Pearl S. Buck was born in 1892 in Hillsboro, West Virginia. Her father, Absalom Sydenstricker, was a Presbyterian missionary stationed in the small town of Chinkiang, outside Nanking. Consequently, Buck arrived in China when she was five months old. She was raised by a Chinese amah who told her popular tales and myths, and she could speak and write both English and Chinese by the age of four. She also played freely with the village children; in this way, she learned much about Chinese life.
In 1900, when Buck was eight years old, the Boxer Rebellion threw the Sydenstrickers' life into turmoil. Chinese nationalists turned on Westerners, and for a while, the family feared for their lives. Absalom sent Buck, her mother, and her baby sister to Shanghai, which was relatively safe for Westerners; in 1901, the family returned to America. However, they soon returned to China, heedless of danger.
In 1909, Buck enrolled in Miss Jewell's School in Shanghai, an establishment that formerly educated privileged Western girls but had lost much of its prestige in the previous years. While studying there, Buck also volunteered at The Golden Door, a shelter for Chinese slave girls and prostitutes. Her experience would mold her as a writer and as a person; throughout her years in China, Buck continued to pay particular attention to the plight of oppressed and poor Chinese women and girls.
In 1910, Buck returned to America and enrolled in Randolph Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia. Here she was well respected among her peers and received good grades, but she was unhappy. After graduation, she returned to China to take care of her mother, who had become sick. While on a vacation at Kuling, a resort for Westerners, she met John Lossing Buck, an agricultural economist with a degree from Cornell University. The two were married in 1917 and spent the next several years in the poor rural province of Nanhsuchou. The landscape and people they met there inspired much of Buck's later writing, including The Good Earth.
They moved to Nanking, where John taught at the University, and in 1921, Pearl Buck gave birth to a baby girl, whom they named Carol. Sadly, Buck's hopes for a large family were dashed when she was forced to have an emergency hysterectomy following Carol's birth. Buck was struck another blow soon after when baby Carol was found to be mentally retarded.
The Buck family spent the winter of 1924-25 at Cornell University, where Buck earned an MA in English; her master's thesis, entitled China and the West, won a faculty prize for the best essay of the year. During this time in America, Buck met Eleanor Roosevelt, who would prove to be a role model for her, and she also adopted a baby girl. The family returned to a China wracked by civil war. In 1927, the war reached the Buck family in Nanking; the president of the University was killed and the Bucks spent some time in hiding, eventually fleeing to Japan for a year.
Around this time, Buck's life changed considerably. She was forced to place her daughter, Carol, in an institution in New Jersey when caring for her became too difficult. By this point, Buck's marriage to her husband was failing, and although the couple was not divorced until years later, she informed him that she wanted to leave him. Partly in order to pay for Carol's care, Buck took to writing full-time in the 1920s, and her first novel, East Wind, West Wind, was published in 1930. The Good Earth was published soon after, in 1930, and became an instant success. It was a major feature of the Book of the Month club and sold out of stores very quickly. During the heyday of the book's success, Buck was still in China, far removed from the hype the book caused. In her lifetime, she would publish another seventy books, many of them featured by the Book of the Month Club, but The Good Earth would remain her most famous.
Buck moved back to America in the early 1930s and immediately began to campaign for minority and women's rights. She was a member of the NAACP and wrote numerous magazine articles on women's rights. During World War II, she spoke out against the American internment of Japanese residents and after the war became a target for surveillance by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the FBI. In 1949, she founded Welcome House, the first international, interracial adoption agency in the world, mostly to help Amerasian children fathered by American servicemen during wars abroad. In the late 1960s, she founded the Pearl S. Buck Foundation to provide foster care for these children. She also helped to open America's mind and attitude toward mental retardation by writing The Child Who Never Grew Up about her daughter Carol in 1950.
One of Buck's most significant achievements was winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. She was the first American woman to win this prestigious award, the second being Toni Morrison in 1993. Always a humanitarian, she created a stir by refusing to set foot in Nazi Germany while she was in Europe to accept the award. However, the accomplishment she would probably have felt to be her greatest was her family. Throughout her two marriages, she adopted many children, finally realizing her dream of having a large family.
Pearl S. Buck died of lung cancer in 1973 at the age of eighty. In her lifetime, she succeeded in opening Americans' minds about social, racial, and gender injustice through her writing and her acts. She had a profound influence on the way Americans think about China and about international relations in general.