I first read The Good Earth in the summer of 1988 with this 1934 Modern Library cloth edition in hand. I was back home at my mother’s house in San Diego after my first year in college at San Francisco State. Having spent the previous 9 months in San Francisco and walking the streets of Chinatown dozens of times, I now had a decent reference point for Chinese food, medicine shops, meat and fish markets, and the jade and trinket shops. Obviously Chinese countryside in 1920 is a vastly different thing from the San Francisco Chinatown 1988, but it’s better than nothing.
That summer back in San Diego I worked part-time as a busboy at a nice seafood restaurant, mostly lunch shifts. Oddly enough, it was a job I actually liked and was tipped well by the wait staff. I had plenty of time on my hands, and no car or extra cash. Pre-Internet days, not much to do other than read or watch music videos on MTV. I recall two of the books I read that summer, The Good Earth being one of them. I mention it because I specifically recall the joy of lying on my bed reading this book, with virtually no cares or responsibilities. The Good Earth is one of those books that embodies the joy and escape of reading. It is a simple premise, told in a simple but wonderful style, and because it spans a life from the day of marriage to old age, it has an epic-like quality to it. The inside flap of the Modern Library hardback copy sums it up well:
I have since reread it once or twice, most recently a few years ago. Watching a character start from nothing and build an “empire” (Robinson Crusoe is another) always seems to make for a good story.
The novel is really all about the cyclical fertility of the Earth, the cycles of feast and famine, of poverty and wealth, and the rise and fall of families. In The Good Earth the novel begins the morning of the day of a poor farmer’s arranged marriage. Wang Lung’s father has purchased a slave girl from a large successful house to be his wife. O-lan is plain in every way, but proves herself to be tough as nails, thoroughly economical, and fertile as the good Earth itself. Four times O-lan gives birth entirely by herself in a room with nothing but a reed to cut the cord. This past July my wife gave birth for the first time and I kept telling her that doctor shmoctor, all she needed was a “peeled reed…that I may cut the child’s life from mine.” Epidural?? Pffft! Needless to say my wife did not attempt up the O-lan challenge.
With O-lan’s expertise in running a household, they slowly build their wealth enough to afford small luxuries, better food, and eventually more land. When O-lan finally gives birth to a girl, it is seen as a bad omen (later it turns out she is ‘simple minded’). Sure enough, the rains that were to quench the thirst of their land do not come. The land cracks, the wheat stalks wither. But Wang Lung is partially lucky because he has one successful piece of land near water that bears enough in the drought year that he can afford to buy even more land. Unfortunately he must lend the money to an uncle instead. Still they starve and O-lan herself has to go out and slaughter their only ox because Wang Lung cannot bear do it. They finish the ox off but the region continues to starve to the point of eating bark. There are even rumors of cannibalism. It is a famine of long, lasting agony, where fields and stripped completely bare of anything that could be considered food or fuel–a concept that would be unimaginable to most modern society. Desperate, they travel south in search of food. They arrive in a city which is completely foreign to country folk like themselves.
There Wang Lung starts from the bottom again, renting a rickshaw to pull through the streets while O-lan and the children beg.
I’m always suckered in by descriptions of food in literature. “In Wang Lung’s country a man, if he had a roll of good wheat bread and a sprig of garlic in it, had a good meal.” But in the city there are descriptions of every kind of fish, fowl, animal and grain. And later when Wang Lung can afford it, there are mentions of bird’s nests and dried shark fins for soup, of eggs, red sugar, bean curds, every type of vegetable… it is all in the novel. “…Sweets and fruits and nuts and of hot delicacies of sweet potatoes browned in sweet oils and little delicately spiced balls of pork wrapped in dough and steamed… and the children bought and ate until their skins glistened with sugar and oil.”
While in the city they encounter Christian missionaries (of which Buck was herself in China) and of soldiers and amassing armies. There is a lot of unrest in the city, and when a rich man’s palace is overrun by a mob, Wang Lung is caught up in the looting. By chance he finds one of the rich lords hiding in a closet. The man begs for his life and Wang Lung shakes him down for gold. With that gold, Wang Lung and his family return to their land. Soon after they arrive home, Wang Lung finds that O-Lan too has returned with booty—a pouch of jewels she found at the rich man’s house.
Taking advantage of once great houses that have fallen on hard times, Wang Lung buys more land with the gold, more “than a man with an ox can plough and harvest.” Things are looking up. He buys livestock and spruces up the place a bit, O-lan gives birth again to fraternal twins. He can now send his children to school and hire laborers to work his fields.
What’s a previously poor country farmer who is now restless with leisure and money to do? Go to a tea shop/brothel of course! Choosing the fairest one, Lotus, Wang Lung is instantly smitten and unable to get enough of her. Unable to share her with anyone else, Wang Lung eventually buys Lotus with O-lan’s jewels and brings her into a special wing he has built for her. Naturally this causes quite a bit of unrest, but there’s nothing O-lan can do and she’d relegated to become the equivalent of a 3rd class mule.
Wang Lung isn’t alone in enjoying the new mistress. His younger son gets caught with Lotus and Wang Lung drives him out of the house. O-lan later gets deathly ill and dies after a long illness. Then Wang’s father dies, and a flood causes another “famine such as he had never seen”. Thus the cycle of births and deaths, and rises and falls, continue into Wang Lung’s old age.
Published in 1933, the book may now seem like a caricature of the exotic Chinese culture, but for a reading audience of that era, it must have been a feast for the senses. The Good Earth may not have created a new paradigm in literature, but it’s still a compelling story about the lifeline of a farmer who touches multiple facets of Chinese life. A 1937 film version starring Paul Muni was nominated for 5 Oscars. I’ve seen it and it is decent enough, but is long overdue for a remake. Other good companion movies would be Farewell my Concubine, To Live or Raise the Red Lantern.
I also own a copy of the hardback Modern Library edition with the cover. I like this cover quite a bit, a rusty red pencil sketch evoking the land and both Wang Lung and O-lan returning to the fertile furrowed field at dawn.
While I don’t believe there is any mention of beer in the book, some cold Tsingtao’s would be a great companion when reading The Good Earth.
While not the best companion book to The Good Earth, I happen to have Made in China by Reed Darmon, published 2004 by Chronicle Books. It is a pocket book of Chinese ephemera–advertising, matchbook covers, tea boxes, Mao propaganda, etc. While most of the imagines are selling to a wealthy leisure class or promote post-Mao scientific advancement and high culture, some of the images mirror what Pearl Buck or a Wang Lung would have encountered in the cities of 1920-1930. For that reason I’ve dropped just a few of the images from this book into this post.