Anchee Min rewrites history in her latest book Pearl of China, an imaginative retelling of the life of Pearl S. Buck. Chitralekha Basu reports
Pearl S. Buck seems to be the flavor of the season. A critically-applauded new biography by Hilary Spurling, Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China, and Pearl of China, a historical novel by Anchee Min, launched recently in the United States, have rekindled interest in the writer who engaged the West's attention toward understanding Chinese society in the 1930s.
Though sometimes critiqued for taking an overtly romanticized view of rural China, even glorifying its resistance to change from a state of so-called prelapsarian bliss, Buck is, increasingly, being re-instated as a humanitarian who, for the first time, gave the Chinese peasant a face and a voice in the Anglophone world.
A few months ago, the American novelist who spent most of the first 42 years of her life in China, from 1892 to 1934, putting her heartfelt and acute understanding of Chinese grassroots people in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Good Earth (1931), was voted one of the top "friends of China" in an international event hosted by the Chinese government.
The gesture, perhaps a little late in the day since Buck was branded a "cultural imperialist" who had "denigrated" the Chinese peasant and was denounced systematically in the heyday of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), has reassured generations of the writer's admirers.
From talk-show host Oprah Winfrey to Chinese-American bestselling author Anchee Min, Buck's fan base is studded with iconic women of the modern era.
As a teenager in early 1970s China, Anchee Min, an actress with the Shanghai Film Studio, was arm-twisted into joining the national campaign to vilify Pearl S. Buck. Years later, when Min's debut work, the autobiographical Red Azalea, was making waves in the United States, a reader presented her a copy of The Good Earth. Min read the book on a flight and wept, moved not just by the sense of tragedy inherent in the protagonist Wang Lung's isolation and the passing away of an old way of life in China, but also for having castigated Buck so many years earlier without reading her.
Pearl of China was Min's way of making amends for what she could not do in real life. In the novel, the character Willow, Buck's Chinese friend for life, and, in a lot of ways, her alter ego, consistently defies the orders to excoriate the writer. Predictably, she is thrown in jail and later sent to a labor camp, to till the rough soil by day and fight "cold, heat and vermin" by night at an advanced age of 80.
Min concedes she has invested much of her own life to shape the character of Willow, who goes from being destitute and a thief to an accomplished writer and editor to a cleaner of community toilets in the tumultuous years following the "cultural revolution".
"As a child I would spend time in a small village town called Tangza outside of the city of Nantong in Jiangsu province, an hour and half's drive from Zhenjiang where Pearl Buck grew up," informs Min. "I lived with my grandmother, who had bound feet. I lived what Pearl Buck described in her novels. For example, during a monsoon water would turn my floor into liquid mud and I slept on straw mats. I drank from the same river as I washed my rice, vegetables, clothes and chamber pot. Hunger drove me and other children to eat out of trash cans, and we were all infected with tape-worms."
How Min moved to the United States at age 27 - a country where she had no friends, no connections, no money and no English - and made a life is a story that's probably a theme for her next book.
Meanwhile, even as she is on a whistle-stop six-weeks, 21-city book tour in the US, Min is trying to underscore Buck's reputation as a champion of altruism and compassion.
"In The Good Earth readers can clearly feel the author's admiration and affection toward the Chinese peasants. The humanity Pearl Buck chose to feature in the Chinese people made her larger-than-life in my eyes," she says.
One of the interesting twists in the tale is Buck's supposed affair with the much-adored Chinese poet Xu Zhimo, an idea that Spurling has ruled out in her biography.
"From the way Pearl Buck described Xu in her writing and in a letter to her girlfriend, I was convinced her relationship with the poet was extraordinary," says Min. "The affection and love was in the details of Pearl's observation of the man, the beauty she saw in him. These were two great individuals who possessed both the Eastern and Western cultures and worlds - they were bound to admire and love each other."
Both Buck and Willow fall for the charms of Xu, who is portrayed as a popular cultural icon in the novel. "Willow's fascination with Xu represents that of the women of her time," says Min.
Historical accuracy makes way for "reader-friendliness" in her work. In Pearl of China Min has taken liberties with history. She has brought forward the date of the Nanjing massacre to have Buck experience it first-hand, and given Buck's missionary zealot of a father, Absalom, a much longer life than he actually had. "I identify the importance of what I want to convey, and then go from there," she says.
Like Buck who, "wrote in English but thought in Chinese", a critic once said, Min too straddles two worlds. Living in the US, she says, lends her a critical detachment and enhances her sense of perspective on China.
"I do my detailed outlines in Chinese, because I can catch my thoughts that way. I am influenced by Chinese operas because they were composed with the finest poetry. Tang Dynasty poems and Song Dynasty verses have had strong impact on my writing style. I love their compressed structure and the emotional intensity," Min says.
She dismisses the charge that Buck's depiction of agrarian China perpetuated a foreigner's resistance to radical change in rural Asia, a neo-Luddite glorification of a "noble", primitive way of life.
"I am sure Pearl Buck wanted to just share her findings about China. She did what an artist does - poured emotions on the canvas. Readers are entitled to their own opinions," Min says, adding that it's interesting to watch different reactions to the same work from the distanced perspective of a novelist.
She would even go as far as to say that reading Buck and about her life in China might open up a new direction toward understanding Sino-American relationship over the last century. "It'll iron out a lot of historically-borne prejudices," Min says, just as it happened when she discovered The Good Earth.
"How wrong I was to denounce her."