Exhibit at Pearl S. Buck Homestead Explores Jewish Presence in China

An example of a set for Pearl Buck’s play Flight into China, shown in the exhibit. Photo by Rachel Kurland

Walking into the Bucks County farmhouse of Pearl S. Buck is like going back in time — mainly because all of her original belongings are still there.

There’s a partial set of Charles Dickens novels in her private library. A greenhouse full of her favorite flower, camellias, which she brought over from China in 1935, still stands today.

It all represents the combination of East and West that defined the Nobel Prize-winning author’s life.

Now, Pearl S. Buck International in Perkasie opens its exhibit Jewish Flight Into China, which explores stories of acceptance, assimilation and discrimination in China as told in the American writer’s works. The exhibit runs through Aug. 30 in the exhibit gallery at the welcome center on the 67-acre property where Buck once lived.

“We maintain this property in perpetuity,” said Laura Lomax, director of programs. “She left this amazing property, buildings, all her amazing belongings.”

Born in West Virginia, Buck — whose The Good Earth won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 — spent the bulk of her first 40 years living in China with her missionary parents.

“It was very unusual for a European American at that time — there were some British, but very few Americans — in China at that time,” Lomax noted.

She moved to Bucks County in 1935 after falling in love with a stamp-sized photo of the house. She wanted to live in a stone house as she did in China.

There have been some renovations since, but the majority of the house is exactly as Buck left it before her death in 1973.

A lot of her original house is a combination of East and West, through books, decor, teapots, utensils, Chinese statutes and clothing (her pajamas are still in her bedroom).

“What Pearl Buck wanted was to keep telling her story,” Lomax said.

There are approximately 2,500 collections in the U.S. like this one, and 300 are dedicated to women. Of those, 10 are intact, like Buck’s home.

“Sometimes we feel like she left and went to the store,” Lomax laughed.

Buck was also an advocate for people with disabilities, writing many books on the subject in a time period in which no one else was.

Her first daughter, Carol, was diagnosed with celiac disease, and she had seven other adopted children.

Buck’s novels, like Peony — which inspired the exhibit’s curator, Marie Toner — have been translated into dozens of different languages. Varied copies published in different time periods and languages stand behind glass in the exhibit, which is based both on Peony and Toner’s own research.

“She was having a conversation with her dad and he asked her some questions and it just kind of prompted her to look into the idea of Kaifeng,” Lomax said, referring to a city in China that once had many Jewish residents.

Peony, set in 1850, tells the story of the Chinese bondmaid of a prominent Jewish family in Kaifeng. It was based on an earlier play called Flight into China.

Arlene Daily, communications director, said the book showed what it might have been like to assimilate into Chinese culture in the 1850s.

Mahjong pieces are displayed on a table in the exhibit. Photo by Rachel Kurland

The exhibit starts with early research proving there was a Jewish community there.

It also includes props that could have been used for Buck’s play, including a Chinese teapot with menorahs in the background.

About 65 photos of Jewish communities in China flash on a slideshow, depicting synagogues there.

“A synagogue in China — this was very interesting to me. Overall, the Jewish presence in China was shocking,” Lomax said.

The biggest influx was during the Holocaust era. That part of the exhibit is “not necessarily tied to Peony or Flight into China,” Daily said. “The way that it ties into Pearl Buck is that this is a family’s story: A man found his paperwork in his attic and one of the things he found was The Good Earth, that traveled with his family. By escaping the Holocaust into China, they brought The Good Earth with them — in German.”

Discovering Jewish communities in China surprised Daily.

“I am somebody who was born Christian, converted to Judaism, so some of the history and stories I’ve learned about, I’ve never heard any of the earlier stories,” she said. “What I got out of it is the conflict between happily settling in another country in the Diaspora and losing your culture because of assimilation versus being ghettoized. It’s almost like how can Diaspora work at all because it’s really difficult to me to look at people settling and having wonderful lives, rich culture, able to have their own culture, not stigmatized over it, and still assimilated. And by more than a century later, there was very little left of the culture in China.

“How do all those pieces come together?” she pondered.

Daily called Buck a change agent who brought people together.

“If people that understand Pearl Buck as an author, they love her as a writer. If people understand Pearl Buck as a person who stands up for children, especially those that are marginalized because of their mixed ethnicity or poverty or disabilities or religion, there’s the way that she tied all of that together. What she was trying to do with her writings was the bridge building between cultures,” she said.

Discrimination is certainly something Buck related to.

“She can flip the dialogue on discrimination because as a blond, blue-eyed white woman having spent the first half of her years in China, you can say, ‘Well, what do you know about discrimination?’ But she did because she wasn’t spending her life in the U.S. She was spending it in China where she was the one that stood out,” she said.

Kids teased her and said she smelled like milk, but over time she was not isolated from the community; she just felt very different.

Lomax added that Buck “influenced the whole adoption mindset for years.”

Before Buck’s death in 1973, Lomax actually attended her 80th birthday party.

“That’s where I grew up,” she said, pointing to a house across the way. At the time, she knew little about Buck’s life. “I knew about the adoption agency … I knew there was a lot of things about Asia and international festivals here. But I did not know the depth of who she was. I went to her 80th birthday — my parents made us go — and I just had no idea until I started working here.”

Standing in Buck’s office, where she wrote many of her books, Lomax recalled something she said.

One day while looking out the window of her office, Buck saw a heron land in the center of a pond, “and she said this was as traditional a picture of China as ever,” Lomax said.

The Good Earth was probably the first introduction to China a lot of Westerners had, and I think the same with Peony and all her books. She gave people insight into everyday life that was very unique, very different than what people thought or knew about.”

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0737


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