The Question of Pearl Buck

The Question of Pearl Buck

The announcement by the Swedish Academy in November 1938 that Pearl Buck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was met with sarcasm and even derision by many writers and critics. They were not impressed that this was the third choice by the academy of an American writer in a mere eight years—the first being Sinclair Lewis in 1930, the second Eugene O’Neill in 1936. Pearl Buck had dedicated her writing life to novels and memoirs about China, and her selection was seen as a sop to public opinion, in a world where Japanese and German war scares were becoming a reality and China was a prime victim.

The critic Norman Holmes Pearson referred to the academy choice as reducing the Nobel to the “hammish” (his word) level of the Pulitzer Prize and commented, “Thank heavens I have seen no one who has taken it seriously.” Referring to Pearl Buck’s widely quoted comment when she received the Nobel news—”I don’t believe it…. That’s ridiculous. It should have gone to Dreiser”—Pearson responded: “Nuts to her, say I, I think that was putting it mildly.” A full decade later on the eve of his own selection for the Nobel Prize, William Faulkner was still mocking “Mrs. Chinahand Buck.” Lists of American writers besides Dreiser whom contemporaries mentioned as more deserving of the Nobel than Pearl Buck included Mark Twain, Henry James, Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, and John Dos Passos.

Such criticism was not entirely parochial, and some of the negative comments on Pearl Buck’s writing abilities strike us still as very much on the mark. Buck made herself vulnerable to pot-shots by the undeniable ponderousness or banality of many of her works. Even Hilary Spurling, in her intensely sympathetic portrayal of Buck’s life, cannot resist commenting that her “sense of humor seldom got the better of her didactic intent.” Spurling pithily notes that the postscript added by Buck to her otherwise beautiful book on her mother’s life, The Exile, “makes it sound more like a biography of the Statue of Liberty than an actual human being.” “Pearl’s books sold in the millions,” writes Spurling, “not in spite [of] but because of their bland, trite, ingratiating mass-market techniques.” At least twice, Spurling gives up the search for a complex adjective and settles on “preposterous” as the only fitting word for a particular plot shift chosen by Buck. As the literary historian Peter Conn observed some sixteen years ago:

Pearl’s Asian subjects, her prose style, her gender, and her tremendous popularity offended virtually every one of the constituencies that divided up the literary 1930s. Marxists, Agrarians, Chicago journalists, New York intellectuals, literary nationalists, and New Humanists had little enough in common, but they could all agree that Pearl Buck had no place in any of their creeds and canons.

* * *

What, then, gave Pearl Buck the necessary strength to slice through the dismissive clichés and gain global recognition? One factor, surely, was that she was present in China at many of the crucial and contradictory periods of its tumultuous modern history. Born in West Virginia in June 1892 to missionary parents at home on furlough, Pearl accompanied them on their return to China the next year, and grew up there during the tense periods that followed the Japanese assaults on China of the 1890s. She was old enough to take in much of the backlash from the bitterly anti-foreign “Boxer” secret society uprisings of 1900, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, the fall of the last dynasty in 1911, and the subsequent collapse of China’s brief experiment with representative constitutional government.

iconArnold Genthe/Library of Congress
Pearl Buck, circa 1932

She also witnessed the anger and contempt of hostile, anti-missionary Chinese crowds, and was forced by intense mob violence to flee to Shanghai and Japan. After a one-year furlough in the United States and a full course of study at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia, from which she graduated in 1914, she returned almost at once to China, where she looked after her invalid mother and taught in a Chinese school, before marrying—in 1917—a diligent but emotionally withdrawn expert on the Chinese rural economy, John Lossing Buck.

The young couple experienced, at first hand, numerous examples of the terror that could swiftly rise from the furiously divided and humiliated China in which they had determined to live and work and raise a family. By drawing on Pearl’s later published works, especially her novels, supplemented by personal letters and reminiscences, Spurling creates an emotionally convincing vision of the fears aroused in a young mother like Pearl, as in the following example of the March 1927 “Nanjing Incident,” in which the Chinese in the city turned against all Western residents, threatening not only their homes and their property, but also the lives of old and young alike. “All of them ran,” writes Spurling,

carrying the two younger children, through the back gate over rough paths between vegetable plots, and grave mounds to a little clutch of huts built against a tiled brick wall. The Chinese inhabitants watched silently as the fugitives packed into Mrs. Lu’s low, dark rented room, ten feet by eight… In the distance the individual shrieks and screams of people on the street fused into a collective roar. Inside the hut no one spoke. None of the children cried. They could hear the crowd burst through their garden gate a few hundred yards away and smash down their heavy front door.

When the little group of foreigners were finally ousted from their frail shelter, writes Buck, they could see that their attackers

were all young, every face was young…ignorant faces, drunken faces, red and wild-eyed…They glared back at us, and they grinned with a dreadful laughter, for what they saw was the downfall and the humiliation of the white people who had for so long been their oppressors.1

John Lossing Buck and Pearl survived this particular nightmare, but establishing a satisfactory routine was not an easy task. The couple continued to live and work in China, despite the dangers, and had one child, born in 1920, a daughter named Carol. The birth was difficult, and medical complications arose that ensured that Pearl would not be able to have more children. After several years in China, Pearl also came gradually to the agonizing realization that Carol would never grow up to live a fully normal life. The best solution, Pearl was told, would be to put Carol into a special school in the United States, a step that Pearl finally took in 1929, after exhaustive tests, whose costs she covered initially with borrowed money and subsequently by her slowly increasing royalties from her novels.

Many years later, experts in the United States finally identified Carol’s illness as “PKU,” phenylketonuria, a type of brain degeneration caused by the newborn child’s inability to process the chemical phenyl. The couple had adopted a second daughter in 1924, at an orphanage in upstate New York, who grew up to be lively and wonderful company, but it appears that the struggles over the best way to handle Carol’s problems had for years kept Pearl and her husband prey to constant tension and recriminations. They divorced in 1935.

But even some matters as apparently straightforward as this China experience and the couple’s subsequent divorce turn out to be far from simple, after all. In a just-printed memoir, titled My Nanking Home, 1918–1937,2 the ninety-two-year-old Nancy Thomson Waller, who for many years in the 1920s and 1930s was a next-door neighbor and good friend of the Bucks in Nanjing, writes that “Pearl and Lossing had never been a good match.” Waller adds that Pearl’s “marriage to Lossing had been falling apart and it was he who first asked for a divorce, so as to marry a Chinese woman.” And furthermore, Waller writes, Lossing “was a darling with their daughter Carol. I can remember him playing with her. They looked like two overgrown puppies.”

* * *

Pearl Buck’s first novel with a Chinese theme, East Wind, West Wind, was published in April 1930, by John Day, after being rejected by more than twenty publishers; it was well-enough received to make her editor at John Day want to see further work by this unknown author. Pearl obliged with The Good Earth, her most popular and celebrated novel, which came out in March 1931. Already singled out as a lead selection of the Book-of-the-Month club, the book quickly became popular, selling two million copies and winning the Pulitzer Prize.

As Hilary Spurling points out in her energized and engrossing portrayal of Pearl Buck, any interpretation of her work has to depend on our understanding of her motivations and the realities or imaginative feats that lay behind them. Pearl could be an expert at concealing the “sediment of suffering” that she saw all around her during her close to forty years in China, whether in small, filthy, isolated villages or bustling market towns or large river entrepôts. “She tried hard to bury” such suffering, writes Spurling,

just as she buried her memories of being sworn at as a foreign devil in the street, of fleeing for her life from marauding soldiers, of the young brides sold into slavery who hanged themselves at intervals in her neighbors’ houses. Memories like these surface in her novels from time to time like a dismembered hand or leg. This ambivalence—the territory that lies between what is said, and what can be understood—is the nub of my book.

It is the same ambivalence—I believe—that leads Spurling to leave open the question of whether Buck’s childhood playtime companions in China were “real or imaginary.” The same type of “potent spell” was cast by Buck “from this sense of a harsh hidden reality, protruding occasionally but more often invisible,” present only beneath the surface of her writing as “an unexamined residue of pain and fear.”

Hilary Spurling is an experienced and successful biographer, who has tackled a number of challenging subjects, but perhaps only with Pearl Buck has she had to be so open to employing known fictions to fill the gaps in an assumed narrative reality. The difficulty lies partly with Buck’s own vagueness about the verifiable past, particularly poignant in the presentation of the thought patterns of poor Chinese farmers or their wives, which gives such drive to the picture of Wang Lung, the hero of The Good Earth. Spurling is not concerned with giving us a neat plot summary of Buck’s large oeuvre, but she does use some of Buck’s set pieces to stunning effect, especially in drawing on Buck’s vivid and emotionally powerful portrayals of the two people Buck could set most sharply in the Chinese universe—her father Absalom in the book Fighting Angel and her mother Carie in The Exile.3

By drawing on her full arsenal of emotional and rhetorical weapons, Buck creates in Absalom as crazed and convincing a portrait of the missionary mind in full flight as we are ever likely to have; and it is matched by the portrait of the losses endured by Carie—losing child after child to merciless diseases—only to be swiftly made pregnant again by Absalom’s unstoppable urges. Neither of these two characters may be “accurate” in a conventional sense, but jointly they give to us an unforgettable moment in the application of Western Bible-rooted passions to rural Chinese living conditions, a kind of Chinese-American Gothic that no one had created before.

* * *

How terrible was China? How poor were its farming millions, how desperate its women? It is an irony (and misfortune) that John Lossing Buck and Pearl did not take more time to read each other’s researches. For Lossing Buck’s vast compendia of rural data, assembled from countless Nanjing University research student field trips, could have served as a kind of emotional circuit-breaker for Pearl’s outpourings, and Pearl’s emotions could have brought the healing force of passion to John Lossing Buck’s cautious academic prose.

We have no reason to doubt—but still have to take largely on trust—the extent and fluency of Pearl Buck’s knowledge of the spoken Chinese of the areas in which she lived for so many years. Doubtless many young Chinese women were able to share with her their inner thoughts on sex, love, and death, or on the suicides or abortions that gave grim rhythms to the lives of many in their dark and airless shacks. But surely other women clammed up, or kept their thoughts and pain to themselves. Similarly, Pearl’s mother Carie may have sensed her daughter’s rhetorical powers in depicting the contrasts between the realities of life in the Chinese towns and villages where five of Carie and Absalom’s eight children succumbed to wild and untamable fevers or agues. These infant deaths never gave pause to Absalom, who would each time renew his own commitment to his missionary calling, throw his tattered coat around his shoulders, and with a stout stick in his hand to ward off vicious dogs and a satchel of Chinese tracts in his bag, would stretch out his long legs as he stomped the narrow lanes in search of his ever-elusive Chinese converts, leaving Carie to recover as best she might.

The desperately poor hovels of China sparked some of Pearl’s most somber passages, as she describes her own mother Carie’s helpless feelings of despair:

It was no wonder that sometimes she fainted in the thick sultriness of an August noon in a southern Chinese city, filled too full of human breath and of the odor of sweating human flesh…. The flies swarmed from the piles of half-rotting filth smoking under the burning sun. The hot air hung like a foul mist.

These images, and the emotions they conjure up, may have been passed on in imagination by a young Pearl to her fever-weakened mother, bringing on the very fainting spells the passage describes. But the insistence of the language, the very nature of the images, reminds us of another level of this process of remembering the “sediment of suffering.” For as Pearl remembered on her second childhood return with her parents to China, the one consistent joy she found in her leisure time lay in the complete set of all of Charles Dickens’s fiction, in matching blue-bound volumes, which formed a major part of her family’s small library. And these blue-bound volumes were Pearl’s sustenance and training ground, read and reread until they lodged for all time in her memory.

Later she recalled reading the precious volumes perched in a tree above her compound’s walls: “And there quite alone above the crowded Chinese scene I sat and read or sobbed and dreamed, not there at all, but thousands of miles away, in a land I had never seen, among people I never knew.” Dickens, she wrote, “was almost the sole access I had to my own people”—far closer, for example, than to Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer. And thus, perhaps, the vision of Tom-all-alone as providing shelter for the dying Jo, links the darker London of Bleak House to the Chinese river town where Pearl spent much of her childhood: “These tumbling tenements contain, by night, a swarm of misery,” Dickens wrote, “as, on the ruined human wretch, vermin parasites appear, so, these ruined shelters have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot numbers where the rain drips in.”

* * *

Pearl Buck’s cluster of enormously successful novels helped rescue her publisher, Richard Walsh, from the bankruptcy that had threatened his company John Day; for a time, in the early 1930s, her income was estimated at $100,000 a year, and later in the decade it must have been far more, including all the money from foreign translations and film rights. After her divorce from Lossing Buck, she married Walsh, even though on first meeting she had described him, in a letter to her sister, as “a hard, dry, conservative sort of middle-aged person.” Their relationship was literary and passionate, and the two settled down in an old stone farmhouse, Green Hills Farm, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, commuting between there and their New York apartment. They adopted four children and later the number rose to six.

Pearl became a well-known speaker not just on China but also on birth control, children’s rights, and against racism. She also became a tough and thoughtful critic of the excess and shallowness of current missionary practice, provoking what Spurling describes as “mission rage,” including demands for her dismissal from all mission-related work. In an address to the National Urban League in New York, she countered the angry missionaries with the direct charge that “some of the things my people do make me ashamed of the fact that I am white.”

After she and Walsh had made one final tour of China together, they returned to the United States in 1935, and Pearl Buck never traveled to China again. Over the succeeding years, Pearl continued to write about her family, though some of her comments were seen as too harsh to publish. She now began to see that her father Absalom—who had died in China in 1931—represented not just Presbyterian stubbornness and pride, but also personified “a magnificent imperialism of the spirit, incredible and not to be understood except by those who have been reared in it and have grown beyond it.” Titled Fighting Angel, the book appeared in 1936 and sold dramatically. Spurling considers it “probably the best book Pearl ever wrote in the sense that she never fully recaptured its combination of cool, strong, scrutinizing intelligence and passionate emotion.” Other former mission acquaintances of Absalom saw it as a “cruel and libelous distortion.”

Pearl Buck had long seen the coming of a full-fledged Japanese assault on China as one of the great dangers to world peace, and she followed the news of the fighting and of the vast civilian casualties with anguished attention. But her views were not welcome in China: both Chinese nationalist politicians and intellectuals and the Communist forces dug in against the nationalists in the northwest of China objected violently to her vision of their country as backward, dirty, and demoralized. (The Chinese delegates invited to attend the 1938 Nobel celebrations boycotted the proceedings.)

Especially after Richard Walsh suffered a major stroke in 1953, and for the seven years that he lived after that, gravely weakened, the couple lived quietly in Bucks County, and focused much of their work on the foundation built from her earlier earnings. Pearl had established the foundation to give shelter, help, and education to the unwanted offspring born to Asian women from their liaisons with GIs in time of war, a largely ignored group of children whose pinched existence underlined the waste and futility of the fighting. The foundation was able to help several thousand children find adopted homes in the war years and after. (The word “Amerasian” was Pearl Buck’s own coinage, Spurling notes.)

Though few of her later books have endured, Pearl continued to write on a strict daily schedule, 2,500 words in longhand each morning, though now she refused to reread what she had written. She continued to use the same, somewhat unusual style that her friends ascribed to her long years in China; her prose represented the tonalities of Chinese colloquial speech rhythms while continuing to be basically estranged from conventional American idioms. In her last years she continued to see her daughter Carol as often as possible, and adopted two more children, one with black and one with Japanese parentage. Because of her complex web of international contacts, the FBI maintained a dossier on her activities, and the Chinese Communists refused to allow her back to the country where she had lived so long, and where so many of her siblings, and both her parents, were laid to rest.

In her last years, her foundation was managed in part by a succession of handsome and eager young men, several of whom had worked as ballroom dancing instructors, who took control of her business and awarded themselves substantial salaries. Not surprisingly, her foundation lost much of its purpose and focus, especially after Pearl contracted cancer. She died in 1973, a few months short of her eightieth birthday.

Spurling leaves us with a closing vision of Pearl in the quiet Vermont town of Danby, where she had invested in property, sitting at the window of an antique shop, trying to attract visitors and customers, and bring a little extra income to the community. It is hard to gauge the distance in her own mind that lay now between Danby and the Yangtse River towns that she had explored as a child. Were her thoughts in English or Chinese? With Absalom or with Carie? And what about her own writings? Had her life’s work really contributed to helping or understanding China? Or had her critics been at least partly right all along, and had Pearl—like so many others—been using the idea of China for her own purposes?

  1. For an example of the kind of further romanticized, violent, and sensual reconstruction attempted by Anchee Min, see her way of presenting this episode in her Pearl of China (Bloomsbury, 2010), pp. 166–175.
  2. Willow Hill, 2010.
  3. Both of these were recently reprinted, as separate volumes, with new and detailed introductions by the China scholar Charles Hayford (EastBridge, 2009).
Jonathan D. Spence holds the position of Sterling Professor of History, Emeritus, at Yale University, and is well-known throughout the world for his insightful views on modern China. His books...
Reviewed in This Article

Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth
by Hilary Spurling
Simon and Schuster, 304 pp.

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This article was first published in the October 14, 2010 issue of the New York Review of Books.



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In traditional Chinese religion, a fashi, or ritual master, will recite a set of phrases to turn an ordinary space into a sacred area where the gods can descend to receive prayers and rejuvenate the community. The ceremony can last days, with breaks and feasts, until the rites...

Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?


On October 11 Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, announced that the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2012 will go to the fifty-seven-year-old Chinese writer Guan Moye, better known as Mo Yan, a pen name that means “don’t talk.” (The name is...

China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined


Last summer I took a trip to Xinyang, a rural area of wheat fields and tea plantations in central China’s Henan province. I met a pastor, a former political prisoner, and together we made a day trip to Rooster Mountain, a onetime summer retreat for Western missionaries and...

Who Was Mao Zedong?


In Kashgar’s largest bazaar a few years ago, I spotted a pencil holder sporting an iconic Cultural Revolution image: Mao Zedong and Marshal Lin Biao smiling together. But Mao’s personally chosen heir apparent had been a nonperson since 1971, when he allegedly godfathered an...

An Honest Writer Survives in China


A little over a year ago, I went with the Chinese writer Yu Hua to his hometown of Hangzhou, some one hundred miles southwest of Shanghai, and realized that his bawdy books might not be purely fictional; their characters and situations seemed to follow him around in real life too...

China’s Lost Decade


It’s hard to believe, but just twenty years ago China was on the verge of abandoning the market reforms that have since propelled it to its current position as a world power. Conservatives had used the 1989 Tiananmen massacre to reverse the country’s economic direction. Many...

News from the Dalai Lama


“I told President Obama the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are missing a part of the brain, the part that contains common sense,” the Dalai Lama said to me during our conversation in London in mid-June.But it can be put back in. I am hopeful about the new Chinese...

Bo Xilai: The Unanswered Questions


The Chinese Communist Party has always put great emphasis on smooth surfaces, maintaining political “face” through a decorous exterior. Men at the top dye their hair black and every strand must be in place. But sometimes there are cracks in the smoothness and outsiders are...

The People’s Republic of Rumor


A group of people the other day were at the large shopping mall at a place called Shuangjing, just inside Beijing’s Third Ring Road, looking at their cell phones and comparing notes. “Don’t go to Sina Weibo—it’s too famous,” one person advised, referring to the...

‘Pressure for Change is at the Grassroots


The Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng arrived in the United States last month following top-level negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials. Several weeks earlier, Chen had dramatically escaped from house arrest in his village in northeast China by jumping over a wall...

China: Politics as Warfare


Mao’s Invisible Hand is one of those books that make one feel good about scholarship. It describes inner workings of Chinese Communist society about which few nonexperts know anything—it may even surprise the experts—and it will interest anyone professionally interested in...

A Chinese Murder Mystery?


Roughly every decade, China’s political system cracks, its veil is rent, and its inner workings are laid bare. 2012, the Year of the Dragon, is turning out to be one of those periods when the country’s high priests can’t quite carry out their rituals as planned.The...

On Fang Lizhi (1936–2012)


Fang Lizhi, a distinguished professor of astrophysics, luminary in the struggle for human rights in contemporary China, and frequent contributor to The New York Review, died suddenly on the morning of April 6. At age seventy-six he had not yet retired, and was...

Debacle in Beijing


The story of a blind Chinese lawyer’s flight to the US Embassy in Beijing is likely to ignite accusations and recriminations until the US presidential election in November. But what few will acknowledge is a harsher truth: that for all our desire to effect change, outsiders...

Beijing Dilemma: Is Chen Guangcheng the Next Fang Lizhi?


The Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng, blind since childhood, self-taught in the law, defender of women’s rights to resist forced abortion, thorn in the side of local despots in his home district of Linyi in Shandong province, veteran of a four-year prison sentence on the spurious...

A Master in the Shadows


How should one assess the best ways to survive in a revolution? What exactly is the tipping point between obedience and outright sycophancy? When does one try to hold on to the values that gave meaning to one’s upbringing, and when is it best to just let it all go? When does...

China’s Falling Star


In China, the year is traditionally divided into periods based on the moon’s orbit around the earth and the sun’s path across the sky. This lunisolar calendar is laden with myths and celebrated by rituals that allowed Chinese to mark time and make sense of their world.So too...

The Chinese Are Coming!


The day after the Russian parliamentary elections in early December, the Chinese publication Global Times, an English-language newspaper and website managed by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party official, ran an editorial on how little credit the West...

He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny


Better than the assent of the crowd: The dissent of one brave man!—Sima Qian (145–90 BC)Records of the Grand HistorianTruth will set you free.—Gospel according to JohnThe economic rise of China now dominates the entire landscape of international affairs. In the eyes of...

The New York Review of Books China Archive

Welcome to the New York Review of Books China Archive, a collaborative project of and The New York Review of Books. In the archive you will find a compilation of full-length essays and book reviews on China dating from the Review's founding in 1963. We encourage you...

China Gets Religion!


This autumn, China has been marking the one hundredth anniversary of the collapse of its last imperial dynasty, the Qing, with a series of grand celebrations. The government has released an epic film showing how the revolution of 1911 prepared the way for the Communists’...

From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds


Much nonsense has been written about the Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking. We know this much: in December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, after taking the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing, went on a six-week rampage, looting, murdering, and raping large...

The High Price of the New Beijing


One recent weekend, I went for a walk through the alleys around the Qianmen shopping district, once Beijing’s commercial heart and still home to nationally known traditional shops. One of its chief side streets, Dazhalan, had been turned into a Ye Olde Pekinge-type street: its...

The Past and the Future


Concerning the Past:I have maintained that China should move forward with the reform of society. In many speeches before 1988, I openly expressed my advocacy of reform in China.I acknowledge that the following are my principal views:Marxism—whether viewed as a philosophy, a...

Kissinger and China


It is hard to fit Henry Kissinger’s latest book, On China, into any conventional frame or genre. Partly that is because the somewhat self-deprecatory title conceals what is, in fact, an ambitious goal: to make sense of China’s diplomacy and foreign policies across two and a...

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?


On March 10 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama made front-page news throughout the world by saying,As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now, we have clearly reached the time to put...

Quality of Life: India vs. China


1.The steadily rising rate of economic growth in India has recently been around 8 percent per year (it is expected to be 9 percent this year), and there is much speculation about whether and when India may catch up with and surpass China’s over 10 percent growth rate. Despite...

The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever


When the first waves of Chinese graduate students arrived on American campuses in the early 1980s, they were excited at entering an unfettered learning environment. After the recent ravages of the Cultural Revolution, political science students had few inhibitions about studying...

China: From Famine to Oslo


1.Each year around the “sensitive” anniversary of the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989, Ding Zilin, a seventy-four-year-old retired professor of philosophy, is accompanied by a group of plainclothes police whenever she leaves her apartment to go buy vegetables, or to do...

How Reds Smashed Reds


July and August 1966, the first months of the ten-year Cultural Revolution, were the summer of what Andrew Walder, a sociologist at Stanford, calls “The Maoist Shrug.” Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, told high school Red Guards, “We do not advocate beating people, but...

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful


In the next few weeks, an event will take place in Beijing on a par with anything dreamed up by a conspiracy theorist. A group of roughly three hundred men and women will meet at an undisclosed time and location to set policies for a sixth of humanity. Most China watchers will...

The Message from the Glaciers


It was not so long ago that the parts of the globe covered permanently with ice and snow, the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greater Himalayas (“the abode of the snows” in Sanskrit), were viewed as distant, frigid climes of little consequence. Only the most intrepid adventurers were...

The Triumph of Madame Chiang


Charlie Soong, born in 1866, was a new kind of figure in Chinese history, an independent-minded youngster with an openness to the world who came to Boston from Hainan Island at the age of twelve to work in a store. At fourteen he stowed away on a Coast Guard cutter, was baptized...

Specters of a Chinese Master


1.Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the Yangzi River, which linked the...

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai


Through the ups and downs of the unpredictable Chinese Revolution, Zhou Enlai’s reputation has seemed to stand untarnished. The reasons for this are in part old-fashioned ones: in a world of violent change, not noted for its finesse, Zhou Enlai stood out...

The Passions of Joseph Needham


It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of Chinese script have been generally...

China: Humiliation & the Olympics


The IncidentOn a snowy winter day in 1991, Lu Gang, a slightly built Chinese scholar who had recently received his Ph.D. in plasma physics, walked into a seminar room at the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Hall, raised a snub-nose .38-caliber Taurus pistol, and killed Professor...

Casting a Lifeline


Sixty pages or so into Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma, the hero, Dai Wei, is troubled by the memory of a harrowing anatomy lecture that he attended as a university student. Taught by “a celebrated cardiovascular specialist,” the class observed the dissection of the fresh...

Sentimental Education in Shanghai


1.In April 1924 Rabindranath Tagore arrived in Shanghai for a lecture tour of China. Soon after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore had become an international literary celebrity, lecturing to packed audiences from Japan to Argentina. His message—that...

The Quiet Heroes of Tibet


Earlier this year, shortly before boarding the new Chinese train from Beijing to Lhasa, I met Woeser, a Tibetan poet and essayist (she uses only one name). Unusual among Tibetans in China, who tend to avoid talking to foreigners, she spoke frankly about Chinese rule over Tibet....

Mission to Mao


“This was the week that changed the world” was Richard Nixon’s summing up at the end of his trip to China in February 1972.1 The hyperbole was justified, for this visit to China by an American president was a turning point in the cold war. Hitherto, the Soviet Union and...

China’s Great Terror


Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures in the Chinese leadership began to seek their own...

‘June Fourth’ Seventeen Years Later: How I Kept a Promise


The weekend of June 3, 2006, was the seventeenth anniversary of the Beijing massacre and also the first time I ever received a summons. It happened, as the police put it, “according to law.” Twice within twenty-four hours Deputy Chief Sun Di of Department 1 of the Beijing...

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)


Liu Binyan, the distinguished Chinese journalist and writer who died of cancer on December 5, 2005, in exile in New Jersey, at the age of eighty, was an inveterate defender of the poor and the oppressed, a man with a powerful analytic mind. But the trait that most determined his...

On Leaving a Chinese Prison


Jiang Qisheng, a former student of philosophy and a human rights activist, was arrested in 1999 for commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. After four years in prison, he was recently released. He wrote the following statement upon accepting the Spirit of...

A Little Leap Forward


The Communist dynasty is collapsing in China, and in retrospect one of the first signs was a Chinese-language computer virus that began spreading when I was a reporter in Beijing in the early 1990s. The virus would pop up on your screen and ask a question about the hard-line...



1.To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-traditional façades—...

China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier


In China’s Mao years you could be detained and persecuted for talking with your neighbor about your cat. The Chinese word for “cat” (mao, high level tone) is a near homonym for the name of the Great Leader (mao, rising tone), and a tip to the police from an eavesdropper who...

Found Horizon


1.Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United football club before noisily...

East Is West


Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward the clearing, as it was known...

Divine Killer


“If there was anything Mao wouldn’t want to see, it was tears. Mao said on one occasion, ‘I can’t bear to see poor people cry. When I see their tears, I can’t hold back my own.’ “Another thing which upset Mao was bloodshed.” —From Mao Zedong: Man, Not God by...

China in Cyberspace


1.It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever died. The soldiers in this...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery


1.Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to make a protest known has been...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan


Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack their lips when their...

Selling Out Hong Kong


1.And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went up, and the Union Jack came...

Holding Out in Hong Kong


1.The Master said: “If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I’d rather follow my inclinations.”—Confucius: Analects1Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine...

China: The Defining Moment


The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in Peking has the special...

The Beginning of the End


Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing...

In China’s Gulag


Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship...

Unmasking the Monster


In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the finest music and pipe and...

History on the Wing


Golden Inches is a charming memoir of an American couple who built up the YMCA in Chengtu and Chungking. Their careers on America’s farthest Western cultural frontier in Szechwan province give us a sense of the day-to-day texture of Chinese-American relations during the golden...

From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping


When I began teaching Chinese history at Harvard in 1936 my first students turned out to be the brightest I would ever have—Theodore White as an undergraduate and Mary Clabaugh as a Ph.D. candidate. Mary Clabaugh was a Vassar graduate from Tuscaloosa who came to study...

The Last Days of Hong Kong


1.“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.”—Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in...

Keeping the Faith


On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They...

Stories from the Ice Age


Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese army, took time off for...

Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy


To try to understand is not to condone or forgive. Quite the contrary. In this bicentennial year when a euphoria for democratic rights seemed to be sweeping the world, why was it stopped in Tiananmen Square? Why do China’s rulers attack their students like enemies when in our...

The End of the Chinese Revolution


When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil…. What they are...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan


Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party officials for abusing their power...

Roots of Revolution


The books by Frank Ching and Zhang Xianliang are vastly different in content, aim, and style, as opposite as yang and yin. Yet each casts light on the Cultural Revolution. Considered together, they may even begin to explain it.Mao’s venomous “class struggle” against his own...

Passing the Baton in Beijing


Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the moment...

Our Mission in China


This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30...

China: How Much Dissent?


In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy, but the monarch was tricked...

Sitting on Top of the World


Remoteness is often a condition of status and an attitude cultivated by parties to inequality. Chinese peasants, for more than twenty centuries subjects not citizens of the realm, were being literal when they said, “Heaven is high and the emperor far away.” Their world was...

Rules of the Game


On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as the work of Chinese saboteurs....

Bringing Up the Red Guards


Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier


In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious ex-coolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to war with a trainload of forty-two...

Still Mysterious


Within mainland China today the ratio of Westerners to Chinese is probably no greater than it was in Marco Polo’s time seven hundred years ago. Sino-foreign contact is so minimal that it almost meets the old Taoist stay-at-home ideal, “to live hearing the dogs bark in the...

A Mao for All Seasons


A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis in what he calls the “...

The Great Wall


China is so distant, big, and complex that each Marco Polo nowadays tells a different tale. The authors of the three books under review—a cool Swedish journalist, a passionate Chinese true-believer, and a philosophical Frenchman—give very different impressions of Chairman Mao...

How to Deal with the Chinese Revolution


The Vietnam debate reflects our intellectual unpreparedness. Crisis has arisen on the farthest frontier of public knowledge, and viewpoints diverge widely because we all lack background information. “Vietnam” was not even a label on our horizon twenty years ago. It was still...