The Good Earth

The Good Earth Summary and Analysis of Chapters 15-19


Wang Lung and his family return to the land. With the gold that he took from the wealthy man Wang Lung buys seed, and on his way he also buys an ox. When they arrive at their village they see that their house has been looted; all the hoes and rakes are gone. Wang Lung, simply happy to be home, is unfazed. The men of the village say that his uncle ransacked his house. Ching adds that bandits have been living there. We learn that Ching's wife has passed away and that he has given his daughter to a soldier. Though a mere shadow, Ching says that if he still had some seed he would plant again. Wang Lung gives him wheat, rice and cabbage seed and says that tomorrow he will plow Ching's field with his ox. Ching begins crying with gratitude and Wang Lung says that he has not forgotten Ching's gift of beans.

Wang Lung is happy to know that his uncle left the region after selling off his daughters. O-lan repairs their house and buys new furniture. They even splurge on a red clay teapot with six matching bowls and mount a paper god of wealth on their wall. The days of scarcity have passed.

Wang Lung's thoughts turn to gods in his temple, who are forgotten and neglected. He thinks: "Thus it is with gods who do evil to men!" (143) Nevertheless, because everything is going so well (he even expects another child), Wang Lung burns some incence for the gods. He reasons, "After all, they have power over earth" (143).

One night, as Wang Lung lies in bed with O-lan he feels something between her breasts. O-lan hides the object at first, before showing Wang Lung a cloth full of jewels. She says that she took them from the Great House in the South. As a former slave, she knew where the rich tend to hide their jewels, and found them in a brick in the wall. Wang Lung says that it's unsafe to keep such wealth; they must buy more land instead. He takes the jewels and O-lan appears to be crushed. She confesses that she would like to keep two of the jewels, the pearls. She will not wear them, only look at them occasionally. Wang Lung, again surprised at O-lan's inner life, consents.

The next day Wang Lung visits the Great House, which is no longer great. The gateman has been fired; the Old Lord himself answers the door and Wang Lung is stumped because he's not socially allowed to do business with him. However, at the word "money" a former slave, Cuckoo, appears. She says that she will sell Wang Lung some land, and Wang Lung is wary of dealing with a woman. In his conversation with Cuckoo he learns that the Old Mistress is dead and the Great House has been ransacked from within. Cuckoo suggests that the demise of the family was inevitable since they had lost touch with the land. Apparently, Cuckoo stayed behind to take advantage of the Old Lord as long as possible. Wang Lung decides to think the situation over and return later, which angers Cuckoo. After verifying her story at the tea shop, Wang Lung returns and gives Cuckoo his jewels in exchange for land.

Unable to work so much work himself, Wang Lung buys out Ching and employs his services. Ching becomes the overseer of Wang Lung's workers, who live in Wang Lung's old house while he moves into a large house with his family. Wang Lung makes his sons work in the fields to keep them from growing lazy, but O-lan's days of such labor are over. O-lan gives birth to twins, a girl and a boy. Wang Lung jokes that she kept the two pearls as a symbol for these twins. Meanwhile, Wang Lung's land yields seven abundant harvests, enough to ensure that they never have to leave their land in times of famine, draught or flood.

As Wang Lung grows rich, his shortcomings begin to bother him. He is ashamed of his illiteracy and sends his older son to school so that he can serve as a scribe for his father. His son, who always desired to go to school, is overjoyed, and his younger son insists upon being sent as well. He is very proud of this fact. At school, his sons become known as Nung En (the eldest) and Nung Wen (the younger), with "Nung" signifying that their weath comes from the earth.

The eighth year brings flood, and though hunger abounds, Wang Lung lives off of his warehouses and debtors. He grows idle and bored. With so much time on his hands, Wang Lung assesses O-lan and sees her as dull and common, with no trace of beauty or grace. O-lan flinches under his criticisms and tells him that she has been ill since giving birth to the twins. Wang Lung ignores her, caring only for her appearance. O-lan says that she will bind her daughter's feet and fears him. Wang Lung knows that his wealth directly followed from the jewels she took, but he rationalizes this away, saying that O-lan took the jewels out of instinct, not craftiness. He also feels that her pearls are wasted on her.

Wang Lung gives up his customary tea shop for a richer establishment where, though he is teased for his farming heritage, he feels more high class. At this tea shop he runs into Cuckoo, who tries to sell him on the prostitutes who work there. Wang Lung scans their pictures on the walls (he had always believed before that the pictures were of "dream women") and chooses a very small and delicate girl who looks like a flower. Wang Lung's conscience gets the best of him and he leaves before seeing the girl.

However, Wang Lung's idleness continues, and so a few days later he puts on his best robe and goes into the city. O-lan says nothing. Cuckoo insults him as "only a farmer" when he enters but agrees to bring Wang Lung a girl when he shows his money. Wang Lung chooses Lotus. He enters the girls' chamber just in time to overhear a girl laughing at his "garlic" smell.

Lotus is everything O-lan is not -- beautiful, small, delicate -- and Wang Lung falls for her like a sandbag. He grows obsessed with her and sees her constantly. Meanwhile he grows distant from his family. Lotus asks Wang Lung to cut his braid off and he does so. O-lan is horrified. She says: "You have cut your life!" (183) Wang Lung stops eating garlic, starts bathing daily and visits a rich tailor. As O-lan reminds him, he looks like the young lords of the Great House. Wang Lung takes this for a compliment.

Wang Lung also gives Lotus all she asks for. He even takes O-lan's pearls and gives them to Lotus. This devestates O-lan, who had planned to set the pearls as earrings and give them to their daughter on her wedding day. Wang Lung jokes that pearls are for fair women, not brown women like her and her daughter.


These chapters track Wang Lung's change from poor to rich -- and his attendant change in personality. The family's city spoils have left them primed to experience plenty such as they had never known before. At first, Wang Lung's integrity and love for the land are intact. The red tea pot, though the first "pleasure" purchase of his life, is nevertheless clay -- a substance of the earth. It seems to capture the way he cherishes the earth's abundance. Similarly, Wang Lung returns to his ancestral gods, even though they abandoned his family, because he knows their power over the earth.

As his store increases, Wang Lung's expenses and concerns drift from things of the earth to things of the "world," one might say. Though he has so much, he grows obsessed by the things he doesn't have -- a beautiful woman, silk suits, a city coiffure, literacy, etc. Though he can address some of these problems, sending his sons to school so that they can act as his scribes, he is constantly trying to catch up to his own image of affluence. Like the lords of the Great House, Wang Lung is very quickly growing out-of-touch with the good earth. This doesn't bode well.

Many forebodings of Wang Lung's coming potential difficulties are sprinkled throughout these chapters. Cuckoo's influence over the Old Lord, for instance, seems like a future possibility for Wang Lung, who has fallen under the influence of Lotus. She draws him away from his roots, enticing him to the tea room world of excess, sensuality and free-spending. Both Cuckoo and Lotus are expert manipulators of men; they work through beauty and flattery to ensure their own positions of power. Men like the Old Lord and Wang Lung seem easily duped by the dream of possessing such beautiful women.

Buck, by the way, is careful not to condemn the craftiness of Cuckoo; she, like anyone, is fighting to survive in a harsh climate. If she is unforgiving, well, so is O-lan, and so is nature. The low status of women, who are little better than (and often literally are) slaves, leads them to ensure power in unscrupulous ways -- but who could blame them?

The parallel between Wang Lung and the lords of the Great House suggests a more significant cultural current. The old ways in China are passing -- one no longer must be born an aristocrat to enjoy the pleasures of wealth. Farmers and merchants can become rich too, and can fall victim to the same disconnect from the land that undid their former masters. Similarly, Cuckoo, a former concubine, is able to negotiate her way into a position of enormous authority. During a time of revolution, social roles grow fluid, and dramatic rises and falls in status occur. Wang Lung is riding a wave of change that is much bigger than he knows, though in the process he is carried away from the one thing that is constant: the land.

In addition to these historical factors, Wang Lung's change is also contingent upon the fickleness of weather. If it weren't for the flood, Wang Lung would have continued to work the land, thus he would have remained untempted by the luxaries that consume idle minds. He would never have visited the rich men's tea room, never have seen Lotus, and never have turned his back on his family's ways. The implication is that even if Wang Lung acts with unforgivable shortsightedness, it's not really him. Wang Lung is, by birth and trade, a dutiful, hard-working, gentle, honest man. He saves Ching from starvation out of gratitude; he provides generously for his family and friends. However, Wang Lung is also weak (and perhaps a bit stupid). He is not clear-sighted enough to see the importance of maintaining contact with the land despite his success, and he is unable to resist the temptations that come with idleness.

The most tragic victim of Wang Lung's change is, of course, O-lan. Without her hardness, pragmatism, hard work and shrewd thinking, Wang Lung would be no better off than Ching. Instead, she has put him in a position to rival her former masters, the great lords. Rather than match her insight, however, Wang Lung rationalizes away her importance in his rise in prestige. The reader, of course, will know this to be absolutely unjust. However brown her skin, however big her feet, O-lan is as constant and cruel and giving as the earth, and without her Wang Lung is little better than a child. (She is constantly symbolized in parallel terms with the earth, giving abundantly of twins during the good harvests and falling ill during the bad.) Wang Lung's inability to understand her rich inner life -- and his loss of connection with her in favor of the fair, pristine, useless-in-the-fields Lotus -- reinforces his drift from the things that matter, the things of the earth.