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Pearl S. Buck’s writing discussed in Faculty Research Forum

By Staff | Oct 26, 2018

Shepherd University Professor of Asian History David Gordon takes a question during his speech, "Duty First: Pearl S. Buck's Views on Japan" at the Byrd Center on Oct. 10. Photo by Tabitha Johnston.

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Shepherd University Professor of Asian History David B. Gordon first learned about Hillsboro, West Virginia-born author Pearl S. Buck during his doctoral program at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

Gordon credits his late professor, Sharon Ann Minichiello, for introducing him to the writing of the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner and 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate — the first American woman to receive a Nobel Prize. During the Oct. 17 Faculty Research Forum at the Robert C. Byrd Center, Gordon discussed “Duty First: Pearl S. Buck’s Views on Japan.”

“Pearl S. Buck is best known for many reasons. She was an author who grew up abroad, and viewed America as another universe,” Gordon said, mentioning all of her books were about Asia. “Buck wrote much more on China, but other scholars have already plowed those fields. Today, I want to examine Buck’s views on Japan, focusing on her writing on Japan from the 1930s to the 1960s.”

According to Gordon, Buck spent the majority of her formative years living with her missionary parents in China, but whenever she traveled from the United States to China, her boat would dock in Japan, which Gordon called her “second home” in Asia.

“She wrote about how playful the Japanese can be, how artistic they are, how creative they are. She would compare the Japanese to the people of another island country — the United Kingdom,” Gordon said. “Buck also sought to highlight the contrast between the Japanese and the Chinese.”

Having lived in China for many years, Buck was more sympathetic with the Chinese, while often depicting the Japanese as having a “duty comes first” mindset. However, Gordon demonstrated how her depictions of the Chinese and Japanese as feminine and masculine societies, respectively, often disagreed with her opinions of their physical prowess.

“‘If the Chinese are undisciplined, the Japanese people are the most disciplined on earth, both without and within.’ She said this while saying the Chinese would win against the Japanese in World War II, showing how complicated her mind was,” Gordon said, referring to the Japanese invasion of China in the war, which ultimately ended in Japan’s surrender to the Allied forces on Sept. 2, 1945, finishing the war.

Although Gordon disagreed with Buck’s racial stereotypes, he said her 37 books were important, because they encouraged the West to learn about Asian society and politics.

“I still think her novels on Japan are worthwhile,” Gordon said. “Anything she writes about, she brings a certain passion to.”