Pearl Buck and I have a long history together, and in some sense that story is at the heart of my novel, Pearl of China. I was ordered to denounce Pearl Buck in China, where I lived for 27 years. The year was 1971. I was a teenager attending middle school in Shanghai.
I was raised on the teachings of Mao and the operas of Madam Mao. I became a leader of the Little Red Guards in elementary school. My mother had been a teacher—she taught whatever the Party asked, one semester in Chinese and the next in Russian. My father was an instructor of industrial technique drawing at Shanghai Textile Institute, although his true love was astronomy. My parents both believed in Mao and the Communist Party, just like everybody else in the neighborhood. I became a Mao activist and won contests because I was able to recite the Little Red Book. In school Mao’s books were our texts.
I finished reading The Good Earth on the airplane from Chicago to Los Angeles. I broke down and sobbed. I couldn’t stop myself because I remembered how I had denounced the author.
Trying to gain international support to deny Pearl Buck an entry visa (to accompany President Nixon to China), Madam Mao organized a national campaign to criticize Buck as an “American cultural imperialist.”
I followed the order to denounce Pearl Buck and never doubted whether or not Madam Mao was being truthful. I was brainwashed at that time and had learned never to question anything. And yet I do remember having difficulty composing the criticisms. I wished that I had been given a chance to read The Good Earth. We were told that the book was so “toxic” that it was dangerous to even translate. I was told to copy lines from the newspapers: “Pearl Buck insulted Chinese peasants therefore China.” “She hates us therefore is our enemy.” I was proud to be able to defend my country and people.
Pearl Buck’s name didn’t cross my path again until I immigrated to America. It was 1996 and I was giving a reading at a Chicago bookstore for my memoir, Red Azalea. Afterward, a lady came to me and asked if I knew Pearl Buck. Before I could reply, she said—very emotionally and to my surprise—that Pearl Buck had taught her to love the Chinese people. She placed a paperback in my hands and said that it was a gift. It was The Good Earth.
I finished reading The Good Earth on the airplane from Chicago to Los Angeles. I broke down and sobbed. I couldn’t stop myself because I remembered how I had denounced the author. I remembered how Madam Mao had convinced the entire nation to hate Pearl Buck. How wrong we were! I had never encountered any author, including the most respected Chinese authors, who wrote about our peasants with such admiration, affection and humanity.
It was at that very moment that Pearl of China was conceived.
I continued reading Pearl’s own writing and continued to be amazed at her perspective, how well she knew the Chinese. Pearl not only grew up in China, but grew up with the people, whom she loved and didn’t feel separate from. One of the most important things I did to prepare for writing my novel was to spend time in the town where Pearl Buck grew up. It was the town Pearl called “Chin-kiang,” which we call “Zheng Jiang” today.
I wanted to know who her childhood friends and neighbors were and how those folks thought of her. She stayed in contact with some of her friends for over 40 years—some of the same people that refused to denounce Pearl during the Cultural Revolution. But people were afraid to talk to me at first. The memories of the brutal persecution during the Cultural Revolution were still fresh. I kept returning until one day I was referred to a dying pastor. The local man who introduced me said that “the pastor is ready to open up because he was told by the doctor that he has only few days left to live,” which meant that he, the pastor, could afford to tell the truth and escape punishment. I felt terrible stealing the dying man’s last moments, but the pastor insisted that he see me.
When I went looking for confirmation about who had denied Pearl Buck a visa to China in 1972, I also got lucky. I suspected Madame Mao was behind the rejection but had no proof. So I was thrilled when I met Pearl Buck’s daughter Janice at the Pearl Buck House in Pennsylvania in 2007. Janice told me that her mother believed that it was Madame Mao, and she listed the reasons, all of which made sense to me. Janice also shared with me some wonderful details about her mother, for example, about the Chinese pond Pearl created in her backyard and Pearl’s passion for Chinese camellias.
I could have written this story only now and only in America. Here, I can write without worry of being persecuted for what I write. And I wrote about Pearl at the right time in my own life—I was born and lived in China for 27 years, and I have lived in America for 26 years. I truly can comprehend Pearl Buck as a “person of two worlds.” I have begun to understand how an author’s background decides, if not dictates, what she writes. In some sense, I could not have written this book until now, because it has taken me this long to truly understand the American side of Pearl Buck’s character.
Pearl of China is the seventh book by Anchee Min, who has been published in 32 languages and many countries. Her 1992 memoir, Red Azalea, contains more details of her coming-of-age in Communist China. Pearl of China imagines the 40 years author Pearl S. Buck spent in China during the Communist regime.
A trailer for Pearl of China.