Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Wandering Thoughts of Pearl S. Buck: My Several Worlds

My Several Worlds by Pearl S. Buck

I once spent an entire summer reading novels by Pearl S. Buck. I just moved from one to the next, reading through the (numerous) waiting times in the lab. I have not read any of her novels since then, but I have retained my interest in her.

I picked up My Several Worlds at a library book sale. In it, Buck writes eloquently of her childhood in China and her eventual return to the United States. It is not an autobiography; the other people in her life are mentioned only as necessary for her thoughts and generally not by name.

Her parents are really the only ones described in depth.

It was interesting to see the development of Buck's ideas about missionaries. Certainly many of their actions in the past would now be construed as harmful, even by those who intended no harm.
They were deeply devoted to the Chinese we knew and indeed to all Chinese, and in greater or lesser degree so were all the missionaries. Few of them were selfish or lazy, and most of them in those days came from homes well above the average. And yet I knew intuitively that they were not in China primarily because they loved the people, even though during years they did learn to love a people naturally lovable. No, they were there, these missionaries, to fulfill some spiritual need of their own. It was a noble need, its purposes unselfish, partaking doubtless of that divine need through which God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son for its salvation. But somewhere I had learned from Thoreau, who doubtless learned it from Confucius, that if a man comes to do his own good for you, then must you flee that man and save yourself. And I was troubled when my father preached his doctrines and I wished he would be silent, content only to live what he preached, and so, lifted up, to draw near to him without words. And this I wished, knowing that my father would never have preached had he not felt it his duty, for he was the gentlest preacher any heathen could ever hear, avoiding all mention of hell fire and dwelling only upon the wonderful love of God, surpassing the love of man.
Buck learned to feel that all missionary impulses were inherently misguided (at best). I am sometimes ambivalent about missionaries myself, but I would never go so far as to claim we shouldn't evangelize in non-Western cultures. It requires, perhaps, an exceptionally high level of cultural and emotional sensitivity, but it should not be abandoned.

She wrote of the practices in China that we find abhorrent; that sometimes she felt abhorrent. For example, families would often sell girls in the time of famine, reasoning they'd have to leave eventually anyway.
It was an old system, I say, and like all systems in human life, everything depended upon the good or evil of the persons concerned. The best government in the world, the best religion, the best traditions of any people, depend upon the good or evil of the men and women who administer them.
She wrote similarly of other practices, like that of infanticide.
The longer I lived in our northern city, however, the more deeply impressed I was, not by the rich folks but by the farmers and their families, who lived in the villages outside the city wall. They were the ones who bore the brunt of life, who made the least money and did the most work. They were the most real, the closest to the earth, to birth and death, to laughter and to weeping. To visit the farm families became my own search for reality, and among them I found the human being as he most nearly is. They were not all good, by any means, nor honest, and it was inevitable that the very reality of their lives made them sometimes cruel. A farm woman could strangle her own newborn girl baby if she were desperate enough at the thought of another mouth added to the family, but she wept while she did it and the weeping was raw sorrow, not simply at what she did, but far deeper, over the necessity she felt to do it.
t's not so much that she didn't think infanticide was painful, but that she thought it was understandable and therefore we should not condemn the people who did it. But there is a difference between condemning a person for an action (especially one he or she weeps over) and condemning a practice. We should not neglect one because of compassion for the other.

There were some places in the book that reminded me of the beauty of her writing in her novels that I so enjoyed all those years ago.
Here every spring the great pink shoots push up, and when I go there in May, the sunlight is pouring down upon the deeply tinted peonies, glowing in reds and dusky pinks, and in the center creamy ones with golden hearts. The terrace is cleverly placed so that the guests must needs look upon it from the dimness of the interior. What words could be spoken, what thought shaped in such a place, save those of purest beauty! 
I appreciated reading this book to learn more of the secret of who Pearl S. Buck really was because I always admired her writing, and still do. Though I'm not certain her assertions about the rise of Communism in China are correct (there's a lot of conjecture on this in the book about which I do not know enough to comment), I do think she was able to capture the thread of life in China during her time there in a way most Westerners did not and to express it in astoundingly beautiful words. I'd be inclined to read one of her novels rather than this book again, though.


  1. I appreciate your review of this book - now I don't feel the need to read it. :-) A couple of years ago I read a few of Buck's books in quick succession, having managed to go 60+ years without reading one! Then I read online quite a bit about her. Her output of really good novels is amazing. She surely made the most of her upbringing and knowledge of China. Reading her novel about Korea, The Living Reed, was a huge history lesson for me.

  2. Glad you found it helpful, GretchenJoanna!


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