The novel's chronology is unclear, as it provides no explicit dates from which to work. There are, however, references to events which take place in Chinese History which, if accurately placed by the author, provide an approximate time frame; among these are the use of railroads and the Xinhai Revolution. The time spent by the family in the South (probably Shanghai) following the famine in their home of Anhui provides the best opportunity to approximate the time span of the novel. Railroads in China were not constructed until the end of the 19th century, with virtually no widespread development until after 1904. The lines extending from Shanghai to the north were constructed only after 1908. The train used by Wang Lung and his family is implied to be relatively new, which would place their departure to the South around this time. Their return, which takes place shortly after the southern city descends into civil chaos, best matches the time of the 1911 Revolution. Accepting this as a starting point, earlier and later dates can be estimated according to the ages of characters and the seasonal crop cycles which are mentioned. If accurate, this would likely place the end of the novel after its date of publishing.
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