A Chinese Peasant
Pearl Buck has been getting a good deal more attention in China of late
. Part of it is no doubt the fact that she wrote about China and won the Nobel Prize, but also because attitudes towards “friends of China” are changing. Buck was persona non grata
in the Maoist period. She was also not all that popular with Chinese before 1949. Attempts to film The Good Earth
in China were met with constant trouble. Authorities were unhappy that there would be scenes with a water buffalo, as this would make China look medeival. In the end all of the film shot in China was vandalized and the scenes had to be re-shot in the U.S. A lot of the criticisms seem typical of what Chinese intellectuals said about Buck. I somewhere reading a Chinese author who claimed that Buck’s picture of China was nonsense because she only talked to ignorant peasants rather than real Chinese i.e. educated people. Pearl Buck, in turn, thought that the real China had almost nothing to do with “the ice-pure pages of her wisdom literature…the teachings of sages and philosophers, put away safely into volumes and reverenced devoutly by a few hermit scholars and abstractly through hearsay by the multitudes, is China as she sees herself and as she wishes the world to see her, China in her decorous best, China as she is quoted and above all as she likes to quote herself, well-regulated, emotionally disciplined, the superior man”1
She rejected this China and wrote about the “real” China Both she and her opponents drew a razor-sharp line between elite and popular culture and located the “real” China on one side of it.
The Good Earth is not, from my perspective, a very good book about China. While Wang Lung, the peasant protagonist is indeed oppressed enough to be played by Gong Li, he does not seem like the Chinese peasants one reads about in the literature. Yes, Chinese peasants were poor and hard-working, but they were also mobile, interacted with the market, and were, in most areas well aware of what was going on. What kind of Chinese peasant has never been to the opera? Buck’s peasants are also existentially apolitical. When Wang Lung is given a Christian tract he gives it to his wife and she uses it to repair shoes. When he is given a Communist tract they do the same. One way of reading this is that Buck is just flat wrong. Chinese peasants were as capable of political thought as anyone else, which may explain why Chinese intellectuals disliked Buck so. Another was to read it is that she is being Orientalist here, which also works.
What I find most interesting is why The Good Earth was such a giant hit in the U.S. It was the best-selling book in America, in 1931 and 1932, back when books mattered. Part of it was no doubt ‘pity poor China’, but it was a book that fit in well with American preoccupations of the time. As Blake Allmendiger points out, part of it was that Wang and his wife were perfect dust bowl refugees.2 They were honest sons of the soil who worked hard, were in contact with the earth and were cheated by the degenerate urbanites they dealt with but did not understand. This does not map as well to Chinese peasant life in the 20s, as well as it maps to the concerns of Americans. The movie project was apparently a huge mess. George Hill was hired to direct, but he died. He was replaced by Victor Fleming. Fleming was dropped from the project when he caught malaria in China, but he was involved with some of the initial work. In one of the opening scenes of the book Wang is interrogated by a guard at the gate of the House of Hwang before going in to see his landlord. In the movie the guard questions him through a peephole before leading him down a grand corridor. Fleming re-used this scene in a later film The Wizard of Oz. As Allmendiger points out, the Oz that the doorman lets Dorothy into is indeed grand, but ultimately it is a sham, and what she really needs and wants is to go back to Kansas. I would not say that China entirely lacked agrarian utopianism, but it was quite different from the American version. Ultimately Buck is a lot more important for understanding American images of China than for understanding China.
1 Pearl Buck “China in the Mirror of her Fiction” Pacific Affairs 3.2 (Feb, 1930), p.156
2“Little House on the Rice Paddy” American Literary History 10.2 (Summer 1998)