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Wang Lung is a young farmer, living with his aged father in a tiny three-room house outside a country town in northern China. Since his mother's death six years earlier, Wang has done all the housework, cared for his father, and worked in his fields. The novel opens on the day he brings home the wife his father has bought for him, O-lan, a young slave woman from the great House of Hwang.

After their first son's birth, Wang buys a piece of land for growing rice from the Hwang estate. For a while he prospers, but a long drought causes his crops to fail, and Wang and his family, along with their neighbors, begin to starve. O-lan endures another pregnancy during this famine, but she kills the newborn daughter that she cannot feed.

They are forced to sell their furniture, but they will not part with their land. With the two pieces of silver the furniture brings them, Wang Lung and O-lan, with Wang's aged father and their three young children, climb aboard a train carrying the stream of refugees to the city, one hundred miles to the south.

Away from his land and no longer a farmer, Wang is lost. He tries to maintain his dignity by refusing to beg, but his poorly paid efforts as an honest laborer cannot feed the family. Only the begging of O-lan and the children provides some relief.

One day Wang is swept along with a mob that breaks into a rich man's house. He suddenly comes face to face with the terrified owner, and when the man offers Wang money to spare his life, Wang takes everything the man has. He takes his family home and spends his sudden wealth on a good ox, new farm implements, and the best-quality seeds.

O-lan also has been involved in the recent plunder and has brought back a treasure of jewels. Wang takes from her all but two little pearls that she asks to keep. With this treasure he buys the rest of the land from the now destitute House of Hwang.

Wang Lung is a rich man, with stores of grain and rice as protection against future famine. He takes in his good neighbor Ching, who lost his wife and daughter in the famine, to help in working the new land.

Meanwhile O-lan has borne twins, a boy and a girl. Wang has much business to conduct in selling his crops. Because he has never learned to read and write, he is embarrassed by his inability to read a contract. Thus he sends his two older sons to school in the town.

When a flood covers the land for months, preventing farming, Wang in restless idleness visits the new tea house, a house of prostitution in the town. He becomes infatuated with Lotus Flower, a dainty and sophisticated prostitute, and showers her with gifts.

Then Wang's uncle, a man of bad character and reputation, arrives with his wife and son. Because of the customs governing blood relationships, Wang cannot refuse to take them in. The uncle's wife, a worldly woman, arranges Wang's purchase of Lotus as his concubine, a secondary wife and mistress. Wang adds quarters to the house for Lotus and her servant, the one-time slave Cuckoo.

Wang's first daughter, who suffered starvation as an infant during the famine, has proved to be retarded. Wang is devoted to his "poor fool," and he becomes angry with Lotus for the first time when he finds her screaming at the child. He is even more enraged when he finds his eldest son spending time with Lotus, and he beats them both.

Wang Lung has betrothed his eldest son to a daughter of the grain merchant Liu, and his youngest daughter to Liu's son. He has placed his second son, a shrewd lad with a head for trade, as an apprentice in Liu's business. He intends his third son to become a farmer like himself. After arranging his children's futures to his satisfaction, Wang suddenly realizes that silent, uncomplaining O-lan is very ill and close to death.

After the birth of the twins, O-lan had spoken once of having "a fire in her vitals." Wang realizes for the first time how much he owes to her. O-lan asks only to see her eldest son married before she dies. Wang arranges a fine wedding feast for the boy and his bride, and O-lan dies contented. Soon after, Wang's aged father dies.

Although Wang's uncle's son has run off to become a soldier, the uncle and his wife remain. They contribute nothing, but they expect to be served expensive food and drink, and they also demand money. Because his uncle is secretly a member of the notorious Redbeards, a gang of robbers, Wang must keep these parasites to protect his house and family from the robber gang. The eldest son cunningly suggests that Wang supply his uncle and aunt with opium. Perhaps he can make them harmless, dreaming addicts. He also proposes that Wang leave them in the old farmhouse and move his own family to the Hwang mansion in the town, which is for rent. As Wang's fortunes have risen, the fortunes of the once intimidating Hwang house have declined. Wang accepts both of his son's suggestions.

Wang's eldest son and his wife present Wang with his first grandchild, a boy. The miserly second son is also married. Wang has found for him, as he asked, not a delicately bred city girl like his brother's wife, but a robust village girl of simpler (inexpensive) tastes. Wang makes this money-minded son the steward of his now considerable estate. In due time Wang has seven grandchildren, with whom he spends his happiest hours.

Into this peaceful home one day bursts a band of soldiers, led by the late uncle's dissolute son, who eat and carouse at Wang Lung's expense. They stay for weeks, wrecking the fine furniture and gardens and menacing the females of the household, who must be kept in seclusion.

Wang's peace is also disturbed by the bickering of his sons' wives. He is troubled by his youngest son, who has no taste for farming but wants to become a soldier. The youth is attracted to Pear Blossom, a delicate young slave girl in Lotus' service. When he finds that his father, Wang, wants this girl for himself, the youth storms out of the house. Later Wang learns that this third son has become a high-ranking officer in the south.

Pear Blossom becomes the love of Wang's old age. Feeling his years, he moves with her, his "poor fool," and a few servants, back to the old farmhouse where he can be near his land again. When he hears his two sons talking about selling the land, he cries out against such a plan. They reassure him, but over the old man's head they smile at one another.

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