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Monday, January 7, 2019

An Interview with Pearl

Photo: Wikimedia
There is a restaurant in Qingdao, a city in Northern China, which claimed being 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 beginning I was not too interested to read “The Good Earth”, after I read the summary of the book. Besides that the present-day China is no more a country with a strange culture, and many of their traits are now commonly known to the world, such that those characteristics became 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 and no more arousing curiosity, and after all, it is difficult to imagine how an American author could write well about life in China. But the impressions I got vanished instantly when reading the first few pages of the book, about a young man named Wang Lung and how he behaved when he woke up on his wedding day, getting 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 realistically. 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. With his wealth and spare time came boredom and loneliness, and with the emptiness 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 realistically 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 nostrils, 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 painful 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 and 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, marriage 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 grieved 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.

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