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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 0


From Beyond the Horizon to The Good Earth:
Transformation of China in
American Literary Consciousness

Haiping Liu
Nanjing University

The influence of Chinese culture upon the literature of the United States is evident. The best examples are, perhaps, Eugene O’Neill and Pearl S. Buck, the two American winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936 and 1938 respectively.  They are both known for their interest in and influence by Chinese culture.  And both were able to produce works that represent literary monuments in the history of Chinese-American cultural interactions.  Each, however, had a unique story to tell about how he or she came under the influence of Chinese culture and how the image of China took shape and transformed in their successive plays or novels.

O’Neill’s affinity with Chinese culture was the result of his own choice. As recorded in many of his biographies, the most significant and painful single factor in O’Neill’s life was his rejection of Catholicism at the age of 15.  It was a time when he discovered his mother, Ella, a devout Catholic, had been a drug addict and, despite his prayers, she could not quit using morphine.  For all the subsequent years, O’Neill undertook a spiritual odyssey in his life and work, searching for a substitute for his lost faith.

Eugene O’Neill’s first acquaintance with Chinese culture was made indirectly through the books he had read. When eighteen, O’Neill read with excitement Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. He was to declare years later that “Zarathustra has influenced me more than any book I’ve read.”  O’Neill may have been prepared for Nietzsche by reading the volumes of Ralph Waldo Emerson he found in his father’s library, for the German philosopher himself had been greatly influenced by the American savant (Gelb 88).  But ultimately this mysticism found its origin in some Oriental philosophy which had inspired both Emerson and Nietzsche. “The mystery and spell of the East which lures me in the books I’ve read,” may have been vague at that time, but it was fundamental for the young man who was to write the very first act of American drama.

Another influence O’Neill had along the same direction was a loquacious anarchist, Terry Carlin, whom he later portrayed as Larry Slade in The Iceman Cometh. O’Neill met Carlin in about 1915 at a rundown saloon called “Hell Hole” in New York. Carlin preached a philosophy combining Nietzsche with the wisdom of the East.  Most importantly, he introduced O’Neill to a book entitled Light on the Path, which, published by the Theosophical Press, was a curious mixture of Eastern and Western religions and philosophies.  O’Neill and Carlin would often read together a passage like this in Light on the Path (page 21):

Seek the life beyond individuality…. Seek it by plunging into the mysterious depths of your own being….For within you is the light of the world, the only light that can be shed on the Path. If you are unable to perceive it within you, it is useless to look for it elsewhere. It is beyond you; because, when you reach it, you have lost yourself.

A similar thought is expressed in the 47th Chapter of Dao-De-Jing (Tao Te Ching), a book which O’Neill was to get and read later:

Without going outside his door, one understands all that takes place under the sky; without looking from his window, one sees the Tao of Heaven. The farther that one goes out (from himself), the less he knows. Therefore the sages got their knowledge without traveling; gave names to things without seeing them; and accomplished their ends without any purpose of doing so. (1)

By rejecting the Western primacy of reason, O’Neill embraced one of the Taoist ideas  that wisdom was to be discovered within oneself, rather than without, though he was not then clear about the source of the idea.  Taoism, as Bynner put it, was “a commonsense so profound in its simplicity” that it had come to be called “mysticism” (Bynner 12).  Lao Tze, who meditated over the origin of life in his Tao Te Ching, is generally regarded as a mystic.  O’Neill, too, considered himself “a most confirmed mystic,” as he said: “I am always trying to interpret life in terms of lives, never just in terms of character.  I am always acutely conscious of the force behind – fate, God, our biological past creating our present, whatever one calls it – Mystery certainly” (Cargill 125).  

Therefore, “the mystery and spell of the East” lured O’Neill to books on Eastern religions and philosophies, to life on shipboard and to wandering in foreign lands. And it finally motivated many of his plays.  According to Frederic I. Carpenter, a relatively clear pattern exists in O’Neill’s dramatic works.  His early writings feature the dream of an impossible beauty beyond the horizon.  Then, by contrast, his later plays emphasize the ugliness of materialistic America.  The impossibility of realizing the dream causes frustration and, in the end, resignation in almost all of his final tragedies (Carpenter 63). 

In O’Neill’s early plays, the East in all its vagueness and mystery represents the dream of an impossible beauty actively searched for by the protagonists.  In the second phase of his creative career, China grows larger in his literary consciousness and at some point even becomes the central locale of the dramatic action to throw the “Ugly West” in contrast.  In O’Neill’s final tragedies written in the quietude of Tao House he built for himself in California after he won the Nobel Prize, China becomes a memory and the Taoist wisdom permeates. Since one of my earlier articles deals with “Taoism in O’Neill’s Tao House Plays,” this paper will concentrate on examples from the first two stages of his dramatic career.

In Beyond the Horizon, O’Neill’s first full-length play to be produced and achieve success, O’Neill dramatizes the conflict of the two opposing ideals of adventure and security, embodied by the two brothers, Robert and Andrew.  Each of the three acts in the play consists of two scenes: one, on the top of a hill looking toward the horizon; the other, in the sitting room of a farmhouse. In Act I, on the hilltop Robert talks about his dream of “the beauty of the far off and the unknown”; then he descends to the farmhouse to announce that he decides to stay on the farm and marry Ruth.  In Act II, Robert and Ruth act out their frustrations in the farmhouse; then on the hilltop Andrew tells Robert about his disillusionment in the “East you used to rave about.” In the final act Robert learns in the farmhouse of the hopelessness of his disease, but, true to his dream, he escapes and struggles to the hilltop to die with his dream of looking beyond the horizon. 

The structure of the play is often criticized for its over-neatness and clumsy scenery changes. The subtlety of the play, however, derives from the tension between its apparent and underlying meanings. On the surface, Robert is the pure dreamer, defeated by practical problems; Andrew, the gross materialist, disillusioned by a life different from his expectations. But actually, their failures are caused not so much by their temperaments as by the failure of each to know about himself.  The play is tinged with mysticism, as the audience’s attention is constantly directed to “the force behind – fate, God, our biological past creating our present.”

China was hardly mentioned in this mystical play.  Robert informs his brother Andrew early in Act I that he would sail “around the Horn for Yokohama first, …India, or Australia, or South Africa, or South America.” In Act II, Andrew tells Robert that he went through a typhoon “in the China sea” which knocked off a main topmast of the ship and it “had to beat back to Hong Kong for repairs.” China obviously did not yet occupy much of a place in O’Neill’s consciousness, and the East is only a vague term referring to any place beyond the horizon the protagonist dreams of.

The Moon of the Caribbees, an earlier one-act play, can also be interpreted in terms of Taoism that emphasizes man’s harmony with his environment.  The action in The Moon is really insignificant: A group of sailors on deck are passing the time talking and quarreling, while awaiting smuggled rum and women.  These arrive, and the talking and quarreling increase in volume. The officer intervenes and the rum and women are sent away.  Only the moonlight and the haunted echo of distant music remain. The sailors are enchanted by the “brooding music, faint and far-off,” and are no longer able to exert their wills.  “They move as the sea moves in a lifetime of ebb and flow, in unity with the ship and its element.” As O’Neill was to write about the play later, “A ship was part of the sea, and man was a part of a ship, and the sea joined all together and made it one” (Bogard 91).  The music, the sea and the moonlight are all part of the great natural harmony in which the sailors recede to the background and find their meaning. One might remember that in the theater of 1917 when The Moon was produced, “melodramatic conflicts, stories that depended on surprises and tricks were the order of the day” (Bogard 90).  Thanks to the mysticism he absorbed in his thoughtful reading, O’Neill, with this short play, was able to break with the tradition of the commercial theater in the United States of that time.

The more O’Neill read about the East, the more significant a position China began to take in his life and literary creation.  He read extensively on Chinese history, religion, art and poetry when gathering material for The Fountain (1925) and Marco Millions (1927).  He admitted in 1932 that “the mysticism of Lao-Tze and Chuang-Tze probably interested me more than any other Oriental writings” (Carpenter II 210).

The Fountain, the last of O’Neill early romantic plays and the first of his unusually long dramas, reveals its author’s ecstasy in discovering and embracing the Taoist idea that meaning, or youth, or beauty, is to be found only within oneself, within one’s soul.  The play begins with Ponce de Leon being among the Spanish about to sail with Columbus in 1492, “to conquer for Spain that immense realm of the Great Kaan which Marco saw.”  In the New World thus conquered, Juan is horrified to see his compatriots beat and enslave innocent Indians and the monks torture the natives to convert them to Catholicism.  He thus loses interest in riches. Instead, he seeks  and finally finds the mysterious “Spring of Life,” the “Fountain of Beauty.” In this play, therefore, “the beauty of the far off and the unknown, the mystery and spell of the East” becomes an actual presence. At first it is described vaguely, making no distinction between China and Japan:

There is some far country of the East - Cathy, Cipango, who knows - a spot that nature has set apart from men and blessed with peace.  It is a sacred grove where all things live in the old harmony they knew before man came…and in the center of the grove there is a fountain - beautiful beyond human dreams….

And in the end, this fountain appeared visibly.  And from the fountain four religious figures spring, one of whom is the Chinese poet who originated the tale of the fountain’s healing power. Juan’s last line before his death in the last scene of the play is: “Oh, Luis, I begin to know eternal youth! I have found my Fountain! O Fountain of Eternity, take back this drop, my soul!”

Marco Millions is a typical example of the second phase of O’Neill’s dramatic career.  His only finished drama set in China, Marco Millions presents a historical pageant of opposing civilizations.  The notes O’Neill took when reading Marco Polo’s travels reveal that he was looking for elements that would allow him through a “slanted projection” of Marco Polo to satirize the American businessman (Stroupe 119).

It is interesting that in Act II of the play, Marco instructs the Kaan Western materialism, while the Kaan’s beautiful granddaughter, Kukachin, tragically falls in love with this “strange, mysterious dream-knight from the exotic West.”  A boastful clown, Marco demonstrates to Kaan his two aids to government he invented when serving as Mayor of Yang Chau. The first is paper money, “made at very slight expense and yields enormous profit;” and the second is cannon, using the same powder in China as “in children’s fireworks.” He advises the two be used in combination: to conquer the world with cannon and pay for it with paper money.  At Kukachin’s request, the Kaan allows Marco to return with his wealth to Venice, on the condition that on the way he deliver Kukachin to the Shah of Persia to be married. Marco is instructed that every morning he must gaze deeply into her eyes.  But what he finds in her love-lorn eyes is nothing except the symptoms of bilious fever.  Impervious to love and beauty, Marco returns to Venice with his millions.

It is obvious that O’Neill emphasizes the spirituality of Eastern culture and the crassness of the Western, making the Western figures the corrupting influence upon the East.  Kukachin emerges as a spiritual figure, representative of Eastern beauty and nobility.  Kublai is depicted as the exemplar of Eastern wisdom, a detached commentator upon Marco’s behavior. 

O’Neill’s interest in China was genuine and lasting.  The year after Marco Millions was published, O’Neill and Carlotta Monterey sailed across the Atlantic and the Indian with China as their final destination.  Carlotta  was herself an avid student of Chinese culture, purchasing numerous books on China throughout her life. O’Neill proclaimed the purpose of the trip was to “absorb a bit of background for (his) future work.” And they stayed in Shanghai for a month.  After the trip, O’Neill persisted in reading on China for another five years.  On and off, he toyed with the idea of writing a play about China’s first emperor Shih Huang Ti. Part of his interest in writing this play was to explore some concepts of Taoism, such as the female and male forces, and yin and yang principles, etc. (Floyd 8).

Although O’Neill finally gave up the idea of writing the play in 1934, his interest in Taoism went unabated.  With the money from the Nobel Prize in 1936, he had a Chinese-styled house built in the mountains in California, facing the Pacific, and named it “Tao House.”  O’Neill and Carlotta had maintained friendships with Lin Yutang and Mai-Mai Sze.  When moving into “Tao House,” the O’Neills received as gifts from Lin and Sze copies of books on Chinese thought and art.  There in the remote, sheltered, and peaceful Tao House, O’Neill was to live like a Taoist hermit and write his last and best “Tao House plays,” saturated with, among other things, Taoist ideas. 

In short, O’Neill’s journey to China was complex and non-lineal. Although the influence of Taoism is discernible in a number of his early plays, the word, or the idea, of China, only appears in a couple of these plays.  As O’Neill developed as a dramatist, the image of China changes in his plays from a vague and unidentifiable place far away beyond the horizon, to a romanticized haven for the escapist, and to an Orientalized land from which to launch satirical attacks on the materialistic America.

If O’Neill’s indebtedness to Chinese culture was not obvious and had to be discovered and analyzed by his critics like Frederic Carpenter, James Robinson and others, the relationship between Pearl S. Buck and Chinese culture was a fact known to the world.  However, Pearl S. Buck’s bond with China was almost in every way the opposite of O’Neill’s experience. 

Unlike O’Neill’s, Pearl S. Buck’s passage to China was not of her own choice. She was brought to China by her missionary parents when only 3 months old. There she spent virtually the first half of her eighty years of life. Brought up in a bi-lingual environment, she was conversant with both Chinese and English.  Her initial exposure to Chinese culture was not through books, though she was later steep in Chinese literary classics.  She came to know China through her own actual, day-to-day experience in China.  And her contact with and reception of Chinese culture was realized in a real environment of intercultural communication and in the same process as of her growth and maturity.  She grew up, as she would say, in “a double world”: “the small white clean Presbyterian American world of my parents and the big loving merry not-so-clean Chinese world” of her servants, neighbors and playmates. 

Pearl Buck was, therefore, nourished by both Chinese and American cultures, but she also smarted from their tension and clashes.  Her consciousness of being a white minority living among the overwhelming Chinese majority was intensified by two historical events in modern Chinese history that released popular anger at foreign missions.  The first was the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 when her playmates called her "foreign devil", and her father was stoned, spat at and tied to a post to watch a Chinese convert being tortured to death.  Later she was to reflect on the effect of this event upon her mind:

My worlds no longer interwove.  They were sharply clear, one from the other.  I was American, not Chinese, and although China was as dear to me as my native land, I knew it was not my land.  Mine was the country across the sea, the land of my forefathers, alien to China and indifferent to the Chinese people. (Buck 55)

This event thus shattered her childish impression that she was living in two worlds in harmony.  The second event took place in March, 1927 when the Kuomintang troops of the Northern Expedition Army attacked foreign consulates and missionary homes.  Pearl and her family had a narrow escape only because a poor and friendly Chinese woman risked her own life and provided them with the shelter of her muddy hut.  About that escape she wrote later: “I have had that strange and terrible experience of facing death because of my color…. The only reason I was not killed was because some of those in that other race knew me, under my skin, and risked their own lives for me and mine” (Spence 162)

These two experiences contributed greatly to her lifelong passion for interracial understanding and friendship, especially between Chinese and the Americans.  If O’Neill turned to Chinese philosophy to satisfy mainly his own spiritual yearnings after the God in whom he was brought to believe in was declared dead, Pearl S. Buck wrote her Chinese novels mainly to promote cross-cultural understanding and communication.

Whereas O’Neill’s Chinese characters all live in ancient dynasties and are without exception two-dimensional, Pearl Buck depicted only the Chinese of her own time, and her Chinese characters are mostly three dimensional and dynamic.  When her husband was undertaking a comprehensive survey of the farm economy in the rural area in northern Anhui, Pearl S. Buck set herself the task of recounting in fictional form what seemed to her unsurveyed and undocumented life of China's farmers in the poor region.  She had been greatly moved by the life and spirit of the Chinese farmers(2) whom she came to know a great deal about.  She realized that the farmers constituted more than 80 per cent of China’s population and undertook most of the country’s burdens and toil and yet had no literary voice of their own.  She wanted to interpret as well as portray for the people in America and Europe the qualities of these common people in China.  Thus came the novel The Good Earth (1931).

Set mainly in Anhui, the book that changed the American popular attitude towards China and the Chinese was about the life of a Chinese farmer, Wang Lung, and his wife O-lan, and about their interaction with the land.  A close reading of Pearl S. Buck's description of Wang Lung’s three-roomed house on the first three pages of the novel shows how well the American writer knew about the rural life in China:

The house was still except for the faint, gasping cough of his old father whose room was opposite to his own across the middle room… He went into the shed, which was the kitchen…. The kitchen was made of earthen bricks as the house was; great squares of earth dug from their own fields and thatched with straw from their own wheat…… On top of this earthen structure stood a deep, round, iron cauldron.

The cauldron he filled partly full of water, dipping it with a half-gourd from an earthen jar that stood near, but he dipped cautiously, for water was precious….  He went around the oven to the rear, and selecting a handful of dry grass and stalks standing in the corner of the kitchen, he arranged it delicately in the mouth of the oven, making the most of every leaf.  Then from an old flint and iron he caught a flame and thrust it into the straw and there was a blaze (1-3).

Pearl Buck’s purpose of such detailed description was to lead her reader directly into the world of a Chinese farmer.  If one makes a comparison between the very abstract depiction of the philosophical but bookish Kublai Kaan with the detailed and progressive portrayal of the illiterate and inarticulate Wang Lung, the difference in subtlety in their authors' knowledge about China and the Chinese is indeed pronounced. 

The Good Earth presents a vivid picture of the life pattern of the Chinese farmers. Wang Lung and O-lan are seen in the novel living in an endless round of plowing, sowing and harvesting, interrupted periodically by natural calamities and by the births, marriages and deaths of the family members. It also dramatizes the classic cycles of a Chinese farmer’s mobility as his household moves upwards or downwards in wealth, size and status.  Like O’Neill’s dramas, but unlike many typical American stories that celebrate success and wealth, Pearl Buck’s novel shows not only the power but also the corrupting effect associated with wealth.  After O-lan discovers a cache of jewels in a rich house looted by a revolutionary army, Wang Lung is able to leave Nanjing and return to his land after the famine.  However, it is not too long before the wealthy and leisured  Wang Lung has been filled with restlessness which his large-featured and unkempt wife of many years could no longer satisfy.  He takes home a small and slender prostitute as his concubine and the former hard yet dynamic life style of the family ends.

Pearl S. Buck not only presents in her novel a vivid picture of Chinese farmer’s life of her time, but also interprets for her readers the Chinese people, Chinese society and Chinese culture from her unusual cross-cultural perspective.   The simple story line and conventional narrative techniques of the novel could sometimes be deceptive.  For example, the most memorable character in the novel, O-lan is like most of traditional Chinese women, who accept their life’s fate and status in the family and society without any complaint.  She never considers her own desires and all she has in mind is how to play her roles well as daughter-in-law, wife and mother.  Yet like an undercurrent, this submissive character is in the meantime depicted through details and irony as the most courageous, practical, persevering and sensible in the novel. It is she that like a pillar supports the family and holds it all together.  This shows not only Pearl Buck’s understanding of the life and reality in China, but also her subtle feminist stand.

Throughout the book, Pearl Buck was able to stick to the Chinese farmer’s point of view in her narration. So Christianity is almost non-existent in Wang Lung’s life picture.  And ironically, in the only scene where a missionary appears, he is seen as a grotesquely-looking figure.  And the piece of paper he gave to Wang Lung on which Jesus Christ’s crucification was drawn was used by O-lan as something to make shoe’s sole with.  So was a handout given to Wang Lung by a revolutionary.  Wang Lung used it to fill his shoe sole.  Pearl Buck was undoubtedly here making a statement by what she writes about and what she chooses not to write about in the novel.  She did not believe that Christianity or radical revolution was the solution to China’s problem.

The book benefits from Pearl Buck cross-cultural perspective. The innumerable details of a farmer’s daily life and the various customs and practices of a patriarchal society that Pearl Buck intimately wove into this story would normally have been overlooked by the Chinese writers writing in Chinese on a similar subject.  They would understandably take their readers’ knowledge for granted.  So, as time goes by and as Chinese society is undergoing such rapid and fundamental changes as it is now, Pearl Buck’s books will increase in value as a reliable record of Chinese life of that particular region and of that particular time period.

After the success of The Good Earth, Pearl Buck conceived the idea of a series of novels, each of which would reveal some fundamental aspect of Chinese life. Two of these novels, Sons and A House Divided, were sequels to The Good Earth and continued to feature the story of Wang Lung and his descendants.  In Sons, for example, the focus is on Wang Lung's son, who becomes a warlord, a figure central to an understanding of political events in China at that time.  In another powerful novel, The Mother, Pearl S. Buck brought a Chinese peasant woman to the center stage and let her act out the injustice and frustration in her life.  We see that her perceptions and fulfillment were limited by the social and cultural forces working against her and by her own experience and understanding of these events around her.

If O'Neill rendered China in exotic mystery in his dramas, Pearl S. Buck is known for her stark realism in her portrayal of China and the Chinese in fiction, as well as biographies.  She was hailed by The New York Times for her presentation in her novels of “a China in which, happily, there is no hint of mystery or exoticism.  There is very little in her book of the quality which we are accustomed to label ‘Oriental” (Conn Earth xxiii).

It is of interest to note that for the first time in Western literary history, the Chinese were portrayed in Pearl Buck’s novels in relationship with not the Westerners, but themselves.  This is doubly significant as it no only makes it possible for the Chinese to play a leading, not the usual supporting, role in American literature about China. It has also made it possible to represent the illiterate and inarticulate Chinese peasant without making him either coarsely ridiculous or condescendingly rustic.  As Hayford points out, earlier foreign writers of novels set in China usually insisted on having foreign protagonists and naturalistic English dialogue; their Chinese did not speak like sane human beings, but produced only a childish pidgin.

This highly subjective selection of the American writings about China, and incidentally by the two Nobel Prize laureates, from O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon to Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, symbolizes the evolution process of American literary engagement with China.  But one question remains unanswered about Pearl Buck’s cultural identify: is she an American writer or a  Chinese writer, or a American-Chinese writer, like Maxim Hong Kingston, Amy Tang and David Huang on a reversed situation?

Works Cited

Bogard, Travis. “From the Silence of Tao House” Tao House: Tao House Foundation, 1993

Buck, Pearl S. My Several Worlds. NY: John Day, 1954

Bynner, Witter (Translated): Lao Tzu, The Way of Life. New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1980

Cargill, Oscar, et al, (Edited): O’Neill and His Plays. New York: New York U.P. 1961.

Carpenter, Frederick I. Eugene O’Neill. Boston: Twayne, 1979

Carpenter, Frederick I. “Eugene O’Neill, the Orient and American Transcendentalism.” In      Transcendentalism and Its Legacy, ed. Myron Simon and T.H. Parsons, Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan P, 1966, pp. 204-13

Floyd, Virginia: “Eugene O’Neill’s Tao Te Ching: Spiritual Evolution of a Mystic.” In Eugene O’Neill in China: An International Centenary Celebration. N.Y.: Greenwood, 1992, pp3-12

Gelb, Arthur and Barbara: O’Neill. New York: Harper, 1962

Liu, Haiping and Swortzell, Lowell (Edited): Eugene O’Neill in China: An International Centenary Celebration. New York: Greenwood, 1992

Spencer, Cornelia, The Exile’s Daugher: A Biography of Pearl S. Buck (New York: Coward-McCann, 1944)

White, Emma Edmunds: “Pearl S. Buck”, Randolph-Macon Alumnae Bulletin, Summer, 1973. pp. 3-9

Yu, Yuh-chao: “Chinese Influences on Pearl S. Buck” pp23-41

(1) James Legge, Trans., The Texts of Taosim, New York, 1959, p.137

(2) It is significant to note that neither “peasant” with its European association, nor “farmer” with its American connotation means the same as the word “non-min” or “non-fu” in Chinese.  See Charles Hayford’s article “The Good Earth, Revolution, and the American Raj in China” in Lipscomb, Elizabeth J. et all ed: The Several Worlds of Pearl S. Buck. Westport: Greenwood, 1994



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