Pearl of China, By Anchee Min

Why is an American author who built bridges with China in the 1930s barely spoken of now?
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China and America have long regarded each other warily across the Pacific, from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act designed to stem the flow of migrant workers to California, through the Boxer Rebellion against imperialists of 1900 to the Communist takeover and the Cold War. But in the 1930s, there was a brief window of understanding between the two.

Pearl Buck's 1931 novel The Good Earth portrayed a Chinese farmer who could not feed his family because of drought, his move to the city to scavenge for money, and then a final redemption and return to the country. Top of the US bestseller lists for two years, it was made into an Oscar-winning film starring Luise Rainer. In 1938, Buck was the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, her portrayal of poverty deemed to have held up a mirror to the United States, whose agricultural heartlands had been laid waste by the Dust Bowl.

Buck was also accidentally well placed as a bridge between these two great countries. Her American missionary father moved his family to China in the late 19th century. While he attempted to bring Christ to the "heathens", his daughter steeped herself in Confucianism and folk tales through her Chinese nanny, playmates and tutors.

Despite the legend attached to her name in the 1930s, Buck has been largely forgotten. This month, by coincidence, sees the publication of Chinese-born American writer Anchee Min's Pearl of China, a light novelisation of Buck's life, which this review is largely about, but also an excellent factual counterpoint in Hilary Spurling's biography Burying the Bones (Profile £15).

Min, who has previously written fictionalised histories of the fearsome Madame Mao and the 19th-century Chinese empress Hsu Tzi, tells this story through Willow Yee, a female street urchin who meets young Pearl in a town on the banks of the Yangtze, where her father Absalom has based his missionary work. Pearl's mother takes pity on Willow and from this childhood friendship begins a saga of the lives of these two women and their families stretched over eight decades.

Unhappily married off to a layabout, Willow escapes to Nanking, starts a newspaper and eventually remarries, to a man who will become Chairman Mao's spin doctor. Absalom, meanwhile, continues his comically fruitless attempts to convert the Chinese to his faith; and Pearl goes to America for college before returning to China married to a dry American agriculturalist who wants to spread the gospel about new farming techniques. Pearl then takes up writing, a rebellion against her unloving husband, and relief from the burden of care towards her mentally disabled child, before finally leaving for America in the early 1930s – according to Min, because of rebel warlords overrunning Nanking; according to Spurling, for the love of her second husband, her publisher.

While the first 40 years of this story are about kinship and friendship born out of joint struggle against fathers, husbands, loneliness and poverty, the next 40 in the novel are about the rupture between the US and China. Through Willow's husband Dick comes the story of the Communists' denunciation of Buck as a traitor to their cause (Madame Mao called her an "American cultural imperialist") – partly because of her unflinching portrayal of Chinese poverty but also because she would not lend her name to their cause.

What is not recounted in Pearl of China is the decline in Buck's reputation in the US. Despite her whirlwind success in the 1930s, and her campaigning for greater understanding with China as well as women's and black people's rights, Buck slowly disappeared from the public eye, until the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s finally silenced the woman who made heroes and heroines of Chinese workers. She retreated into a private world of writing romantic fiction, was not allowed to return to China, and died two years later.

Spurling quotes a line from The New York Times: "In China she is admired but not read, and in America she is read but not admired." Min's work is an attempt to show how Buck persists in Chinese memory, despite her novels being banned. It is at times clumsy in trying to tie fiction to history, occasionally sentimental and improbable. If one were to judge it by the literary standards of The Good Earth, or even Spurling's descriptions of the rural China Buck grew up in, Min would fall short. But in telling the tale of this "cultural imperialist" through Chinese eyes, it opens a new window on the legend of Pearl Buck.