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Passing the Buck of Exchange

If there is a Forbes list of richest American writers in China, Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973), Nobel Laurette and humanitarian, would be at the top, at least in estate value. Pearl Buck has “houses” in four cities: Suzhou, Anhui; Zhenjiang, Jiangsu; Nanjing, Jiangsu; and Lushan, Jiangxi. All of these cities have restored the residences that Pearl Buck once lived in as cultural heritage sites. These Pearl Buck residencies in China are like pearls strung together to adorn the ongoing friendship between the Chinese and American people. On June 29, 2019, the City of Suzhou, Anhui Province also added a Pearl Buck Research Society in China, following the cities of Zhenjiang and Nanjing, both of which have their own Pearl Buck Societies.
 
As the daughter of Christian missionaries Caroline Maude (Stulting) (1857–1921) and Absalom Sydenstricker (1852-1931), Pearl Buck grew up in Zhenjiang, where she freely mingled with the Chinese masses, and she deeply immersed herself in the Chinese culture. She went with her husband John Lossing Buck to the present-day Suzhou, Anhui Province where she made friends with the locals as a missionary wife. The experience became a setting for her masterpiece The Good Earth. She also taught in University of Nanking (present-day Nanjing University). Her life was intricately interwoven with so many Chinese lives: She helped with a farmer's wife as she gave birth. She interacted with the Chinese literati, including Xu Zhimo. She ushered Chinese authors such as Lin Yutang to the world stage. She made speeches in America to win support for China in the Second World War. At the Nobel Prize ceremony, she paid tribute to the Chinese literary tradition.
 
During the Cultural Revolution, China rejected her application for a visa to re-visit China, but neither history nor the Chinese people forgot those who have loved the good old earth of China and the people who live on it. Today, China returned the love of Pearl Buck with a vengeance by honoring her life through research activities, memorial events, and even a public square in Zhenjiang.
 
The Pearl Buck phenomenon in China testified to the validity and vitality of unscripted, free-flowing exchanges of people from different cultural traditions. This is a time when China and the United States are having an ongoing trade dispute, which sometimes directed all attention to the interaction between the two governments.
 
There is more to the Sino-US relationships than what political rhetoric has led us to see. The story between China and the United States will not be complete if we neglect the rich, dynamic, and multi-layered interactions of civil societies, including exchanges between individuals, schools, cities, and provinces. Pearl Buck was a missionary daughter, wife, professor, and then writer engaged with Chinese life with an unmistakable sense of equality and no sign of condescension. She came with her missionary parents to save the lost, but they also become adopted children of thousands of years of Chinese culture. Civil exchanges between peoples are mutually enriching. When cultures encounter each other, one plus one always lead to more than two.
 
Such exchanges have ripple effects, pushing impact beyond geographical or even historical barriers. The City of Zhenjiang, for instance, goes out of the way to honor Pearl Buck. Zhenjiang has regularly invited fellow international scholars of Pearl Buck to visit the city, and while doing so, Zhenjiang established "Sister City" relations with other cities around the world, including Tempe of Arizona.
 
Years ago, while I was working in West Virginia, I was contacted by Hillsboro, WV, Pearl Buck’s hometown, to find pen pals for elementary school students in Hillsboro. Such exchanges were not easy, with technological and language barriers, but it allowed school children to have a glimpse of the lives of others. Such glimpses did not go through the lens of abstract theories that could cloud perceptions before any meaningful dialogue can take place. We need more such glimpses. We want authentic glimpses to turn into engaged gazes to mitigate the effect of hostile glares.
 
Today, exchanges between the two countries face severe challenges. Scholars and students with different views are sometimes suspected as government agents, rather than cultural agents promoting goodwill. There should be thousands of Pearl Bucks who have full-life immersion in other cultures to help their compatriots see the best in other people. Cities like Zhenjiang and Hillsboro should also come forward, to weave a new tapestry of understanding and appreciation. When exchanges are constantly ongoing at the granular individual-to-individual level, or routinely and operationally at the city-to-city level, the relationship between countries will always be on solid ground, no matter which way the political winds are blowing.
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