Wang Lung pays the family’s fare and buys some bread and rice. They’ve eaten so little lately that they have trouble eating now. Wang Lung’s father cheerfully forces the bread down, making the people around him laugh with his determination to live.
Things immediately begin to look up as the family gets food. Wang Lung’s father has never despaired, perhaps because he had no responsibility to take care of the others and has already lived a full life.
Wang Lung saves the rest of the money. He listens to the wisdom of other people in the firewagon who have gone south in other years. One man tells him he must buy mats and not let the merchant charge him extra because he’s from the country. He must make the mats into a hut, cover himself in dirt, and beg on the street. Wang Lung doesn’t like the idea of begging. The man says that every morning one can get rice cheaply in a public kitchen. Wang Lung secretly counts his money and finds he has enough for the mats and the rice, with a little extra. But he still doesn’t want to beg. He asks the man if there’s work he can do. The man says angrily that he can pull a rickshaw, but it’s bad work, and better to beg.
On the train, Wang Lung already begins to hear of the differences between the country people and the city people that he will feel more sharply later on. Wang Lung has worked hard his whole life, and begging seems almost like what his uncle does. He has too much honor to be able to respect himself if he doesn’t work for his food. The man’s comments about work in the city foreshadow the awful working conditions in the city, as opposed to on the land.
When they get off the firewagon, Wang Lung has a plan. He leaves the family with O-lan and goes to buy mats. He can hardly understand the southerners’ accents, and they have quick tempers when he asks them directions. Finally he returns with the mats. He sees that the boys are frightened, but his father is amazed at the southerners’ health. Caravans pass carrying bricks and grain, and the drivers give Wang Lung scornful looks, cracking their whips just to see the family jump.
Wang Lung immediately begins to feel the difference between the people in his part of the country and those in this southern city. Even though nobody seems to want his family there, the health of the city people is promising, as it indicates that there’s plenty of food to go around.
Wang Lung sees that there are huts built against the wall behind them, but no one knows what’s on the other side of the wall. Wang Lung struggles to put a hut together until O-lan says she knows how to do it from her childhood. Before long she makes a round roof and secures the edges with bricks. They all sit inside, amazed that just the day before they were a hundred miles away.
O-lan’s knowledge of how to build a mat hut suggests, as other clues have, that she experienced great hardship before she married Wang Lung. The family feels the change in the pace of life that the Industrial Revolution has caused, as the train makes it possible to travel quickly.
The family feels hopeful, and they go to find the public kitchens. They soon join many people carrying bowls and heading for the kitchens. Inside they find giant cauldrons containing white rice. The people crowd forward towards the good smell of the steam, jostling dangerously though there’s plenty for all. Wang Lung can only cling to his family, and he manages to get the rice before the crowd pushes him away.
On one hand, the city offers a sort of welfare system that allows its poor people to eat. On the other hand, the method of distributing that food almost dehumanizes the crowds of people, as they push and shove like anonymous beasts to feed themselves, giving no thought for the hungry people around them.
They go outside and eat their rice, and Wang Lung thinks he’ll save some for later, but a guard tells him he can’t take any rice away. Wang Lung doesn’t understand, and the guard explains that some people will buy the cheap rice and give it to their pigs. Wang Lung can’t believe people would be so cruel. He asks who provides the rice, and the guard says the rich people do so in order to gain credit in heaven or the approval of other men. Wang Lung insists that some people must do it simply because they are good, but the guard doesn’t answer.
In accepting the help of the rich, who don’t truly care about the poor, Wang Lung loses some of his free will, as he’s not even allowed to decide what to do with the rice that he has purchased (albeit at a lowered price). Even in the midst of his relief at being able to eat, Wang Lung must deal with the cruelty of humans, who buy and even give the rice for purely selfish reasons. In comparison, Wang Lung seems exceedingly moral.
The family returns to their hut and sleeps soundly. The next morning, they need more money, but Wang Lung no longer despairs, because there’s so much food in the city. O-lan says she, the children, and the old man can beg. She shows the boys how to hold their bowls and cry out for change. Wang Lung is amazed, and she tells him that she begged like this as a child and was sold as a slave in a similarly difficult year. They all go out to beg, O-lan carrying the girl and telling passersby she’ll die without charity. The boys don’t take begging seriously, so O-lan scolds and slaps them until they cry, telling them they can starve.
It becomes increasingly evident that O-lan is reliving traumatic experiences from her childhood, though she uses them productively to better equip her family to deal with their present challenges. She never expresses any distress about her past, though it seems to have been extremely painful. While Wang Lung cares too much about his honor to beg, O-lan does whatever she needs to in order to feed her family. This might also be a difference in gender expectations.
Wang Lung rents a ricksha (rickshaw). He struggles to pull it, so he goes up and down a quiet street to practice. He’s about to give up when a man asks for a ride. Wang Lung wants to turn him down, but the man is deaf, so Wang Lung has to let him get in. The man wants to go to the Confucian temple. Wang Lung doesn’t know where it is, but he asks people as he goes through the crowded streets. At the temple, the man gives Wang Lung a silver coin, telling him not to ask for more.
Wang Lung gets pulled into the life of the city almost against his will, though the experience also shows that there’s plenty of ready money around. The practice of riding in rickshaws highlights the divide between rich and poor, as poor men must physically exert themselves like cart animals to transport rich men, who sit leisurely in the rickshaw.
Wang Lung doesn’t even know how much the coin is worth, so he has it changed into pence. He’s happy with the amount, but another ricksha puller tells him he was cheated. The man learns that Wang Lung didn’t argue about the fare before the trip, and he exclaims at Wang Lung’s countrified ignorance. He tells him that he has to argue about the fare with anyone except white foreigners, who always pay too much. The people around laugh at Wang Lung. He leaves, remembering that he still has to pay back the cost of renting the ricksha.
The difference in currency highlights the difference in culture that a hundred miles makes at this time. Furthermore, Wang Lung is now in a city instead of the country; he doesn’t even know how to properly enact his role as a poor rickshaw puller, causing him social shame. This is the first time that white foreigners are mentioned, gesturing to the existence of a wider world that Wang Lung has never even considered.
Wang Lung has three more passengers that day, but he only has a penny left after he’s paid for the ricksha. He’s disappointed, but he feels better when he thinks about his land waiting for him at home. He returns to the hut, and O-lan and the boys have begged enough money to pay for their rice the next morning. The second son won’t let go of the money he begged. Wang Lung’s father didn’t get any money, but he says that he has worked all his life, so now he expects his son to take care of him.
The thought of his land often acts as a comfort to Wang Lung in the city, as though he feels that his real life is back home with the earth. The second son’s possessiveness of his money perhaps foreshadows his business acumen and thriftiness later in life. Wang Lung’s father depends fully on his son’s familial duty for his survival and feels no guilt, because his culture works that way.