Currently Reading: Anchee Min’s “Pearl of China”

I don’t quite remember what led me to Anchee Min’s Pearl of China, published earlier this year, in the first place. I probably noticed the Chinese author’s name in a book list and looked further into the synopsis. Once I realized it is about Pearl S. Buck and recalled quickly how Buck’s The Good Earth was a spectacular read, I put it on my library request list.

Aside from many an Asian’s initial surprise that a novel that studies in-depth a Chinese peasant’s story at the beginning of the last century was written by a non-Chinese woman, Pearl Buck also piqued a fascination that has roots in my early college days when doing battle with the parents about who I date. Of course, they have a “preference” that I only consider Chinese men but I facetiously asked about the following scenario: What if I met a white man who grew up in China and is more Chinese than I am??

Pearl S. Buck is a woman who spent the first 40 years of her life in China and the last 40 in America, her “home”. Pearl of China is historical fiction about a friendship that could have been forged during her childhood days in Chin-Kiang, near Nanjing in eastern China.

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The novel is written in very simple prose such that I closed the book several times to see if I hadn’t pick up a YA (young adult) novel instead. As the story progressed, the material would become very mature and dark.

The story begins with a street urchin, Willow, of newly beggarly background, meets Pearl, the Caucasian daughter of a zealous missionary. While the girls form a “thick as thieves” friendship, it is rather interesting to contrast their fathers. Pearl’s father, Absalom, is blindly evangelical and you are saddened by his neglect for his family. Willow’s father, only known as Papa to the reader, is astute, using Christianity to his benefit, which is so Chinese.

Given where the girls grew up and she didn’t see any other fair-skinned, golden-haired person around, you can understand why Pearl identified herself as Chinese. In fact, the character of grown-up Willow appears more Westernized than Pearl at some times.

There were a lot of years to cover, from girlhood to 90 years of age on Willow’s part so I thought the childhood days Pearl was in China were written in detail while their adult years were treated quite lightly. When Pearl returned to the United States for the long-term, it became entirely a Willow story with Pearl far off, existing like a remote star. Since Pearl fled to the United States when China closed itself to foreigners, the story that followed was all about the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. And those are really graphic tales to tell, ones that the author herself lived through.

For one, I thought Willow’s success was difficult to believe and that comes from an artistic license in historical fiction, but I found it contrasted too much with the vague details of Pearl’s life and the difficulties she had during her marriage and motherhood. However, without the set up of the rise of Willow’s fortunes, she would not have seen as much as she did to fill the rest of the novel.

I found Willow’s husband, Dick, to be an empathetic character. He was entirely fictional and had a very powerful position in Mao’s organization as a propaganda director. He was sympathetic because he saved himself by hiding his maligned intellectual background and threw support for Mao; however, in private conversations, he understood Willow and showed how someone at that time of upheaval could try to straddle the old way with the overbearing new regime. His position was also set up for the huge reversal in fortune that befalls most of the major characters and I found it so difficult to read: wouldn’t you, reading of old women getting thrown in jail and beaten and other horrific treatment? When reading of Dick’s fate, I thought I was reading Sky Burial again–very powerful and very disturbing.

Another logical, but unexpected heavy feature was that of Christianity. I wonder if the author became devout and wanted to bring light to Chinese Christians who live around Willow’s time. I was laughing and frustrated when Absalom did not see Papa’s wily ways, treating his clergyman job more like a business than with true faith. But as time went on and Absalom was consistent and all-forgiving, the most weasely “convert” in Papa would have a believable conversion. I have to stifle a laugh whenever I read a new Christian’s sons names: Double Luck John, Double Luck David, Triple Luck Solomon–the Western side of me finds this hilarious but my Chinese side quells my laughter.

In the final chapters, the Chinese Christians are horribly persecuted and the page-long description of the conditions in the church that is converted to living quarters is awful and inspiring at once. I’ve never really known how Chinese Christians could survive underground during the Cultural Revolution so Anchee Min’s novel gives you an idea. It would be “easy” for the Christians to revert to old ways and appease the Communist Party.

In the very end, Willow is granted a visa to go to the United States to visit Pearl’s house and grave. I am as impressed as one would be the efforts and success Pearl had bringing China to her New England home, smiling at the notion of the “China view” from one of the home’s rooms. But I also can’t fathom the character of Willow having such luck to score a visa. It’s jarringly post-modern but a very tidy way (like I last saw in Julie and Julia) to pay homage about the end of Pearl’s life and wrap up the story.

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After finishing this novel, I went to Wikipedia and looked up Hsu Chih-Mo, Chin-Kiang, and Pearl Buck. I knew the place and people had to exist but what liberties, if any, were taken? I was particularly interested in how widely known it was about Pearl and Chih-Mo’s relationship but his English Wikipedia page does not go into his personal life.

You can see Anchee Min is so inspired by her forced denouncement of Pearl Buck and subsequent discovery of who Pearl Buck actually is, to “make it right” with this historical fiction novel. When promoting her memoir, Red Azalea, where she probably mentioned the denouncement, a fan gave her Good Earth and she read it in one cross-country plane ride and cried. Around the time of the release of this novel earlier this year, she interviewed often how although there is much written about Pearl Buck, this is a first from a Chinese perspective. Willow’s character is fictional but fashioned after several people who did know Pearl and, for the strength of the narrative, combined into one character.

I did enjoy reading Pearl of China. It was written simply and well while providing insight on a complex life and time. For that I am eager to read Anchee Min’s memoir, published 15 years ago, Red Azalea.

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