Pearl of China
Anchee Min, 2010
In the small southern China town of Chin-kiang, in the last days of the nineteenth century, two young girls bump heads and become thick as thieves. Willow is the only child of a destitute family. Pearl is the headstrong daughter of Christian missionaries—and will grow up to become Pearl S. Buck, Nobel Prize-winning writer and activist.
This unlikely pair becomes lifelong friends, confiding their beliefs and dreams, experiencing love and motherhood, and eventually facing civil war and exile. Pearl of China brings new color to the remarkable life of Pearl S. Buck, illuminated by the sweep of history and an intimate, unforgettable friendship. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—January 14, 1957
• Where—Shanghai, China
• Currently—lives in San Francisco, California, USA
Anchee Min is a Chinese-born painter, photographer, musician, and author. Born in Shanghai in 1957, at seventeen she was sent to a labor collective, where a talent scout for Madame Mao's Shanghai Film Studio recruited her to work as a movie actress.
She came to the United States in 1984 with the help of actress Joan Chen. Her memoir, Red Azalea, was named one of the New York Times Notable Books of 1994 and was an inter-national bestseller, with rights sold in twenty countries. Her novels Becoming Madame Mao and Empress Orchid were published to critical acclaim and were national bestsellers. Her two other novels, Katherine and Wild Ginger, were published to wonderful reviews and impressive foreign sales. Min is married to author Lloyd Lofthouse. (From the publisher and Wikipedia.)
As a girl in Maoist China, Min (Red Azalea) was ordered to denounce Pearl S. Buck; now she offers a thin sketch of the Nobel laureate’s life from the point of view of fictional Willow Yee, a fiercely loyal friend. A lifelong friendship begins in Chin-kiang when Willow meets Pearl, whose missionary father converts Willow’s educated but impoverished father. Under threat from hostilities toward foreigners, Pearl departs for the safety of Shanghai, and, later, to America for college, but she returns for her wedding to find that Willow is the satisfied founder of a newspaper and a very unhappy wife. While a changing China swirls around them, their friendship is tested as they both fall in love with the same poet. As the 1949 revolution looms, Pearl flees China, and Willow’s husband becomes Mao’s right-hand man, leading to a fateful showdown with Madam Mao when Willow refuses to denounce her lifelong friend. Though the setting and revolutionary backdrop are inherently dramatic, Min’s account of an epic friendship is curiously low-key, with some sections reading more like a treatment than a narrative.
Min opens her latest with guilty sobs recalling her "brainwashed" teenaged self in 1970s China, when she was forced to denounce Pulitzer and Nobel prize-winning writer Pearl S. Buck to Madame Mao. That guilt clearly drove Min (Red Azalea) to write this "based on the life of Pearl S. Buck" novel about a fictional friendship between Buck and her Chinese best friend, Willow. Unfortunately, by book's end readers are left with little more than caricatures of a Chinese Saint Pearl and her long-suffering sidekick, both ultimately victims of the easily vilified Madame Mao. Buck and Willow bond as turn-of-the-century girls, and Min uses their lifelong relationship to chart China's tumultuous history. Verdict: A novel about Buck could have been interesting, but this one is marred by insipid dialog (Buck's husband should be more understanding because of his Cornell degree, her would-be lover wants to know if she "love[s] like a Chinese woman"), jolting gaps (Buck's adopted daughter, Janice, disappears after one mention), and apocryphal pronouncements (Buck apologizes via Voice of America for casting Western actors in Hollywood's whitewashed version of The Good Earth). Buck's story deserves better. With two autobiographies and 80-plus titles to choose from, readers can easily access Buck directly. —Terry Hong, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program, Washington, DC
Min (The Last Empress, 2007) offers an adoring fictional biography of Pearl S. Buck. Narrator Willow Yee grows up in Chin-Kiang at the turn of the century. She lives with her impoverished grandmother and father, a coolie and seasonal farmhand despite his education and literary aspirations. Portrayed with intriguing moral ambiguity, Mr. Yee is a conniver, his motives both self-serving and earnest as he brings converts to zealous missionary Absalom Sydenstricker, Pearl's father. As Pearl jokes, "My father is a nut and your father is a crook." Soon Willow and Pearl become inseparable. The early scenes of their childhood, before history gets in the way, are filled with natural lyricism and engaging drama. But once the Boxer Rebellion rears its head and Pearl moves on to missionary school in Shanghai, the novel loses steam. Min gives Willow the skeleton of a story: She is forced into marriage with an opium addict, escapes and becomes a newspaper editor in Nanking, marries a Communist Party member, is denounced and imprisoned, meets Nixon during his visit to Pearl's childhood home in Chin-Kiang. Willow's character isn't fleshed out; her only purpose seems to be to provide a secondhand, sketchy account of Pearl's life, some of it through dry letters. Pearl attends college in America but longs to return to China. She marries Lossing Buck, who wants to enact Chinese agrarian reform, but the marriage sours by the time their mentally retarded daughter is born. Pearl's love affair with the poet Hsu Chih-mo is depicted as the life-changing event in Pearl's creative life, although historians have only circumstantial proof the two were lovers. After Pearl returns to America in middle age, the novel slogs on bloodlessly. A straightforward biography would have served better than this flat, hagiographic narrative.
1. Pearl of China opens with a quotation from Pearl S. Buck: “I was never deceived by Chinese women, not even by the flower-like lovely girls. They are the strongest women in the world.” Discuss how two strong-willed characters in Pearl of China, Willow and Madame Mao, display the fortitude that Buck describes. How are these two women’s strengths similar and different? Who benefits—and who suffers—from these two women’s powers?
2. Describe the changing fortune of Willow’s family. When we first meet Willow, how is her family coping with poverty? How do their fortunes change over the course of the novel? How does Willow’s peasant background eventually become an advantage?
3. Although Pearl is American, “beneath her skin, she was Chinese.” (263) What Chinese qualities does Pearl exhibit in childhood and in adulthood? What American characteristics does she have? How is Pearl able to reconcile her Chinese heritage and her Western birth?
4. Compare the relationships Pearl and Willow have with their fathers. What troubles does each girl have with her father? How does the relationship between Pearl and Absalom change over the course of the novel, and what difficulties between them are never resolved?
5. Absalom’s church in Chin-kiang weathers many changes. How do Papa and Carpenter Chan attempt to reconcile Christian and Chinese traditions? What strategies seem most successful in attracting new members to the church? How does Absalom react to these changes? How does the church endure and evolve after Absalom’s death?
6. Willow loves two musical works: the Chinese opera The Butterfly Lovers and the Christian hymn “Amazing Grace.” When does she first encounter each work? What impact does each have upon her life?
7. Discuss the love triangle of Willow, Pearl, and Hsu Chih-mo. How does the poet come between the two women friends? How does Willow react to Pearl and Hsu Chi-Mo’s affair at first? Does she seem to fully recover from this heartbreak after Hsu Chih-mo’s death? Why or why not?
8. Both Papa and Willow are subjected to torture due to their friendships with Absalom and Pearl. Why does Papa betray Absalom when Bumpkin Emperor and the Nationalists torture him? How does Willow withstand Madame Mao’s imprisonment?
9. Marital problems plague many characters in Pearl of China. Consider the following troubled couples: Absalom and Carie, Pearl and Lossing, Willow and Dick. What do these marriages have in common, and how are they different? What better models of love and coupling exist within the novel?
10. Discuss the theme of forgiveness in Pearl of China. When are Papa, Dick, and Bumpkin Emperor forgiven, and why? What friendships and values are strengthened through forgiveness? Which characters have difficulty forgiving others’ transgressions, and why?
11. As she begins to write novels, Pearl tells Willow, “The character must believe in himself, and he must have the stamina to endure.” (113) Does Willow display the courage that Pearl describes? What hardships is Willow able to endure? At which moments is her belief in herself especially challenged?
12. Willow reminisces, “Without Pearl and Hsu Chih-mo in my life, I never would have been the person I am today.... Although I published and impressed others as a writer, it was never my air and rice, as it was for Pearl and Hsu Chih-mo.” (155–56) How does writing serve as “air and rice” for Pearl and Hsu Chih-mo? How do Pearl and Willow maintain their connection to Hsu Chih-mo after his death?
13. Describe Dick’s relationship with Mao and Communism. How does Dick demonstrate his loyalty to Mao’s cause? When is Dick’s loyalty challenged, and how does he react? Why does Mao decline to protect Dick from Madame Mao? What regrets does Dick express on his deathbed, and how does Willow react to these confessions?
14. On her voyage to America, Willow pictures Pearl’s American home: “I imagined the rooms filled with tasteful furniture and decorated with Western art. Pearl would have a library, for she had always been a lover of books. I also imagined that she would have a garden. She had inherited Carie’s passion for nature. The garden would be filled with plants whose names I wouldn’t know, but it would be beautiful.” (261–62) What surprises does Willow discover when she finally sees Pearl’s home and garden? How do Pearl’s home, garden, and grave meet her expectations, and how do they defy her imagination?
15. If you have read The Good Earth, discuss similarities and differences between Buck’s novel and Min’s Pearl of China. How does each author portray the people, land, and troubles of rural China?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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