ENDURING LITERATURE ILLUMINATED
BY PRACTICAL SCHOLARSHIP
A poignant tale about the life and labors of a Chinese farmer during the sweeping reign of the country¹s last emperor.
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Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker was born on June 26, 1892, in Hillsboro, West Virginia. Her parents were Southern Presbyterian missionaries, most often stationed in China, and from childhood, Pearl spoke both English and Chinese. She returned to China shortly after graduation from Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1914, and the following year, she met a young agricultural economist named John Lossing Buck. They married in 1917, and immediately moved to Nanhsuchou in rural Anhwei province. In this impoverished community, Pearl Buck gathered the material that she would later use in The Good Earth and other stories of China.
Pearl began to publish stories and essays in the 1920s, in magazines such as The Nation, The Chinese Recorder, Asia, and The Atlantic Monthly. Her first novel, East Wind, West Wind, was published by the John Day Company in 1930. John Day's publisher, Richard Walsh, would eventually become Pearl's second husband, in 1935, after both received divorces.
In 1931, John Day published Pearl's second novel, The Good Earth. This became the bestselling book of both 1931 and 1932, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Howells Medal in 1935, and would be adapted as a major MGM film in 1937. Other novels and books of nonfiction quickly followed. In 1938, less than a decade after her first book had appeared, Pearl won the Nobel Prize in literature, the first American woman to do so. By the time of her death in 1973, Pearl had published more than seventy books: novels, collections of stories, biography and autobiography, poetry, drama, children's literature, and translations from the Chinese. She is buried at Green Hills Farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
It was Wang Lung's marriage day. At first,
opening his eyes in the blackness of the
curtains about his bed, he could not think why
the dawn seemed different from any other. The
house was still except for the faint, gasping
cough of his old father, whose room was opposite
to his own across the middle room. Every morning
the old man's cough was the first sound to be
heard. Wang Lung usually lay listening to it and
moved only when he heard it approaching nearer
and when he heard the door of his father's room
squeak upon its wooden hinges.
But this morning he did not wait. He sprang
up and pushed aside the curtains of his bed. It
was a dark, ruddy dawn, and through a small
square hole of a window, where the tattered
paper fluttered, a glimpse of bronze sky
gleamed. He went to the hole and tore the paper
"It is spring and I do not need this," he
He was ashamed to say aloud that he wished
the house to look neat on this day. The hole was
barely large enough to admit his hand and he
thrust it out to feel of the air. A small soft
wind blew gently from the east, a wind mild and
murmurous and full of rain. It was a good omen.
The fields needed rain for fruition. There would
be no rain this day, but within a few days, if
this wind continued, there would be water. It
was good. Yesterday he had said to his father
that if this brazen, glittering sunshine
continued, the wheat could not fill in the ear.
Now it was as if Heaven had chosen this day to
wish him well. Earth would bear fruit.
He hurried out into the middle room, drawing
on his blue outer trousers as he went, and
knotting about the fullness at his waist his
girdle of blue cotton cloth. He left his upper
body bare until he had heated water to bathe
himself. He went into the shed which was the
kitchen, leaning against the house, and out of
its dusk an ox twisted its head from behind the
corner next the door and lowed at him deeply.
The kitchen was made of earthen bricks as the
house was, great squares of earth dug from their
own fields, and thatched with straw from their
own wheat. Out of their own earth had his
grandfather in his youth fashioned also the
oven, baked and black with many years of meal
preparing. On top of this earthen structure
stood a deep, round, iron cauldron.
This cauldron he filled partly full of water,
dipping it with a half gourd from an earthen jar
that stood near, but he dipped cautiously, for
water was precious. Then, after a hesitation, he
suddenly lifted the jar and emptied all the
water into the cauldron. This day he would bathe
his whole body. Not since he was a child upon
his mother's knee had anyone looked upon his
body. Today one would, and he would have it
He went around the oven to the rear, and
selecting a handful of the dry grass and stalks
standing in the corner of the kitchen, he
arranged it delicately in the mouth of the oven,
making the most of every leaf. Then from an old
flint and iron he caught a flame and thrust it
into the straw and there was a blaze.
This was the last morning he would have to
light the fire. He had lit it every morning
since his mother died six years before. He had
lit the fire, boiled water, and poured the water
into a bowl and taken it into the room where his
father sat upon his bed, coughing and fumbling
for his shoes upon the floor. Every morning for
these six years the old man had waited for his
son to bring in hot water to ease him of his
morning coughing. Now father and son could rest.
fi0There was a woman coming to the house. Never
again would Wang Lung have to rise summer and
winter at dawn to light the fire. He could lie
in his bed and wait, and he also would have a
bowl of water brought to him, and if the earth
were fruitful there would be tea leaves in the
water. Once in some years it was so.
And if the woman wearied, there would be her
children to light the fire, the many children
she would bear to Wang Lung. Wang Lung stopped,
struck by the thought of children running in and
out of their three rooms. Three rooms had always
seemed much to them, a house half empty since
his mother died. They were always having to
resist relatives who were more crowded -- his
uncle, with his endless brood of children,
"Now, how can two lone men need so much room?
Cannot father and son sleep together? The warmth
of the young one's body will comfort the old
But the father always replied, "I am saving
my bed for my grandson. He will warm my bones in
Now the grandsons were coming, grandsons upon
grandsons! They would have to put beds along the
walls and in the middle room. The house would be
full of beds. The blaze in the oven died down
while Wang Lung thought of all the beds there
would be in the half empty house, and the water
began to chill in the cauldron. The shadowy
figure of the old man appeared in the doorway,
holding his unbuttoned garments about him. He
was coughing and spitting and he gasped.
"How is it that there is not water yet to
heat my lungs?"
Wang Lung stared and recalled himself and was
"This fuel is damp," he muttered from behind
"The damp wind -- "
The old man continued to cough perseveringly
and would not cease until the water boiled. Wang
Lung dipped some into a bowl, and then, after a
moment, he opened a glazed jar that stood upon a
ledge of the stove and took from it a dozen or
so of the curled dried leaves and sprinkled them
upon the surface of the water. The old man's
eyes opened greedily and immediately he began to
"Why are you wasteful? Tea is like eating
"It is the day," replied Wang Lung with a
short laugh. "Eat and be comforted."
The old man grasped the bowl in his
shriveled, knotty fingers, muttering, uttering
little grunts. He watched the leaves uncurl and
spread upon the surface of the water, unable to
bear drinking the precious stuff.
"It will be cold," said Wang Lung.
"True -- true -- " said the old man in alarm,
and he began to take great gulps of the hot tea.
He passed into an animal satisfaction, like a
child fixed upon its feeding. But he was not too
forgetful to see Wang Lung dipping the water
recklessly from the cauldron into a deep wooden
tub. He lifted his head and stared at his son.
"Now there is water enough to bring a crop to
fruit," he said suddenly.
Wang Lung continued to dip the water to the
last drop. He did not answer.
"Now then!" cried his father loudly.
"I have not washed my body all at once since
the New Year," said Wang Lung in a low voice.
He was ashamed to say to his father that he
wished his body to be clean for a woman to see.
He hurried out, carrying the tub to his own
room. The door was hung loosely upon a warped
wooden frame and it did not shut closely, and
the old man tottered into the middle room and
put his mouth to the opening and bawled,
"It will be ill if we start the woman like
this -- tea in the morning water and all this
"It is only one day," shouted Wang Lung. And
then he added, "I will throw the water on the
earth when I am finished and it is not all
The old man was silent at this, and Wang Lung
unfastened his girdle and stepped out of his
clothing. In the light that streamed in a square
block from the hole he wrung a small towel from
the steaming water and he scrubbed his dark
slender body vigorously. Warm though he had
thought the air, when his flesh was wet he was
cold, and he moved quickly, passing the towel in
and out of the water until from his whole body
there went up a delicate cloud of steam. Then he
went to a box that had been his mother's and
drew from it a fresh suit of blue cotton cloth.
He might be a little cold this day without the
wadding of the winter garments, but he suddenly
could not bear to put them on against his clean
flesh. The covering of them was torn and filthy
and the wadding stuck out of the holes, grey and
sodden. He did not want this woman to see him
for the first time with the wadding sticking out
of his clothes. Later she would have to wash and
mend, but not the first day. He drew over the
blue cotton coat and trousers a long robe made
of the same material -- his one long robe, which
he wore on feast days only, ten days or so in
the year, all told. Then with swift fingers he
unplaited the long braid of hair that hung down
his back, and taking a wooden comb from the
drawer of the small, unsteady table, he began to
comb out his hair.
His father drew near again and put his mouth
to the crack of the door.
"Am I to have nothing to eat this day?" he
complained. "At my age the bones are water in
the morning until food is given them."
"I am coming," said Wang Lung, braiding his
hair quickly and smoothly and weaving into the
strands a tasseled, black silk cord.
Then after a moment he removed his long gown
and wound his braid about his head and went out,
carrying the tub of water. He had quite
forgotten the breakfast. He would stir a little
water into corn meal and give it to his father.
For himself he could not eat. He staggered with
the tub to the threshold and poured the water
upon the earth nearest the door, and as he did
so he remembered he had used all the water in
the cauldron for his bathing and he would have
to start the fire again. A wave of anger passed
over him at his father.
"That old head thinks of nothing except his
eating and his drinking," he muttered into the
mouth of the oven; but aloud he said nothing. It
was the last morning he would have to prepare
food for the old man. He put a very little water
into the cauldron, drawing it in a bucket from
the well near the door, and it boiled quickly
and he stirred meal together and took it to the
"We will have rice this night, my father," he
said. "Meanwhile, here is corn."
"There is only a little rice left in the
basket," said the old man, seating himself at
the table in the middle room and stirring with
his chopsticks the thick yellow gruel.
"We will eat a little less then at the spring
festival," said Wang Lung. But the old man did
not hear. He was supping loudly at his bowl.
Wang Lung went into his own room then, and
drew about him again the long blue robe and let
down the braid of his hair. He passed his hand
over his shaven brow and over his cheeks.
Perhaps he had better be newly shaven? It was
scarcely sunrise yet. He could pass through the
Street of the Barbers and be shaved before he
went to the house where the woman waited for
him. If he had the money he would do it.
He took from his girdle a small greasy pouch
of grey cloth and counted the money in it. There
were six silver dollars and a double handful of
copper coins. He had not yet told his father he
had asked friends to sup that night. He had
asked his male cousin, the young son of his
uncle, and his uncle for his father's sake, and
three neighboring farmers who lived in the
village with him. He had planned to bring back
from the town that morning pork, a small pond
fish, and a handful of chestnuts. He might even
buy a few of the bamboo sprouts from the south
and a little beef to stew with the cabbage he
had raised in his own garden. But this only if
there were any money left after the bean oil and
the soybean sauce had been bought. If he shaved
his head he could not, perhaps, buy the beef.
Well, he would shave his head, he decided
He left the old man without speech and went
out into the early morning. In spite of the dark
red dawn the sun was mounting the horizon clouds
and sparkled upon the dew on the rising wheat
and barley. The farmer in Wang Lung was diverted
for an instant and he stooped to examine the
budding heads. They were empty as yet and
waiting for the rain. He smelled the air and
looked anxiously at the sky. Rain was there,
dark in the clouds, heavy upon the wind. He
would buy a stick of incense and place it in the
little temple to the Earth God. On a day like
this he would do it.
He wound his way in among the fields upon the
narrow path. In the near distance the grey city
wall arose. Within that gate in the wall through
which he would pass stood the great house where
the woman had been a slave girl since her
childhood, the House of Hwang. There were those
who said, "It is better to live alone than to
marry a woman who has been slave in a great
house." But when he had said to his father, "Am
I never to have a woman?" his father replied,
"With weddings costing as they do in these evil
days and every woman wanting gold rings and silk
clothes before she will take a man, there remain
only slaves to be had for the poor."
His father had stirred himself, then, and
gone to the House of Hwang and asked if there
were a slave to spare.
"Not a slave too young, and above all, not a
pretty one," he had said.
Wang Lung had suffered that she must not be
pretty. It would be something to have a pretty
wife that other men would congratulate him upon
having. His father, seeing his mutinous face,
had cried out at him,
"And what will we do with a pretty woman? We
must have a woman who will tend the house and
bear children as she works in the fields, and
will a pretty woman do these things? She will be
forever thinking about clothes to go with her
face! No, not a pretty woman in our house. We
are farmers. Moreover, who has heard of a pretty
slave who was virgin in a wealthy house? All the
young lords have had their fill of her. It is
better to be first with an ugly woman than the
hundredth with a beauty. Do you imagine a pretty
woman will think your farmer's hands as pleasing
as the soft hands of a rich man's son, and your
sunblack face as beautiful as the golden skin of
the others who have had her for their pleasure?"
Wang Lung knew his father spoke well.
Nevertheless, he had to struggle with his flesh
before he could answer. And then he said
"At least, I will not have a woman who is
pock-marked, or who has a split upper lip."
"We will have to see what is to be had," his
Well, the woman was not pock-marked nor had
she a split upper lip. This much he knew, but
nothing more. He and his father had bought two
silver rings, washed with gold, and silver
earrings, and these his father had taken to the
woman's owner in acknowledgment of betrothal.
Beyond this, he knew nothing of the woman who
was to be his, except that on this day he could
go and get her.
He walked into the cool darkness of the city
gate. Water carriers, just outside, their
barrows laden with great tubs of water, passed
to and fro...
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