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11. Other cultures besides the Chinese have made the care of aging parents a family obligation, but with the Chinese it was a binding rule that developed from the teachings of Confucius. A son who offended his father or an elderly relative on his father's side was severely frowned on by the community.
When Wang Lung protests to his uncle about the uncontrolled behavior of the uncle's teenage daughter in the town street, the uncle silences him and even extorts money from him by threatening to tell the whole town that Wang was disrespectful to him. Under the pressure of public opinion it is obvious that the elderly would be looked after, although not necessarily with loving care. In the case of Wang's uncle and the uncle's family, the burden is not only heavy but is close to blackmail.
You may not approve of how Wang escapes from his obligation, by supplying the uncle and his wife with opium in the hope that they will become addicted (as they do, but that is also their decision, not Wang's). Another obligation this custom lays on Wang is that he must give his old father the first share of whatever food there is during the famine, at the cost of depriving his young children as well as O-lan, who is pregnant. An ideal society might evolve some fairer way of looking after the elderly.
12. According to one of several legends, foot-binding began with a court dancer of the T'ang Dynasty (A.D. 618 to 907) who bound her feet to fit them into tiny dancing shoes. The fashion then spread to all levels of society except the poorest. What pressures would a culture put on women to make them submit to such a crippling custom?
You might consider that a court dancer, a concubine, or a prostitute-all of them totally dependent on men's favor-would accept foot-binding. But as you see in The Good Earth, the eldest son's wife, who is the daughter of a grain merchant, has bound feet, and O-lan binds her younger daughter's feet so that she may get a good husband. Granted that the girl herself may have no choice in the matter, you also saw that this child would not have her feet unbound, despite the pain, because then her husband "would not love her." A custom that began, as this one apparently did, with royalty, would spread through the population with particular persuasiveness. In China, where very little change occurred over a period of centuries, the custom endured.
For a comparison, consider the "wasp" waist of Western fashion in the nineteenth century, which damaged many women's health with its tight corseting but fortunately did not last long. Its purpose, like that of foot-binding, was to please men. Bound feet also added to a man's status, showing that his wife and daughters did not need to do any physical work. How unreasonable of Wang Lung to be disappointed in O-lan's unbound feet, when as a poor farmer's wife she had to do not only housework but farm work as well!
13. The title, The Good Earth, sums up the major theme of both the novel and Wang Lung's life. The land is first of all his livelihood and the source of his prosperity. Money earned in a good harvest, silver extorted from a rich man, O-lan's cache of jewels from a raid, all go to buy land and the seed, the farm animals, and the farm tools to work the land. In the worst of the famine Wang Lung still refuses to sell a single field. The smell of spring in the air, in the southern city where he is a refugee, stirs his longing for the land to a painful intensity.
Only once, when O-lan is dying, does he speak of selling the land if it would make her well. She does not let him, for, as she says, she must die some time but the land remains. More than its material value is the spiritual healing that Wang Lung finds in the land, similar to what others find in prayer. Working in rhythm beside O-lan, he forgets the pain of toil. Separation from the land makes him restless and discontented. When he is upset, as when he has quarreled with Lotus over her treatment of his children, a few hours of work in the fields restore his emotional balance. When he moves out of the mansion in town, back to the old farmhouse, it is in order to spend his last years close to the fields that bring him peace of mind.
14. Traditional China was a patriarchal society, that is, a society in which the family head is male and the family name and property are carried on by male heirs. Historically, women in such societies hold an inferior position. Ancient history gives examples of this: in Greece of the Golden Age many women who were not wives became courtesans. Exceptional women still created a place for themselves, for instance the poetess Sappho in Greece.
In The Good Earth the evidence of women's inferior status accumulates. A woman can be a wife, a concubine, or a prostitute. She can be divorced for not producing sons. A son's birth is celebrated but a daughter's is an evil omen. In the early years of her marriage O-lan appears to have more than a traditional role as a wife. As she advises Wang Lung, and even takes charge at crucial moments, she seems like her husband's equal. But as Wang's fortunes improve, her position declines. It would seem that a woman was allowed to share equally only in poverty and hardship. You may find it interesting to consider which of these inequalities are still true for women in modern times.
15. To Wang Lung and the other famine refugees, the southern city to which they relocate in search of relief is a rich city. It has abundant food in the markets, thriving businesses, and pleasure palaces. Underneath, however, is a layer of poorly paid workers that provide the foundation of the city's wealth. Wang Lung, pulling a riksha or hauling heavy supply wagons in the night, is only one of a large population of the working poor. The gap between rich and poor is enormous, and for the poor there seems to be no hope of escape.
Wang's fellow worker, with his statement that "there is a way," seems to be saying that when the gap between rich and poor gets too wide there is bound to be an explosion. Signs of developing unrest do appear, such as street orators and leaflets urging revolution. And indeed there is an explosion-the mob raid that plunders the rich man's house and lifts Wang and his family from destitution to prosperity in a single stroke. You might note that the rich have also seen these signs and have carted their possessions to ships in the river for a hurried escape.