Preacher's Daughter, Palace Guard's Son

The story of China's first almost Nobel literature laureate

01 August 2018

THE NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE will not be awarded this year. This hiatus—the result of allegations of sexual assault against the husband of a member of the Swedish Academy, which confers the award—will deprive us of more than just a winner. We will also miss out on the usual wrangling over who else deserved to, but did not, win. This is an annual, global ritual, and one with a surprisingly long history—seemingly as long as of the prize itself.

Take the case of Rabindranath Tagore. When he became the first Asian literature laureate in 1913, there were certainly many news stories extolling his poetry. Much was also made, though, of Thomas Hardy, the celebrated English novelist of rural life, being passed over. (He would never win.) The writer Gordon Ray Young, in a piece for the Los Angeles Times, claimed that “the literature of the day abounds with work of splendid authors,” and provided a long list of poets, many now largely forgotten, who he felt were more worthy of the award.

Another controversial award came 25 years later, when the winner was Pearl Buck, an author who herself had an Asian connection. She was born in West Virginia but grew up in China, where her parents were missionaries, and later gained fame with a novel, The Good Earth, about the trials and tribulations of a Chinese farming family. Articles praised Buck’s skills and highlighted in particular her empathetic treatment of the Chinese protagonists of The Good Earth, then and still by far her most widely read book, which became a bestseller and inspired a hugely successful Hollywood movie. Other articles questioned whether Buck—the first American laureate and also the first winner with deep ties to China—was really a writer of the first rank. Some critics claimed that her work was more melodramatic, more middlebrow, or both, than a Nobel winner’s should be.

There were apparently many in Sweden, from where all the Nobel Prizes (apart from the Peace prize) are given, who thought another, competing author should have become the laureate in 1938: Frans Emil Sillanpää. This was the focus of a wire service report that ran in the New York Times, under the headline “Award Perturbs Swedes.” It referred to some “Swedish authors and critics” issuing “caustic” remarks about the Nobel selection committee, chastising its members for having “again overlooked” Sillanpää, the “long-standing Finnish candidate.” There was apparently less concern among the people of Finland over the decision to award the author of The Good Earth. The article, which carried the subheading, “But Finns Accept Naming of Mrs. Buck for Nobel Prize Calmly,” noted that Buck was “extensively read” in Finland, with 20,000 copies of a translation of The Good Earth in circulation—“an extraordinary record for a book” in Finland. (In any case, all Sillanpää’s fans had to do was wait one more year, as he was given the prize in 1939.)

Thirty years after Buck’s win, when Yasunari Kawabata became the first person born in East Asia to win the award, there were relatively few criticisms of his work, but reports on his win often mentioned various authors, better known in the West, who had been passed over. A Washington Post article, for instance, which ran under the headline “Japan Author Is Awarded Nobel Prize,” began by noting that Kawabata was “almost unknown in the West.” Then, before providing any details about his writing, it described Kawabata as having been selected “over such contenders as Norman Mailer of the United States, Andre Malraux of France, Britain’s Graham Greene and W.H. Auden, Alberto Moravia of Italy, Irish author Samuel Beckett, Rumanian-born Eugene Ionesco and Hungarian-born Arthur Koestler.” This is a lengthy list, but it possibly leaves off one important name—a writer born in Beijing who, at least according to a tale often repeated in China, was the actual favorite of the Nobel selection committee fifty years ago.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is Eight Juxtapositions: China through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo (2016). He is currently working on a book about the Boxer crisis.

Keywords: Pearl S Buck Pearl S Buck Lao She Lao She Nobel Prize Nobel Prize for literature chinese literature china