PEARL SYDENSTRICKER WAS born into a family of ghosts. She was the fifth of seven children and, when she looked back afterward at her beginnings, she remembered a crowd of brothers and sisters at home, tagging after their mother, listening to her sing, and begging her to tell stories. “We looked out over the paddy fields and the thatched roofs of the farmers in the valley, and in the distance a slender pagoda seemed to hang against the bamboo on a hillside,” Pearl wrote, describing a storytelling session on the veranda of the family house above the Yangtse River. “But we saw none of these.” What they saw was America, a strange, dreamlike, alien homeland where they had never set foot. The siblings who surrounded Pearl in these early memories were dreamlike as well. Her older sisters, Maude and Edith, and her brother Arthur had all died young in the course of six years from dysentery, cholera, and malaria, respectively. Edgar, the oldest, ten years of age when Pearl was born, stayed long enough to teach her to walk, but a year or two later he was gone too (sent back to be educated in the United States, he would be a young man of twenty before his sister saw him again). He left behind a new baby brother to take his place, and when she needed company of her own age, Pearl peopled the house with her dead siblings. “These three who came before I was born, and went away too soon, somehow seemed alive to me,” she said.
Every Chinese family had its own quarrelsome, mischievous ghosts who could be appealed to, appeased, or comforted with paper people, houses, and toys. As a small child lying awake in bed at night, Pearl grew up listening to the cries of women on the street outside calling back the spirits of their dead or dying babies. In some ways she herself was more Chinese than American. “I spoke Chinese first, and more easily,” she said. “If America was for dreaming about, the world in which I lived was Asia…. I did not consider myself a white person in those days.” Her friends called her Zhenzhu (Chinese for Pearl) and treated her as one of themselves. She slipped in and out of their houses, listening to their mothers and aunts talk so frankly and in such detail about their problems that Pearl sometimes felt it was her missionary parents, not herself, who needed protecting from the realities of death, sex, and violence.
She was an enthusiastic participant in local funerals on the hill outside the walled compound of her parents’ house: large, noisy, convivial affairs where everyone had a good time. Pearl joined in as soon as the party got going with people killing cocks, burning paper money, and gossiping about foreigners making malaria pills out of babies’ eyes. “‘everything you say is lies,’ I remarked pleasantly…. There was always a moment of stunned silence. Did they or did they not understand what I had said? they asked each other. They understood, but could not believe they had.” The unexpected apparition of a small American girl squatting in the grass and talking intelligibly, unlike other Westerners, seemed magical, if not demonic. Once an old woman shrieked aloud, convinced she was about to die now that she could understand the language of foreign devils. Pearl made the most of the effect she produced, and of the endless questions—about her clothes, her coloring, her parents, the way they lived and the food they ate—that followed as soon as the mourners got over their shock. She said she first realized there was something wrong with her at New Year 1897, when she was four and a half years old, with blue eyes and thick yellow hair that had grown too long to fit inside a new red cap trimmed with gold Buddhas. “Why must we hide it?” she asked her Chinese nurse, who explained that black was the only normal color for hair and eyes. (“It doesn’t look human, this hair.”)
Pearl escaped through the back gate to run free on the grasslands thickly dotted with tall pointed graves behind the house. She and her companions, real or imaginary, climbed up and slid down the grave mounds or flew paper kites from the top. “Here in the green shadowswe played jungles one day and housekeeping the next.” She was baffled by a newly arrived American, one of her parents’ visitors, who complained that the Sydenstrickers lived in a graveyard. (“That huge empire is one mighty cemetery,” Mark Twain wrote of China, “ridged and wrinkled from its center to its circumference with graves.”) Ancestors and their coffins were part of the landscape of Pearl’s childhood. The big heavy wooden coffins that stood ready for their occupants in her friends’ houses, or lay awaiting burial for weeks or months in the fields and along the canal banks, were a source of pride and satisfaction to farmers whose families had for centuries poured their sweat, their waste, and their dead bodies back into the same patch of soil.
Sometimes Pearl found bones lying in the grass, fragments of limbs, mutilated hands, once a head and shoulder with parts of an arm still attached. They were so tiny she knew they belonged to dead babies, nearly always girls suffocated or strangled at birth and left out for dogs to devour. It never occurred to her to say anything to anybody. Instead she controlled her revulsion and buried what she found according to rites of her own invention, poking the grim shreds and scraps into cracks in existing graves or scratching new ones out of the ground. Where other little girls constructed mud pies, Pearl made miniature grave mounds, patting down the sides and decorating them with flowers or pebbles. She carried a string bag for collecting human remains, and a sharpened stick or a club made from split bamboo with a stone fixed into it to drive the dogs away. She could never tell her mother why she hated packs of scavenging dogs, any more than she could explain her compulsion, acquired early from Chinese friends, to run away and hide whenever she saw a soldier coming down the road.
Soldiers from the hill fort with earthen ramparts above the town were generally indistinguishable from bandits, who lived by rape and plunder. The local warlords who ruled China largely unchecked by a weak central government were always eager to extend or consolidate territory. Severed heads were still stuck up on the gates of walled towns like Zhenjiang, where the Sydenstrickers lived. Life in the countryside was not essentially different from the history plays Pearl saw performed in temple courtyards by bands of traveling actors, or the stories she heard from professional storytellers and anyone else she could persuade to tell them. The Sydenstrickers’ cook, who had the mobile features and expressive body language of a Chinese Fred Astaire, entertained the gateman, the amah, and Pearl herself with episodes from a small private library of books only he knew how to read. This was her first introduction to the old Chinese novels—The White Snake, The Dream of the Red Chamber, All Men Are Brothers— that she would draw on long afterward for the narrative grip, strong plot lines, and stylized characterizations of her own fiction.
Wang Amah, Pearl’s nurse, had an inexhaustible fund of tales of demons and spirits that lived in clouds, rocks, and trees, sea dragons, storm dragons, and the captive local dragon pinned underneath the pagoda on the far hill, who lay in wait for a chance to squirm free, swamp the river, and drown the whole valley. They inhabited an ancient fairyland of spells, charms, incantations, sensational flights, and fights with “Wonderful daggers that a man could make small enough to hide in his ear or in the corner of his eye but which, when he fetched them out again, were long and keen and swift to kill.” But even as a small child Pearl liked her fairy stories more closely rooted in reality, and she pestered Wang Amah to tell her about when she was little and how she grew up into a flawless young beauty with pale porcelain skin, plucked forehead, black braided hair that hung to her knees, and three-inch-long bound feet, so lovely that she had to be married off early for fear of predatory soldiers. By the time Pearl knew her thirty or forty years later, Wang Amah was wrinkled and practically toothless (the heartless little Sydenstrickers laughed when she knocked out all but two of her remaining teeth in a fall on the cellar steps), with scanty hair, heavy flaps of skin over her eyes, and a protruding lower lip. She was strict but kind and dependable, a source of warmth and reassurance, the only person in Pearl’s household who ever gave her a hug or took the child onto her lap and into her bed for comfort.
She had been the daughter of a small tradesman in Yangzhou with a prosperous business destroyed in the seismic upheavals all over China that left at least twenty million people dead after the Taiping Rebellion. Wang Amah lost her family—parents, parents-in-law, husband—and with them her means of subsistence. She scraped out a living in the sex trade until hired by Pearl’s mother to look after her children (an appointment badly received by the rest of the mission community). The traumas of her youth resurfaced in her new life as a sequence of thrilling set pieces, starting with her miraculous escape, when she was lowered on a rope down a dry well to save her from Taiping marauders, and going on to the firing of the great pagoda in her hometown, which was burned to the ground with all its priests inside it. Interrogated by Pearl about the smell of roasting men and whether the Chinese variety smelled different from white flesh, Wang Amah replied confidently that white meat was coarser, more tasteless and watery, “because you wash yourselves so much.”
Even the dire process of having her feet bound became heroic in retrospect. Wang Amah explained that her father made her sleep alone in the kitchen outhouse from the age of three so as not to disturb the rest of the family by her crying at night. Rarely able to resist Pearl’s coaxing, she took off the cloth shoes, white stockings, and bandages that had to be worn, even in bed, by women with the infinitely desirable “golden-lily” feet that enforced subjugation as effectively as a ball and chain. Pearl inspected the lump of mashed bone and livid discolored flesh made from forcing together the heel and toes under the instep, leaving only the big toe intact. She had witnessed the mothers of her contemporaries crippling their own daughters’ feet and even suspected she might have ruined her chances of getting a husband by failing to go through the procedure herself. She watched her nurse put the bindings back on without comment. It was one of her first lessons in the power of the imagination to cover up or contain and make bearable things too ugly to confront directly. It was the same lesson she learned from the body parts she found on the hillside. The potent spell Pearl cast later, as a phenomenally successful writer of romantic best sellers, came in large part from this sense of a harsh hidden reality, protruding occasionally but more often invisible, present only beneath the surface of her writing as an unexamined residue of pain and fear.
The second major storyteller of Pearl’s early years was her mother, whose repertoire transported her children to “a place called Home where apples lay on clean grass under the trees, and berries grew on bushes ready to eat, and yards were un-walled and water clean enough to drink without boiling and filtering.” In the enchanted idyll of her mother’s West Virginia childhood, America lay open and free, untouched by the taint of disease, corruption, injustice, or want. (“I grew up misinformed,” Pearl wrote dryly, “and ripe for some disillusionment later.”) The family were Dutch immigrants who had ended up a decade before the Civil War in a small settlement sixty miles west of the Shenandoah Valley, a corridor that allowed Confederate forces to launch raids on Washington from one end and move supplies into Richmond through the other, fought over with relentless ferocity for four years until victorious Federal troops finally laid waste the valley, destroying buildings, slaughtering livestock, and burning crops. Five years old when the war began, Pearl’s mother grew up in a borderland repeatedly occupied by the scavenging, sometimes starving armies of both sides. Like Wang Amah, she reorganized her memories in later life into broad-brush narrative paintings depicting sudden dramatic reversals and hair’s-breadth escapes, with streams of galloping gray and blue cavalry superimposed on the pagoda and the groves of bamboo her listeners could see beyond the veranda.
She applied the same bold graphic technique to her early experiences in China. Caroline Sydenstricker had set sail for the Orient as an idealistic young bride with only the haziest notion about what a missionary career might entail. For her it turned out in practice to mean housekeeping and child rearing in cramped, inconvenient lodgings in the poorer quarters of the more or less hostile cities where her husband parked his growing family, while he himself pushed forward into unknown territory in search of fresh converts. He drove himself on by totting up the staggering totals of heathen sinners to be saved and the pitifully thin line of men like himself standing between them and damnation, an insoluble equation that appalled and maddened him to the end of his life. When the Sydenstrickers first landed in Shanghai to join the Southern Presbyterian Mission in the autumn of 1880, they brought its numbers in the field up to twelve. Apart from a handful of foreign compounds in or near the main trading ports, the interior of China seemed to be theirs for the taking. Seven years later Absalom Sydenstricker persuaded the Mission Board to let him launch a personal assault on the vast, densely populated area of North kiangsu, setting up his campaign headquarters in the walled city of Tsingkiangpu, nearly three hundred miles north of Shanghai on the Grand Canal, where no missionary had ever settled before. “He had to himself an area as large as the state of Texas, full of souls who had never heard the Gospel,” his daughter wrote later. “He was intoxicated with the magnificence of his opportunity.” The local people received him with passive and often active resistance. A younger colleague eventually dispatched to join him boasted that for three years he made not a single convert, coming home from country trips with spit on his clothes and bruises all over his body from sticks and stones hurled as he passed. Almost overwhelmed by the numerical odds stacked against him, Absalom spent more and more time on the road.
His wife had long ago learned to manage without him. One of the thrilling stories she told her children later was about the night she faced down a mob of farmers with knives and cudgels, who blamed an unprecedented drought on malevolent local gods provoked beyond bearing by the presence of foreign intruders. This was the sweltering hot August of 1889, when rice seedlings withered in the parched fields around Tsingkiangpu. Alerted by men beneath her window plotting in whispers to kill her, Carie found herself alone with Wang Amah and the children (by this stage there were three: eight-year-old Edgar, four-year-old Edith, and the baby Arthur, age seven months), surrounded by an angry populace, a hundred miles from the nearest white outpost, with no one to turn to and no time to send a runner for her absent husband. Her response was to stage a tea party, sweeping the floor, baking cakes, and laying out her best cups and plates. When her uninvited guests arrived at dead of night they found the door flung wide on a lamplit American dream of home-sweet-home, with the three small children waked from sleep and playing peacefully at their mother’s knee. This preposterous story passed into family legend, along with its triumphant outcome: the hard heart of the ringleader was so touched by the spectacle laid on for him that he repented of his murderous mission, accepted a cup of tea instead, and left with his men shortly afterward, only to find rain falling as if by magic later that very same night.
This and similar incidents became part of a folkloric family epic, whose episodes were conflated, transposed, and repeated so often that Pearl, and in due course her younger sister, Grace, knew them and their punch lines by heart. The same stories figure in accounts published later by both sisters, where their mother’s courage, resourcefulness, and determination stand out, burnished to a high gloss against a dull undertow of futility and waste, unfulfilled ambition, stifled hope and desire. There were other stories Carie knew but didn’t tell. At Tsingkiangpu she set up one of a succession of informal clinics for women, where she taught young girls to read and offered sympathy and practical advice to their mothers. Even before they were old enough to understand what was said, her children could hear the urgent, uneven monotone of Chinese women explaining their problems to Carie. Pearl said it was a first-rate novelist’s training.
As a public figure in the second half of her life, Pearl campaigned tirelessly for what were then unfashionable causes: women’s rights, civil rights, black rights, the rights of disabled children and the abandoned children of mixed-race parents. As a writer she would return again and again to her mother’s story, telling and retelling it from different angles in her various memoirs and in the biographies she wrote of each of her parents. Her analysis of Carie’s predicament in The Exile and elsewhere is searching, frank, and perceptive. But it is in the daughter’s fiction that the mother’s voice echoes most insistently between the lines, at times muted, plaintive, and resigned, at others angry and vengeful. In her sixties Pearl published a lurid little novel called Voices in the House about a prime fantasist, a brilliantly precocious and imaginative child who might have grown up to be a novelist herself but descends instead into gruesome madness and murder. All the other characters in the novel are lifeless and bland compared to this energetic self-projection at its core. Voices is the book in which the author said her “two selves” finally merged, meaning not just her American side and her Chinese side, but also her outer and inner selves, reason and instinct, the two aspects of her own personality embodied in the cool, clever observer through whose eyes the story is told, and the implacable heroine who ends up possessed, “people would once have said by a devil, and yet there was no devil … except the reverse energy of dreams denied.”
Pearl Buck knew perfectly well that most of her later novels had few literary pretensions, just as she understood why critical opinion dismissed popular fiction as trash. “But I cannot, I keep going back to it. It is what most people read.” She wrote initially for herself and was genuinely astonished when her work spoke directly to the mass market, which she promptly adopted as her own, vigorously defending the magazine stories that kept her in close touch with her public. “One cannot dismiss lightly a magazine bought and read by three million people…. It is a serious thing for literature if three million read—not literature, but something that gives them greater satisfaction.” The Good Earth, published in 1931 and still in print, sold tens of millions of copies worldwide in its author’s lifetime and since.
Buck is virtually forgotten today. She has no place in feminist mythology, and her novels have been effectively eliminated from the American literary map. In the People’s Republic of China her fiction remains unique because it accurately depicts the hard lives of an illiterate rural population ignored by the Chinese writers who were Buck’s contemporaries and subsequently obliterated from the record by Communist Party doctrine. “In China she is admired but not read,” ran a recent article in the New York Times, “and in America she is read but not admired.” Both views could do with reappraisal. The Good Earth transformed the West’s understanding of China, partly because of the picture it painted, and partly because it reached a readership most other books never could. Buck won a Pulitzer Prize for it and went on to become the first of only two American women ever to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. Everyone read her in her day, from statesmen to office cleaners. Eleanor Roosevelt was her friend. Henri Matisse said she explained him to himself as no one else ever had. Jawaharlal Nehru read her Chinese Children Next Door aloud to Mahatma Gandhi. My book aims to look again at the early years that shaped Buck as a writer and gave her the magic power—possessed by all truly phenomenal bestselling authors—to tap directly into currents of memory and dream secreted deep within the popular imagination.
SHE WAS BORN Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker on June 26, 1892, in her mother’s family home in America, where her parents had returned to recover from a catastrophe that very nearly wrecked their marriage. A year after Carie’s night with the farmers her youngest child, Arthur, who had never been strong, fell ill with a raging fever and died the day before his father could get back from the north. The family set out with the body in a sealed coffin on the long journey by canal and riverboat to bury him beside his sister Maude in Shanghai. There Carie and her surviving daughter immediately succumbed to a cholera epidemic. Edith died a fortnight after her brother, on September 5, 1890. Absalom, who had looked after the child while the doctor struggled to save Carie, retreated behind what had long since become an impenetrable barrier against emotions that threatened to swamp him. “We had a full cup of sorrow” was the most he would say then or later. The only flicker of personal feeling that surfaced in spite of himself in the many articles he published over a quarter of a century in the Chinese Recorder was an aside, in a piece written that autumn, on “the heart-rending bereavements that come to so many houses in spite of all medicine can do.” Carie lay in stony silence, barely alive herself, unable to absorb or accept what had happened. “The deaths of these two children, coming so close together, almost deranged our mother,” her daughter Grace wrote half a century later.
Husband and wife emerged from their ordeal each holding the other in some sense to blame. Every year Carie dreaded the tropical summer months, when disease flared in the towns, mosquitoes swarmed on ponds and streams, flies gathered in clouds over the great jars of human excrement used for fertilizer, and Absalom overruled her pleas to take the children to the comparative cool of the coast or the hills. “I shouldn’t have listened to him,” she said of an earlier defeat, “but I always did.” Now that her worst fears had materialized, all she wanted was to go home. Warned by the doctor that Carie was on the verge of losing her mind, her husband reluctantly agreed to take her. “He went about Europe like a chained and quarrelsome lion,” Pearl wrote of her father on their long slow journey, punctuated by sightseeing stops on the westward route to America. Absalom remained as always incredulous at his wife’s inability to put the crying need of a whole nation of infidels before her own private setbacks. “I never saw so hard a heart, so unreasoning a mind as hers in those days,” he said, looking back gloomily twenty years later. “Nothing I could say would move her.”
It was an ignominious homecoming for both of them. Lively, pretty, and pleasure-loving, Carie had married the saintly younger brother of the minister in her hometown of Hillsboro, West Virginia, because he was preparing to go as a missionary to China, and she wanted to give herself to God. She said she had sworn a vow at her mother’s deathbed, and she stuck to it in spite of stiff opposition from her father. Now she was returning damaged in body and mind, with only the oldest of her four children to show for a decade away. Pearl’s birth eighteen months after they landed brought the consolation signaled by her middle name, Comfort, but it also marked yet another defeat for her mother, who was finally forced to accept that her marriage was a life sentence, “irrevocable as death,” and that she must go back to serve it in a country she already feared and was beginning to hate. This new child tied her to both. “Had it taken the death of the other three to break her to God’s will … ?” Pearl wrote somberly in The Exile. “She was broken, then, and she would do that will.”
Absalom had extended his twelve months’ furlough when his wife became pregnant, and now he could not wait to get back. In the ten years he had spent in China he had made, by his own reckoning, ten converts. Millions more awaited his call. “We are by no means overtaking these millions with the Gospel,” he wrote grimly after another twenty years. “They are increasing on us.” He was haunted by the specter of populations growing uncontrollably so that, as fast as young men migrated to the towns, “their place was taken by grinning boys.” He listed with relish the components of a nightmarish vision: “a great and increasing host against us … Heathenism with all its vices still living and active … The darkness, widespread and deep, sin in all its hideous forms, intense worldliness as well as hydra-headed idolatry.”
But the immediate problem confronting Absalom on his return to Tsingkiangpu in January 1893 was not so much heathen obstinacy as the intransigence of his fellow missionaries. The younger man who had arrived as an assistant twelve months before the Sydenstrickers left was not only living in their house but had stored their possessions in an outbuilding, where Absalom found his books mildewed and his bookcases eaten by termites. In the two years of his absence his system had been overhauled and Rev. James Graham, the colleague now starting to look more like a usurper, had pointed out its shortcomings to the mission meeting, which voted diplomatically to let Sydenstricker go. Interpreting this outcome as a triumphant endorsement of his vocation as a “Gospel herald,” Absalom repossessed the house, settled his family back into it, and promptly set off with two new recruits by mule cart to stake out a fresh claim of his own in virgin territory seventy-five miles to the west. His new base of Hsuchien was a collection of straw-roofed mud houses on the edge of the immense, crowded, and poverty-stricken flood plain of the Yellow River, where he aimed to establish a network of small outstations within reach of his own post at the center, while incidentally putting as much space as possible between himself and the mission authorities, always far too ready to query his decisions in favor of crackpot schemes of their own.
His departure set a pattern for Pearl’s childhood. Her father remained physically and emotionally distant, shut up in his study if not actually away prospecting for souls, never seeming particularly at home even when he was living in the same house. “His children were merely accidents which had befallen him,” she wrote, describing the sense of relief his absence always brought to the family he left behind. “My father set off on a long trip northward, heady with excitement and hope,” wrote her sister of one of these periodic partings that left everyone feeling as if a weight had lifted. Throughout the time Pearl spent in Tsingkiangpu, Carie was the center of a world confined to the house and its walled compound, where she had planted a garden. Respectable Chinese women were never seen on the streets; mission wives could expect to be cursed and spat at if they tried to go out alone. Two other American couples trying to establish a mission station a few years later in Hsuchowfu, eighty miles northwest of Hsuchien, reported that for six months the two wives were prisoners in their own houses, neither of them daring to walk even the few hundred yards to call on the other. Pearl’s only view of anything beyond her high garden wall was the procession of feet she was short enough to see passing in the gap between the heavy wooden gate and the ground.
Her impression of this period afterward was of happiness and security. Sun shone on the garden and poured into the house. Carie could transform any lodgings, however unpromising, by applying the same cheap speedy formula (which would later be Pearl’s): windows open to let in light and air, whitewashed walls, grass mats on the floor, the polished oval table she never traveled without, plain rattan chairs, and flowers everywhere. She planted a white rose grown from a cutting taken on the porch of her American home and hung up frilly curtains to shut out sights she didn’t want her children to see. Edgar, who had been reading Dickens, Thackeray, and Scott since the age of seven, was currently working on a novel of his own and producing a weekly newspaper, which he printed on a toy press for subscribers among the tiny scattered mission community. In the mornings he had lessons with his mother, who had been a schoolteacher before her marriage and provided a basic education that included learning how to draw, sing, and play the violin. For Carie this was a time of renewal and hope. By the end of the year she was pregnant again.
Pearl learned to talk from Wang Amah, who fed, bathed, and dressed her, crooned tunes to her, and taught her riddles and rhymes. In the summer of the child’s second birthday her mother was eclipsed altogether by the nurse. For three months Carie lay seriously ill, racked by dysentery, unable to eat or keep food down if she did, struggling to nourish the baby she was carrying, and too weak to see even her children for more than a few minutes at a time. Pearl remembered twice-daily visits to “the other one’s, the white one’s room,” when her mother could only stare at her from the bed. Wang Amah made the child put on a fresh white muslin frock, a petticoat and leather shoes for these inspections; she combed her long hair free of tangles and pinned a fat yellow curl in a sausage shape on top of her head. But most of the time Pearl wore the Chinese jacket, trousers, and cloth shoes in which she felt comfortable (unlike her father, who forced himself to dress like the Chinese so as not to stand out more than he must, but never got used to the loose cotton robes that flapped around his long limbs, impeding his stride and making it impossible to move at more than a slow amble).
Pearl escaped thankfully from the tight clothes and strict rules of her parents into the indulgent world of the kitchen, where the whole household—nurse, cook, houseboy, and anyone else who dropped by—played with her and told her stories. They brought her kites, whistles, and sugar candies from the market. Wang Amah kept hens’ eggs inside her jacket, where Pearl could reach in and find them when they hatched into chicks. She ate the simple, highly flavored food of the poor, dishes she loved ever afterward: soup, brown rice, bits of salt fish or meat, pickled mustard greens, bowls of white cabbage and bean curd, crisp chewy crusts from the bottom of the rice pot. For Pearl China always remained the place where she felt at home. When she looked back from the far end of her rootless and fractured existence, the landscape of her childhood shone in her memory as America did for her mother. She loved even the hot rainy season that Carie dreaded, and the rice harvest in September when low autumn light made everything hazy and soft. Her descriptions have a hypnotic, almost incantatory rhythm: “The masses of feathery, waving bamboo, the low green hills, the winding, golden waters of the canal, the small brown villages of thatched houses … the drowsy rhythm of the flails beating out the grain upon the threshing floors … deep blue skies above the shorn gold fields and the flocks of white geese picking up the scattered grains of rice…. The very air is sweet and somnolent with that broken, rhythmic beating of the flails.”
In the fiercest heat of the summer of 1894 Pearl’s father came home to announce that they were moving again. “My memory of his middle years when I was a child and a young girl was the ceaseless journeying to and fro,” she wrote when he died. Tension always rose at this time of year for Carie, who had already lost three children at the end of long hot summers. Eight months pregnant, still shaky from prolonged illness, she was reluctant to pack herself and her family into carts to head for an unknown town so violently opposed to foreigners that it had taken Absalom nearly two years to find anyone prepared to rent him a place fit to live in. War had recently broken out with Japan, exacerbating the suspicions of the Chinese, who now lumped all foreigners together with the Japanese enemy, regardless of race or color. Absalom was tall and rawboned with reddish hair, a beard, and piercing blue eyes. In the traditional plays and stories, which were the main source of information available to country people, red hair and colored eyes were the distinguishing marks of a villain. Pearl’s father produced much the same shock and dismay in the villagers of North kiangsu as Wang the farmer feels in The Good Earth when he sees his first missionary: “a man very tall, lean as a tree that has been blown by bitter winds. This man had eyes as blue as ice and a hairy face…. His hands were also hairy and red-skinned. He had … a great nose projecting beyond his cheeks like a prow beyond the sides of a ship.” In places where no one had seen a white man before, people treated a missionary preaching in the teahouse as a one-man traveling freak show, or else set the dogs on him.
Absalom was in his element. Difficulty and danger proved that he was getting to grips at last with the practicalities of wholesale conversion. The only way it could be done was by regular “itinerations,” when he crisscrossed the region, methodically visiting and revisiting every town, village, and clutch of mud huts (his wife said his brain was a map of China). Genuine converts were still hard to come by, but he was planting chapels—often no more than a borrowed room in a local home—and recruiting lay helpers to run them. His grotesque and alarming appearance had always drawn crowds, but now they were starting to listen. As his grasp of the vernacular increased and grew saltier, he gained confidence, learning the tricks of a professional showman to rouse Chinese audiences often, as he freely admitted, sedated with opium: “almost as devoid of mental and spiritual life as the idols they worship.” Absalom had no patience with more conciliatory colleagues who liked to point out the many similarities between Christ and Buddha, an approach he compared scornfully to dosing a drug addict with chloroform. “When we deal with a case of opium poisoning we do not administer soothing doses and put him to sleep, but on the contrary force down an emetic and trot him round the court, in spite of his resistance and his protests.” Part showman, part salesman, Absalom liked to start his pitch with a bang: “Give them the Jehovah God and the divine savior of the Bible. Instead of dwelling on their good qualities show them their sins and abominations in fiery colors.” His model was Jesus Christ, who brought not peace but a sword. “Such was the effect of His preaching, and it produced results.”
His unshakeable conviction made Carie give in as usual, but even Absalom felt dubious about the premises he had finally secured from a landlord in need of the rent to feed an opium habit. The family’s new home was one of a pair of unfurnished village inns, hardly more than stables with dirt floors, mud walls, rough thatched roofs sealed with paper inside, and gaping holes for windows and doors. Crowds of sullen unwelcoming men collected to inspect the newcomers from the far side of a low earthen wall. Doors could be fitted but they gave limited privacy, and there was no space for a garden. The family slept on improvised plank beds. The new baby, born in Hsuchien on September 16, was no more robust than Arthur had been. Carie called him Clyde Hermanus after his Dutch grandfather.
Absalom’s departure after the birth left her more isolated than ever before and farther from any American or European support line. She was starting to worry about Edgar growing up for all practical purposes without a father, cut off from contact with boys of his own age and kind, beginning to turn moody and mutinous at thirteen with the onset of adolescence. Jealousy made even Pearl, so far the sturdiest and most responsive of babies, hard to manage now that Wang Amah’s attention had shifted to the new little brother. Cold weather set in, rain fell, and water welled up through the earth, turning the floor to liquid mud. Carie’s portable organ, a gift from her oldest brother in America, had to be hoisted on boards out of the wet. Absalom himself admitted in his memoirs that the situation was dire: “The people were afraid of us and official influence unfavorable…. We … suffered much from sickness during the winter.” In one of his father’s absences Clyde contracted pneumonia.
Pearl skimmed over this period in her nonfiction accounts, or left it out altogether. But the details—whether taken in at the time or picked up from what others said afterward—lodged deep in her memory, surfacing half a century later in a novel called The Townsman, set on the rolling prairie of the American West at the time of the Gold Rush. Like Carie, Mary Goodliffe in The Townsman gives birth without doctor or midwife to her sixth child (not counting the first, who plays no part in the story and seems indeed to have been largely forgotten by the author). She, too, had been persuaded to abandon a relatively settled existence in order to follow her husband, a perennially dissatisfied visionary driven westward all his life in search of an illusory future prosperity that blinds him to the hardships imposed on his wife and family in the present. “They were living like beasts in a den. She had no furniture. Her bed was a mattress on posts driven into the ground and crossed with slats. The children slept on pallets spread on dried grass.” The Townsman is a solid, workmanlike family saga with inadequate emotional underpinning and a fairy tale ending, except for this bleak portrait of a woman pushed to the limits of endurance, camping out in winter in a mud dugout on the prairie with an absent husband, a restive teenage son, a refractory toddler, and a sickly newborn baby.
Clyde survived the first part of an exceptionally hard winter thanks to intensive care from his mother and Wang Amah. When Absalom got back from itinerating he found his wife waiting with the house dismantled, its contents sorted and packed, the organ tied up in matting, even the rose dug up and ready to go. This was the first head-on collision Pearl witnessed between her parents, and, like everything to do with Absalom, its scale was transcendental. “For neither of them was it a struggle between a man and a woman. It was a woman defying God. She fought against God, against [Absalom’s] call, against the success of his work, against the promise of the future.” Pearl’s father told her long afterward that his wife in this mood was unstoppable, “like a wild wind.” Ambushed and outmaneuvered, he had no choice but to accept her ultimatum when she threatened to return alone with the children to America if he didn’t. Carie’s eloquent and carefully rehearsed declaration of independence shaped her daughters’ future. It is repeated almost word for word in Pearl’s biographies of her parents, The Exile and Fighting Angel, and it returns even more circumstantially in her sister’s The Exile’s Daughter, where their mother speaks in a voice that must have been only too familiar to both daughters, uttering words neither of them ever forgot:
In the white hot temper which was hers when she was provoked too much, she said in a dreadful still voice: “You can preach from Peking to Canton, you can go from the North Pole to the South, but I and these little children will never go with you again…. I have no more children to give away to God now.”
Absalom never fully forgave his wife for once again sabotaging a critical campaign just as it began to get going. After dropping off his family by mule cart in Tsingkiangpu, he raced back to Hsuchien to retrieve the situation, failing in his haste and distress to grasp the depth of disturbance caused by the war. Japan’s modernized army and navy, trained and equipped to Western standards, had inflicted a series of crushing defeats by land and sea in the north on outmoded and ill-prepared imperial forces, still armed in some sections with bows and arrows. Atrocities took place on both sides. Rumor and counterrumor swept the country. News of what was happening filtered down to the rural population via cheap garish prints of the demonized foreign enemy sold in markets and fairs. Disorganized groups of soldiers, bandits, and criminals headed north all winter toward the fighting in Manchuria. Mounting tension erupted in violence. Absalom driving his mule cart picked up a colleague at Hsuchien and hurried on to Hsuchowfu, where they were besieged in an inn by a mob who stoned the two Americans and chased them up the main street, attempting to rope them like steers using girdles as improvised lassos.
Hampered by their heavy padded Chinese coats, long skirts, and the clumsy cloth shoes that came off as they ran, the two men sought refuge in the office of the local magistrate, who had signally failed to come to their aid. Even in peacetime there was widespread resentment against the aggressive meddling of missionaries, their automatic assumption of superiority, unlimited sense of entitlement, and ruthless exploitation of the unequal treaties that put them above Chinese law. Ejected under guard from the city, Absalom retreated via Hsuchien only to be badly beaten on the road by brigands or soldiers, who claimed he was Japanese and made off in his cart with all his possessions. By his own account, the thick wadding of his coat saved his life. He walked the last thirty miles back to Tsingkiangpu barefoot in his underwear, bleeding from three sword wounds on his back. When he burst in on his family at breakfast they were about to be evacuated again with the other wives and children by Yangtse riverboat to safety in Shanghai. Absalom stayed behind to make one last abortive attempt to regain Hsuchien, accompanied this time by his old adversary, Jimmy Graham. Heavy snowfall blocked their way, the Grand Canal froze over, and the pair had to retreat, carrying their baggage on foot through ice and snow to the Yangtse River, where they finished the journey by junk, eventually rejoining their wives in Shanghai in time for the Chinese New Year, January 26, 1895.
ABSALOM’S INORDINATELY AMBITIOUS plans for extension had ended in total rout. There was no longer any place for him in Tsingkiangpu, where the team that functioned well under Graham had no wish to jeopardize its smooth running by taking on Sydenstricker. “My father seemed oblivious to the fact that there were those in the mission group who opposed his individualistic way of working,” his daughter Grace put it crisply long afterward. In the end an opening was found for him as stand-in for a colleague on furlough in Zhenjiang, the city he had left a decade earlier to open up Tsingkiangpu and its hinterland. A newly declared treaty port, commanding China’s prime trade routes from the junction where the Grand Canal meets the Yangtse River, the rich, cosmopolitan, rapidly expanding city of Zhenjiang was the last place Absalom wanted to be. “No large cities have any considerable number of converts in them,” he had written when he moved out. He had spent his first seven years in China delivering impromptu sermons on street corners, distributing tracts, and setting up street chapels, and it left him no illusions about an urban population inured to being preached at and skeptical about the promised rewards. Absalom preferred to push forward into unspoiled countryside, where villagers believed his stories and listened open-mouthed, once they got over their initial stupefaction, to his colorful accounts of abominable sin and the pains of hellfire.
Zhenjiang, prototype for “the great sprawling opulent city” in The Good Earth, with food spilling out of its markets and merchandise crammed into its warehouses, proved Absalom’s point. After laboring for thirteen years the Southern Presbyterian Mission force of two men and their wives had made little impact. By January 1896, when the Sydenstrickers arrived, one couple had returned on furlough to the United States, and the other had been posted elsewhere, leaving behind ten Chinese converts, two street chapels, and a small boys’ school. Proposing to waste no more time on the city’s ungrateful inhabitants, Absalom carried on itinerating instead. The physical weakness and moral depression of the past year dropped away as he set about recreating the country networks successively smashed or seized from him at Hsuchien and Tsingkiangpu.
Zhenjiang would become from now on the family base. After much anxious correspondence with her siblings, Carie had decided that the only way for Edgar to grow up truly American was through further education beyond anything she could provide, and he was dispatched a few weeks after his fifteenth birthday to sail home alone to a country he had seen only once. At the age of four and a bit, Pearl now became the oldest child at home. Clyde had grown into a handsome, comical, intelligent little boy, precocious like all Carie’s children, and old enough to join in his sister’s games. Their mother, who had always loved the way the hills swept up from the river in Zhenjiang, was happy again, and in his own strange absent way their father was too (“they did not even know him well enough to miss him”). The children took walks along the magnificent, newly built stone embankment, or Bund, on the riverfront, picnicked on the grassy slopes above the town, and were regularly invited to tea aboard the Jardine-Matheson hulk by the river master, a retired Scottish ship’s captain, and his hospitable wife. They celebrated Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July with firecrackers and a homemade flag, attended birthday parties for Queen Victoria at the British Club, and put up a tree hung with gingerbread men at Christmas, when they were allowed one toy each from the annual box of supplies shipped out by mail order from Montgomery Ward. They watched steamers discharging and taking on the cargoes stored in the Bund’s high shadowy godowns that smelled “of hemp and peanut oil and the acrid sweetness of crude red-brown sugar.” Once a young En glish customs officer slid with them down the long sloping chute that transferred loads to the backs of donkeys or men on the ground.
But the Sydenstrickers never properly belonged to the foreign community that occupied the British concession, a spacious orderly enclave with green lawns and shady trees protected by strong walls and iron gates, reinforced when necessary by British or American gunboats moored in the river. After a few months, when the occupants of their borrowed mission house arrived back from the United States, Pearl’s family moved downhill to noisier and more cramped quarters behind the port, with no sanitation and refuse piled in the streets. Absalom rented what seem to have been the same lodgings he and Carie had first occupied as a young couple ten years before: three small rooms above a liquor store in an alley opening onto the brothels and bars of Horse Street, the widest thoroughfare in Zhenjiang after the Bund itself, smelly, crowded, and dangerous, frequented by drug dealers, prostitutes, and drunken sailors who congregated under the Sydenstrickers’ windows at night.
The apartment’s main advantage was cheapness. Mission salaries, generally lower than those paid to doctors, lawyers, or teachers, did no more than cover basic necessities, even in Asian countries, where domestic help cost next to nothing. But the Sydenstrickers were poorer still because of the great passion of Absalom’s life, second only to conversion itself, which was his translation of the New Testament into the Chinese vernacular. He had been a member of the official committee set up in Shanghai in 1890 to produce a revised Mandarin version of the Bible, but he resigned or was pushed off at the committee’s first working meeting the following summer. A natural linguist himself, he never concealed his opinion of other translators’ work as misguided, inept, or inaccurate. The year before Pearl was born he decided to produce an unauthorized rival edition and publish it in installments himself, an enterprise that drained his wife’s household budget for the next three decades. “It robbed her of the tiny margin between bitter poverty and small comfort,” Pearl wrote, describing her mother’s progressively more desperate attempts to economize. It was why they left a mud house in Hsuchien to end up in Zhenjiang’s red-light district.
For Pearl the new surroundings were magical. Still too young to read fluently, she was already a voracious observer, intensely curious about the new world outside her window and the people in it. She asked questions so insatiably that her mother had to tell her not to ask any more for fifteen minutes (during which Pearl just as assiduously watched the clock). She was mesmerized by the sights Carie tried to keep from her: beggars (“They snatched at us with hands like the skinny claws of fowls”), lepers with chewed-up faces and stumps for arms or legs, street brawls, and the street vendors whose sweetmeats she was forbidden to touch. Just watching a man divide flat round cakes of barley-sugar brittle into pieces with a tiny chisel, or dip up strands of hot thick melted sugar to twist into sticks of candy, was a delight. In the evenings she listened with interest to the songs and shouts of American sailors disembarked from the merchant ships in the port and the high cries of Chinese girls floating over the crash of broken bottles. Whiskey and opium fumes drifted up through cracks in the floorboards. Once an intruder got into Pearl’s bedroom, or she dreamed he did, in spite of Wang Amah’s laying out her bedding roll to sleep on the trapdoor in the passageway that provided the family’s only access to the street. Another time revelers woke the whole household by smashing up the shop downstairs. This was altogether too much for Carie, and after a marital showdown with packed bags and another terse ultimatum, Absalom was obliged to move his family to more sheltered accommodation inside the Baptist compound farther along Horse Street.
With her brother and Wang Amah Pearl explored streets lined with portable one-man cook shops and puppet shows, barbers, tailors, and letter writers at work in the gutter. They listened to professional storytellers and watched entertainers like the Pig Butcher in her novel, Sons (“if he took a pair of chopsticks he could pluck the flies out of the air as they flew, one by one he plucked them … and they roared with laughter to see such skill”). Even the markets were a form of street theater: “the silk shops flying brilliant banners of black and red and orange silk,” the vegetable market with glittering stalls of red radish, green cabbage, and white lotus root, mounds of live yellow crabs and silver fish in the fish market, rows of shiny brown ducks turning on spits over hot coals in front of the duck shops. The children stopped to look at men measuring out grain from baskets big enough for an adult to step into and suffocate: “white rice and brown, and dark yellow wheat and pale gold wheat, and yellow soybeans and red beans and green broadbeans and canary-colored millet and grey sesame.” They sucked illicit unhygienic candy from paper cornets and bought paper lanterns shaped like birds, butterflies, or a rabbit on wheels. Pearl even had a horse lantern made in two parts, the head held in front and the tail strapped on behind, so she could walk the streets in the dark as a horse.
In spring they climbed up the hill behind their house to fly homemade kites and watch teams of up to twelve men launching a gigantic paper pagoda, a dragon or a centipede thirty feet long. Sometimes there were soldiers tilting with spears and swords on the parade ground or firing off the antiquated cannon embedded in the mud walls of the fort. When she wasn’t out walking in the afternoons with Wang Amah or doing morning lessons with her mother, Pearl spent her time at the window, looking down at the street or out over the vast expanse of the Yangtse River:
I learned to know its every mood during the hours I spent at the window. On a crisp spring morning it looked as innocent as beauty itself, the sun caught in all its pointed yellow wavelets and shining upon brown and white sails and painted junks and bobbing sampans…. But there were other days when the river boiled like a muddy cauldron. Storms could beat upon it as fiercely as though it were a sea, and in the rough waters I have seen a ferry ease over upon its side and slide hundreds of people off as though they were insects, and turn still further until it floated bottom up. Those black bobbing heads were visible only for a moment and then the river sucked them down.
Pearl’s mother drew the curtains even in daytime to shut out sights like this. Carie hated the Yangtse because it symbolized the overwhelming, implacable, impersonal forces that governed human life in China and made her own attempts at resistance seem futile. Like other mission wives, she did what she could to treat the sores, boils, cankers, ulcerated and gangrenous limbs, the infections and contagious diseases contracted by people who drank the polluted waters of the river, and worked waist-deep in the flooded rice fields. She saw to it that the family’s three rooms on Horse Street were scrubbed with carbolic acid, all utensils dipped in boiling water at table, all fresh food either thoroughly cooked or disinfected with potassium permanganate before being touched. The children lived under perpetual surveillance to stop them putting anything, even their fingers, into their mouths. Carie’s vigilance never let up, but it was Absalom who, for all his apparent indifference, solved the problem of summers spent in temperatures of 100 degrees or more on the fetid malarial flatlands of the Yangtse Valley.
In 1897 he was one of the first five missionaries to buy a building plot from the Kuling Mountain Company, set up the year before by an enterprising young English missionary-cum-businessman to market the top of a mountain that rose sheer from the stifling hot plain three hundred miles upstream of Zhenjiang. Nearly five thousand feet above sea level, thickly wooded, and laid out like an Oriental equivalent of Hampstead Garden Suburb in London, with cool air, fresh streams, and luxuriant greenery, kuling on Mount Lu (or Lushan) was the first purpose-built mountain resort in China. It was also, as Pearl said, a lifesaving station. Absalom put up a stone shack on plot number 310, where for the first time in their lives his children could run barefoot on the hillside, drink water straight from the stream, and eat the wild strawberries they picked in the woods without boiling them first. From now on summer holidays became the high point of their year.
Pearl was six years old when this period of relative normality came to an end. Clyde contracted diphtheria in January 1899, struggling convulsively for breath with rasping throat and livid gray face, and dying (as Arthur had done before him) too suddenly for his father to be fetched back from the field. Pearl, who caught the fever from her brother, said she understood what had happened when she heard a Chinese woman’s voice calling to the spirit of a dead child, and realized that the cries came from inside the house instead of outside on the street. Absalom came home to bury his son. Carie, who was five months pregnant, roused herself sufficiently to see Pearl past the worst danger, then relapsed into oblivion and torpor, exhausted in body and spirit, too weak even to nurse her remaining child back to health. Mother and daughter were looked after by a friend, who moved into the house once Absalom had gone back to work. By February Carie was well enough to help Pearl compose a letter to the Christian Observer in Louisville, kentucky, describing the siblings whose invisible presence filled the child’s life and her mother’s: “I have two little brothers in heaven. Maudie went first, then Artie, then Edith, and on the tenth of last month, my little brave brother, Clyde, left us to go to our real home in heaven. Clyde said he was a Christian Soldier, and that heaven was his bestest home.” The sentiments and phraseology, if not the actual wording of this melancholy epistle, must have come from Pearl’s mother, who was struggling herself at this point to retain her faith in God. Pearl remembered a passionate outburst as the coffin was carried out of the house in the rain, and someone urged Carie not to worry about the child’s body because his soul was in heaven. “But his body is precious,” she cried. “I gave it birth. I tended it and loved it…. They are taking his body away, and it is all I have.”
When Grace Caroline Sydenstricker was born on May 12, Carie developed puerperal fever. Her milk dried up, and the house filled with the hungry baby’s cries. Pearl prayed in her father’s church and also, on Wang Amah’s advice, to kuanyin in the local temple, a small dusty inconspicuous goddess who looked after women in childbirth. Bewildered by loss and by her own inability to comfort her mother, Pearl had for months added desperate private prayers for another baby, and now she helped their nurse tend the new sister and coax her to accept tinned milk. “I was so happy I did not know how close my mother was to death,” she wrote long afterwards. Carie recovered slowly. When she began to tell stories again there was a new edge of bitterness to her childhood memories of the mountains of West Virginia. “Bred in this sparkling and cool sunshine, in these pure and silvered mists of America, it was no wonder that sometimes she fainted in the thick sultriness of an August noon in a southern Chinese city, filled too full of human breath and of the odor of sweating human flesh…. The stench from the garbage-filled streets rose into the three little rooms…. The flies swarmed from the piles of half-rotting filth smoking under the burning sun. The hot air hung like a foul mist.”
Having tried and failed to provide consolation, Pearl now became her mother’s confidant. At some point after the child’s seventh birthday in June, Carie told her for the first time how Maude died. As an adult Pearl would retell this story three times over thirty years in biographical and autobiographical narratives, expanding and elaborating on a scenario conceived in the operatic terms of a Gothic novel to match the horror and pathos of the event. It happened in a typhoon on a boat carrying the Sydenstrickers with their first two children back from an unaccustomed holiday at a seaside resort in Japan. Maude at eighteen months was tiny, frail, and malnourished, unable to digest the artificial milk that was all her mother had to give her that summer. Carie said she had been forced to wean the child early because she was already starting a third pregnancy (if so, she must have miscarried), and that they were returning too soon in great heat on account of Absalom’s work. The baby died on September 15, 1884, in a stranger’s arms because she refused to go to her father and her mother was too seasick to hold her. In the graphic account Carie gave Pearl she spent a whole night rushing from the heaving deck down to the cabin and back again, nauseous, soaked by saltwater, frantic with dread, rounding hysterically on her husband when he tried to calm her: “If it had not been for this other one coming too soon, I could have nursed her through the summer and saved her.” The story ended with Carie huddled on a pile of rope in the ship’s stern, cradling the body in her arms. “The sea was in great black waves, a leaden, livid light gleaming where a faint dawn shone upon them…. A wave of spray fell over them. How she hated this sea, the great heaving, insensate thing! … Over the roaring grey sea hung the grey sky. Where was God in all of this? No use praying…. She wrapped her arms about the child defiantly and crouched staring out to sea.” Forced back below decks by sickness and vertigo, she found her husband staring through the thick glass porthole: “The dark water covered it as though they were running under the sea.”
Images like these imprinted on a receptive and still unformed imagination bred a protectiveness that colored Pearl’s view of her mother ever afterward. Carie’s bouts of seasickness took the form of migraine, vomiting, and back pain. All three had afflicted her ever since her honeymoon voyage, when she found herself alone at close quarters for the first time with a husband she hardly knew in a ship’s cabin crossing the Pacific, which “remained for Carie to the end of her life an ocean of horror.” She conceived her first child on this voyage, and years later she spelled out the horror in question in terms a child could understand. After Maude’s death she had collapsed mentally and physically, developing the early symptoms of tuberculosis and being ordered by her doctor back to the United States for a cure. Her religious faith wavered, and she contemplated leaving her husband, an unattainable fantasy that she abandoned, settling instead for the riskier but more realistic option of treating herself by fresh air and bed rest at the resort of Chefoo (Yantai) on China’s northern seacoast. The couple set out (if Carie was indeed pregnant, she must have lost the child on or soon after this journey) on a slow dirty Yangtse junk infested by rats that ran up and down the low beams over their bunk. Still distraught with grief, Carie woke one night to find a huge rat squirming in her long loose hair. “She had to plunge her hand in and seize it and throw it to the floor, and the sleek writhing body in her hand turned her sick, and she would have cut off her hair if she could for loathing of it.” Carie’s account of the crisis in her marriage is immediately followed in Pearl’s narrative by this sickening symbolic rat.
Pearl understood well enough even then. She and Grace both remembered conversations at night in their parents’ bedroom next to theirs, a low murmur of voices, their mother’s rising occasionally to vehement remonstrance, interrupted by weeping or the urgent angry creaking of her rocking chair. The same conversations recur in Pearl’s novels, most notably in the semi-autobiographical The Time Is Noon and The Townsman (where Mary repulses her husband for fear of yet another unwanted conception, and has nightmares of snakes emerging from the sod walls to invade her bed). For the Sydenstrickers there would be no more babies after Grace.
Seven months after the birth they moved up above the town to a newly vacated property belonging to the Presbyterian Mission, with broad verandas looking out over green grave lands to a pagoda on the far side of the hill. This was the place Pearl remembered fondly ever after as her childhood home, with a climbing rose spilling over the covered porch that ran around two sides of the house, and a garden already planted with old trees and now filled by her mother with flowers. In blacker moods she saw it as “a small, decrepit brick cottage, whose sagging floors were full of centipedes and scorpions.” She remembered her parents inspecting the bedrooms every evening, her father holding a lantern while her mother batted with an old slipper at the six- to eight-inch-long centipedes that fascinated the child: “Their segments were covered with hard black shell, each having a double pair of bright yellow legs, and on the tail a stinger which could give a dangerous wound. In spite of them I loved the tropical nights, the great luna moths, jade green and spotted with black and silver, clinging to the big gardenia bushes in the garden, and the bamboos dim in the mists from the river.” Pearl explored the hillside beyond the back gate, made friends with the farmers’ daughters who lived in the valley below, and kept her own rabbit with a cage of pet pheasants in the dark shady storage space under the veranda. She attended classes for Chinese girls at the mission school and played with the American boy next door, a redheaded missionary’s son named James Bear, who taught her to smoke (he later denied the charge). In the afternoons it was Pearl’s job to rock her sister to sleep in their mother’s rocking chair.
This was the most dangerous period of Absalom’s professional career. “In the year 1900 the famous ‘Boxer’ uprising broke over the land like a tremendous tornado,” he wrote with an uncharacteristic flourish in his memoirs, “and all work was more or less suspended while it raged.” The Boxers were a militant sect recruited initially from young northern farmers who blamed foreigners—which meant missionaries in rural China—for their country’s misfortunes: social and political inanition, the inability to repel Western or Asiatic predators, and a cycle of flood and famine that devastated Shandong and Honan as the Yellow River burst its embankments and the Grand Canal silted up in the late 1890s. The movement spread rapidly with tacit and eventually open backing from the imperial throne, itself helpless to contain or control the opportunistic incursions of Japan, Russia, and the great European powers. Xenophobia simmered and flared in the countryside. Absalom never went out without a stick big enough to beat back the dogs loosed on him wherever he went in these years. People started cursing him in the street again. Once an innkeeper almost killed him with a cleaver. He was forced to close down chapels rented from landlords no longer prepared to do business with Christians. He spent much time cooped up at home, visiting local converts only in secret with a lantern after dark. All through the spring and early summer of her eighth birthday Pearl slept with her clothes folded ready for flight on a chair beside the bed. Her mother kept a bag beside the door packed with spare shoes and a set of underwear for each of them, together with a basket of tinned milk for the baby.
After fierce arguments about whether to go or stay, Pearl’s parents compromised by hiring a junk to wait on the river at the far end of a concealed escape route, down through the bamboo at the back of the house, so that Carie could get away fast if she had to with the children and Wang Amah. For the first time the Sydenstrickers were shunned. Chinese visitors stopped calling on Pearl’s parents, and her friends no longer came to play or shared her desk at school. On one of his clandestine visits to the city to administer communion to the aged mother of a parishioner, Absalom was caught by soldiers who raided the house, roped him to a post, and forced him to watch them torture to death his Christian convert, Lin Meng, before carrying off Lin’s ten-year-old son. Lin’s mother died the same night. When he was eventually released the next day, Absalom came home exultant and bloody. “Then he looked at us all strangely, his ice-colored eyes shining, his voice solemn and triumphant: ‘Lin Meng has entered into the presence of our Lord, a martyr, to stand among that glorified host!’” Buoyed by the prospect of martyrdom himself, Absalom refused even to consider evacuation long after most of the white population had left Zhenjiang.
White refugees began trickling down from the north, small groups of ragged, hungry, frightened adults whose children had died from starvation or fever on the way. Carie told brave stories of Civil War battles in the United States and buried her few valuable possessions in the yard as her own mother had done forty years before. An imperial edict dated June 20, a week before Pearl’s eighth birthday, declared war and death to all foreigners. Chinese troops opened fire the same day on the foreign quarter in Beijing, laying siege to Western diplomats in their own legations. On July 9 forty-five Christians were killed in the governor’s compound at Shanxi. More atrocities followed. The American consul in Zhenjiang ordered the few remaining white people to evacuate by gunboat at a prearranged signal, which came at noon on a day so hot that the whole family of Sydenstrickers was resting in a darkened room (“even Father with his collar off,” said Grace). Looking back half a century later Pearl described their departure as if it were a scene on a Chinese willow pattern plate: “The air that summer’s day was hot and still and from the verandas the landscape was beautiful, the valleys green as jade with their earthen farmhouses shaded beneath the willow trees. White geese walked the paths between the fields and children played on the threshing floors…. Beyond the dark city the shining river flowed toward the sea…. The actual leave-taking was entirely unreal.”
Absalom escorted his family to Shanghai, taking only what they could carry, and returned alone to Zhenjiang, the only white man in the region, dressed once again in formal Western clothes, looking weirdly conspicuous in the Chinese crowds on account of his crumpled white suit and pith helmet as much as his great height. When his two chapels were burned to the ground he preached on the streets to people who responded by stoning him. The single Chinese disciple who stayed with him told Pearl years later that he had expected her father over and over again to be killed. Absalom lived through the summer, by his own account in an ecstatic trance: “I seemed without the body. For I was conscious of the presence of God with me like a strong light shining, day and night. All human beings were far away from me.” He came as close as he could to claiming a martyr’s crown, regarding this near miss ever afterward as one of the high peaks of his life.
Pearl retained almost no memory of her own time in Shanghai, where the foreign community buzzed with rumors about Western troops preparing to move on Beijing and every steamer brought yet more refugees from the farthest parts of the empire. “The white people in Shanghai seemed to be clinging to the edge of China, waiting to be shoved off.” Pearl saw great gray foreign warships in the harbor, and listened to her mother’s stories of sanctuary in America. She remembered reaching up to pull the pigtail of a portly Chinaman ambling ahead of her and being terrified, not by his anger but by Carie’s abject attempt to placate him: “I had never seen her afraid before in all my life.” In the semi-tropical heat of that ominous summer Pearl played with her little sister in a tub of cold water in their boardinghouse on Bubbling Well road, where for the first time she saw water come out of a tap. Afterward she thought they were away for almost a year, but in fact it was a few months before their father arrived to fetch them home that autumn, looking so strange Grace didn’t recognize him. The Boxers had been defeated, their leaders executed, the countryside pacified, and humiliating public capitulation forced on the dowager empress, who surrendered to virtually all the demands of the victorious Western powers.
In October Absalom convened the annual meeting of the newly formed North Kiangsu Presbyterian Mission, which assembled in Shanghai, and tabled a formal resolution urging him to go home at once on furlough to the United States. On July 8, 1901, he finally sailed with his family for San Francisco, taking the train on to West Virginia, the home his children had heard so much about and now saw with alien eyes as they traveled “down through the states, through wooded hills that looked strange and furred after the shorn Chinese hills, over rivers that looked like creeks after the flooding Yangtse and the Yellow River, through towns that looked unreal, they were so orderly and clean after the heaped mud and the confusion of Chinese villages.”
© 2010 Hilary Spurling
Excerpted from Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth by Hilary Spurling
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