Book Review: “Kinfolk” by Pearl S. Buck (1949)

“You will hear of many things [in China]…some pleasant and some not.” (138)

As it was for many, The Good Earth was my first taste of Pearl S. Buck’s writing. I read it at a time when I had no particular interest in China or her people, yet I still appreciated it—as did whatever council hands out Pulitzers for Literature—for its depth of soul and its rich depictions of life in rural China. Now, years later and nearly a decade wiser in all things Chinese, I have taken Kinfolk as an escape and have found it distinctly appropriate for this season in my own family’s life. This brief review will introduce the story of Kinfolk, answer some critics of Pearl S. Buck, and explore the likely-unintentional allegory of “ministry” one can find inside this excellent novel.

In a nutshell, Kinfolk is the story of a Chinese-American family of six from New York who each live with their own personal levels of Chinese and American personalities. The most distant ends of the spectrum are the Father, Liang, and the eldest son, James. As a Confucian scholar teaching in American universities, Liang holds most closely the ideals of China’s past, the intellectual cream that has risen to the top of her history even midst centuries of seemingly perpetual war and internal skirmishes. His opinion of China could be summarized thus: “China could be great, if it weren’t for all those stupid Chinese.” This can be seen particularly in the following two quotations: “It was wholly unfortunate, he thought…that Chinese like himself were not the sole representatives of his country” (3) and “It is quality that is meaningful in any nation, the articulate few, the scholars. Surely men like myself represent more perfectly than peasants can the spirit of Chinese civilization.” (27) James, on the other hand, desires to look past his father’s teaching, past the ideals of China’s history, and instead to delve into the realities of her present. With such a mission, he (and eventually his three siblings with him) moves back to North China and settles into his ancestral village with a goal of starting a hospital there. Fitted with many side-plots of romance and politics, Kinfolk is a drama not tailored to everyone’s taste, though I enjoyed the various stories immensely.

Since her rise to popularity, Pearl S. Buck has been accused of profiting off the difficulties of China’s poor and rural villagers, and even of having the attitude that she plugs into Liang’s own character: “China could be great, if it weren’t for all those stupid Chinese.” Has she been given a fair shake? I would disagree, as I hope would any who have experienced China up close and personal. As the daughter of American missionaries in China during the nation’s most transformative years, Buck owned insights unique to most outsiders, and it was these insights that gave such depth to her writing. It seems that those who attack her for her “patronizing of China’s poor” are those same culture warriors who prefer to overemphasize China’s future while ignoring her present. They are those who consider China’s 20-year old modern cities to be “the real China,” while refusing to consider the likely 70% of her population or more who live in comparative squalor in her villages and small towns throughout the land. They are those who—like the Shanghai government before them who banned Mission Impossible 3 because it showed the bad side of China (poor areas, clothes hanging from the window sills, basic reality, etc.)—want to close the door on rural China and pretend that it doesn’t exist. How sad it would be for any reader to believe such character assassinations against Buck. But everyone is allowed his opinion.

Kinfolk is filled with detailed descriptions of China’s poor, those filthy, lice-ridden, and unlearned villagers of pre-Communist China. The truth can hurt, certainly, but in any worthwhile book it should be explored, not ignored. And it was these very descriptions experienced by the Chinese-American characters when their boots hit the ground in this book that caught my eye so well, for my family could also be described as Chinese-American, and our own culture shock of returning to modern Chinese villages mirrors Buck’s descriptions in nearly every way, only about 65 years later! James’ return to his ancestral village for the sake of starting a hospital is the perfect allegory for any ministry that desires to lay down roots in a village in any nation, be it China or otherwise, and so I share the following quotations to encourage any believers who might be walking a similar path:

  • “Why did anyone wish to go live in a village? Those who did not wish to go could not understand, and those who did wish to go could not explain.” (251)
  • “China needs us…I want someday to make a big hospital where sick people can come and be healed.” (24)
  • “[James] must begin small. For a month or so he would seem to do nothing. Then he would heal a sick child, and then a few more and then he would be willing to treat others, and then he would find a room for a clinic and this room could become two and three until in a simple way it was a small hospital.” (254)
  • “James repeated to himself like a song, like a ritual, like the rhythm of his heartbeat, that he must go slowly every day and win his way. The dream was a hospital, not a great foreign building standing stories high above the surrounding countryside under a great curving temple roof. He saw his hospital low, a spreading shelter for the sick, the walls of earth and the roof of common tiles, so that when the sick came in it would not frighten them. They would see only a house like their own homes, bigger, for the family of the sick was large, but under their feet would be the beaten earth, and above their heads the rafters would be beneath the tiles. This hospital would be the center, but out from it everywhere would reach living hands of healing. He would teach as well as heal. Under his teaching men and women would go out everywhere to find the sick, to treat them for simple illness, and to bring back to the hospital those who were too gravely ill. And they would not only heal the sick. They would teach the young mothers who were the creators of life, and the children who loved life enough to cling to it, and the young men who took pride in their families.” (255)
  • “Why do we think we must change them? All we need do is to prove a thing is good and they will change themselves.” (304)
  • “Do no think that you will do all the changing! They will also change you.” (255)

Needless to say, I loved this book. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good drama and to anyone else with a heart for places like China, where descriptors like “poor” only begin to describe the state of things, both physically and spiritually.

©2015 E.T.

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Gallery | This entry was posted in Book Review, Chinese History, Church Planting, Culture, Family, Fiction, History, Literature, Missions, Relationships. Bookmark the permalink.

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