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The New Year, a time of celebration, is near. Wang Lung buys red paper brushed with the letters for happiness or riches and pastes them on his plow and his ox's yoke. He hangs strips of red paper with good luck mottoes on the doors and a paper flower over the doorway. His old father cuts out new robes of red paper for the little earth gods. O-lan makes fancy cakes to take to the Old Mistress on the second day of the New Year and plain cakes for the New Year's Day visits of Wang's uncle and the neighbors.
NOTE: CHINESE NEW YEAR
In China, as in other countries where Buddhism has been influential, the New Year is the most important holiday of the year. Houses are cleaned thoroughly and ritually rid of evil spirits, elaborate foods are prepared, and gifts are given. A sign of a man's wealth and status is how lavishly he entertains and the extent and value of the gifts he gives. In addition, there are firecrackers (to chase evil spirits) and dances, and rice cakes or steamed bread is eaten. In relation to the Western calendar, the Chinese New Year occurs between January 10 and February 19.
On the second day Wang Lung, O-lan, and their baby boy, dressed in the new clothes O-lan has made for them, go to the House of Hwang. This time the gateman treats Wang with respect and offers him tea while he escorts O-lan and the baby to the Old Mistress. O-lan returns looking contented.
However, she has seen signs that the House of Hwang is in trouble: the Old Mistress is wearing last year's coat. From the cook she has learned that the five sons-young lords-are spending money abroad "like waste water" and sending home their cast-off women to be cared for. In addition, the Old Lord has been adding one or two concubines a year to his string, while the Old Mistress consumes enough opium every day "to fill two shoes with silver." [In some editions this is gold.] Their third daughter is to be married, with a prince's ransom for a dowry and the most fashionable and expensive wardrobe. To cap this back-stairs gossip, the Old Mistress herself has told O-lan that they will sell some of their good rice land.
The Good Earth contains many marvelous turns of phrase like those
of the cook and the Old Mistress. Pearl Buck's years in China yielded
not only a depth of understanding of the Chinese way of life, but also
rich figures of speech that must surely be direct translations from the
Wang impulsively declares that he will buy the land. O-lan protests that it is too far away. Why not buy the land which his uncle has to sell? His uncle's land is no good, replies Wang. He has farmed it for twenty years and put nothing back into the land. No, he will buy Hwang's land. Then O-lan agrees, saying, "Last year this time I was a slave in that house."
Surprisingly it is O-lan, the silent one, who voices the realization of how life has changed. Even Wang Lung is not the same. He is no longer the timid peasant who came to the House of Hwang a year ago to claim his bride. Now he is a prosperous, self-confident farmer with enough silver stowed away to buy land belonging to the town's great family, the best land in the neighborhood.
With this act, Wang Lung will embark on a new course in life, stepping over a threshold that few peasants in any country, let alone China, can ever cross. From a poor subsistence farmer living on the edge of survival, he is about to become a comfortable landowner. His wife's thrift and diligence, added to his own, have made this possible. Without exchanging a word about it, he and O-lan are both aware that they are working together at this joint enterprise and that they are succeeding. Their contentment with each other shines through their quiet, almost wordless companionship.
You may see a further, more subtle change: O-lan has now achieved equal status, at least privately, with her husband. She still observes the forms, still walks the proper six paces behind him. But now he discusses with her the great new project of buying land. She dares to offer an opposing opinion, and Wang Lung listens and answers her as he would answer an equal.
A memorable scene in the film version of The Good Earth occurs in this chapter when Wang, walking home from Hwang's house, suddenly realizes that he is carrying his infant son and boasting of the baby's beauty where any passing evil spirit can strike at the child. He hastily hides the baby in his coat and talks of their worthless, pockmarked female child. Taking the cue, O-lan agrees.
Consider this reminder of evil spirits and the power of fortune to change things as you read the following chapters. As things change for Wang and O-lan, ask yourself whether it is really fortune (fate) or something else that destroys their happiness. Is it nature? Human nature? The times? Could Wang Lung have done anything (or not done anything) to avoid the next series of events?