The Good Earth
How much do we currently know about China? Is it a country full of controversies and social complexities, or is it a country that we, as foreigners, cannot never fully understand? In her book The Good Earth Pearl S. Bucks sheds the light onto the most complex and unknown facets of traditional Chinese life. Having spent years in China, and as a wife of a native Chinese, Buck cannot but depict China in a way that has previously been unknown to readers. The author of the novel traces the life span of a Chinese landowner Wang Lung, his wife O-lan, and their family. The transformation through which Wang Lung goes under the influence of his growing wealth is similar to that most people experience when becoming rich. Lung’s degradation reflects the gradual degradation of the Chinese society in general, for land is ceasing to be an important asset and is no longer valued as the source of profits. As a result, where Wang Lung erroneously believes his wealth to be an end in itself, he has to recognize that tradition, values, and land shape the basis for his happy existence– the truth that he can only learn through his own mistakes.
True, for the millions of readers who are familiar with Buck’s book, China no longer looks like an example of continuous and never ending prosperity. Wang Lung’s story depicts land as the major source of food and financial profits. Simultaneously, Wang Lung’s story suggests that financial profits and food are the direct products of a hard toil, and the more a man devotes himself to land cultivation, the more probable it is that his land will return with an excellent harvest as a sign of spiritual gratification. The first chapters of Buck’s book describe Wang’s life as continuous and never ending work with his land. Wang Lung and his land look like the two indivisible components of traditional Chinese life. “It seemed to him [Wang Lung] that during these next months he did nothing except watch this woman of his. In reality he worked as he always had. He put his hoe upon his shoulder and he walked to his plots of land and he cultivated the rows of grain, and he yoked the ox to the plow and he ploughed the western field for garlic and onions (Buck 27). This hard work actually shapes a continuous cycle of Wang Lung’s life – the cycle that he is not willing and is not able to break. He and his wife devote their lives to cultivation, and at this stage of Wang Lung’s moral maturation, the man is a bright example of patriarchal piety and humiliation. Here, where the character does not have sufficient material resources to find a good wife, and where his daily work is the only means of his and his family’s survival, he does not display any signs of discontent but silently reconciles with his social position.
Conn is correct: “Wang Lung’s identity and motives are shaped above all by his relationship to the land. He has grown up in an isolated, illiterate community, where patriarchal piety is the core value, and survival depends on an endless round of crushing physical labor” (124). In this context, Wang Lung’s life is wisely opposed to that of the Hwang family, which consciously squanders their wealth and thus provide Wang Lung with a chance to expand his land possessions. It appears that beyond one’s ability to cultivate land, the one should also realize the importance of thrift and self-discipline. For Wang Lung, land is the source of food which can stand and endure thousands of troubles, and his respect to the land also attracts his respect to traditions, which previous generations sought to preserve. This humiliation and silent reconciliation with his social position are willingly accepted by his wife O-Lan, a former slave and a woman who is used to hard work. Whenever she cooks for him, bears his children, or goes to the main road to gather animal droppings that are later used as fertilizers (Buck 28), she reinforces the positive picture of Wang Lung as a man who is constrained by his poverty and does not show a sign of his dissatisfaction with what he has to accomplish daily.
It is difficult not to agree to the fact that The Good Earth has become the turning point in our understanding of traditional Chinese life. “She introduced Americans and other readers to her China in a different language than did missionaries, diplomats, merchants, and scholars” (Smiley 544). Simultaneously, Pearl S. Buck was able to show the different facets the land may take when treated in a different manner. In other words, while Wang Lung’s slowly increases his wealth, he finds himself distanced from what was used to be the center of his life – his land – and turns his head to more earthy pleasures, which do not bring any continuous or tangible results. Wang Lung goes through a long process of maturation, from the first years of prosperity, through the years of terrible famine, and up to becoming a wealthy landowner.
Throughout these years, his wife accompanies him and provides him with any support possible. Moreover, it is the land that pushes O-Lan to commit the actions which traditional western society would never accept for granted. For Wang Lung and O-Lan, the land is everything they have for life, and in this light, all other values can be sacrificed. When O-Lan stangles her newborn child who will have nothing to eat, and when Wang Lung decides they have to sell their daughter to slavery to survive the difficult times – all these actions strengthen Wang Lung’s belief that his land is the central value of his life, and in his effort to return to cultivation O-Lan continuously supports him. Unfortunately, this very land can also be the source of the major troubles, and on his way to spiritual triumph, Wang Lung cannot but go through significant failures, losses, moral degradation, and self-conflict. “There is a way, when the rich are too rich” (Buck 118), and that is exactly the example of Wang Lung’s second half of his life. He devotes himself to pleasures which gradually kill his wife but inevitably lead him to his moral and spiritual resurrection.
Pearl S. Buck depicts these moral sufferings and mistakes as the essential components of human spiritual development (Shuman 123). It seems that for an individual to become a man, he (she) has to pass through a whole set of tests and dilemmas, which, when resolved, turn into extremely valuable life experience. Buck depicts wealth as the instrument that destroys traditional values. This destruction becomes even brighter when shown through the prism of the Hwang’s family debauchery and opium addiction. “Because Hwang family hires laborers to work their land, they become idle and estranged from the earth. As Wang Lung grows wealthier, his habits mirror the Hwangs’: he hires laborers, funds his uncle’s opium addiction, becomes obsessed with Lotus and other women, and finally, moves into the Hwang house” (Chastain 299). Here, Bucks creates a different vision of land as of the source of evil. To a large extent, how individuals use their land also predetermines their successes in life. That means that those who treat land with patience and humility are given a unique chance to taste the results of their toil without being spoiled by unreasonable material demands; on the contrary, to those who seek unreasonable wealth and pleasures, this very land turns out to be the source of troubles. These troubles may either become the direct pathway to moral degradation or may lead the one to reconsider his failures and become the key to continuous spiritual prosperity. In case of Wang Lung, his land uniquely comprises the discussed humiliation, wealth, trouble, and maturation. Unfortunately, very often maturation becomes the measure of last resort, and when a person finally arrives to reasonable and anticipated conclusions, some life circumstances are no longer bound to change.
The problem is in that Wang Lung thinks “of his land and pondered this way and that, with the sickened heart of deferred hope, how he could get back to it. He belonged, not to this scum which clung to the walls of a rich man’s house; nor did he belong to the rich man’s house” (Buck 121). Unfortunately, Wang Lung views his land as the refuge to which he can always return whenever he feels the need for it, but his life is subject to changes. While he is entertaining himself with Lotus, his wife falls terminally ill and finally dies of a serious stomach disorder. He can no longer rely on her unchangeable support in all his decisions. Whether O-Lan’s disease is caused by Wang Lung’s negligence and ingratitude is not very clear, but in the situation where the poor old woman is left to die alone ingratitude for everything she has done for her husband might have sped up her untimely death. Left alone with his sons, Wang Lung has but to witness how they disregard the values to which he used to adhere. The land in its traditional meaning is no longer a value; but rather, a potential source of material profits. The transformation through which Wang Lung does throughout the novel also reflects the broader changes in the society, with which he cannot catch up. Buck teaches eternal truths, for it is through losing things that we finally realize how much they mean to us. For Wang Lung, it is through the loss of his wife and through his seeing his sons sharing the land that he finally understands, how much this land has given to him. Everything that to others would be the source of happiness, including material wellbeing, children, and grandchildren, for Wang Lung is nothing without land. Through his failures, Wang Lung has obviously lost a chance to bring up his children in a way that would tie them to their land. Now when he feels that he is returning to his good earth, he cannot but admit that “It is the end of the family – when they begin to sell the land” (Buck 357). Unfortunately, there seems nothing he can do to change the situation.
In her novel, Pearl S. Buck traces the gradual degradation and moral resurrection of a Chinese peasant. His long way to wealth and finally to the realization of his true values reflect the changes in the Chinese society and reveal the complex sides of the Chinese daily life. The failures through which Wang Lung has to go first estrange him from his land and later make him return to his good earth as the source of profits and life. Unfortunately, where his wife is gone forever and his sons do not realize the essence of land cultivation, he will hardly be able to restore his previous attitudes to life and will hardly be able to find moral reconciliation on the land that used to be his refuge.
Buck, P.S. The Good Earth. Washington Square Press, 2004.
Chastain, E. Literature. Spark Educational Publishing.
Conn, P. Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Shuman, R.B. Great American Writers: Twentieth Century. Marshall Cavendish, 2002.
Smiley, J.H. “Pearl Buck’s Several Worlds and the Inasmuch of Christ.” Theology Today,
vol. 60, no. 4 (2004): 540-54.
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