The Power of the Earth

The Good Earth, a classic novel that earned its author, Pearl S. Buck, the Nobel Prize in literature in 1938, was an endearing and refreshing read for me.

The novel chronicles the adult life of a Chinese peasant, Wang Lung, who, against all odds during an age of chaos and instability, ascends from destitute peasantry to the affluent landowner’s class.  In the course of this drastic transformation, human nature presents its applaudable virtue and despicable vice via the lives of Wang, his family, and the souls around them.  Like many other classics, such remarks on humanity shine brightly on a specific cultural canvasthe vast, primitive rural China.

As the title accentuates, the story evolves around the earth, the land, the one and only livelihood that a peasant knows to hold onto.  “Out of the land we came and into we must goand if you will hold your land you can liveno one can rob you of land.”  This is Wang Lung’s philosophy, one that motivates his unstoppable hard laboring, prompts his relentless pursuit of more and better land, and brings him the prosperity he himself never dreams of.  The very fiber of Wang’s character, shaped and sustained by such simple, strong belief in one’s reliance on the land and his own hard work, is then challenged by the grand temptation of an undeserved fortune.  The metamorphosis of his fate and mind starts from this point.  As his wealth multiplies and social status heightens, his detaches himself from his land.  The trappings of wealth ensue, diluting morality, diminishing integrity, and driving his family to the verge of collapsing.  The protagonist eventually regains his sensibility at an old age, urging his descendants to restore the reverence for the earth, and yet such attempt seems to end up in vain.

The Novel Prize committee commended Buck’s “deep sympathy… over racial boundaries”, and acute “study of human ideals”.  Daughter of Southern Presbyterian missionaries and nurtured by the milk of this Oriental land, Buck’s vivid depiction of these flawed characters overflows with her piercing insights on human sin.  And yet the story runs free of judgment and contempt, but effuses sorrow and compassion instead.  Such a complex, noble motif, stemmed from her merciful, redemptive Christian world view, seems to have established a literary triumph beyond her concise, unflashy narrative style in this novel.

Having grown up in China, I myself witnessed a part of history that bears striking resemblance to this novel’s account.  Many of my parents’ generation, just like Wang, underwent a drastic social economical change within a couple of decades.  From their lives I see diligence, resilience, and raw, genuine affection toward each other, much alike those of the fictional Wang Lung’s.  Moreover, I recognize the buzzing prosperity of modern-day China as if prophesied by Wang’s fate, where moral crises arise as olden-day virtues are overshadowed and overlooked.  “And roots, if they are to bear fruits, must be kept well in the soil of the land.”  In the cultural framework of Eastern philosophy, Buck seems to have granted the earth the symbolism of man’s primary purpose, a sacred attachment that points to the ultimate supernatural power, and abandonment of it evidently leads to disastrous detriment.  To me, that is an edification relevant not only to the old Oriental country, but to us all.  WZ

Awakening of the Meager Conscience

The Chinese author and Nobel Prize winner (in literature, 2012), Mo Yan’s Sandalwood Death, in my opinion, is a literary and linguistic feast.  One might argue that the word feast contradicts the novel’s theme—a most gruesome form of capital punishment which can hardly arouse any appetite for a normal reader.  Well, maybe it does take such an extraordinary form to convey the thoughts so heavy and so relevant.

The main characters, with names so generic that they clearly symbolize any Chinese citizens in ancient and modern settings, act roles in an intense dramatic opera (literally!) that fuses love, loyalty, honor, and subtly but most importantly, conscience.  At the transition of the 19th and 20th centuries, the feudal China is in her chair days, while strong and ambitious new bloods from the West reach into this ancient realm.  As the Germans start to build a railway across the northeastern province of Shandong, the locals interpret it as a violation to their sacred inheritance, the land, and respond with organized sabotages and attacks, which invite military retaliations that inevitably cause the death of a German soldier.  Sun Bing, the perpetrator, is captured and subjected to the titled punishment.  Various rescue attempts add to the dramatic elements of the story though all end up futile.  And Sun Bing the former folk opera (Mao Qiang, or Cat-Tune) singer turns the execution field into a theater where his martyrdom is poetically extolled.  The story climaxes as the punishment is cut short by Qian Ding, the local magistrate, as a frail sign of protest and compassion, and ends abruptly.

Mo Yan’s literary style,  praised as “hallucinatory realism (that) merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”, is on full display in this novel.  The sentences carry rhythms so melodic that they remind me of the classical Chinese poetry form of Qu.  And similar to the Qu genre, they reflect voices of ordinary souls from their hearts.  In this case, the souls  are in search of justice and dignity, and such pursuit eventually erupts with a deafening volume.  Analogous transformations of character images into animals are used so uniquely that they not only reinforce the intensity of emotions, but also sharply point to the darkest facets of human nature—malice, oblivion, apathy.

The author’s pen name, Mo Yan, means “don’t talk”.  With good reasons, it is his way to gain relative freedom to decipher history and humanity’s baffling codes.  After all, there must be many alternatives better than silence.   In this novel, He is successful in conveying his message through the sandalwood death, the details of which should be left to those who are absolutely interested to explore.  Though made-up, it is inspired by the many real ones of the same nature throughout the history of the civilization.  The purpose of the punishment is none other than a showcase of terror to intimidate those who bear similar rebellious minds.  In a regime where the profession of execution has become a mystified and revered form of art, or, in a more relevant context, where doubting minds are silently estranged and stifled by the social norms, one may say it might have taken effect.  However, when the new magistrate in the novel conducts his final act knowing the unthinkable consequences to his career and life, we can still hope that this brief fragment inspires the readers to search for their own conscience.  —WZ