Peony, by Pearl Buck
Chinese Melting Pot
By Pearl Buck.
New York, John Day, 1940. 312 pp. $3.00.
Liberalism’s kindliest error is its overanxious leap from the concrete to the general. Concreteness is always involved in our interest in individuals, but the liberal, in his response to larger groups, likes to depend upon whatever in them is “essentially” human, or French, or Jewish. Such squeamish patronage leads Pearl Buck to describe Judaism in her novel as an intense disembodied force with no reference to the natural manifestations of an ethnic culture or to the actual lively surface of Jewish life.
Peony delicately alludes to the symbolic peeled hard-boiled eggs in salt water, bitter herbs, silver candlesticks,—and reverently celebrates the Jewish spirit. But apparently no Jew in the northern Chinese province of Honan was known to enjoy a shrug of the shoulders, an abstract argument, or a good kosher meal. The same indiscriminate pity that causes Sartre to believe that the “authentic Jew,” regardless of his individual condition, must consciously lead the life of a martyr, also feeds Miss Buck’s conception of the Jewish religion as exclusively burden and stricture.
Her novel takes its story from the arresting historical fact that China has for centuries composedly absorbed all its alien races. The mystique of the woman’s magazine demands that the power behind all power be ultimately feminine, and the willing instrument of history is in this case a pink-cheeked, rice-powdered Chinese bondsmaid in the house of Ezra, a Jewish importer. Peony has her eye on the son of the house, but class distinction prevents marriage, as religion does concubinage, forcing her into the kind of prudent compromise which Miss Buck thinks of as indigenously Chinese. She whips up David’s interest in a pliable Chinese girl who will at least not threaten her present secure status. Since David has developed an environmental preference for small girls with flat noses, it looks in the demure early section of the book, as if a little poetry and Peony can easily accomplish his seduction to China.
But at this point, the Jewish will to survive flares up: Madame Ezra introduces a rabbi’s daughter who represents the passion and dedication of the Jew, Ezra’s partner brings home a sword by which his people died in Western pogroms—and two races struggle for the body of David.
The Chinese ends in the ascendancy, chiefly through the simplistic way in which Miss Buck has counterposed racial qualities: Jewish rigidity and fanaticism against Chinese moderation; Jewish sorrow against Chinese sensuality; the Jews as “a people bemused with God” against the Chinese contentment with “simple pleasures of the earth”; the prophet’s vindictive “And thou shalt stone him with stones that he die, because he sought to thrust thee away from the Lord thy God” against the Chinese Christian “To repay evil with kindness is the proof of a good man.” No doubt there were Orthodox Jews in China who reacted bitterly to the decay of their synagogue and the indifference of their children. Still, for the justice of the parable, they would have to be compared with Chinese Buddhists rather than with those educated only in the rationalist doctrines of Confucius. The latter would more properly be comparable to the secular Jewish community, about which Miss Buck has nothing to say.
She suggests that the lore and practice of the Chinese community spoke more powerfully to the Jewish imagination both on aesthetic and philosophical levels than their own tradition, that the result was a virtual disappearance of Judaism, and that this was universally a good thing, as a precedent for the gradual obliteration of all racial differences, and was specifically in China the only tactful tribute that could be paid to a country which had been so considerate toward Jews.
If there is something in Chinese thought and temperament that has made them uniquely unsusceptible to anti-Semitic feeling, it deserves Jewish respect and Occidental emulation. But there must be some better tribute than the destruction of a historical and communal identity and the creation of a vacuum. Miss Buck invokes a consoling dialectic to show us that assimilation is negation for a productive purpose. “Wherever a statesman stands most honorable, a judge most just,” so Peony rationalizes her successful influence on David, “there is one; where a scholar is most learned, there is one; where a woman is both beautiful and wise, there is one. Their blood is lively in whatever frame it flows . . . . Their spirit is born anew in every generation. They are no more and yet they live forever.”
This is almost too generous and, more pertinently, is not the only way in which people can appreciate one another. The harmony of a canvas does not depend upon the transformation of all reds, blues, and yellows into muddy brown, and it is not impossible to respond to the idiom of two languages. Miss Buck’s first interest has always been to attack racial discrimination and it is perhaps understandable that in her singlemindedness she has not been able to see that there are values to be lost in the surrender of a particular culture, that communities reciprocally stimulate through differentiation, and that human beings are most often pleasing in their eccentricity.