Revisiting a Classic – Visiting China

Though China was not at the top of my list of places to visit, I was fortunate enough to get an opportunity to travel to China last year. It was an evocative, inspiring experience that opened my eyes to

(c) Nadia Jafri 2011

a history and culture that I knew little about. What I knew was based strictly on hearsay, inspired largely by the political stigma associated with “communism.” Going to China, I finally saw a world different from anything I had seen in Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, or North America. China consists of many complex layers. On one hand there are preserved temples that celebrate the history of Confucianism. Meanwhile, Shanghai seeps with modern technology and globalism. On the outskirts of Shanghai and Beijing are water towns reminiscent of an ancient past. Standing upon the Great Wall you can almost imagine the Mongols approaching en masse, armed and furious. And that is just the short version of my impressions. After visiting China, I was compelled to pick up a book that I looked past for years: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, and it left an impression on me just as China had.

The Good Earth is the story of a Chinese farmer, Wang Lung and his stoic wife, Oh-Lan, as they make their lives in the countryside of an unnamed Chinese village. To me, one compelling aspect of this book was the voice in which it’s written. Pearl Buck, who lived most of her life in China (growing up in Chinkiang on the Yangtse River) took the liberty to write this book in English that reads like a true translation of everyday Chinese. Knowing little about her at first, I was impressed by her ability to narrate a book in such a way, especially considering that she was not Chinese. I also felt that giving this voice to the book and its characters better communicated their thoughts and feelings without making them sound like something they were not.  I was surprised by a non-Chinese author’s ability and courage to write in such a voice. Upon further exploration, I learned that Pearl Buck was the daughter of Christian missionaries, growing up and living in China practically all of her life. Her first language was everyday Chinese, not English. She also grew up reading Chinese popular novels. As such, her identity was so shaped and influenced by China that it was only natural for her to write in a voice that was Chinese in its essence and core. The Good Earth was first published in 1931 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1932. Pearl Buck went on to be the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.

This novel was illuminating on many fronts. First, it depicts life in China before the socio-political turmoil that eventually changed this country from having a literal reliance on the earth to becoming one of the world’s most eminent superpowers.  Buck relays the story of Wang Lung, Oh-Lan, their parents, and their children, taking us through the entire cycle of their lives. It describes in simple language how they survive in pre-revolution China, through starvation, extreme poverty, a child with a disability, and then, finally, wealth. How they are completely unaware of any political uprisings beginning to take place in their country.

It’s a world where survival requires extreme resilience, integrity, and, to a degree, apathy. I was struck by the extent to which people have a deep-rooted history attached to them. Whether it is a history of their family, their ancestry, their country, or their civilization. It is not necessarily a divisive association. It is merely putting things into context when we consider our origins and try to claim our identities in a world where we are expected to be global citizens.


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