Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth: Condition of Women in China

 Amrita DasGupta, Calcutta women’s College (2011-2014)

Throughout most of history, women have had fewer rights, opportunities. Wifehood, motherhood were a woman’s significant profession. This essay argues the status of women in the background of colonization and bondage of native culture in China inclusive of the elemental qualities of a man’s attitude towards a woman putting aside the relationship between a ruler and the ruled. The diagnosed problem of women inequality in society, vividly portrays the unequal treatment given to women seeking education and alternatives to marriage and motherhood. The representation of women in literature, is one of the most important forms of ‘socialisation’ for providing the role models which indicate to men and women, the acceptable versions of the ‘feminine’ goals and aspirations. However the growth of European capitalism in 1500s subjected women to ‘double marginalization’. Apart from their subjugation to the native mechanisms of patriarchy and cultural ‘mind set’ of men perpetuating sexual inequality they were also subjected to imperialism. European capitalism by displaying their control over spirituality, land, law, language, education, health, family structure and culture subjects women to double pressure, resulting in poor health, social disruption, low educational achievement, suppression of culture, language and spirit of the indigenous populations.

 China was a special case in terms of colonization. There was high demand for Chinese tea, silk and porcelain in the British market, owing to which multiple countries colonized China except America who created the Open Door Policy stating that everybody can trade with China. Not only did China have economic and materialistic variety but it also had cultural diversity. Drawing inspiration from such a country Buck decided to write her novels. In her blossoming years, Pearl witnessed a political upheaval in China, where hatred against the foreigners resulted in the Boxer Uprising of 1900. Chinese soldiers in this era were indistinguishable from bandits, who lived by rape and plunder. The one child policy Act of 1938, exercised its power permitting female infanticide, female neonaticide and filicide to gain ground. Many a times pearl found bones, fragmented limbs, attached head and shoulder so tiny lying in the grass, that she knew they belonged to dead babies, maybe girls suffocated or strangled to death at birth. Her frequent visits to Chine countryside awarded her the sight of abandoned baby girls, left for the dogs to devour. China was always plagued with bad health conditions. Even she lost her siblings Maude, Edith and Arthur at an early age because of dysentery, cholera and malaria respectively. Cries of women railed on the streets of China, she grew up listening to them, calling back the spirits of their dead babies.

 In unison with degrading political and health situations was the age old painful Chinese traditions inclusive of the bizarre foot binding tradition, wife purchase and girl child trafficking. Such early exposure to the negatives of the society left a lifelong impression on her, vividly expressed in her highly acclaimed novels hence, she acknowledged her growth years in China as the“ fantastic era.” Women liberation was pressing forward whereas sexual revolution was still to pave its way. Buck made a rational approach to the subject of women subjugation, well portrayed in her novels East Wind:West Wind, The Mother, Pavilion of Women, The Good Earth and Peony. The best perspective of a woman’s role during this era can be properly perceived only after reading The Good Earth. The gravesome role of women as detailed throughout the novel underlines their social status being embedded on their contribution to the Amour Propre of the male protagonist reminding us of Simone de Beauvoir’s statement made on the history of humanity as a history of keeping women in silence. Inspite of being an apparently simple novel, it expresses intricate feminism through the characters of O-lan and Lotus.

 In her personal life Buck was very disillusioned, she found out that the man she had married stifled her most fundamental needs resulting in her broken marriage. She even had a handicapped female child finding expression in the handicapped eldest daughter of Wang Lung . The wise O-lan in The Good Earth, the self taught Jade in Dragon Seed, the “vigorous and lusty” Carie Sydenstricker in The Exile and My Several Worlds, are all women who often suffer at the hands of men who cannot acknowledge and frequently do not even comprehend their emotional needs. Pearl counted herself among these women, and every story bears an impression of her personal life.

 O-lan is introduced in the very first chapter of the novel. At the age of ten she was sold off to the Great House of Hwang to be raised as a slave girl. Sometimes in the 20th century in China, poor families would often sell their daughters off for slavery or prostitution. Looking at his wife Wang Lung sees no “beauty of any kind in her face” but rather “a brown, common, patient face with no pock marks on her dark skin.” Her lack of beauty not only confines her as a kitchen worker in the Great House but also prevents her from receiving spousal love. But Wang Lung could not afford a beautiful wife. On their first meeting Wang Lung notice the unbound feet of O-lan highlighting her denial of the tradition which presented respect and recognition to women in their in-law’s house, after several years of suffering. Such tiny feet are praised even beyond dowry, as an unquestionable proof of a woman’s capacity to suffer and obey Even though O-lan has unbounded feet, she stands apart as the illuminated instance of an obeying wife. While preparing hot water for her father in law she states “I took no tea to the old one I did as you said.” She not only performs household responsibilities, but also struggles to find ways to please her husband. A typical Chinese peasant woman who is strong but silent. She gives birth to four children, pointed out as a mockery of “modern childbirth” by Barbara Lebar. She bears her children alone without a doctor, midwife or husband. This event validates the point of Wang Lung’s unaffectionate attitude towards her wife. After marriage she was forced to discharge her duties as a servant rather than a marital partner. On giving birth to a son, she takes pride for bringing glory to her husband’s ancestry by fulfilling a wife’s principal function of bearing sons. Forced to flee or die out of starvation their family due to famine their family arrives in the city, joining thousands of peasants to beg on the streets. When it seemed that all was lost, a combination of good luck and O-lan’s will to survive conspired to return them to their home with undreamt of wealth but, money only breeds deception, mistrust and heartbreak for the woman who saved then . Even after supporting her husband through tough times, Wang Lung fails to appreciate her qualities. To avoid such sorrows in her youngest daughter’s life, who is unusually beautiful, she bind’s her daughter’s feet. The next main female character in the novel is Lotus, who is a concubine. She is projected as a foil to O-lan. Wang Lung’s shame for having a plain wife leads him to the tea shop in the town where he meets this beautiful prostitute. She excites him with her flawless beauty, ultimately making him fall for her. She is a woman of delicacy and elegance, the complete opposite of O-lan. She is materialistic, demanding for jewels, clothes and food from Wang Lung. Both the women comes to hate each other and are sheltered in the opposite parts of the house to avoid conflict. It was a common practice in China, where a man could keep tow women under one roof, one for pleasure and one for household chores. Whenever Wang Lung’s father sees Lotus he shouts out “There is a harlot in the house!” giving rise to comic relief within a tensive novel. As chaos reigned in the early gold rush age social convents were thrown to the wind with no one left to be concerned about the qualities of a proper woman. Wang Lung is so mesmerized by Lotus that he gifts her a pearl which was kept aside for his first daughter. His emotions of love are based on the skin colour of women as he remarks “Why should that one wear pearls with her skin as black as earth? Pearls are for fair women!” Wang Lung takes interest in fair women and gazes at them whenever he grabs an opportunity. This questions the power of the colonizer who controls a country for economic benefits but fails to control the actual nature of human beings, their desires and aspirations. In such a situation the ruling party is just reduced to the inferior status of a hollow posing dummy.

Such display of women subjugation is the centripetal force of the novel. The women characters are developed as stereotypes to convey a social message and shatter the facade veiling the original meaning of traditions. The responsibilities of a wife that a woman must fulfill for the well-being of her family is stupefying. The idea of strangling a child at birth or selling her off as a slave or prostitute is itself a shame. It is shocking that women of different classes are compelled to such disrespect. Through the dynamics portrayal of women. In this novel, Pearl not only displays the reality but also empowers us to sympathize with them. This inferior status granted to women by traditional China was the major impetus behind the emotional impact in most of Pearl’s story.

 The question arises : inspite of being from America, a place equally against female freedom in ancient times considering a woman’s place to be “at home”. Still she takes up China as the background of her novels. It may be due to her roots being anchored in the land of red dragon, exposure to whose culture, made her an alien among her American counterparts.

Works Cited

Buck, Pearl, The Good Earth, John Day, 1965.

Conn, Peter, Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Gao, Xiongya, Pearl S. Buck’s Chinese Women Characters, Susquehanna University Press, 2000.

Buck, Pearl, The Good Earth, New York Pocket Books, 1958.

Stirling, Nora, Pearl S. Buck: A Woman in Conflict, New Jersey, New Century Publishers, 1938.

Amrita DasGupta, Calcutta women’s College (2011-2014) is a movie buff, with interests in reading books and writing poetry.  Email: amritadasgupta58@gmail.com

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