25 July 2018

Back to the good earth

Rural Anhui province

The 1931 novel The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck has a well-deserved place on my list of books that changed my life – because it, along with the Judge Dee murder mysteries by Robert van Gulik, stoked in me an abiding interest in the history and lifeways of old China. Having recently looked into the works of Jimmy Yen 晏陽初, Liang Shuming 梁漱溟, Tao Xingzhi 陶行知 and Richard Tawney, then having understood that Pearl Buck herself was not only a contemporary but a friend and fellow-traveller of this literary-political-activist circle that would become the China Democratic League, I felt it high time I went back and read this touchstone of my high-school years.

It’s funny: perspective changes radically with age and distance. Different aspects of the story came to the surface, reading through The Good Earth this time, than when I was, well, half my current age. The story itself was familiar. Poor, hard-working Wang Lung, living alone with his fussy and aged father, takes a wife from the Great House of Hwang – a plain, seemingly dull-witted but intensely loyal and surprisingly-profound serving-girl named O-lan. Together Wang Lung and O-lan make a life for themselves: planting and harvesting, having children, being forced to move by famine, being forced to move again by revolution. Wang Lung experiences both the bitterest deprivations – losing his home and having to live on his hands and on whatever O-lan and his children can beg – and later the temptations and vices of wealth, as his fortunes improve and he comes into possession of more and more of the land of the House of Hwang.

Certain things I noticed in the story that I didn’t before – the geographical features and the importance of, not only earth, but water as an elemental force in the lives of Chinese peasants – with small surfeits or dearths either way being deadly. The attention paid to the labour-intensive agricultural techniques. A subtle but persistent sexism which is as often expressed in the actions of the women in the story (Old Mistress Hwang, Cuckoo, Lotus, even occasionally O-lan herself) as those of the men. There is a great wealth of knowledge of Chinese folkways at the grassroots which breaks forth from the pages, which is clearly the fruit of close observation. The selective folk-piety of the peasant, easily discarded or inverted. The fear and distrust of soldiers. The paranoia of the wealthy that their money and goods will be stolen. These are just a handful of examples.

Again, the story, the characters, the struggles and conflicts between them were all deeply familiar to me from my high-school years, and this time experience lay over it, giving my mental pictures some greater depth. In one sense, reading it now gave me a new appreciation for Buck’s authorial talent, being able to inhabit and express the perspectives of people in wildly different walks of life – in a culture not her own. That’s something I admire and value. On the other hand, certain stylistic choices and choices of characterisation she makes – for instance, the character of Cuckoo, who seems to take on three different personæ (lord’s mistress, tea-shop madam, lady-in-waiting) as the story demands it – seem a trifle questionable, and the reasons for her ‘switching hats’ so often seem rather ad hoc. Still, the treatment of Cuckoo – and O-lan, Lotus and Pear Blossom, the women in Wang Lung’s life – is meant to show how, even for a good-natured and generally ‘well-behaved’ husband like Wang Lung, women still ended up getting a raw deal in China’s old society. O-lan, faithful but slow and not particularly pretty, is treated by her husband like a piece of furniture. Wang Lung chases Lotus, a prostitute who becomes his second wife, but when she enters the household she treats Wang Lung’s first wife and daughters with open contempt. (We get intimations that her childhood was also deeply unhappy.) Pear Blossom grows up as a servant in Wang Lung’s household, in deadly fear and loathing of young men in particular – and little wonder, given how she sees how Wang Lung’s sons and nephew treat the womenfolk. On the other hand, Buck’s portrait of Wang Lung’s relationship with his eldest daughter, a ‘poor fool’ with a mental disability, is truly touching: probably this is a reflection of her relationship with her own daughter, who also had a developmental disability.

Again, being a bit more familiar now with Pearl Buck’s literary milieu I searched the book for signs of her politics and religious sensibilities, only to find that – talented an author as she is! – she hides her tracks well. Her characterisation of a communist radical preaching on the street, and Wang Lung’s interested-but-incredulous reaction to him, provides a little bit of intellectual comedy. The radical scoffs at Wang Lung as ‘backwards’, but Wang Lung’s perspective that real wealth comes from the topsoil is presented sympathetically. Wang wonders how it happens that the bourgeoisie can prevent the sun from shining or the rain from falling. And although we are left to infer rather than having it spelt out for us directly, Buck’s sympathies with the peasantry in general, we see perhaps traces of her antipathy to both foreign political concepts and missionary Protestant Christianity in the fact that O-lan makes shoe linings out of their pamphlets, though this is as much to show O-lan’s thrift and practicality during their sojourn in the ‘south’ as anything else.

Speaking of which, Buck does present a certain set of gæographical biases and stereotypes, of the sort which Jimmy Yen did his best to refute and combat. ‘Northerners’ like O-lan (from Shandong) and Wang Lung (from Anhui) are simple, thrifty, hard-working – noble even in their poverty and direct even when begging or stealing. ‘Southerners’ like Cuckoo and Lotus are subtle, crafty, able to work the angles. She presents, I think, several of the ways in which discrimination has historically tended to operate (for example, with ‘southerners’ looking down on ‘smelly’ garlic-eating northerners). It’s actually still a bit unclear to me, whether she presents these stereotypes because she believes them to be accurate, or whether she is attempting (as with her treatment of the various women in her story, and their struggles) to prompt an internal critique of them.

The foregoing might make it sound like I want to pick The Good Earth apart, but really – far from it! This novel is both the sprawling epic of one man’s very full and varied life, and a touchingly-intimate, if somewhat dated, portrait of a ‘China that was’. Buck is very rightly regarded as an author of the first calibre for this book in particular, and it was a joy to go back and revisit this novel, which has dwelt deep so long in my memory and on my bookshelf.