The Good Earth is a prestigious novel which laureated Pearl Buck a Nobel Prize for Literature, “for her epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces”. It depicts peasant Wang Lung’s life journey from poverty to wealth, reflecting the social background of China before the Word War I. To a large extent this book was recognized as an introduction of China to the US, seeing that it had a great influence on the general mentality of American people and chose a character who rose to prosperity from nothing, which was innovative in the literature sphere at that time.Many critics would say this novel helped prepare America in the 1930s to consider China as allies in the coming war with Japan and it went beyond the relation between the land and the people, but there is no denial that the traditional or even feudal Chinese culture is so deeply embodied in this book. From this book written in a foreigner’s perspective we can take a glimpse of the traditional family relation in China which involves filial duty, conjugal relations, relations between relatives by marriage and so forth.
This story was supposed to be set in China before the war with Japan, a society where nearly all the feudal cultural norms, e.g. polygamous marriage, three obedience and four virtues for women and foot binding, kept intact but doomed to be devastated. These discriminatory practices are all depicted in the Good Earth. It was not decent for a noble man to marry a girl with her feet unbound and a wealthy man could have concubines at their will. Also we can judge from the diction like “slave” and “harlot” that sexual discrimination at that time was still prevailing. All of these factors put women at that time in an inferior position in a family. In this male-dominant society, females were considered machines for reproduction, whose value was to serve the men and give birth to a boy or goods to sell when impoverished.
This point is well indicated in this book. For nearly all his life, Wang Lung despised, or at least not satisfied with O-Lan’s big feet, though she bore him sons and kept all the miscellaneous things in order.
“ He saw with a instant’s disappointment that her feet were not bounded.”
O-Lan was constantly called the good slave. In their marriage, Wang Lung decides and O-Lan obeys, for she has nothing to do with things outside their house. Even when Wang Lung had his concubine Lotus, she just sulked silently, still working industriously for Wang Lung but never for Lotus.
Here, O-Lan stands for the common figure of Chinese rural women, who are obedient, industrious and faithful to their husband. O-Lan knew exactly what kind of fate a woman must face, for she herself was sold in to the Great House as a slave. By the end of her life, she was still frugal notwithstanding Wang Lung’s great property.
“ Only she pushed more grass and straw into the bowels of the oven, spreading it as carefully and as thriftly as ever she had in the old days when one leaf was precious enough because of the fire it would make under food.”
And Lotus, a girl sold into the tea house, pursued cozy life and extravagance incessantly but never worked. Compared with O-Lan’s industriousness, she was more like a toy for Wang Lung. On one hand, her entrance reveals the decay of Wang Lung’s self-awareness and modesty. On the other hand, she represents men’s suppressed want for women, an ideal image with her feet bound, figure slim. Their erotic fantasy was just an escapism from the firm conjugal bond. But in most poor countrymen’s point of view, this conduct was still inappropriate, for Wang Lung’s father still branded Lotus as a “harlot”.
These two characters represented well enough lower-class women’s position at that time -- to be slaves still, or to be sold as prostitutes. And as such, two different conjugal relations derive from here. O-Lan and Lotus’s contradiction can be seen as a contradiction between two conjugal relations or one between a wife and a concubine, or to speak further, a contradiction between frugal life and a fantastic prosperous life. The conjugal relation varies with one’s status and wealth. Even when a woman were in the position as Lotus who was far from a slave, she still could not get away from the discrepancies between genders. If a woman were not used in a family, she’d be consumed by men however.
We can perceive this contradiction when we read O-Lan’s last words.
“ Well, and if I am ugly, still I have born a son; although I am but a slave there is a son in my house. How can that one feed him and care for him as I do? Beauty will not bear a man sons.”
To the last moment of her life, she was well aware of her identity as a woman whose responsibility was to bear a man sons. And also, she did not show any hatred for Wang Lung, for a wife could never go against her man and also she had turned her dissatisfaction into the envy for Lotus which finally resulted in her decease.
The only exception in this book is the Old Mistress of Hwang who was depicted as a widow in a falling wealthy family. Her high position in the family was much supported by her age rather than gender. If a girl from a poor family was to be sold as a slave or prostitute, one from a great family was to be wed and serve and bear baby for one exclusive man. There seems to be no essential distinction in their tragic fate.
It is a common sense that Chinese culture or even the southern east Asian cultural sphere was greatly shaped under the influence of Confusion’s culture. In Ru’s doctrines, one should be well contented in family relations for he shall be filled with love of parents, siblings, friend, spouse and the monarch. Individual feelings were somehow omitted or bound with social relations. As Granting Titles to God(《封神榜》)illustrated, the hero Ne Zha striped away his flesh to return it to his mother and bones to his father. Afterwards, he bestowed his soul in a lotus and became immortal. It indicates that, in the context of traditional Chinese culture, one must get rid of the constraints of earthbound duties if he is to be a protagonist.
So it is in the good earth.
“ As for the old man, he fared better than any, for if there was anything to eat he was given it, even though the children were without.”
“’Now that,’he cried,’for speaking so to your father’s generation! Have you no religion, no morals, that you are so lacking in filial conduct? Have you not herd it said that in the Sacred Edict it is commanded that a man is never to correct and elder?’”
The feudal filial conduct had so corrupted people’s mind that they believed morbidly never to correct an elder was the so-called filial conduct. One could never compromise on the hierarchy of generation in no matter what cases. What really mattered was not the filial conduct of an individual, but the mentality of people who would criticize the juniors for their misconduct.
It also resulted from the morphology of Xiao Nong society where people were inseparable from land. This labor pattern reinforced the stability of abode and immobility of social classes. As Fei Xiaotong described in his work,
“The people they see everyday are the ones they have known since childhood, just as they know the people in their own families. They do not have to select the kind of society they live in; they are born into it; choice is not a factor.”
If Wang Lung were willing to go against his uncle, he could absolutely vent his anger on him and move on to another place regardless of other people’s chit-chat. But confined to the bond to earth, he was forced to carry his reasonable filial duties as well as unreasonable ones.