china

Of Men and Women | Book Review

pearl s buck

Pearl S. Buck

Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973) was a bestselling author of fiction and nonfiction, celebrated particularly for the ground-breaking depictions of rural life in China. He best work The Good Earth which is a trilogy, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1931, and in 1938 she received the Nobel Prize in Literature for her body of work, making her the first American woman to do so. She spent most of her life in China (Zhenjiang) because her parents were Presbyterian missionaries. She was educated in the U.S. at Randolph-Macon Women’s College, then returned to China, married John Lossing Buck and moved to Nanking.

Her novels dealt with the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the changes in the East post-WWII, and rural China. In 1934 Buck left China to be near her daughter who was mentally ill and hospitalized in New Jersey. In her later years Buck started engaging in philanthropic projects. Because there were practices rendering mixed-raced children unadoptable—in particular, orphans from the war—she founded Welcome House in 1949, the first international, interracial adoption agency in the United States. She died in 1973 from lung cancer in Vermont. The Chinese government objected to Buck’s portrayal of the country’s rural poverty, and in 1972, banned Buck from returning to China.

front cover buckOf Men and Women is a series of essays that Pearl S. Buck wrote and published in 1941 where she examined the differences in relationships between men and women in China versus the United States. She writes:

“Very early, therefore, I perceived that women together led a life of their own”

“In China the home was not what it is in our country, a thing apart from men’s lives except when they return to it for food and sleep. The real life of the nation went on in the home.”

She explores the set-up of the Chinese household that would often include “three-four generations under connecting roofs” versus the American lifestyle where only the nuclear family would be found living under the same roof. Children would then grow up not knowing just one household leader/alpha, but have a multi-generational experience.

She then turns her attention to the different ways women were educated in the East versus the West. In China “women handed down to women a vast lore of history, custom, ritual, and practical knowledge which educated them and made them a part of the great national whole.”

Buck asks in this series of essays one essential question:

“Why do so many American women seem not happy in being women when they have the freedom to make what they will of themselves? And why do women and men not enjoy each other more in my country?”

Although Buck emphasises that despite everything she prefers the American way over any other, and thinks the progress done in the West is one to strive for, she noted that American women, while educated, free, and supported, were still viewed as a separate entity from men, and there was still a miscommunication between the two. Buck examines how relationships between men and women are different in every country, and it’s that difference that makes it a nation of its own. She writes that a traveler should examine how in every country men and women feel towards each other or “the reality of that country has escaped him.”

“For no human being was created to be solitary, and when it is cut off by doubt and distrust and lack of understanding from the other to whom instinctively it turns, whom nature has created for it, then strange stops and blocks and ills are inescapable.”

In the epilogue Buck writes that it has been thirty years since she wrote this book (in preparation for a newer edition back in 1971). She writes that the China she spoke of “is no more…how changed! Communism rules, and Communism has totally altered the relationship between Chinese men and women.”

Thus, I would urge the reader to remember, when reading this collection, that these essays were written in 1941, reprinted with an added epilogue in 1971, and then reprinted now in 2017 for this brand new edition. In the interim, China, and America have changed drastically.

The collection includes a brief biographical note and several images taken from Pearl S. Buck’s archive.

Many thanks to Open Road Integrated Media for sending me this work for review. This electronic edition will be published on June 27, and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon. Open Road Integrated Media focuses on publishing ebook editions of older works of literature and nonfiction.

*The biographical note at the top is a paraphrasing of the biographical note in the text.

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Invisible Planets | Book Review

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Jacket design by Jamie Stafford-Hill. Photograph of spiral galaxy M81 (detail) by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage team.

Invisible Planets is a 2016 TOR publication. The thirteen short stories had been previously featured in short story publications like Clarkesworld, Uncanny, and Tor.com. The short stories are written by Chen Qiufan, Xia Jia, Ma Boyong, Hao Jingfang, Tang Fei, Cheng Jingbo, and Liu Cixin. All the stories are translated by Ken Liu whose short story “The Paper Menagerie” is the first work of fiction, of any length, to win the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards, and who also translated The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy written by Liu Cixin.

Each author’s stories are preceded by a brief biographical note on the author. At the very end of the collection there is a series of non-fiction essays on Chinese Science Fiction. I have never read any contemporary Chinese literature. Like most people in the West, I was introduced to a few translated fairy tales, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and translated philosophies like I Ching, Lao Tzu, and Confucius. We are missing out on much of China’s contemporary artistic output due to lacking translated works. As a reader, I feel embarrassed for how little I know of China’s contemporary literature in general, let alone specific genres. I had only heard of Liu Cixin because of the Three-Body-Problem which I still have not read. Ken Liu urges the reader in the introduction to read the stories as they are without trying to morph them into what we think Chinese literature should be. He writes:

“Given the realities of China’s politics and its uneasy relationship with the West, it is natural for Western readers encountering Chinese science fiction to see it through the lens of Western dreams and hopes and fairy tales about Chinese politics…I would urge the reader to resist such temptation. Imagining that the political concerns of Chinese writers are the same as what the Western reader would like them to be is at best arrogant and at worst dangerous.”

He continues:

“Chinese writers are saying something about the globe, about all of humanity, not just China, and trying to understand their works through this perspective is, I think, the far more rewarding approach.”

For instance, Liu urges us not to read Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat,” as a critique of the Chinese education system and the labour market. As I was reading the story I couldn’t help but smile through several parts like this one:

“I sat next to Pea by coincidence. I was an undergraduate majoring in Chinese literature; he was a graduate student in the biology department. We had nothing in common except neither of us could find jobs after graduation.”

I think that problem is quite universal right now. This thought is prevalent here in the West as well. That is just a small example of the warnings Liu gives us when reading contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in translation. Read it like it is, and don’t think of any of it as a critique of China alone.

I found the stories to be varied in content. Qiufan’s science fiction is more about dialogue and character with very subtle airs of science fiction, while some of the later stories are hard science fiction, or futuristic. This book is an introduction to Chinese Sci-fi and it’s well-put together. Bits of non-fictions, introductions, and summaries contextualise the sci-fi stories and give the reader a good overview of Chinese Science Fiction.

I would strongly recommend this to anyone interested in exploring literature from a different country, expanding one’s horizons (quite literally for some stories), and for those interested in Science Fiction. I have personally become mesmerised by both Ken Liu and Cixin Liu that I am very much looking forward to reading their other works.