Anchee Min talks about Pearl of China
Pearl of China is the story of Pearl S. Buck. Why did you decide to
tell Pearl's story?
Pearl Buck and I have a long history together, and in some sense that story is at the heart of my novel. As a teen back in China in 1972 during the Cultural Revolution, I was asked to denounce Pearl Buck as an "American cultural imperialist." Though I wasn't given a chance to read The Good Earth, I dutifully went ahead and made the denunciation. Years later, when I was living in America and on a book tour for my memoir Red Azalea, a fan thrust a copy of Buck's most famous novel into my hands as a gift. I read the book on a plane and burst into tears. I cried because I realized how beautifully Buck had told the story of the Chinese peasant, in a way that few others, even Chinese, had ever done. And I cried because I was only then realizing this, and that I was only one of a generation that had been indoctrinated to think poorly of Buck.
I wrote the novel to show where Pearl's great sensitivity and insight into the Chinese and Chinese culture came from. And also to show how the relationship between Pearl Buck and China changed over time, just as mine had changed. Right now, Pearl Buck is finally being celebrated in China, for the first time. That is a good sign for international relations between the U.S. and China.
How did you conduct your research on Pearl's personal life?
First, I continued reading Pearl's own writing and continued to be amazed at her perspective, how well she knew the Chinese. Pearl not only grew up in China, but grew up with the people, who she loved and didn't feel separate from. One of the most important things I did was to spend time in the town where Pearl Buck grew up. It was the town Pearl called "Chin-kiang," which we call "Zheng Jiang" today.
I wanted to know who her childhood friends and neighbors were and how those folks thought of her. Some she stayed in contact with for over forty years - some of the same people that refused to denounce Pearl during the Cultural Revolution. But people were afraid to talk to me at first. The memories of the brutal persecution during the Cultural Revolution were still fresh. I kept returning until one day I was referred to a dying pastor. The local man who introduced me said that "the pastor is ready to open up because he was told by the doctor that he has only few days left to live," which meant that he, the pastor, could afford to tell the truth and escape punishment. I felt terrible to steal the dying man's last moments, but the pastor insisted that he see me.
When I went looking for confirmation about who had denied Pearl Buck a visa to China in 1972, I also got lucky. I suspected Madame Mao was behind the rejection but had no proof. So I was thrilled when I met Pearl Buck's daughter Janice at the Pearl Buck House in Pennsylvania in 2007. Janice told me that her mother believed that it was Madame Mao, and she listed the reasons, all of which made sense to me. Janice also shared with me some wonderful details about her mother, for example, about the Chinese pond Pearl created in her backyard and Pearl's passion for Chinese camellias.
The Christian community that Pearl's father belongs to is an important part of the novel. The Christian presence in China was always controversial and was the center of the Boxer Rebellion. How did you feel about it as you wrote the novel?
The Christian community in China has had a long history, some chapters have been very positive, some not so. Christian ideas were foreign ideas, and China has been a very tradition-bound culture. Some of what you feel about the Christian influence in China is how you feel about traditional Chinese culture. The period I wrote about, from just before the Boxer Rebellion through the Cultural Revolution, was a period of great chaos and violence in Chinese history. Some might say that Christian influence played a part in bringing this on - I don't think so. It was just China coming into the modern age, violently. What I do know is that I came to see the large and growing Baptist community of which Pearl's father was at the center as something that provided a caring, human, and relatively sane refuge in the midst of the craziness of the Cultural Revolution. True believers were not as susceptible to the kind of brainwashing that occurred on a massive scale then.
Another reason I had positive feelings toward the community was my mother's own faith. I regret that I had never bothered to learn about my mother's Christian background until it was too late. I wish that I had asked my mother some questions, which bothers me now. For example, who converted her as a child? And how was her value system, by which I was raised, built? I only witnessed how my mother struggled to stand tall and alone during the Cultural Revolution, holding on to her faith.
She kept it a secret from her children fearing she would be denounced. Again, it is part of Chinese history that hasn't been recorded yet, and it's the material that I am familiar with.
You seem to be a stickler for historical accuracy. Did you embellish or make up parts of Pearl's life?
In all of my historical novels (from Becoming Madame Mao to Empress Orchid and The Last Empress to Pearl of China) I have tried to be as accurate as possible because accuracy gives my historical themes weight. But some have been more literally true than others. The advantage of being a novelist is having the freedom to go directly after the truth of the human heart. With Pearl, I thought it important to tell her story from a Chinese perspective, but I could find no figure in the historical record that knew Pearl throughout her life. I combined a number of Pearl's actual friends at different times throughout her forty years in China to create the character Willow. Looking back, I think it was the best choice I made.
How did you find out about Pearl's relationship with the Chinese poet Hsu Chih-mo?
Pearl grew up with Chinese classic novels and Chinese operas. She admitted that the "Chinese way" had a powerful impact and influence on her life. The possibility of a romantic relationship between the two has been rumored for years within certain circles. From the way Pearl Buck described Hsu Chih-mo in her own writing and in a letter to her girlfriend, I was convinced that her relationship with Hsu Chihmo was extraordinary. The affection and love was in the details of Pearl's observation of the man, the beauty she saw in him. These were two great individuals who possessed both the Eastern and Western cultures and worlds - they were bound to admire and love each other. Once having imagined it, how it might have happened, the beauty and passion of it, I can no longer think that it happened any other way.
What challenges did you face writing about a real person, especially one so beloved?
The challenge was to not only tell a unique story, but also to have a unique perspective. Many books and biographies have been published on Pearl Buck from a Western point of view. I offer a Chinese perspective, or rather a perspective that emphasizes her relationship with China from a Chinese perspective. Readers will get to see how Pearl Buck became who she was because of China; and, for the first time, how Chinese people saw Pearl Buck, this brave American woman who was beloved by people close to her but denounced by the authorities.
I could have written this story only now and only in America. Here, I can write without worry of being persecuted for what I write. And I wrote about Pearl at the right time in my own life - I was born and lived in China for twenty-seven years, and I have lived in America for twenty-six years. I truly can comprehend Pearl Buck as a "person of two worlds." I have begun to understand how an author's background decides, if not dictates, what she writes. In some sense, I could not have written this book until now, because it has taken me this long to truly understand the American side of Pearl Buck's character.
Your longtime editor said that one of the things that makes you such a unique writer is that, unlike so many American writers, your literary model isn't the nineteenth-century realistic novel. Rather, it is Chinese opera. Can you explain how your writing is like the Chinese operas you love to write about?
I didn't think that was anything unique until my editor, Anton Mueller, pointed it out to me. It was the way traditional Chinese people learned how to write. I learned writing by copying ancient Chinese opera scripts, which were composed with dynasty-old poems and verses. It's the only way I knew how to compose writing in Chinese, and I apply the instincts I learned from the old forms when I write in English. I grew up with operas; I love their poetry, their compressed structures, and their emotional intensity. I have tried to give my novels some of these qualities. But another thing that I do is combine this with the Western conventions of the historical novel. So, what my editor really says is that I write historical operas in novel form. It's a truly bicultural concoction.
Your collected works offer a wonderful and historically accurate story of China from the mid-nineteenth century to today. What period will you be writing about next?
I think I am ready to embrace the idea that it's time to review my life as an American. My next book will tell the story of my life in my adopted country. When I arrived in America over twenty years ago, I didn't speak English and had no money and knew practically no one. I learned English by watching TV shows like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood and The Oprah Winfrey Show. And I did whatever work I could find. Survival was tough, but, ironically, my previous experience at the labor camp prepared me well. The unexpected makes interesting stories.
Anchee Min discusses Empress Orchid
You did extensive research for Becoming Madame Mao and lived
through the Cultural Revolution in China, which added a special intensity to
your descriptions. Did similar experiences inform Empress Orchid?
Details are extremely important to me. The most challenging thing has been to get the facts and get them right. There are sometimes several contrasting versions of a single incident involving Empress Orchid, and many sources are false or inaccurate. I went through documents not only in the Forbidden City, but also medical, accounting, and police records. My reading on the lives of eunuchs, maids, palace tutors, imperial warlords, and generals helped me gain crucial perspective. The Empress's food and herb manuals and her opera manuals also revealed a lot about her character.
Remarkably, you and your father were able to gain access to documents in government-guarded storerooms in Beijing. Would you describe how it happened?
Well, I had to get my hands on the facts, but no official in Beijing would risk his career to open the door for me. So I tried the "back door." I can't say more than this, because I don't want to get the person who helped me in trouble. Anyway, I got in. The place where all the ancient documents are stored is treated with strong chemicals, so I was told not to stay inside for more than half an hour. But I didn't want to leave. I read the Empress's original decrees (or copies of decrees, I can't be sure). I was choking on the fumes, but I was glad I stayed. The evidence was compelling that she was a fitter ruler than anyone else of that time. There was a reason her regime lasted for forty-six years.
Your seamlessly real depiction of the Forbidden City transports the reader inside its palaces and gardens. How was Orchid's life there defined and confined by its traditions?
What affected her most was that she knew she was a woman, a concubine. Any wrong move would cost her her life. The price of her survival was a lot of personal sacrifice and suffering. For example, she was a passionate woman, widowed at the age of twenty-six. From then on, she was forbidden to have a relationship with a man. She had to fight her need for intimacy, denying her own humanity. As with everything else in her life, such as her effort to revive China, she failed, but her struggle was heroic. She kept China in one piece until she died.
What are Chinese schoolchildren taught about Empress Orchid? And how do history books around the world remember her?
She was considered "the enemy of the human race." In China, children learn that the collapse of every dynasty was the fault of the concubine. The execution of the concubine justified whatever was wrong. That's the tradition. The most recent example was Madame Mao. She was sentenced to death, while her husband was seen as the George Washington of China. Children are taught that the Empress was responsible for destroying China's two-thousand-year imperial culture. Chinese and Western history books remember her negatively too, but the books provide very few facts.
Empress Orchid and Madame Mao are both powerful personalities with a great deal in common. What characteristics drew you to them, and do you share those characteristics yourself?
I do. I am female and Chinese, and at a very young age I learned that my culture disfavors females. Books hold up women as negative examples, such as Madame Mao and Empress Orchid. I was drawn to them because I like to find out the truth. It started with Red Azalea, my first book, about growing up during the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese government's official version of the Cultural Revolution contrasted with the life I had lived. I could not let the lies be the only record. It scared me to think that my daughter would be studying false history, and I felt obligated to do something about it.
Some of your writing is critical of China past and present. Has the Chinese government taken an "official position" on you? What has your experience been when visiting your family in China each year?
China's policy toward me is "We don't want to make an enemy of Anchee Min, but we don't have to promote her, either." My family in China has concerns. But as long as there are no Chinese versions of my books, they feel safe.
The conclusion of Empress Orchid is "the end of the beginning" and leaves your audience begging for a sequel. Can you give us an idea of what happens next?
After she was widowed, Tsu Hsi ruled for forty-six years. The material about this time is absolutely fascinating. She was forced to learn many things, including diplomacy. Keep in mind that China in the late 1800s had been closed to outsiders for more than two thousand years. Westerners were trying to force their way into the opium trade. Meanwhile, domestic rebels, the Boxers, wanted to overthrow the dynasty. The Empress performed a delicate balancing act, and as a result she single-handedly held the dynasty together. My next book will reveal more of her private character. She was a great politician, a clever strategist, and a caring mother and lover.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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