If you’re like me, when you think of “China,” one of two images pops into your mind: Marco Polo’s cities of gold and the Great Wall of China; or an authoritarian Communist economic powerhouse. Often overlooked is the culture of the pre-Revolutionary Chinese peasantry…the backbone of a world power, and the society from which the seeds of revolt sprang.
Pearl S. Buck’s classic novel, “The Good Earth” explores the life of one Chinese villager, Wang Lung, at the beginning of the 20th century. Born into an exclusively agrarian community, his highest ambition is to become a successful, independent farmer and have many sons to succeed him. The book proceeds to chronicle Wang Lung’s life from his youthful marriage to his old age, in the process achieving a spellbinding blend of simplicity and depth.
As the novel opens, Wang Lung marries O-lan, the kitchen slave of a wealthy and powerful lord in the area. Several children soon follow, and Wang Lung’s prosperity begins to increase. He begins to acquire additional farmland from the aging, indebted aristocrats, and elaborate schemes for future development take root in his mind. However, all his ambitions must be placed on hold when a devastating famine strikes the region. Refusing to watch his family die (or practice cannibalism to survive!), Wang Lung leads his wife and children to a southern city, where he engages in backbreaking labor to feed his family.
It is in this city that Wang Lung first senses discontent among the underclass. The great men of the city live in luxury, heedless of the suffering outside their doors. Finally, tensions reach the boiling point, and a mob of rioters storms the palace of the wealthiest lord. During the uprising, Wang Lung comes into possession of a large amount of gold – enough to return his family to the northern farm country and become a wealthy landowner.
The rest of the novel chronicles Wang Lung’s increasingly decadent – yet still pragmatic – lifestyle. Instead of a story of survival, it becomes a tale of Wang Lung’s slow metamorphosis into that which he once abhorred. As he prospers more and more, he begins to lose touch with the people that have meant the most to him – his wife, his sons, his former friends… I won’t spoil the ending, but it demonstrates rather starkly the transience of material goods.
This book is a must-read for any individuals interested in Chinese history and culture. It dramatically depicts the attitudes and lifestyles of the commoners who would later instigate the Chinese Revolution, and demonstrates the grotesque opulence of the nobility against which they rebelled. As an analysis of the roots of modern China, “The Good Earth” succeeds brilliantly. From a literary standpoint, the novel is exquisite in its simple style. It uses plain language and a narrative-based story structure to communicate enduring truths, without ever compromising its mature tone. This elevates it far above other historical fiction in the same vein.
The worldview of the story is implicit in the plot itself: material goods are temporary, but relationships are of lasting value. Traditional aspects of Chinese culture, such as the worship of ancestors or Buddhist deities, are for the most part absent. (I would have been personally interested to see how these external standards of morality – albeit, flawed standards – would have affected the decisions of the main characters.) From a content standpoint, “The Good Earth” does delve into some pretty mature issues. As previously discussed, there is a discussion of cannibalism early on in the novel. Later on, Wang Lung takes a second wife (a former courtesan), leading to tension and discord in his household. (This unwise decision is never condoned, and leads to a toxic outcome.) This isn’t the sort of historical fiction book to give to a fourth-grader.
However, older teens and adults will likely find “The Good Earth” a compelling story of perseverance, sacrifice, and human weakness. Highly recommended.
A dramatic tale of life in early China. Well worth reading.
Author’s note: This will likely be my last literature commentary for some time. Further commentaries and movie reviews will be posted as my college schedule permits.