Pearl S. Buck: A Foreigner in China

by Katharine Mitchell

The Chinese port city of Zhenjiang is situated on the Yangtze River, just west of Shanghai. It is small by Chinese standards: population 2.9 million. A scattering of ancient Buddhist temples, well-kept parks and small mountains hedge the city’s new commercial district, which is a block of brightly lit chain stores, two-story McDonald’s and colossal shopping malls. Enormous red balloons shaped like traditional Chinese lanterns hover over shop entrances, advertising cheap goods and sales, while blind erhu players busk on street corners, crooning Beijing opera or Taiwanese pop songs.

The historical center of Zhenjiang is located near the ‘Fragrant River,’ as the Chinese call the Yangtze. Here, along an original cobblestone lane, generations of families and artisans dwell in two-story wooden houses more reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Stratford than imperial Beijing.  Laundry hangs on lines strung from the ornately carved dragons guarding their wooden eaves. The gong and whine of Chinese opera floats out of open windows, buoyed by the aromatic smells of soy sauce and fresh beef, ginger and garlic.

It was along this same idyllic road that the Japanese trod on their infamous march to Nanjing; where peasant Boxers rebelled against the nearby British consulate; where a young Pearl S. Buck skipped home from church, sucking on her favorite sticky white candy, disgruntled with her father’s dogmatic approach to converting the heaven masses to Christianity.

Buck, most famously known as the Nobel Prize winning author of The Good Earth, grew up in Zhenjiang at the turn of the 20th century, the daughter of a didactic Presbyterian missionary.  Even as a young girl, she questioned, and later rejected, her father’s mission to proselytize the Chinese.

Unlike almost all other foreign families living in Zhenjiang, Pearl’s father, who spoke fluent Mandarin, insisted they live outside the safety of foreign compounds and take up residence among his subjects, the local Chinese. The family’s house itself was quite westernized, but on their hill overlooking the river, they had full access to the local Chinese community.

As a result, Pearl grew up in a split world–a blond-haired blue-eyed ‘foreign devil’ who spoke English at home, played with her Chinese neighbors every afternoon and studied with a kindly Confucian scholar who tutored her strictly in Chinese.

Curiously, Buck did not reject all tenets of her father’s religion. Though she disdained her father’s “incessant preaching” as she referred to it once, she did cling to Biblical teachings on social justice and the importance of serving one’s fellow human being. Pearl was instilled with a deep compassion for the marginalized–be it widows, orphans or other lost souls in need.

Out of her own marginalized childhood, Buck cultivated a lifelong passion for promoting social justice, a mission that later distinguished her career as an author, activist, and philanthropist. Over the course of her literary, political and philanthropic-minded career, Buck reshaped the way Americans perceived the Chinese, and revolutionized the American adoption process (especially for African-American children and babies fathered by American soldiers abroad). None of this would have happened without the lessons she learned from her father, or the worldview she developed by growing up, bi-cultural and bi-lingual, in the last years of the Empress Dowager’s imperial reign.

In 2004, I was hired to teach English in Zhenjiang as a Pearl S. Buck Teacher Ambassador–a result of a goodwill arrangement between the Pearl S. Buck Institute in Pennsylvania and the Chinese government of Zhenjiang. As an aspiring writer, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work on the same campus where Pearl had attended, and later taught. I was also excited to experience the local culture, including, I hoped, the opera productions Buck described in her autobiography My Several Worlds. Earlier that spring, I was mesmerized by an 18-hour production of the Kunqu opera The Peony Pavilion, back in the US, which was part of what had drawn me to China in the first place.

One of my goals in Zhenjiang was to find the church where Pearl’s father had taught. I am still not sure if I landed in the right place, but I did find a church not far from Pearl’s childhood home, where the Gospel is still preached. Built by foreign missionaries in the late 1800s, the small, gray-brick church still stands, flanked by a public outhouse and a motorcycle repair shop.

I first visited the church on a cold Sunday morning in February. The interior was sparse with white walls and wooden pews. If not for the tacky gold angels and fake garland strung over the altar, the church might pass for Pentecostal. Older folks mostly filled the pews, a patchwork of quilted jackets and Mao-blue suits. I joined a younger couple sitting towards the rear. The man wore jeans, a Nike ball cap, and a fake leather jacket. He fiddled with his cell phone the entire service and kindly flipped open my red hymnal when he noticed me fumbling through the index.

Those good old Presbyterian tunes sounded familiar, and I followed the notes until I recognized a Chinese character. Then I would croak out in my clumsy Chinese: “Sheep!” “Love!” “Friend!” I was overjoyed to plead the refrain: “In my heart, in my heart.”

A woman in a peach jacket delivered the sermon. Her delivery was engaging, with variance in pitch, gestures, and tone. Yet again, I only caught a few words, and I savored these for meditation. Peace, love, Jesus, and, randomly, small dog. The preacher seemed kindly, non-condemning, and I tried to imagine how different the chapel would have felt in 1905, with Pearl S. Buck’s father, a tall American, preaching to an all-Chinese congregation.

I imagined myself a young Pearl, kicking her sandals against the pew, staring at the butterflies of red and blue light dancing on the concrete floors beneath the stained glass windows. She must have felt the most isolated in church, I realized, as she sat amongst her friends and neighbors, doubting what truth they heard in her father’s stern Biblical translations.

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