Polyphonic Theory and Literature: Pearl Buck, Bing Xin, and Ruthanne Lum McCunn

by King-Kok Cheung

This essay arose from the Fall 2017 meeting of UCHRI’s Asia Theories Network, entitled “Island Life.” More papers from the “Island Life” meeting will be released on Foundry over the course of the 2018-2019 academic year.

Like Barbara Christian, I hold that literature can be a rich resource for critical theory, if not its vehicle. Writers with a transnational vision are especially adept at furnishing relational theoretical insights. Pearl Buck, Bing Xin, and Ruthanne Lum McCunn generate theory from literature, embed theory in literature, or model polyphonic strategies for theory; the three writers provide transpacific perceptions and methodologies that matter socially, that are still relevant in our shrinking world.

Pearl Buck, Water Margins, and the Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Acts

Richard Jean So has highlighted Pearl Buck’s role in annulling the Chinese Exclusion Acts. In 1943, Buck and her husband Richard Walsh spearheaded a campaign to repeal the Asian Exclusion laws, and on May 20th she testified before Congress that “Chinese Exclusion constructed pro-white hierarchies of racial difference that denied basic rights to Chinese immigrants.” She claimed that the Chinese, in their devotion to kinship and rural life, articulated a form of “‘natural democracy’ that modeled a proto-Jeffersonian, Oriental mode of social collectivity” (So citing Buck). Four months later, Congress abolished the Chinese Exclusion Acts.  So traces Buck’s idea of “natural democracy” to Water Margins, Buck’s favorite Chinese classic, which revolves around 108 outlaws who band together to combat the corrupt Song government. This household text assumed renewed importance in the 1920s and 1930s (when Buck was studying in Nanjing), reclaimed and contested by reformists and communists alike. So argues that “Buck’s vision of natural democracy in the Chinese rural countryside developed directly out of her engagement with the novel,” which she referenced in her 1937 Nobel acceptance speech and translated it into English as All Men Are Brothers.

In coupling Chinese natural democracy with Jeffersonian democracy, Buck played a critical role in putting an end to Chinese Exclusion, leaving a historical legacy that facilitated “the emergence of the postwar Asian American subject” (So). Her contribution to this historical milestone also provides a telling case of how a writer versed in literature East and West could extract from a Chinese classic a theory that complements Jeffersonian democracy, thereby effecting a more inclusive democracy. At a time when environmentalists are trying to come up with less anthropocentric theories, it behooves us still to revisit the idea of “natural democracy.”

Bing Xin, “The Photograph,” and “Racist Love”

Pearl Buck and Bing Xin were no strangers to each other. When Buck returned to China in 1933 after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Bing Xin organized a press conference for Buck at the University of Nanking. Buck had, in several essays, expressed her misgivings about the moral arrogance of American missionaries in China, yet she seemed oblivious of her own presumption as an authority on the Chinese and her generalizations about them. Her representations of the Chinese in The Good Earth as hard-working and long-suffering, of the protagonist’s wife as silent and self-sacrificing, conform to Orientalist stereotypes and smack of what the Aiiieeeee! editors consider to be “racist love”— lauding a racial minority for their silence and conformity (Chin, et al.).

Bing Xin’s “The Photograph” (1934) took cues from Buck’s censure of American missionaries, yet placed Buck squarely among them, exposing the hazards of both missionary condescension and dominant containment through approbation of compliance. It anticipated Edward Said’s insights in Orientalism and the concept of “racist love.” The story centers on an aging white expatriate, Madam Simpson, who adopts eight-year-old Shuzhen in China and raises 

her as exclusively “Chinese.” Ten years later, Madam brings Shuzhen to New England, where the girl meets Tianxi, a young man studying there on a missionary scholarship but chafing under white patronage. At the end of the story, Madam discovers a photograph of beaming Shuzhen taken by Tianxi and undergoes a psychic convulsion, after which she tells Suzhen about her intent to return to China. Madam is rattled by Tianxi’s photo, presumably because it belies her image of Suzhen as a demure and submissive Chinese daughter.

Madam cherishes Suzhen’s silent virtue and attentiveness to her needs—traits David Eng associates with “affective labor”: “The stereotype of the hard-working, agreeable, and passive Asian girl, ever eager to please” clouds “political problems, economic disparities, and cultural differences” (Eng). Madam’s self-serving motive surfaces once she senses Shuzhen’s and Tianxi’s nascent romance, and abruptly announces her intention to return with Shuzhen to China. Both Tianxi and Shuzhen have been recipients of white beneficence with invisible strings attached. Tianxi receives a missionary stipend to study theology at the expense of pursuing his own interests; Shuzhen is expected to repay Madam’s kindness with “affective labor.” Furthermore, Bing Xin indirectly questions the white woman’s (including Buck’s?) discursive authority over China. Madam speaks authoritatively on China in New England while Shuzhen mutely sits in the audience.

“The Photograph,” which focuses on interracial adoption at a time when the practice was rare, is all the more relevant today with the widespread adoption of Asian girls. The story was ahead of its time in embedding caveats—articulated decades later by scholars such as Vincent Cheng, David Eng, and Christina Klein—against Orientalist assumptions in white adoption of Asian children. It also forewarns against the dubious construction of the “Asian American model minority.” Bing Xin was perhaps the first Chinese writer to reverse the unilateral white gaze by creating a narrative about an American woman. Given that white writers have long been “positioned as the leading and most dispassionate investigators of the lives, values, and abilities of people of color” (Roediger), her appropriation of white authority is insurgent.

Ruthanne Lum McCunn, Wooden Fish Songs, and Polyphony

Shu-mei Shih and others have argued rightly that theory has always been relational. Instead of initiating an Eastern or Southern turn, theorists can foster an even-handed dialogism. Furthermore, the East is no longer just the colonized and oppressed but is also steeped in ethnocentrism, sexism, racism, chauvinism, and classism. The rise of xenophobic nationalism in China, Japan, Korea, Turkey, as well as the United States has been alarming, not to mention the unabashed discrimination against Filipina workers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore; against Koreans and Chinese in Japan; and against Africans and African Americans all over East Asia.

Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s Wooden Fish Songs—a biographical novel about Lue Gim Gong (1858-1925), a horticulturist from Southern China—exemplifies a polyphonic strategy that could inspire corresponding theoretical approaches. Using female voices to undermine patriarchal and Eurocentric views, the novel is told from the points of view of three women—Lue’s mother in China, the white adoptive U.S. “mother,” and her black maid. Unlike works that set “odd” Chinese traditions against European American “norms,” McCunn tells by turns the strengths and the biases in Chinese, European American, and African American cultures. Structurally and thematically, the tale manifests the importance of tuning in to voices from various quarters. Through orchestrating three perspectives it shows how Lue’s life is ravaged by the anti-Christian hysteria in China and by racist laws, such as those against miscegenation, in the United States—turning him into a pariah in both countries. Yet it is on account of his ability to combine his Chinese mother hands-on knowledge of planting, his white mother’s botanical instruction, and the African American maid’s folk wisdom that he achieves national renown as a horticulturist with an orange named after him in Florida.

Can theory be similarly polyphonic, laying bare the biases of each “turn” by turns and synthesizing the voices from the four seas?