Anchee Min is probably best known for her memoir, Red Azalea. Min grew up in Shanghai, and in that memoir, she wrote about her youth and the chaos of China's Cultural Revolution. Min's new book, Pearl of China, is about the life of another writer, the American novelist Pearl S. Buck.
Buck spent much of her youth and young adult life in China with her parents, who were missionaries, and then later with her husband. Both Buck and her husband taught at Nanjing University. In 1931, Buck published her novel The Good Earth, about life in a small Chinese village. It won the Pulitzer Prize, and later Buck won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
During China's Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early '70s, Buck was not revered. And it was during this time that a 14-year-old Anchee Min first heard Buck's name.
"In 1971, I was a teen and I was going to school at the Shanghai Middle School, and I was asked to denounce Pearl Buck as an American cultural imperialist," Min says.
Students were instructed to denounce everything American at the time, Min tells NPR's Melissa Block, but Buck's familiarity with China — and the notoriety of The Good Earth — made her a target. And as Min later discovered, some of China's highest officials had taken aim at Buck.
"As later I found out, it was part of Madame Mao's campaign to reject Pearl Buck to visit China with President Nixon in 1972," she says.
At that time, Buck lived in Pennsylvania, and Min says that the effort to bar her re-entry into China was a political ploy by the wife of the Chinese leader.
"Madame Mao wanted to become China's next president after her husband," Min says. "So she would do anything to be standing in between Nixon and Mao. She would not let Pearl S. Buck have that chance."
Min says her assignment was part of an effort to show the world that all of China, down to young schoolchildren, viewed Buck as an enemy. From Min's perspective at the time, there was a stumbling block.
"I went to my teacher and I said, 'I can't do anything because I don't know this person,' " Min says. "And the teacher says, 'Just copy the newspapers.' And I said, 'Can I read the book, The Good Earth?' and she says, 'No,' because the book was so toxic that it was considered dangerous to even translate it. So I copied the line from the newspaper and it says, 'Pearl Buck insulted Chinese peasants. She hates us, and therefore she is our enemy.' "
Nixon visited China in 1972, but Buck didn't get the chance to return to her childhood home, and she died the following year. Min didn't think about her again until 25 years later, when she was on a book tour after the publication of her memoir, Red Azalea.
"I was in Chicago in a bookstore doing a reading, and a reader came to me. She says, 'Do you know Pearl S. Buck?' And before I could answer, she gave me a paperback. She says, 'This is a gift. I just want you to know that Pearl Buck taught me to love Chinese people.' And that hit me," Min says.
Min read that paperback copy of The Good Earth on the airplane from Chicago to Los Angeles. When she finished, she says, emotion overcame her.
"I couldn't help myself, and I broke down and sobbed because I have never seen anyone, including our Chinese authors, who wrote our peasants the way Pearl Buck did, with such love, affection and humanity. And it was at that very moment Pearl of China was conceived."
While she was preparing to write the book, Min visited Zhenjiang, the village where Buck grew up. She hoped to find stories of Buck and her family, but she found that the seeds of animosity toward Buck planted 40 years earlier were still bearing fruit.
"They were afraid to talk to me at first," Min says. "The memory of Cultural Revolution, the brutal persecution were very fresh. And I kept returning until one day I was referred to a dying pastor."
Buck's family had left Zhenjiang 90 years earlier, and the pastor himself had not known Buck, but still, he told Min stories about Buck's relationship with her mother and father, stories that had been passed down through generations.
"He tells me how ... Pearl Buck so much wanted to be like a Chinese girl, so the nanny had to make [a] hairnet to cover her blond hair," Min says.
Min notes that when Buck was unable to return to China in 1972, she was heartbroken. To Min, Buck's writing was an illustration of her love for the Chinese people, and even though there are — as she points out — "many excellent books and biographies" about Buck's life, she had the opportunity to show the world something new.
"I offer a Chinese perspective," Min says. "Readers will get to see how Pearl Buck became who she was because of China. And for the first time how Chinese people saw Pearl Buck, this brave American woman who was beloved by the people close to her but denounced by authorities."