Kinfolk by Pearl Buck


There a lot of books about immigration (or emigration, depending on how you look at it), but there aren’t that many about return migration. Well, the standard immigration novel involves people leaving poverty, persecution or both to seek a new life in a new country, and going back to the old country afterwards wouldn’t really work well with that, either in real life or in fiction.  There is the idea of someone, usually a young man, going off to seek their fortune and then returning in triumph, but that isn’t usually associated with immigration in Anglophone culture, maybe because it tends to make a strong distinction between immigrants and expat workers.  It’s a “thing” in Southern Europe, though.  I recently went to Galicia (the one in Spain, not the one in Ukraine), where the Galician nationalist movement was given huge impetus by people who’d gone off to Argentina or Cuba and then come back.  Then there’s return migration associated with a change of regime: in recent years several return migrants have become involved in politics in former Eastern Bloc countries.

What happens in this book, though, is different to any of that. Four Chinese-Americans, two American born, two born in China but taken to the United States as very young children, move to China, shortly after the Second World War. It starts off with a really bog standard immigration plotline.  We’re in New York. In this case, the characters are the six members of a Chinese family, but the same storyline would work just as well with a family from any of the other groups of people who’ve moved to New York over the years.  The parents want the children to carry on doing things as they were done in the old country.  There are particular issues over the roles of women and girls.  The younger daughter (there are two daughters and two sons) finds a WASP boyfriend.  The parents hit the roof.

However, the eldest son, a doctor, has already decided that he wants to move back to China. And the eldest daughter wants to follow him.  They’re both full of idealistic notions about being able to do good there, in a country that’s struggling to get back on its feet after years of war with Japan.  Whilst the father has initially opposed the decision of his eldest children to move to China, he now decides that it would be a good idea for all four children to go.

The book then shifts away from the issues of immigration and assimilation in the United States, and becomes more about the conflict between new ideas and tradition in China. Having said which, we continue to see how the parents are going on in New York, and the issues within their marriage; but most of the action from then on is in China. The younger daughter finds another WASP boyfriend, an American soldier based in Beijing, marries him, and moves back to New York.  The younger son becomes involved in student protests, and is murdered by the authorities.  The elder son and daughter don’t feel that life in Beijing is what they came back for, and move back to the family’s ancestral village, where life is very far removed from what they were used to in New York.  He sets up a medical centre and she sets up a school, but there’s resistance from the people there to the changes.  There are now three strands – the traditional life of the village, the modernising ideas of the Chinese-Americans, and the Chinese Civil War … although the war is rather in the background, with the real conflict in the book being between tradition and new ideas in one small village.

It’s an unusual story. The experiences of immigrants and the conflict between tradition and modernisation are common themes, but it’s unusual to see them combined in a tale of return migration – return migration from another country with a completely different culture, rather than from a city to a village.  James and Mary reject the idea of the American Dream: they want to go back to … I was going to quote Gladys Knight and say “a simpler place and time”, but it isn’t that at all.  If anything, they’re going to a more complex place and time, because it would really have been much easier for them to have stayed in New York.  And it’s not just a personal thing, it’s because they genuinely want to do good, and feel that they can do that in China, not by trying to bring about a revolution but on a very small scale, in one small village.

This book explores some very interesting themes, and it gives the reader quite a lot to think about.


2 thoughts on “Kinfolk by Pearl Buck

  1. Chris Deeley

    Definitely a Chinese “thing” too. There’s an ancient Chinese expression that translates into English as “to return in embroidered silk” (I’ve forgotten the Chinese original). Only Mandarins or other VIPs wore embroidered silk.


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