Mrs. Pearl Buck’s latest volume, "The First Wife and Other Stories," like its predecessors, derives from her knowledge of and feeling for Chinese life. I commend this book to all and sundry for its story content and for its human content. But I commend it also for a third—and to me unexpected—reason: I could not escape the feeling while reading it, that with a slight change of setting and dialogue, these might stand for stories of Jewish life, with particular reference to the conflict between the traditional parent generation and the modern and rebellious child generation. This does not mean either that Jews resemble Chinese or Chinese Jews. It means that the problems common in the relations between Chinese parent and Chinese child are not uncommon in the relations between Jewish parent and Jewish child.
Perhaps an Irish reviewer would find in the same stories of Chinese life a pertinency to Irish life that a Jewish reviewer finds to Jewish life. But, as stories, they are of Chinese life, however wide their application may be, and, as such, to delight in.
There is the sensitively realized story of Teh-tsen, who has been sent abroad by the pooled resources of the family, even to the third cousin, so that he might acquire Western learning and come home to make them all rich, as was his bounden duty. He has returned, after eight years, to find himself at odds with every hallowed Chinese value. He refuses to marry the sluttish peasant to whom his family has betrothed him. He turns vainly for understanding toward his former American teacher. He cannot hope to earn enough with which to repay his relatives’ investment in him. He resents the patriarchal system in whose toils he is trapped. "He speaks of Western customs," says the head of the family. "We did not bid him learn the Western customs, but only the Western books, that he might find a place with higher remuneration. Now he deprives us of grandchildren. He deprives us of anyone to worship our tablets when we have ascended into heaven." And the young man turns finally for refuge to that Eastern solace, opium, in the form of three tablets, in Mrs. Buck’s story the symbol of surrender to the past.
"The Old Mother" is a story of particular poignancy. I could wager that Fannie Hurst has already told the Jewish analogue to this Chinese story, wherein an old-fashioned mother finds herself hated and despised in the home of her so-modern son and daughter-in-law. She has grandchildren, but they are modern grandchildren who have been set against her by their parents. The old woman finds the natural habits of a peasant resented and corrected by a brilliant and successful son for whose schooling in the West she had sacrificed everything. In "The First Wife", the title story, we are told what happens when the young husband has returned from the Western schools to a high place in Chinese life: he finds that his simple, dutiful wife, who tries so very hard to please him, cannot, with the greatest efforts, meet the requirements of a wife who is an intellectual equal and companion. In "Repartriated" there is told the tragedy of inter-marriage, and the return of the Frenchwoman to her village home, where, after all, she misses the beauty and the refinement of manners that were inherent in the husband she left because she feared him. (Incidentally, not every one of the stories and sketches has, necessarily, any application to any other kind of life than the Chinese; the flood sketches and those on the Communist risings are purely Chinese.) Those who have read the story of Wang Lung in "The Good Earth" and of Wang’s heirs, in "Sons" may read with pleasure in this volume the seedling of a sketch from which sprouted the two fat novels.
Subtly, in most of these stories, Mrs. Buck expresses her sympathy for the old China as against the new. In such stories as "The First Wife" and "The Old Mother", her feeling is on the side of old values and old loyalties, but without unfairness to the new generation. There is implied in her tales a kind of gentle remonstrance to the raw, new generation: Why won’t you see their side of it? Don’t become too conceited over your new knowledge from the West, which is perhaps not so revolutionary as you may seem to think. Mrs. Buck seems to be on the side rather of the old father who thought that his son should be content with a knowledge of the Four Books instead of wanting to go off after Western knowledge.
Mrs. Buck is a curious person to bear the technical title of Christian missionary to China, in the technical employment of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. For, it seems, she is rather a missionary from the Chinese to the Western world than a missionary to the heathen Chinee. To her, and in her books, they are not heathen. They are civilized. What they have to teach, in the qualities of character, is superior to what they may have to learn. So, at least, Mrs. Buck thinks, and on that emphasis she has written.