Pearl Buck: A Servant Leader, Writer, Activist, Immigrant

By Rory Lowdermilk

 

Pearl Buck (1892-1973), most notable for her culturally eye-opening book *The Good Earth*, was a United States immigrant living in China with her missionary parents. During her time in China and beyond, she unwittingly began to mold herself as a servant leader by immersing herself in Chinese society. She listened to and learned from the Chinese, and later in her life sought to improve American and Western perceptions of them internationally. Buck’s service to the Chinese, both abroad and domestically, made her a servant leader of her time and a champion of Asian American rights. She hoped for the world to see her beloved country, China, with the same love, care, respect, and admiration that she did. She sought to represent and advocate for a group of people without reaping or needing any of those benefits herself. Her thoughtful lifetime of stewardship makes her one of the recognized servant leaders in Dehkhoda Educational Foundation’s International Servant Leaders Museum.

 

Her work to bridge the gap between American understandings and Chinese culture began with a criticism of the reductive missionary work present in China with early writings such as “Is There a Place for the Foreign Missionary?”, “Is There a Case for Foreign Missions?”, and “Give China the Whole Christ: To the Editor of *The Chinese Recorder*,” each published in a variety of popular English-language magazines from the late 1920s to early 1930s.

 

Pearl Buck advocated for Chinese-American relations through writing about her lived experiences and sought to argue for their virtue, often with religious rhetoric. Her work became more broadly known, particularly in the United States, with the publication of her novel *The Good Earth*, which presented China as beautiful, wondrous, complex, and human. This was in contrast to perceptions of the country as exotic, backward, seductive, and morally chaotic. She continued writing, portraying various perspectives for a wide audience (Americans, missionaries, anti-missionaries, children, movie makers, etc.), gaining awards, including winning the Nobel Prize in Literature as the first American woman in 1938, and garnering attention with the aim of portraying the country of her childhood and its people as virtuous.

 

When she returned to America, she began advocating for Chinese rights in America, both internationally and domestically. Buck first opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act, an immigration policy from the early 1800s which prevented Chinese immigrants from entering the country and from being naturalized. Buck founded the Citizens Committee to Repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act and testified before Congress in 1943. The act was repealed four months later.

 

She continued her work in America as she established an interracial, international orphanage, The Welcome House, that aimed to find adoptive homes for mixed-race White-Asian children. It was the first orphanage of its kind when it opened in 1949.

 

Pearl Buck made many strides in the fight for Asian American rights and was a pioneer in much of her advocacy (leading with themes of anti-Orientalism that would not be legitimized through academia until five years after her death). Without her selfless leadership and devotion to the cause, much of Asia-America diplomacy would not have manifested, and it is due to her lifelong servitude to a group of people that she is considered a remarkable servant leader.

Rory Lowdermilk is a junior at the University of California, Santa Barbara, pursuing a major in Writing & Literature and a minor in Asian American Studies. She is an intern at the Dehkhoda Educational Foundation for Spring 2024.

Sources:

Cheung, King-Kok, et al. “New Perspectives on Pearl Buck.” Amerasia Journal, vol. 44, no. 3, Dec. 2018, pp. 51–73, https://doi.org/10.17953/aj.44.3.51-73.

Buck, Pearl. “Is There a Place for the Foreign Missionary?” The Chinese Recorder, February 1927.

Buck, Pearl. “Is There a Case for Foreign Missions?” Harper’s Monthly Magazine, December 1, 1932.

Buck, Pearl. “Correspondence—Give China the Whole Christ: To the Editor of The Chinese Recorder,” *The Chinese Recorder*, July 1932.