Pearl S. Buck

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The young do not know enough to be prudent, and so they attempt the impossible, and achieve it, generation after generation.

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck (born Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker; Chinese: 赛珍珠; Pinyin: Sài Zhēnzhū; 26 June 18926 March 1973), primarily known as Pearl S. Buck, was a prolific American writer. In 1938, she became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.


Ah well, perhaps one has to be very old before one learns how to be amused rather than shocked.
  • For the truly creative mind in any field is no more than this — a human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create — to create — to create — so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of beauty and meaning his very breath is cut off from him. He must create. He must pour out creation. By some strange unknown pressing inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.
    • "The Creative Mind at Work," William Vaughn Moody Foundation Lecture at the University of Chicago (January 1935)
  • An intelligent, energetic, educated woman cannot be kept in four walls — even satin-lined, diamond-studded walls — without discovering sooner or later that they are still a prison cell.
    • "America's Medieval Women," Harper's Magazine (August 1938)
  • There will be no real content among American women unless they are made and kept more ignorant or unless they are given equal opportunity with men to use what they have been taught. And American men will not be really happy until their women are.
    • Harper’s Magazine (August 1938), p. 232
  • A man is educated and turned out to work. But a woman is educated — and turned out to grass.
    • Of Men and Women (1941), Ch. 4
  • Profound as race prejudice is against the Negro American, it is not practically as far-reaching as the prejudice against women. For stripping away the sentimentality which makes Mother’s Day and Best American Mother Contests, the truth is that women suffer all the effects of a minority.
    • Of Men and Women (1941), Ch. 8
  • Men and women should own the world as a mutual possession.
    • Of Men and Women (1941), Ch. 8
  • It is a shameful sign of our arrogance that our history departments have almost no Chinese history in them, our literature courses almost no Chinese literature, our philosophy departments almost none of the great Chinese systems of philosophy. And our religious schools have been the most arrogant of all.
    This ignorant arrogant mind has become fixed in its patterns. It is the pattern which considers anything not American to be inferior — unless it be English.
  • Euthanasia is a long, smooth-sounding word, and it conceals its danger as long, smooth words do, but the danger is there, nevertheless.
    • The Child Who Never Grew (1950), Ch. 2
  • Because psychologists have been able to discover, exactly as in a slow-motion picture, the way the human creature acquires knowledge and habits, the normal child has been vastly helped by what the retarded have taught us.
    • The Child Who Never Grew (1950)
  • I love people. I love my family, my children … but inside myself is a place where I live all alone and that's where you renew your springs that never dry up.
    • As quoted in The New York Post (26 April 1959)
  • All things are possible until they are proved impossible — and even the impossible may only be so, as of now.
    • A Bridge for Passing (1962)
  • One does not live half a life in Asia without return. When it would be I did not know, nor even where it would be, or to what cause. In our changing world nothing changes more than geography. The friendly country of China, the home of my childhood and youth, is for the time being forbidden country. I refuse to call it enemy country. The people in my memory are too kind and the land too beautiful.
    • A Bridge for Passing (1962)
  • What is a neglected child? He is a child not planned for, not wanted. Neglect begins, therefore, before he is born.
    • Children for Adoption (1964). Ch. 3
  • The secret of joy in work is contained in one word — excellence. To know how to do something well is to enjoy it.
    • The Joy of Children (1966)
  • Nothing and no one can destroy the Chinese people. They are relentless survivors. They are the oldest civilized people on earth. Their civilization passes through phases but its basic characteristics remain the same. They yield, they bend to the wind, but they never break.
    • China, Past and Present (1972) Ch. 1
  • Ah well, perhaps one has to be very old before one learns how to be amused rather than shocked.
    • China, Past and Present (1972) Ch. 6
  • There was an old abbot in one temple and he said something of which I think often and it was this, that when men destroy their old gods they will find new ones to take their place.
    • As quoted in The Quotable Woman (1978) by Elaine T Partnow, p. 226. "When men destroy their old gods they will find new ones to take their place" has sometimes been quoted as her original statement, though she states that she herself is quoting an abbot.
  • The truth is always exciting. Speak it, then. Life is dull without it.
    • As quoted in Know Your Limits — Then Ignore Them (2000) by John Mason, p. 46
  • The young do not know enough to be prudent, and so they attempt the impossible, and achieve it, generation after generation.
    • As quoted in An Apple for the Teacher: Fundamentals for Instructional Computing (1983) by George H. Culp and Herbert N. Nickles, p. 190; also in Youth Quake: A Manifesto (2002) by Cousin Sam, p. 31
  • Shri Guru Granth Sahib is a source book, an expression of man's loneliness, his aspiration, his longings, his cry to God and his hunger for communication with that being. I have studied the scriptures of other great religions, but I do not find elsewhere the same power of appeal to the heart and mind as I feel here in these volumes. They are compact in spite of their length, and are a revelation of the vast reach of the human heart varying from the most noble concept of God to the recognition and indeed the insistence upon the practical needs of the human body. There is something strangely modern about these scriptures and this puzzled me until I learnt that they are in fact comparatively modern, compiled as late as the sixteenth century, when explorers were beginning to discover the globe upon which we all live as a single entity divided only by arbitrary lines of our own making.
    Perhaps this sense of unity is a source of power I find in these volumes. They speak to persons of any religion or of none. They speak for the human heart and the searching mind...
    • As quoted in Dharma : The Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh Traditions of India (2017) by Veena R. Howard, p. 21

The Chinese Novel (1938)

Nobel lecture (12 December 1938)
  • I grew up believing that the novel has nothing to do with pure literature. So I was taught by scholars. The art of literature, so I was taught, is something devised by men of learning. Out of the brains of scholars came rules to control the rush of genius, that wild fountain which has its source in deepest life. Genius, great or less, is the spring, and art is the sculptured shape, classical or modern, into which the waters must be forced, if scholars and critics were to be served. But the people of China did not so serve. The waters of the genius of story gushed out as they would, however the natural rocks allowed and the trees persuaded, and only common people came and drank and found rest and pleasure. For the novel in China was the peculiar product of the common people. And it was solely their property.
  • The Chinese novel was written primarily to amuse the common people. And when I say amuse I do not mean only to make them laugh, though laughter is also one of the aims of the Chinese novel. I mean amusement in the sense of absorbing and occupying the whole attention of the mind. I mean enlightening that mind by pictures of life and what that life means.
  • Did one man write Shui Hu Chuan, or did it grow to its present shape, added to, rearranged, deepened and developed by many minds and many a hand, in different centuries? Who can now tell? They are dead. They lived in their day and wrote what in their day they saw and heard, but of themselves they have told nothing.
  • Strangely enough, there were certain scholars who envied the freedom of obscurity, and who, burdened with certain private sorrows which they dared not tell anyone, or who perhaps wanting only a holiday from the weariness of the sort of art they had themselves created, wrote novels too, under assumed and humble names. And when they did so they put aside pedantry and wrote as simply and naturally as any common novelist.
    For the novelist believed that he should not be conscious of techniques. He should write as his material demanded.
  • A good novelist, or so I have been taught in China, should be above all else tse ran, that is, natural, unaffected, and so flexible and variable as to be wholly at the command of the material that flows through him. His whole duty is only to sort life as it flows through him, and in the vast fragmentariness of time and space and event to discover essential and inherent order and rhythm and shape. We should never be able, merely by reading pages, to know who wrote them, for when the style of a novelist becomes fixed, that style becomes his prison. The Chinese novelists varied their writing to accompany like music their chosen themes.
  • These Chinese novels are not perfect according to Western standards. They are not always planned from beginning to end, nor are they compact, any more than life is planned or compact. They are often too long, too full of incident, too crowded with character, a medley of fact and fiction as to material, and a medley of romance and realism as to method, so that an impossible event of magic or dream may be described with such exact semblance of detail that one is compelled to belief against all reason
  • Out of this folk mind, turned into stories and crowded with thousands of years of life, grew, literally, the Chinese novel. For these novels changed as they grew. If, as I have said, there are no single names attached beyond question to the great novels of China, it is because no one hand wrote them. From beginning as a mere tale, a story grew through succeeding versions, into a structure built by many hands.
  • The people of China forged their own literature apart from letters. And today this is what lives, to be part of what is to come, and all the formal literature, which was called art, is dead. The plots of these novels are often incomplete, the love interest is often not brought to solution, heroines are often not beautiful and heroes often are not brave. Nor has the story always an end; sometimes it merely stops, in the way life does, in the middle of it when death is not expected.
    In this tradition of the novel have I been born and reared as a writer.
  • The instinct which creates the arts is not the same as that which produces art. The creative instinct is, in its final analysis and in its simplest terms, an enormous extra vitality, a super-energy, born inexplicably in an individual, a vitality great beyond all the needs of his own living — an energy which no single life can consume. This energy consumes itself then in creating more life, in the form of music, painting, writing, or whatever is its most natural medium of expression. Nor can the individual keep himself from this process, because only by its full function is he relieved of the burden of this extra and peculiar energy — an energy at once physical and mental, so that all his senses are more alert and more profound than another man's, and all his brain more sensitive and quickened to that which his senses reveal to him in such abundance that actuality overflows into imagination. It is a process proceeding from within. It is the heightened activity of every cell of his being, which sweeps not only himself, but all human life about him, or in him, in his dreams, into the circle of its activity.
  • The street is noisy and the men and women are not perfect in the technique of their expression as the statues are. They are ugly and imperfect, incomplete even as human beings, and where they come from and where they go cannot be known. But they are people and therefore infinitely to be preferred to those who stand upon the pedestals of art.
  • Story belongs to the people. They are sounder judges of it than anyone else, for their senses are unspoiled and their emotions are free.

What America Means to Me (1943)

  • Race prejudice is not only a shadow over the colored — it is a shadow over all of us, and the shadow is darkest over those who feel it least and allow its evil effects to go on. It is not healthy when a nation lives inside a nation, as colored Americans are living inside America. A nation cannot live confident of its tomorrow if its refugees are among its own citizens. For it is never the one who suffers injustice who is the injured one, but the one who is unjust. Slavery bred a race of idle and shiftless white men, and race prejudice continues the evil work. White people who insist on their superority because of the color of the skin they were born with- can there be so empty and false a superiority as this? Who is injured the most by that foolish assumption, the colored or the white? In his soul it s the white man. It is the wise white people who ought now to be angry because of race prejudice, for as surely as night follows day our country will fail in its democracy because of race prejudice unless we root it out. We cannot grow in strength and leadership for democracy so long as we carry deep in our being this fatal fault.
    • p. 8
  • None who have always been free can understand the terrible fascinating power of the hope of freedom to those who are not free.
    • Ch. 4
  • Every great mistake has a halfway moment, a split second when it can be recalled and perhaps remedied.
    • Ch. 10
  • It may be that religion is dead, and if it is, we had better know it and set ourselves to try to discover other sources of moral strength before it is too late.
  • Questions at home and school should be decided in the light of the future. It is a process of toughening, but not the sort of false physical thing that we have called toughening. Our boys and girls ought to know that the bully type, the false "tough," has been the first to break down under the actual fire of battle. The quiet, the calm, the determined have made the best soldiers. Why? Obviously the bully is insecure in himself- he blusters to muster his own courage. Children ought to know that. They ought to be taught to retort to the bully, "You're a coward or you wouldn't make such a noise about being brave. The really brave man simply acts brave- he doesn't have to talk about it."
    • p. 151-152
  • I believe with all my heart that jimcrow is wicked and I know that it is a rotten core in our society. I know that we cannot say that we are a full democracy so long as jimcrow exists anywhere in our country. I will fight against it and refuse to countenance it in all was that I can, as long as I live. And yet I know that were all jimcrow laws to be abolished tomorrow, the war for the lberation of mankind would still not be won here. There would still be those not free, not equal.
    • p. 183
  • I don't know whether Abraham Lincoln knew exactly what he was doing when he freed the slaves. Perhaps he did it only as a war measure. The war, you remember, dragged along without any heart in it. Nobody seemed to want to fight. There was everything to fight for- the Union, the preservation of a country whole- but the idea of union, even of country, did not seem enough to make men want to fight... There were even plenty of people, accustomed to the small compact nations of Europe, who thought that perhaps this great expanse of America should not be one country, that it might be better if it were divided into nations instead of states. But others were determined that the continual bickering and quarreling between the little nations of Europe should not be repeated here and they were determined to keep the country whole and large, and among these was Abraham Lincoln.
    • p. 192
  • The greatest blow for freedom that was ever struck in the world's history, perhaps, was when Abraham Lincoln decided that the slaves of the South were to be free and he freed them. The South collapsed. The gentlemen who could spend their time fighting, sure of supplies from slave-tended lands, began to starve and go ragged. Their homes began to fall into ruin and their families to be hungry. Their morale was broken. The war was really won by the pen upon the paper which wrote these words, "are and henceforward shall be free."
    • p. 193
  • I suppose Abraham Lincoln knew that was what would happen. He was very wise in the ways of men. He knew how people think and feel. Doubtless he knew that deeper than anything else in the hearts of men everywhere is the wish for simple freedom- freedom without any promises even of protection, of food, of security- just freedom. He knew that those people, so long bond, would leave even comfortable sheltered places where masters were kind, if they could only be free.
    • p. 194
  • Had Japan been a tenth as wise as Abraham Lincoln, had Hitler been a hundredth part as sensible, we today, the United States and England, would not have a chance in this war. Had those two enemies of ours coveted the lands upon subject peoples dwell today and had they whispered the magic word freedom to those peoples, they might have set half the world against us in a moment. But they have lost because they attacked lands already free, and because they have enslaved peoples accustomed to freedom. By this one thing alone, if by no other, they are doomed. They have misread the hearts and minds of men. By their enslavement of the peoples whom they have made subject by force of arms, they have aroused against themselves a greater force than can be found in any army, in any weapon. It is this- the will of men everywhere to be free. Let us learn today from Abraham Lincoln, as we fight this war still so far from victory. He could not win that war until he lit the fire in the hearts of men and women enslaved. Nothing had been enough to make men rise up and shout aloud for victory until that moment. A few men like war and enjoy it as a game. But most men and all women hate war. They will not fight with their whole hearts unless they are set aflame. And the torch is always the same words. Whisper those words and men and women will shout them aloud and sing them as they march. The words are simple but they are the most potent in the universe- they are the spiritual dynamite of victory. The words? "All persons held as slaves... are and henceforward shall be free."
    • p. 195

This I Believe (1951)

Full text online Read as a This I Believe radio broadcast in 1951 (some remarks from this essay have sometimes been cited as being from 1939).
The power to spring up is inherent, and only death puts an end to it. I feel no need for any other faith than my faith in human beings.
  • I enjoy life because I am endlessly interested in people and their growth. My interest leads me to widen my knowledge of people, and this in turn compels me to believe in the common goodness of mankind. I believe that the normal human heart is born good. That is, it’s born sensitive and feeling, eager to be approved and to approve, hungry for simple happiness and the chance to live. It neither wishes to be killed, nor to kill. If through circumstances, it is overcome by evil, it never becomes entirely evil. There remain in it elements of good, however recessive, which continue to hold the possibility of restoration.
  • I believe in human beings, but my faith is without sentimentality. I know that in environments of uncertainty, fear, and hunger, the human being is dwarfed and shaped without his being aware of it, just as the plant struggling under a stone does not know its own condition. Only when the stone is removed can it spring up freely into the light. But the power to spring up is inherent, and only death puts an end to it. I feel no need for any other faith than my faith in human beings.
The common sense of people will surely prove to them someday that mutual support and cooperation are only sensible for the security and happiness of all.
  • Like Confucius of old, I am absorbed in the wonder of earth, and the life upon it, and I cannot think of heaven and the angels. I have enough for this life. If there is no other life, than this one has been enough to make it worth being born, myself a human being. With so profound a faith in the human heart and its power to grow toward the light, I find here reason and cause enough for hope and confidence in the future of mankind.
  • The common sense of people will surely prove to them someday that mutual support and cooperation are only sensible for the security and happiness of all. Such faith keeps me continually ready and purposeful with energy to do what one person can towards shaping the environment in which the human being can grow with freedom.
  • In the midst of possible world war, of wholesale destruction, I find my only question this: are there enough people now who believe? Is there time enough left for the wise to act? It is a contest between ignorance and death, or wisdom and life. My faith in humanity stands firm.

My Several Worlds (1954)

My Several Worlds : A Personal Record (1954)
I learned early to understand that there is no such condition in human affairs as absolute truth. There is only truth as people see it, and truth, even in fact, may be kaleidoscopic in its variety...
  • I became mentally bifocal, and so I learned early to understand that there is no such condition in human affairs as absolute truth. There is only truth as people see it, and truth, even in fact, may be kaleidoscopic in its variety. The damage such perception did to me I have felt ever since, although damage may be too dark a word, for it merely meant that I could never belong entirely to one side of any question. To be a Communist would be absurd to me, as absurd as to be entirely anything and equally impossible. I straddled the globe too young.
    • p. 52
  • Every event has had its cause, and nothing, not the least wind that blows, is accident or causeless. To understand what happens now one must find the cause, which may be very long ago in its beginning, but is surely there, and therefore a knowledge of history as detailed as possible is essential if we are to comprehend the present and be prepared for the future. Fate, Mr. Kung taught me, is not the blind superstition or helplessness that waits stupidly for what may happen. Fate is unalterable only in the sense that given a cause, a certain result must follow, but no cause is inevitable in itself, and man can shape his world if he does not resign himself to ignorance.
    • p. 52 - 53
  • In any war a victory means another war, and yet another, until some day inevitably the tides turn, and the victor is the vanquished, and the circle reverses itself, but remains nevertheless a circle. … I came home more torn in heart than any child should be, for I saw that each side was right as well as wrong, and I yearned over both in a helpless fashion, unable to see how, history being what it was, anything now could be done.
    • p. 61
  • Chinese are wise in comprehending without many words what is inevitable and inescapable and therefore only to be borne.
    • p. 192
  • The wild winds had been sown and the whirlwinds were gathering... and I was reaping what I had not sown... None of us could escape the history of the centuries before any of us had been born, and with which we had nothing to do. We had not, I think, ever committed even a mild unkindness against a Chinese, and certainly we had devoted ourselves to justice for them, we had taken sides against our own race again and again for their sakes, sensitive always to injustices which others had committed and were still committing. But nothing mattered today, neither the kindness nor the cruelty. We were in hiding for our lives because we were white.
    • p. 208
  • There is something to be said for losing one’s possessions, after nothing can be done about it. I had loved my Nanking home and the little treasures it had contained, the lovely garden I had made, my life with friends and students. Well, that was over. I had nothing at all now except the old clothes I stood in. I should have felt sad, and I was quite shocked to realize that I did not feel sad at all. On the contrary, I had a lively sense of adventure merely at being alive and free, even of possessions. No one expected anything of me. I had no obligations, no duties, no tasks. I was nothing but a refugee, someone totally different from the busy young woman I had been. I did not even care that the manuscript of my novel was lost. Since everything else was gone, why not that?
    • p. 218
  • I am an inveterate homemaker, it is at once my pleasure, my recreation, and my handicap. Were I a man, my books would have been written in leisure, protected by a wife and a secretary and various household officials. As it is, being a woman, my work has had to be done between bouts of homemaking.
    • p. 239
  • Chinese were born, it seemed to me, with an accumulated wisdom, a natural sophistication, an intelligent naiveté, and unless they were transplanted too young, these qualities ripened in them. To talk even with a farmer and his family, none of whom could read or write, was often to hear a philosophy at once sane and humorous. If ever I am homesick for China, now that I am home in my own country, it is when I discover here no philosophy. Our people have opinions and creeds and prejudices and ideas but as yet no philosophy.
    • p. 244
  • Yet somehow our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is in the way that it cares for its helpless members.
    • p. 337
  • We are not empire builders. How important this fact is no American who has not lived in Asia can appreciate. It goes against our conscience, which is a very tender part of the American spirit. Therefore we are learning how to hold our allies, not by force of arms and government, but by mutual benefit and friendship. So much is already clear...
    I am therefore hopeful. In spite of dismaying contradictions in individuals in our national scene, I feel the controlling spirit or our people, generous, decent, and sane. 'In this mood of faith and hope my work goes on. A ream of fresh paper lies on my desk waiting for the next book. I am a writer and I take up my pen to write.
    • p. 407, This has sometimes been quoted as "In a mood of faith and hope..."

To My Daughters, With Love (1967)

  • Praise out of season, or tactlessly bestowed, can freeze the heart as much as blame.
    • "First Meeting"
  • The bitterest creature under heaven is the wife who discovers that her husband’s bravery is only bravado, that his strength is only a uniform, that his power is but a gun in the hands of a fool.
    • "Love and Marriage"
  • The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being. His heart withers if it does not answer another heart. His mind shrinks away if he hears only the echoes of his own thoughts and finds no other inspiration.
    • "To You on Your First Birthday"
  • To eat bread without hope is still slowly to starve to death.
    • "To the Young"
  • You cannot make yourself feel something you do not feel, but you can make yourself do right in spite of your feelings.
    • "My Neighbor's Son"
  • Order is the shape upon which beauty depends.
  • Growth itself contains the germ of happiness.
  • Some are kissing mothers and some are scolding mothers, but it is love just the same, and most mothers kiss and scold together.


  • We should so provide for old age that it may have no urgent wants of this world to absorb it from meditation on the next.
  • A dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God's truth is attacked and yet would remain silent, without giving any sound.
    • John Calvin, quoted in The Westminster Collection of Christian Quotations (2001) by Martin H. Manser, p. 56
  • You can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come into contact with a new idea.
    • John Nuveen, as quoted in The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham (2005) by Marshall Shelley, p. 303

Quotes about Buck

  • Buck's efforts on behalf of equality included tireless support for women's rights. She promoted modern birth control and called her friend Margaret Sanger "one of the most courageous women of our times," a person whose name "would go down in history" as a modern crusader for justice. In the 1930s and 1940s, Buck also spoke out repeatedly in support of an Equal Rights Amendment for women, at a time when opposition to it included the majority of organized women's groups.
  • How does a woman of this magnitude and range slip away from our national consciousness? She has not exactly disappeared. Rather, as one reader of an earlier draft of this book shrewdly put it, she has been "hidden in plain sight," obscured beneath a caricature that belies her complexity and her achievement. … In the years after World War II, Buck's literary reputation shrunk to the vanishing point. She stood on the wrong side of virtually every line drawn by those who constructed the lists of required reading in the 1950s and 1960s.
    • Peter Conn in "Rediscovering Pearl Buck" from Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography (1996)
  • She was a spokesman on all sorts of issues: freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the adoptability of disadvantaged children, the future of China, especially the battle for women's rights, for education. If you followed in her trail, as I did, you were put in touch with almost every major movement in the United States — intellectual, social, and political.
  • The most influential Westerner to write about China since thirteenth-century Marco Polo.
    • "Why Doesn't Pearl Buck Get Respect?" by James Thomson in The Philadelphia Inquirer (24 July 1992), p. A15
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