The Good Earth is an epic depiction of agricultural life during the last half-century of the Manchu or Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1911) in China. The Chinese man of the soil is embodied in the character of Wang Lung. Wang Lung brings the slave O-lan to his earthen house where he cares for his aged father and from which he farms his land. After O-lan bears him two sons and a mentally retarded daughter, the region is devastated by drought and famine, and Wang Lung takes his father, children, and wife many miles south to a city, where they become street beggars while Wang Lung earns what he can as a rickshaw runner. O-lan will give birth later to a second girl and, after leaving the city, to twins, a boy and a girl.
In this first part of the novel, the customs of prerevolutionary China are detailed as part of the story. Filial respect, not only for the father but also for the father’s brothers, is absolute. Wang Lung must obey his father’s wishes, even though the old man is immobile and losing his memory and good sense. In addition, Wang Lung must take his shiftless uncle, along with the uncle’s wife and son, into his household as dependents. The uncle imposes upon his nephew’s charity with impunity: Wang Lung learns that his home is spared the ravages of bandit gangs only because his uncle is a member of a particularly vicious gang.
While there is something of merit in the tradition of filial piety, little can be found in favor of the concurrent status of women. In all but very wealthy families, “girl” is synonymous with “slave.” Girls and women are bought and sold as wives, concubines, and servants. A woman achieves status only by bearing one or more sons. Infant girls may be put to death for the sake of convenience. O-lan herself strangles at birth her second girl during the height of the famine when there is no possibility of adequate nursing or care. Another measure of status of women is the size of their feet. The feet of girls in wealthy or solvent families are bound from birth to maturity in order to create small, delicate feet. O-lan, a slave who is physically unattractive in other respects, becomes repulsive to Wang Lung at one point because of her large feet. He had not been bothered by their size during the famine and after the family returns to the land and makes a success of the farm. With the worst of these hardships behind them, however, Wang Lung sees things differently and purchases Lotus, a delicately featured concubine with tiny feet.
The acquisition of Lotus marks Wang Lung’s achievement of wealth and prestige. It is in this second part of the novel that Wang Lung’s sons begin to assert themselves as individuals and to part from the tradition of patriarchy that had been sacred to Wang Lung. Meanwhile, O-lan, having given her entire life to her husband and having been responsible in no small degree for his success, dies in the agony of cancer and without the love of her husband.
The conclusion of the novel passes stylistically from simple narrative to an approximation of biblical lyric, cadenced and polysyndetonic—for example, “Then Wang Lung was humbled and anxious and he was submissive and he was sorry and he said . . . ” The formalism of the language is in accord with Wang Lung’s function as a representative of prerevolutionary China. The world passes away from him as none of his sons commits himself to farming: His youngest...
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son leaves to become a soldier, and his first and second sons are determined to sell his land.
*Anhui. Large inland province in east central China divided by the great Yangzi (Yangtze) River. The far northern part of the province, in which the novel is set, is part of the broad northern China plain that is usually hot and dusty but subject to frequent flooding from the Yellow River.
Wang Lung’s farmhouse
Wang Lung’s farmhouse. Rural farmhouse that is the scene of most of the novel. The house is located in Wang village, described as composed of only a half dozen households, within an hour or so walk of an unnamed walled administrative town in the inland province of Anhui. The changes the farmhouse undergoes closely mirror the fortunes of Wang Lung and his family. Wang Lung toils daily in the fields and has a deep attachment to the land—the “good earth” of the title. In famine he lets the house go into disrepair and sells the household goods but will not sell his land. A multitude of trials face the family and threaten the farmhouse, but both survive. In prosperity, Wang Lung buys additional land and improves his house.
The house first appears as a run-down three-room, earthen-floored structure made of mud-and-straw bricks with a thatched roof in which Wang Lung and his widowed father live. When a wife, O-lan, joins the household, the interior of the house improves through her skill and hard work. Additions to the house come as the frugal and hard-working family members raise themselves up. These improvements include sheds for animals and a room in which laborers reside. Eventually a tile-roofed, brick-floored addition is built for Wang Lung’s secondary wife, Lotus. The house sits above the high-water marks of the frequent floods and so both the house and Wang Lung’s family survive flooding.
Hwang family mansion
Hwang family mansion (wang). Walled compound located in an unnamed walled administrative city in Anhui that has its own imposing gates. The unnamed city is probably Nansuzhou (now known as Suxian), in northern Anhui, where Buck lived from 1917 through 1919. Wang Lung’s wife, O-lan, comes to him from the Hwang mansion where she grew up as a harshly treated orphan kitchen servant. In the course of the novel, Hwang family members dissipate the family fortune and eventually sell land to Wang Lung. The Hwang mansion falls into ruins, leaving only a servant or two living in its collapsing courtyards. In his greatest period of prosperity, after O-lan’s death, Wang Lung purchases the property. Now a great extended Chinese family, the Wangs move into the refurbished mansion, where Wang Lung falls heir to some of the same excesses and faults of the Hwang family. He can never find peace in the mansion and prefers his modest farmhouse.
City in Jiangsu (Kiangsu) province
City in Jiangsu (Kiangsu) province. Unnamed city to which Wang Lung and his young family flee by train during a famine in Anhui. There they live in a “little village of sheds clinging to the wall.” Country folk who are never comfortable with city life, they eke out a living through Wang Lung’s work as a rickshaw puller. O-lan and the children beg on the streets. After Wang Lung comes into some money by chance, the family immediately return to their farmhouse and land. Although never named, this city is clearly modeled on Nanjing (Nanking).
Biblical in the simplicity of its language and cadence, The Good Earth traces the life of Chinese peasant Wang Lung from his youthful marriage to his death in his seventies. Living in Anwhei Province hundreds of kilometers west of Shanghai, Soochow, Nanking, and other cities of eastern China between the Hwang Ho (Yellow River) to the north and the Yangtze River to the south, Wang Lung must pin his survival upon the yields of his land. Above all else, the land preoccupies and absorbs him, as it did most of China’s traditional, prerevolutionary peasantry.
Believing that the fate of his land compelled it, Wang Lung subordinated everything to the soil: family, friends, his beasts, and every ounce of his strength. To hold the land, he battled drought, devastating floods, plagues of locusts, bandits, the desires of his three sons, and jealous neighbors until midlife. Only on his deathbed was it clear that the land to which he had sacrificed so much—and which even as he was dying he sought to pass to his sons—would in fact be divided and sold by sons who had little affection for him.
Throughout the book’s thirty-four chapters, Wang Lung is depicted as a changing, three-dimensional figure. Poor, unlettered, shy, traditionally dutiful, honest, thrifty, and indefatigable in his labors as a young man, his eventual attainment of riches provides ambit for his desires and moments of reflection. Self-absorbed and insensitive toward O-lan, his wife, and certain that his sons must unquestionably mold their lives to care for the land, he slowly perceives the depths of his wife’s devotion and must grudgingly yield to his sons’ contrary strengths while suffering their weaknesses.
Similarly, when wealth is gained Wang Lung becomes a caricature of his earlier self. Shyness gives way to airs and pomposity. Self-restraint is transmuted into desire and licentious folly. Once openly generous or at the least dutiful toward others, he hoards his wealth and appears shrewd, calculating, and greedy. He thinks of himself as powerful. Meanwhile, his vulnerabilities and weaknesses are transparent to everyone around him. His sons argue or whine their way out of serving the land as Wang Lung wished them to do. Eldest son takes schooling and becomes a fat, lazy, and duplicitous scholar. Second son becomes a merchant, eventually managing his father’s money. Youngest son, fierce of temper, storms from the household to become a soldier.
After Wang Lung reaches midlife as a wealthy man, a landlord who lives off rents and interest, he purchases the house and lands of the decadent Hwang family and with his friend Ching as overseer hires labor to work his fields. Divorced from the soil, he indulges his follies, expanding his household to include his concubine (or second wife), Lotus, and her slave, Cuckoo, along with his uncle’s family. None of these arrangements brings him the peace that he expected: Cuckoo mocks him; Lotus tires of him; O-lan dies; and the members of his uncle’s family, on the strength of traditional duties, remain importunate. When the uncle reveals himself as the leader of local bandits, Wang Lung realizes that he has been immunized from their depredations.
His peace of mind has been destroyed by the demands of his household; by his sons’ discontents, jealousies, and lack of affection; and by his own isolation—except for the love of his “fool” (a retarded daughter) and his last passion, the young slave Pear Blossom. Wang Lung grows more reflective about himself as he prepares for death. Old and alone, remorseful over the loss of his direct union with the soil, he seeks to ensure that his family retain his lands. Yet, even as his sons hoodwink him with promises of a grand funeral, they conspire to dispose of the earth that had been the focus of his life.
Pearl Buck was a widely read and influential author. Previously unknown and lacking money or influential friends, she gained instant fame and international recognition because of The Good Earth. Published to rave reviews, The Good Earth became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and in 1932 won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1935, it was awarded the William Dean Howells Medal for distinguished American fiction. The following year, Buck was also elected to the National Academy of Arts and Letters. These honors culminated in the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, for a corpus of work which also included two masterful biographies, The Exile (1936) and The Fighting Angel: Portrait of a Soul (1936), portraits of her parents, Caroline and Absalom Sydenstricker, respectively.
Before her death, Buck published forty novels, along with a score of nonfiction works, fourteen books for children, and several translations of Chinese works. Her novels in particular were themselves swiftly translated into more than fifty major languages and many others, testifying to the universal humanity of her works. This influence was of immense importance to the women of the world.
As a strong woman (although one often in conflict with herself), Buck created or portrayed memorable women throughout her life, starting with O-lan and Caroline. Such characters were embodiments of her own vocal rebellion against the situation that women, particularly creative ones, confronted in male-dominated cultures. She publicly exhorted women, in the tradition of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott, to rail against the abuses, carelessness, and indifference with which they were so commonly treated by men in most societies. She was no less contemptuous of the “selfish, ignorant, self-indulgent American woman of wealth and privilege” and those who preferred life in “a mental vacuum.” Rather than helping their sisters struggle against injustice, these women, Buck argued, pulled everyone down. Because of her sensitive strengths, Buck reached women as have few other authors. She understood their plights, but she also exhorted them to see themselves as the hope of civilization, as people capable of shaping the future of their countries and of the world.
Revolutionary Change in China During the period covered by the novel, China went through dramatic political change. Although The Good Earth focuses mostly on rural existence, which was resistant to change, on two occasions Wang Lung comes into contact with wider social forces. The first occurs when he is in the city of Kiangsu (Nanking), and he hears all the revolutionary talk and sees soldiers in the city, recruiting for a war. Then a revolutionary army arrives, and mob violence breaks out. The atmosphere and events described in these sections of the novel are based on the growing social unrest in China during the first decade of the twentieth century. For decades, the political institutions of Chinese imperial rulers had become increasingly corrupt and incompetent, failing for example to defend China from foreign invasions. The social discontent thus generated culminated in the Revolution of 1911, in which the Ch’ing dynasty collapsed. The trigger for the revolution was an uprising that broke out in October of 1911, between nationalist revolutionaries and the military in the city of Wuhan. For four months, many provinces rose up against imperial rule. There was heavy fighting in Nanking. Buck’s parents, the Christian missionaries Absalom and Carie Sydenstricker, were in Nanking at the time and were advised to evacuate, but they refused to do so.
On February 12, 1912, a Chinese Republic was established with revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen as its first president. He proclaimed the goals of the republic as nationalism, democracy, and socialism. But he soon came under pressure and resigned in favor of Yuan Shi-k’ai, a revolutionary general. Yuan Shi-k’ai declared himself emperor in 1915, but he died the following year before he could advance his imperial ambitions. His death severely weakened the republican government and led to the period known as the Warlord Era (1916–1927), in which provincial armies vied for power, often producing devastating results for local populations. It is this period that is referred to in chapter 31 of The Good Earth, when the horde of soldiers descend on Wang Lung’s town and tyrannize the local people. This action signifies the widespread chaos in China during this period, which was not finally resolved until the triumph of the communists in 1949.
Foot-binding and the Role of Women in China In traditional, pre-twentieth century Chinese society, women were assigned a position inferior to that of men. The qualities that were valued in women were obedience and loyalty. As is apparent from The Good Earth, the birth of a girl was not greeted by the family with as much pleasure as that of a boy. As Xiongya Gao explains in Pearl S. Buck’s Chinese Women Characters, if a couple’s first child was a girl, this was considered a disappointment; if the second was a girl also, it was cause for grief; and a third girl was considered a tragedy. The wife would be blamed for her failure to produce a son. It was not unusual for an infant girl in a poor family to be smothered or sold into slavery (as The Good Earth demonstrates).
Young girls in traditional Chinese families faced other hazards growing up, including having their feet bound. The practice of binding the feet began among the aristocracy in the tenth century and spread throughout China. Foot-binding was started when a girl was between the age of four and six and would continue for over a decade. The feet would be bound tightly with bandages so that the toes were bent under the sole of the foot and the arch pushed upward. The procedure, which resulted in broken and misshapen bones, was extremely painful and resulted in deformed feet. Such feet were subject to infection and disease; after some years of binding, the foot would be virtually dead and would smell. But the tiny, crippled foot was looked on by Chinese men as a most desirable thing. As Gao puts it, “Such a product of cruelty, of women’s tears and suffering, had come to be greatly admired, played with, and worshiped by men. It [the foot] became the most erotic organ of the female body.” In other words, women were deliberately crippled in the name of beauty and eroticism.
For the cruelty of the practice, one need look no further than the description in The Good Earth, when the daughter of Wang Lung tells her father that she weeps “because my mother binds a cloth about my feet more tightly every day and I cannot sleep at night” The bandages on the foot were usually changed every two days, and rebound more tightly, causing greater pain.
If a girl did not submit to foot-binding the chances of her finding a husband were slim. She was told that she had to have her feet bound in order to be pleasing to men. Part of the attraction for men was that a woman with bound feet was physically weak and could more easily be controlled. Such women were kept secluded in the home. They could not walk far or sometimes at all without leaning on a man. Having a girl with bound feet was a sign of the family’s social status. It meant they could afford to have an unproductive female in the house. Big, unbound feet (like O-lan’s in the novel) were a sign of poverty and low status.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, voices were raised in China against the inferior status of women and the practice of foot-binding. Jonathan Spence, in The Gate of Heavenly Peace, quotes from an essay published in 1904 by a young woman named Qiu Jin, who protested about the oppression of women in Chinese culture. Her description of the prevailing attitude toward the birth of a daughter recalls a number of passages in The Good Earth. The father will
immediately start spewing out phrases like “Oh what an ill-omened day, here’s another useless one. . . . He keeps repeating, “She will be in someone else’s family later on,” and looks at us with cold or disdainful eyes.
Qui Jin also protested against foot-binding:
They take out a pair of snow-white bands and bind them around our feet, tightening them with strips of white cotton; even when we go to bed at night we are not allowed to loosen them the least bit, with the result that the flesh peels away and the bones buckle under.
Foot-binding was banned by the Chinese government in 1911. During this period, also, as Spence reports, Chinese society was starting to address the issue of the status of women. The number of girls’ schools increased, and magazines and newspapers were published that focussed on women’s issues. Christian missionaries and Chinese reformists were also influential. In 1919, the first girls were admitted to Peking National University.
Imagery and Symbolism The novel is a realistic one but also on occasions employs imagery and symbolism. The traditional Chinese practice of foot-binding, for example, is used as a symbol of Wang Lung’s desire to improve the social status of his family. The binding of girls’ feet over a period of years resulted in a deformed foot that sometimes was no longer than three inches. Foot-binding was a painful process, but a small foot was considered desirable. Wang Lung finds Lotus alluring because she has tiny feet. Also, if a girl had bound feet it was easier for the family to find her a husband. The practice was not common amongst the poor, however, because poor women had to work; they could not afford to be merely decorative objects. Since O-lan is a kitchen slave, her feet were not bound. However, when Wang Lung acquires wealth and determines that his wife is not good enough for him, what repels him most are her “big feet,” and he looks at them angrily. To appease him, she offers to bind the feet of their younger daughter. O-lan does this successfully, and the result is that the girl “moved about with small graceful steps.”
Wang Lung’s braided hair is also used as a symbol. It represents the traditional way of life. When as a young man Wang Lung visits a barber on his way to collect his bride, the barber wants to cut off the braid to make him look more fashionable, but Wang Lung will not hear of it. He says he would need his father’s permission to have it cut—another indication of his adherence to traditional customs. However, when Wang Lung meets Lotus, he forgets all about the values that have sustained his life, and when she mocks him for having what she calls a “monkey’s tail,” he has it cut off straightaway, so he can look fashionable. But when he gets home, O-lan is horrified by what he has done. “You have cut off your life!” she says, thus establishing a symbolic link between the way a man’s hair is worn and the traditional ways of life.
1930s: In the Chinese city of Nanking, invading Japanese troops kill an estimated 369,366 Chinese civilians and prisoners of war between December 1937 and March 1938. About 80,000 women and girls are raped; many are then mutilated and murdered.
Today: For decades Japan refused to apologize to China for atrocities committed during World War II. In 2005, Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi apologizes for the fact that Japan caused grief and pain to many people in Asian nations during the war. But he does not mention Nanking by name.
1930s: China is under the rule of the Nationalist Party, led by Chiang Kai-shek. The Chinese Communist Party opposes the nationalists but in the 1930s is on the defensive. In 1934, the communists begin their famous 6,000-mile Long March from Hunan to northwest China, where they establish a base.
Today: China is ruled by the Communist Party, but economic reforms over the past twenty years have introduced many capitalistic practices. The private sector of the economy is growing fast as China develops into a major world power.
1930s: In Shanghai, a Chinese city subject to many international influences, educated, sophisticated women forge new roles for themselves that leave old ideas about appropriate gender roles behind. They regard themselves as free and liberated, but traditionalists see in them the dangers of modernity and foreign influences. The lives of Chinese women in rural areas and less modern cities, however, remain hard, with few recognized rights.
Today: The Chinese government makes great strides in protecting women’s rights and advancing women’s political and social status. Gains have been made in education, health care and employment, although discrimination still exists in the workplace, and women from poor areas frequently have their rights violated, especially in matters of family and marriage.
The Good Earth was filmed by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1937, directed by Sidney Rainer. As of 2006, the film was available on video cassette. A play based on the novel was written by Owen Davis and Donald Davis and produced in the Theatre Guild in New York City on October 17, 1932.
Sources Buck, Pearl, The Good Earth, John Day, 1965.
Conn, Peter, Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 126.
Gao, Xiongya, Pearl S. Buck’s Chinese Women’s Characters, Susquehanna University Press, 2000, p. 36.
Harwood, H. C., Review of The Good Earth, in Saturday Review, Vol. 151, No. 3942, May 16, 1931, p. 722.
Smart, Ninian, The Religious Experience of Mankind, Fontana, 1970, p. 218.
Spence, Jonathan D., The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895–1980, Viking Press, 1981, p. 51.
Walton, Eda Lou, “Another Epic of the Soil,” in Nation, Vol. 132, No. 3, May 13, 1931, p. 534.
Further Reading Doyle, Paul A., Pearl S. Buck, revised edition, United States Authors Series, No. 85, Twayne, 1980. This is a concise and readable introduction to the entire range of Buck’s work.
Harris, Theodore F., in consultation with Pearl S. Buck, Pearl S. Buck: A Biography, John Day, 1969–1971. Written by her close friend and collaborator, this two-volume work is, as of 2006, the most comprehensive biography of Buck.
Leong, Karen J., The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism, University of California Press, 2005. Leong explores American orientalism during the 1930s and 1940s, focusing on three women who were associated with China: Buck, Anna May Wong, and Mayling Soong. Leong shows how these women negotiated the cross-cultural experience of being American, Chinese American, and Chinese against the backdrop of the emergence of the United States as an international power and the growing participation of women in civic and consumer culture.
Liao, Kang, Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Bridge across the Pacific, Greenwood Press, 1997. Liao analyzes the reasons for the success of Buck’s early novels and the critical neglect of her later work. He argues that the social, historical, and cultural values of Buck’s work exceed their aesthetic value.
Buck, Pearl S. The Good Earth. New York: Washington Square Press, 1994. Provides a lengthy introduction about Pearl Buck and The Good Earth by Peter Conn. Also includes commentary from the time of the novel’s publication and sources for further research.
Buck, Pearl S. House of Earth: “The Good Earth,” “Sons,” “A House Divided.” New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1935. A trilogy that begins with The Good Earth and thereafter unfolds the fate of Wang Lung’s family after his death. Although critics thought less of the latter two novels, they nevertheless offer a wonderful portrait of the dissolution of traditional China. Contains a brief essay on the origins of The Good Earth.
Buck, Pearl S. The Mother. New York: John Day, 1934. A novel based on a woman named Mrs. Lu whom Buck had known in China. The central figure is a failed mother and unfulfilled peasant woman who Buck hoped would be seen as reflective of such women’s lives everywhere. Biographers have perceived this character as a mirror of Buck’s own emotions, many associated with the need for men and her lifelong care and love for a retarded daughter. Important for understanding Buck’s appeal among a whole generation of women.
Cowley, Malcolm. “Wang Lung’s Children.” The New Republic 99, no. 1275 (May 10, 1939): 24-25. Contains information about the style of The Good Earth as well as the other two novels in the trilogy: Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935). Includes a short explanation for Buck’s unfavorable reputation in some literary circles.
Doyle, Paul A. Pearl S. Buck. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Interesting for its excellent critical comments on the literary origins of Buck’s novels and on the character and quality of her prose. A good survey of major points of Buck’s life, but not intended as a profound assessment of a remarkable personage. Includes a chronology, notes, bibliography, and an index.
Harris, Theodore F. Pearl S. Buck: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: John Day, 1969-1971. Because of its importance, The Good Earth is discussed at various points in both volumes. Indicates the effect of the Wang Lung and O-lan characters on Buck’s formulation of The Good Earth.
Spencer, Cornelia. The Exile’s Daughter: A Biography of Pearl S. Buck. New York: Coward-McCann, 1944. Cornelia Spencer is the pseudonym for Grace Sydenstricker Yaukey, Pearl Buck’s sister. Includes an interesting passage on why Buck’s publishers accepted The Good Earth for publication.
Stirling, Nora. Pearl Buck: A Woman in Conflict. Piscataway, N.J.: New Century, 1983. The ablest, most insightful, and most rounded biography of Buck. Reveals many details of her personal and emotional life. Deals with Buck’s feminist convictions and the way in which they grew out of her own struggles and disappointments in a man’s world. Contains a brief bibliography and a superb index.