Dragon Seed, Pearl Buck, Moyer Bell, 5th 2006, pp. 378
An abundance of novels and history texts have been written about China At War, 20th century but none that I have read focus specifically on the effects of these wars on the peasants. Pearl's setting is obviously post 1937 to 1945 though in usual style, she deliberately omits naming belligerents and their country ' Japan.
In the first four chapters we have an idyllic cohesive joyous family which enjoys the profusion of crops as a result of their devoted labours: 'All was well with the land and when all was well with the land then everything was well.' (p. 64) However rumours are swelling about an enemy who is seeking more land and about the ineptitude of the Chinese soldiers. Given her extensive knowledge of China, having lived there for years, we are exposed to habits, culture, expressions, duties and traditions which only an inhabitant would learn. By the novel's end, this provides a wealth of knowledge. The Lings are the successful peasant family living on the edge of an unnamed village. The personalities of each of the three boys and one daughter are developed quickly because their individuality will affect their contribution to the story. For instance, third son is quick-tempered, hot-blooded, extremely handsome, independent and disobedient. His destiny has been determined as it is with the other children.
The novel does not dwell on battles except to point out the deficiencies in the soldiers and peasants. We learn of the cruelties, brutalities, wickedness, and absolute terror of the Japanese, expressed in many novels. Here, they are used to shape and form the increasing hatred of this otherwise tranquil family ' in fact they have to learn to be defensive or die. The descriptions of some of these historical facts will also shape and form your opinion justifying retaliatory actions of the males. Pearl's insight and understanding of humanity personalities continues to be transferred and expressed in literary form ' this ability continues to hold me in awe and is one of her unique skills in creating her novels into studies of complex humanity. At the same time, she never forgets her Christian roots. The protagonist is the ideal man/woman to be imitated and in Dragon Seed, they already possess these qualities which governs their lives, despite belligerence all around them.
One constant question is how war affects people in different ways. Slowly the Lings are falling apart and this is witnessed in various incidents but they will not yield their principles. However, most of the younger and the brother-in-law yield their principles and the war consumes each in diverse ways. This emergent development is the crux of the novel as the war years linger: 'And yet in these days we must remember that peace is good. The young cannot remember, and it is we who must remember and teach them again that peace is man's great food.' (p. 252) Such wisdom and astuteness is rarely seen in today's writers.
There is no doubt the Chinese suffered long and hard, and millions died; first from the hands of the Japanese and ultimately, from the civil war. Yes, the city folk suffered also but not to the extent of the peasant farmer who laboured days upon end and yet could not eat the results of his labour. Millions died of starvation, bombings, famine, and suicide. Pearl's novel is also of hope. In the midst of all this strife, new life emerges from the seed of the 'dragon'. And this new life will be the hope of future generations to carry on the values and ideologies of freedom.