I recently finished reading Hilary Spurling’s masterful biography of Pearl Buck, the daughter of American missionaries who grew up in China and became a novelist who introduced many in America to Chinese culture (and won the Nobel Prize for Literature). It was an utterly absorbing read. Among other things it was a sobering reminder of the appalling poverty of pre-revolutionary China, and the extraordinary achievements of the communists in their early days in power – it’s easy to let the horrors of the Anti-Rightist Movement, the post-Great Leap famine and the Culture Revolution obscure this. And the episodes in which Pearl and her family were threatened and turned on by people in a place that felt like home will resonate, at least distantly, with many foreigners who have lived in China. (Peter Hessler, in River Town – another wonderful China book – described a nasty little event in Fuling, his home for two years, when a crowd turned ugly just because he was a foreigner. And it reminded me of the time I was nearly lynched by a hostile crowd in Chengdu, my beloved Chengdu, just after the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.)
Funnily enough, I visited Pearl Buck’s house in the old vinegar town of Zhenjiang a year or two ago, without really knowing anything about her – the house is now a museum. It’s a colonial-style building on the top of a hill, and surrounded by modern apartment blocks. It was officially closed to the public on the day my friend Gwen and I tried to visit, because it was being used as the location for a Republican-era film. Fortunately the film crew let us have a snoop around, but it was a surreal experience because we kept stumbling across actors in Republican-era costumes (and almost literally stumbling across the power cables trailing all over the floors).
I wasn’t able to work out from Hilary Spurling’s book WHEN exactly Pearl Buck lived there – was it her marital home, or her childhood home with her parents? And is it normally filled with family photographs and objects that relate to her life? (It appeared to have been cleared and rearranged for the film.) If anyone has any information, please leave a comment here!