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Monday, January 7, 2019

An Interview with Pearl

There is a restaurant in Qingdao, a city in Norththern China, which claimed to be frequently visited by Pearl when she was in the city. It faces the wavy sea of Qingdao bay, with a sandy gravel beach. I made appointment with this elegant lady for a chat in this restaurant. She came wearing a light yellow dress with floral dots, her hair tied neatly to the back and up. Her smile was warm, it warmed the cold Qingdao that day. 

Not wasting time, I immediately asked her:
“Frankly speaking, at the beginningI was not too interested to read “The Good Earth”, after I read the summary of the book. Besides that present-day China is no more a foreign country of culture, and many of their traits are commonly known to the world community, and even those characteristics have become stereotypical images of Chinese. For instance the role of a wife that must be obedient to the husband, the view that a pretty woman must have small feet such that the feed were bound since childhood, and the desire to have sons to continue the name of the family and its fortune, the view that the more children one has the more happiness it will bring to the family, the tradition to honor and respect the parents, about arranged marriage, and so on.

Those habits are no longer surprising presently and no more aroused curiosity, afterall, it is difficult to imagine how an American author could write well about life in China. But the impressions vanished instantly reading the first few pages of the book, about the young man Wang Lung behaved when he woke up on his wedding day and got ready to dress up. 

Pearl, with a smile:
“This scene if filmed can be fun, depicting how people there rarely bathe to save water because water was very scarce there, but on this wedding day Wang Lung had to ‘give-up’ bathing his whole body liberally, because not since he was a child upon his mother’s knee had anyone looked upon his body. Today one would and he would have it clean.”

I said:
“A very genuine scene, and you were able to depict the lives of poor farmers in Northern China realisticly. As for Wang Lung’s father, drinking hot water with tea leaves is a luxury, usually he drank hot water only,  but he was forced by Wang Lung with a short laugh to drink it because it was his wedding day.”

Pearl, comically quoted her book:
“It will be cold,’ said Wang Lung.
‘True-true,’ said the old man in alarm, and he began to take great gulps of the hot tea. He passed into an animal satisfaction, like a child fixed upon its feeding. But he was not too forgetful to see Wang Lung dipping the water recklessly from the cauldron into a deep wooden tub for his bath. He lifted his head and stared at his son.
‘Now there is water enough to bring a crop to fruit,’ he said suddenly.”

I said:
“You also very well wrote how farmers depended on nature, land, weather, the onslaught of floods, attacks by birds, water and the oxes to plow the earth. Although this is well known, it's already a universal phenomenon, but you described it impressively.”

Pearl, quoting part VIII of her book:
“At last the water in the pond dried into a cake of clay and even the water in the well sunk so low that O-lan said to him: ‘If the children must drink and the old man must have his hot water the plants must go dry.’
Wang Lung answered with anger that broke into a sob: ‘Well, and they must all starve if the plants starve.’ It was true that all their lives depended on the earth.”

I said:
“Furthermore, after all the rice had run out in a long arid period, they were forced to kill and eat their plowing ox which was already emaciated. And after everything was eaten up, in the winter they were forced to move to prosperous city in the South to survive and to find food. It turns out it was not that easy to get a job and the income was small. After setting up plastic huts on the edge of the city walls, they lived from food rations provided by generous donators,  and then they worked as beggars. You described this begging experience as very heartbreaking.”

“O-lan, the mother, played a very good role in teaching her children to beg.  She learned from her childhood experience, and so she sought food before being sold as a slave.
‘A heart, good sir- a heart, good lady! Have a kind heart – a good deed for your life in heaven! The small cash - the copper coin you throw away – feed a starving child!’
But being children, they considered it to be playful and giggled during begging. O-lan was forced to ‘educate’ them by beating them to make them cry. So she taught their children to beg, they would be beaten again if they giggled.”

I said:
“Then after they returned to the village in the North, the life of Wang Lung’ life changed gradually becoming prosperous because it was supported by soil fertility, sufficient rain, although some times there were storms and attacks by birds and insects. He saved money from the sale of corps and gradually bought lands which made him expand his fields.”

“That’s usually what happened if somebody suddenly get rich, he was then able to hire labors to work in his field, he no longer need to work hard in the field, plowing, planting seeds and reaping harvest. He only reaped the proceeds from the sale of his harvest. Whis his wealth and spare time came boredom and loneliness, and with the emptyness came temptation and desire to enjoy beautiful women as his wife O-Lan was not beautiful. He was fascinated when he saw beautiful women in a night club, who were as beautiful as women in the paintings that he had always thought were imaginary.”

I said:
“In this book besides covering the life of China’s farmers well, you also covered universal theme such as the lives of poor farmers who became rich, then desiring things they had not imagined previously, and able to vent their lust with the power of money. Also universal is the indication that his sons failed to continue his efforts who cultivated the abundant fields, likewise the case of upper class and lower class opposition in an agrarian society.”

“When I wrote in China of Chinese things about Chinese, I used the Chinese tongue. . . . The consequence is that when . . . writing about Chinese people the story spins itself in my mind
entirely in the Chinese idioms, and I literally translate as I go.”

I said:
“Thus you were able to write realitically about Chinese farmers’ lives which are intimate with nature. Your writing style was simple and straight forward, not flowery. The main female character, Wang Lung’s wife O-lan, was not beautiful. You described her that she had a square, honest face, a short, broad nose with large black nostrills, and her mouth was wide, a gash in her face. Her eyes were small on of dull black in color, and were filled with some sadness that was not clearly expressed.”

“What Wang Lung regretted most was that her feet were big because it was not bound since childhood according to Chinese tradition. Small feet were considered an attractive feature of women, therefore since childhood the feet of girls were bound, it was very peainful especially for young girls. However, thanks to the big feet O-lan was able to walk a lot and work hard in the fields helping her husband, while women with little feet, no more than 3 inches, were not able to walk a lot and work hard.
Besides a hard worker obedient to her husband, O-lan was also the pilar of the family, she made many of the hardest decisions in the novel and she bore these hard decisions with admirable fortitude.”

I said:
“An incredible character, she was aware that she was not beautiful and her husband actually did not love her. But she was happy enough as she could give birth several sons for her husband. Chinese tradition highly respects mothers who are able to give birth to sons, as the sons would continue the family’s name dan are expected to serve and care of his parents at old age.”

“Such was the reality of Chinese farmers’ lives that time, and perhaps generally so, mariage and having family affairs became a pragmatic matter.”

I said:
“I also observed in this novel, the absence of passionate description of romance ala Romeo and Juliet, there were no memorable intimate words and poetry. What can be found were the boiling lust of Wang Lung when he met Lotus the cute comfort woman, who was by far pretier than O-lan. Wang Lung felt he found love affection with Lotus whom later became his concubine, he could not get this intimacy from O-lan.
But this absence of love and intimacy towards O-lan you wrote very impressively in O-lan dying moment suffering a deadly disease. A very impressive emptiness feeling.”

Pearl, describing the moment:
““Well I know I am ugly and cannot be loved…’  When she said this Wang Lung could not bear it and he took her hand and he soothed it, a big hard hand, stiff as though it were dead already. And he wondered and grived at himself most of all because what she said was true, and even he took her hand, desiring truly that she feel his tenderness towards her, he was ashamed because he could feel no tenderness, no melting of the heart such as Lotus could win from him with a pout of her lips. When he took this stiff dying hand he did not love it, and even his pity was spoiled with repulsion toward it.”


This is an imaginary interview in memory of Pearls S. Buck.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Beijing, at Garden of Forbidden City

After we finished exploring the Inner Court of the Forbidden City, we arrived at the garden at the back north west corner before the exit gate.  It is named the Jianfu Palace Garden (The Garden of Palace of Established Happiness),  which has an area of 4,074 square meters. Due to its location, it was also called the West Garden.

It was first built during the Qing Dynasty in 1740, during the reign of the Emperor Qianlong.
The Jianfu Palace Garden was one of the Emperor Qianlong's favorite places. A prolific poet and art collector, he wrote many poems about it and stored a number of treasures from his collection there.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Emperor Qianlong was the amazing breadth of his interests and abilities. He was a classic scholar, a keen military strategist and martial arts expert, a poet who composed some 44,000 poems  and  a skilled hunter.

 He was also the only Chinese Emperor to speak four languages, a hands-on administrator, a deeply spiritual person and the patron of China's diverse religions, and a restless innovator in the arts and sciences.

Later emperors used the garden to hold ceremonies on the first day of the twelfth month of the Chinese calendar, during which time they would write calligraphy works to greet the coming new year.

Source: Wikipedia

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Beijing, at the Ming Tombs

After our tour to the Badaling Great Wall, we travelled for about 45 minutes in the after noon to the Ming Tombs.  Located within the suburban Changping District of Beijing,  the site is burial place of 13 emperors and 23 queens of Ming Dynasty , as well as many of the princes, concubines and maids.

The site, on the southern slope of Tianshou Mountain, enclosed by the mountains in a pristine, quiet valley full of dark earth, tranquil water was chosen based on the principles of feng shui by the third Ming emperor, the Yongle Emperor. According to the fengshui principles, bad spirits and evil winds descending from the North must be deflected; therefore, an arc-shaped valley area at the foot of the mountains was chosen. The Yongle Emperor selected his burial site and created his own mausoleum here, nemed the Changling Tomb.

The succeeding twelve emperors had their resting places built around Changling during the next 230 years, covering a total area of over 120 square kilometers. This is the best preserved mausoleum area with the most emperors buried.

Known for its trade expansion to the outside world that established cultural ties with the West, the Ming Dynasty is also remembered for its drama, literature and world-renowned porcelain.

The Ming Dynasty saw a publishing boom in China, with an avalanche of affordable books being produced for commoners. Reference books were popular, as well as religious tracts, primary school  books, Confucian literature and civil service examination guides. It was during the Ming Dynasty that full-length novels began to grow in popularity. Many books were adaptations of ancient story cycles that had been part of oral traditions for centuries.

One of the best-loved exports of the Ming Dynasty was its porcelain. The Ming dynasty saw an extraordinary period of innovation in ceramic manufacture.  Created by grinding china-stone, mixing it with china-clay and then baking until translucent, the technique was developed during the Tang Dynasty, but perfected in the Ming era. Though various colors might be featured on a piece, the classic Ming porcelain was white and blue.

Source : Wikipedia

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Beijing, at the Great Wall

There are so many things said and written about the Great Wall of China, which express the greatness of the Great Wall.  It derives fame from the countless works of poetry, folk literature, theater, movies and stories written about it by rulers, soldiers, literati, artists and poets.

Even the famous writer Franz Kafka wrote a short story in 1917 about the Great Wall. In his style, he questioned why did the emperor order the construction of the wall, against whom was the wall to provide protection, and why did emperor instructed the wall to be built in sections, rather than continuous ?

He wrote that the wall was built to protect the people from the people of the north, although  there was no real threat from people of the north. The north people are decribed as devils, pictured with their mouths flung open, the sharp pointed teeth stuck in their jaws, their straining eyes, which seem to be squinting for someone to seize, whom their jaws will crush and rip to pieces. When children are naughty, the parents hold up these pictures in front of them, and they immediately burst into tears and run into their parents.  The chinese people know nothing else about the northern lands. They have never seen them, and if they remain in their village, they never will see the people of north.  

So, Kafka suggested that the construction of this magnificent Great Wall was based on rumor to create fear of a false enemy. Written in 1917, Kafka would have known that the people of north, the Monggols, the Manchurians, did attack the Chinese several times. But the attacks happened  hundreds of years later and Kafka wasn’t writing about history, he was writing how the people followed the instruction of the emperor although it didn’t make sense.  He wrote that they didn’t understand the enemy from the north and didn’t understand why the emperor instructed the wall to be constructed in sections, leaving gaps in the wall that could be used by enemies to penetrate into their country.  They didn’t understand it, they just followed the instruction from the emperor, or so they believed. Kafka wrote that they didn’t even know who was the reigning emperor, they only knew those emperors that had been long dead! Kafka was writing about the absurdity surrounding  the construction of the Great Wall.

Actually later on in 221BC Emperor Qin Shi Huang commanded the linking of the separate sections of the walls built by previous states. After unifying central China and establishing the Qin Dynasty the  Emperor wanted to consolidate his power and rule the country forever. He sent a fortune teller named Lu Sheng to seek for a way of immortality. After countless empty-handed returns, Lu finally brought back a rumor that Qin would be overturned by the northern nomads. Hearing that, the Emperor was so frightened that he immediately issued an order to connect the walls and extend new ramparts to guard the northern border. It is surprising to know that the decision for this huge project was made due to a rumor!

Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China,  is often referred as the initiator of the Great Wall.  Several walls were being built as early as the 7th century BC; these, later joined together and made bigger and stronger by Emperor Qin Shi Huang , are collectively referred to as the Great Wall.
His public works projects included a massive new national road system, as well as the city-sized mausoleum guarded by thousands of the life-sized Terracotta Army. He ruled until his death in 210 BC during his tour of Eastern China.

Historically, hundred os years later there were several major attacks by the Mongols and the Manchurians.  In 1554, the Mongols used ropes to climb the walls. Chinese repelled them using arrows, crude cannons, clubs and even rocks. Although a useful deterrent against raids, at several points throughout its history the Great Wall failed to stop enemies. In 1576 there was another major Mongol attack. This time they penetrated through an area so rugged and remote building a wall was not considered necessary. During this raid the Mongols killed an estimated 20,000 Chinese.  In 1644 the Manchurians under Qing dynasty marched through the gates of Shanhai Pass and replaced the most ardent of the wall-building dynasties, the Ming, as rulers of China.

The Great Wall of China visible today largely dates from the Ming dynasty, as they rebuilt much of the wall in stone and brick, often extending its line through challenging terrain. Some sections remain in relatively good condition or have been renovated, while others have been damaged or destroyed for ideological reasons, deconstructed for their building materials, or lost due to the ravages of time. For long an object of fascination for foreigners, the wall is now a revered national symbol and a popular tourist destination.

The Badaling Great Wall near Zhangjiakou is the most famous stretch of the Wall, for this is the first section to be opened to the public in China, as well as the showpiece stretch for foreign dignitaries.

Source: The Great Wall by Franz Kafka, Wikipedia