The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
Rating: Unable to Give a Rating
Target: Historical/Cultural Fiction
Category: Mixed Feelings
Review: I have mixed feelings about The Good Earth. I don’t know what to say. I really don’t. Most of the time, I don’t like it when people of non-Chinese origin write about China. The author, Pearl S. Buck, has spent more time in China than I have. But I guess, I feel a sort of thing for my birth country that isn’t blind pride or love even. But with all the acculturation and exoticism of the Far East, I feel protective. Yes, that’s the word. I’m protective of depictions of China. On Goodreads, I’m finding stark differences between the reactions of Chinese/Chinese-Americans vs. non-Asians.
It is startling, how uncivilized and how un-human, Wang Lung seems. He’s a farmer, rural and uneducated and with humble origins – but even farmers have deeper emotions, deeper consciousness. Buck doesn’t portray Lung in that way. He’s a complex character, but complex in a very mundane way. The characters are all rather flat and stereotypes are aplenty. In stereotypes, there is always some truth, no matter how small.
It is true that girls were once abandoned and thought of as second-class. Jump two generations back in my history, and I had female ancestors who were abandoned as babies. But Wang Lung’s wife kills the baby girl. It seems to me that Pearl S. Buck choose the most inhumane characters to use. They don’t even name their kids. I like to believe that, even in villages and on the rice paddies, the rural Chinese people had more dimensions that the ones Pearl chose.
The more I think about this book, the more I feel it’s such a negative portrayal of China. It seems like The Good Earth is more of a tool to educate 1930s America about China-the-oh-so-exotic-land-of-barbaric-baby-girl-killing-farmers-and-lotus-feet-and-oh-lets-not-forget-the-good-earth. Apparently it was used as a political tool to make people sympathize with China and hate Japan before the war. But it shouldn’t be the vision of China people hold in their hearts. There’s so much more to China than this side. Wang Lung isn’t the only personality you’ll find. Nor his wife. The Good Earth is written in a very bare style. It’s a bit reminiscent of a tell-it-like-a-religious-text narrative. I think it only won the Pulitzer because it was the 1930s and there wasn’t much diversity in those days.
No matter how educated a Westerner becomes about China, the language, and the history, it’s still not theirs. So their vision of the culture might have a cataract here or there. I don’t know if I have the right to say that. I read a bit about Pearl S. Buck. She spent most of her life in China. Her parents were missionaries and she grew up there. I think she probably truly appreciates China and the culture. But still, The Good Earth is missing something. It’s missing some feeling, some truth, some ideas, some intangible threads…