Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Comparison of Three Famous TCKS from China (Pearl Buck, Eric Liddell, and John Hersey)

I was reading a book review in the NY Times today about a new book profiling Pearl S. Buck. I've been fascinated by Buck since I realized earlier this year that she was a child of missionaries in China. The article I was reading today mentioned another famous author, John Hersey, who was also the child of missionaries to China. I read up on Hersey's life story and was contemplating the similarities and contrasts between Hersey and Buck when I thought of another famous missionary kid from China at about the same time, Eric Liddell, the guy featured in the movie Chariots of Fire.

These three profile classic paths and personalities of missionaries kids, and I just had to compare them. Pearl Buck, raised almost entirely in China by distant parents, seems to be pretty unremarkable in her younger years and follows her parents' path back overseas to the world she knows best, but seems to be restless and discontent, and it's out of this angst that she writes her famous book, The Good Earth. She ends up abandoning her traditional faith and life and lives out a rather quirky end of her life in the US, always passionate about humanitarian causes and her love for China.

Eric Liddell barely gets six years in China before being shipped off to boarding school in Britain, but his family is close and he certainly experiences the transitions and separations of an mk. He is deeply committed to the faith and vision of his parents, and despite being the most famous and successful athlete in all of Scotland, he heads off to China as well. Unlike Buck, he spends his life in what seems to be a very fulfilled marriage and ministry in China, and ends up dying in this pursuit in a Japanese internment camp during WWII.

John Hersey spent 10 years in China, came back to the US and excelled through Ivy League schools. He was clearly a big personality with great talent and great ambition. He succeeded at everything he did, was a fantastic journalist and author, and lived the end of his life heavily involved as a teacher and leader at Yale. Faith is hardly ever mentioned in any of his life... it seems to be a non-issue for him.

They are classic in many ways. I see friends of mine in all of them. The artistic misfit, the ambitious and talented personality, and the humble guy who becomes a missionary himself. Many kids raised between cultures are quite successful - the US government and history is full of them, whether as leaders or as artistic types. Many, many of them wrestle with their place in the US culture and end up working internationally themselves in some way, and many of them wrestle with their own faith or lack thereof. And then there's the John Hersey types, who seem to walk away from the deeply religious atmosphere of their childhood without ever really thinking about it.

Pearl S. Buck from FairyDreamer, USPearl Buck, born in 1892, grew up in China, was bi-lingual, had a Chinese tutor and Presbyterian parents. Her father was a distant work-a-holic, classic for kids with parents in "the ministry". When she was 18 she came back to the US for college, and upon graduating three years later she returned to China as a missionary. Classic move. Many, many mks feel like a misfit in their parent's home countries and try to come "home" by following their parent's path into religious ministry overseas. Four years after returning to China, at 25, she married another missionary and modeled the marital structure of her parent's stoic and unsatisfactory marriage. She and her husband became teachers at a Chinese University, and their first child was born severely disabled. In 17 years of marriage Buck's parents died, she earned her MA, she took up writing and wrote the book (The Good Earth) that would win her the Pulitzer prize, and local unrest forced the family to flee for a year to Japan and later leave China for good. It seems that in all the transition Buck's personal life was roiling, and she and her husband divorced in a somewhat scandalous situation.

Buck married her publisher and became quite the eccentric. She pumped out books, none of which are known for being any good, and she and her husband became very involved in humanitarian work and adopted seven children. Her final years were a little strange and are described at the end of this article.The article says this about her: "She was that rarest of persons, a truly bicultural American, literate in Chinese, an American for whom America was a kind of foreign country while China was home."

I found an interview with Buck when she was 66 where the interviewer asks her if formal religion gives her any consolation or understanding of death. Her answer shows her journey out of her parents traditional Presbyterian faith and into a sort of humanistic moralism. "I don't think I have a feel any particular need of consolation. I've had an extraordinary happy and good life and expect to have considerable more of it, and of course having lived in China so long I had tutors and other religions too, and to me these religions are all approaches to the same end."

Eric LiddellEric Liddell was born in 1902, ten years after Pearl Buck. His parents were Scottish missionaries with the London Missionary Society. Unlike Buck, who was tutored in China, Liddell was shipped back to Britain at the age of six to begin boarding school. Boarding schools either overseas or in home countries used to be standard action for missionary kids (sometimes these schools were rife with abuse, as I mentioned here). Liddell was reunited with his family two or three times when they returned to Edinburgh for furloughs. Even as a teenager, Liddell became known as an amazing athelete and was the captain of his school's rugby and cricket teams, as well as quickly becoming Scotland's fastest runner. Even before college and away from his parent's influence,  he seems to have had a strong personal faith, and was a speaker for the Glasgow Evangelical Union.

Liddell attended Edinburgh University and his participation in the Olympics is known from the movie Chariots of Fire, which shows him declining to race on Sunday but managing to win Olympic gold and set a world record anyways. A year after graduation, Liddell returned to China as a missionary. It's fascinating to me that he went back to China - did he feel like it was home, though he'd left when he was only six? Or was he merely called to ministry because of his faith, and China was the natural place to go because of his families' connections there? Eric became a missionary teacher and married another missionary kid and had three children.

Eric LiddellAs the danger grew during World War II, Eric's wife and kids went to her home in China while Eric first worked with his brother at a rural mission station that was overwhelmed trying to give medical attention to the poor. When the Japanese took over the area, he returned to the town he taught in and then was taken to an internment camp with a number of other missionaries. Liddell became the camp leader and organizer and also taught both Sunday school and science to the kids, who called him "Uncle Eric". He was given the opportunity to leave the camp, but he instead gave the opportunity to a pregnant woman. He died in the camp of a brain tomor.

Liddell is a classic mk/missionary story, and his writing shows his mentality towards his work overseas and his faith:
“We are all missionaries. Wherever we go, we either bring people nearer to Christ, or we repel them from Christ.”
"I believe that God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. When I run, I feel His pleasure."

(Sources on Liddell: History Makers, the Eric Liddell Center)

John Hersey, born 1914, 22 years after Buck and 12 years after Liddell, in the same town as Liddell. His parents were also missionaries, working for the YMCA (then very Christian organization) in China. Hersey learned Chinese before he learned English. He returned to the US at 10 years old and completed high school in the US before attending Yale and then Cambridge. Obviously already an ambitious and popular young man, he first worked for the famous author Sinclair Lewis before becoming a correspondent for TIME. Hersey worked for TIME and LIFE throughout the war in both the European and Pacific theaters. His big break was when he wrote a book (which was first published as a full-issue New Yorker magazine) from first-hand interviews in Hiroshima after the bomb, but he has several other famous articles and books.

When Hersey finally settled in the US he became a leader and teacher at Yale, and seems to have hob-nobbed with big shots and been a popular and involved figure on campus. He was well off, respected, likable, and successful. I can't find record of him ever having married. Hersey seems to have become a globe-trotting successful American who may have been given a boost by his overseas childhood, but wasn't defined by it. However, I was intrigued to find among his works a book named "The Call", which is the fictional story of an American missionary in China. If the reviews are correct, the main character is based on several real characters, including Hersey's father. The main character feels called to God's work in China, but through his intimate personal journey in China and eventually in a POW camp, he "realizes his original draw to Christianity was not religion, or saving souls, but being needed and employing his extraordinary ability to successfully meet that need."

(Yale Alum Magazine, wikipedia)


cclarebear said...

I just ordered The Good Earth from book depository the other day (along with 3 other books on China) - I've probably read it, I just can't remember? She does fascinate me though. I read the same NY times book review and that's why I ordered the book.

Maybe I'm clouded through years of doing asian politics at uni, but in terms of the missionary presence in China... Religious feelings aside, I'm yet to see much evidence that it did more good than harm.

The fact that the presence of the British and the Americans in China was primarily an attempt by the authorities to assert their dominance, to make China less Chinese... Especially knowing that the ships that brought them were frequently loaded with opium, which destroyed millions of lives.

Added to that, a comment I read recently in an article that quoted a missionary at the time as saying that the Chinese heathens deserved the scourge of opium... It doesn't sit well with me, not at all.

Interesting blog post though. I haven't seen Chariots of Fire in forever.

Kacie said...

You are absolutely right though, Clare. Isaac has been studying specifically the history of the church in China, and it actually spread there very very early, and then died completely when persecuted. The history of foreign missions in China is sad and sort of an example of bad missiology all around.... and thus it seems their influence nearly completely died as soon as they were forced out.

I find it amazing, though, that the church exploded in China at the fastest rate of church growth in the entire world..... once there was no Western presence left. Fascinating, truly.

Oh and I first read A Good Earth in Alysa's lit class in high school, and I liked it then but forgot it, so I read it again last year.

cclarebear said...

Really? That's so interesting. I want to read more, everything I've read lately has been really negative. I'm really interested to see what you both have to say after your trip, especially because I know our experiences will be so different :)

Togenberg said...

Great summaries! thanks pal!