Gaia Challenge 2022: The Good Earth

Image by Sasin Tipchai – Pixabay

Out of the land we came and into it we must go.

Pearl S Buck – The Good Earth (1931)

The Good Earth, written by Pearl S Buck and first published in 1931, is a surprising candidate for the Gaia Challenge. Set in China, the book traces the life of peasant farmer Wang Lung from his marriage to O-lan, working his land, raising children, enduring famine and poverty, wealth and family conflict, to his death. While the timeframe is not specifically noted, there are hints in the text that place it from around the end of the nineteenth into the early twentieth centuries. Throughout the book Buck draws attention to the treatment of women and the disparity between the rich and the poor, but she also explores humanity’s connection and dependence on the land. 

The blurb on the back of the back says…

When O-lan, a servant girl, marries the peasant Wang Lung, she toils tirelessly through four pregnancies for their family’s survival. Reward is meagre, but there is the sustenance in the land – until the famine comes. Half-starved, the family joins thousands to beg on the city streets. All seems lost, until O-lan’s desperate will to survive returns them home with undreamt-of wealth. But they have betrayed the earth from which true wealth springs, and the family’s money breeds only mistrust, deception – and heartbreak for the woman who had saved them.

O-lan has a hard life. Before her marriage, she was a slave for a rich family who lived in “The Big House.” While marriage does offer an escape of sorts, it is no fairy tale romance. She is bought by Wang’s father to be his son’s wife and the view of both father and son is that women are born to serve men. Despite working all day in the fields, completing all the housework and producing three sons, for the most part Wang treats her with contempt. He does not even bother to use her name, always referring to her as “this woman of his.” O-lan also gives birth to a couple of daughters, but since female children were only considered slaves, O-lan says they weren’t worth mentioning. After all, “daughters …do not belong to their parents, but are born and reared for other families.” 

After many years of hard work and poor treatment, O-lan falls seriously ill which puts her family in quite a state. Since O-lan had always done most of the work, no one knew what to do. Wang did at least call for the doctor, who basically just felt her pulse and made this astonishing diagnosis. 

“The spleen is enlarged and the liver diseased. There is a rock as large as a man’s head in the womb; the stomach is disintegrated. The heart barely moves and doubtless there are worms in it.”

All that from just feeling her pulse.

There is a stark contrast between the lives of poor peasants like Wang and the rich who live in the “Big House.” For those living in poverty it might seem that the rich have it made: no need to dirty their hands with work, servants to wait on them hand and foot, and the wealth to indulge all their desires. However, over time the rich in the “Big House” slowly fall into ruin, and Wang comes to realise that it is their disconnection with the land that is the cause. A life of frivolous luxury has left the Mistress an opium addict and the Master attempts to sate his emptiness with a long series of concubines. When famine strikes, things go from bad to worse for the poor peasants. Fathers sell their daughters. People resort to eating bark, grass and even the barren dirt itself. In droves they set off for the city, to scrounge a living on the streets, pulling rickshaws and begging.

Wang’s eyes are opened to life in the city, especially the difference between farming in the rural back blocks and farming on the outskirts of the city. Back home Wang produced a “slow and leisurely harvest” but here, in the city,  “ men urged their land with perpetual stinking fertiliser of human wastes to force the land to a hurried bearing.” No doubt it is the pressures of feeding a growing population that drives people to flog a land to death instead of working with the cycles of nature and allowing the land to recuperate, but given the book was published in the early 1930s, it is an interesting and insightful observation about agricultural progress.

They always say, you can take the boy out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of the boy. Wang realises that “he belonged to the land and he could not live with any fulness until he felt the land under his feet and followed a plow in the springtime and bore a scythe in his hand at harvest.” The land, though, is more than just a resource for food production. It “formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods.” It is the source for food, shelter and faith.

Over the years, Wang has a change in fortune and as he grows in prosperity, he buys up the land, piece by piece, until he has become the “Rich Man” living in the “Big House.” But as he moves up in the world, employing labourers to work his land and accumulating all the trappings of wealth, he fails to learn the lesson of the former owners of the “Big House.” He loses the direct connection with his land as the source of life. Sadly for Wang, his sons just see the land as a way to make a quick buck.

The Good Earth is an interesting reflection on our relationship with the land and an example of how we can find stories that speak to the environmental concerns of today in the most surprising places. When I chose the book of my shelf, I never expected to find a theme that resonates with our current need to change the way we view our earth. Now that climate change is finally getting the world wide attention it needs, we may be tempted to think it is just a concern of the twenty-first century. However, there have always been those who have been concerned about the damage we were doing to our earth – scientists, wild life activists, organic farmers, Indigenous people…even writers from decades ago.

Pearl S Buck was born in Virginia but she spent time growing up in China with her missionary parents. After graduating from school in 1914, she returned to China where she lived for quite some time. The Good Earth was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and was the first book of a trilogy called House of Earth. In 1938 Buck won the Nobel Prize for Literature – the first American woman to do so.

The Gaia Reading Challenge is hosted by Sharon from Gum Trees and Galaxies and anyone is welcome to join in.

11 thoughts on “Gaia Challenge 2022: The Good Earth

    • It would be an interesting one to watch. In some circles the book is viewed as a bit controversial now. All to do with a white woman writing from a Chinese point of view, and for anything written currently that would be a fair point. So would be interesting to see how 1930s Hollywood depicted the story. I still think we can gain a lot of value from older texts with the understanding that all books are a product of their time. I certainly enjoyed reading it.

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  1. Gosh! Somewhere in my bookshelves I have my childhood copy of this book which I remember as a powerful and classic story but would never have recalled in the depth you display to us here.

    On a trip to China about fifteen years ago, I carried with me my (also) childhood copy of Imperial Woman: The Story of the Last Empress of China by Pearl S Buck (I’m not sure that is the exact title of my version). What a fantastic read as I stepped in the footsteps of Tzu Hsi – especially when I visited the Forbidden City. I felt as if she was peering out at me behind the screens!

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    • You know what they say: so many books, so little time! I quite enjoyed the book. It’s always interesting to read older books, (this one is approaching 100!), and also to see the controversy they court in our modern times. I think you always need to place a text within its cultural and historical context, and appreciate it for the themes and ideas that are still relevant to us today. It was a surprising one for Gaia – just goes to show there can be more in a book than what the blurb says.

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  2. Pingback: Gaia/Nature challenge update And Platypus Matters – Gum trees and Galaxies

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