Author: Pearl S. Buck (1931, 1935)
Publisher: Washington Square
Edition: Paperback September 2004
Category: Fiction – contemporary classic
Wang Lung started as a poor farmer and had grown to be the richest man in his village, even in town. He worked hard on his lands and earned from it. Moral conflicts are plentiful on the story. When he was young, he worked hard to be rich. When he was rich, he was greedy for something else (That’s very much human nature, aren’t we all always greedy for more?).
Poor Wang Lung didn’t have the option to choose his bridesmaid. The only thing he knew is that he had to get married and have children. Whoever the bridesmaid is, was irrelevant to his knowledge. O-Lan was one of the maids of the Great House. She had a square face, broad nose and a wide mouth. He found no beauty in her but an honest and patient face. He was sure that she still is a virgin when he met her, because she wasn’t pretty and it was unlikely that the young lords or even the Old Lord would fancy her. That was good enough for him.
When he was rich, Wang Lung had the opportunity to ‘buy’ concubines and to ‘buy’ a proper husband for one of his daughter (the other one was a fool) and to choose wifes for his sons. I think his decision to take concubine(s) had nothing to do with O-Lan. It was just Wang Lung who had failed to see the goodness of O-Lan after he became richer and had desired for more. O-Lan had never failed to perform her duties as a wife, a mother and a daughter-in-law to her family. She was not pretty but faithful, hardworker and obedient (this part reminds me of Lisa Stansfield song “All woman” 1991). I don’t know about others, but I found Wang Lung was selfish as a person. Maybe I am naive, but the way Buck described O-Lan, reminds me of many women I met in my life. Good harvests came after Wang Lung married O-Lan so it seemed to me that O-Lan brought the lucks to his life. He should be more thankful and respectful to O-Lan.
Moving south when bad seasons were worse and there was nothing left on their lands, wasn’t the wisest decision that Wang Lung had taken, especially with his old father and the three small children (the twin came later). But the decision had enriched his life with experience, determination, and making him more prudent on saving his harvests and money. Difficult living forced all of them to do anything to be able to eat in this harsh city. Being beggars and rickshaw’s runner were some that he had done. His second son was also becoming expert on thievery.
After the revolution issues got stronger in the city and innocent people were taken violently as victims, he decided to move back to his lands using the money/precious stones both him and O-lan had ransacked from a rich person’s house during a riot. He might be poor but he surely had dignity and plan for his sons’ future. The willingness for Wang Lung and O-Lan to do anything to feed the family is perhaps representing almost every parent’s feeling for their children, or else, it is a depiction of human survival.
Wang Lung is financially better compared to his youth. No one sees him as Wang Lung “the farmer” anymore, greater than that people respect him. But no one can stop the circle of life to happen. Birth-marriage-old-dying-death are beyond human control. No matter how powerful and rich one is, he will come back and ask the earth to feed him and his family. One must believe that there’s much bigger Power beyond him that control the earth. You will find some intrigues and moral conflicts while reading it, especially after Wang Lung decided to take concubine(s), sent his sons to be scholars and moved to the Great House.
The book uses simple wordings but they have a very deep meaning that will make you think about life, family values and respecting the earth that you are now standing at. This is my second book of Pearl S. Buck (the first was Madame Wu), but so far I am impressed with the way she tells the stories and the sophistication of her characters. The other similarities between the two books are: Chinese culture and the presence of a lifecycle.
PS: The novel received Pulitzer Prize in 1935 and the book is recommended by Oprah’s Book Club