One night in bed, Wang Lung feels a bundle hanging around O-lan’s neck. At first she doesn’t want to show it to him, but then she yields. He discovers a handful of jewels and is dumbfounded, knowing that they’re extremely valuable. She tells him that she found them in the wealthy house in the city, hidden behind a brick. He’s impressed, and she explains that rich people are always afraid and hide their treasures, so she knew what to expect when she saw the loose brick.
O-lan has more or less made a study of rich people’s weaknesses, and though it serves her well for now, it will also make her see more clearly the vices into which her own household will soon fall. O-lan might hide the jewels simply because she likes their beauty, but perhaps she already fears the influence that undue wealth will have on Wang Lung.
Wang Lung says that they must trade the jewels for land, which can’t be stolen. As he’s putting them into his coat, he notices that O-lan seems to want something. She asks whether she might keep two white pearls, not to wear, but just to hold sometimes. He’s astonished, and she doesn’t seem to expect him to allow this. Wang Lung realizes that O-lan has worked all her life and never had anything nice. He gives her back the jewels, and she finds two pearls, which she wraps in fabric and hides between her breasts. For days after, Wang Lung sometimes thinks of those pearls, but he never sees her look at them.
Wang Lung’s experiences during the famine have made him more desperate than ever to put all his wealth into land. Meanwhile, he seems to think that since O-lan isn’t very attractive herself, she doesn’t want or appreciate beauty—he hasn’t even fully considered her as an individual with her own interests and desires. In this rather tragic moment, Wang Lung finally manages to briefly empathize with his wife and give her a small token in return for everything she’s done for him. As Wang Lung rises to greatness, O-lan will simply cling to these two pearls.
Wang Lung decides to use the other jewels to buy more land from the House of Hwang. When he goes to the house, he pounds on the gates, but no gateman comes. Eventually he hears someone slowly approaching, and a voice asks him to identify himself. When he gives his name and the voice curses him, he realizes it’s the Old Lord. Wang Lung says he wants to talk to the agent, but the Old Lord says the agent has gone. Wang Lung can’t make deals with the Old Lord himself, but he wants to get rid of the jewels, so he says he came about money. The Old Lord thinks he’s come to collect a debt, and reveals that he can’t pay anything.
Since the gateman formerly acted as a judge of Wang Lung’s status through the eyes of the great house, keeping Wang Lung in his proper place, his absence now indicates that the House of Hwang no longer has the power to pass social judgments. The fact that the Old Lord himself has taken the gateman’s place confirms the complete collapse of the social system within the house. Everything depends on money: When he’s run out of it, even the Old Lord must do a servant’s task.
When Wang Lung says he’s come to buy from the house, a woman (Cuckoo) suddenly opens the gates and lets him in. The Old Lord’s formerly fine clothes are dirty, and Wang Lung can hardly believe that this person he has feared is now so weak and pitiful. The woman looks better, but her accent marks her as a slave. There’s no one else around. The woman sees that Wang Lung isn’t comfortable talking business around the Old Lord, so she sends him away. Wang Lung can hardly believe how quiet, empty, and messy the house is.
The Old Lord and the House of Hwang have completely fallen from their former greatness, proving that the wealthy and respected are not divinely chosen to be so, but instead rely on economics and luck just like everyone else. The fact that Cuckoo seems to be in better shape than the Old Lord suggests that she’s taking advantage of him, marking her out as someone to beware of.
Cuckoo harshly tries to initiate business discussions, but Wang Lung protests that he can’t do business with a woman. Cuckoo shouts that no one else is here. Wang Lung can hardly believe it. Cuckoo says that bandits stole the slaves and the goods, and the Old Mistress died of fright. Most of the servants left even before this, when the food and money ran out. Some of them, including the gateman, were among the robbers. She admits that the wealth has been poorly managed for generations. Wang Lung still can’t believe his ears.
For the first time in this book, a woman has some measure of power. However, Wang Lung struggles to accept it, and Cuckoo is portrayed as a scheming, greedy character. The Hwangs’ destruction worked from within until even the gateman turned against the house, proving that the Hwangs had no love to keep their servants loyal once the money ran out. To Wang Lung, the Hwangs have been such an unshakable institution that he can’t understand their fall.
Cuckoo explains that one of the young lords tried to get his father to leave the house, but she convinced him to stay so she wouldn’t be alone. Wang Lung realizes that she’s taking advantage of the Old Lord. Wang Lung says he can’t do business with a slave, but Cuckoo says that the Old Lord will do whatever she says. Finally Wang Lung asks how much land is left, and Cuckoo says there’s quite a bit, and it can all be sold. Wang Lung points out that the young lords would have to agree, but she says that they already have. She tells him he can pay the Old Lord directly, but Wang Lung knows that Cuckoo would get some of the money, and so he leaves.
Cuckoo has essentially become the head of the House of Hwang, which is completely an affront to the societal system in which she, as a female slave, should be at the very bottom of the social pyramid. Her ascendancy suggests that the power structure is not as unassailable as it seems, just as the revolt in the city did. Wang Lung doesn’t adjust well to change, and he can’t immediately accept this collapse of his world.
Wang Lung needs to think about what he’s learned, so he goes to a tea shop. It seems awful that this great family has fallen apart, and he concludes that it’s because they abandoned their land. He decides to immediately start his sons working in the fields. In the meantime, he still needs to get rid of the jewels before anyone finds out he has them.
Even after experiencing the class-based unrest in the city, Wang Lung still mourns the destruction of the wealthy family. He wants to instill his sons with the reverence of the land that he feels, so that his family can never follow in the Hwang’s footsteps.
Wang Lung buys tea for the shopkeeper in exchange for the news that he’s missed. The man tells him about the House of Hwang being robbed, and that only the Old Lord and the slave Cuckoo remain. For now, Cuckoo can control everything, but when the young lords return, she’ll be thrown out. Wang Lung asks whether the land is for sale. The shopkeeper isn’t interested in the subject, but says he’s heard it is.
Wang Lung doesn’t trust Cuckoo, in part because she’s a woman taking control in what’s considered an improper way. The shopkeeper essentially repeats what Cuckoo told him, but this time Wang Lung believes it. The shopkeeper doesn’t share Wang Lung’s almost rabid need for land.
Wang Lung returns to the great house and speaks to Cuckoo at the gate. Once she assures him that the Old Lord will put his own seal on the deeds of sale, Wang Lung asks whether she wants gold, silver, or jewels, and she eagerly chooses the jewels.
Cuckoo’s desire for jewels speaks to her enjoyment of luxury and flashy wealth. It also makes it seem that the sale was destined to be made in this way, since Wang Lung has jewels at the moment.