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Pearl of China by Anchee Min


Pearl of China by Anchee Min - Pearl Buck, the China Years as Fiction

Pearl Buck was a writer who, although born in the United States, grew up in China, daughter of Southern Presbyterian Missionaries. She left China briefly to be educated at a college in the United States, graduating in 1914, before returning to work in China as a teacher at Nanking University. She returned again to the United States to complete a Masters Degree, but once again returned to China.

Pearl of China by Anchee Min is a novel that is based on the life of Pearl Buck, especially her relationship with China. Much of the novel takes place at the time of the Boxer Revolution - an anti-imperialism, an anti-Christian movement that took place in China as a response to imperialist expansion, the growth of cosmopolitan influences and missionary evangelism. A fiscal crisis and natural disasters contributed to the unrest, as mission compounds and foreign embassies were attacked. Diplomats, foreign civilians, soldiers and Chinese Christians lived in danger – many left the country or risked severe punishment. Pearl and her family fled to Shanghai, leaving the village of Chin-kiang where they had lived for many years. In the village Pearl’s best friends was Willow, an intelligent and determined Chinese girl her own age who is educated by the missionaries.

The years pass. Pearl marries an American and gives birth to a daughter Carol. Carol is diagnosed with phenylketonuria – in the politically incorrect words of the day, she is mentally retarded. Pearl finds her escape “in writing, if she couldn’t “cure” her daughter, she could fix the characters in her novels”. Pearl’s marriage is not a happy one and she finds that when she writes she is able to lose herself in her imagination, and find herself feeling free of her unhappiness for a time. She also adopts another child, a daughter, Janice.

Willow has become the editor of a newspaper and accepts a job in Nanking to be closer to her childhood friend who is teaching at Nanking University. Pearl and Willow are close friends but there is friction when they become involved with a Chinese poet Hsu Chih-mo – he is attracted to Pearl, and Willow is attracted to him. Willow watches the love between Pearl and Hsu Chih-mo blossom.

Spurned, Willow turns to Dick Lin, a man determined to be in a position of power – intellectually stimulating, but not the man who stirs her passion. Dick is working toward a China that “one day China will be free of politics and religion.” He is committed to communism believing it will “reverse the inequality between the rich and the poor.” Willow agrees to move to Shanghai to work for Dick, and to escape from Nanking where she must witness the relationship between Pearl and Hsu Chih-mo.

In 1934 Japan invades China, taking Manchuria, with the Nationalists busy fighting the Japanese, the Communists take power. There is rioting in Nanking, many foreigners are killed, Chinese Christians are murdered; all foreigners are considered allies with Japan and all Americans are evacuated from China. Pearl’s father refuses to leave but Pearl and her daughters board a ship for the United States.

We leap ahead now to 1949 – Nanking is under the control of Mao, he has claimed all of the area to the north as his, The People’s Republic of China. Peking is re-named Beijing. Doors to the outside world are closing. Willow continues to write to Pearl, although Pearl Buck has now been categorized as an “enemy of China”.

The years pass and by the early 1960’s there is growing criticism of Mao. Pearl Buck writes “Mao allowed people to die of starvation and disease while he helped the North Koreans fight a war against the Americans”. She is labeled a “cultural imperialist” and her work denounced. Christianity is banned; the worship of God and the mention of Pearl Buck are punishable.

Author Anchee Min was growing up in China at this time and was one of many children who were forced to denounce Pearl Buck as a school exercise. It was not until Anchee Min moved to the United States, in 1984, that she read The Good Earth and discovered that, in fact, Pearl Buck loved and championed the Chinese people. It was at that time that Anchee Min decided to tell the story of Pearl Buck from a Chinese perspective, staying true to the real life events of Pearl Buck and the history of China during this time. Willow, however, is a fiction - as the author uses her “license as a writer of fiction” to create a character to witness all of the events that take place in the novel.

By the 1970’s Willow and her family are working like slaves. Their salvation is the forbidden possession of a radio – an American ex-military radio on which they listen to The Voice of America. The Cultural Revolution rolls on and Mao worship intensifies.

Pearl, meanwhile, is living in Pennsylvania with Carol, and eight adopted children, most of Asian descent. She has continued writing – she will publish dozens of books in her lifetime. In 1932 Pearl Buck was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her book The Good Earth, and in 1938 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

But, the times they are a-changin’ and the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, decides on a trip to China. Nixon is a personal friend of Pearl Buck. He considers her to be a friend of China, and she is invited to be part of the entourage. Nixon is greeted with signs that say “Welcome American President Nixon”, that have recently replaced the signs that said “Down with American Imperialists”. Nixon has been allowed to visit China at this time because Mao needs Nixon on his side in order to keep Russia from starting a war with China. It is the beginning of the end for Mao – and of the novel Pearl in China.

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