Sunday, May 13, 2012

Part XIX: East Wind, West Wind and A House Divided: The American picture

Possible Spoilers from:
A House Divided by Pearl Buck
East Wind, West Wind by Pearl Buck

For countless centuries China was the strongest power in Asia and its culture passed down to other Asian nations such as Korea and Japan. (I often use this analogy: United Kingdom is to the West, as China  is to the East,) However in 1800s, great changes happened: Great Britain was waging wars and it needed a lot of revenue from its colonies. Perhaps they desired to conquer and control China (wouldn't surprise me one bit,) and China wouldn't buy or see use for English products, thus the story is that they came up with a deadly idea of using poppy flower and created something called opium, which caused China to weaken and European nations pounced on it like lions fighting over antelope. With opium trade as well as European nations treating China like a turkey carved for Thanksgiving, change became inevitable. Just like anywhere else, there were conservatives and liberals in China, one side advocating sticking to tradition, another side encouraging to learn from the Westerners, although the traditionalists also changed. These two sides are written in some extremes in A House Divided by Pearl Buck and East Wind West Wind by the same author. Instead of focusing on England, Pearl Buck talks of America in 1900s. Before that, I should talk a little bit about A House Divided.

Starting with 1931, Pearl Buck wrote a famous book titled The Good Earth which discusses the life and tribulations of Wang Lung and his family, starting from when he acquired O-Lan to the time he moved back to his sod house with Pear Blossom and was on the verge of death. However, the book is not exactly finished, and the second book that comes after The Good Earth is titled Sons which focuses on his three sons nicknamed Wang the Merchant, Wang the Landlord and Wang the Tiger. In particular it focuses on Wang the Tiger and his desire for the son. He got the son he wanted but his son is very similar to Wang Lung and O-Lan. His son is named Wang Yuan, thus A House Divided picks up with Wang Yuan's escape into the fields and how he learned about himself a great deal. In A House Divided, it focuses a great deal on the changes that Wang Yuan's generation goes through such as his sister Ai-lan becoming a copy of  "western woman", or the revolution that would eventually turn Communist, and of course, studying abroad, which Wang Yuan does.

There is a strange parallel between A House Divided and East Wind West Wind, because both the male characters study abroad, but its amazing how they draw different conclusions from their experiences; Wang Yuan remains conservative, although acknowledging the changes that he experienced from America, while the two male characters in the East Wind West Wind completely throw away Chinese culture they were raised with. I do get curious as to why there is such a big difference between the characters. Wang Yuan wears almost a shell the whole time he's in America, refusing the change and feeling disgusted by his experiences, such as the kiss with Mary, or hearing a priest talking negatively about China or watching his cousin Wang Sheng get rejected by American girls. The only thing he saw in America is a chance to get education and to rise, but beyond that nothing.

East Wind, West Wind is told from a feminine point of view in first person, thus I will name the two male characters as Husband and Brother (there is no mention of their Chinese names.) The book was published a year before The Good Earth in 1930. While Wang Yuan remained conservative with barely changing, and he continued to cling to a lot of Chinese traditions, the two male characters, Husband and Brother, literally threw away almost all of the Chinese culture they were raised with: the Husband hates the fact that his wife has bound feet and often scorns at tradition and superstition, such as keeping the son with him and his wife instead of sending him to the house, or telling his wife to nurse the baby when a peasant could have acted as a nurse-maid. The Brother character goes so far as to marry an American girl named Mary and even gives up his rights and position for her. (Oddly enough the Husband disapproves of the Brother's choice.)

Three different reactions, three men and supposedly they traveled abroad most likely to America. The question that I have is how America would have been like in 1920s or 1930s? Not a warm place for Chinese, be they students or immigrants, something that I think Ms. Buck doesn't research. During that time Chinese immigration was heavily restricted (Chinese Exclusion Act) and I surprised that Wang Yuan didn't end up living in a China town and was allowed to live wherever he chose. Ms. Buck hints at the racism experienced by Wang Yuan but if there's a feel to it, she's trying to give it something timeless. Possibly the Brother's and Husband's experiences are completely different in America, or perhaps not. Perhaps just like Wang Yuan, they were teased and bullied about being Chinese, about being from such a place. In order to get ahead with life, perhaps that's when they threw away everything to do with Chinese. The Brother married a white woman, Mary Wilson, while the Husband married a Chinese woman who narrated the story. As I mentioned in my review, I suspect that at first the Brother saw Mary as an object or a trinket to show off, a trophy wife so to speak. "'In her own land she has been accustomed to freedom and homage. She is accounted beautiful, and many men have loved her. I was proud to win her from them all. I thought it proved the superiority of our race.'" (Chapter XVII, page 219) the Brother does redeem his character when he never gives up his wife and instead the two now have to think about their children, for they are neither American nor Chinese but are both.

Perhaps in another article I will talk about Chinese reactions to changes from the West, but suffice it to say, when Chinese traveled to America, they didn't come back unchanged but became changed a great deal either due to discrimination or by choice. I took a class in Asian-American history, and the Asian Americans have gone through a great deal of discrimination as well as restriction thanks to American/European attitudes and fears. (Reading the second chapter in A House Divided was also a painful experience for me in more ways than one.)

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