Wang Lung is relieved when his eldest son has gone. He feels that he can now take better care of his other children. He decides to make his second son an apprentice before he grows difficult like the older one. The second son is very different from his brother, small and cunning. Wang Lung decides to apprentice him to a grain market, where he can be of use to his father. He has Cuckoo set up a meeting for him with Liu, the grain merchant.
Wang Lung never thinks to ask his children what they want, but instead decides what they should do based on what will be most useful to him and their broader family. This gestures to what seems to be a broader cultural sense (in the book at least) that people are not so much individuals but components of families.
Wang Lung goes that very day to visit Liu. He has to ask a passerby to identify Liu’s house, since he can’t read the name on the gate. A servant shows him in. He’s pleased with the quality of the furnishings, which are nice but don’t denote excessive wealth. He doesn’t want his son’s wife to be too spoiled.
Wang Lung’s inability to read still chains him to his lower-class upbringing. He wants a daughter-in-law who will work hard like O-lan does, but who will also bring status to his family.
Liu enters the room and they secretly examine each other and like what they see. They drink and make small talk, until Wang Lung finally proposes that his second son might go to work for Liu. Liu says he’d be glad of the help, as long as the boy can read and write, which Wang Lung affirms he can. Liu sets out his wages, and Wang Lung is satisfied. He asks happily whether Liu might have a son to marry his second daughter, and Liu says he does. The children are the same age, and the men both hope to marry them.
Liu is the only man in the book, besides Ching, with whom Wang Lung forms a friendship. They mutually respect each other as hard workers and honorable people, seeing these qualities in each other just from this one conversation and immediately deciding to link their families together through their children. Essentially, Wang Lung makes an advantageous ally in his quest to better his family.
When Wang Lung returns home, he sees that his second daughter is pretty and has nicely bound feet. But he notices that she’s been crying, and he asks her why. She admits it’s because her bound feet hurt and keep her from sleeping. She’s kept quiet because O-lan told her his pity for her might make him unbind her feet, in which case her husband wouldn’t love her, just as Wang Lung doesn’t love O-lan. Wang Lung is hurt, and tells the girl that he might have found her a husband.
Bound feet are supposed to be more beautiful because of their small size. However, the practice is extremely painful and keeps women from walking correctly. The girl reveals the depth of pain that Wang Lung has caused O-lan. O-lan knows that Wang Lung abandoned her for Lotus in part because of her large feet, and she doesn’t want her daughter to suffer rejection as she has.
That night, Wang Lung can’t sleep for thinking about O-lan’s faithfulness and how she has accurately read his character. In the following days, he sends his second son to his apprenticeship and makes the betrothal of the younger daughter official. He feels that he’s taken care of his children, and he’s proud of them.
Wang Lung rightly feels guilty about his treatment of O-lan. She has seen through him, recognizing his valuing of superficial beauty over strength of character in women, yet she also seems to partly blame herself for his actions.
It seems like this is the first occasion Wang Lung has had time to think about O-lan, and now he can’t stop thinking about her. He hasn’t let her work in the fields for many years, since he thought it shameful once he became rich. He hasn’t considered why she began to move more slowly or to groan in the mornings. He suddenly feels guilty, though he tells himself he’s been good to her. He can’t forget what his second daughter said her mother had told her.
It’s not so much that Wang Lung has never had time to think about O-lan—he’s apparently had plenty of time to think about how ugly she is—but more that his daughter’s words have finally forced him to face his own treatment of his wife. Even so, he can’t fully admit that he’s treated her badly.
Wang Lung watches O-lan as she goes about her work, and one day he sees that she’s in pain. He asks what’s wrong and she says it’s the same pain she’s had for a while. He tells her to lie down. She does so, moaning, and he goes to town for a doctor. Wang Lung describes O-lan’s symptoms and brings him to the house. O-lan has fallen asleep. After the doctor takes her pulse, he says that many of her internal organs are not working properly.
O-lan has been in pain for years, but she’s tried so hard to be the perfect, uncomplaining wife that she’s never mentioned it—and if she has, Wang Lung hasn’t listened to her long enough to really understand. It’s almost as though her insides have deformed in response to the self-loathing that Wang Lung has caused her.
Wang Lung is terrified and shouts at the doctor to give her medicine. O-lan awakens. The doctor offers one medicine that won’t ensure recovery and another, at an exorbitant price, that will. O-lan says she’s not worth the price of the expensive medicine, which alone could buy a piece of land. Wang Lung insists he can pay it. The doctor wants the money, but he knows he’ll be punished if the medicine doesn’t work, so he says he’s realized he needs ten times the original price if he’s to ensure O-lan’s recovery. Wang Lung realizes the doctor is saying O-lan will die. He shows him out and then weeps in O-lan’s kitchen, where she’s always worked.
Now that Wang Lung is faced with losing O-lan, he begins to realize how much he really values her. Even now, O-lan acts modestly and even self-deprecatingly, saying her life isn’t worth much. She directly compares her life to the land, a reminder that she’s been one of the few people who treasure the land as much as Wang Lung does. But no matter how wealthy Wang Lung has become, money can’t save O-lan, suggesting that money isn’t powerful in the ways that really matter.