Buck, Pearl S. (Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker Buck)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Buck, Pearl S. (Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker Buck)

Buck, Pearl S. (Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker Buck) (1892-1973) American novelist

In her fiction, Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck depicted the inequities of peasant life in feudal China. Born Pearl Sydenstricker on June 26, 1892, in Hillsboro, West Virginia, she grew up in east central China, where her parents operated a Presbyterian mission and where she became bilingual. Like the journalist and novelist JOHN HERSEY, also raised in China, she viewed native life like a native. Her nurse Alma introduced her to Chinese theater and bargaining at the market; a tutor, Mr. Kung, increased her awareness of human issues while teaching her Confucius’s philosophy and literary classics (see ANALECTS). When the Empress Dowager Cixi (Tzu Hsi) encouraged the slaughter of whites in China during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, eight-year- old Pearl joined her family in hiding in Shanghai. In July 1901, the Sydenstrickers went to San Francisco, but they returned to China the following year. In 1910, Pearl went back to the United States for her higher education.

With a degree from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Pearl returned to China in 1914 to teach English literature at Chung Yang, Nanjing, and Southeastern universities. She married John Lossing Buck, a missionary, in May 1917. As the nation began to modernize, she observed threats to Chinese sovereignty from Britain, Germany, Japan, Russia, and the United States, all poised to dominate the emerging giant. At age 31, she began submitting stories to American magazines and writing longer works of fiction based on the socioeconomic impact of political change. Another dangerous period during the Chinese Civil War in March 1927 forced her, her husband, children, and widowed father to flee the Chinese Nationalists at Nanjing and seek shelter in the hut of a domestic, Mrs. Lu, until American warships could transport them to safety in Japan.

By 1935, Buck had published several works, including (in 1931) her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Good Earth. That year, she divorced John Buck and married her publisher, Richard Walsh, moving with him to Bucks County, Pennsylvania. There she wrote more novels, short stories, and works of nonfiction, while also becoming a champion of human rights. In 1949, she founded Welcome House, an adoption service for outcast Chinese children sired by black American soldiers, which she supported for the rest of her life, in addition to raising humanitarian aid for postwar orphans.

Unrest and Upheaval

Buck applied an insider’s knowledge of feudal China to The Good Earth (1931), the first of a three-volume saga—The House of Earth—on peasant survival in Anhui Province, a land dominated by a propertied oligarchy. (The other two volumes are Sons [1932] and A House Divided [1935]) Set late in the 19th century during the decline of the Manchu dynasty, the story of farmer Wang Lung begins on his wedding day, when he buys O-lan, a homely kitchen drudge in the House of Hwang, for his bride. For contrast, Buck allows the protagonist a tiptoe through the feudal manor and a peek at the indolence, whoring, and opium use that characterized China’s wealthiest 15 percent. As the couple begin their life together, Buck sets the tone of her canon with an adage: “Each had his turn at this earth,” reminding the reader of individual opportunities and mortality (Buck 1931, 33). Because of his bride’s initiative and thrift, Wang compares her to his faithful ox, a commentary on males devaluation of females to the level of serviceable livestock. Wang’s family thrives during drought, famine, riot, and looting in Jiangsu Province and war in Nanjing. Through a contemplative cottager, Buck describes the predictable rise of unrest among the poor when the socioeconomic system favors aristocrats: “There is a way when the rich are too rich” (85).

The overturn of fortunes, a focus of The Good Earth, illustrates how the destabilization of traditional power structures leaves a vacuum open to lawlessness and predations against the vulnerable. The tide of violence, derived from the author’s childhood memories, spreads without predictable aim or direction. Of opportunist bandits in his own family, Wang regrets that “many houses had they burned and women they had carried away, and good farmers they had bound with ropes … and men found them there next day, raving mad if they lived and burnt and crisp as roasted meat if they were dead” (165-166). At a turning point in China's fortunes, the arrival of a nephew from a southern city brings a horde of uncouth soldiers to Wang's compound. Their swaggering impresses the couple's son Nung Wen, who dreams of the glory of combat: “There is to be a war such as we have not heard of—there is to be a revolution and fighting and war such as never was, and our land is to be free!” (245). His naivete terrifies Wang Lung, who knows firsthand the sufferings of war.

Buck modeled her trilogy of dynastic rot on Cao Xueqin's classic Qing dynasty novel DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER (1791). During the Chinese Civil War (1927-37), her masterwork and its sequels, Sons and A House Divided, pursue the issue of militarism. In the later novel Wang's grandson, Wang Yuan, flaunts his uniform to the agrarian elders. To the disapproval of the landed gentry, the youth takes comfort in “the hardness he had learned in the school of war” (Buck 1984, 2) and envisions the unseating of the weak emperor and his warlords for the good of an unspecified peasant uprising.

In the midst of writing about the house of Wang, Buck pursued feminist issues in The Mother (1934), a lyric portrait on the pragmatism of a nameless abandoned wife and her duty to a blind daughter and an elderly mother-in-law. In old age, the mother reflects on a life of struggle and admits “how little there had been of any good to lay hold on in her years,” a bleak summation of the destiny of female peasants in the Chinese empire (Buck 1971, 300).

Public acclaim for the author's humanism won her the 1938 Nobel Prize in literature, a first for an American woman. In 1941, she examined war-torn Asia in the historical novel China Sky, a story of a Chinese doctor colluding with a Japanese prisoner in an American hospital compound during the Japanese invasion. Imperial Woman (1956), a fictional biography of Cixi, the imperial concubine and last Chinese empress, and The Living Reed (1963), an overview of Korean power mongering, reprise Buck's themes of the endurance of the lowly through courage and persistence. In Imperial Woman, she defends the tenacity of Empress Dowager Cixi, who rules from the Forbidden City during China's critical transition to Westernization. The Living Reed depicts the agony of Korea's occupation by the Japanese until liberation in 1945 through the Kim clan's losses and sacrifices.

Pearl Buck died in Danby, Vermont, on March 6, 1973, and was buried on her farm in Pennsylvania. Her tombstone bears the name Pearl Sydenstricker in Chinese characters.


Buck, Pearl S. The Good Earth. New York: Pocket Books,


----- . A House Divided. Berkeley, Calif.: Moyer Bell, 1984.

------- . The Mother. New York: HarperCollins, 1971. Conn, Peter. Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.