Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 796

Dragon Seed is set in the early years of World War II. More specifically, however, though the Japanese invasion and occupation of China roughly paralleled the war years in Europe and the Pacific, the war specific to China is called the Second Sino-Japanese War. Dragon Seed is a chronicle of...

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Dragon Seed is set in the early years of World War II. More specifically, however, though the Japanese invasion and occupation of China roughly paralleled the war years in Europe and the Pacific, the war specific to China is called the Second Sino-Japanese War. Dragon Seed is a chronicle of the war as experienced by the Chinese, in particular the peasants. Their country was conquered and overrun by the Japanese.

Pearl S. Buck, the first American woman to win, in 1938, the Nobel Prize in Literature, is best known for The Good Earth (1931). Like The Good Earth and many of her other novels, Dragon Seed is set in China, where Buck spent much of her early life with her missionary parents. Buck may perhaps be credited with introducing to the American reading public Chinese characters who were more than the figures of ridicule or contempt that had been evident in American fiction. There were a few writers who had written about Chinese or Chinese Americans prior to Buck, but Buck was the first to reach a wide audience.

It is important to note the time in which Dragon Seed was published. The United States had recently entered World War II, and on the Pacific front it was, with China, allied against the Japanese. It is debatable whether Dragon Seed was intended as propaganda, because Buck had already written extensively about China and the Chinese people. It would seem, however, that in China’s war against the Japanese, Buck served to help the Chinese cause. The war novel label that is often attached to Dragon Seed, however, must be considered in at least two other contexts. One is the United States’ own propaganda war against the Japanese, of which Buck had little choice but to become part. The other is the war against Americans of Chinese ancestry that had lasted sixty years—the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, for example, which among other things prohibited the naturalization of Chinese as Americans, was not to be repealed until December, 1943. By default if not by design, the novel is part of these historical contexts.

The novel chronicles one family’s struggles against the oppression of a foreign invader. The village and the city in which most of the action takes place are not named; the Ling family can be seen as the symbolic representative of a society built upon the unfailing unity of the family unit. In a time when all the major cities had fallen to the enemy, when the Chinese army was defeated in battle after battle, the rural family, in a country peopled primarily by rural families, seemed to be the last bastion of Chinese resistance.

The main characters are not one-dimensional, but Buck seems so intent on their struggle that the minutest everyday action is always for the cause. The characters do their part in resisting the enemy in whatever way they can, because it is demanded of the times. The “save China” message of the novel is particularly romanticized in the rhapsodic passages about Ling Tan contemplating his land. He and the farmers like him, the people who work the land, seem most deserving of the land. In contrast, the Japanese occupiers are portrayed as having little concept of the land beyond the idea of possession.

In Buck’s China, everyone has his or her place. Buck examines the woman’s place in the scheme of land, family, and tradition. The novel’s women are not all the manipulated creatures they are supposed to be. Ling Sao and Jade are two characters who can be seen as progenitors of the woman warriors to come in later fiction about women of Chinese ancestry. Both are at least the equal of their husbands. Jade and Pansiao are the only two of the Ling family who are literate.

When Dragon Seed appeared in 1942, its topicality made it a best seller. Some critics, however, find it simplistic, dated, and romanticized. Reading Dragon Seed and trying to gauge its place in literature, it is important to realize that a novel written by an American about China in the context of today’s critical assessments is inherently problematic. Does Buck purport to speak for the Chinese better than they can for themselves? Will Chinese be confused with Chinese Americans? When the novel first appeared, there was little differentiation between the two. There was no expression of Chinese American consciousness at a time when American-born Chinese were, by law, not American. Dragon Seed is one of the earliest instances of a novel whose characters are Chinese and that was widely read by the American public. As such it is relevant in any study of how American literature portrays characters of Chinese ancestry and how the perception of Americans of Chinese ancestry has evolved.

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