The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck: The Glory of Land

Cover of The Good Earth by Pearl Buck

I read The Good Earth based on the recommendation of work colleagues from South Korea. I’d asked them to suggest authors and novels from their country so was surprised when they chose this book because it’s set in China rather than Korea and the author Pearl Buck was an American.  

But they were such strong advocates for this book that I decided to push my reservations to one side. It was a fortunate decision because right from chapter one I was hooked by this novel.

Pearl S Buck spent much of her early life in China as the daughter of missionaries and her familiarity with the country’s rural life and traditions are evident in The Good Earth.

It’s a tale about about the rising/falling fortunes of two families: the peasant farmer Wang Lung and his wife O-lan and the rich, wealthy House of Hwang which headed by The Old Lord and the Old Mistress.

The book opens on Wang Lung’s wedding day and then charts their progress through successive years during which time their family grows, they enjoy plentiful harvests and manage to become landowners only to see it all disappear -and then astonishingly they get it back many times over.  

Meanwhile the rich Hwangs, for whom O-lan once worked as a house servant, go through a reverse experience because of the Old Lord’s penchant for multiple concubines and his wife’s addiction to opium. Their fortunes dwindle to the point they can no longer remain in their large house with its lavish furnishings. Wang Lung seizes the opportunity to make his mark on local society and becomes the new owner.

It’s a story that has so many twists and turns it feels like a soap opera at times. What sustained my interest was Pearl Buck’s portrait of Wang Lung and his deeply rooted belief in the beneficial power of the earth.

He took his life from this earth; drop by drop by his sweat he wrung food from it and from the food, silver.

He enjoys the wealth his toil brings not simply because it brings peace of mind because he can now feed and sustain his family but as time goes on it brings him a new status in his community: “… everyone knew now that Wang Lung owned this land and in his village there was talk of making him the head.”

But of course such pride makes his fall even more acutely felt. When the harvests fail, when every grain of rice and wheat has been eaten and the ox killed for food and when he has used every coin he possesses, there is no other path open than to go south. Either he has to see his family die or he has to give up the land and find work and food in a more wealthy province.  

They head to the city to find a new life.  There they are reduced to living in a makeshift hut while Wang Lung pulls a rickshaw, earning barely enough to buy rice for the next day. He gets a break and obtains enough money to take his family back to their native land where he begins to rebuild his life, so successfully he becomes one of the wealthiest men in the locality.

At times Wang Lung seems to feel the earth has mystical powers. Early on in his married life in fact he erects two crude figures on his plot of land to which he regularly pays homage. Throughout the novel, the land is the “good earth”; providing Wang Lung, with physical, emotional and spiritual nourishment.

He is at his happiest when he works in the fields, knowing he is following in the footsteps of many generations of his family. Whenever he is troubled, physical labor on the land restores him. Whenever he is away from it, he feels out of his element. Even when he is wealthy old man who is too weak to get behind the plough, the pull of the earth sustains him:

… of his land he thought no more what harvest it would bring or what seed would be planted or of anything except of the land itself, and he stooped sometimes and gathered some of the earth up in his hand and he sat thus and held it in his hand, and it seemed full of life between his fingers. And he was content, holding it thus, and he thought of it fitfully and of his good coffin that was there; and the kind earth waited without haste until he came to it.

I’m glad I overcame my initial reluctance to read The Good Earth because it proved to be a fascinating insight into the culture of China in the years spanning the end of the nineteenth century and the outbreak of World War 1.

The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck: Endnotes

Pearl Buck, author of The Good Earth

The Good Earth was published in 1931 as the first book in her House of Earth trilogy, followed by Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935). It was the best-selling novel in the United States in both 1931 and 1932.

This commercial and critical success was considered an influential factor in the Nobel Committee’s decision to award Pearl S Buck the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.

Pearl S Buck was taken to China when she was five months old and lived there for much of her life as the daughter and then the wife of a missionary. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. 

After returning to the United States in 1935, she continued to write and became a prominent advocate of the rights of women and minority groups, and wrote widely on Asian cultures,

Why I read this: As part of my project to read more books by authors outside of the traditional western canon.

This review was posted originally in 2016. This updated version incorporates biographical information about the author and an updated image of the book cover. Formatting has been changed to improve readability.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

28 thoughts on “The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck: The Glory of Land

  • December 20, 2020 at 8:49 am
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    I read this in 2010 prior to my own month-long trip to China and I remember liking it very much.

    Reply
  • December 19, 2020 at 3:49 pm
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    I loved this book, and was surprised to find out afterwards that Buck was white and American. I haven’t read any other books by her but I’d like to.

    Reply
  • December 18, 2020 at 2:43 pm
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    I read this in school and really loved it. I never realized that the author was a full-on American. I always assumed she was Chinese American. She really seemed to have got under the skin of all the characters.

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    • December 18, 2020 at 6:32 pm
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      Absolutely she did Nish. When I discovered an American was writing about Chinese culture, I was very doubtful whether it would be authentic at all. But once I started reading it, all those doubts went out of the window

      Reply
  • December 18, 2020 at 7:04 am
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    This was one of my grandmother’s favorite books. Thanks for the reminder that I still need to read
    It.

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    • December 18, 2020 at 6:32 pm
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      Did she read the trilogy or just book 1? I’m curious about the remaining 2 titles in the series

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      • December 18, 2020 at 9:51 pm
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        I wish I knew the answer to that question. I’m guessing she did because she read quite a bit and was a fan of Buck. But the only volume I remember seeing in her house was The Good Earth. I think I now have it in a box somewhere.

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  • December 17, 2020 at 11:35 pm
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    I have heard of this book all of my life and have yet to read it. People have often stated how good it is and I’ve seen it on many lists of books one must read. 🎄🐧🎄

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    • December 18, 2020 at 6:33 pm
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      It’s on those lists because it is that good! Which is something I don;t always find to be the case

      Reply
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  • January 5, 2017 at 7:37 pm
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    I read this when I was 17, on a trip to Benin. Was superb

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    • December 25, 2020 at 9:59 pm
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      Glad to hear we share an appreciation of this book

      Reply
  • January 5, 2017 at 10:16 am
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    I would like to recommend Hilary Spurling’s biography of Pearl S Buck, Burying the Bones: Pearl S Buck in China. This book reveals Buck as one of the best informed novelists there has ever been writing about a “foreign” culture and an admirable figure easy to underrate as a novelist.

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  • January 4, 2017 at 5:26 pm
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    Very interested to read your review as I have this on my Classics Club Challenge list so now looking forward to it very much.

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    • January 4, 2017 at 8:30 pm
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      hope you enjoy it. good luck with the challenge – I must admit I have fallen behind somewhat on it

      Reply
  • January 1, 2017 at 11:17 pm
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    This was a book I heard lauded for so many years and perversely resisted reading…then loved it when I finally gave in. I’m so glad you enjoyed it too.

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    • January 2, 2017 at 10:11 am
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      what was it about the book that you were hesitant about – was it for the same reason I prevaricated too?

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      • January 2, 2017 at 11:37 am
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        I’m not sure — I tend to have that reaction to many books everyone says you should read, especially those that were pushed on me during school. I think it’s more of a primitive response to authority than anything with a rational basis. There was perhaps a shade of doubt that Buck could write authentically about Chinese life. Whatever the reason, I’m so glad I got over it.

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  • January 1, 2017 at 12:01 am
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    I read this a long time ago and still remember it fondly for the reasons you have so eloquently described.
    Since reading it I have come across occasional revisionist critiques about how it idealises peasantry even while detailing its hardships and how the characters are racist stereotypes. I’d have to read it again to confront these charges, and I don’t want to. I’d rather keep my fond memories!

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    • January 2, 2017 at 10:16 am
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      i can see how it borders on idealisation but at the same time it doesnt gloss over the hardship so I wouldnt agree with those critiques wholeheartedly.

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      • January 2, 2017 at 12:38 pm
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        As I say, I don’t have an opinion about it because I read the book too long ago. I think we can look at almost any book written at any time and find that it misrepresents some group or other, and end up not enjoying anything at all if we take it all too judgementally…

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  • December 31, 2016 at 5:19 pm
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    I’m glad to hear you think so highly of this one, as I’ve been thinking I should read it – off to add it to the wishlist!

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  • December 31, 2016 at 2:40 pm
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    I definitely need to read The Good Earth. I unfortunately was never assigned Pearl Buck to read at college. I kind of regret that a bit.

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    • December 25, 2020 at 10:00 pm
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      I’d never heard of Buck until she was mentioned by my Korean contacts. It seems odd that they would know of her and I didn’t

      Reply

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