Wang Lung awakens on his wedding day. He usually waits to hear his father coughing and opening his door, but today Wang Lung gets up immediately and looks out the window. Since it’s spring, he tears away a piece of paper that had been covering the window. He wants the house to look nice for this day. There’s a breeze that will bring rain soon that will make the wheat grow well. He takes it as a good omen.
The novel begins with Wang Lung preparing to start his family by getting married. Wang Lung lives his life in harmony with the land, and now as spring comes and the land is reborn, a new era of his life is born as well.
Wang Lung goes into the kitchen in a shed connected to the house, where there is an ox. The kitchen and the house are both made of earthen bricks and are thatched with straw. Even the oven was made with earth from Wang Lung’s family’s land. Wang Lung decides to use all the water in a jar to bathe himself, even though he’s usually careful with the water. He wants to be clean for his new wife.
The description of Wang Lung’s house stresses his connection to the land, as the earth shelters and nourishes him in the walls, roof, and oven. The details that the ox lives in the kitchen and Wang Lung is usually frugal with the water indicate how poor he is.
Wang Lung sets a fire in the stove as he has done ever since his mother died. For six years, he’s brought his father hot water to help with his cough, but Wang Lung will be able to rest now, he thinks, since his wife will do these tasks. He imagines the children they’ll have. He and his father have often had to prevent relatives from trying to move into their house, since they have plenty of room. But soon, there will be children to take up all the empty space.
Wang Lung looks forward unabashedly to the work his wife will take off his own shoulders. In fact, a major reason for him to get married is so that someone else can take on the burden of the housework. The mention of Wang Lung’s pushy relatives foreshadows the difficulties he’ll later have with his uncle.
Wang Lung’s father comes to the door of the kitchen, coughing and asking for his water. Wang Lung puts some tea leaves in the water, and his father protests that tea is too expensive for this use. Wang Lung tells him that it’s a special day, and finally the old man drinks the tea. When he sees Wang Lung pouring the rest of the water into a tub, he protests at the amount of water he’s using. Wang Lung doesn’t want to admit that he wants to be clean for a woman’s eyes. He brings the tub to his room, and his father exclaims that they shouldn’t give the woman the wrong impression of their way of life with such decadence.
Wang Lung’s father’s protests at the use of tea leaves and bath water reinforce the portrayal of their poverty, particularly since a wedding is normally seen as a special occasion on which a man might indulge himself a little. However, Wang Lung’s embarrassment at wanting to impress his wife indicates how little his culture respects women. Women are expected to change themselves to suit their husbands’ needs, but their husbands shouldn’t even feel the need to clean themselves for their wives.
Wang Lung washes himself with a towel and puts on clean clothing instead of his dirty, torn winter clothes. He also puts on a long robe that he only wears for celebrations. He combs his long hair. His father returns to ask for food. Wang Lung takes the robe off and pours the water from the tub into the ground outside the door. He feels angry at his father’s demands, but he knows he won’t have to make food after this. He prepares some corn meal gruel and brings it to his father, saying that they’ll have rice that night, though not as much as at the spring festival.
No matter how his father treats the occasion, Wang Lung feels that a wedding is significant, and he’ll treat it as such. His preparations for celebration are small gestures, but meaningful to him. In pouring his bath water into the ground, Wang Lung seems to feed the earth just as it feeds him. Wang Lung feels irritated at the household tasks he has to do, but he never considers that his wife might also find them irritating.
Wang Lung returns to his room and considers whether he should get a shave before he goes to the woman’s house. He counts his money to see whether he can afford it. He has invited friends and relatives to dinner and plans to buy food in town. Finally he decides he will get his head shaved, after all.
The fact that throughout his wedding day Wang Lung constantly counts his money foreshadows that he will continue to focus intensely on his wealth for his whole life. His way of making decisions demonstrates his frugality.
Wang Lung leaves the house and stops to look at the buds of his crops. They need the rain that he expects will come. Since it’s a special day, he’ll buy incense for the temple to the earth god. He heads towards the city wall, imagining the House of Hwang, where the woman he’s going to marry has been a slave. His father said Wang Lung could only afford to take a slave as his wife, so his father had gone to the House of Hwang and asked for a slave who wasn’t pretty. Wang Lung wanted a pretty wife, but his father insisted that the woman needed to work in the house and the fields. Besides, he said, the young lords in the House of Hwang would have already taken the virginity of a pretty slave. Wang Lung and his father brought jewelry to the woman’s owner to make the engagement official.
Even on this special day, Wang Lung is thinking about his crops. The buds symbolize a beginning just as the spring does—he’s about to begin a new way of living, one that similarly involves young life, as he’ll have children (hopefully). Wang Lung’s father is constantly practical, wanting Wang Lung’s wife to act as a worker on the farm more than as someone to make Wang Lung happy. Though Wang Lung will for a long time accept having a wife who isn’t pretty, the fact that he originally wants a pretty wife foreshadows his later dissatisfaction with O-lan’s appearance.
Wang Lung enters the city gate, passing a man selling peaches. He decides he’ll buy his wife some on the way out. He then heads toward the barber’s, passing farmers who came early to sell their goods. He sits in a barber’s stall, and the man teases him about his reluctance to spend money, making Wang Lung feel inferior to those who live in town. The barber suggests that Wang Lung should cut off his braid, as it’s the new fashion, but Wang Lung protests. He hates spending so much money.
The scene at the barber’s demonstrates the differences between town and country. Wang Lung feels separate from those who live in the town, both due to his poverty and his slightly different social norms. Wang Lung often struggles with ambivalence between wanting to move up in life, but feeling reluctant to leave behind the morals and traditions he was raised with.
Wang Lung buys food and incense and then goes to the House of Hwang. But once he gets there, he’s too shy and nervous to go in. He’s never been in a wealthy house before. He decides to eat something first, so he goes to a restaurant and eats noodles. Compared to the poverty of the other customers, he looks almost well-off. A beggar asks him for money, and he feels proud and gives a bit of money. Wang Lung sits a long time, and finally the waiter gets impatient, so he buys some tea, though he doesn’t like paying for it. When he sees a neighbor enter, he leaves quickly.
Wang Lung grapples here with his poverty in comparison to the Hwang family, which makes him frightened to go into their house. However, when the beggar makes him feel comparatively rich, he’s proud of his status. These incidents show how much money and status matter to him. He also cares greatly about what other people think of him, as proven by his reaction when he thinks his neighbor might perceive his nervousness at the prospect of marriage.
Wang Lung returns to the House of Hwang, and now the gates are open. The gateman challenges him impolitely, and Wang Lung nervously struggles to explain his purpose in coming. Finally the gateman understands, but doesn’t consent to lead him inside until Wang Lung gives him some money. The man announces Wang Lung’s arrival and leads him through a series of courtyards. Finally they come to the Old Mistress’s rooms, but the gateman protests that Wang Lung can’t go in carrying his basket of food. Wang Lung fears that something will be stolen if he leaves it outside, but the gateman says that no one in this house would want food of such poor quality.
Wang Lung’s first visit to the House of Hwang is characterized by a sense of social alienation between Wang Lung, the poor country farmer, and everyone associated with the Hwang family, who are rich and respected in town. Even the gateman, a servant, makes fun of Wang Lung and takes advantage of him. Furthermore, he disdains the food that Wang Lung has just bought with care and pride for his celebration, highlighting the gap between rich and poor in this society.
The gateman leads Wang Lung into a huge room, and Wang Lung almost trips as he gapes up at the ceiling. The Old Mistress sits on a dais (raised platform), holding an opium pipe. Wang Lung kneels before her, and when the gateman calls him a fool who can’t speak for himself, he explains that he doesn’t know how to speak to someone so superior to himself. The Old Mistress sucks on her pipe and immediately forgets why Wang Lung is there. Wang Lung explains that he’s come for a woman, and the Old Mistress recalls that the slave O-lan is to be married to him. She orders O-lan brought in.
Wang Lung will long remember his humiliation before the Old Mistress, and one of his more unconscious goals in working towards wealth is to reverse their positions and prove himself just as good as the Old Mistress. His lack of social skills in this situation further highlight their difference in status. However, the Old Mistress’s appearance with the opium pipe also presents the first hint of the destructive power of wealth.
Wang Lung can hardly look at O-lan, he’s so nervous. He’s satisfied with her voice, but disappointed that her feet aren’t bound. The Old Mistress has Wang Lung stand next to O-lan, and she tells him that she bought O-lan from her parents when there was a famine. She says that O-lan is neither smart nor beautiful, but she’ll work hard. She’s probably a virgin, since there have been prettier slaves around to tempt the men of the house. The Old Mistress tells O-lan to bring her first child to the house for her to see. Wang Lung doesn’t know what to do next, but the Old Mistress orders them out.
For many years, Wang Lung will forget his initial disappointment with O-lan’s feet. However, it foreshadows his later dissatisfaction with her appearance, particularly her unbound feet. The Old Mistress’s account of O-lan’s history paints a tragic picture that shadows her through her silent, uncomplaining years with Wang Lung. This scene presents O-lan as a product whom the Old Mistress has bought and used and is now selling to Wang Lung, listing her merits and failings.
The gateman drops O-lan’s box of possessions by Wang Lung’s basket of food and disappears. Wang Lung now finally looks at O-lan. Her face seems silent and isn’t beautiful, but she’s wearing the jewelry he sent for her, and he’s elated. He indicates that she should carry the box and the basket, but when she struggles with them, he takes the box himself. She leads them out a side gate into the street.
Wang Lung treats his new wife as his servant from the very outset, expecting her to carry what he’s bought. However, he does show some humanity by taking pity on her when it’s too much, and the fact that he carries her box while she carries his basket symbolizes their support of each other.
At the city gate, Wang Lung buys peaches and gives them to O-lan to eat. She walks behind him, and he sees her nibbling the peaches, but she stops when he looks at her. They reach the temple to the earth, which Wang Lung’s grandfather built. There used to be paintings on the walls, but rain has almost entirely washed them away. Inside sit the figures of the god and his wife. Wang Lung’s father clothes them yearly with sheets of paper.
By buying O-lan peaches, Wang Lung shows his desire—which he hesitates to admit—to please her. She walks behind him as a properly modest woman must. The fact that Wang Lung’s family takes care of the temple to the earth gods demonstrates their dependence nature to send them good fortune in their crops.
Wang Lung lights incense in front of the figures, and he and O-lan stand before them. O-lan brushes ash away from the incense, and then is fearful she has done wrong, but Wang Lung feels that it makes the incense belong to both of them, a married couple. When the incense burns down, they go home.
This is the closest that Wang Lung and O-lan come to a wedding ceremony, as they pay homage to the earth together in a holy space. Thus, the earth binds them from the beginning. Perhaps because of her past experiences, O-lan is clearly fearful of strange men, including her new husband.
Wang Lung’s father stands in the doorway, but it’s beneath him to acknowledge O-lan. Instead, he predicts that it will rain soon, and tells Wang Lung off for spending money in town. Wang Lung tells him that guests are coming. The old man is secretly glad, but doesn’t let it show so that O-lan won’t expect luxury in this house. Unpacking the food, Wang Lung asks O-lan if she can cook, and she answers that she has worked in the kitchen for many years.
Women’s extremely inferior position to men in this society becomes apparent in the fact that Wang Lung’s father can’t even acknowledge the existence of someone who will be living in his house for the rest of his life. However, his prediction of rain suggests fertility for the new couple, as for the land. He also shows his dedication to a simple life.
That evening, guests arrive, relatives and other farmers. They sit in the middle room. O-lan doesn’t want the men to see her, which makes Wang Lung proud that he gets to see her. He brings the food she’s prepared into the middle room and tells his guests that they can’t see his bride yet, since they haven’t consummated the marriage. O-lan has cooked delicious food, and Wang Lung is glad of her talent.
Again, O-lan is seen as a product that Wang Lung must fully take possession of before anyone else can be allowed to see her. O-lan’s modesty acts to her credit with Wang Lung, and this will later set her apart from women who are seen as promiscuous. Her good cooking also marks her early on as a good wife.
When the guests finally leave, Wang Lung finds O-lan asleep by the ox in the kitchen. When he wakes her, she instinctively raises her arm as though to protect herself. He brings her into his room and lights a candle, feeling suddenly shy near her. He undresses and gets into bed, telling her to blow out the candle when she’s ready. He pretends to be asleep, but when the candle finally goes out and O-lan gets into bed, he joyfully grabs her.
Curled up with the ox while Wang Lung’s guests enjoy themselves, O-lan seems valued just as much (or as little) as the animal is, even on her own wedding night. Her instinct to expect danger suggests cruelty in her past. Wang Lung makes no romantic gestures; the purpose of this marriage is his own pleasure and reproduction.