Last Updated on May 23, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 225
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Wang Lung, an ambitious farmer who sees in the land the only sure source of livelihood. At the end of his life, however, his third son has left the land to be a soldier, and his first and second sons callously plan to sell the land and go to the city as soon as Wang dies.
O-Lan, a slave bought by Wang’s father to marry Wang. She works hard in their small field with Wang; during the civil war, she loots in order to get money to buy more land. She dies in middle age of a stomach illness.
Nung En, their oldest son, who, when he covets his father’s concubine, Lotus Blossom, is married to the grain merchant Liu’s daughter.
Nung Wen, their second son, apprenticed to Liu.
The Fool, their retarded daughter.
Liu, a grain merchant in the town.
The Uncle, who brings his wife and shiftless son to live on Wang’s farm. Secretly a lieutenant of a robber band, he also brings protection.
Lotus Blossom, Wang Lung’s concubine, who is refused entrance into the house by O-Lan.
Ching, a neighbor hired by Wang Lung as overseer.
Pear Blossom, a pretty slave taken by Wang after the death of his wife.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2478
Ching is a farmer and neighbor of Wang Lung. He is a small and quiet man with a face “like an ape’s.” Honest and decent, Ching is ashamed of the fact that during the famine he joined with the mob that went to Wang Lung’s house to steal. He took a handful of Wang Lung’s beans, but only because his child was starving. A short while later, Ching gives Wang Lung some dried red beans to atone for his actions. During the famine, Ching’s wife dies, and he is forced to sell his daughter to a soldier to save her life. When Wang Lung returns from the city, he helps Ching. He later buys Ching’s land and employs Ching to help him manage all his land. Ching becomes a loyal employee, and there is mutual respect between the two men. When Ching dies, Wang Lung grieves for him even more than he did for his father.
Cuckoo is a sharp-voiced, shrewd woman who for much of her life is a slave at the House of Hwang. But after the old mistress dies and the house is sacked by bandits, she becomes the mistress of the Old Master and manages his affairs. She also acts as intermediary for Wang Lung to meet Lotus. When Lotus moves to Wang Lung’s house, Cuckoo attends her as a servant. This arrangement causes friction in the house because O-lan dislikes Cuckoo and will not speak to her. As the years go by, Cuckoo and Lotus develop a more equal relationship and become friends. Cuckoo is very skilled at looking after Lotus’s interests.
Old Master Hwang
Old Master Hwang, the patriarch of the Hwang family, allows his family to decline into poverty and ruin. He insists on taking in new concubines every year, even when he cannot afford to do so, and he seems to exert little control over his sons.
Old Mistress Hwang
Old Mistress Hwang is the matriarch of the Hwang family. When Wang Lung goes to her house to fetch his bride, Old Mistress is rather stern and haughty. She is addicted to opium. When the family fortunes go into decline, Old Mistress sells much of the family land. She dies of shock when bandits raid the house and tie her to a chair and gag her.
Liu is a wealthy, good-hearted grain dealer with whom Wang Lung does business. The two men also arrange for their families to be linked through marriage. Liu’s daughter marries Wang Lung’s eldest son, and Wang Lung’s second daughter is promised to Liu’s second son. Also, Wang Lung’s second son is apprenticed to Liu.
Lotus is a courtesan who entertains men on the upper floor of the tea shop that Wang Lung frequents. She is slender and alluring, with tiny hands and feet. When he first meets Lotus, Wang Lung is captivated by her charm and falls under her spell. He does whatever she asks of him, and he also brings her expensive gifts. Eventually, Wang Lung moves Lotus into his own house, so that he does not have to share her with others, and he builds new rooms for her. Wang Lung’s uncle’s wife comments that Lotus “reeks of perfume and paint” and is not as young as she looks, but Wang Lung does not seem to care. An idle woman, Lotus lies around on her bed all day, nibbling at food and being bathed and oiled by Cuckoo. In the evenings, she decks herself out in her fine clothes. For Wang Lung, “there was nothing so wonderful for beauty in the world as her pointed little feet and her curling helpless hands.” Lotus can also be bad-tempered, especially with Wang Lung’s children, and eventually Wang Lung’s love for her cools.
O-lan is Wang Lung’s wife. Before she is given to him in marriage, she spent ten years as a slave at the House of Hwang. O-lan is a plain, taciturn woman who accepts her lot in life without complaint. She makes a good wife for Wang Lung, since she is a competent housekeeper, an excellent cook, and a hard worker in the fields. She also has a lot of common sense. When Wang Lung complains about having his uncle’s family living with them, she says it cannot be helped, so they must make the best of it. But Wang Lung does not love his wife. He treats her cruelly when he insists on taking the jewels she cherishes and using them to buy land. When Wang Lung becomes wealthy, he becomes dissatisfied with O-lan’s appearance. He thinks of her as “a dull and common creature, who plodded in silence without thought of how she appeared to others.” He starts to criticize her, and she bears his reproaches silently. She knows he does not love her. After Wang Lung acquires Lotus as a mistress, he no longer sleeps with O-lan. O-lan dies after a long illness, the night of her eldest son’s wedding feast.
Pear Blossom is a young slave. Wang Lung bought her during a famine, when she was half-starved. She is small and delicate and helps Cuckoo and Lotus. Later, even though Wang Lung is old enough to be her grandfather, he takes Pear Blossom as his mistress.
Son of Wang Lung’s uncle
The son of Wang Lung’s uncle is a worthless young man who is nothing but trouble from the beginning. He is the only son of his father but contributes nothing to the family’s welfare. He is a bad influence on Wang Lung’s eldest son, who is younger than he, and he takes him into town to visit prostitutes. The two young men later quarrel, and the son of Wang Lung’s uncle reveals another of his faults: he is a womanizer who has designs on the wife of Wang Lung’s son. Later, he leaves to become a soldier, although he has no intention of ever taking part in a battle. Some years later, he is one of the horde of soldiers that descend on Wang Lung’s town and stay in the inner courts of the former House of Hwang. He is hated and feared, and Wang Lung gives him the slave Pear Blossom to satisfy his lusts so that he will not harm the other women.
When the story begins, Wang Lung is a young farmer eking out a precarious living from his small amount of land. He is a hardworking, dutiful man who looks after his old father. Because Wang Lung is poor, he can only acquire a former slave as a wife. When he goes to the great House of Hwang to claim his bride, he is terrified. A humble man from the fields, he knows nothing of city life. He is accustomed to frugal habits and is shocked at how much everything costs.
After he acquires a wife, Wang Lung begins to prosper. He fathers two sons, his harvests are good, he saves money and buys more land. The only adversity he suffers is from things over which he has no control. When drought leads to famine, he takes his family to a big city in the south, just so they can survive. But Wang Lung is still a man from the country, and he never adjusts to city life. He misses his land. Working on the land gives him peace and contentment, and whenever he is away from it, he suffers.
Wang Lung is an honest man, but he falls prey to temptation when he takes silver from a frightened man as a mob runs through the rich house in the city. The money enables him to return to his land, and once more, he prospers, winning the respect of others in the village; he has become a man of substance. But as he gets more wealthy, he forgets some of the values that enabled him to succeed. He no longer works on the land and is sometimes idle, and he thinks his humble wife is not good enough for a wealthy man such as he. His former humility is replaced by a certain amount of pride at the fact that when he goes into the tea shop, people whisper about him, pointing him out as a rich landowner. He starts to patronize another tea shop which he had formerly despised because there was gambling there as well as “evil women.” But soon he gets smitten by one of those very “evil women,” the courtesan Lotus, and for a while he loses his moorings altogether, lavishing gifts on her and becoming vain about his own appearance. He eventually frees himself from this obsession by going back to work on the land. His life is not entirely peaceful, however, since he spends much of his time worrying about his sons and other family matters. When he is very old, he leaves his house in the town and returns to live in the old earthen house on his land.
Wang Lung’s father
Wang Lung’s father is an old man who lives with his son. Wang Lung looks after him and makes sure he has enough food, even during the famine. He seems to remain cheerful and says he has seen worse days. The old man travels south with the family but refuses to beg on the streets with O-lan and the boys. He just trusts that he will somehow receive enough food.
Wang Lung’s first daughter
Wang Lung’s first daughter is mentally retarded, perhaps because during her first year of life there was little food for her to eat. She never learns to speak but sits around with a sweet, empty smile on her face. Wang Lung takes good care of her, calling her “my poor little fool.”
Wang Lung’s first son
Wang Lung’s first son is sent to school at age twelve so he will be able to help his father, who cannot read or write, in his dealings at the grain market. He proves himself to be an able scholar, and later, when he is nearly eighteen, he continues his education at a prestigious school in the south. He returns when his mother dies, and he marries a girl from a wealthy family. As a young man, he is quite different from the way his father was at the same age. He is accustomed not to poverty but to wealth, and he does not have his father’s love of the land. He spends money lavishly to renovate the former House of Hwang because he thinks that his family should live in a style commensurate with their wealth.
Wang Lung’s second daughter
Wang Lung’s second daughter, the twin of his third son, is a pretty child. Wang Lung and O-lan decide to bind her feet so it will be easier for her to find a husband. The girl is later betrothed to the son of Liu. When she is thirteen, to escape the undesirable attentions of the son of Wang Lung’s uncle, she is sent to live with Liu.
Wang Lung’s second son
Wang Lung’s second son is apprenticed to Liu, the grain dealer. Unlike his elder brother, this middle son is a competent, careful businessman, and Wang Lung trusts him with the financial management of his land. But the son turns out to be too parsimonious. He provides the slaves and servants with the least he can give them, causing Cuckoo to sneer at him in protest; he complains to Wang Lung that so much money is being spent on restoring the former House of Hwang that it will eat up his inheritance, and he even complains that his own wedding costs too much.
Wang Lung’s third son
Wang Lung’s third son is a quiet boy, and Wang Lung does not know much about what interests him. Wang Lung’s plan is for the boy to become a farmer, but the boy says he wants to learn to read. Wang Lung thinks this is unnecessary for a future farmer, but he accedes to his son’s request and employs a tutor. After the band of unruly soldiers come to the village, the boy listens to their stories and says he wants to be a soldier. The boy is fond of Pear Blossom and disappears from home after his father takes Pear Blossom for himself.
Wang Lung’s uncle
Wang Lung’s uncle is a lazy good-for-nothing who fails to cultivate his lands and look after his family. Instead, he persuades Wang Lung to give him money. Eventually, when Wang Lung has become wealthy, his uncle insists on moving into his nephew’s house, along with his wife and son. Once there, they all make nuisances of themselves and contribute nothing to the household. The uncle takes advantage of Wang Lung’s unwillingness to behave harshly to a relative and cements his position at the house by revealing that he is a member of the Redbeards, a gang of robbers, and claiming that it is only his presence in the house that prevents the Redbeards from robbing it. Wang Lung solves the problem presented by his uncle by getting him addicted to opium, after which the old man lies around smoking all day and no longer creates trouble.
Wife of Wang Lung’s first son
The wife of Wang Lung’s first son is the daughter of Liu. She tends to O-lan in her final illness and then marries the son when she is sixteen. O-lan and Wang Lung think highly of her. However, she is not so popular with Wang Lung’s second son and his wife. The two women hate each other, and the second son tells Wang Lung that the wife of the eldest son talks all the time about all the luxury in her father’s house and encourages her husband to spend too much money on unnecessary things.
Wife of Wang Lung’s second son
The wife of Wang Lung’s second son comes from a good family in a nearby village. She quarrels constantly with the wife of Wang Lung’s eldest son, who regards her as ill-bred.
Wife of Wang Lung’s uncle
The wife of Wang Lung’s uncle is a self-pitying, lazy woman who never bothers to clean her house. She has seven children, six of whom are girls. When Wang Lung becomes wealthy, she moves into his house, with her husband and son. She abuses Wang Lung’s hospitality, eating the expensive foods that Cuckoo brings for Lotus and complaining a lot. Like her husband, she eventually becomes addicted to opium, which makes her passive and manageable.