In The Good Earth, Buck’s saga of rural Chinese life over several generations, the three great religions of China—Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism—make almost no appearance. In Chinese history, there has generally been a distinction between the religious beliefs and practices of the educated classes and those of the peasantry. Over the centuries, the common people have known little of the intellectual or devotional practices of these great faiths. Instead, as Ninian Smart explains in The Religious Experience of Mankind, “religion, interwoven with magic, had an immediate practical significance in the struggle for worldly benefits and in the common round of agricultural and family festivals.” It is these early religious beliefs and superstitions, which seem to have remained unchanged for many hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, that are presented in The Good Earth, against the background of Wang Lung’s changing attitude towards them.
The first insight into the religious beliefs and practices that govern life in the small village in which Wang Lung lives comes when, as a young man, he returns from the House of Hwang with his bride, O-lan. The first thing he does is take her to the western field on his property, where a tiny earthen “temple” stands. It was built by Wang Lung’s grandfather, and Wang Lung’s father tends to it with great care. It is part of their family tradition. Inside stand two earthen figures depicting a male and a female god. They are covered in robes of red and gilt paper which Wang Lung’s father makes for them every New Year. Wang Lung burns incense to these gods of the fields, in whom all the townspeople believe, so that they will bless his marriage and make it fruitful. Although at this stage Wang Lung appears to believe in these gods and their power, the author gives a hint that they may not be as all-powerful as he believes. The gods look spruced up in their new robes, but this will not last, because “each year rain and snow beat in and the sun of summer shone in and spoiled their robes.” These are gods who are damaged by the very things they supposedly control.
In addition to believing in the power of the gods, Wang Lung also believes in omens and evil spirits. He is relieved to find that the sticks of incense he has brought with him to the temple are not broken, for that would be an evil omen. Then later, when he comes home with O-lan and his baby son from the House of Hwang, he shows his superstitious nature. He boasts about how beautiful the baby is, but then he is fearful because he is walking under an open sky with his baby and any evil spirit could see the child, and, presumably, cause him harm. So Wang Lung covers the child’s head and speaks out loud to confuse any lurking evil spirit, saying it is a pity the child is a female and has smallpox and that he and O-lan should pray that it may die. It appears that this is a world in which malicious spirits practice trickery and must be outwitted by human ingenuity.
Such are the basic religious beliefs of this late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Chinese peasant society. But as the novel continues, it becomes apparent that Wang Lung is not a slave to ancient beliefs about the gods. He is at heart a practical, down-to-earth man who learns to look for comfort, solace, and peace not to the capricious gods but to the earth, the land, the bringer of sustenance and the giver of life. He is quite willing to reject the gods, but he never rejects the land.
It is during the famine that Wang Lung’s attitude to the gods starts to undergo a radical change. Like Job in the Bible, when suffering comes Wang Lung expresses his frustration with God. But he goes further even than Job, directly accusing the “Old Man in Heaven” of being wicked, although he does feel a twinge of fear at doing...
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