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THE STORY

CHAPTER 1

It is Wang Lung's wedding day. He rises at dawn as always to light the fire and heat the water, but today is different. Instead of merely washing, he fills the wooden tub and bathes. He puts aside his padded winter suit, now torn and soiled, for a clean one of cotton, and over it goes his one cotton coat saved for feast days. He brushes out and rebraids his queue, the traditional long lock of hair growing from the crown of his head, and he weaves a tasseled black silk cord into the braid.

His old father complains: such wastefulness! Water for a bath, tea leaves in the bowl of hot water Wang brings him: "It is the day," says Wang.

In the town, Wang has the barber shave his head around the queue but balks at cutting off the queue, as is now the fashion: for that he must ask his father's permission. In the market he buys a little pork, a little beef, and a small fish for his wedding feast. At last everything is done, and he must now go to the great House of Hwang, the residence of the district's biggest landowner, and fetch his bride, a young slave woman his father has bought for him and whom he has never seen.

At the gate of the mansion he stops, faint with nervousness: he forgot to eat this morning. Back into the town he goes, to gulp tea and noodles in the tea house, dawdling so long that he is asked to pay extra. He jumps up and heads for the great house again. Here the gateman treats him with scorn, demands a tip, and finally ushers him into the presence of the Old Mistress. The tiny, withered old lady summons O-lan.

In little more than a dozen pages you have a graphic image of the little farmhouse, the frugal way of life, the demanding old father, and the novel's hero. Wang Lung is a farmer. He is young, shy, practically a stranger in his own village where he rarely goes, having no money to spend. He is intimidated even by the tea house boy, let alone the arrogant gateman, and all but falls on his face before the Old Mistress.

NOTE:

Does this introduction to the central character strike you as having a particular blend of comedy and pathos like that of Charlie Chaplin movies? From here on the mood changes, and comedy gives way to deeper levels of sympathy. Watch especially how O-lan's character emerges, how she is described only by her actions and the way Wang sees her, and how you can gather clues about what she thinks and feels. This is a good example of Pearl Buck's skill at characterization.


O-lan appears. The Old Mistress tells Wang about her-"She is not beautiful, but that you do not need." Wang notices with some disappointment that O-lan's feet are large because they had not been bound when she was young. The Old Mistress orders O-lan to obey her husband, bear him sons, and bring the first child for her to see. Then she abruptly dismisses them. This seems to be the entire marriage ceremony for a poor farmer and a slave bride.

The first things Wang does for O-lan are to carry her heavy box and buy her a few small, green peaches. To bring good fortune on his marriage and future, he lights two sticks of incense, one for O-lan and one for himself, before the earth god and goddess in the little field shrine. O-lan puts out her hand and brushes off the ashes so that the incense will burn well. To Wang it seems that O-lan is sharing a significant moment with him.

NOTE: CHINESE SOCIETY AND TRADITION

As the novel opens you come across a number of customs and traditions common in Chinese society before the People's Republic of China was established in 1949. The queue-or pigtail-worn by Chinese men was already being considered old-fashioned when the story of The Good Earth begins around 1890. But Wang Lung shows the importance of respecting his father (and other elders) when he says that he needs his father's permission to cut it off. Notice that Wang's wife was purchased and that she was a slave. You will see throughout the book that the birth of female children to poor families was considered a disaster. If parents didn't kill the infant-as O-lan does her fourth child-they would probably sell it at an early age as a slave, usually to the household of a rich man. A slave could become a wife, kitchen maid, or prostitute. In another traditional gesture, Wang burns incense to the little god and goddess of the earth to ask for good fortune.

At the farmhouse, O-lan cooks the wedding feast. The guests, all male, arrive, and O-lan declines to appear before them. But she has cooked a fine feast, and Wang is proud of both her modesty and her skill. Alone with her at last he is shy and nervous but finally exultant at having a sexual partner and a new life with a woman of his own.

NOTE:

Some readers have observed that the first chapters of The Good Earth are beautifully written. Consider how skillfully Chapter 1 sets the scene and introduces all the major characters without once breaking the flow of the narrative. Notice that the chapter not only gives us the bare facts of Wang's way of life, but also the deeper feelings of some of the characters. A particularly touching moment occurs when Wang finds O-lan asleep in the straw beside the ox, like the kitchen slave she had been for ten of her twenty years. He must lead her by the hand into the room she will share with him as his wife.

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