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OTHER ELEMENTS

SETTING

Wang Lung's inherited strip of farmland is in the northerly part of the province of Anhwei, a cold, dry country. Once every five years or so it suffers a drought in which no crops grow. The region is bare of forests, so there is no wood for building or for fuel. With no woodlands to hold back the run-off of rains, there is also flooding. A third hazard is a periodic plague of locusts that devour the crops when they are close to harvest. In The Good Earth, Wang and his neighbors are visited by all three of these disasters in succession.

Wang's house and land lie outside the walled country town. His house has three tiny rooms, a thatched roof, and walls made of earthen bricks, with small window holes covered over with paper to keep out the winter cold. The kitchen is nothing but an earthen oven in a shed shared with the ox's stall. The cooking fire in the oven consists of a handful of straw and dried grass, and Wang lights it with a spark struck from a flint chip with a scrap of iron. Although the end of Wang's story takes place in the late 1920s, Chinese farmers have lived this way for many hundreds of years.


With his growing prosperity, Wang's little house is enlarged in the style of Chinese dwellings: additional rooms are built around an open court. Later, when the setting changes to the House of Hwang within the town, you see an elegant Chinese mansion, with carved furniture and screens, courtyard after courtyard planted with flowering trees, and a goldfish or lily pool in its center.

When Wang takes his starving family south during the famine, the setting shifts to a city, probably Chinkiang, in the coastal province of Kiangsu. Here the climate is mild, and the outlying farms grow a great variety of crops, which are harvested twice a year. Farmers also use "night soil" (that is, human excrement) to fertilize their fields. It is a rich city, thriving with trade and tea houses where businessmen gamble and take their pleasures, and the markets are plentiful enough to feed all the starving in Anhwei, could the food be transported.

Historically, China had no distribution system that could relieve famine in one region with food from another. Even under the republic founded in 1911, there was no strong central government to carry out such a rescue. Whole provinces were ruled not by the government in Nanking, but by local leaders with their own armies, called "war lords." Pearl Buck does not give you exact dates for her story, but from the echo of events that takes place outside Wang's narrow world, it probably covers the period from 1890 through the late 1920s.

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