photo & text by nacrowe
when my father was in middle school he was tasked with completing a book report. my grandmother suggested THE GOOD EARTH (JOHN DAY COMPANY, 1931) by PEARL S. BUCK. a short time after submitting his paper, the nun who taught his class made a startling announcement to the class, "somebody in this room has read a damned book." all the children looked around at each other. my dad's name was called and he explained that it was his mother's suggestion. in true catholic school fashion they werent hearing any of it.
makes me wonder how people dont see the combination of the words "catholic" and "school" together as both oxymoronic. but that is a discussion for another time.
the reason the church had a problem with THE GOOD EARTH was its depiction of concubines and extramarital relations which was a part of traditional CHINESE culture, especially with regards to those men who were succesful in gaining economic and political power. and the root of said power was the earth.
when i read this book the first time years ago i was taken by its presentation of rural agrarian life in pre-revolution CHINA and how it was the women that who provided the uncelebrated labor and silent toil of the land that undergirded all claims to ascendent regional influence. it was them that provided value. the book showed how they were used as a resource, much like the land itself. in fact, it is the work of a woman, O-LAN, that provides the resources for the master of her house to purchase a concubine, LOTUS FLOWER. to western sensibilities it is highly reprehensible but this was commonplace in traditional CHINESE life.
the book also presents an idea of femininity that is problematic. O-LAN is considered undesirable due to her rough features and unbound feet, which contrasts directly with LOTUS FLOWER's delicate features and bound feet. to be feminine is to be submissive and vulnerable in this context. it is interesting that they are both trapped, just at opposite ends of a rigid structure of oppression.
reminds me of my time in ALBANIA when you would see these gorgeous women from the villages surrounding major cities making their way into the city center via public transportation. i learned during my time there that these women were undesirable because of a key feature: their hands. because they worked the fields and did manual labor their hands had developed callouses and the skin in their hands was rough, evidence of their hard work. every single time this was pointed out to me by an ALBANIAN colleague i would tell that they were insane. but that was the culture. men grew long nails on their pinky finger to signal the fact that they did not do manual labor as a status symbol.
reminds me of THE GOOD EARTH in the sense that those who provide actual value by harnessing a connection to the earth, are in turn less valued themselves. having a sense of distance from the land is in this model a desired outcome, a false claim of a supposed supremacy over nature.
that is not just the world of traditional CHINESE agrarian life, that is our modern world today. considering this book makes me thing of where our value really lies as a society. is it defined by our relationship with nature or our separation from such?
just a thought.