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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