Keynote Address: Pearl S. Buck and the American Quest for China
James C. Thomson Jr.
I am honored and deeply touched to be asked to help launch this centennial exploration of the legacy of one of this century's uniquely great women, who was not only a graduate of your college but also a presiding figure in my life. "Aunt Pearl," as I knew her in my Nanjing, China, childhood, cast such a spell over me for the rest of her lifetime and beyond, that I welcome this chance to talk about her.
When I was invited to be a part of this symposium quite long ago, I suggested as a title "Pearl S. Buck and the American Quest for China." In the intervening months, as I helped put together a public television film on the life and times of Pearl Buck, I realized that there is an important subplot to my topic--namely, the American quest for Pearl S. Buck, an unfinished search for a critical understanding of her nature, development, and significance.
Although the two quests are intricately related, I will only touch impressionistically on the second one--since other scholars will probe that matter.
Let me begin with; China--China in the American mind. As Harold Isaacs reported nearly forty years ago, in his path-breaking book about American images of Asia, our views of China have traveled on a two-hundred-year roller coaster. He meant from the eighteenth century through the Korean War. I would add--from then through the Tiananmen tragedy of 1989 as well.
What this means is that although our founding fathers much admired by hearsay the Confucian empire at its zenith, our nineteenth-century forebears who went to China found the "heathen Chinee" insufferably unreceptive to our alleged benevolent offerings and also a special threat to our society at home when they moved in as temporary immigrant laborers. With the disintegration and collapse of China's empire in the first decade of this century, we quickly rejoiced in the new Chinese responsiveness as our wards and tutees--our