Wang Lung’s father chooses for his son’s bride a slave girl from the house of Hwang, a girl who will keep the house clean, prepare the food, and not waste her time thinking about clothes. In the morning, Wang Lung leads her out through the gate of the big house, and they stop at a temple and burn incense. That is their marriage. O-lan is a good wife. She thriftily gathers twigs and wood so they will not have to buy fuel. She mends Wang Lung’s and his father’s winter clothes and scours the house. She works in the fields beside her husband, even on the day she bears their first son.
The harvest is a good one that year. Wang Lung has a handful of silver dollars from the sale of his wheat and rice. He and O-lan buy new coats for themselves and new clothes for the baby. Together with their child, they go to pay their respects to the Hwangs, where O-lan had once been a slave. With some of the silver dollars, Wang Lung buys a small field of rich land from the Hwangs.
The second child is born a year later, and again it is a year of good harvest. Wang Lung’s third baby is a girl. On the day of her birth, crows fly about the house, mocking Wang Lung with their cries. The farmer does not rejoice when his little daughter is born, for poor farmers rear their daughters only to serve the rich. The crows are an evil omen, for the child is born feebleminded.
That summer is dry, and for months no rain falls. The harvest is poor. After the little rice and wheat has been eaten and the ox killed for food, there is nothing for the poor peasants to do but die or go south to find work and food in a province of plenty. Wang Lung sells the furniture for a few pieces of silver, and after O-lan has given birth to their fourth child, which is dead with bruises on its neck when he sees it for the first time, the family begins their journey. They are lucky to fall in with a crowd of refugees who lead them to a railroad. With the money Wang Lung received for his furniture, they travel on a train to their new home.
In the city, they construct a hut of mats against a wall, and while O-lan and the two older children beg, Wang Lung pulls a ricksha. In that way, they spend the winter, each day earning enough to buy rice for the next day. One day, there is to be a battle in the town between the soldiers and an approaching enemy. When the wealthy people in the town flee, the poor break into their houses. By threatening one fat fellow who has been left behind, Wang Lung obtains enough money to take his family home.
O-lan soon repairs the damage to their house caused by the weather during their absence; then, with jewels O-lan had plundered during the looting in the city, Wang Lung buys more land from the house of Hwang. He allows O-lan to keep two small pearls that she likes. Wang Lung now has more land than one man can handle, and he hires one of his neighbors, Ching, as overseer. Several years later, he has six men working for him. O-lan bears him twins, a boy and a girl, after their return from the south. She no longer goes out into the fields to work but keeps the new house he has built. Wang Lung’s two oldest sons are sent to school in the town.
When his land is flooded and work is impossible until the water recedes, Wang Lung begins to go regularly to a tea shop in town. There he falls in love with Lotus Blossom and brings her home to his farm to be his concubine. O-lan will have nothing to do with the girl, and Wang Lung is forced to set up a separate establishment for Lotus in order to keep the peace.
When he finds that his oldest son visits Lotus often while he is away, Wang Lung arranges to have the boy marry the daughter of Liu, a grain merchant in the town. The wedding takes place shortly before O-lan, still in the prime of life, dies of a chronic stomach illness. To cement the bond between himself and Liu, Wang Lung apprentices his second son to the grain merchant, and his youngest daughter is betrothed to Liu’s young son. Soon after O-lan’s death, Wang Lung’s father dies, and they are buried near each other on a hill.
When Wang Lung grows wealthy, an uncle, his wife, and his shiftless son come to live with him. One year, there is a great flood, but although his neighbors’ houses are pillaged by robbers during the confusion, Wang Lung is not bothered. Then he learns that his uncle is second to the chief of the robbers. From that time on, he has to give way to his uncle’s family, who are his insurance against robbery and possibly murder.
One day, Wang Lung succeeds in coaxing his uncle and aunt to smoke opium, and they become too involved in their dreams to bother him. He does not succeed, however, in curbing their son. When the boy begins to annoy the wife of his oldest son, Wang Lung rents the deserted house of Hwang and moves to town with his immediate family. The cousin leaves to join the soldiers, and the uncle and aunt are left in the country with their pipes to console them.
After Wang Lung’s overseer dies, he does no more farming himself. From that time on, he rents his land, hoping that his youngest son will work it after his death. When Wang Lung takes a slave young enough to be his granddaughter, however, the boy, who is in love with the girl, runs away from home and becomes a soldier.
When he feels that his death is near, Wang Lung goes back to live on his land, taking with him only his slave, young Pear Blossom, his feebleminded first daughter, and some servants. One day, as he accompanies his sons across the fields, he overhears them planning what they will do with their inheritance, with the money they will get from selling their father’s property. Wang Lung cries out, protesting that they must never sell the land because only from it could they be sure of earning a living. He does not notice them looking at each other over his head and smiling.