Since “Red Azalea,” Anchee Min has populated her writing with strong-willed though sometimes cruel heroines such as Madame Mao and Empress Cixi. In her latest book, “Pearl of China,” she creates a fanciful yet believable world for the Nobel laureate Pearl Buck through the voice of an imagined Chinese woman, Willow Yee, whose unwavering friendship with Buck has endured the test of turbulent times in Chinese history.
Born in poverty, Willow ekes out a living by stealing. After she befriends Pearl, an American missionary’s young daughter who eats with chopsticks and wears a crocheted cap to conceal her blond hair to look Chinese, she is exposed to education and Christianity. This process turns her into a reputable journalist and a great admirer of Pearl’s writing about China and its peasants.
Her friendship with Pearl continues and strengthens despite their brief romantic rivalry and long separations. During the Mao era, Willow’s devotion to her childhood friend, now living in America and being condemned as an “American cultural imperialist” by the Communists, destroys her marriage and family, and causes her to be thrown into a labor prison. But as soon as she has a chance, she embarks on a journey to visit her friend’s grave in the United States.
Willow Yee is the real protagonist of the book. Through her eyes and thoughts, Pearl’s life evolves via many personal defeats and triumphs. Like Min’s other books, “Pearl of China” is charged with high drama involving a deprived childhood, an arranged marriage, abuse and extramarital affairs, love rivalry, war, political scheming and struggling, and mindless violence and torture. Though some circumstances feel contrived, the overall story advances rapidly, spanning 80-plus years of China’s history from the Boxer Rebellion, the Japanese invasion, the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists and the establishment of the Mao era to the Cultural Revolution and China’s opening to the West.
Min skillfully blends real historical figures such as Pearl’s missionary parents, the renowned Chinese poet Hsu Chih-mo, Chairman Mao, Madame Mao and Richard Nixon with fictional characters to authenticate the story’s social and political context. This, in turn, lends more credibility to some of her fictional characters, especially the courageous Willow Yee and the canny, pragmatic Papa Yee, who busies himself converting poor peasants to Christianity.
Min’s imaginative powers are at their best when depicting Willow and Pearl’s childhood in a small town, Chin-Kiang. Their interactions with the townspeople and their fascination with the popcorn man and operas are enjoyable reads. Compared with these, the latter part of the book sometimes seems vapid and undeveloped. Min’s sparse and blunt language, though somewhat conveying the brutality of events such as the Cultural Revolution, undermines the potency of what could have been a much richer account. And the description of Willow burying her husband’s abandoned body bears a marked resemblance to the title story in Xianhui Yang’s 2000 collection, “Woman From Shanghai,” a book about life and death in a Chinese gulag in the 1950s.
Though “Pearl of China” provides a quick glimpse into Chinese history in the 20th century, it often falls short in exposing the magnitude and complexity of certain pivotal historical moments by rushing through event after event. Wooden and sketchy statements, such as “He (Mao) didn’t want to be stretched too thin, so he claimed a nation and named it the People’s Republic of China,” may offer a convenient background to readers, but they greatly diminish the book’s literary merit and historical power.
Such flaws aside, the book presents a welcome addition to Min’s long list of strong female characters, and pays worthy homage to Pearl Buck’s legacy, particularly when it concerns her days in China and how she has been received there over the years.