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The Good Earth | Context


Missionaries in China

While Christianity has existed in China since the 7th century, the first Protestant missionaries arrived in China in 1807. They stayed until the Communist Party came to power in 1949. Christianity was promoted during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) and was outlawed during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). The religion began to increase its presence during the Qing dynasty (1644–1916). This was thanks to more contact and trade with foreign powers. However, Christians were widely persecuted and could be sentenced to death for preaching to Han Chinese or Manchus. The First Opium War (1839–42), one of two disputes between China and Britain over trade and China's self-rule, was significant in this regard. As a result of the Qing dynasty's war with England, missionaries had Western military support to protect them. After the Second Opium War (1856–60), The Treaty of Tientsin (or Tianjin) granted freedom of religion within China. Foreign missionaries could not only spread their message throughout China but also buy land to build churches.

Pearl Buck's parents, Absalom and Caroline Sydenstricker, first came to China as missionaries in 1880. They joined 10 other Southern Presbyterians who were already in the field. Though they started in Shanghai, Absalom petitioned to be placed deeper in the country. In 1887 the couple headed to Kiangsu. The population there was anything but receptive to Absalom's gospel message, and converts were rare. After two of their children died, one from a high fever and the other from cholera, the couple returned to West Virginia to recover. They stayed long enough for Buck's birth and then returned.

Absalom continued his mission even through The Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901), a violent uprising against foreigners, colonialism, and Christianity. Boxers, who were Chinese rebels, blamed foreigners, and especially missionaries like Absalom, for unwanted Western and Japanese influence in northern China. During this period locals set wild dogs upon him, and people openly cursed him on the street. He was forced to close chapels because landlords refused to rent to him. Soldiers rounded him up one night with a Chinese convert and made him watch as the convert was beaten to death. The family finally returned to America in 1901, when Buck was nine, though they later came back to China.

Wang Lung has some brief contact with missionaries, but he does not even realize it. When he is working as a rickshaw driver during his time in Kiangsu, a blue-eyed, bearded man gives Wang Lung a flyer with a picture of Jesus on the cross. But Wang Lung cannot read and has no other context to understand the meaning of the flyer. His sons cry out "in delight and horror" at "the blood streaming out of his side." His father thinks the flyer depicts a "very evil man" because he is so brutally hung.

The Boxer Rebellion

The anti-imperialist Boxer Rebellion led by Chinese rebels called Boxers affected Buck's early life in China. The Boxers had a Chinese nationalist agenda. They strongly opposed foreign intervention in northern China, and missionaries were often seen as the face of foreign imperialism. Buck's family soon found their Chinese friends turning against them and had to flee to Shanghai for safety.

Antiforeign sentiments grew out of a political climate that initially favored investments by foreign companies and Christian missionaries. Powerful Western countries such as Russia, France, and Germany backed their citizens with military force when skirmishes with locals occurred. One such occurrence was the Juye Incident, in which Chinese bandits killed two German priests on November 1, 1897. In response to this event Germany sent an army to occupy Jiaozhou Bay. With foreign powers thus carving out spheres of influence, many Chinese feared that foreigners planned to divide China between them.

The Boxer Rebellion (1898–1901) gained momentum in January 1900. This was an attempt to force all foreigners out of China. The Empress Dowager began to defend the Boxers rather than suppress them, much to the horror of the foreign powers involved in China. Bolstered by official support, the Boxers intensified their burning and looting attacks on foreign and missionary holdings. Foreign powers sent troops, and in June the Empress Dowager declared war on them. After intense fighting, the alliance of foreign powers took control of Beijing. On September 7, 1901, the Empress Dowager signed the "Boxer Protocol" that brought about the official end of the rebellion.

Around the period of the Boxer Rebellion, China was facing a severe drought, adding to the unrest. Buck may have meant this to be the same drought that sent Wang Lung's family south to Kiangsu in Chapter 10 of The Good Earth. During Wang Lung's time in Kiangsu, he hears young men speak of revolution and of the rich sharing with the poor. There is much unrest in the city, so much so that the rich barricade themselves behind their gates. Wang Lung and O-lan inadvertently become part of the uprising and looting that later ensues.

Northern China in the 1920s

Literary scholars agree that the novel covers around 50 years in Wang Lung's life, but most of the action takes place in the 1920s. The military reforms of the late Qing (Ching) dynasty (1644–1912) called for regional armies to be formed. The local militias were maintained without much concern for national standardization. This set the stage for the warlord era (1916–28) after the Qing dynasty was overthrown by the revolutionary forces of Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925). The result was that political power generally rested with heads of regional armies now called warlords. Because of this proliferation of warlords, there were many battles going on between powerful factions. Many battles were fought to gain control of Beijing. Whatever group controlled Beijing was afforded official diplomatic recognition as the leader of the nation of China.

But China was also simply too vast and had too many regional differences for a strong centralized government to rule at this time. Buck highlights this local diversity, especially in regard to spoken Chinese, in Chapter 12 of The Good Earth. Wang Lung and his family flee the famine in Anhwei and arrive in the more southerly city of Kiangsu. In Anhwei the narrator says, "The language is slow and deep and it wells from the throat." In Kiangsu, in contrast, "The people spoke in syllables which splintered from their lips." This variation makes it difficult for Wang Lung to understand what people say.

For most of the novel, Wang Lung does not pay much attention to war, although he is dimly aware it goes on in other places. He knows about roving bandits and marauders, often associated with warlords, as these could affect his livelihood. Wang Lung's uncle is a "Redbeard," who protects Wang Lung and his family. This puts him in the position of having to cater to his evil uncle. The war does come close to Wang Lung in Chapter 31 when his uncle's son brings his army comrades to quarter in Wang Lung's house. Eventually Wang Lung's third son leaves the family to become a soldier with the nationalist revolutionaries (also known as the Communist Party).

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