I’m a huge fan of Pearl Buck. From the moment I opened the “House of Earth” trilogy — which includes “The Good Earth”, “Sons” and “A House Divided” — I was hooked, and devoured every word passionately.
But yet, there was always one part of the book I found heartbreaking, perhaps for personal reasons. In “A House Divided”, the character Yuan goes to the US to study, and nearly falls in love with the daughter of a Christian family — a soulful girl with penetrating dark eyes and hair, who somehow felt a connection with this “son of Han” from a country far away. I say Yuan “nearly” falls in love with her, because after a while, he decides against the idea of a union with a foreigner. Of course, this decision is understandable. Even today, the idea of marrying a foreign women is still met with reservations. Some see us as too casual or “complicated” (a euphemism the parent of a Chinese friend used to refer to questionable sexual orientation) than Chinese, or wonder if we could accept the Confucian family structure. Yet part of me still longed to find a literary counterpart in Buck’s stories, a foreign girl who could indeed marry a Chinese man and overcome the barriers to somehow still live “happily ever after”.
I only wish I had found “East Wind: West Wind”, a story where the ardent love between a Chinese man and foreign woman challenges the traditional Chinese family structure and view of the world, all that sooner.
Even better, “East Wind: West Wind” is a welcome read for any feminist (right here!) because the narrator is a woman. Specifically, Kwei-lan, the sister of the Chinese man who falls in love with the foreign woman. If you’ve read “House of Earth” and longed to get the woman’s perspective, here’s your chance. Ironically, though, it’s not Kwei-lan, but rather her foreign-schooled husband, who calls into question all of the traditional practices in Chinese society that quietly promote the inferiority of women. Certainly, there are the usual suspects, such as when he persuades her to unbind her feet (“How you have suffered!” he proclaims as he helps her with the painful process). But he also addresses more subtle, yet insidious, issues, such as the slavish deference of women to their husbands (“I shall never force you to anything. You are not my possession — my chattel. You may be my friend, if you will.”). For a woman such as Kwei-lan, whose entire childhood was in preparation for quiet servitude to the man she was long betrothed to, it is as painful as unbinding those “tiny lotuses” she learned to walk on long ago. The specters of this old world still linger on with each visit home, where her mother is confined to the bitter existence as a first wife, while her often absent father is drawn away by the next concubine or conveniently planned business trip that removes him from any domestic disputes.
The changes in Kwei-lan and her life are certainly cause for concern from her mother. But it is Kwei-lan’s brother, and his foreign wife, Mary, who create a seismic rift within the family structure.
As the wife of a Chinese man, I’ve often wondered about how people in China perceive my relationship. While it’s certainly not the last word, and perhaps somewhat dated (roughly set in the 1930s/1940s), East Wind: West Wind offers many clues to that end. I had to laugh, for example, at how Kwei-lan is shocked in Mary being much taller than her husband (same for me), or in Mary’s freedom (“But most of all, she likes to sit in the garden dreaming, doing nothing at all. I have not once seen any embroidery in her hands.”) or especially, in the ways that Mary and her husband display their affection openly (“She avows her love for my brother as simply as a child may seek its playmate. There is nothing hidden or subtle in her. How strange this is!”).
But even stranger to Kwei-lan is how she must become an ambassador for her brother and Mary, in their attempt to gain acceptance to the family. This whole chapter in the story is almost a rite of passage for any foreign wife of a Chinese man, and I relish it with a certain nostalgia, even when my husband had to make such declarations outwardly: “Although in her veins is foreign blood, she wishes me to tell our honorable mother that since she is married to me, her heart has become Chinese.” Mary’s eventual move with her husband into his old family home is much more of a cultural clash than I ever experienced when spending Chinese New Year at my husband’s family home. But while I may not have known the stinging seclusion imposed upon Mary, the situation made me reminisce on those frigid nights alone in my then-boyfriend’s old unheated bedroom, wondering what my potential future in-laws thought of me, or why people looked upon me so curiously. I only wish I had such a devoted friend as Kwei-lan, who defends Mary’s honor. In response to the suggestion that Mary is “so ridiculous and inhuman in appearance” that she “must expect to be looked at — and laughed at”, Kwei-lan declares “Nevertheless, she is human, and she has feelings like ours.”
And in the end, isn’t that what we all hope for — a universal acceptance and understanding that transcends countries and cultures? I think Buck puts it best in the words of Kwei-lan’s husband, who declares the joy of the marriage between her brother and Mary: “Those two hearts, with all of their difference in birth and rearing — differences existing centuries ago! What union!”