Pearl S. Buck was born in Hillsboro, West Virginia, to Caroline Stulting (1857–1921) and Absalom Sydenstricker. Her parents, Southern Presbyterianmissionaries, traveled to China soon after their marriage on July 8, 1880, but returned to the United States for Pearl's birth. When Pearl was three months old, the family returned to China to be stationed first in Zhenjiang (then often known as Jingjiang or, in the Postal Romanization, Tsingkiang), (this is near Nanking).Pearl was raised in a bilingual environment, tutored in English by her mother and in classical Chinese by a Mr. Kung.
The Boxer Uprising greatly affected Pearl and family; their Chinese friends deserted them, and Western visitors decreased.
In 1911, Pearl left China to attend Randolph-Macon Woman's College inLynchburg, Virginia, US,graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1914 and a member of Kappa Delta Sorority. From 1914 to 1933, she served as a Presbyterian missionary, but her views later became highly controversial in the Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy, leading to her resignation.
In 1914, Pearl returned to China. She married an agricultural economist, John Lossing Buck (hereafter in this article Pearl Buck is referred to simply as 'Buck'), on May 13, 1917, and they moved to Suzhou, Anhui Province, a small town on the Huai River (not to be confused with the better-known Suzhou in Jiangsu Province). It is this region she described later in The Good Earth and Sons.
From 1920 to 1933, the Bucks made their home in Nanking (Nanjing), on the campus of Nanjing University, where both had teaching positions. Buck taught English literature at the private, church-run University of Nanking,and at the National Central University, (merged with Nanjing University, in 1952 and 1949 respectively). In 1920, the Bucks had a daughter, Carol, afflicted with phenylketonuria. In 1921, Buck's mother died and shortly afterward her father moved in. In 1924, they left China for John Buck's year of sabbatical and returned to the United States for a short time, during which Pearl Buck earned her Masters degree from Cornell University. In 1925, the Bucks adopted Janice (later surnamed Walsh). That autumn, they returned to China.
The tragedies and dislocations that Buck suffered in the 1920s reached a climax in March 1927, during the "Nanking Incident." In a confused battle involving elements of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist troops, Communist forces, and assorted warlords, several Westerners were murdered. Since her father Absalom was a missionary, the family decided to stay in Nanjing until the battle reached the city. When violence broke out, a poor Chinese family allowed them to hide in their hut while the family house was looted. The family spent a day terrified and in hiding, after which they were rescued by American gunboats. They traveled to Shanghai and then sailed to Japan, where they stayed for a year. They later moved back to Nanjing, though conditions remained dangerously unsettled. In 1934, they left China permanently.
In 1935 the Bucks were divorced. Richard Walsh, president of the John Day Company and Pearl Buck's publisher, became her second husband. Walsh offered her advice and affection which, her biographer concludes, "helped make Pearl's prodigious activity possible." The couple lived in Pennsylvania until his death in 1960.
During the Cultural Revolution, Buck, as a preeminent American writer of Chinese peasant life, was denounced as an "American cultural imperialist." Buck was "heartbroken" when Madame Mao and high-level Chinese officials prevented her from visiting China with Richard Nixon in 1972.
Pearl S. Buck died of lung cancer on March 6, 1973, in Danby, Vermont and was interred in Green Hills Farm in Perkasie, Pennsylvania. She designed her own tombstone. The grave marker is inscribed with Chinese characters representing the name Pearl Sydenstricker