Saturday, January 22, 2011

Pearl Buck and the Old China

TheGoodEarthTopping this week’s news in Washington, D.C., was the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao.  Befitting the importance of his state visit, a gala state dinner was held with luminaries from many fields.

Commentators stressed the U.S. and China as partners although sometimes wary ones.  Unquestionably, these countries are the most influential in the world today.  But the prospect of such a “partnership” and the pomp accorded it would have seemed fantastic less than a century ago.

Perhaps nobody helped capture the image of early 20th-century China than did Pearl Buck, the widely-acclaimed novelist.  The daughter of American missionaries, she lived for years in China and had a lifelong passion for the country.

Buck died in 1973 after writing nearly four dozen books, many of them novels about China.  Her themes included the clash between old and emerging China, missionary work and, most especially, the role of women in Chinese society.  These women included peasants and the last empress.

But surely her most famous was the novel The Good Earth, published in 1931, and for which she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.  The book was the first of a trilogy chronicling the lives of one family during a period of great upheaval.  It was the basis for her receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Good Earth is still widely read today, and the movie adaptation of it is also a classic.  Released in 1937, it is the story of North China farmer Wang Lung, well played by Paul Muni.

The drama begins on Wang’s wedding day.  Impoverished, Wang goes to the nearby town to claim his arranged-for wife, a sad kitchen slave girl named O-Lan.  The story traces their many ups and downs  over decades.

Wang is a thoughtful character at the beginning, addressing all sorts of adversity, including life-threatening famine.  Ultimately, the farm fails and the family moves to South China, seeking temporary relief.  They eventually acquire unexpected riches and return to their farm in triumph.

This is where the story, in many ways, becomes even sadder.  Wang becomes boastful, greedy and loses his moorings.  He neglects his wife, takes a second wife and grows dismissive of his children.  He is seized by wealth, status and idleness.

There is a dramatic scene near the end when the family stands together against an unbelievable attack of locusts; in terms of 1930s cinematography, this segment is stunning.  But O-Lan, long abused, is dying and when she does die, Wang finally realizes what he has lost.

O-Lan is played by Luise Rainer (still alive at 101), who gained an Academy Award for her performance.  O-Lan led a difficult life.  Although not sophisticated, she is hard-working, loyal, strong—and subservient.  She presents several of the moral dilemmas in the film.

This saga underscores some of the changes taking place in China, including the beginnings of a revolutionary spirit.  It also presents a  stark insight into the life of the rural poor in China.

Buck highlights the qualities of these peasants and their threatened way of life.  Still, she also was a prophet; the on-screen introduction to the movie notes China’s “vast promise for the future.”

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