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Book review: Pearl Buck’s Living Reed

Living Reed coverPearl S Buck: Living Reed – A Novel of Korea
Moyer Bell, 1990
Originally published by Methuen, 1963

Pearl Buck spent most of her childhood and early adulthood in China in an American missionary family and, mixing with local children, grew up with an unrivaled understanding of the country. Her experiences were distilled into an unexpectedly bestselling trilogy of novels starting with The Good Earth, which contributed to her winning the Nobel Prize for literature, at a time when the West had little understanding of the East.

Living Reed is the only of her so-called Oriental Novels which is set in Korea. Written in 1963, the novel spans the turbulent period in Korea’s history from 1881 to 1945, seen through a fictitious yangban family from the Andong Kim clan.

Buck’s writing style is immediately comforting, enveloping you in warmth. The language is intentionally epic, giving a heightened sense of significance to the events you are reading about. Think Lord of the Rings, or similar novel with a slightly archaic style. “The year was 4214 after Tangun of Korea, and 1881 after Jesus of Judea,” the novel opens, immediately establishing a foundation of seriousness. Sometimes the language can verge on the faintly ridiculous (“It was autumn again, the season of high skies and fat horses”), but in general you are totally immersed. [Edit: I discover that I’ve done Ms Buck a disservice on the fat horses front. See comment section below]

The Living Reed (1963 cover)
The original cover of the 1963 Methuen first edition

The first half of the novel, covering the period 1881 -1895, is the most successful. Because it covers the period before Western modernity violently took over Korea, a time of old-fashioned courtesy and respect, when a yangban could call on a beautiful Queen for an audience, it is this part of the book which most suits Buck’s writing style. Later sections, which cover 1910-1919, 1919-1945 and then 1945 itself, feel rushed. These sections are understandably darker in tone than the first, but one feels that Buck herself has less interest in this period. It’s almost if she’s rushing to meet a publisher’s deadline. In fact, Buck’s publisher was her second husband, and his company was pretty much kept afloat by the flood of fiction coming from her pen. It’s almost as if she had committed to a novel covering 1881-1945, to be delivered in 12 months time, and then lavished 10 months of love and attention on the first section leaving her only 2 months to wrap up the rest of the story. Another sign of the rush to completion is that endows one of the grandsons with a messianic wisdom almost from birth. It’s as if he has been marked out to be the hero of a follow-up book which Buck never got around to writing. But having filled him with so much vision, foresight and even telepathy, she does not give this character a part to play which is commensurate with his superhuman abilities.

Buck’s Kim family was certainly well connected, and had a role to play at every part of Korea’s recent history. Great-grandfather Kim was a confidant of King Kojong, Grandfather Kim – the central character in the book – a trusted adviser of the beautiful Queen Min, attracting the jealousy of his own long-suffering and even more beautiful wife (the intrusion of Buck’s money-spinning genre, romantic fiction, provides some welcome spice to the narrative). One of the sons becomes a Donghak rebel and then a leader in the nationalist resistance movement in China, while another dies in the March 1st troubles in 1919. One son even has Syngman Rhee as best man at his wedding. So intertwined are the family’s fortunes with Korea’s modern history that at one point in the narrative we are tempted to suspect that one of the grandsons, born in the Russian wastes north of the peninsula and having sympathies with the communists, will later emerge as the rebranded Great Leader Kim Il-sung. Tactfully, given her intended audience Buck does not go that far: it would after all be damaging to circulation to give a sympathetic family background to a communist foe in a novel aimed at conservative middle America in the 1960s.

Particularly the first half of this novel is a guilty pleasure. While the later sections of the novel are not as enjoyable as the first, this reflects the trajectory of Korea’s history. In fact one thing which shines through is Buck’s embarrassment, as an American, that America failed to live up to Korea’s hopes, whether in acting to protect Korea’s independence set out in the US-Korea friendship treat of 1883, or in applying the principle of self-determination to Korea’s situation (yes, the central character even managed to meet Woodrow Wilson in Paris to petition him personally), or in failing to listen to Korean wishes in 1945.

There may be little matters where historical detail may not be completely accurate (would a yangban have been using a paper napkin in 1885?) but in general the novel deals well with the overall historical themes – the choices facing Korea as it came to the end of the 19th Century, the role of the Christian churches in the early 20th Century, and much more besides. And overall this is a thoroughly enjoyable yarn which has justly won many admirers.


4 thoughts on “Book review: Pearl Buck’s Living Reed

  1. What a great review! From *The Living Reed* I have learned most of what Korean history I know, and only recently, and the book is so engrossing (I am nearing the end) it makes me curious about 1) the authenticity of the story and 2) whether other readers found it trying to cover too much historical territory in the latter parts. You have helped me on both questions. I was surprised at the sudden change in speed and style, after the rich storytelling at the beginning. And it’s as you say, with the Liang character Buck seems to return to a romantic story with more character development, but it’s almost over at this point. Still, I would recommend it. I’m glad I found your review and this site. Thank you!

  2. I’m glad you appreciated the review. I suspect the book is not much read nowadays, so this particular page doesn’t get many visits – I guess it was the power of google that brought you here.

    I would caution about using Living Read as a source for historical fact (!), but Buck clearly did her research for the background events. The most recommendable introductions to Korean history are Bruce Cumings: Korea’s Place in the Sun, and Keith Pratt: Everlasting Flower.

    1. Thank you very much for the more historical recommendations. I will definitely look into them. Buck is certainly good at creating the interest and motivation for further reading. I find that fiction works that way, as one vicariously enters the (fictional) story played out in the context of those (real) background events, and the history becomes more than dull facts about “someone else.”

  3. It was autumn again, the season of high skies and fat horses

    I discovered that Autumnal high skies and fat horses are a known thing in Korea and China. The relevant phrases are 천고마비 and 天高馬肥

    Brother Anthony explains:

    It was once a grim warning “Prepare for barbarian invasions” and derives from a Tang dynasty poem “구름은 깨끗한데 요사스런 별이 떨어지고(雲淨妖星落) 가을 하늘이 높으니 변방의 말이 살찌는구나(秋高塞馬肥) 말 안장에 의지하여 영웅의 칼을 움직이고(馬鞍雄劒動) 붓을 휘두르니 격문이 날아온다.(搖筆羽書飛)”

    The fat horses belong to the northern barbarians for whom the autumn with its dry weather is a good time to invade China, the horses having had plenty of grass to eat during the summer, so the only alternative to being killed is to surrender in reponse to the warning missives sent down in advance.

    And Jim Hoare adds:

    As for autumn horses etc, Keith Pratt and Richard Rutt’s Korea: A Historical and Cultural Dictionary (Curzon, 1999), p. 363 on “Proverbs” say:
    “weather sayings too are often Chinese, like the hackneyed saw Ch’on-go ma-bi, “The sky is high (clear) and horses fat”.
    Susan says that Mathews’ Chinese dictionary gives the version I first heard “The sky is high and the emperor far away”.

    I would guess that both come from Northern China – you do not get many clear autumn days in the South.

    Wikipedia has an entry on” Tian gao huangdi yuan” and this site gives the origins of the horses are fat version as a Han dynasty document.

    The link that Jim provides is particularly worth a read.

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