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He is a poor man who knows nothing besides the value of land. Therefore, he spends his entire life building up a large estate. However, he builds according to the old system. As he becomes richer, he separates himself from his own people and he allows
himself and his family to fall into the same faults that the other rich had. Then he allows his sons to separate themselves from the land - that which had given them their wealth. Although the author does not carry the story through, the reader knows that this family is destined to fall.
Wang Lung's religious beliefs are a mixture of different traditions. Primarily, since he is a farmer, he worships (burns incense) before two small earth gods in the field to bring good fortune to himself and his family. But he also appeals to the goddess of mercy to give his daughter-in-law a boy child in return for a new robe. He buys a paper god of wealth when his fortunes are on the rise and scolds the gods when misfortune occurs. He is superstitious and believes in omens. He tries to fool the evil spirits, as when he hides his own baby boy under his robe and proclaims out loud that it is only a worthless girl child.
Wang Lung also respects the more sophisticated Confucian principles of family deference and is pleased when his son erects an ancestral shrine in the house. As a matter of convention he gives donations to both the Buddhist and Taoist temples on the birth of his first son. This mixture of deference to the ancient philosophies and to the spirit world was typical of everyday Chinese religious practice. However, the more established religious institutions seem more the preserve of the educated. For a simple farmer like Wang, even when he becomes rich, the little earthen idols--gods of the renewal of life--are supremely powerful. Although he treats them badly and blames them for misfortune, he is afraid to reject them totally, and he ultimately returns to them since they have "power over earth."
Wang's personal conversations with his gods may seem a bit disrespectful to you. But if you believed, as Wang did, that these gods had purposely created your good fortune or your bad times, you might respond in the same way. How does your religious heritage teach you to deal with adversity?
Man’s Relationship to the Earth
The overarching theme of The Good Earth is the nourishing power of the land. Throughout the novel, a connection to the land is associated with moral piety, good sense, respect for nature, and a strong work ethic, while alienation from the land is associated with decadence and corruption. Buck’s novel situates this universal theme within the context of traditional Chinese culture. Wang Lung, a farmer, has an intimate relationship with the earth because he produces his harvest through his own labor. In contrast, the local Hwang family is estranged from the earth because their wealth and harvests are produced by hired labor. Buck suggests that Wang Lung’s reverence for nature is responsible for his inner goodness, as well as for his increasing material success, and that the decadent, wasteful ways of the wealthy are due to their estrangement from the land. Buck also suggests throughout the book that while human success is transitory, the earth endures forever. These ideas about the earth give the novel its title.
Wealth as a Destroyer of Traditional Values
The basic narrative form of The Good Earth has an upward trajectory: as Wang Lung’s fortunes rise, he becomes more decadent and more similar to the amoral Hwang family, whose fall parallels his own rise. It is the wealth of the Hwangs that enables them to loosen their ties to the land, hire laborers and spend their own days in idleness and leisure. In this climate, vice takes root and thrives, as the Old Master becomes obsessed with debauchery and the Old Mistress becomes addicted to opium. As Wang Lung becomes wealthier, he too is able to hire laborers, and he becomes obsessed with women such as Lotus. He begins to fund his uncle’s opium addiction, and at last he buys the house of the Hwangs and moves into it. As Wang Lung’s children grow older, it becomes clear that being raised in the lap of luxury has severely eroded their own sense of duty to their father, their respect for the land, and the religious observances on which Wang Lung and his father base their lives.
In this way, Wang Lung’s life story is a case study of how traditional values erode under the influence of wealth. But Buck does not attribute this erosion solely to the corrupting influence of wealth, or at least not solely to the individual experience of wealth. The new ideals of Wang Lung’s sons demonstrate the changing nature of Chinese culture. Buck suggests that the modernization of China, itself a function of wealth, creates cultural conflicts.