Beyond the Horizon to The Good Earth:
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.
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
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.
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):
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:
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).
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
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
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
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.
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.
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).
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
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!”
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
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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)
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.
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).
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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?
Travis. “From the Silence of Tao House” Tao House: Tao House Foundation,
Pearl S. My Several Worlds. NY: John Day, 1954
Witter (Translated): Lao Tzu, The Way of Life. New York: Putnam’s
Oscar, et al, (Edited): O’Neill and His Plays. New York: New York U.P.
Frederick I. Eugene O’Neill. Boston: Twayne, 1979
Frederick I. “Eugene O’Neill, the Orient and American
Transcendentalism and Its
Legacy, ed. Myron Simon and T.H.
Parsons, Ann Arbor: Univ. of
Michigan P, 1966, pp. 204-13
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,
Arthur and Barbara: O’Neill. New York: Harper, 1962
Haiping and Swortzell, Lowell (Edited): Eugene O’Neill in China: An International
Centenary Celebration. New York:
Cornelia, The Exile’s Daugher: A Biography of Pearl S. Buck (New
York: Coward-McCann, 1944)
Emma Edmunds: “Pearl S. Buck”, Randolph-Macon Alumnae Bulletin, Summer,
1973. pp. 3-9
Yuh-chao: “Chinese Influences on Pearl S. Buck”
(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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