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What’s So Bad About THE GOOD EARTH?

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“I wish Pearl Buck was alive and walk into my restaurant so I can cut out her heart and liver. That’s how much I hate that movie,” says a character in Frank Chin’s otherwise delightful Donald Duk.(note 1) The 1937 movie to which Chin’s character objected did not feature any Chinese actors, but appeared to speak for China. Many in 1930s China objected to its unromantic description of village life and its inclusion of sex. Recently, Pulitzer award winning author Edmund White, following Frank Chin in bringing Buck into 1990s culture wars, argued in The New York Times that we should read only authentic cultural spokespersons; Pearl Buck, he said, though brought up in China speaking Chinese, couldn’t convey China as truly as Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior. But Kingston herself, at a 1992 centennial conference on Buck, reported that when she, as a child born and raised in California, was puzzled about the land and customs of her parents (“What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?” she asked) she had turned to The Good Earth. When the cartoonist Milton Caniff was asked in the late 1930s to create the comic strip “Terry and the Pirates” (which generated the “Dragon Lady”), he refused to settle, he said, for the superficial view; instead, he went to the library and read all the books by Pearl Buck he could find! (note 2)

These are weighty misgivings. Still, the book, movie, and Broadway show made Chinese people real for millions of Americans; some have credited Buck with drawing the U.S. into war with Japan. This is overstated—it was Pearl Harbor, not Pearl Buck that did the trick—but Harold Isaacs is surely correct that for a generation of Americans, Pearl Buck “created” China in the same way Charles Dickens “created” Victorian England (note 3). Yet in the four editions of John Fairbank’s United States and China, the book is not mentioned (note 4). The canon makers have not admitted it to the pantheon of Great American Literature (though it is in the Valhalla of Cliff’s Notes).

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is drawn from a larger manuscript, now titled “America’s Chinas: Construing China from the Opium Wars to Tiananmen.”

NOTES

1. See Donald Duk (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1991), 136.

2. Maxine Hong Kingston, Woman Warrior: Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (New York: Knopf, 1977), 5–6. Edmund White, “The Politics of Identity,” The New York Times (December 21, 1993), A27; Kingston, “Address,” Pearl S. Buck Centennial Symposium, Randolph-Macon Women’s College, Lynchburg, Virginia, March 27, 1992. Maurice Horn (ed.), Terry and the Pirates (New York: Nostalgia Press, 1977), Preface.

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