“The sun beat down upon them, for it was early summer, and [O-Lan’s] face was dripping with her sweat. Wang Lung had his coat off and his back bare, but she worked with her thin garment covering her shoulders and it grew wet and clung to her like skin. Moving together in a perfect rhythm, without a word, hour after hour, he fell into a union with her which took the pain from his labor. He had no articulate thought of anything; there was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning over this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodes 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 earth. So would also their house, some time, return into the earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth…”
- Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth
The Good Earth is a remarkable, entertaining, moving, and unforgettable novel. It held me – from the first page to the last – in its lyrical grasp.
With that said, let me hasten to add that I did not find it remarkable, entertaining, moving, and unforgettable for the same reasons it has been turning up in English classes since its 1931 publication date.
Pearl S. Buck’s classic tale of a Chinese peasant family has been a fixture on syllabuses for decades. It has been used – with the best of intentions, I think – as an introduction to a culture unfamiliar to many Americans, both then and now. The trouble, of course, is that basing your knowledge about a massive country with a history that stretches back over thousands of years is ludicrous, to say the least.
The Good Earth is about a specific spot in China, centered on a single family, and set at a specific (though non-specified) time. It is fiction, and not even historical fiction. The setting is so enveloping, so fully-realized, that it is seductive to say This is China! But it’s not. The Good Earth is no more representative of China than, for instance, Gone With the Wind is representative of the United States.
Thankfully, I never read this in school, meaning I was never subjected to the forced extrapolations that students are required to draw from a novel of this sort. Instead, I read it as a follow-up to Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s The Mountains Sing, a saga about a North Vietnamese family living through Vietnam’s tumultuous 20th Century. I had no real notion of what I was getting into with The Good Earth. I only knew that I wanted to travel somewhere I hadn’t been, and spend some time with people I hadn’t met.
To that end, the striking thing about The Good Earth is how universal a story it tells. This is the quintessential rags-to-riches epic. The central character, Wang Lung, may be Chinese, but he could just as easily be Ragged Dick from a Horatio Alger story. He is a striver, an ambitious farmer who loves the earth, is willing to work hard, and holds a considerable grudge against the House of Hwang, a wealthy family that slights him in a way that he never forgets.
Because this is a story about a man trying to jump into a higher income tax bracket, it follows a familiar arc from humble goodness to raging assholery to potential redemption. Call me crazy (or drunk), but the comparison that jumped into my head was Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, except that famine replaces murder (which, yes, is an important distinction).
When The Good Earth opens, we are introduced to Wang Lung, who lives with his elderly father, eking a living from the earth. It is his wedding day, which for Wang Lung, means going to the House of Hwang to pick up the wife – or “slave” – he has purchased. The woman, whose name is O-Lan, becomes the essential element in Wang Lung’s plan for upward economic mobility.
The Good Earth is written in the third-person, though we are privy to Wang Lung’s thoughts and feelings alone. It is a testament to his complexity that he is allowed to be a jackass, and often.
With the exception of Wang Lung and O-Lan, none of the other supporting characters have much psychological depth or dimension. They lack interior lives. Nonetheless, they are unforgettable, especially the villainous ones. Everyone leaves a mark in your memory.
The Good Earth is a bildungsroman that follows Wang Lung from relative youth, onward through his years. There is not a central plot. Rather, events unfold episodically, over the course of days and months and years. Some incidents are small, some are large, some are absolutely unforgettable. The most memorable set-piece in The Good Earth is a terrible famine that comes on the heels of a punishing drought. Now, most of us have read about famines in history books, whether that is the Ukrainian famine caused by Stalin’s collectivization schemes, the Bengal famine during World War II, or the Great Chinese Famine during the time of Mao. It is one thing to know the overwhelming statistics from those tragedies. It is another thing to have the process recounted in unsparing detail, as Buck does here.
I found The Good Earth to be beautifully written. Buck creates a distinct idiom for the narrative – especially with regard to the dialogue – that is mesmerizing. The verisimilitude here is not the point, as I suspect that repeated phrases such as “such an one” and “hither and dither” may not be perfect recreations of the way that actual Chinese farmers spoke. Yet I appreciated the stylization, and the fact that it was applied consistently. It created a fully-formed world, even if that world should not be accepted as historical fact.
This is a natural place to pivot to the reality that it is not the 1930s anymore.
It just so happened that I read this as a debate about cultural appropriation in literature arose in the wake of Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt (which followed on the heels of a debate being had in the community of romance writers). Because this discussion – to the extent that trading death threats can be called a discussion – is being had, I feel compelled to state the obvious: Pearl S. Buck was not Chinese.
The daughter of American missionaries, Buck spent the bulk of her life living in China, where she learned the language, made friends, and seemed to genuinely care about the country and her people. To be sure, Buck was not a cultural tourist. Equally true is the fact that she was not Chinese.
I have nothing to add, except to say there is no law – at least in America – keeping an author from writing about whatever he/she/they wants. There is also no law – at least in America – keeping an author’s critics from voicing disapproval and leaving no-read-one-star ratings of the book. If this sounds like a weaselly position to take, well, there is no law – at least in America – against being a weasel.
Worth noting, I suppose, is that unlike James Clavell (Shogun) and Michael Blake (Dances With Wolves), among others, Buck does not tell this story through the eyes of a western intermediary. Westerners are almost completely nonexistent, showing up only on the fringes of a trip to the city, where they are cluelessly-confident bunglers. There is also none of the racial condescension that tends to show up in China-based novels written by non-Chinese authors. Wang Lung is not a stereotyped unskilled laborer, speaking pidgin English and kowtowing to foreign overlords. (I’m thinking, for instance, of The Sand Pebbles, which I otherwise enjoyed, but which employs its Chinese characters as “coolies”).
Since we are dancing around emotionally fraught topics, I should also add that the treatment of women in The Good Earth is deplorable. Low-born girls are sold as slaves or into arranged marriages, while high-born girls have their feet bound and are groomed for refined coquetry. The female role is rather sharply defined as either sexual object or domestic help.
This, it should go without saying, is not a moral worldview that Buck is promoting, but a rendition of things as she saw them. Since there is a long, problematic history of Chinese portrayals (or caricatures) in western culture, this can be troubling. There is always the inherent danger of promoting unfair or inaccurate stereotypes. At the same time, there is no denying that Buck wrote about what she witnessed, and that in a patriarchal milieu such as Wang Lung’s, the general subordination of women was commonplace. Not just in China, obviously, but all over the world.
On the plus side, O-Lan is – in my opinion – the real hero of The Good Earth. She is described as homely and slow-witted, with her chief virtue being her doggedness. At least, that is how she is seen by Wang Lung. Anyone paying the slightest attention, however, will soon learn that she is indomitable, hickory-tough, and twice as clever as Wang Lung on his best day.
Many great novels are described as timeless. They work wherever and whenever you read them. The Good Earth is certainly a classic, but it is not timeless. It is of its time, and the way we view it will continue to vary and change. There are aspects of The Good Earth that will make it a nonstarter for many readers. For all that makes it discomfiting, or potentially discomfiting, I loved it.
Stripped of its trappings, The Good Earth is a moving and humane portrayal of one family’s journey. It is not always happy, and the ending is surprisingly dark. There are elements of King Lear and Anna Karenina, among other influences. But make no mistake, the intimacy, the empathy, and the unforgettable characters are all Pearl S. Buck.