Chinese Rural Realism. Rereading Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1931)

  • In 1892, the year the American writer Pearl S. Buck was born, the US Congress renewed the Chinese Exclusion Act, initially passed in 1882, for another ten years. It sought to prevent all laborers of Chinese ethnicity from entering or reentering the US, with breaches punishable by law. Three months after her birth, Buck moved with her missionary parents to China and spent most of her life until her early forties there. During the global Cold War, Buck, already a Nobel Laureate (1938), sharply criticized US foreign policy and its racism, the ignorance of American diplomats about China, and the arrogant belief in solving conflicts in Asia through military means in her book Friend to Friend (1958). While there is little doubt about Buck’s official US nationality, her cultural belonging of choice – which decisively shaped her lifelong literary writing, in particular the novel The Good Earth (1931) that earned her the Nobel Prize – is inherently multivalent. In The Good Earth, Buck depicts the lives of Chinese peasants and their loyalty to the earth that nurtures humanity and provides all that lives on it with nutrition. In the following pages, I will discuss Buck’s bicultural biography and several aspects of this extremely popular and influential novel and, rather than viewing it as a piece of classic American literature, I will propose re-reading it as a work in the Chinese tradition of literary realism and in the context of the emerging trend of rural realism in the early twentieth century. The purpose of my re-reading of The Good Earth is to highlight less apparent global connections in the tradition of rural nostalgia and to complicate the paradigm of national literature and national history. Indeed, the earth, ruralism, nutrition, and food, as the novel describes, constitute the very foundation of human existence across borders, political camps, language barriers, and cultural differences from antiquity to the present day.

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Author:Chunjie Zhang
Parent Title (German):Zeithistorische Forschungen – Studies in Contemporary History
Publisher:ZZF – Centre for Contemporary History: Zeithistorische Forschungen
Place of publication:Potsdam
Document Type:Journal Article
Date of Publication (online):2022/01/24
Date of first Publication:2022/01/24
Release Date:2022/01/25
First Page:363
Last Page:370
ZZF Regional-Classification:Amerika
Amerika / Nordamerika
Amerika / Nordamerika / USA
regional übergreifend
Asien / Ostasien
Asien / Ostasien / China
ZZF Topic-Classification:Literatur
Transnationale Geschichte
Geistes- und Ideengeschichte
Intellectual History
ZZF Chronological-Classification:1930er
Web-Publications:Zeithistorische Forschungen
Studies in Contemporary History: Articles:2 / 2021 Welt – Hunger – Hilfe
Licence (English):License LogoCreative Commons - ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)