After seven years of good harvests, the river floods almost half of Wang Lung’s land. Many houses in the region are destroyed, but Wang Lung’s house is on a hill. People use boats to get around, and many starve. Wang Lung feels secure in his wealth, but he has nothing to do while his land is flooded. He has his workers make repairs to the house and take care of the animals, so he’s left idle. He can only sleep so much.
After the famine, Wang Lung swore to himself that he would never have to leave the land again. Because of his hard work and prosperous years, he now knows that he can wait out the flood without worrying that his family will starve again. However, he makes no effort to help those who are starving, despite his past experience.
Wang Lung gets impatient with his father, who still thinks tea is too luxurious and doesn’t realize how wealthy Wang Lung is. The old man has grown deaf and forgetful. The eldest daughter sits by him, twisting a piece of cloth, and though Wang Lung takes care of both of them, he can’t really interact with them. His daughter makes him sad, and he instead watches the twins running about.
Wang Lung’s father’s apparent ignorance of how well he’s done seems to minimize Wang Lung’s accomplishments, to his frustration. The old man and the eldest daughter together represent the mindlessly continuing existence of humanity in the face of temporary success and tragedy.
Wang Lung looks at O-lan but never sees anything new. He suddenly sees that she’s ugly and unaware of her own appearance. He tells her she doesn’t look like the wife of someone as wealthy as he is. She’s sewing a shoe sole, and she stops and blushes. She says that she’s been ill ever since her last pregnancy. He asks her to try to make herself look nicer, but she only looks at him and hides her feet. Wang Lung is ashamed of himself and remembers how hard she’s worked for him, but he goes on. He mentions her feet, which he thinks are too big. O-lan says she’ll bind the younger daughter’s feet. Wang Lung is angry that she’s frightened, and he decides to go to the tea shop.
Now that Wang Lung has succeeded in his initial goals, he can afford to be dissatisfied in new ways and seek out new goals. Furthermore, he becomes pickier, as he’s well off now and feels he should have more refined tastes. But in his desire for increased status, he fails to remember all that he owes O-lan; in fact, without her, he would never be as prosperous as he is now (or even alive, probably), with the leisure to criticize her. Feet are an important indicator of beauty in his culture, and they become a symbol of his dissatisfaction.
Wang Lung gets grumpier as he remembers that he owes his land to O-lan’s theft of the jewels. He tells himself that she only took them because they were pretty and would have kept them for herself. He wonders if she still has the pearls between her breasts, but he doesn’t like to think of it, because her breasts are ugly now. None of this might have mattered if Wang Lung was still poor, but now he has so much money that he begins to want to enjoy himself.
Wang Lung’s grumpiness shows that he knows he’s in the wrong, but he can’t seem to help his dissatisfaction with O-lan’s plainness, so he tries instead to convince himself that O-lan is just a vain, stupid woman who likes shiny trinkets. Wang Lung’s wealth makes him think that he deserves better than O-lan, since he thinks of women only as objects to satisfy men.
Wang Lung doesn’t enjoy anything as much as he used to. The tea shop he’s always gone to seems below him, and when he comes in, people talk of his wealth. He’s usually proud to hear it, but today it doesn’t cheer him. He realizes he doesn’t need to come here anymore, so he wanders the streets of the town. He goes to a story-teller’s booth, but can’t get into the story.
Now that Wang Lung has become wealthy like he always dreamed, he finds that it isn’t as wonderful as he imagined. He expects everything to be automatically better, and when it isn’t, he’s disappointed. He feels that he should frequent places more in keeping with his higher status.
Wang Lung goes to a fancier tea shop that he’s always considered a bad place where people indulge in gambling and prostitutes. He wants to experience something new. As he enters, he tries to be bold, though he knows that he was poor only a few years ago. He drinks his tea silently and looks around at the elaborate decorations, including paintings of beautiful women.
The fact that the fancier tea shop is associated with sinful indulgence suggests that wealth leads naturally to sin. Despite his wealth, Wang Lung feels out of place, knowing that he’s socially a newcomer rather than a member of an old, established family like the Hwangs.
Wang Lung goes back to the tea shop every day and stares at the paintings. He might never have done more, but one day someone comes down the stairs from the upper floor. Hardly any buildings in the town have more than one floor, and at night the sound of music and singing comes from the upper floor. Wang Lung is listening to the men playing dice, so he isn’t aware of the woman until she touches him on the shoulder. He recognizes Cuckoo, who laughs to see him here.
The fact that most of the buildings in the area have only one story invests the tea shop with a special sense of wealth and mystery. It seems logical that this rare second floor is a place of mysterious pleasure. Cuckoo is positioned as a temptress, particularly as it’s stated that Wang Lung might never have indulged himself if she hadn’t turned up.
Wang Lung feels he must prove he’s not just a country farmer. Cuckoo already knows he’s wealthy, and she suggests he buy some wine, which he admits he hasn’t done yet. He’s embarrassed when she mentions prostitutes, and confesses that he hasn’t considered them. Cuckoo tells him that the paintings are of the women they have to offer, and that he should choose one. Wang Lung can hardly believe they’re real. He imagines whom he would pick if he were someone less responsible. After much thought, he chooses a dainty woman holding a lotus. Suddenly he realizes how enthralled he is with the picture, and hurriedly goes home.
Despite his wealth, Wang Lung still acts like a farmer, and he fears indulging in the luxuries of the rich even as he wants nothing more than to do so. At this point, he still has enough distance from the rich to be able to criticize their pastimes; specifically, he still tells himself that it’s irresponsible to hire prostitutes and prevents himself from doing so. However, his idleness means he has the time and energy to obsess over pretty women, and it’s only a matter of time until he gives in to his desires.