Social Justice Themes in the Life and Writings of Pearl S. Buck

by Rev. Edgar P. Roosa

The Pearl S. Buck Historic Site is presently developing its tours to emphasize the themes of Social Justice. Thus, my aim in this paper is to clarify actual “Acts of Injustice” which Ms. Buck experienced, or observed, and how she responded to such acts.

Ms. Buck’s maiden name was Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker, or in Chinese, Sy-Jen-Jhu. Her family, Presbyterian missionaries, did not live in the missionary compound but out among the Chinese people. Pearl had some freedom to encounter people in public. She had blond hair and blue eyes and therefore, among the dark-haired and dark-eyed people of China, she looked like a wild beast, a foreigner. People would laugh at her.

This upset her, so she went home and looked up the curse words in the Chinese language. She had a Chinese tutor, Mr. Kung. One day she was out among the Chinese and she was laughed at for her appearance.  Suddenly she began to curse the people with these Chinese curse words.  They were shocked because they did not realize that she knew how to speak Chinese or understand what they were saying of her.

She met this act of injustice and discrimination with the power of direct speech.

When Ms. Buck was sent to a Miss Jewel’s school in Shanghai, China, to prepare for college in the United States, she was known to have said that she felt Confucius was on the same level of importance as Jesus.  When Miss Jewel heard this she promptly put Ms. Buck into a room by herself – in isolation – so that she would not “contaminate” the other girls with such thoughts. Actually Ms. Buck preferred the room by herself because then she could read and would not be distracted by conversations with the other girls.

This event and others led Ms. Buck’s parents to take Pearl out of the school at the end of the semester.

This is an act of injustice by which a person accepts direction and is rescued by another.

Ms. Buck attended Randolph Macon College for Women in Virginia from 1910 to 1914. Her mother, Carrie Sydenstricker had not been in the United States since 1880 except for missionary furlough time. She prepared her daughter with clothes and shoes she deemed appropriate. But Carrie’s long absence of thirty years had not prepared her for the changes in clothing styles in the United States.

Ms. Buck responded by using her talents and abilities to design and make clothes and shoes that fit in with her classmates and with the time of 1910.

This is the response to injustice by using one’s own creative ability to have a significant and acceptable level of relationship to one’s community of peers.

In 1920 Ms. Buck gave birth to her only birth child, Caroline Grace Buck, who had PKU or Phenylketonuria, a medical condition that could not be healed at that time. In 1929 Ms. Buck and her husband placed Carol in Vineland Training School to live in a friendly environment for developmentally challenged people. It was another 20 years before Ms. Buck wrote publicly about Carol in the book The Child Who Never Grew. 

Her emphasis on the poor conditions for unwanted and mixed-race children came at the same time. She was setting up “Welcome House”, a program to make mixed race and other unwanted children acceptable for adoption into families.

This is the strategy of overcoming acts of injustice (abandoned children) one child at a time and setting up organizational structures like an adoption agency as a community process to overcome the injustice.

In 1932, Ms. Buck was traveling in the United States and considering a move here permanently. She visited an exhibition of African-American Art. When she saw the violence and destruction in the art work, she was shocked. Ms. Buck had been given the sense of an ideal America by her parents. The civil war was over. Slavery was abolished. All was well in the land. She had attended an all-white college.

So Ms. Buck was not prepared to see this destructive art work. She decided to put off coming to America, going back to China for two years and did not come to the U.S. until 1934. She resolved that she would do everything she could and write what she could to oppose the discrimination of the races in America. Why?

She felt she had been discriminated against in China as a blue-eyed, blond-haired child, and so she identified with the African-Americans who felt acts of injustice had been done to them through segregation and discrimination.

In the 1940’s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation developed a classified file of 220 pages on Ms. Buck which was only de-classified after she died. In 1943 Ms. Buck called for an F.B.I. investigation of the “wave of mob violence against Negroes and other minority groups spreading across the country.”

In June of 1945 Ms. Buck was asked to join a parade held by the March on Washington. It was a fight against discrimination in downtown department stores, but she refused the invitation because white people generally had not been invited to take part in the demonstration.

In the file an article by Ms. Buck titled Democracy and the Negro, she said intermarriage was the fearful specter behind everything.

The file claims of the East West Association, its inception June 30, 1941 by Richard Walsh and Pearl S Buck, the lectures and classes and forums included well-known members of Communist front organizations. This is an attempt at guilt by association.

Almost every article of Ms. Buck’s writings included in the F.B.I. file such as Democracy and the Negro has a line drawn to the side or a statement underlined in the text and on the margin printed the word “Sabotage” with a question mark.

She stood opposed to the segregation of the military. A few years later the military was integrated in 1948. In an Asia magazine March 1942, she maintains that white people have a split personality about race. She asks the question what does one do about the split personality? First, one must realize there is a split. Second, one must act to reject the undesired self.

In 1950, Ms. Buck wrote that what the peoples of Asia distrust most in our democracy is our racial prejudice. I believe Ms. Buck was one of the folks ahead of their time in signaling the need to end the acts of injustice that continued to haunt racial relations in the 1940’s, and some even to this day.

When she had vowed to oppose racial discrimination on the occasion of the 1932 art show, she certainly followed through on that vow in her writing and speaking.

This is opposition to acts of injustice by advocacy, her own writing and joining with groups who opposed discrimination.

At a symposium at Jiangsu University in Jhen Jiang in 2015, out of many presenters about Pearl S Buck, most of whom were given only ten minutes, one lady presented a half-hour talk reacting to Ms. Buck’s “An Open Letter to the Chinese People,” written in 1938. The letter had been sent in response to the attack by the Japanese on China in1937. I take it that the letter was a morale booster for the Chinese and highly regarded support.

This is a response by Ms. Buck by writing an open letter to a country, a land where she had grown to adulthood and took pride in as a part of her personal heritage. Ms. Buck expresses admiration for the Chinese, frugal, cheerful, simple and without self-consciousness.

Her heart broke with anger at what the Chinese were undergoing at the hands of a foreign military. She minces no words, saying that they might prefer a ruler who is soft and corrupt who is Chinese. She also extols the virtues of bravery and of the many people who have died. She urges the people to not give up their own way of thinking and living and the spirit of self-government in the villages. The enemy may win the war but if the people stay what they are, they will never be conquered.

This is an example of her supporting people against acts of national injustice by affirming them in their essential national character.

The Chinese Exclusion Acts passed by Congress in 1882 were repealed in 1943. Ms. Buck was among those who testified at the Capitol for repeal. The Chinese coolies had helped to build the Trans-continental Railroad over the Rocky Mountains in 1866.

The repeal was supported as a military measure, but stood the test of time as a humanitarian measure as well.

This is fighting for justice by testifying before Congress.

In 1962 President John F. Kennedy invited Nobel Prize winners from all over the country to the White House. Pearl S Buck who had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1938 attended. In the course of the evening President Kennedy asked Ms. Buck what is to be done with Korea. Perhaps the Japanese could take care of them.

Ms. Buck realized that Kennedy did not know much about Korea, since this country was small and surrounded by three great nations, Japan, China and Russia. So Ms. Buck said she was writing a book about Korea and when it was finished she would send the first copy to him. The weekend that the book The Living Reed was sent to the White House was the same weekend Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, so he never got to read the book. Here is the summary of a story from The Living Reed.

A man of a noble family in Korea has a son and a second son who is close to birth. When the tutor of the older son tells him a story of a Golden Frog found with the face of a man, the older son rips up the book and tells the tutor he does not want a Golden Frog for a brother. The boy goes out into the bamboo patch and begins destroying the bamboo shoots. The boy’s father then explains to him that he has broken the food for people.

I could not help thinking as I read this story about the broken reed as a contrast to The Living Reed, thinking about Isaiah chapter 42, verse 3, one of the servant songs in the Jewish and Christian Bibles, “a bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick he will not quench. He will faithfully bring forth justice.”

Pearl’s novel spoke out against acts of injustice which destroy the most tender meaning and sensibilities of life.

We might learn again the lessons of “The Living Reed” in view of the international problems with North Korea today.

Some of the ways that Ms. Buck dealt with “Acts of Injustice” within her world.

  1. Power of direct speech.
  2. A person accepts direction and is rescued from an unjust situation by another person.
  3. One uses his or her own creative ability to enhance a significant and acceptable level of relationship to one’s community of peers.
  4. A strategy to overcome acts of injustice (abandoning children) one child at a time and setting up organizational structures like an adoption agency as a community process to overcome the injustice.
  5. Opposition to injustice by advocacy through writing and joining with groups who oppose discrimination.
  6. Supporting people for justice by affirming them in their essential national character.
  7. Fight against injustice by testifying before legislative committees
  8. Speaking out against acts of injustice that destroy the most tender meanings and sensibilities of life.

    Reverend Edgar Roosa is a retired minister of the United Church of Christ and a volunteer at the Pearl S. Buck House and its Writers Guild and Writing Center Press.  He has presented academic articles on Pearl at conferences in China and at the Mid-Atlantic Popular/American Culture Association.

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