Author, Book review, China, Fiction, historical fiction, Pearl S. Buck, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster

‘The Good Earth’ by Pearl S. Buck


Fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster Ltd – Washington Square Press; 368 pages; 2004.

The Good Earth is the first in an “oriental trilogy” written by American-born Pearl S. Buck. First published in 1931, it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1932 and the William Dean Howells Medal in 1935. (Buck later received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938 — “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces” — the first American woman to do so.)

The story, which spans some 50 years, is a relatively simple one about a poor peasant farmer, Wang Lung, who works hard to become a wealthy landowner.

Set in the period before the Revolution, it depicts China under the reign of its last emperor and presents a fascinating glimpse of rural life, where famine, flood and locust plagues are never far away.

The book opens on Wang Lung’s wedding day. He has never meet his betrothed, O-lan, who is a slave at the House of Wwang (a family of rich landowners), but he is excited to have finally taken a wife.

She had a square, honest face, a short, broad nose with large black nostrils, and her mouth was wide as a gash in her face. Her eyes were small and of a dull black in colour, and were filled with some sadness that was not clearly expressed. It was a face that seemed habitually silent and unspeaking, as though it could not speak if it would. She bore Wang Lung’s look, without embarrassment or response, simply waiting until he had seen her. He saw that it was true: there was not beauty of any kind in her face — a brown, common, patient face. But there were no pockmarks on her dark skin, nor was her lip split. In her ears he saw his rings hanging, the gold-washed rings he had bought, and on her hands were the rings he had given her. He turned away with secret exultation. Well, he had his woman!

He takes her to his small house that he shares with his ageing father, and together the pair till the soil and tend to the crops.  O-lan, stoic and hardworking, bears him three much-desired sons, as well as two daughters, one of whom is mentally handicapped.

Their life together is ruled very much by the seasons, and when starvation threatens in the early days of their marriage they retreat to the city in order to beg for food and try their fortune earning money by means other than farming.

But through sheer hard work, and a little bit of good fortune, Wang Lung is able to secure the future of his family by buying up little parcels of land whenever he has enough silver, and by the time he is in his 50s he is the wealthiest man in the village. This, in turn, presents him with new problems, including lazy relatives who suddenly want a piece of his new-found wealth. And how Wang Lung deals with these interesting moral dilemmas provides a good dose of narrative tension.

Stylistically, the book has the feel of a much-loved fable. The prose style is slightly old-fashioned, without being clunky, but there’s never any doubt that you are in the hands of a master storyteller.

I enormously enjoyed following the course of Wang Lung’s extraordinary life. And while Pearl S. Buck obviously has a message to push — that hard graft reaps rewards — this doesn’t detract from an epic story that is filled with emotional highs and lows, joy and fear, lust and love, life and death.

The Good Earth is highly recommended if you are looking for an absorbing tale that highlights how ambition, honour and a smidge of good luck can overcome adversity but not necessarily solve all your problems…

12 thoughts on “‘The Good Earth’ by Pearl S. Buck”

  1. Thanks for the link; it sounds like an interesting book if you wish to know more about Pearl Buck. It’s clear she’s had a very interesting life, and, to be honest, I did wonder how a white American woman could possibly write a novel about a male Chinese pheasant farmer, but she does pull it off. It’s only when you realise she spent much of her life in China and that she was bilingual, that she was writing from experience, not just her imagination.


  2. I really enjoyed this book when I read it but haven’t gone on to read any of the follow ups. I sort of like where it finishes and Wang Lung’s life is the one I was most interested in, not any of the other family members.


  3. Did you recognise this copy, Kinga? Its the one I mooched from you years ago!!
    And yes, I agree, I was interested in Wang Lungs life, but Im not sure I want to know about his sons. I can see that the next book probably explores the battle between the two sons: one who wants to protect his fathers legacy and another who wants to flaunt it!


  4. I did! I was a bit nervous when it appeared in your sidebar as I was hoping you’d like it. I agree about the next book’s plot, by the way, and I just didn’t want the soap operaness of it all. I enjoyed this one and was worried the sequels would ruin it for me.


  5. I loved this novel, Kim, and have just reviewed it – but somehow missed your recent review. I love your idea of it being like a much-loved fable, stylistically. Also, smiled at the typo that had Wang Lung down as a pheasant farmer! 😉


  6. I’ve just come across blog, very much enjoying it. How do you read so much, where on earth do you get the time from?? I had vaguely heard of Pearl S. Buck, didn’t quite know why. A couple of weeks ago I heard the writer Anchee Min interviewed on Canadian radio ( Writers and Company, on CBC, absolutely first class programme ), she was very much connected with her, indirectly, and has written a novel about it. Remarkable person, no doubt.


  7. The first time I read this book was actually in Chinese. I’m not sure whether it was translated by Pearl S. Buck herself or somebody else, but either way the style and tone of the story took me by surprise. Honestly, I didn’t like the book very much. I think the jarring sensation that I had while reading ‘The Good Earth’ would probably only make sense if one was Chinese and has been reading Chinese literature for a while.
    There’s just something very different about the way Buck writes. I’m not sure whether it’s because I simply have not read enough Chinese literature to understand its wide range of stylistic differences or if this is truly an anomaly that pertains to only Buck. Either way though the way motivations and emotions are expressed in the novel is extremely different from the usual Chinese novels that I have previously read. While reading ‘The Good Earth,’ I felt like I was reading an outside observer’s rendering of what the Chinese are like. Again, it could be just me. And again, it’s possible I’m biased because I knew that Buck is not Chinese (I know that she grew up in China but… I guess that didn’t really help much in terms of easing my anxieties.)
    Maybe I should go back and read this in English. It might put a different perspective on things.


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