Read an Excerpt
My Several Worlds
A Personal Record
By Pearl S. Buck
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1954 Pearl S. Buck
All rights reserved.
Green Hills Farm, Pennsylvania, June, 1953
This morning I rose early, as is my habit, and as usual I went to the open window and looked out over the land that is to me the fairest I know. I see these hills and fields at dawn and dark, in sunshine and in moonlight, in summer green and winter snow, and yet there is always a new view before my eyes. Today, by the happy coincidence which seems the law of life, I looked at sunrise upon a scene so Chinese that did I not know I live on the other side of the globe, I might have believed it was from my childhood. A mist lay over the big pond under the weeping willows, a frail cloud, through which the water shone a silvered grey, and against this background stood a great white heron, profiled upon one stalk of leg. Centuries of Chinese artists have painted that scene, and here it was before my eyes, upon my land, as American a piece of earth as can be imagined, being now mine, but owned by generations of Americans, and first of all by Richard Penn, the brother of William Penn, who founded our state of Pennsylvania. Had I prayed Heaven, I could not have asked for a picture more suited to the mood for this day's work, which is to begin my book.
The reader is warned, however, that the story is incomplete, and, worse still, that it is told upon different levels and about different places and peoples, the whole held together merely by time, for this is the way my life has been lived and must be lived until I die. Geographically, my worlds are on opposite sides of the globe and for me, too, only the years of my life tie them together. There is yet another diversity and it is within myself. I am a creature instinctively domestic, but the age in which I am born, combined with whatever talents have made me a writer, have compelled me to live deeply, not only in home and family, but also in the lives of many peoples. But of my several worlds, let me begin with the personal since that, in truth, is where we all begin. This book is not a complete autobiography. My private life has been uneventfully happy, except for a few incidents whose disaster I was able to accept, and a human being could not, I believe, have less than I to complain of against fate. A happy childhood, marriage in its time, love and home and children, friends, and more than enough success for a creature singularly without ambition and born with no competitive sense whatever—this is the story of my secret years.
The fortunate chance I have had, above all else, has been the age into which I am born. Never, or so it seems to me as I read history, has there been a more stirring and germinal period than the one I have seen passing before my conscious eyes. I might have grown up secure and secluded in the comfortable and pleasant small town of my ancestors, taking for granted the advantages of families accustomed to more than their share, perhaps, of comfort and pleasure. Instead I had as my parents two enterprising and idealistic young people who, at an early age and for reasons which still seem to me entirely unreasonable, felt impelled to leave their protesting and astonished relatives and travel halfway around the globe in order to take up life in China and there proclaim the advantages of their religion. To them the task seemed inevitable and satisfying and they were devoted to it for more than half a century, and this in spite of coming from no missionary stock. There was nothing in either family to produce two such Christian adventurers as my parents, and none of their children has continued the zealous mission. I can only believe that my parents reflected the spirit of their generation, which was of an America bright with the glory of a new nation, rising united from the ashes of war, and confident of power enough to "save" the world. Meantime they had no conception of the fact that they were in reality helping to light a revolutionary fire, the height of which we still have not seen, nor can foresee.
As a result of this early voyage of my young parents-to-be, I grew up on the Asian side of the globe instead of on the American side, although I was born, quite accidentally, in my own country. My young mother, who was only twenty-three years old when she went as a bride to China, had four children rather rapidly, and as rapidly lost three of them from tropical diseases which at that time no one understood how to prevent or to cure. She was distracted enough so that the doctors ordered her to be taken to her home in West Virginia for two years. It was in the last few months of this long rest that I was born, and thereby became an American citizen by birth as well as by two centuries of ancestry.
Had I been given the choice of place for my birth, I would have chosen exactly where I was born, my grandfather's large white house with its pillared double portico, set in a beautiful landscape of rich green plains and with the Allegheny mountains as a background. I was a welcome child, a circumstance conducive, I believe, to natural good nature and a tendency to optimism. At any rate, I had a happy beginning in a pleasant place, and at the age of three months, my mother's health being restored, I was transported across the seas to live and grow up in China. Thereafter Asia was the real, the actual world, and my own country became the dreamworld, fantastically beautiful, inhabited by a people I supposed entirely good, a land indeed from which all blessings flowed.
My parents, who were my sole source of information concerning this dreamworld as I came to the age of questions, certainly did not mean to tell me lies. Their own memories had not indeed been entirely pleasant. The war between North and South had shadowed their early years, four of my father's older brothers had fought on the Southern side, and had shared in the stinging defeat. The hardest blow of all was that an arbitrary line had divided their beloved Virginia and had left their ancestral homesteads in the new state, albeit only by a few miles. But they were spared the worst hardships of the reconstruction period, and by the time they had finished their education, my father at Washington and Lee University and my mother at the then fashionable Bellewood Seminary in Kentucky, the discomforts of war were gone, if not forgotten. Moreover, both families were glad to see the end of slavery, a burden far too heavy to be carried by a people committed to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, not to speak of the Christian religion.
In China, however, my parents conveniently forgot all the less admirable aspects of their country, and while I was a child they regaled me with memories of quiet village streets, large houses set far back in trees and lawns, decent folk walking to church on Sundays to worship God in beautiful old churches, law-abiding men and women, children who obeyed their parents and learned their lessons in school. Doctors cured the few sick folk, or sent them to wonderfully clean hospitals, and certainly no one had cholera or dysentery or typhus or died of bubonic plague. Neither were there lepers to be seen lounging along the streets, intimidating the pedestrians and shopkeepers, and beggars there were none. I am not to be blamed therefore for having grown up with illusions about my own country.
If America was for dreaming about, the world in which I lived was Asian. The actual earth was Chinese, but around China clustered a host of other nations and peoples, whose citizens I frequently saw and some of whom I knew well. Thus I learned about India very early indeed, and that was because our family physician was an Indian and so was his stout and kindly wife, although they spoke English and were members of an English mission and there was certainly some admixture of white blood in their veins, for India's blood does not run pure after hundreds of years of domination by white men. When in my insatiable thirst for stories I pressed these friends to tell me about their own childhoods, for I was a tiresome child for questions, the tales they told were of India, and listening, I shared their lives in a torrid land, where whole populations sat and waited, almost fainting, for the rains. I became acquainted with fabulous snakes and with apes swinging in distant trees. I learned of other gods, I heard a language different from the two I spoke as my own, and early I knew the woes of India and what her people dreamed.
And high on the hillside across the valley above which we lived in our low brick house, a Japanese lady lived with her English husband, and from her I learned of Japan, until I went there myself time and again, first with my parents and then later alone, and thereafter so often that Japan became my third country. Among our friends were Asians, too, from the Philippines and Siam, from Indonesia and Burma and Korea, and thus early I conceived a world wherein China was the center, and around us were these other peoples, all friendly, all interesting and ready to be visited.
To the dreamworld of the West, however, belonged the English friends we had, who lived behind the barred gates of the British Concession in the port city of Chinkiang on the great Yangtse River, and among them were also a few French and Italian families. But the French and Italians I really knew well were the Catholic priests who came to visit us sometimes, and three or four nuns who had an orphanage for children abandoned on the streets or the hillsides but still alive. I could imagine India, or Java, but Italy I could not, nor France, and scarcely England.
For in the secret thoughts of the Chinese, thoughts often confided to me by my Chinese playmates who caught them from the talk of their elders, these westerners were "foreigners," as my playmates called them and as I thought of them, too, and they were potential enemies. "Foreigners" had done evil things in Asia—not the Americans, my small and even then tactful friends declared, for Americans, they said, were "good." They had taken no land from Asian countries, and they sent food in famine time. I accepted the distinction and felt no part with other Western peoples of Europe, whom at that time I considered also my enemies. Our version of the universal game of cops and robbers in those days was the endless war of Chinese and all good Asian allies against the imperial powers of the West, and as the sole American in the game, it was my duty to come forward at the height of battle and provide food and succor for the ever-victorious Chinese. Thus half a century ago did the children of Asia play at the game of later reality, and it was quite by chance that a small yellow-haired American represented her country among them.
Halfway between the two worlds, however, were the children of my Chinese adopted sister. Years before I was born, when my parents had lived in an interior Chinese town on the Grand Canal, my mother was called one night to the house of a Chinese lady who was dying. My mother would never tell me her name, but I knew that she was the first wife of the head of an old and wealthy Chinese family. My father had become acquainted with the head of this family through their mutual scholarly interests and had tried to influence him to be a Christian. In the course of this endeavor, he had asked my mother to call upon his friend's wife, which she did, and the lady was attracted to my mother, and my mother to her, so that when a sudden illness became obviously mortal for the lady, she called my mother to her bedside and asked her to take her small daughter, who she feared would suffer if left alone with the concubines. With the father's consent the child was given to my mother for her own and my parents adopted her. Her name was Ts'ai Yün, or Beautiful Cloud, and I remember her as Ts'ai Yün, or Beautiful Cloud, and I remember her as a lovely gentle young woman with a soft pretty face. She was already married by the time I was born, and had begun to bear the large family of girls who became such an embarrassment for her. My mother had followed the Chinese tradition for Beautiful Cloud, and when she had finished her education in the mission school for girls, my mother betrothed her to a handsome and also good young man who was the son of my father's assistant pastor. It was a happy marriage and a suitable one, the young man followed in his father's footsteps and became a pillar of the Church in a mild and agreeable way, and the only embarrassment was the regularity with which the girl babies appeared in their home. A first girl they accepted with welcome, a second one a year later with equanimity, a third with gravity, a fourth with consternation. By the time the sixth one came the situation was critical. People were asking, how is it that Christians have nothing asking, how is it that Christians have nothing but girls? Inasmuch as the matter had become a subject of prayer for the church members after the third girl, the next question was, how is it that our prayers are not heard? Actual doubt of the foreign god began to arise and my father, who had tried to take no notice, exclaimed "Oh, pshaw" several times a day, as was his habit when perplexed. We were too humorous a family not to see the absurdity in the situation and yet we were quite aware of its seriousness. No one suffered more than my pretty adopted sister, who felt that all was her fault, and never was her husband's goodness more manifest than when he refused to allow her to take the blame. He was at least an example of Christian fortitude, as my father remarked.
As for me, I loved the children and enjoyed them as much as sisters. The eldest two were nearly my age and we had wonderful playtimes when they came to visit us or we went to visit them in their home some miles away. I have told this story for my American children in a little book, The Chinese Children Next Door, and those who have read that book will remember that there was a happy ending, for after six girls, my distracted Chinese sister did give birth to a fine boy. This ended the family. Neither she nor her husband dared to risk an eighth child who might be a girl again. It gives me pleasure to remember that I was told by an Indian friend that Jawaharlal Nehru once read my little book aloud to Mahatma Gandhi, who was lying ill at the time, and it made him laugh very much, because it was the sort of thing that might have happened in India, too.
It was a happy world for a child, even for a white child, and in spite of lepers and beggars and occasional famines, and our ruler, if you please, was a proud old woman in Peking, the Empress Dowager, or as her own people called her, The Venerable Ancestor, and I own people called her, The Venerable Ancestor, and I supposed that she was my Venerable Ancestor, too. When I think of that world of my early childhood, I remember the Empress Dowager as the central figure, and one as familiar to me as though I had seen her myself. Everybody knew how she looked, and any little Chinese girl, in our games, was proud to represent her and for a throne to sit upon the tussock of one of the tall pointed earthen graves that dotted our hillside.
I did not realize, then, that the Empress was not Chinese, but Manchu. She had black hair and eyes and the lovely cream-pale skin of the northern people. She was not tall, but she wore embroidered satin shoes set high on padded soles in the Manchu fashion, and her shining black hair was worn high on her head so that actually she looked tall. When she sat on the Peacock Throne, its dais raised several steps above the tiled floor of the Throne Room of the yellow-roofed Imperial Palace in The Forbidden City in Peking, everybody said she looked as tall as a man. But the height was more than physical. She was proud and wilful and her eyes could make anyone tremble. She was dangerous, we all knew that. The meekest little brother among us had to play the part of the young Emperor in our games, so that the Empress could terrify him and lock him up in prison.
Excerpted from My Several Worlds by Pearl S. Buck. Copyright © 1954 Pearl S. Buck. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.