My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Good Earth (1931) by Pearl S. Buck has been called by many critics, including the readers (both past and present) over at the Pulitzer Prize organization (which awarded this book the Pulitzer Prize in Novel in 1932) from Columbia University, to be a “Great American Novel” (see Claudia Stone Weissberg’s article called “What makes a novel ‘American’? Pearl S. Buck challenged the status quo” posted on the organization’s website), but to say such a thing about this book, which is closer to being a “Great Chinese Novel” than an “American” one, can only exhibit the highest form of pretentiousness, arrogance and disrespect that often exist in the Occidental cultures which frequently attempt to possess that which is foreign (usually the Oriental) in order to feel a sense of superiority over all worldly things. Even the book’s cover reads: “The Bestselling Epic of a China that Was.”
If it hasn’t been said nor written before (if it has, it doesn’t matter), let it be written now and for all times that The Good Earth is not an “American” novel in any shape or form and, therefore, can never be “The Great American Novel*” as many falsely and inaccurately proclaim; likewise, because the novel is about “humanity” also doesn’t mean it is “American” in-or-by nature (which is another common mistake critics often share about this book: thinking simply and foolishly that since the book reveals the characters’ humanity it must, therefore, be an “American” tale).
The Good Earth is all things Chinese (as you will see if you take the time to read the book a few times) and to call this book anything other than belonging to the Chinese people, the Chinese culture, the Chinese history and to the Chinese plight is to show a tremendous amount of ignorance while doing a great disservice and dishonor to China and to the Chinese.
True, the author was American. Pearl S. Buck was born (according to her bio at the beginning of the book) on June 26, 1892 in West Virginia, but lived a great deal of her life in China. It is from Buck’s experiences in the Anhwei province that especially helped her to shape, to form, and to write this “great Chinese novel” about a poor, Chinese farmer (Wang Lung) and his ugly, Chinese wife (O-lan) and the struggles they share as peasants during a famine in an impoverished village in China.
In the beginning of The Good Earth, Wang Lung buys (how American?) a wife (named O-lan) who is a kitchen slave in a great house in the city. Later the two are married before two gods the Chinese couple believe are protectors over the fields and earth (notice below the British spellings of the color “grey” and the word “smouldered”, a linguistic trait which is not American):
“Together this man and this woman stood before the gods of their fields. The woman watched the ends of the incense redden and turn grey. When the ash grew heavy she leaned over and with her forefinger she pushed the head of ash away. Then as though fearful for what she had done, she looked quickly at Wang Lung, her eyes dumb. But there was something he liked in her movement. It was as though she felt that the incense belonged to them both; it was a moment of marriage. They stood there in complete silence, side by side, while the incense smouldered into ashes; and then because the sun was sinking, Wang Lung shouldered the box and went home” (p 21).
Immediately the reader can be informed that the religious and ceremonial respects found in the informal marriage between the two peasants Wang Lung and O-lan are without doubt Chinese in nature and origin.
If not convinced, let’s watch the reception dinner inside Wang Lung’s modest hut with thatched roof and dirt floor to welcome his purchase (no, the bride) home to his neighbors, friends and relatives:
“And he urged them to eat and they ate heartily of the good fare, heartily and in silence, and this one praised the brown sauce on the fish and that one the well-done pork, and Wang Lung said over and over in reply,
“‘It is poor stuff—it is badly prepared.’
“But in his heart he was proud of the [Asian/Chinese/French/American?] dishes, for with what meats she had the woman had combined sugar and vinegar and a little wine and [Asian/Chinese/French/American?] soy sauce and she had skillfully brought forth all the force of the meat itself, so that Wang Lung himself had never tasted such dishes upon the tables of his friends” (p 23).
The cuisine and religion from the marriage ceremony and the reception dinner, as any intelligent and competent reader might have noticed, is Asian and/or Chinese in nature and origin. Even if the 4.43% of the Asian population in the United States (according to the CIA World Factbook in 2016) happens to eat similar cuisines and practice similar religions within the borders of the United States of America it would not make The Good Earth less Chinese and more American in nature and origin. If we are to further look at facts, the most popular religion practiced in the United States is Christianity (see also the CIA World Factbook in 2016) and not the type of religion practiced and believed by Wang Lung and O-lan who live in China and who are Chinese born from Chinese ancestors over countless generations.
For an American, especially during the Great Depression of the 1930s, it would only be natural and understandable to take away from The Good Earth a great sense of belonging and shared history with Buck’s story about an illiterate farmer, and his immediate family, who overcomes all obstacles to remain loyal to the land (i.e., “the good earth”) and rise to a great success within the city (a classic example of a “social climber” and the “dream of success” which bind all the poor of humanity as one).
But simply recognizing oneself or one’s culture or one’s humanity in a book or a painting or a song or a poem that remains outside of your culture does not and can never mean that the work of art belongs to you and your specific culture alone. To think you and your culture possess the work of art because you recognize something of yourself and your culture within that specific work of art (as many Americans believe The Good Earth is American in nature and not Chinese) would be a dishonorable and ignoble act.
The thing itself (i.e., the work of art) is what makes the thing what it is. Calling a novel “American” when the novel is about Chinese peasants living in China while paralleling their lives with actual historical events which happened in China makes no cultural sense, no academic sense, and does not partake its logic in common sense nor in the realm of erudition and professional scholarship. In other words, and in plain-speak, to call The Good Earth an “American novel” and not a “Chinese novel” would be absurd.
Any farmer from any country (making The Good Earth more of a humanistic novel—also study more about “phenomenology”—and less of an “American one”), however, could relate to the Chinese farmer’s bond to the Chinese land:
“He had no articulate thought of anything; there was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods. The earth lay rich and dark, and fell apart lightly under the points of their hoes. Sometimes they turned up a bit of brick, a splinter of wood. It was nothing. Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house, some time, return into the earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth. They worked on, moving together—together—producing the fruit of this earth—speechless in their movements together” (p 30).
If a reader were to call this novel anything, The Good Earth should be called a “Chinese novel” or a “Human novel” or even a “Peasant’s rise to Riches novel,” because to do otherwise would to retract and bring shame to the Chinese characters and the Chinese story the book and Buck want to convey.
Even as Wang Lung, by the book’s end in his old age (p 301), recalls his first wife O-lan working beside him in the fields (p 40-41) we get a sense of longing that can only belong to this fictional character who is, in all things and mannerisms, Chinese.
Furthermore, what we do know is that by recognizing the novel as Chinese and the characters as Chinese is to honor our own culture and our own humanity and respect not only what is different from ourselves (e.g., masculine or feminine) and our culture, whatever that might be (e.g., Chinese or American), but also to respect what is similar, however that might be (e.g., husband or wife):
“And he remembered as one remembers a dream long past how O-lan rested from her work a little while and fed the child richly and the white rich milk ran out of her breast and spilled upon the ground. And this seemed too long past ever to have been” (p 301).
Now, Wang Lung as a young man living the scene for the first time:
“She worked all day now and the child lay on an old torn quilt on the ground, asleep [forgive the writer’s dangling modifier]. When it cried the woman stopped and uncovered her bosom to the child’s mouth, sitting flat upon the ground, and the sun beat down upon them both, the reluctant sun of late autumn that will not let go the warmth of summer until the cold of the coming winter forces it. The woman and the child were as brown as the soil and they sat there like figures made of earth. There was the dust of the fields upon the woman’s hair and upon the child’s soft black head.
“But out of the woman’s great brown breast the milk gushed forth for the child, milk as white as snow, and when the child suckled at one breast it flowed like a fountain from the other, and she let it flow. There was more than enough for the child, greedy though he was, life enough for many children, and she let it flow out carelessly, conscious of her abundance. There was always more and more. Sometimes she lifted her breast and let it flow out upon the ground to save her clothing, and it sank into the earth and made a soft, dark, rich spot in the field” (p 40-41).
One well-known author, however, hated The Good Earth.
“It’s difficult for me to explain how much I hate this book, and even harder to explain why,” writes Celeste Ng. “I don’t think it’s just because I hated the main character so much, and in this case at least, I don’t think it’s because of the weirdness that arises from a Westerner writing about a colonized country…
“While there’s some truth in the book’s portrayal, it perpetuates a lot of stereotypes about the Chinese. What’s more, this book has shaped a lot of people’s perceptions of China and the Chinese, not necessarily for the better. I know this happens with other cultures—but often to a greater extent with The Good Earth. Do we read Anna Karenina and feel that we now know everything about Russia? Does anyone read Midnight’s Children as a straight-up account of Indian history? Yet for some reason, for a lot of people The Good Earth is *it*, the one lesson in Chinese culture and history that they will read in their lives. They end up thinking, ‘This is how China IS,’ not ‘This is a portrayal of how one part of China was at one point in time’” (you can read more of her comments about this at Goodreads or at The Huffington Post & her article “Apologies to Pearl S. Buck” updated on May 25, 2011).
The Good Earth, however you do want to look at it, is an epic, sweeping story recounting a single Chinese farmer’s lifetime, from bachelor to lord, from son to grandfather, from starving poverty to fatted wealth, and with the book’s swift pacing and detailed accounts of the Chinese culture the 357-page book flies by as if in a dream.
But life, after all, is nothing but a dream, no?
Keep reading and smiling…
*More about what makes a novel “The Great American Novel”:
The “Great American Novel” is an American novel about America (since its inception as a “more perfect union”) written by an American born in America (from a greater/less-insulated worldview it is not that hard to understand: An American moving to China or Russia and later becoming a Chinese or Russian citizen on paper would never be accepted as a “Chinese” or “Russian” writer/novelist, even in the States, nor would the American-born-Chinese/Russian citizen be accepted as writing the “Great Chinese or Russian Novel,” that we would love to see). With extreme respect (and not political, but purely academic), immigrant fiction by the immigrant class (regardless if the refugees/immigrants become U.S. citizens later on—in Hong Kong, as in many cases found in the U.S., they would be called simply and correctly “permanent residents” and not “citizens”; regardless if they hold dual passports or not, as many writers do to simply be eligible in different countries for literary prizes), will always be a foreign perception and experience of America and Americans (and let’s remember: “America” and “being American” is not only about “citizenship” (no more than an American moving to Moscow and becoming a citizen on paper and walking in the streets shouting, “I’m Russian!”) nor is it about “land” but about a “people” and an “idea” which include welcoming immigrants and refugees to a better life and future so that their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren may one day be called “American”), and all of this would include (among countless other immigrant-Americans) the Russian-born Nabokov or Junot Diaz, who was born in the Dominican Republic. If you would like to include these last two immigrant writers, it would transform the title to the “Great Russian-American Novel” or the “Great Dominican-American Novel.” But that’s just our opinion. We didn’t make up these rules and there’s nothing wrong, in our point of view, of being an immigrant or an immigrant-American. Regardless… if we contradict you, then fine, we contradict you.
But always: keep reading and thinking…
CG FEWSTON was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong. He’s been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy).
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son, The New America: A Collection, Vanity of Vanities, A Time to Love in Tehran, and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 305,000+ followers