For those who need a gloss of its narrative line, the book tells the life story of Wang Lung, a Chinese peasant who is born poor at the end of the nineteenth century and has grown rich as a farmer by the time of the Japanese invasion in the 1920s. In the end, as he lays dying, his sons promise they will never sell that good earth of his, but, it is understood, they are cunningly planning to do exactly that. A movie version of the book was released in 1937, but I have never seen it, and will have to brace myself if I choose to see it now. I have learned how far from the novel it strays and that all the main characters are played by non-Asian actors due to the sensitivities of the day -- the same, perhaps, that caused the abomination of Mickey Rooney being cast as Mr. Yunioshi in the 1961 film version of Breakfast at Tiffany's.
For myself, I found the novel workmanlike, or perhaps I should say workwomanlike. She begins with her ground situation and then plows ahead (no pun intended), hitting all the cultural markers (polygamy, opium) that she wants to represent. I imagine it was a tour de force in her day. Readers weren't used to being offered a chance to learn about the life of Chinese peasants, and they were curious. Occasionally, I tired of the book, but I continued not only because, again, I felt it my duty to read it, but because I did "want to see what happened next."
I was disappointed that there was only one brief mention of a missionary, described as a tall foreigner in strange (Western) clothing. In 1936, however, Buck published Fighting Angel: Portrait of a Soul, a memoir of her father, Absalom Andrew Sydenstricker (1852-1931), and that's where I found some good and useful information relevant to my project, even though he was not educated at the seminary here in Andover.
As a sixteen-year-old, Andrew (as he is called in the book, although he wasn't in his lifetime) heard the preaching of a missionary from China at a church in West Virginia, where he was born and raised, and determined, against his parents' wishes, that he, too, would become a missionary. Eventually, in 1879, just before his graduation from Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, he was accepted by the Southern Presbyterian Mission Board. His trial sermon, "The Necessity of Proclaiming the Gospel to the Heathen, with Especial Reference to the Doctrine of Predestination," had been published in a church paper. A month later, after an arranged marriage, he and his wife, Caroline (in the book, called Carie), were on their way to China. He was, in Buck's telling, a charming but arrogant and blatantly misogynistic man who, for instance, believed his new wife could have been over her seasickness on that first voyage if she had only tried hard enough. Instead, he told Buck, "she allowed seasickness to become aggravated so that she never really recovered."  As for Andrew, he "was never ill in any way," she claims.  Surely, a miracle for a missionary in a foreign land. Buck also claims that he was intolerant of "race superiority."  Again, a rarity. And that's why, she says, he was treated poorly by other missionaries and considered them his enemies. In any event, he was gone into the field for many weeks at a time, leaving alone Carie and their eventual children, including Buck, to fend for themselves. (The ones who survived, that is.) To them he was a stranger.
He was also a hero; at least he was to Buck. "To be a missionary is an acute test of integrity," she writes. "For a missionary has no supervision. He lives among a few equals, the other missionaries, and a great many whom he feels his inferiors, the natives. His governing board is thousands of miles away -- there is no one to see how many hours he works or whether he is lazy and self-indulgent. And the climate, the small but absolute security of salary, the plentiful number of cheaply paid servants, all make laziness easy, and a man's fellows are loath to tell of him even if they see, and the Chinese converts are helpless for they do not know to whom to complain. There is no one beyond the missionary for them. These stand next to God and are supreme in authority, having the right to give or withhold funds which mean life." 
Despite its hagiographic tendencies, the memoir is candid. Buck does not deny the hardships of a missionary's life: "In that hot foreign climate, in the storms of wind and dust, in the floods and wars and risings of mobs against them, in such uneasiness of life, in such impossibility of achieving what they have set themselves, in bitter isolation from their kind, in the inward oppression of their own souls, that oppression which looks out of their somber eyes and sounds in their voices, apathetic if they are not angry, the wonder is not that men of God quarrel with each other so often, but that they do not kill each other or themselves more often than they do."  There are stories, she opines, "but nobody wants them told, for the Work must go on." 
By the mid 1930s, however, the "Work" was being done differently: "I have not seen anywhere the like of Andrew and his generation. They were no mild stay-at-homes, no soft-living landsmen. If they had not gone as daring missionaries, they would have gone to the gold fields or explored the poles or sailed on pirate ships. They would have ruled the natives of foreign lands in other ways of power if God had not caught their souls so young... Ah, well, they are all gone now. There are no more left like them. Those who take their place in our modern times are shot through with doubt and distrust of themselves and their message... They see good in all religions and they no longer wage any more wars and they serve their lives out for a small security... The giants are gone." 
Those so-called giants were often translators. I have often wondered how accurate those translations were. Buck has this to say about her father's translations: "Early in his career Andrew decided that the Chinese translation of the Bible was balderdash. There were all sorts of absurdities in it because, he said, the translators had not sufficiently understood Chinese idioms."  "Andrew decided, therefore, that as soon as he had time he would make a new translation straight from the Hebrew and Greek into Chinese. It was about this time that the missionaries themselves became convinced that they should have a new translation and chose a committee to make it..."  Appointed to be on the committee, Andrew threw himself into the work, choosing to use "not the classical Chinese beloved of old scholars but the strong vernacular mandarin of the people." 
I'll be on the lookout for other judgements about those famous and lauded translations. some of which were printed in Andover. I'll also, as usual, be following the money. On his periodical visits home to America, Buck writes, her father "was almost always away," just as he was when the family was in China. But he wasn't collecting souls. He was "collecting money." 
1. Hilary Spurling, Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 9.
2. Pearl S. Buck, Fighting Angel: Portrait of a Soul (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1936), 58.
3. Ibid., 59.
4. Ibid., 129.
5. Ibid., 220-221.
6. Ibid., 80.
7. Ibid., 81.
8. Ibid., 75-76.
9. Ibid., 181.
10. Ibid., 177.
11. Ibid., 196.
12. Ibid., 176.