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Pearl S. Buck - a Modern Day Hero

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Pearl S. Buck - A Modern Day Hero


A friend of mine gave me a copy of The Good Earth as a birthday gift. Until then, I had never heard of the literary masterpiece or the author, Pearl S. Buck. The story captivated me. I found myself engrossed in the story of the poor farmer Wang Lung whose love for his land allowed him to overcome many odds including famine, flood and a revolution. Through hard work and dedication, Wang Lung became one of the wealthiest landowners in the Anweih province of China. Sadly, Wang Lung's two sons did not share his passion for "the good earth" and cared only for their bequest. Wang Lung was still on his death bed when the two sons decided that as soon as their father died, they would sell the land and split their inheritance (Buck, P.S., 1931).

The Good Earth instantly became one of my favorite books and Pearl S. Buck, one of my favorite authors. Peter Conn wrote the introduction of the book in the form of a short biography of the author. I usually do not read the introductions until after I read the story because I never want other people's review to influence my own opinion of the book. So, I saved the introductory pages for last. It wasn't until I read of Pearl S. Buck's memoirs that I began to truly admire her, not only for her writing but for her humanitarian and altruistic contributions.

Who is Pearl S. Buck?

Pearl Sydenstricker was born in Hillsboro, West Virginia in 1892. Her missionary parents, Absalom and Carrie Sydenstricker brought her to China when she was three months old. By the time she was four, she spoke and wrote Chinese as well as English (Conn, NDA). She was at first educated by her mother and tutored by a Chinese Confucian Scholar (Author's Calendar, 2002). While her parents carried out their Christian mission all over the Chinkiang province of China, Pearl was left under the care of her "amah" or governess. It was her amah that fascinated her with Chinese folklores and mythical tales of ancient magic, fairies and dragons (Conn, NDA).

Growing up, Pearl spent hours wandering the streets of Chinkiang observing how the people lived. She became familiar with their rituals, practices, and traditions. Her first hand experience with the Chinese culture led her to write many novels, including her most critically acclaimed book, The Good Earth. Her intimate knowledge of the Chinese culture was evident in the way she wrote. In the novel, Pearl gave detailed account of Chinese traditions such as the making of moon cakes during New Year celebrations and wearing of white robes at funerals. She also described how ordinary Chinese people lived. She wrote about women sewing shoes out of layers of paper, water carriers running to and fro, and of men transporting passengers throughout the city on a ricksha (Conn, NDA). A ricksha is a two-wheeled chair transport, usually born on the shoulders by the men who pulled them (Merriam-Webster, NDA).

The Boxer Rebellion happened in 1900 when Chinese nationalists started an uprising in order to drive out Western intruders. They attacked Western settlements, killing men, women, and children. For safety, the Sydenstrickers evacuated to Shanghai and from there, sailed to San Francisco. This was Pearl's first time returning to the United States since she was a baby (Conn, NDA).

In 1902, the Sydenstrickers returned to China to continue their mission. At the age of seventeen, Pearl was enrolled at Miss Jewel's, a distinguished English boarding school in Shanghai, then the largest city in Asia. She moved back to Virginia in 1910 where she attended Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg to study Psychology. After her graduation, Pearl returned to China in 1914 when her mother became seriously ill. There, she started her career as an English teacher for the Presbyterian Board of Missions (Conn, NDA).

During a summer retreat for missionary workers at Kuling in the Nanking province, Pearl met John Lossing Buck, a Cornell graduate and expert in agriculture. They married in 1917. Pearl became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter whom she named Carol. Shortly after she gave birth however, Pearl's doctors discovered a uterine tumor that needed to be removed. Pearl underwent hysterectomy which left her sterile (Author's Calendar, 2002).

At the age of four, Carol exhibited signs of abnormality. The Bucks returned to the United States to seek medical care for their daughter. The doctors then confirmed that Carol was mentally retarded. In order to better cope with Carol's problem, Pearl enrolled in graduate school. She received her Masters degree in Psychology from Cornell in 1926 (Doyle, 2000).

Because of personal differences, and the strain of Pearl's sterility, John and Pearl separated in the 1920's, although she did not file for divorce until many years later. (Author's Calendar, 2005). It was after her divorce that Pearl started to write. She needed to make a living so she could take care of Carol's specialized care. Her first novel was East Wind, West Wind. It was released in 1930 by the John Day Company, a small publishing firm in New York. The Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Good Earth published in 1931, was Pearl's second book. The book sold millions of copies and was adapted as a motion picture by Metro-Goldwyn Mayer. Luise Riner who played O-Lan, Wang Lu's faithful and devoted slave wife, won the 1937 Academy Award for Best Actress (Conn, NDA).

In 1935, Pearl divorced John and within the same year, married her publisher, Richard Walsh. They settled in Green Hills Farm, and through adoption, built a large family together. After World War II, Pearl began her contributions to various political and humanitarian causes with Richard along her side. Richard Walsh died following a stroke in 1960. In 1963, when she was in her seventies, Pearl married Theodore Harris, a 32-year old dance instructor from the Arthur Murry Dancing Studio. She lived with him at Green Hills Farm until her death at the age of eighty-one in 1973. Pearl published over eighty books in her lifetime (Doyle, 2000).

Her Contributions

Changing the World View of China

Pearl S. Buck was instrumental in changing the world view of China and the perception of Asians in general. Before the release of The Good Earth in 1931, people had a very limited and distorted view of Chinese and Asians alike. Very few Americans have been to China or to any Asian country. The derogatory term "Oriental" was coined during this period and soon thereafter, the same label was used to refer



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