Well, everyone, it’s the year of the Ox — fittingly, in these economic times, a year of getting back to basics, simplifying, and making progress through hard work and sweat.
Perhaps then, days such as these, there is nothing more comforting than literature that not only understands us, but uplifts us with the resilience of humanity in the face of hardship. Or, to put it simply, misery loves company.
If you’re looking for such a literary companion — and specifically a China-related one — you may enjoy Pearl S. Buck’s Dragon Seed. (Note to loyal readers — yes, I’m stuck on Buck as it were, and no, I have no idea when this love affair with her writing will end.)
Dragon Seed takes place on the eve of the Japanese invasion in East China (what seems to be the Shanghai area and surrounding environs), so it has all of the makings of a glorious disaster, far worse than our own. Yet, it is the perspective that gives the story its charm — that of Ling Tan, a farmer so fiercely devoted to the Earth that he even believes his earth stretches all the way to the other side of the planet (beware foreigners on the opposite side), and his family, which consists of his wife, Ling Sao, three sons (Lao Ta, Lao Er, Lao San) and two daughters (X and Panhsiao).Â When the first signs of war — bombers flying over Ling Tan’s home — touch the land, no one, not even Ling Tan, believes there is anything of great concern to farmers like him. A country like China, with thousands of restless years of rebellion, infighting, warlords restling for power and the like, has endured regime change so often that people like Ling Tan only care for the safety of his land and family. But this time, it is much more than a new set of rulers sweeping out the old — it is ruthless destruction, completely divorced from all of the mores and values that, in good times, embody humanity. Soon Ling Tan finds his two prized possessions — land and family — in jeopardy, and can no longer hide from the pain of war.Â It truly pales in comparison to our economic losses.
If the East-Ocean people (as the Japanese are referred to in the story) aim to dehumanize the area, it is Buck herself who saves humanity by bringing us such vivid, delightful characters who represent Chinese culture, yet have personality of their own. Naturally, being the feminist I am, I adore the strong women. There is the fiercely independent Jade, wife of Lao Er, who persuades him to buy her a book even if he cannot read, and who marches with her husband to the West, heavy with child, to escape the oncoming soldiers. There is also Ling Sao, Ling Tan’s wife, who, while occupying herself with many of the typical duties of a housewife is nevertheless stubborn and independent in her own right (refusing to leave the home, despite Ling Tan’s pleading at one point) and still the loveliest woman in the world to her dear husband. Panhsiao, while an unplanned child for the family, still longs to learn how to read and write even if she is a girl.
Along the way, complicated characters make trouble for Ling Tan in his fervent quest to save his land and family. There is a dodgy opium-addicted cousin, a somewhat traitorous merchant son-in-law, and even the war-torn personalities that emerge from his oldest and youngest son.
The story ends with Ling Tan asking “Is there not promise of rain?” — only to be told “only a promise” by his son. Things are never the same after a crisis, and so it must be for Ling Tan as he rises like a phoenix from the ashes of conflict. But just as we must face economic difficulties before us, no matter what, there is always a promise of something better, if only we have the patience to wait for it.