled against them. Yet, as the saying goes, you can take Buck out of the Bible, but not the Bible out of Buck. The Good Earth owes much to Job. Still, in the novel's most (only?) hilarious scene, Wang receives a missionary tract depicting the crucified Jesus. Knowing nothing about Christianity and being unable to read, Wang brings the tract to his father for his opinion. His father quite naturally decides that "this was a very evil man to be thus hung." Buck uses this brief interaction to show just how negligible an effect missionaries have had in Asia - and why.

For obvious reasons, an outsider to a culture will often write less sympathetically about that culture than an insider would. This is why so many novels written by Westerners but set in Asia to this day are so unbearably condescending, insulting, or indifferent toward Asia and Asians. The Good Earth may be counted among the exceptions. To the extent that she can do so without being untrue to her subject, Buck makes Wang Lung "one of us."

- The End -

Review of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth, Pocket Books, 1994.

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