Friday, March 31, 2006

Reading Pearl Buck

I have just finished reading Pearl Buck’s autobiography, My Several Worlds. To some of you her work is quite familiar; others may not be so privileged. Her works are new to me, but I am quickly learning to appreciate her unique life and her cunning observation. Reading her words allows you to walk the same paths, meeting those many people along the way, absorbing the culture of worlds previously unknown, some never to be known again.

Pearl Buck was born Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker in the early 1890’s to Absalom and Caroline Sydenstricker. Her parents were Southern Presbyterian missionaries serving in China. They were home on furlough after losing three children and Pearl was born in the comfort of her grandfather’s large home in West Virginia. At the age of three months they packed her up and returned to what would become her foster country. Indeed, she knew China and her beloved Chinese people more intimately than her native country and people. Most of her first forty years were spent there.

Unlike most missionaries of that time, her parents did not limit their world to the confines of the white missionary compound. They lived in a home right down the lane from Chinese people and Pearl was allowed to wander the streets, visit the homes of natives, and play freely with their children. She spoke and wrote Chinese before English. Her experience was unique in that very way. As a white in China, she was a minority. But she was unsheltered. She understood and felt the reality of living immersed in a culture as a minority. An innocent, loving child, she was able to win the confidence of the Chinese people and therefore lived freely in two very different worlds, the American English world of missionary friends and family and the Asian Chinese world of playmates and neighbors. Few people fully experience both. She was privileged to do so.

We find her insights into the Asian world fascinating, seen through the paradigm shaped by such experience. Her writing leaves one hungry for a greater glimpse of this mysterious yet so very human culture. She has also caused us to know that much of the China she knew and loved has since been eradicated. The inhumane machinery of total cultural revolution in the form of Chinese Communism has swept across the face of that continent, leaving in its wake complete destruction and brokenness.

It seems impossible that we Americans could truly comprehend such ancient culture; it had been formed, shaken, settled, and firmly established over the course of more than two thousand years (Confucius was born in 551BC). Such tradition would seem, in light of our national experience, to be eternal. The course of life which she observed, learned, and experienced in the China of the early 1900’s had been virtually unchanged in form and tradition for countless generations. Simplicity, therefore, abounded – place, propriety, and function were understood and unquestioned. Stability in such a setting becomes a thing assumed, taken for granted, trusted and built upon. Such is the innate beauty of centuries-old culture, the calm and the serenity. Therein is the privilege to be appreciated and cherished.

And yet in the course of her lifetime that culture was challenged, thoroughly shaken, and destroyed. It is astounding to realize the fragility of a culture hundreds of years in the making. What could disturb the rhythms and cycles of such well-established tradition? How could it be that this world, known and understood by its inhabitants for countless generations, depended upon by grandparents, parents, and children alike, be taken apart?

Intrinsic beauty is often overlooked, especially when viewed through the eyes of disappointment or bitterness. Youthful impetuosity fails to appreciate, is unable to comprehend the ages. The sacrifice of the elderly goes unnoticed; safety of established tradition becomes confinement, hard earned truth is distrusted, and predetermined roles become shackles to be thrown off. Unfortunately it is often done without a clear eye to the future or a proper assessment of the past. Our humanity can chain us to the present moment allowing deception and fickleness of self-centered desire to cloud understanding. Such was the case for multitudes in the China of the mid 1900’s.

Promises of improved living, freedom from backward tradition, and prosperity for all sounded through city streets, rousing a new generation to rise up in protest and annihilation, leaving sleepy rural villages literally in the dust. The machine of revolution began to roll. Pearl recounts an event from those dangerous times.

I put on my jacket and went out to see for myself. We lived not far from the main road into the city and a few minutes’ walk brought me to the spot. There I saw the monster machine, something I had never seen before nor heard of, and therefore which I could not name. A man rode upon it, a young Chinese man, not a workingman but a Western-educated man, and he was guiding it slowly along one side of the street and then the other. What was he doing? He was pushing down the houses. Those old one-story houses, made of hand-shaped brick and cemented together with lime plaster, had stood well enough for shelter through hundreds of years, but they had been built long before such a machine had been conceived in the mind of Western man, and they could not withstand the assault. They crumbled into ruins.

Had this been in my earlier world, I would have stopped the man and asked him what he did and why. But this was now, and I dared not ask. I was a foreigner, I knew it now, and I dared not ask. I stood among the Chinese people, watching, silent, stricken. And the young man said not a word, not even when an old grandmother, who had lived in a house since she was born, began to cry wildly and aloud. I asked her son in a whisper if the families were paid for the loss of their homes, and he whispered back they had been promised pay, but none of them trusted promises. (from her autobiography My Several Worlds)

And so the saga continued, whether a machine quite literally dismantling a housing district, or the brutal takeover by military force physically dismembering fellow human beings standing in disagreement, or the workings of cultural revolution disassembling paradigms of tradition, eradication must be accomplished. And accomplished it was, at high cost. An ancient culture, shaped and formed through the centuries, was carelessly tossed aside.

It was not the first time and it will not be the last. As a Christian, I enjoy a perspective lent from the Eternal. I am sure I would be undone by such renderings of human history if it were not for Him. Instead they lend further appreciation of scripture and the wisdom given to mere mortals through immortal words. He alone will endure all of time. This is what must be understood. The greatest pharaohs in their attempt to gain such immortality have come closer than many to establishing an unfading memorial, but even the grandeur of pyramids will crumble and diminish in their wonder.

Sad indeed is the failure to cherish the strands of devotion to family woven into the ancient Chinese culture, the continuous thread of reverence and honor seamlessly holding generations in their places, and the beauty of the tapestry skillfully wrought. Foolish as well to fail in acknowledging the working of sin against such beauty; sin from within and without. If this had been a culture free from all stain and failure, would it have failed? We are venturing into hypothetical ideals. Such a place would have been utopia; the scripture teaches that it would have been impossible for such a place to exist, for all have sinned and fallen short of such glory. Until His eternal reign is fully established, such a place will not be known.

The recurrent sorrow of destruction wrought by the incessantly destructive nature of sin leads me to this conclusion: I will find hope in Him, I will anchor my soul with His truth, and I will live for an eternal kingdom where sin and sorrow will be no more.

Reading the stories of Pearl Buck’s China awakened once again a realization of the poverty of any culture apart from the gospel. Beauty may abound, but it is tarnished. Tradition may yield its simplicity, but there is no understanding. Richness of heritage will be treasured then discounted. Success, subject to situation, cannot be guaranteed. The Gospel of Christ alone can remedy all of this. Tarnish can be cleansed, wisdom given, understanding of heritage imparted, and non-circumstantial success made accessible to everyone.

Therefore we must continue in the quest to bring this message to all peoples in all places. It is not liberation from a culture we must seek, but an impartation of truth into the culture. Let truth alone do the purging. May it not be said that we sought to adjust traditions, but that we brought love and purity of truth. His desire is that every man would know His love and His mercy; that love and mercy translates readily into every tongue and culture. Let His will be done, His Kingdom come. We seek an Eternal home and a Kingdom everlasting.

3 Comments:

Blogger thisrequiresthought said...

so glad you enjoyed my fifty-cent find! You must lend it to me soon.

so, did Pearl S. Buck know Jesus??

3:23 AM  
Anonymous LisaCriscitello said...

Hummph...VERY thought-provoking. Are you jumping rope yet? I think it's great that the CFA gathering is at your house tomorrow. And by the way- Avery has slept through the night the past few nights. He also has been snoring a little less. We'll see!

1:53 PM  
Blogger kathleen said...

Let truth alone do the purging.... His desire is that every man would know His love and His mercy; that love and mercy translates readily into every tongue and culture.

It's really very simple, isn't it?

Great insights.

6:28 AM  

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