The Living Reed by Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck tells he fictitious story of four generations of a Korean noble family working for their country’s independence.
Pearl S. Buck, also known under her Chinese name 賽珍珠, was born as Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker in Hillsboro, West Virginia, USA, in June 1892. Her parents being Presbyterian missionaries in China she grew up in Zhenjiang near Nanking. After college in the USA she returned to China and married the agricultural economist missionary John Lossing Buck. As from 1927 Pearl S. Buck devoted herself to writing and brought out her first novel titled East Wind: West Wind in 1930 which was immediately followed by The House of Earth trilogy (The Good Earth: 1931; Sons: 1933; A House Divided: 1935). In 1935 she got divorced and married her editor Richard Walsh with whom she had been involved since 1930. “For her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces” Pearl S. Buck received the 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature. Other notable works of the prolific writer of fiction as well as non-fiction are for instance Dragon Seed (1942), The Promise (1943), The Big Wave (1948), Peony (1948), and The Living Reed (1963). Pearl S. Buck kept writing until her death from lung cancer in Danby, Vermont, USA, in March 1973.
The subtitle of The Living Reed immediately identifies the book as a novel of Korea. To be precise it’s a historical novel showing the country’s striving for independence between 1881 and 1945 at the example of the Kim family of the clan of Andong who are rich scholars belonging to the highest nobility of Korea and having a long tradition in the royal service. The story begins in Seoul in spring 1881, when a second son is born to Il-han and his wife Sunia. Meanwhile the older son got angry and broke several young shoots in the bamboo grove in the garden and Il-han explains to him that
“…, they grow only once from the root. The plants these shoots might have been, waving their delicate leaves in the winds of summer, will never live. The shoots crack the earth in spring, they grow quickly and in a year they have finished their growth. You have destroyed food, you have destroyed life. Though it is only a hollow reed, it is a living reed. Now the roots must send up other shoots to take the place of those you have destroyed. …”
It’s a crucial moment in Korean history because the country is torn between those who like King Kojong and Il-han believe that only opening up to the world, especially to the United States of America, can save the millennia old Kingdom from annexation and those who like Queen Min and Il-han’s father trust in the traditional policy of seclusion under the suzerainty (and protection) of the Chinese Empire. Although neither Il-han nor his father holds an official position at the Royal Court, they are both loyal advisers to the Royal Couple. However, unrest is growing among Koreans and Il-han sets out to travel the whole country to get to know his own people. On his return home Il-han finds Queen Min in his house. She is hiding from the bloodhounds of the former Regent, who meanwhile seized power, and he saves her as is his duty. Some months after her and her husband’s restoration to the throne, Il-han and others are sent to the USA and Europe to learn more about those countries. After the experience Il-han is more than ever convinced that Korea needs the USA on her side and accordingly advises King Kojong. A treaty with the USA is made and first steps towards the modernisation of the country are initiated, but old and new political as well as social tensions are steadily growing over the years. Rebel groups like the Tonghak are attracting members everywhere and as it turns out Il-han’s elder son Yul-chun, who is now a young man attending a foreign school in Seoul, belongs to it. At the same time China, Russia and Japan are heading into war and the independence of Korea is threatened, but the USA don’t intervene as their treaty with Korea proclaims, not even when Japanese troupes enter the country and kill Queen Min. While Il-han’s younger son adapts to the Japanese regime, his elder son fights it and disappears for a long time while a rebel called “The Living Reed” enters the scene.
The whole story of The Living Reed is told by a third-person narrator, but Pearl S. Buck decided to add a first-person epilogue to explain what inspired her to write the novel and above all to provide a link between the plot that ends with the arrival of US-American troupes in Seoul in 1945 and the independent, though divided Korea of the early 1960s. For a better understanding of Korean history the author also wrote a historical note as an introduction which is quite interesting although I doubt that it made the story any more accessible than it would have been without it. The first part covering the period between spring 1881 and Korea’s annexation to the Japanese Empire in 1910 takes up almost half of the books and is told in great detail, while the following two parts dedicated to the periods between 1910 and the suppression of the Mansei Demonstration in 1919 and the years from 1919 to 1945 are much shorter and seem too cursory by comparison. As regards the descriptions of life in exile and under Japanese rule, I also suspect that they might not be very realistic because they feel strangely light and uncomplicated. An important focus of the entire novel is on change, namely on the individual as well as on the political and social level. Characters are modelled with great skill and narrative foresight although the special traits of Il-han’s grandsons make expect much more of them than the plot offers because the author opted for a rather sudden – and in my opinion unsatisfactory – ending. To tell the story of the Kims and Korea Pearl S. Buck used simple language which is at the same time poetic and sometimes imitating traditional Korean ways of narration.
All in all I enjoyed reading The Living Reed by Pearl S. Buck and plunging into a world that is so far from my own experience and into aspects of history which have been known to me only rudimentary because they are too loosely connected to what happened in Europe at the time to be taught in our schools. It’s certainly a book that helps to raise cultural awareness and understanding for the historical as well as ideological background of the lasting division of the peninsula into a secluded Communist North and open democratic South Korea. Therefore I believe that it deserves to be read by many more people than it is today.
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This review is a contribution to the perpetual Read the Nobels challenge.
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