The Good Earth, a classic novel that earned its author, Pearl S. Buck, the Nobel Prize in literature in 1938, was an endearing and refreshing read for me.
The novel chronicles the adult life of a Chinese peasant, Wang Lung, who, against all odds during an age of chaos and instability, ascends from destitute peasantry to the affluent landowner’s class. In the course of this drastic transformation, human nature presents its applaudable virtue and despicable vice via the lives of Wang, his family, and the souls around them. Like many other classics, such remarks on humanity shine brightly on a specific cultural canvas—the vast, primitive rural China.
As the title accentuates, the story evolves around the earth, the land, the one and only livelihood that a peasant knows to hold onto. “Out of the land we came and into we must go—and if you will hold your land you can live—no one can rob you of land.” This is Wang Lung’s philosophy, one that motivates his unstoppable hard laboring, prompts his relentless pursuit of more and better land, and brings him the prosperity he himself never dreams of. The very fiber of Wang’s character, shaped and sustained by such simple, strong belief in one’s reliance on the land and his own hard work, is then challenged by the grand temptation of an undeserved fortune. The metamorphosis of his fate and mind starts from this point. As his wealth multiplies and social status heightens, his detaches himself from his land. The trappings of wealth ensue, diluting morality, diminishing integrity, and driving his family to the verge of collapsing. The protagonist eventually regains his sensibility at an old age, urging his descendants to restore the reverence for the earth, and yet such attempt seems to end up in vain.
The Novel Prize committee commended Buck’s “deep sympathy… over racial boundaries”, and acute “study of human ideals”. Daughter of Southern Presbyterian missionaries and nurtured by the milk of this Oriental land, Buck’s vivid depiction of these flawed characters overflows with her piercing insights on human sin. And yet the story runs free of judgment and contempt, but effuses sorrow and compassion instead. Such a complex, noble motif, stemmed from her merciful, redemptive Christian world view, seems to have established a literary triumph beyond her concise, unflashy narrative style in this novel.
Having grown up in China, I myself witnessed a part of history that bears striking resemblance to this novel’s account. Many of my parents’ generation, just like Wang, underwent a drastic social economical change within a couple of decades. From their lives I see diligence, resilience, and raw, genuine affection toward each other, much alike those of the fictional Wang Lung’s. Moreover, I recognize the buzzing prosperity of modern-day China as if prophesied by Wang’s fate, where moral crises arise as olden-day virtues are overshadowed and overlooked. “And roots, if they are to bear fruits, must be kept well in the soil of the land.” In the cultural framework of Eastern philosophy, Buck seems to have granted the earth the symbolism of man’s primary purpose, a sacred attachment that points to the ultimate supernatural power, and abandonment of it evidently leads to disastrous detriment. To me, that is an edification relevant not only to the old Oriental country, but to us all. —WZ