With the arrival of spring, the beggars go out to the countryside to forage for food, and O-lan and the boys go with them. Wang Lung continues to work. The warm weather makes everyone less satisfied with their meager lot in life, and the men begin to talk in the evenings. O-lan knows things about these men, but she remains silent.
The spring is a time for rebirth and growth, but Wang Lung is stuck in the city, far from his land. As a woman, O-lan is in a position to learn information that Wang Lung can’t. However, also as a woman, she understands that her knowledge is not valued.
Wang Lung feels separate from the other men because he owns land and plans to return to it, while the others think only of day-to-day satisfaction. Wang Lung feels he doesn’t belong here, but to the land, and he needs to get back to it. The men talk only of money and of how lazy and luxurious their lives would be if they were rich. Finally, he tells them that if he had money, he would buy land. They ridicule him for not knowing how to spend money, but he is unmoved.
Wang Lung knows that he has wealth in his land; he has learned that land is a more secure form of wealth than money. This makes him feel different than the city people, as he knows he has a chance to actually make good money again. He wants to buy more land in part to increase his profits, but also because land gives him a sense of fulfillment.
Wang Lung can think only of his land, and so he hardly pays attention to the goings-on of the city. Twice, men give him papers with something written on them, but he can’t read. First a foreigner gives him a paper, and the man’s appearance frightens Wang Lung. The paper shows a picture of a white man hanging on a cross. He brings it home and shows it to his family, and his father suggests that the man on the cross must have been evil. Wang Lung thinks perhaps a relative of the foreigner was killed this way and the man wants revenge. Eventually O-lan sews the paper into the sole of a shoe.
Buck and her family were all foreign Christian missionaries, and yet this scene shows some disdain for the job. She did, in fact, come to believe that missionary work was unnecessary and badly conducted. Wang Lung learns nothing about Jesus from the pamphlet, ironically considering explanations quite counter to Christian teachings. Though the missionary undoubtedly wants Jesus to be revered, his image will instead be tread on daily.
Later a Chinese man gives another paper to Wang Lung. This one has a picture of a poor Chinese man being stabbed to death by a fat man. Wang Lung listens to the man telling a crowd that the dead man represents them, and the murderer represents rich capitalists. He blames their poverty on the wealthy. Wang Lung has only ever blamed his poverty on bad weather that ruined the crops. Eventually he asks whether the rich can make it rain, and the man calls him ignorant, saying that if the rich would share their wealth, no one would need it to rain. Wang Lung isn’t convinced, but he takes the papers that the man gives so that O-lan can use them for shoes.
This man seems to be a follower of Marxist thought, pitting poor against rich. Notably, Wang Lung is far more willing to listen to a man of his own nationality than he was willing to listen to the foreign missionary. However, Buck points out one of the weaknesses of Marxism: it focuses on the proletariat, those who work for wages, and it dismisses the revolutionary power of the agricultural class to which Wang Lung belongs. Thus, Wang Lung doesn’t feel that this ideology applies to his problems.
The men who live in the huts welcome the man’s message, and they begin to think of knocking down the wall that separates them from the wealthy house. They feel discontented and unfairly treated. Wang Lung still only wants his land back.
The Marxist man has succeeded in stirring up revolutionary thoughts among the laborers, but as long as Wang Lung knows his land waits for him, he can’t be entirely in sympathy with them. (This might also be Buck trying to show Marxism as in opposition with a more “wholesome” trust in the earth.”)
One day, while pulling his ricksha down the street, Wang Lung sees a number of common men captured by a band of soldiers. He realizes that the men don’t know why they’re being captured, so he hides in the doorway of a shop. When the soldiers are gone, he asks the owner of the shop what just happened. The man says there must be a war somewhere, and the soldiers need servants to carry their supplies. They won’t pay the captives anything, and they don’t care about the men’s abandoned families. The shop owner is quite accustomed to this. He warns Wang Lung when the soldiers are coming back, and when they’ve passed Wang Lung runs home.
This practice of forced conscription into the military shows how little value poor people have as independent beings with free will. Instead, their own countrymen can essentially force them into slavery at any moment. Wang Lung is faced with the prospect of slavery for himself, even as he has considered selling his daughter into it. This scene also demonstrates how isolated Wang Lung is, unaware of any political or military events outside of his immediate surroundings.
Wang Lung tells O-lan what has happened and feels terrified that he’ll be forced to die on a battlefield and his family will starve without him. He wonders if he should sell their daughter so that they can go home. O-lan tells him to wait, for she has heard people saying strange things.
Even as Wang Lung considers what it would like to be a slave and fears for his family, he fails to consider his daughter as a valuable enough person that she should be spared the fate he himself fears. O-lan again shows her quiet awareness of the world.
Wang Lung only goes out at night now, and he pulls huge wagonloads of goods for very little money. The work is exhausting, but he sleeps during the day, hidden in the hut. As the spring goes on, the city becomes unsettled, and the wealthy people ship their possessions away. The boys come home with news of having seen rich men, and a man told them that one day the riches would belong to the poor. The elder son wants money so that he can try a cake, and Wang Lung thinks longingly of the cakes O-lan made when they were prospering. Suddenly he can no longer stand their life here, and he weeps for the land. O-lan tells him to be patient, for everyone is talking of something.
Wang Lung remains so focused on the thought of his land that even his sons are more aware of the social upheaval brewing around them. Even as revolt against the rich seems imminent, he thinks only of his own former and potential prosperity, rather than growing angry against the rich as the other laborers do. O-lan seems to know what’s going on, but Wang Lung never presses her for more information, perhaps because he still doesn’t believe that a woman could (or should) know anything of value.
From the hut, Wang Lung hears soldiers marching constantly to battle. Everyone in the city is afraid, and no one talks to each other. The markets are empty and the shops closed. There are rumors that the enemy is approaching, but the poor people aren’t afraid, since they have nothing to lose. Finally Wang Lung loses his work, since no one is buying anything. Before long, the family runs out of money, and the public kitchens close.
The coming of war changes everything. A country is obviously best prepared for war if its people are unified against the enemy, but China hasn’t taken care of its working class well enough to make them care whether its current rulers stay in power or not. Historically, Buck may be referencing the Xinhai Revolution of 1911.
Wang Lung holds his daughter and asks her if she’d like to go to a great house, and, not understanding, she smiles, which pains him. Wang Lung asks O-lan whether she was beaten as a slave, and she says she was beaten every day with a piece of leather. He asks whether the pretty slaves were beaten too, and she replies without emotion that they were either beaten or fought over by the men who would sleep with them. Wang Lung pities his daughter, but feels that he might have no choice but to sell her.
O-lan’s abusive past becomes increasingly clear, along with the degree to which she subscribes to society’s devaluation of women, since she’s still willing to sell her daughter despite the horrors she experienced as a slave. Wang Lung, too, is not entirely turned off by O-lan’s description of abuse. In fact, he seems about to decide to sell his daughter.
Suddenly there’s a deafening noise, and the family cowers to the ground. When it stops, O-lan says that the enemy has broken into the city. Then they hear the sound of a crowd. They’re terrified. Finally they hear a large door opening, and one of their neighbors comes to tell them that the gates of the wealthy house have opened. O-lan leaves immediately, and Wang Lung follows in a daze.
Again, O-lan seems to understand what’s going on better than Wang Lung does. Though they don’t even know who the enemy is, any army seems likely to kill them without asking questions. However, the discontent that’s been growing among the poor seems to finally have reached the crisis O-lan has expected.
Wang Lung finds a mob forcing its way into the house. He gets caught up in the crowd, and it pushes him through the gates. Those who have lived there are nowhere to be seen, but there’s still food on the tables and fires in the kitchens. The mob goes into the inner courts where the rich people lived and begins ransacking the treasures there. Wang Lung doesn’t take anything. When he finally comes to his senses, he makes his way to the edge of the crowd and sees the back gate that is meant to allow the residents to escape.
Even now that the revolt has come, Wang Lung only takes part because the crowd drags him on, not because of any actual desire to do so. Furthermore, his sense of honor that made him hate the idea of his sons stealing keeps him from doing so as well, even when everyone around him is stealing. The existence of an escape gate suggests that similar invasions have happened in the past, and there’s a cycle of discontent with inequality of wealth.
Wang Lung comes upon a fat man who hasn’t escaped. He’s terrified of Wang Lung and begs him not to kill him, saying he’ll pay him well. Wang Lung finally realizes that this man’s money can let him get back to the land without selling his daughter. In an uncharacteristically cruel voice, Wang Lung tells the fat man to give him the money, and he takes handfuls of gold coins from him. The fat man weeps and Wang Lung despises him, telling him to leave or he’ll kill him, though Wang Lung couldn’t even kill an ox. The man runs away. Wang Lung carries the gold back to his hut, determined to return to the land the very next day.
The man’s fatness both suggests a life of luxury in contrast to the starving people of the city and recalls the pamphlet the Marxist gave Wang Lung, on which a fat man stabbed a poor man. Perhaps both of these reasons influence Wang Lung’s sudden change of heart, though the thought of his land is undoubtedly first and foremost. His extremely uncharacteristic harshness in this situation opens the door for all of his future wealth, until he’ll one day essentially become the fat man.