Did Writer Pearl Buck and Poet Xu Zhimo Have a Love Affair?

Xu Zhimo distinguished himself in literary history as one of the most esteemed romantic Chinese poets. But despite his devotion to the written word, Xu proved unfaithful when it came to marital relations — and his dalliances may have even extended to one notable literary figure from the West: Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck.

That’s what Peter Conn, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, argues in his book Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography:

Lossing was unfaithful to Pearl; she said that he “had his women,” both before and during his marriage to Pearl. Pearl believed that his assorted “silly secret episodes” repudiated “all the mutual fine loyalty of feeling and understanding that makes a marriage real.”

Perhaps in retaliation, Pearl took a lover, an extraordinary Chinese poet named Hsu Chih-mo (Xu Zhimo). The affair probably began in Shanghai and continued intermittently until Hsu’s death in a plane crash in November, 1931. The evidence suggests that Pearl had been faithful to Lossing throughout the decade of their marriage. She met Hsu at a time of intense personal need, and apparently found a brief joy that was canceled by the tragedy of his death. ….

There was never any question of marriage between Pearl and Hsu. Both were married, and, despite the fantasies of Letter from Peking, neither of them would actually have married across racial lines.

Conn further writes that their relationship inspired Buck to commemorate it in her novel Letter from Peking.

However, British literary biographer Hilary Spurling disagrees about the existence of such a romantic intrigue in her 2010 work Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth:

…[it] seems unlikely if only because he was one of the stars of his literary generation, while she was at best an onlooker on the sidelines, having published no more than a handful of pieces in mission publications and American magazines. None of his biographers have found a shred of evidence for this affair, and the only Chinese witness who knew them both…categorically denied the possibility that Pearl had been Xu’s lover. …

No one in Pearl’s circle at the time in China, not even her husband, knew anything of this putative affair, apart from a vague assertion made fifty years later by Lillieth Bates that she had heard gossip linking their two names.

Spurling also goes on to quote Pearl Buck’s late-life companion Theodore Harris (a man who supposedly first posited the idea that Buck’s awe for Xu Zhimo was more than just a fanciful notion), calling his testimony “highly ambivalent”:

“It is the privilege of a writer to grasp a situation as it stands and complete it in her own mind,” he wrote of Pearl’s relationship with Xu. “It could have happened. How much actually did is not for us to know.”

And we may never know, unless someone happens to unearth a lost journal or letter that offers more convincing evidence that the two were lovers.

For those of you wondering what a tryst between Pearl Buck and Xu Zhimo might have looked like, you can read Anchee Min’s Pearl of China, which includes a fictionalized version of their supposed love affair, or pick up a copy of Pearl Buck’s Letter from Peking.

What do you think? Do you believe Pearl Buck and Xu Zhimo were once lovers?

Photo credits: 

Xu Zhimo: By Unknown – http://www.dg163.cn/Files/File/2009-9/14/I7JF4K7G5E203339F8.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17163608

Pearl Buck: By Arnold Genthe – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a12720. This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=422006

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