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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1115

Ling Tan and his family all live together on their ancestral farm. In addition to Ling Tan and his wife, Ling Sao, there are three sons and a daughter. Lao Ta, one of the sons, and his wife, Orchid, have two children. Lao Er, another son, and his wife, Jade,...

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Ling Tan and his family all live together on their ancestral farm. In addition to Ling Tan and his wife, Ling Sao, there are three sons and a daughter. Lao Ta, one of the sons, and his wife, Orchid, have two children. Lao Er, another son, and his wife, Jade, are newly married.

While Orchid is the conventional wife and daughter-in-law, Lao Er’s wife, Jade, is different. She reveals to her husband that she wants more than what is given and wants to be more than what is expected of a woman. Lao Er is wise enough to realize that his strong-willed, intelligent, thoughtful wife is more blessing than encumbrance and promises that on his next visit to the city he will buy her a book, something no one else in his household ever held.

In the city, Lao Er visits his older sister and her husband Wu Lien. Wu Lien is a shopkeeper, and while Lao Er is visiting, students come to the shop and destroy all the foreign merchandise. They call Wu Lien a traitor. This is one of the earliest indications to the Ling family of the impending Japanese invasion and occupation.

One day Ling Tan is working in his fields when the first Japanese warplanes arrive. They fly over the Lings’ village on the way to the city. The Lings are too naïve to know what happened until that night, when Wu Lien brings his entire household with him, seeking refuge. His shop was gutted by a bomb, and much of the city is damaged.

Ling Tan and Lao San go into the city to see the devastation for themselves, and they are caught in an air raid. When Ling Tan gathers his family and asks them what they should do to resist the enemy, Jade and Lao Er announce their wish to flee inland to join the resistance movement. Jade is now carrying their first child. It is decided that while Jade and Lao Er are away the rest of the family will stay and hold on to their land as best as they can.

Streams of refugees pass through the village on their way west, and firsthand accounts of Japanese atrocities prepare Ling Tan and his fellow villagers for what they will have to do when the Japanese come. With the city in ruins and with the last of the Chinese army having fled to the hills, the Japanese march into the area. A marauding group comes to the Lings’ village looking for wine and women. Ling Tan sends his family to the fields. Wu Lien’s mother, however, is not able to escape in time. She is raped and killed. The house is ransacked.

Ling Tan brings all the women and children in his family to the relative safety of the white missionary woman’s compound. He and his sons remain on the farm. The Japanese return and, finding no women in the Ling home, gang-rape the sixteen-year-old Lao San. Filled with hatred, Lao San leaves to join the resistance fighters in the hills.

Meanwhile, Wu Lien does not stay on the farm. He goes back to the city to see what he can salvage of his shop and to see if he can do business with the enemy. Ingratiating himself with the conquerors, Wu Lien is appointed to a post in the new city government. He and his wife and children are then installed in generous quarters provided by the Japanese.

Tired of the monotony in the mission and curious about the new order in the city, Orchid ventures into the city. She is set upon by soldiers, raped, and killed. Ling Sao does not want to stay in the mission any more. Ling Tan comes for her and the two children of Lao Ta and Orchid. Pansiao, however, they leave in the care of the missionary woman, who promises to send her westward to safety and schooling.

The Lings receive news of the birth of Lao Er and Jade’s son. Not long after, typhoid hits the village, and Lao Ta’s two children are killed. Devastated, Lao Ta goes to the hills, too. Ling Tan and Ling Sao send word to Lao Er and Jade to ask them to return. Ling Tan and Ling Sao start digging a secret cellar. Ling Tan continues to work his land. The Japanese now control the lands and demand most of the harvests. As the Lings’ cellar grows, they hide more of their harvests. Digging and expanding the cellar become a daily mission. When Lao Er and Jade and their baby arrive, they can be hidden underground.

With Lao Er and Jade’s return, the cellar is large enough for the Ling home to become the village base for the resistance movement. Arms are smuggled in from the hills and stored in the cellar. All three Ling sons are now actively involved in resistance activities. Ling Tan and the other villagers also do their share. They now have the means with which to fight. Whenever they think they can get away with it, they kill the Japanese soldiers who come to the village, carefully hiding the bodies.

With the war, Lao San comes into his own. Previously frail and innocent, he is now a fighter and a ruthless killer. Ling Tan feels that his son needs a wife to tame him. Through Jade, he writes to Pansiao to ask her to find her brother a wife from among the women at the mission. Pansiao sets her sights on the beautiful and spirited MayLi, who returned from abroad and is teaching in her native country. MayLi is intrigued by what Pansiao tells her of Lao San. MayLi leaves the mission and finds her way to the Ling village. She and Lao San are attracted to each other.

After all the devastation through the years, Ling Tan’s family is on the rebound. Lao Ta comes home with a new wife. Lao Er and Jade have twin boys. Pansiao, although not at home, is safe and receiving an education. There is hope that Lao San will regain the humanity he lost. He goes inland in pursuit of MayLi.

The occupation continues and the hardships continue for Ling Tan and his family. Steadfastly holding on to his land over the years, Ling Tan also holds on to hope, but he seems to be losing it. Lao Er brings him into the city to listen to the illegal radio broadcast. They hear that China is not alone anymore in fighting the Japanese. They hear that England and the United States are now fighting on their side. Ling Tan weeps for joy.

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