Pearl Buck's Intriguing Staying Power: Imperial Woman

Parade Magazine (September 14, 2008) asked Laura Bush what she’s been reading: “The Imperial Woman, by Pearl S. Buck. I picked up this book after returning from the Olympics in Beijing. The story of the last empress of Manchu China is fascinating; I can hardly put it down.”

Now from my point of view, the novel’s interest is for the history of American ideas about China, but Buck’s take on “Old Buddha” is not to be taken lightly and her appeal to the public should be respected as a “teachable moment,” not merely scoffed at.

Over the years, Buck’s staying power has intrigued me. Since I have a contrarian streak, I’ve challenged myself to respect her accomplishments (considerable) while keeping in sight her shortcomings (ditto) and to distinguish the two.1

Moyer Bell Publishers has a number of her books in print, including Imperial Woman. They are nicely printed and reasonably priced, including Buck’s translation of Shuihuzhuan (titled All Men Are Brothers), which is listed at $16.95. The translation is heavy going at first, as you have to get used to the labored diction she developed to reflect Chinese style, but hey, the price is right.

They offer other of her novels which are of topical interest: Dragon Seed (1939), for instance, describes the opening of the Second Sino-Japanese War with gruesome details of the 1937 invasion and occupation of the Yangzi valley. It’s not the first thing to read on the subject, but holds its own as an historical novel. Peony (1948) is set in 19th century Kaifeng and interweaves a reasonably accurate history of the Jewish community there.2

  1. Charles W. Hayford, “What’s So Bad About The Good Earth?,” Education About Asia 3.3 (December 1998): 4-7.  

  2. The Moyer Bell catalogue descriptions of Dragon Seed and Peony, however, are switched with the write ups for other novels. They also quote Kenneth Rexroth praising her “renerding” of Shuihu, which I actually prefer to the perhaps correct but less colorful “rendering.”  


  1. The first link you’ve provided has very little to say about Buck’s (or The Good Earth‘s) shortcomings. It mentions twice her stilted prose and contains a blanket condemnation by Frank Chin, a Chinese-American critical-race playwright of footnote-level distinction from the 90s; but beyond that the reader of this post if left to imagine for him/herself the charges against Buck in this conspiracy of silence.

    Stand and face your accused. If, as Hayford article (rightly) states, [m]ost licensed China academics would not [dare?] use The Good Earth as the human interest component in a college-level history of China; and if this “teachable moment” that you’ve identified should indeed be taught to, then, by all means, let loose your criticism of Buck, point-up her considerable shortcomings and tell the reader why her books go unassigned.

  2. In that article I tried to balance a lot of things in a brief space but the main idea was to defend Buck from wrong headed dismissal or neglect.

    I wouldn’t use Good Earth in a modern China course not because I wouldn’t dare, but because other books give a better feeling for everyday life, such as the book I mentioned, Ida Pruitt’s Daughter of Han, or Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum. There’s only so much time in a course.

    In my course on US-China relations, Good Earth is a prime text.

    This is a different question from appreciating the probing and committed body of work Buck wrote before she left China. I have written Introductions to forthcoming reprints of the twin biographies she wrote of her parents which I hope will bring them to more general attention. They’re fiery and smart books even if I couldn’t use them in a modern China survey. Maybe in a course on the American Empire, as she sees in her parents the failure of the American Mission in China.

    Another question, as I suspect you of all people know, is that of literary racial profiling. I finger one or two perps in the article, but again, this is a different question from what to teach in a modern China course.

    I should write a more expansive post on these questions, but I’d be very grateful if you and others weighed in on Buck and why we should or should not read her now.

  3. Charles,

    I have never used Buck in any class, but if did teach a US-China relations course she would be an obvious choice.

    One problem with using Good Earth is that it is not a very good book as a book. Particularly in a survey class I think about what students will retain from the class 10 years from now, and for me, looking back, it is mostly the books I read. If my students are going to have something stuck in their heads for the rest of their lives I can think of a lot of things I would like better.

    The other problem is that it leads naturally into talking about American images of China, and in a Modern China class I try to get them to realize that there might be things that mattered more to China than what Americans thought about the place.

  4. Peter Conn, author of the breakthrough biography,Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), emailed me a comment taken from the book:

    “Not everyone will agree with Kingston’s high estimate of Pearl Buck’s
    representations of China. Nonetheless, Buck’s stories and essays ought to be
    evaluated on their own terms, not prejudged by resort to a vulgar essentialism
    that equates cultural authority with ethnic heritage or surname. Apparently
    ignoring this elementary protocol, Edmund White declared not long ago: “each of
    us can attest that . . . Maxine Hong Kingston knows more about China than did
    Pearl Buck.” On the contrary, although Kingston has written brilliantly about
    her experiences as a Chinese-American, she has published almost nothing about
    China, a country in which she has never lived, and for which she does not
    presume to speak. Ironically, in short, while Edmund White scorns Pearl Buck
    and turns to Maxine Hong Kingston for reliable reports on China, Kingston
    herself has turned to Pearl Buck. Edmund White, “The Politics of Identity,” New
    York Times (December 21, 1993), p. A27.”

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