Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck published The Good Earth in 1931. Since her parents were missionaries, she spent her childhood in China, where she experienced Chinese culture first-hand. She also wrote several novels about the American West and considered herself loyal to both China and the United States.
Buck was an ardent advocate for humanitarian causes and devoted much of her life to studying social injustice. Her realistic novels did much to increase the Western world’s understanding of Chinese culture, and The Good Earth is reflective of that understanding.
Protagonist Wang Lung is not initially portrayed as an evil man. Although extremely poor, he is an honest and hardworking peasant, but he does possess some moral flaws. In a sense, he is a Chinese everyman at the turn of the twentieth century. He is married to O-Lan, a former slave girl who does his bidding and, in accordance with the culture of the times, is valued highly because of her loyalty and ability to work hard.
In traditional Chinese culture, land ownership equated to wealth. As the story develops, Wang Lung forgets his desire to be a landowner in order to support his family and becomes obsessed with the acquisition of land for his own sake in furtherance of his desire to gain riches. His sons develop a disdain for their father and do not share his vision of wealth through land acquisition. They favor social status and money. Thus, the family unit begins to break apart.
Wang Lung’s uncle is a lazy, shady character jealous of his nephew’s success. He constantly complains about his plight in life and seeks money from Wang Lung:
“If it had been my good destiny," continued his uncle mournfully, "to have married a wife as your father did, one who could work and at the same time produce sons, as your own does also, instead of a woman like mine, who grows nothing but flesh and gives birth to nothing but females and that one idle son of mine who is less than a male for his idleness, I, too, might have been rich now as you are. Then might I have— willingly would I have—shared my riches with you.”
On one occasion, he spreads a rumor that Wang Lung is storing food and hiding it from the starving peasants. As a result, the villagers raid Wang Lung’s home, and the family’s struggles begin to mount. The author makes it clear that a combination of a changing Chinese society and the deteriorating character of the protagonist bring about his fall from grace and prosperity.
The Good Earth demonstrates how wealth, moral decay, and loss of traditional values force the need for change in Chinese society. The customs of the older generations conflict with the values or lack thereof of the younger generations. The disparity of wealth among the few rich and the many poor is another bone of contention.
The author does not opine as to the proper way to deal with Wang Lung’s uncle, and nor should those analyzing the novel. Americans might view the situations presented with a Western eye, but that is exactly the author’s point. Without a deeper understanding of the Eastern culture, they might simply reject the uncle’s protestations:
Have you no religion, no morals, that you are so lacking in filial conduct? Have you not heard it said that in the Sacred Edicts it is commanded that a man is never to correct an elder?
However, Buck does not present her story in a judgmental way or offer solutions. The author is not influenced by her exposure to American culture. She simply seeks to increase the West’s knowledge of Chinese culture by writing about common emotional life experiences that could occur in any era.