Book Reviews & Essays on Literature

Pearl of China, by Anchee Min

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Pearl of China, by Anchee Min (Bloomsbury Press, 2010)

Part eulogy, part fond memoir, part political thriller, this novel resurrects the forgotten literary phenomenon that was Pearl S. Buck, and it renews one’s admiration for both Buck and Min. China has always been a subject of fascination and inquiry for Westerners. From Sinophobia to Sinomania, China seems to inspire extreme emotions in Western politicians and artists.

In the early 1900s, China was the “Yellow Peril”, fit only for missionaries and opium smugglers. It was rare to find a public supporter of Chinese culture. One such was American novelist Pearl S. Buck, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for her novel The Good Earth. For many generations of readers this novel depicted the definitive, immortal portrait of Chinese rural life, and with its publication China gained many thousands of admirers.

Ironically, Buck’s books were banned in China and she gradually sank into obscurity. While not the definitive fictionalized biography of Buck, Min’s novel is nevertheless a revealing and engaging portrait of the author and her relationships with Chinese men and women.

“Behind the calm steadfast eyes of a Chinese woman, I feel a powerful warmth. We might have been friends, she and I, unless she had decided first that I was her enemy. She would have decided, not I. I was never deceived by Chinese women, not even by the flower-like lovely girls. They are the strongest women in the world. Seeming to yield, they never yield. Their men are weak beside them. Whence comes this female strength? It is the strength that centuries have given them, the strength of the unwanted.” – Pearl S. Buck, Letter from Peking, frontispiece

The Last Empress, by Anchee Min

The Last Empress, by Anchee Min

Min has an admirable ability to recreate historical eras, peopled with believable characters and well-described, detailed settings. She very much has the knack for “adding flesh to” and bringing to life historical characters who often only exist in archival documents or who have historically acquired a bit of a negative image – like in these two novels and in her novel about Jiang Qing, Becoming Madame Mao (2001).  She did a particularly good job with her portrait of Empress Dowager Cixi, in The Last Empress (2007). It is so evocative that I re-read it every few years, and it has not last its power to engage.

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