This novel deeply moved me, not only because Pearl Buck illustrates in it her sweeping knowledge and sympathetic views of the Chinese society in early- to mid-20th century, but also because of the humanistic attitudes and nuanced philosophies that color and enliven her characters.
This particular époque in China is one of East-West cultural clashes coming to the surface as the younger generations begin to seriously contemplate a clean break from the yoke of old Chinese traditions and customs and embrace freedom of the mind and soul. This nascent way of thinking is particularly manifest in man-woman relationships and in the values and belief system. Christian missionaries play an important part in brewing social changes, but even among these, there are the dogmatic and the more liberal streams of preaching.
The protagonist Madam Wu is first portrayed as the beautiful, all-wise, fastidious and capable mistress of the wealthy Wu household (which brings to mind the character Xue Baochai in Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin). With diplomacy, tact and intelligence, she manages her large household of sixty with success and accolades from within and without the family. Yet in the depths of her soul, she is a lonely creature yearning to be freed from her duties. She feels no one understands her and views herself superior to all those who surround her, including her sons and daughters-in-law, whose marriages she feels compelled to arrange for their own good. She even arranges for her husband to take a concubine, hoping to gain her own freedom. Eventually she comes to discover that none of her family members is happy.
Then a renegade foreign missionary enters her life and lights up her soul. Using a liberal approach to religion, he wins her admiration where another dogmatic Catholic nun fails, shining a whole new light on the meaning of love and freedom. She begins to understand that to love is to not judge others harshly and that self-fulfillment is the key to setting one’s soul free, and that this applies to all man-woman relationships. Shortly thereafter, something vile happens to him, which devastates her, and she realizes that she is in love with this foreigner, and that the single most important thing that she always lacked is the capacity to love. With that epiphany, she sets out to follow the foreigner’s selfless example and to remedy her past mistakes.
I’m giving this novel 4.5 stars, rounded up.