The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

The Good Earth

“In had come out of the earth, this silver, out of his earth that he ploughed and turned and spent himself upon. He took his life from this earth; drop by drop by his sweat he wrung fruit from it and from the fruit, silver.” ~ p31

In The Good Earth we follow the story of Wang Lung, a mere farmer at first, who strives to become more successful with wisdom and hard work. The book starts on his marriage day. Far from being extravagant, he has to pick up the bride himself who is a slave in a rich man’s house. His wife O-Lan is a plain quiet woman.

“Words were to her things to be caught one by one and released with difficulty.” ~ p44

O-Lan knows how to utilize everything that comes her way in any situation. She was sold to the big house when she was small and therefore learns all important things she needs to survive. I don’t think it was mentioned enough, but Wang Lung is incredibly lucky to have O-Lan as his wife. Behind every successful man there’s a strong woman, according to a saying, and this couldn’t be more true for Wang Lung and O-Lan.

The language is very simple. It reminds me of language that people use for folktales. Hence The Good Earth read like a very long folktale to me. But I don’t think this is caused only by the language. Wang Lung’s story is like a story of Every Chinese-man so to speak. You start poor, you work hard, you take wife, you have sons and daughters, you take care of your elders, building better life along the way, then you die. The story of Wang Lung and his grown-up sons rang very true to me. My father said, it’s all about cycle. One generation works so hard to be rich, the second generation does everything they can to spend the fortune, and the third generation must again work very hard to pay the debts and clean the mess. I have not read the sequels to The Good Earth, but my guts tell me it is going in that direction.

I love how everything comes down to the earth. The title of the book can’t be more fitting. It was a simple and humble life. Your life depends on the mercy of the gods, who bring rain or drought according to their fancy. What you can control is the land. The land you can work on, you can cultivate. The land gives you life. I think this notion of the importance of land is ingrained so much in the Chinese blood that even for the current day generation, land is still the most precious of them all. Wang Lung says, buy land, people can’t take land away from you. Did I just hear my elders talking? Invest only in land.

The part when Wang Lung buys more and more land reminded me of my dad. My dad started poor as well. We lived in 2 bedrooms house in which my parents, my two brothers and I stayed in the same room until I started high school. By then with my parents’ business started to get a lot better. The debt of the house was paid off. When he got more money, he bought a house next to us. More money, then the house behind us. Then the house next to the one behind us. Our house became this mishmash of different style of short buildings on a huge chunk of land, with holes on the walls to get through from one house to another. My friends got all excited everytime they came by. It’s like walking in a house of maze, they said. People could literally get lost.

For my dad, it was all about the land. Building could be burnt down. Gold could be stolen. Value of money could diminish into nothing. But land stays.

Overall I found The Good Earth to be enjoyable and easy to read. Considering time of writing, it has one hell of historical value. Pearl S. Buck presented China and its people with a broad stroke that has succeeded in its intention to reach a wide audience–the world.

1931,  316 pp

Interesting Facts about The Good Earth

  • The Good Earth is Buck’s second published novel, first being East Wind: West Wind, which was the one that had been rejected by many American publishers, on the old ground that people did not want to read about China.
  • After The John Day Company has decided to publish East Wind: West Wind, Pearl S. Buck returned to Nanking and wrote The Good Earth in 3 months, typing it herself twice.
  • When the film was made, The John Day Company did not permit the usual movie tie-in edition with photographs from the film. (Is that why until now we’ve never seen the motion-picture edition?)
  • The reason for the decision above was particularly because the main actors were not Chinese nor had Chinese features.

First line
It was Wang Lung’s marriage day.

1932 Pulitzer Prize
1938 Nobel Prize for Literature (the author for body of work)

China Challenge (book #4), Book Awards IV (book #5), Read the Book See the Movie (pair #3)

For the Book Group

The rest of this post is for us who have read the book, so there might be spoilers ahead. Beware!

I posted an invite to you all to read The Good Earth together with our Asian Book Group. It is my pick for the first quarter of the year. I was delighted to find that four of us in the group had not read the book and would love to as it is one pivotal book that showed China to the foreign world. I’d like to thank you if you decided to participate. Please drop by and let me know if you wrote up something. I’m going to list and update the links to all your reviews so you can visit each other.

Rather than taking some book group questions off somewhere else, I’m going to just throw a few Q&As up in the air. Feel free to throw your own back!

What do you think about the characters? Do you have strong feelings for them?

My non-blogger friend Eeleng re-read the book when I told her about the book group reading. She mentioned that she hated Wang Lung. I can understand why, seeing it from modern eyes. But I think Wang Lung is just a byproduct of his time. The most appalling thing he’d done in the book I thought was when he got all obsessed about Lotus and took her as his mistress. I felt so much for O-Lan and the unfairness of it all. I was so mad at him for taking O-Lan’s pearls. He got so much money already. Why does he bother to take what little precious things that O-Lan has?!

Which scene was the most memorable for you?

Before this time around, I actually read the book about a couple of years ago, but didn’t finish it because it got too depressing. I stopped at the point when O-Lan gives birth for the third time and she has to eat a few beans to survive. I came into the book this time with the right mindset so I didn’t have much problem with all the hardness in the book. That scene though is still probably the one that will stay with me the longest.

How do you feel about the white American woman writing about China?

I normally do have a bit of skepticism and disapproval about author writing of a country or culture that is not her own. But reading Buck’s background about how she spent most of her lifetime in China, I think she should be as good as any Chinese writers to write about the people and the country. However my opinion is that the book is obviously targeted for foreigners. Would Chinese people appreciate the “mundane” life story of a Chinese farmer, whose life is probably not too dramatic in their eyes?

What do you think about the role of women in The Good Earth?

The absolute preference for daughters is quite maddening (though not surprising, since it’s one common topic for many old Chinese stories), but there seems to be a rather practical reason for it. These people had very hard life. Extreme poverty and starvation seem to be the norm. In their reality, girls would marry out and belong to another family. So the family must feed the girl until she’s of age for nothing, so to speak, while boys would stay with the family forever, supporting the elders until they die.

The Movie

The Good Earth filmThe Good Earth the film was released in 1937, with non-Chinese casts for the main characters. I was utterly surprised when I found out about that fact. The movie won 2 Oscars in 1938 for Best Actress (Luise Rainer as O-Lan) and Best Cinematography. As always, awards pique my interest.

Fortunately The Good Earth is a black and white movie, and that sort of disguised the ethnicity of the main characters. But I couldn’t help to be very conscious that they were Caucasians and wished there would be a remake of the movie someday, with proper Chinese casts.

I paid attention to Luise Rainer because she won Best Actress. I’m not sure though if I liked her acting. She often showed this faraway look that made her look rather dumb. It’s a bit weird to say this, but I wish the actress playing O-Lan were uglier. Rainer was far from being ugly and that took away a lot of  the sadness of O-Lan depicted in the book.

Overall the movie made a good effort for what they had at the time, though again it was obviously targeted for foreigners. One awesome scene was when the locusts attacked the village people’s fields and they showed what looked like millions of crickets. Some characters’ roles were gone or diminished, like Wang-Lung last twin (non-existent), his uncle’s wife and son, and Cuckoo.

I’m not sure if you mind about spoilers for the movie. So I’ll keep it in white. Highlight the below paragraph to read.

Of course they just had to change the ending! Because that’s what Hollywood does. They change any story to become romantic and have a happy ending. The movie ends with O-Lan at her deathbed (probably a good decision since I too thought the book became less exciting after O-Lan died). Wang-Lung returns the two pearls that he took from O-Lan for Lotus the other day and claimed that he finally realized that she is the one. What the?

That’s one very crucial scene in the book where O-Lan moans with so much sadness for being born ugly and therefore is incapable for winning Wang Lung’s love. And at the very end Wang Lung cannot love O-Lan like he does Lotus even if he feels guilty about it. They just had to change that to lovey dovey ending, did they? *grumble*

Rating: 7/10

Gosh that was one long post. I’m not sure if you’re still here, but for me I can talk about this book for a long time. I hope you enjoyed the book and the read-along!

Participants’ Reviews

things mean a lot
eeleng chang
kiss a cloud
Absorbed in Words

love in a fallen city

For the next book we will read Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang (1920-1995), which is a collection of short stories. I heard of Eileen Chang when Lust, Caution made a huge hit in Asian cinemas in 2007. Love in a Fallen City itself was made into a movie in 1984, played by Chow Yun-Fat (remember Anna and the King? Or the Captain Sao Feng in Pirates of the Caribbean…) The book was picked by Claire and we’re going to post our thoughts in the last week of June. Hope to see you then!

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30 thoughts on “The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck”

  1. I agree with you about Wang Lung. I didn’t hate him, even though he did things that were cruel or unfair. But I thought that at heart he was a kind man, struggling with the cultural/social constraints and expectations of his time.

    Also, that’s an interesting point about the book being targeted at foreigners because the story would be too ordinary for a Chinese audience who saw those things every day in their lives. I hadn’t thought of that, but it makes sense.
    .-= [Nymeth´s last blog: The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope] =-.

    1. Nymeth, yea I didn’t hate Wang Lung too. In fact I don’t think the book evoked much emotion for me. It’s probably not meant to.

  2. Haha, I didn’t know there was a movie made. Though I must say, it doesn’t interest me much. Especially because the characters all felt so real for me, I don’t think I can watch them on screen, knowing that they’re different from how I pictured them.

    So glad you picked up on the saying that behind every successful man is a woman, because this story definitely showcased this well. And your comment about how ingrained it is in our minds of the importance of land, I was just replying to Ana’s comment on my own blog about this. I think it is something very distinctly Chinese. (Loved that you added your own story into the post. It’s always nice to get to know more of you in bits.)

    I didn’t hate Wang Lung at all. Like Ana, I think he was quite a kind man, especially how he treated his eldest daughter. I think I really liked Wang Lung because of that. A lesser man would have killed the daughter.

    My most memorable scene has got to be when O-lan died. That was so so sad for me.

    Anyway, thanks for asking us to join you in reading this. I wouldn’t have picked it up if not for the group. =)

    1. Michelle, I also saw your comment in reply to Ana’s about the importance of land for Chinese. We’re thinking the same. I’m relieved that I’m not just making things up ;).

      I agree that Wang Lung is a kind man. He could’ve sold his eldest daughter too. From what I gather from the story, the preference for daughter is really all for practical reason and culture, and it’s actually against human nature to dismiss your own child just because of her gender. I’m glad that for once we are told Chinese story about an ordinary man who is not abusive or so obviously horrible. And overall there’s actually very little violence in the book or none at all. Could it be because it is written by a foreign woman?

      Well our most memorable moments both involve O-Lan. She made an impact, didn’t she? I should’ve mentioned that I loved the ending. It’s sad, but so fitting, so right, so real.

  3. Hey Dioni,

    Thanks for inviting me to read the book, here’s what I thought of it:

    So far, I’m the only one that did not like Wang Lung, haha, that’s really interesting, I wonder why I think so differently. I do think he is a very realistic kind of person, shaped by his circumstances and he did do some very good things. Maybe I just expected more of a ‘hero’ type character, which I guess is not really the point of this book.

    I think I’ll definitely look into reading the sequels. It would be interesting to read about what happens to Wang Lung’s children and how they in turn are shaped by what Wang Lung did in the first book.
    .-= [eeleng´s last blog: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck] =-.

    1. Hey eeleng, thanks for sharing the link! I don’t hate Wang Lung, but I don’t like him too. I feel pretty neutral about him. I like it more when a character is more realistic, it’s more complex and interesting than just good or evil. I’m not sure if I’m gonna read the sequels because like what I mentioned above, I think I can guess where it’s going, though I could be completely wrong. If you end up reading them, would you tell me how they are?

      I absolutely love your post. To quote my favorite part:
      “Besides the characters, two elements play a big part in The Good Earth, earth and water. The earth is forever constant, as is Wang Lung’s loyalty to it. In all the cycles that his life goes through, Wang Lung’s first and foremost allegiance lies in his lands and no matter how far he has gone, he will always return to it. It was just a really strong theme and the title The Good Earth is really fitting!Water on the other hand, changes constantly and with it, Wang Lung’s life changes too. The two biggest life-changing events that happened; Wang Lung’s family having to leave their land to go begging in the south and Wang Lung’s new found interest in Lotus that led to him taking on a second wife; seemed to have been brought about by water. In one instance, the lack of water and in the other, the over-abundance of it. I really liked how these two elements are woven into the story.”

    2. I also didn’t like Wang Lung because I tend to like the more chivalrous characters, and Wang Lung was from it. But you’re right about him being a realistic character, especially considering the setting of the story… I’m also interested in reading the sequels because I’m curious about the youngest son who became a soldier. That’s should fall around the time of Sun Yat Sen right?

      Thanks for reading with us Eeleng!
      .-= [Mark David´s last blog: Asian Book Group: The Good Earth] =-.

  4. Di, thanks for sharing the story about your father. Another thing we share. My father was telling me how they walked to school in slippers. And we had drivers to take us to school. I think he made my siblings and me lazy. Lol. Sometimes we are still dependent on him. Tsk tsk.

    But anyhow, it IS easy to hate Wang Lung for his treatment of O-lan. It’s obvious how the book’s sympathy lay, and that is with her. I also really loved the folk tale rendering of this book, as it was simple enough, as you say, to make for easy, enjoyable reading, but then also we are able to universally connect with it.

    About the movie, I didn’t know there was a movie! And how absurd that the cast was white! Craazee! I want to watch it now, too, just for the fun of it. And then we can laugh together about the ending! (I read your spoiler post.) That is so typical of Hollywood to make the ending that way. All I can say is one big LOL!
    .-= [claire´s last blog: The Good Earth] =-.

    1. Claire, I often got that “How lucky your generation is now. In my time…” talk from my dad and my mom. They both had pretty hard childhood. But I don’t mind those stories. I guess it’s fun to hear when it doesn’t happen to yourself hehee.

      About the movie, I read somewhere that it was the time of anti-miscegenation (a word that I just learned). From Wiki:
      “Though Anna May Wong had been suggested for the role of O-Lan, the Hays Code anti-miscegenation rules required Paul Muni’s character’s wife to be played by a white actress.”
      Pretty racist time, eh?! I’d love to know what you think if you get a chance to watch the movie :)

    2. I also read your movie spoiler… HAHAHAHA! Filipinos, you know, also love doing cheesy endings :)

      And yes, why did they choose a pretty actress to play O-Lan? That’s just not right. But oh well, it’s an old film and viewers must have different standards then.
      .-= [Mark David´s last blog: Asian Book Group: The Good Earth] =-.

  5. This book was required reading in high school. I remember loving it. I also remember craving rice. All I wanted to eat was rice while I was reading it. I had no idea there was a movie. I read your spoiler ending too and I agree with you. I kinda want to go back and re-read this.

    1. jehara, I would LOVE to read this book in high school! Alas, it didn’t happen in my high school. Funny how you craved rice because of The Good Earth. I remember reading French Women Don’t Get Fat and I craved for bread so much during the time of reading and months after that. Thank you for stopping by!

        1. Well in the book the author makes comparison mostly to Americans, since we all know there is a big population of obese people in the US. I do have the impression that French women are rather slim though I don’t know any French celebrity. There’s another book called Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat, which I’d love to read sometime ;). I love Japanese food and the Asian aspect of it probably works even more for me. Anyway, this has strayed VERY FAR from our subject.

  6. Yes, that saying about women being behind the success of every man certainly stood out in this book. O-Lan is the character that felt so dear to me in the book. I found myself growing more and more concerned for well-being just as if she was my mother.

    I’m very relieved to hear that you also thought it’s like a “folktale”… that’s my impression too! I haven’t really read a full Chinese folktale before, but somehow the tone and structure of the novel really gave off that impression. You know, here in the Philippines, that typical plot you mentioned is actually the pattern for like 95% of all television dramas (we call them “telenovelas”) made in the country. Filipinos (most of the time, including me, hehe) just won’t accept a TV drama doesn’t have a moral. The story “must” always have a poor man who prospered, and then person must turn haughty or seek revenge against his enemies, and when the tables are turned he finds himself in more trouble than ever and he would learn that being on top doesnt’ make people happy… you know how it goes ;) And yet, we just love stories like that. We’re also suckers for happy endings, but when we see one we always say that’s not realistic at all. LOL!

    And yes, it’s all about land. My parents also bought a few pieces of real estate earlier in their married life. But when my mom got terribly sick with cancer, my dad was forced to sell all his land. It’s kind of like what happened with Wang Lung and O-Lan, right? But the good thing in our case is that my mom recovered very well from her sickness and is now a cancer survivor :)

    It’s amazing how this first book we read for the group has brought out many interesting stories about our Chinese heritage… I really enjoyed reading the book, and this post… So thank you very much Mee :)
    .-= [Mark David´s last blog: Asian Book Group: The Good Earth] =-.

    1. David, you know, telenovelas are very popular too in Indonesia. I can’t believe we even have the same name for them! Now that you mentioned it, the plot does sound very familiar. It’s kinda overused these days, isn’t it?

      Ow I’m sorry to hear about your mom (and happy because she has survived). I love how we all can relate to little things in the book and we get to share our own stories and experiences. Thanks for sharing the story and the read, David. I look forward to our next shared read :)

      1. David, haha! This part you said about the telenovelas: that they “must always have a poor man who prospered, and then person must turn haughty or seek revenge against his enemies, and when the tables are turned he finds himself in more trouble than ever and he would learn that being on top doesnt’ make people happy” So true!

        Also, it’s very nice to hear your mom is a cancer survivor. My dad is too! He just finished his chemotherapy late last year. Hopefully it doesn’t come back.

        Mee, surprise surprise! Telenovelas in Indonesia! Speaking of which, do you also watch telenovelas from other parts of Asia? My all-time fave is one from Taiwan entitled Meteor Garden. I just LOVED it! So cheesy but so good haha.
        .-= [claire´s last blog: Readathon Afterthoughts (mostly on Ishiguro’s book)] =-.

        1. Claire, what we call telenovela in Indonesia is more for the ones from South America (or anything Spanish?) And they are always dubbed to Indonesian and speak really fast. I heard that South Americans have lots of poor people too who yearn for wealth or better fortune. That’s reflected in the telenovelas and that’s why it is so popular in Indonesia too because people could relate.

          Oh I think you mentioned about Meteor Garden somewhere in your comment thread. I forgot to reply. I LOVED Meteor Garden too! LOL. Quite embarrassing but what to say. Haha. For East Asian dramas there’s often a poor girl and a rich guy and the guy falls head over heels for the girl, isn’t it? Argh, I hate that kind of story. But still I loved Meteor Garden ;)

        1. It’s amazing that you two’s parents are cancer survivors. I never actually know anybody in person who suffered cancer. It’d be very scary if it happens to one of my parents.

    1. Rebecca, the language does give you a kind of familiar feeling. But to be honest, I was kinda annoyed at first about the excessive use of “and”. I missed to mention that in my review, but then it’s a very minor quibble.

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