The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck was the US bestseller in 1931 when it was first published. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and it also contributed to Buck winning the 1938 Nobel Prize. Phyllis Bentley, an overview of Buck’s work, says of her subject: “Mrs. Buck is entitled to take rank as a considerable artist. To read her novels is to gain not merely knowledge of China but wisdom about life”, and, having read The Good Earth, I wholeheartedly agree.
The book follows the life and fortunes of Wang Lung, a poor farmer who takes a slave for a wife, and with her begins to become more prosperous – although the gods are always ready to flood the fields or send no rain at all, leaving the locals starving and desperate. Buck covers everything – the joys, struggles and heartbreaks of family life, the intricacies of social hierarchy and filial duty, the seemingly unbreakable bond the villagers have with the earth and the skies, and the shift of attitudes across generations as the emphasis of prosperity changes from land to money. Finally, Buck contemplates the process of ageing, as we watch various characters go from being vital and relevant to being relics of a bygone age, barely even able to understand the new world that surrounds them.
The saddest character of the book is O-lan, Wang Lung’s first wife. She’s basically a superwoman, giving birth to sons all over the place, delivering them herself, without help, and then striding straight back to the fields again and setting to work with a hoe. Many times her quick, clear thinking saves the family from starvation, robbery and loss of face. And how is she repaid? Not as she should have been, that’s for sure.
On this count, I disliked Wang Lung and yet Buck’s skill makes him more than a two-dimensional farmer of a bygone age. The reader has known him since the first day of his manhood when he went, shaking with nerves, to the Great House to collect his bride. He has a kind heart, a proud heart, and a deep-rooted insecurity that he never shakes off. He is not the same person at sixty as he was at twenty and that is what I love about reading an epic like this.
It is always suggested that War and Peace is tough-going but what people really seem to mean by this is that it is long! Reading it is a commitment to a huge number of pages and a large number of characters. But there is a rich reward for such commitment. I imagine it to be a little like raising a child – love and understanding are only complete when you’ve seen all sides of a person. It’s easier to sympathise with a grown man when you’ve seen how he grew into a man. Thus it is with the reader and Wang Lung.
In many ways, The Good Earth is a classic example of the maxim that ‘money can’t buy happiness’. I recently watched a program about lottery winners, one of whom reminded me a bit of Wang Lung. As the simple farmer’s son grows rich beyond his wildest dreams, we see him swap one set of troubles for another, just as the lottery winner felt that he had done. The more that Wang Lung yearns for peace in his house, the further it recedes from his grasp. In many ways, it seems he was never more content than he was by the side of O-lan in the early days, despite the scorn he has for her in later years.
One of the things that really tickled me about the book was its reminder of the oriental attitude to praise and self-promotion. There was a big uproar not that long ago about Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, wherein she discussed traditional Chinese parenting. The basics (according to her) are that Chinese mothers shame rather than praise and force where a western parent would relent. Of course, huge numbers of Chinese parents will have no time for this parenting model, especially these days, but there is an element of truth to what Chua says, especially amongst traditional Chinese. A Chinese friend of mine once complained I was too polite to her and said that in China this would indicate that we weren’t actually friends but strangers. I had been a little deflated before by some of her rather blunt criticisms of me, but here I was causing the same offence in the opposite way.
As Chua notes, “Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, ‘Hey fatty—lose some weight’”, something that’s generally considered abuse in western society. I don’t want to get into the rights and wrongs of that here – I only mention it as I noticed a lot of this in The Good Earth and I still find it perverse and, at times, theatrically absurd. When Wang Lung offers his wedding-day guests some food cooked by his new wife he says “it is poor stuff – it is badly prepared” despite thinking it excellent. When he takes his sons to their teacher for their first day of school he says: “Sir, here are my two worthless sons. If anything can be driven into their thick brass skulls, it is only by beating them, and therefore if you wish to please me, beat them to make them learn.”
Again, when his first daughter is born, Wang Lung’s wife dismisses him from the labour-room door by saying “it is only a slave this time – not worth mentioning”. Not an unusual attitude of the time, of course, but it did remind me of the plight of Chinese girls. I can’t even wear high heels out to a club without complaint – I shudder to think of my feet being bound tightly to crush the bones, leaving the flesh rotting beneath the bandages. I’m sure Wang Lung would think me dreadfully feeble.
Girls and women are referred to as ‘slaves’ throughout this book and the brutality they often suffer without complaint is tragic, its pathos not missed by Buck, who was a prominent humanitarian in her day. But she doesn’t overdo it by imposing modern values on Wang Lung’s world – and the shocking aspects of the family’s lives are told simply, without judgement. Perhaps this is easier because Buck herself grew up in China. Though she was born to western parents she spoke Chinese fluently and lived there for a large portion of her life. Not for her the romantic, rose-tinted gaze of the outsider. Despite the elegance and the poetry of her words, Pearl S. Buck tells it like it is, and her book is all the richer for it.