Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Mount TBR #31

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Pearl Buck in China: Journey to “The Good Earth” – Hilary Spurling

After finishing a 500-page biography, I wanted to stay in non-fiction but wanted a book less formidable in length. Most of this compact narrative of the life of Pearl Buck focusses on her life in China up to the writing of the novel she is remembered by. Published in 1931, “The Good Earth” was two years on best-seller lists and won Buck the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. She later became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

The best thing about this book is that it tells about Buck’s experience growing up in Zhenjiang (upriver from Shanghai) as the Qing dynasty’s obstructed social and economic reform in the shadow of Western trade, religion, and wars brought more and more calamities upon China. Growing up bilingual and knowing her host country better than most Chinese urban intellectuals, she witnessed social and economic trials first hand: the physical and mental abuse of women, the sale of girls into brothels and sex slavery, soldier-bandits, Yangtze floods, leper beggars, droughts, famine, typhoons, mobs, and peasant brutalization through ignorance and poverty.

The second best thing is Spurling’s re-assessment of Buck’s literary reputation. Critics in our country have disliked her use of pop fiction techniques so Buck is little read these days, except among the hardest of hard-core readers like us. Critics in China have long figured that only Chinese should write about Chinese topics. This is changing, but slowly. "She was a revolutionary," said Liu Haiping, translator of Buck’s book into Chinese and a professor of English at Nanjing University. "She was the first writer to choose rural China as her subject matter. None of the Chinese writers would have done so; intellectuals wrote about urban intellectuals. …Many of us feel we should include Buck as part of Chinese literature." 

Any reader with an interest in 20th century China, Nationalist China, or rural China should read this book. So should any reader with an interest in women authors and the hard roads that women writers have to take for their art. Finally, as an example of how a political innocent can become the object of contempt and derision from both sides, Pearl Buck stands tall as truth-teller, brave and wise.

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