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

The Difficult Reconciliation

Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata’s works were among my very first foreign (non-Chinese) literary experiences back in my teenage years.  At that time I was impressed by Kawabata’s unique ability to accentuate the tranquil beauty of Japan.  Upon revisiting his top-rated works recently, I gained some more understanding on his interpretation of love and death, and his unresolved question about the conflict between tradition and new fashion.

The Dancing Girl of Izu was one of Kawabata’s earliest works, a semi-autobiographical short story about the narrator’s brief encounter with a teenage dancing girl, Kaoru, on his hiking trip to the hot spring country.  The narrator is drawn to Kaoru by her innocence and sincerity despite her low social status at the time, and develops an affection so deep that it revitalizes him with hope and compassion.  Kawabata’s pellucid and poetic language flows throughout the story, wholeheartedly praising the primitive beauty of the lower-class performers, which may be a projection of the Japanese culture heritage that Kawabata deeply admired.

In that sense, Snow Country can be viewed as a loose and peculiar sequel to The Dancing Girl of Izu.  Once again in the remote countryside, the male protagonist Shimamura (a middle-aged wealthy loner) is physically and emotionally trapped in his obsession with two women, Komako and Yoko, both of whom are unattainable in different ways.  In this little town that represents his delicately designed safe space, Shimamura’s attempts to establish intimacy with either (or both, at times) of the women end up tragically futile.  The sharp turn of sentiments from Dancing Girl to Snow Country was surprising to me.  But it may be a genuine reflection of Kawabata’s struggle about the fate of the traditional Japan.  Komako, a geisha-turned-prostitute, depicted with vivid beauty and barely noticeable frivolity, is in danger of irrelevance despite Shimamura’s efforts.  Her alternative, Yoko, introduced so vaguely into the story with an interesting western literary approach, however, only remains remote for the most of the time, and vanishes so quickly before becoming tangible.

Such sentiments are also the main theme  in The Old Capital.  Staged in the historic capital Kyoto, the story evolves around twin sisters, Chieko and Naeko, whose fates symbolize the clash between the old and the new.  Kyoto’s spectacular natural and historical landscapes, together with its rich cultural traditions in the forms of festivals and rituals, unfold magnificently in this novel.  More specifically, the art of kimono (thing to wear) is the vessel that showcases the delicacy of the Japanese traditional culture and Kawabata’s deep affection toward it.  As the modernization of Kyoto becomes inevitable, the characters attempt to preserve the old and find peace with the new.  Kawabata used this novel to gauge the acceptance of such transition in his heart, and in that of the Japanese people.  Based on this story, his conclusion seems pessimistic.

Thousand Cranes continues to explore the state of Japanese culture heritage, in a much more intense, dramatic fashion.  Tea ceremony, a traditional ritualized art that promotes harmony and grace, becomes the canvas on which Kawabata boldly portrays sexuality that is simultaneously impacted by old tradition and western culture.  The main character, Kikuji, haphazardly steps into an entangled net of relationships after his father’s death.  While gaining more appreciation of the charm of tea ceremony, of which his father was an expert, he treats Mrs. Ota, his father’s mistress also as a form of inheritance, through which he finds his identity and power .  To me, this points to a phenomenon universal to many cultures, which is sin being passed over generations.  What consoles me is to see the deep sorrow that is inflicted on Kikuji and Fumiko, Mrs. Ota’s daughter, after his incestuous actions, and their eventual but painful resolution to cross the bridge of the past.

Kawabata’s sensibility enabled him to compose such exquisite pieces with a highly enjoyable level of literary virtue.  The  Japanese mono no aware (an empathy toward things) tradition blends with modern realism touches, rendering his works vulnerable and poignant.  When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, Kawabata was praised for his ability to “express … the essence of the Japanese mind.”  They are also deeply thought-provoking, in a way that aside from the author’s deep contemplation on and skillful interpretations of the very nature of humanity, they do not pretend to have reached any simplified, self-justified conclusions.  Kawabata himself was tragically torn between the richness of the Japan he loved and the waves of modernity that struck the ancient culture.  The beauty seemed to diminish, while the shades of hideousness never ceased to expand in many ways.  That, to me, is a dilemma worth exploring at all times.  —WZ

The Weight of the Choice

East of Eden was the first classic in English I picked up to read.  The biblical reference in its title seemed mysteriously intriguing, and the fact that John Steinbeck set the story in the Salinas Valley not far from where I currently live added to my curiosity tremendously.  The experience turned out to be simply marvelous.

This 600-page novel tells the lives of the Trask family together with a number of other characters on the periphery.  Their life paths of these characters, all with radiant virtues (maybe except for one person on this end) and woeful flaws  interweave in to a story so vividly real and relatable.  The novel, however, does far more than just evoking empathy.   As the fate of each character unravels with both inevitability and unpredictability, it stimulates reflections on subjects as deep as the fundamental meaning of life.  The story convincingly leads to the author’s eventual exclamation on the principal theme, that all humans face a crucial choice between good and evil.

The protagonist, Adam Trask, bears multiple allusions to the accounts of Genesis in the Holy Bible, but mainly points to the First Man.  Innocent to begin with, he is tempted in the grandest scale.  Fallen to the darkest abyss and struggling to recuperate, he inadvertently passes the weight of his suffering to the next generation.   Cal and Aron, Adam’s twin sons, fulfill the novel’s reference to the biblical tragedy on the land to the east of Eden with a heart-wrenching tale.  Cathy Ames, the novel’s antagonist, seems to be a rendition of pure evil that not only plagues the Trasks, but also corrupts the entire Salinas Valley.   The slightest human soul of hers eventually awakens in the forms of fear and guilt, which lead to her demise.

On the surface, the novel may look like a masterpiece of melodrama that incorporates all the necessary elements—love affairs, sibling rivalry, family feuds, conspiracy, murder, sexual scandals…  But to me, all of these only fortify the central theme in the most powerful way.  The temptations that everyone in the novel encounters are painfully realistic.  The author seems to have raised a philosophical paradox about the flaws each one of the characters are born with.  These flaws may be the culprit of the transgressions they commit, the agony they inflict on one another, and eventually the consequences they have to take on their own.  Translating to the physical world, the author recognizes war as a destructive incarnation of human sin.  But more subtly and cautiously, he criticizes the traceless loss of conscience, induced by the pursuit of  financial prosperity at the time when technology brings unimaginable opportunities to the world.

On his deathbed, Adam Trask utters his final word to his surviving son Cal—Timshel, which means “thou mayest” in Hebrew.  To me, it reveals the author’s utmost urge to the world, that no matter how dark the surrounding, how miserable the heart, we all have the power, and maybe more critically, the obligation, to choose.   As a Protestant, I find this message comforting and reassuring.  He also says in the book, “… it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal.  Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”  Firm as he is about the fortitude of good, in the way he wrote the novel he seems uncertain about its origin and universality, or the means by which to persevere in its pursuit.  Timshel only points to half of that vital truth.  —WZ