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The land is again flooded in another natural catastrophe. Wang's houses on the hill stand above as if on an island and the village can be reached only by boat. Farmers once again take their families south as refugees from the famine. Wang has enough food, so the uncle's wife and son goad the uncle into demanding meat but Wang has none. Wang's eldest son protests. When Wang tells him about the uncle's membership in the Redbeards, his son suggests that it would be easy to push the uncle and his family into the flood waters. Wang can't commit murder, and besides there would still be the threat of the rest of the bandits. Then the son suggests opium to make harmless addicts of these troublesome relatives.
When the uncle's son lays hands on Wang's younger daughter, Wang realizes he must do something. He persuades Liu to take his future daughter-in-law in. He also buys the opium.
NOTE: OPIUM TRADE
Although Europeans did not originally introduce opium into China, the opium trade of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was largely the preserve of the British East India Company, which had a monopoly on the production of Indian opium. The United States picked up and sold the Turkish variety, considered vastly inferior. Although numerous edicts of the Chinese emperors forbidding the opium trade were ignored by both Western and Chinese traders, in 1839 Chinese officials demanded that the traders give up their stores of opium or be refused permission to trade altogether. Giving up the opium for the moment, the British later returned in full naval force in what became known as the First Opium War. The treaty that ended this skirmish in 1842 forced the Chinese to make concessions to foreign trade and open up more areas of China to trade. This enlargement of trading concessions to foreign powers continued and became one of the chief issues in the Boxer movement, whose aim was to throw all foreigners out of China.
Wang casually offers to smoke opium with his uncle but only pretends to smoke. He is careful to keep it away from his own family and from Lotus.
The flood waters recede, and the refugees return and borrow money at high interest rates to rebuild their houses and resume farming. Wang Lung shrewdly insists on the land as security for his loans. He buys land from those who must sell, and his holdings increase. Some sell their daughters, and Wang Lung buys five such slaves in one day. Then comes a man offering a small, thin girl of seven, to whom Lotus takes a fancy. Partly to please Lotus and partly to see the child better fed, he buys this one as well.
The eldest son complains about his cousin who lounges about the house carelessly dressed, peering at the eldest son's young wife as well as the new slaves. He wants his father to move off the farm to the old great house of the Hwangs, leaving behind the parasitical relatives.
At first Wang Lung resists. This old house is his, and the land around it kept them alive through hard times. But then the notion of taking over the mansion of the Hwangs, of whom he was once deathly afraid, appeals to him.
The second son specifies the kind of wife he wants: not a city-bred woman like his brother's wife, who will spend too much money, but a village girl, neither plain nor pretty, a good cook and a thrifty housewife. Wang is amazed at this practical son whom he scarcely knows.
Wang finds half the Hwang mansion rented to poor folk, littered and dirty. Guarding the inner courtyards is an old hag, the pock-marked wife of the former gateman. Wang sits on the raised platform where the Old Mistress sat when she handed over O-lan to him. In a burst of vengeful satisfaction he rents the mansion.
The characters of Wang Lung's two older sons become clear in this chapter, and you may begin to see the personality of the rather silent third son as well. The eldest son resembles his mother physically, with the tall, strongly built frame and ruddy complexion of a northerner, but he dresses and conducts himself with the refined tastes of an aristocrat and scholar, not a humble farmer's son. The second son is shrewd and stingy, with a businessman's concern for money and good management and a practical taste in his choice of a wife. Wang Lung still hopes the third son will love the land, but he merely follows his father across the fields, inattentive and silent.
Which of these boys, if any, do you think will bring happiness to Wang Lung? Although Wang, like most parents, has hopes for his sons, he sees that they have their own ideas. Can you see any reason why they don't want to become farmers? Besides the practical reasons, what kind of an example has Wang shown them?