Book Summary: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

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A best-seller when it was first published, the novel has remained popular through the years, because it tells a simple and moving story that has a great emotional impact on readers, through language that is clear, elegant, and beautiful.

Wang Lung’s efforts to achieve security and happiness for his family become an overwhelming concern with wealth and power, which most readers can understand and even share. This desire for riches ultimately leads to that family’s decadence and unhappiness: embittered and neglected, Wang Lung’s original helpmate, O-lan, dies at a relatively early age; his sons scorn their father and will certainly go their separate, shiftless ways after his death. 

While the novel is set in China, it presents events and experiences that could happen in other times and places; its story is the universal account of the different stages in human life (youth, maturity, old age) and people’s encounters with hardship and temptation. 

The main character, Wang Lung, is neither remarkably good and wise nor especially stupid or evil; his story thus appeals to the reader, who can recognize his or her own concerns and life situations in the novel.

You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book summary will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.

Without further ado, let’s get started. 

Plot Summary

A Chinese peasant survives periods of hardship and becomes a wealthy and powerful landowner.

Chapters 1–9 

In the novel’s opening scenes, Wang Lung goes from the small farm where he lives with his father to the great house of old lord Hwang. There, he claims his bride, O-lan, a slave to the wealthy family. 

As they return home, the couple stop at the small temple to the earth, located at the edge of Wang Lung’s property, to celebrate their union. Thus begins their life together.

The next few years are prosperous. The couple work hard in the fields, and O-lan gives birth to their first son and heir. The crops are good; the family live an economical but fulfilling life. After a time, O-lan takes her healthy toddler to the great house of Hwang to show him off to her former masters. 

She notes that the Hwangs are experiencing hard times, and tells this to her husband. Wang Lung purchases some of the land that the Hwangs are selling off. To own this land gives him special satisfaction because it belonged to the family of which O-lan was formerly a slave.

For a while, prosperity continues and O-lan has another son. However, these good times do not last. Wang Lung’s uncle, a shiftless fellow, asks for money, and family bonds require the unwilling Wang Lung to give it to him. 

Then, O-lan has a daughter. For Wang Lung, the birth of a “slave” (as women were called in China at that time) seems an evil omen. Soon afterward, a long drought begins. In its first months, despite the signs of coming hardship, Wang Lung buys more Hwang property. 

Yet the possession of land does not help when, like their neighbors, the family begin to go hungry. One day, as he passes by the temple of the earth, Wang Lung looks at it with scorn: the gods are useless. 

As the famine continues, Wang Lung’s uncle spreads a rumor that Wang Lung has a hidden supply of food, which prompts the villagers to break into Wang Lung’s house and take the few handfuls of beans and corn he has. This is the moment in the novel when Ching, a poor but honest man who only participates in the raid to feed his child, appears.

Realizing their desperate circumstances, Wang Lung decides the family must go south to the city, and they resolve to leave as soon as O-lan (who is pregnant again) has given birth. One night, she remains alone to have her child. When Wang Lung asks what has happened, O-lan tells him it was a girl, and that it was born dead. There are signs, however, that she has killed the unwanted baby.

While O-lan is still weak from the birth, the family set out from Wang Lung’s cherished farm in search of food and work.

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Chapters 10–14 

The family ride a “firewagon” (i.e., train) to Kiangsu city. Once there, they set up a flimsy hut against the walls of a rich man’s house. Their life is hard: although Wang Lung works long hours pulling a ricksha, with O-lan and the sons begging in the streets, they barely manage to survive. 

In the city, Wang Lung learns new truths about Chinese society. One day he has a female, foreign passenger. A “country bumpkin,” he has always considered himself an outsider in the city; on this occasion, however, he sees himself through the eyes of a true foreigner, and recognizes his kinship with all his countrymen. 

From other embittered city dwellers, Wang Lung also learns about economic injustice; he hears that the “rich who are too rich” are the cause of his hunger, although he does not yet fully understand these ideas.

Several months of this harsh existence pass. Then, rumors of war begin to circulate in the city and news of an advancing enemy causes unrest. The rich are seen to flee: there are signs of a crisis to come. 

Finally, there is a tremendous uproar: The enemy has broken down the city gates. The neighbors—with O-lan among them—invade the wealthy house against whose walls their poor huts are built, to steal whatever they can. Wang Lung follows, but cannot bring himself to take anything. 

Yet, in the house he encounters a fat rich man who has been left behind. To avoid having Wang Lung kill him, the man gives Wang Lung a great deal of silver. With this money, Wang Lung takes his family back to their land.

Chapters 15–26 

Using the money to buy seed and tools, Wang Lung returns to work on his farm. To gain good fortune, he again burns incense in the temple of the earth. O-lan reestablishes their household. 

A surprising event further increases their prosperity. One night, Wang Lung discovers that O-lan has a secret hoard of jewels that she stole from the house in the city. He takes them from her, leaving her only two pearls to keep. 

With this new treasure, he goes to the Hwang house, which is in a state of abandonment: only the old lord and a slave and a former concubine, Cuckoo, remain. Wang Lung exchanges the jewels for several large plots of land. Now he begins to work even harder, and hires the devoted Ching to help him.

About this time, Wang Lung realizes his first daughter is retarded; perhaps the past hardships were too much for her. But the present is prosperous: O-lan gives birth to healthy twins, a boy and a girl, and they have seven years of good fortune. Wang Lung is now a wealthy man. He has begun to rise in social status; for example, ashamed of his own illiteracy, he sends his first two sons to school.

Then comes a bad season: Wang Lung’s land cannot be planted. For the first time he has nothing to do. Bored and dissatisfied, he begins to criticize O-lan for her unattractiveness. He spends more time in the town, and frequents a tea house in which Cuckoo is now a servant. 

There, Wang Lung is increasingly attracted to a prostitute, Lotus. He grows distant from his family, and thinks only of Lotus.

He begins to buy jewels for her; he even gives her O-lan’s treasured pearls. Other events disturb the family’s life, too. Wang Lung’s uncle, together with his wife and son, suddenly reappear, and move into Wang Lung’s home. 

The uncle’s unpleasant but shrewd wife helps Wang Lung arrange for Lotus to come to live in his household. Cuckoo accompanies Lotus as her maid. While she is secretly bitter, O-lan does not complain out loud. 

Wang Lung’s home life becomes increasingly complex. He finds his oldest son has grown up, and concludes the arrangements for a future marriage to the daughter of a rich man from the town. Since his uncle has grown quite troublesome, Wang Lung attempts to drive him out. 

Wang Lung discovers, however, that he is a member of a powerful group of robbers; the uncle uses this association to get whatever he wants from Wang Lung. Time passes and these difficult situations continue.

Wang Lung discovers his oldest son (who has put on airs of being a “scholar,” but is in truth quite shallow) has been spending time with Lotus, and sends him away to the south. He apprentices the second son to a merchant, and arranges a promise to marry his second daughter to the merchant’s son. 

In the meantime, although she has not called attention to her poor health, O-lan has grown quite ill. When Wang Lung perceives her increasing weakness, he realizes he has neglected her. Ever more sick, she is finally bedridden.

As she lies dying, she expresses one final wish: to see her oldest son married. Wang Lung calls the son back, and arranges for the wedding. Soon after the elaborate ceremony, O-lan dies. Wang Lung’s aged father also passes away several weeks later.

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Chapters 27–34 

While his wealth does not diminish, Wang Lung encounters many family problems. The uncle and his wife are burdensome; in addition, their son seems to lust after the second daughter. Forced to scheme in order to maintain peace in the household, Wang Lung sends the daughter away to the household of her future husband. 

Then (with Cuckoo’s aid), he arranges for the couple to become addicted to opium; drugged, they are no longer a problem. The son eventually goes off to become a soldier. There are further problems. The family’s financial prosperity brings about changes in their home life—but are all the changes positive? 

The oldest son, concerned about social prestige, suggests the family should go live in the town. Wang Lung is at first reluctant, but on hearing that the Hwang house is for rent, he moves his family into it. 

Slowly, he becomes accustomed to the more luxurious town life. One episode reveals especially well the changes in Wang Lung’s life: When his daughter-in-law is about to give birth, he goes to a temple in town and promises a gift if the child is a boy. 

A healthy grandson is born. Wang Lung worries he has betrayed the gods of the land; indeed, the death of Ching, a short time later, seems to be a sign of this disloyalty. Another seemingly small event illustrates the family’s shift away from the land: The youngest son comes to Wang Lung asking to learn to read.

Although he had intended that this son, at least, carry on the family tradition of farming, the father reluctantly consents. As Wang Lung grows increasingly old and weak, one disturbing episode sets off a series of small but important developments. There is war in the country and one day a group of soldiers enter town. 

Among them is the uncle’s son, who camps out with his comrades in Wang Lung’s new house. Rather than have him pursue the household women, the family decide to give him a woman. He asks for Lotus’s young maid, Pear Blossom. 

The girl protests; her pleas move Wang Lung, and he gives the son another woman. Eventually, the soldiers leave. Wang Lung retains a lingering fondness for Pear Blossom, as does his youngest son. There has been tension between father and son; the boy is restless, and talks of going to join the fight for China’s freedom. 

Then, Pear Blossom becomes Wang Lung’s mistress. When he discovers their relationship, the youngest son flees the household. While he sends no news, the family later hear that he has become an officer in “a thing they call the revolution.” 

In the last chapters, we see the bitter years of Wang Lung’s old age. He recognizes that neither of his two older sons is wise and that neither cares for the land. Indeed, there are signs that they will sell off the holdings their father has worked so hard to build up. In his last days, Wang Lung returns to the old house on the farm and spends his time thinking about the past.

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Wang Lung – a Chinese peasant, at first extremely poor but becomes increasingly wealthy through diligent labor and some luck. As the novel opens, he is a simple, generally honest man who displays some signs of moral weakness, but is never bad or evil. At times indecisive, until an incident or event stirs him to action (e.g., he hesitates to leave drought-stricken country for the city until villagers raid his house). Devoted to the earth; as the novel progresses, this healthy concern for his and his family’s stability becomes a drive merely to possess more and more land. Hardworking and cautious, he can also be crafty: he never neglects his aged father, but schemes to addict his aunt and uncle to opium so that they will no longer interfere in his life.

Occasionally insensitive, especially in his feelings towards O-lan, he does not perceive her bitterness about his relationship with Lotus, or the physical illness that gradually overcomes her. As Wang Lung grows rich, he shows more signs of weakness of character: he gives in to his sons’ demands that the family make an elaborate show of their wealth and power and takes a young concubine. In old age, he finally becomes powerless and foolish.

O-Lan – Wang Lung’s wife. Originally a slave in the Hwang household. Stocky and coarse featured, not physically attractive. Wang Lung does not value her for her beauty, but for her devotion, strength, and capacity to work hard. She is more practical and decisive than her husband and does what needs to be done. When the enemy invades the city, she does not hesitate to join the mob that loots the rich man’s house. Generally silent, but capable—on occasion—of giving surprisingly sound advice. When Wang Lung is alarmed about unrest in the city, O-lan suggests that he wait patiently for rumors of invasion to come true. She does not display feelings, even of emotional or physical pain; gives birth to her children alone, without assistance, and suffers Wang Lung’s neglect in silence.

As Wang Lung grows wealthy, a distance appears and increases between husband and wife: while he encounters rich merchants in town and goes to luxurious tea houses, O-lan, like a servant, continues to do most of the work of the household. Displaced in her own home by a concubine; O-lan’s last years are bitter; her dying wish to see her oldest son’s marriage represents her final attempt to reassert her rightful position as wife and mother.

Wang Lung’s children – three sons and two daughters, nameless except for the designation of their place in the family—”oldest son,” “second son,” etc. The mentally retarded oldest daughter is affectionately called “poor fool.” The sons do not share their father’s love for the land and do not have much respect for him. The oldest son is concerned only with social status, the second son is interested only in money. However, the youngest son, although stubborn and rebellious, offers some hope: he leaves home to participate in making China a free and more just country.

Lotus – Wang Lung’s mistress. She begins as a prostitute in a tea house but later goes to live in Wang Lung’s household. She is shrewd, selfish, and manipulative. When Wang Lung first encounters her, Lotus is delicate, beautiful, and seductive; but as time goes on, and she grows more sure of her hold over him, she becomes ill-tempered and demanding. In old age, she grows fat and lazy. After O-lan’s death, Lotus is the main female presence in the household, suggesting increasing moral decadence in Wang Lung’s family.

Cuckoo – first a slave to the Hwang family, then a servant in the tea house where Wang Lung encounters Lotus, and finally Lotus’s maid and thus Wang Lung’s servant. She is scheming and greedy and serves as a symbolic parallel between the House of Hwang and Wang Lung’s family, underscoring corruption in both.

Wang Lung’s uncle – he is irresponsible and lazy, jealous of Wang Lung’s success.

Wang Lung’s father (grandfather) – he is weak and aged and represents China’s past. He has little understanding of present reality.

Themes and Ideas

1. Wealth and Moral Decay

As Wang Lung becomes successful, he loses sight of basic human values. Possession of land becomes more important to him than his family or honesty. He turns away from the hardworking and loyal O-lan to the manipulative prostitute Lotus and takes little interest in his sons. Wealth and power become important in themselves.

The novel suggests a parallel between Wang Lung’s family and the wealthy, decadent Hwang family. Wang Lung buys the land they sell and eventually comes to live in their Great House. He, too, becomes one of “the rich who are too rich”. Villagers talk of the “Great family Wang”.

Like the sons of the Hwang family, Wang Lung’s oldest sons, who grow up in luxury, have no initiative or sense of responsibility. It is suggested at the end of the novel that they will sell off the land that their father worked so hard to acquire, just as the Hwang family sold its land to Wang Lung.

2. Loss of Traditional Values

The Good Earth shows a society in which the values of hard work and one’s obligation to family are no longer respected by all. Many characters, including Wang Lung’s sons and uncle, the sons of the Hwang family, and even Wang Lung himself, are interested only in personal gain. Wang Lung himself is increasingly attracted to luxury and abandons his former simple lifestyle, just as he turns away from his wife.

Also, society is changing: farming and the land are no longer as important as the commercial activities of town and city. Wang Lung leaves the old house on the land to live in town, and none of his sons will continue the family tradition of farming. The novel suggests that this new social order is less humane and stable. Wang Lung’s sons do not respect him as he respected his own father.

3. Time

The novel portrays events over several generations, with an emphasis on the ceaseless activity of time. The movement of time is shown at several levels. Descriptions of the harvest and the planting of seeds indicate the passing of the seasons. Characters grow up and grow old. We see Wang Lung himself go from youth to old age, and witness the birth of his sons and then his grandsons. Families come into power and fall into decline.

The Hwang family loses its wealth and influence, and Wang Lung’s family gains in importance. There is also the suggestion of an unending, cyclical movement of youth and age, birth and death. As the novel begins, Wang Lung is the strong young man who cares for his aged father, but at the end, he himself is the aged father of sons in the prime of their lives.

4. Roles of Women

Through the figures of O-lan and Lotus, the novel explores the place of women in society. It is an implicit comment on women’s low status and on the limitations society imposes on them.

O-lan works and suffers with Wang Lung but is neglected and treated like a servant. Lotus uses her beauty and shrewdness to gain financial security. The female children are called “slaves”. They are considered valueless because they will not carry on the family name and are seen as a financial burden because of the required dowry (sum of money paid by a bride’s family to a groom’s family at the time of marriage).

Just before departing for the city, O-lan gives birth to a female child, which she tells Wang Lung died at birth. The description of the episode suggests that she kills it to dispose of another burdensome “slave”. The novel depicts the custom of binding women’s feet to restrain their growth, to keep them artificially small and thus delicate but useless for normal walking. Buck portrays women as “slaves” or objects who have little control over their own lives.

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1. The Land

A symbol of security and solid, healthy human values. However, the meaning of land shifts: at first, land represents permanence for Wang Lung. Later, as he becomes concerned only with wealth, it becomes a mere possession and a symbol of power, not a means for supporting one’s family.

2. Money (Silver Coins)

A symbol of corruption, silver coins are a form of wealth that changes hands easily and is not connected to the values of work and stability. At the outset, Wang Lung is careful of the few coins he has; later, as a rich man, he often spends it wastefully. Too much money has weakened his better judgment.

3. Temple of the Earth

Represents traditional Chinese values. Wang Lung’s respect for the simple clay figures of the gods of this temple reflects his concern for hard work and the land. Later, he goes to the more showy temple in town—a practice that shows the loss of his old values.

4. Great House of Hwang

Symbolizes the decadence of “the rich who are too rich”. The mansion is a place of wealth whose inhabitants exploit or ignore the poor. Wang Lung’s desire to possess the house reveals his moral decline. Through Wang Lung’s occupancy of this property, the novel establishes a parallel between his situation and that of the Hwang family: like the house’s old lord, Wang Lung takes a very young concubine when he is an old man; like its old mistress, his aunt is addicted to opium.


1. Detailed and immersive writing

Buck’s writing style is immersive and detailed, making the reader feel like they are experiencing the story’s events alongside the characters. The author’s descriptions of Chinese customs and traditions, as well as her portrayal of the clash between Western and Eastern cultures, are particularly fascinating.

2. Well-developed characters

The characters in The Good Earth are well-developed, with both likable and distasteful qualities. Through the characters, Buck illustrates the different perceptions of life in China during the late 1800s. The story’s events may be somber, but the characters view them as small triumphs or achievements.

3. Insight into Chinese culture and history

As a sinologist, I appreciated how Buck provided insight into Chinese culture and history through the story’s themes. The Good Earth highlights various aspects of Chinese society, including family, education, religion, landholding, and politics. The trilogy offers a comprehensive look at the lives of Chinese people during a period of great change.


1. Lack of Female Representation

The trilogy’s male-dominated perspective may make it difficult for some readers to fully engage with the story. Throughout the three books, there is no female character of interest or depth. While this may reflect the time and culture in which the story is set, it can be frustrating for modern readers looking for a more inclusive representation of women.

2. Repetitive and Overlong

The writing in The Good Earth Trilogy can be repetitive and overlong, making the story feel slow and dragging in places. By the third book, some readers may find themselves losing interest in the story and its characters.

3. Non-Consequential Ending

The ending of the trilogy may be disappointing for some readers, as it feels anticlimactic and non-consequential. After investing time and energy into the story and characters, the lack of a satisfying resolution can leave readers feeling unfulfilled.

The Good Earth Review: Final Verdict

Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth Trilogy is a captivating tale of three generations of a Chinese family, set in the early 20th century. The trilogy consists of The Good Earth, Sons, and A House Divided.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about Chinese culture and history. The characters are engaging, the writing is immersive, and the themes are thought-provoking. Buck’s depiction of Chinese society during a time of change provides readers with a deeper understanding of the country’s history and culture.

About The Author

Collins has also taught at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, BusinessWeek and Harvard Business Review. He is an author, lecturer and consultant. One of his previous books, Built to Last, was a best seller.

The Good Earth was inspired by an acquaintance who pointed out that his previous book examined only how great companies stay great, not how they can become great in the first place.

Buy The Book: The Good Earth

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