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  • Pearl S. Buck’s “American Children”US Democracy, Adoption of the Amerasian Child, and the Occupation of Japan in The Hidden Flower
  • Emily Cheng (bio)

Pearl S. Buck, the popular American literary figure and philanthropist, made her name writing about China in the 1930s and 1940s for an American audience and spent her career after World War II, until her death in 1973, working on humanitarian projects that connected the United States and Asia. Buck first became known for her fiction writing but then parlayed her literary weight into public authority to comment not only on China but also on social issues in the United States and Asia more broadly. The incredible success of the novel The Good Earth, published in 1931, made Buck one of the bestselling authors of the century in the United States and one of the most translated US authors abroad. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1935 and the Nobel Prize in 1938, Buck authored over seventy fiction and nonfiction books and numerous articles published in major newspapers and magazines about US and international social and political issues. Considered the foremost “popular expert on China” through World War II, Buck was “active in almost all of America’s non-governmental dealings with China” in the 1930s and 1940s.1 Journalist Harold Isaacs surveyed Americans in the 1950s and gathered that “for a whole generation of Americans [Buck] ‘created’ the Chinese.”2 In addition to supporting wartime relief, Buck’s advocacy for China, undertaken with her second husband, Richard Walsh, included founding the East and West Association in 1941 to encourage education and understanding between ordinary people in the United States and Asia and publishing the populist magazine Asia and the Americas from 1941 to 1946.

Buck’s popular authority on China before and during World War II laid the groundwork for her major postwar humanitarian project, which centered on advocacy for “Amerasian” orphans, the mixed-race children born out of the US military presence in Asian nations, as well as children of color (especially of mixed race) in the United States.3 She started two organizations to assist these children: Welcome House, founded in 1949, was the first interracial and [End Page 181] international adoption agency in the United States, while the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, founded in 1964, developed social programs for Amerasian children in their birth countries. By the 1970s, these countries included Vietnam, Korea, Okinawa, Taiwan, Thailand, and the Philippines. Buck’s humanitarian advocacy for Amerasian children represents an important early example of transnational adoption driven by a secular, liberal ideology that was significant in its commitment to racial equality and broke with the status quo of matching adoptive parents and children to approximate biologically formed families. Though Buck’s reputation as a novelist and serious commentator on politics declined in the latter half of her life, her career as a philanthropist grew. Despite this loss of critical acclaim Buck continued to write a large number of fiction books (almost twenty novels from 1950 to 1973) that provided financial support for her humanitarian work.4

Alongside her avowed antiimperialism and critique of US policies, I examine Buck as bringing her fundamental belief in the individualism and universal equality at the core of US liberalism to bear on her feminist and antiracist approach to the plight of the “Amerasian” child. Her adoption advocacy is deeply embedded in the contradictions of the purported universality of rights and the particularly racialized and gendered exclusions and inclusions of the US liberalism. The politics of anticommunism, civil rights, and the expansion of social welfare legislation that characterized Cold War liberalism during the rise of postwar US global hegemony specifically frame the politics of her adoption advocacy. In some ways, her approach to race and family were congruent with the dominant logics of US Cold War imperial expansion coupled with domestic containment, in particular the political investment in the family.5 At the same time that Buck deployed the logic of the universality of the normative family in her adoption advocacy, she also reconceptualized this site through a transnational engagement with race and gender in her fiction.

Both the shift of China from World War II ally to...