Recently the stock market tumbled. My TIAA accounts lost about 10%. Analysts report that it’s because the Chinese economy is faltering. At home in Yardley I have been thinking about China. I started writing in a “Dream Journal” I bought at the Library of Congress last year. There is an antique map on the cover. “What are my travel dreams.” If we went to Asia just once, would it be China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, India, or some other new destination. “What would influence our choice?”
Before Christmas, Diane and I visited Pearl Buck’s home, Green Hill Farm, in Perkasie. It’s been decades since we’d been there but they had been advertising a Christmas tree and craft display so we went. The decorated trees in each room are done by local businesses and organizations. Most interesting for me was the refresher on Pearl Buck.
I suspect that most Americans today do not recognize the name Pearl Buck. My first encounter with her was finding an inexpensive set of books in my Nanny’s (Grandmother Gallager) apartment. I now wonder who bought them? Did someone read them? Nanny wasn’t a reader and I can’t imagine she had an interest in China! But I probably read one or more in high school. I was exposed to the story.
Pearl Buck was the daughter of missionaries. From her birth in the 1890s until the mid 1930s she lived in China. In many ways her outlook on life was more Chinese than American. She became a writer winning the Pulitizer and Nobel prizes. Her writing was autobiographical, about family and China. “The Good Earth,” her most famous book (and Pulitizer winner) was a best seller in the early 1930s. Her writings created a bridge between east and west, opening up China for many Americans. Buck wrote about farmers, poverty, the underside of Chinese life and culture.
Years ago we enjoyed a production of “The Good Earth” at the Riveside Theatre in Bristol. I’ve also seen the 1937 Hollywood production of “The Good Earth” staring Paul Muni and I believe an all white or almost all white cast. It wasn’t very good but I have added it to my current Netflix list. I also found a paperback copy in my library which I will read.
In the library, I checked out a copy of “Pearl Buck in China: journey to the good earth” by Hilary Spurling. It was a fascinating read. Pearl’s experience in China: she was poor, not always accepted, felt Chinese, saw violence, the class system and gender inequality. She married, began writing, became critical of the missionary movement, published in the United States and gained significant notoriety, much of it due to her publisher, and second husband, Richard Walsh.
Her writings became controversial, too raw and sexual for some, the Chinese didn’t like the graphic portrayal of Chinese life, And some Americans thought she was pro-Communist. Her family grew as she adopted Chinese children. After World War II she would establish Welcome House an adoption agency for Amerasian children. The adoption agency would eventually merge with a foundation that currently owns the Perkasie House and continues to honor her legacy.
I think Pearl would have been an interesting person to know. in the post WWII years. She was a friend of Eleanor Rooselvelt, involved in a variety of civil rights and humanitarian efforts, was within the Kennedy orbit. At the same time she withdrew in her last years to a home in Vermont. She died in 1973.
My philosophy of themantic living has me watching movies made from Pearl Buck novels. None is very good. But I enjoyed “Pavilion of Women,” first in the queue. It was made in 2001 by a Chinese woman Luo Yan, who produced, directed and stared in the adaptation. Although critics have not been kind, I enjoyed watching it. In brief: at age 40, Madame Wu is tired of servicing her husband so she buys him a young concubine. He becomes more interested in a local brothel and she becomes romantically involved with a missionary priest (Willem Dafoe). In the mid 1930s, the Japanese attack, Father Andre sacrifices his life to save Madame Wu and his orphanage of children.
I enjoyed the film since much of it was shot on location in China. The cinematography was quite good and there were some interesting aspects of Chinese culture and Pearl Bucks’s experience that kept my interest. I have just started watching Dragon Seed. Imagine the leading lady is Katherine Hepburn!
But Chinese history and culture barely register for me. Why would I decide to travel to China.
In the past few years, I have been intrigued by a few Chinese artists. A few years ago we heard about Xu Bing’s “Phoenix” on exhibition at Mass Moca. We decided to go. However, we were unprepared for the size and presentation of the 3 ton birds that greeted us. Simply amazing. About a year later, I was excited to see the same Phoenixes flying in Saint John the Devine cathedral in NYC. Another Chinese artist that has intrigued me is Ai Weiwei, a political activist. I read or looked at a book of his work ,”According to What: Ai Weiwei,” and then I watched a documentary. Some amazing installations.
Recently I have read several books about Chinese food. “On the Noodle Road: from Beining to Rome with love and pasta.” The author, Jen Lin Liv travels the Silk Road exploring the relationship between Chinese noodles and Italian pasta. Her conclusion, can’t tell which was first. Another was “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: a sweet-sour memoir of eating in China. The food is quite different from what we get in Chinese-American restaurants. Nobody knows General Tso in China. After reading “Fortune Cookie Chronicles: adventures in the world of Chinese food.” by Jennifer Lee, I was hoping to find some authentic Chinese restaurants in the area, maybe Chinatown in Philadelphia. Several years ago, I even bought a Chinese cookbook, “Simple Chinese Cooking” by Kylie Kwons.
Despite all my reading we haven’t had very much Chinese food in recent years. The only exception are Asian (not necessarily Chinese) noodle soups I’ve been making. It started with some seaweed broth (dashi), a big bag of dried shiitake mushrooms, add miso and maybe tofu. I’ve bought a variety of noodles (some from a trip to Chinatown) and have made several interesting variations. Quite good. A few weeks ago, Diane and I have ordered take-out Chinese. The first time in years. We decided to try a new (to us) Chinese restaurant in Lower Makefield. Unfortunately we were totally unimpressed, basically dissatisfied. Need to try another.
Why travel to China? What is the attraction. Standard tours will mention the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, Terra-cotta Warriors, the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Yangtze River, Hong Kong, Yellow Mountains, West Lake, and Yungang Grottoes — I know very little about China and don’t even recognize all of these tourist attractions. But maybe that’s what interests me.
Maybe China for me is like China for Americans before Pearl Buck. It is a mysterious. The culture seems so different. Images of Marco Polo’s travels. Traditional, backward according to Western values, but modern and global in another perspective. China may become an entry in my dream journal.