Hazel McHaffie

mission work

Burying the Bones

That’s the thing about ebooks – if you don’t categorise them when you download, you can easily forget what they’re all about. And I had no recollection of why I’d bought Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China by Hilary Spurling. I discovered it on my Kindle when I was trawling through for something different to absorb me on an eight-hour train journey (to Chelsea and back). You had it easy last week with nothing more demanding than my pictures of beautiful things; so I thought a little more meat might not go amiss this time. (You have been warned!)

Burying the BonesEight hours is a significant length of reading time so I did a quick check on Amazon … Hmm, a biography of Pearl Buck. Who, do I hear you say? Me too. Another check … A prolific writer of the 20th century, Buck was the first of only two American women to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (back in 1938). And Burying the Bones combines history, culture, family relationships, self-sacrifice, religious obsession, and profound sadness through her story. OK, sounds promising. And it’s a while since I read a biography – which would mean another first for this blog.

The descendant of Dutch immigrants, and born in the USA in 1892 whilst her missionary parents were on a brief return visit to recover from the deaths of three of their children from cholera and fever, the baby Pearl Sydenstricker was taken to China when she was 3 months old, not leaving for the last time until she was 46. She grew up through one of the most turbulent periods of Chinese history, and Spurling doesn’t spare the bleak detail of life in China at that time: female infanticide; frequent epidemics of cholera, typhoid, malaria, diphtheria; famine, flood and drought; ruthless and ambitious generals and provincial warlords and politicians jockeying for power; the ‘barricaded houses and silent empty streets waiting for the screams, shouts and crashes that accompany the battle itself”.

Imagine this little girl: ‘Sometimes Pearl found bones lying in the grass, fragments of limbs, mutilated hands, once a head and shoulder with parts of an arm still attached. They were so tiny she knew they belonged to dead babies, nearly always girls suffocated or strangled at birth and left out for dogs to devour … Where other little girls constructed mud pies, Pearl made miniature grave mounds, patting down the sides and decorating them with flowers or pebbles. She carried a string bag for collecting human remains, and a sharpened stick or a club made from split bamboo with a stone fixed into it to drive the dogs away.’

Nor was life within the family smooth. Pearl’s father, Absalom, infuriating and stubborn, was emotionally distant and frequently physically absent.  ‘Intoxicated with the magnificence of his opportunity‘, he was an ‘unrelentingly righteous‘ man consumed by a ‘supernatural imperative‘. But the Chinese masses he set out to convert (with a decidedly hell-fire-and-brimstone approach it must be said!) were both unwilling and uncomprehending. The whole family were ostracised. Absalom himself gloried in the horror: ‘thousands of Christians suffered martyrdoms, which gave us great encouragement, as showing that the work which had been accomplished was not merely on the surface, but a genuine fruit that would stand the severest test.

His daughter however, came to abhor much of what the mission community espoused, seeing it as ‘blinkered, small-minded and arrogant’ with its ‘invincible assumption of superiority to the people to whom it ministered.’ And when her turn came to preach the gospel, though she shared her father’s weight of care about the ‘idol worship, infanticide, alcoholism, gambling, and opium addiction’, she adopted a very different tone. ‘We simply cannot express the Gospel with any force if we have hidden within us a sense of racial superiority.’ Eventually she resigned altogether from the missionary movement after publicly denouncing the system as an assault by ignorant fanatics.

Circumstances forced her to grow up quickly from an early age. Her younger brother died of diphtheria, her mother was mentally and physically traumatised by the privations of the life her husband had inflicted on her, and her many bereavements. But returning as a young wife after College education in America, Pearl saw China through new eyes. This time she was with a very different kind of man, Lossing Buck, whose life’s work was ‘an attempt to speak to and for the illiterate, inarticulate, ignored, and excluded farmers who made up four-fifths of China’s population,‘ through his meticulous research to enable Chinese students to ‘discover for themselves the facts of their own country.’ Pearl could happily stand right alongside him. At least initially.

But as his career blossomed she became more and more lonely. She immersed herself once more in the Chinese world. She continued to be appalled by the plight of females in China: harassment, abuse, murder, suicide, infanticide were commonplace. ‘China,’ she wrote, ‘is a country given to the devil.’ And for a time her rage and despair spilled over into her attempts ‘to indoctrinate villagers already brutalised by ignorance and poverty.’

But with the death of her parents, and the liberation which she found by writing a memoir about her mother’s life, Pearl experienced a new sense of freedom, enabling her to shake off the rigid shackles that had controlled her. And in writing about her own childhood, about China, about the ‘shapes and patterns of ordinary Chinese life‘, she launched her own career as a writer, even though the original manuscripts of her two greatest works, The Exile and The Good Earth, lay forgotten for decades. Both seemed initially ‘too raw and intimate for public consumption‘.

And liberated, she could also finally confront ‘the four evils’ within her own marriage: ‘selfishness, slavery, hypocrisy, and cowardice’. She and Lossing limped along for many years until Pearl finally found the resolve to establish a new life without him, and eventually to marry her publisher. For her an orderly house ran in the Confucian way: ‘by being kind,courteous, temperate and deferential, without impatience or anger’. Her Chinese inheritance gave her ‘the courtesy and calm, the unassertive authority, the unexpected reticence and often astonishing sexual frankness, the broad and impartial vision’ which she valued all her life.

The Good EarthShe is remembered as a Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner; a tireless campaigner for children’s rights and against racism and sexism; a prolific speaker, writer, essayist, and editor. But she was also a mother to seven children. All except one were adopted. Her own biological child was severely affected by learning difficulties caused by phenylketonuria. Pearl felt a ‘monstrous ache of the heart which becomes physical and permeates bone and muscle’, missing ‘eternally the person [her daughter] can never be’. She was also aware that the experience changed her:

‘I come of a family impatient with stupidity and slowness, and I absorbed the family intolerance of minds less quick than our own. It was my child who taught me to understand so clearly that all people are equal in their humanity, and all have the same human rights.’

In spite of her own personal accomplishments, Pearl Buck never really ‘belonged’, at least, not in establishment terms. She was denounced in China as an enemy of the people for daring to depict the truth, in the USA for being a communist sympathiser, by the church for exposing its proselytizing imperfections whilst those it sought to convert lived in poverty and squalor, and by the literary establishment for ‘sinking’ to writing pulp-fiction.

Spurling has clearly thoroughly researched her subject, and at times the threads are complicated and repetitious, but given the effect on her writing of so much in Pearl’s life, it’s hard to see how she could do otherwise. I found this book both enlightening and very readable. Ideal for a long journey.

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