Saturday, November 29, 2014

Buck in China

When the distinguished scholar of Buddhism and Taoism, John Blofeld, was a small boy in England, he saw a Chinese Buddha in an antique shop and applied pester power to his accompanying aunt to secure it. It fascinated, haunted him and as a young man, with only a few pounds in his pocket, he went to China in the 1920s and forged a life for himself. He was in love with a China that was rapidly changing, dying, that he records lovingly in his revealing memoirs - a China of both sensuous delights, cultivated charm and spiritual depths.

I find his experience with the Buddha, that convinced him to take notions of reincarnation seriously for whence had come this strong attraction to something apparently so unfamiliar and out of place, strangely resonant. In my case, it is the period - China from the Boxer rebellion through to Communist arrival - that is especially alluring. Every time I read of it (or see it depicted on the screen), a tingle of recognition traces up and down but only if it is a China seen through Western eyes! This is doubly peculiar for I have never, except for one brief trip to Hong Kong, that I unexpectedly loved, even been to China!

I was reminded of this reading Hilary Spurling's 'Burying my Bones'. This is her biography of the American novelist, Pearl Buck, who's 'The Good Earth', revolutionized the American (and Western) public's view of China. Unlike Blofeld, Buck was born to China, ever afterward seeing it as home, and grew up a distance from Blofeld's cultured China. Buck's parents were a missionary family, immersed (yet separated) from 'the Chinese masses' who toiled in fields, lived on the knife's edge of famine and whose women folk led lives of continuous resistance to outlandish repression. They narrowly evaded humiliation, depredation or even death during the Boxer uprising, when Pearl was eight ,and Pearl and her first husband avoided a similar fate during the 'Nanking incident' when Chiang Kai Shek's temporarily victorious Nationalists occupied Nanking in the 1920s.

Spurling beautifully describes a life lived between two identities - Chinese and American - and how it was both the engine of Buck's imaginative work and its undoing. Once she left China in 1934, never to return, something in the sensed immediacy of her creative process withered and the quality of her fiction declined. She remained immensely popular during her lifetime, not least for her championing of many humanitarian causes, but her long term literary reputation suffered.

As it did in China. Before the revolution, Chinese cultural elites were made uncomfortable about her exposure of 'the masses' - making them individuals, with thoughts, feelings, identities of their own - because she was exposing a life utterly remote to them (but not to her) and who too wants one's shadows exposed by an 'outsider'? After the revolution, she was an imperialist colonialist associated (through her parents) with an imposed, external ideology - Christianity. It is only with the passing of Maoism that her work has been receiving the attention it deserves, her books published in Chinese translation, a more generous assessment made, as an important witness to a time of extraordinary social change and political upheaval.

True to form, it was Spurling's descriptions of Buck's life in China and the complex interactions with people and place that arrested my attention - unknown yet puzzling familiar! I was reminded that it deeply matters where one is born (Buck) and yet something matters too about what one is born with (Blofeld). We come, if not bearing clouds of glory, with traces of yet something other - instinct, inheritance, remembrance - all three possibly. 

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