It’s a bold move to write a novel about the life of a Chinese man when you are an American woman. And even though Pearl Buck spent most of her life previous to writing The Good Earth in China, I’m not sure whether or not she got this story right.
The Good Earth follows approximately fifty years in the life of a man named Wang Lung – from the day of his wedding to the last days of his life. It isn’t a book about China or Chinese history, although these are important factors, but it’s about one man and those around him. The book is at its best when we take it as a story of Wang Lung, rather than a story about China in general.
The novel itself is well-written, for the most part. Buck does well with injecting a sense of urgency and discomfort throughout the novel. Although the action of the story is minimal there is always a sense of disaster lurking around the corner and it made me want to keep reading. We never know whether things will really turn out well for Wang Lung and although Buck never idealizes him, he has enough admirable qualities that the reader keeps rooting for him.
I felt that, overall, Buck did a fine job at capturing the syntax and rhythm of Chinese dialogue. The book wasn’t written in Chinese and there are never any Chinese words or terms used. But there is a formality to the speech that seemed uniquely Chinese to me. At the same time, this does sound foreign and occasionally awkward to an English reader. In my review of Denise Chong’s Egg on Mao I mentioned this same problem. Except here we aren’t dealing with a translation issue. It seems to be a stylistic choice that Buck made but I’m torn over whether or not it was the best one.
There is something very American about the message of The Good Earth. Wang Lung works hard, saves his money, and is devoted to his land. He prospers and becomes a rich man, changing the lives of his children and grandchildren after him. In short, he achieves the American Dream. But this definitely is not the Chinese Dream. It was odd to me, knowing what I do about China, that this wasn’t a greater source of conflict within the novel. We are shown how the upbringing of Wang Lung’s children, particularly his sons, is vastly different from his own and how they share little of his attitude towards the land or his frugality and work ethic. But throughout the novel I was waiting for some sort of cultural backlash against Wang Lung and his increasing riches. Early on in the story there are rumours of war and revolt around Wang Lung and his neighbours tell him there are things that happen when the rich get too rich. So as the novel progresses and we see Wang Lung grow wealthier and prouder, I expected those earlier scenes to return like Chekhov’s proverbial gun. The fact that they don’t, even when Wang Lung’s own son leaves to join a whispered “revolution”, tells me that this is an American story, not a Chinese one, and left me feeling like the story was incomplete.
In the book’s defense, I am reading it from a 21st century perspective. My knowledge of China is shaped by its history following the publication of The Good Earth in 1931. A history Buck couldn’t possibly have known. It didn’t surprise me to learn that this novel had been banned in China. It simply reminded me, yet again, that perhaps only the Chinese can really know the Chinese.