Parade Magazine (September 14, 2008) asked Laura Bush what she’s been reading: “The Imperial Woman, by Pearl S. Buck. I picked up this book after returning from the Olympics in Beijing. The story of the last empress of Manchu China is fascinating; I can hardly put it down.”
Now from my point of view, the novel’s interest is for the history of American ideas about China, but Buck’s take on “Old Buddha” is not to be taken lightly and her appeal to the public should be respected as a “teachable moment,” not merely scoffed at.
Over the years, Buck’s staying power has intrigued me. Since I have a contrarian streak, I’ve challenged myself to respect her accomplishments (considerable) while keeping in sight her shortcomings (ditto) and to distinguish the two.1
Moyer Bell Publishers has a number of her books in print, including Imperial Woman. They are nicely printed and reasonably priced, including Buck’s translation of Shuihuzhuan (titled All Men Are Brothers), which is listed at $16.95. The translation is heavy going at first, as you have to get used to the labored diction she developed to reflect Chinese style, but hey, the price is right.
They offer other of her novels which are of topical interest: Dragon Seed (1939), for instance, describes the opening of the Second Sino-Japanese War with gruesome details of the 1937 invasion and occupation of the Yangzi valley. It’s not the first thing to read on the subject, but holds its own as an historical novel. Peony (1948) is set in 19th century Kaifeng and interweaves a reasonably accurate history of the Jewish community there.2
The Moyer Bell catalogue descriptions of Dragon Seed and Peony, however, are switched with the write ups for other novels. They also quote Kenneth Rexroth praising her “renerding” of Shuihu, which I actually prefer to the perhaps correct but less colorful “rendering.” ↩