Monday 21 May 2012

A Chinese Puzzle

My copy of The Good Earth, with a postcard bookmark
featuring part of a avaguely Chinese-looking tree
I picked up The Good Earth, by Pearl S Buck, in a charity shop, ages and ages ago, because I was curious about the book. I started reading it several times, but kept putting it back on the shelf because I just couldn’t get along with it. To be honest, if it wasn’t for the fact that it was the May choice for the Cornflower Book Club, I don’t think I would ever have finished it. It’s a bit of a puzzle really, because I’ve always been fascinated by China, and I felt as if I should have liked it, but I didn't enjoy it. But there you are, I can’t like everything.

In its time it was very highly acclaimed, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, the year after it was published. Six years later Buck, who spent much of her life in China (she was the daughter of American missionaries), was awarded Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 1938 for her portrayal of peasant life and her biographies.

Obviously, The Good Earth still has appeal because most of the other book group reviews were very favourable, but I could not bring myself to like it. I never really engaged with characters or story, and felt it remained flat and stilted, almost as if it were written by someone for whom English was a second language, or as if it were a poor translation. Buck’s writing lacks emotion, and she never judges or makes authorial comments: she simply tells it like it is, but I felt that means there’s a lack of empathy, and you never get inside the characters or find out what motivates them.

The book tells the story of poor farmer Wang Lung, who lives with his aged father somewhere in the north of China, presumably during at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th – neither place nor time are ever clearly identified. It opens with his marriage, and follows him over the next 50 years or so as he raises his family, acquires more land, installs a concubine in his home, and buys the big house where his wife once worked. He contends with feckless relatives, famine and floods. The hardship of life in rural China, and the shocking contrast between rich and poor, comes across very clearly. At one stage Wang Lung and his family survive starvation by moving to a southern city 100 miles away, where he scratches a living by pulling a rickshaw while his wife and sons eke out their meagre income by begging. Then he gets caught up in a riot and gains a fortune in silver and gold, which he uses to establish a better life when he returns home.

Despite the fact that Wang Lung is described as kind, and he’s certainly hard-working, I didn’t like him (or any of the other characters). I think the thing that alienated me most was his lack of love, tenderness or understanding for his wife O-lan: he has no consideration for her at all, and doesn’t even seem to view her as a person. However, it is difficult to apply our own standards because he is so much a product of a time, place and culture that are very different to those we know.

What struck me most forcibly was the harsh life faced by women and how little they were valued (daughters are referred to as slaves). O-lan, plain, big-footed and slow-spoken, has a harsh life and expects little from it. But the prospects for Lotus, the prostitute with whom Wang Lung falls in love, are no greater. She uses her looks to gain gifts from men and leads an idle life, but without Wang Lung’s protection she would have been left with nothing as her looks and figure fade.

Throughout it all, in good times and bad, Wang Lung holds to his land. It’s the thing he loves above all other – apart, perhaps, from his father, his old friend Ching, and his elder daughter, a ‘Poor Fool’ who cannot speak and sits in the sunshine twisting her piece of cloth. But his three sons, educated in new and different ways, have no feeling for the land, and are ashamed to be connected with a peasant way of life. His success has ensured they move away from their roots, and he cannot control the decisions they make, even if it would be right for him to so.

The novel questions about the nature of satisfaction which, for some reason, reminded me of the fairy story of the Old Woman and the Old Man who lived in a Vinegar Jar, and were granted wishes, and kept asking for more and more sumptuous homes and lifestyles, but she was never satisfied with what she got. By the end Wang Lung has lost all desire - for women, wealth or land – and is happy to return to a simpler way of life in his old home, on his first patch of land.

Pear S Buck, pictured in 132, the year she
was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for
The Good Earth
His move back is part of a recurrent theme on the cycle of life. It is clear that to everything there is a season, and that as the wheel of fortune turns lives are changed and people are cast up or raised down on the whim of the Gods. What goes around comes around: near the start of the novel Wang Lung, terrified, shy, and unconfident, walks to the big house to collect the bride he has never seen, while towards the end things come full circle, and it is he who sits in the big house, waiting for a poor farmer to collect a slave girl and marry her.

As you can see, there is a lot to think about in this book, and it offers glimpses of the Chinese culture and way of life around 100 years ago but, and there are two sequels, but I don’t think I’ll bother with them. I’d much rather read anything by Amy Tan (whom I always enjoy), or Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See, or Empress Orchid, by Anchee Min.

Finally, having signed up for various reading challenges, I’m hoping The Good Earth qualifies for three of them:
1)  The May selection for the Cornflower Book Group at
2)  The topography class of What’s In a Name, at (I think earth is a topographical feature –I certainly remember studying soil types and crops etc in physical geography, but maybe I’m stretching a point with this one).
3)  The Classic Award Winner section of the Back to the Classics Challenge over at


  1. I read this for a book group a year or two ago and I did like it but when I came to review it on my blog I found I couldn't think of anything intelligent to say about it. The opposite is obviously true for you!

    1. I don't know that it's that intelligent, but usually I like to try and work out why I don't like a book, especially if everyone else.Sometimes it's easier to write about things you don't like.