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chapter three Knowing China Accuracy, Authenticity, and The Good Earth Knowing China Pearl Sydenstricker was born in Hillsboro, West Virginia, in 1892 while her American missionary parents were home on leave from China.At the age of three months, she accompanied her parents on their return to China, where she would spend much of the ‹rst half of her life. While other Americans read or heard about the violence of the Boxer Uprising, she witnessed the events unfold around her ‹rsthand. She grew up reading and speaking both English and Chinese and was tutored in the Chinese classics. After attending college in the United States, she married missionary John Lossing Buck and returned to China for another decade and a half. Thus, in contrast to the Americans discussed in the ‹rst half of this study, Buck was not merely a visitor to China. As the title of her autobiography, My Several Worlds, implies, Buck considered both China and the United States home, though whether she was ever truly at home in either nation is another question.1 However, like Burton Holmes and James White and Frederick Blechynden, she produced representations of China for U.S. audiences. Buck had minimal involvement in the making of Metro-GoldwynMayer ’s cinematic adaptation of her novel, The Good Earth (Sidney Franklin, 1937), the main subject of this chapter. However, the discourses that surrounded her life and her writings on China were signi‹cant factors in the ‹lm’s initial ambitions, production, and reception. In particular , Buck’s work shaped the development of what Karen Leong calls “the China mystique,” an expression of American orientalism that presented a “romanticized, progressive, and highly gendered image of China, the ‘new China.’”2 According to Leong, “Beginning in the 1930s Americans began to imagine China differently, no longer as an alien and 113 distant culture and land, but as a demonstration of the promise held by American democracy and culture to transform other nations.”3 The China mystique “bridges the development of American orientalism and its newer, postwar forms to justify American empire as the United States increasingly involved itself throughout Asia.”4 Buck internationalized for the American public the concept of cultural pluralism , providing her readers with a cosmopolitan context for the United States’ increasing role in international affairs. By incorporating China into a vision of diverse international cultures sharing in a common democratic and liberal ideological vision, Buck contributed to popular understandings of the United States as a beacon of light and freedom for the world.5 Buck’s accounts of China and its people, which took the form of novels, short stories, private letters, political commentaries, and invited lectures, encouraged Americans both to see the Chinese with empathy and to recognize the U.S. responsibility to help bring about a better China modeled on American ideals of liberal humanism and democracy. Within the realm of cinematic images and narratives, perhaps no ‹lm embodies the ideology of the China mystique better than The Good Earth. As a point of comparison, it is suf‹cient to mention some of the more well known ‹lms and characters from the ‹rst few decades of the twentieth century to indicate the cinematic landscape from which The Good Earth emerged.6 Some of the most popular serial ‹lms of the teens featured“Oriental”villains, though the two most well known ‹lms of the decade with Asian characters are probably The Cheat (Cecil B. DeMille, 1915), starring Sessue Hayakawa as a predatory “Burmese” ivory king,7 and Broken Blossoms (D. W. Grif‹th, 1919), with Richard Barthelmess in yellowface as a homesick, lovesick Chinese man in London’s equivalent of Chinatown, the Limehouse district. Although Hayakawa’s character was ruthless and threatening while Barthelmess’s was timid and gentle, both shared a prohibited desire for white women, and both were portrayed in exotic terms. The most notorious of the evil Orientals, Dr. Fu Manchu, made his cinematic debut in the English serial ‹lm The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu (A. E. Coleby, 1923). The ‹rst of many U.S. productions featuring the ‹endish doctor was The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (Rowland V. Lee, 1929) starring Warner Oland.8 The Fu Manchu ‹lms continued with The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu (Rowland V. Lee, 1930), Daughter of the Dragon 114 Envisioning asia (Lloyd Corrigan, 1931), and The Mask of Fu Manchu (Charles Brabin, 1932). In the 1930s, China’s political instability provided new kinds of story lines about Chinese warlords, as in Shanghai...


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