Wang Lung has hardly thought about his crops, but after the burial Ching tells him that a terrible flood is coming. Wang Lung replies that the gods never do him good, no matter whether he gives them incense or not. Ching doesn’t fight the gods like Wang Lung does, but accepts what comes. Wang Lung examines his land and sees it has become wet and the waterways have risen. He and Ching decide where to try growing rice, and he says angrily that the gods will enjoy seeing people suffer. Ching doesn’t like him to talk that way, but Wang Lung’s wealth makes him careless.
Now that he’s rich, Wang Lung seems to take credit for anything good that happens to him, and to blame the gods for anything bad. However, his constant fighting of what others, like Ching, accept as fate, also contributes to his successes. Ching’s worry at Wang Lung’s carelessness about the gods foreshadows that Wang Lung’s wealth might not always be able to protect him, and he should be more respectful of luck, which is important in farming.
Before long, the river bursts its dykes, and everyone contributes money to mend them. But they entrust the money to a new magistrate, who uses it for his own ends. When the river floods further, the people go to his house in a mob, and the magistrate kills himself. The river keeps bursting dykes until it covers all the fields. The water ruins people’s houses and they have to save what they can on rafts. Then it begins to rain.
The people only ever seem to exercise power when they join together in mobs, as in the one Wang Lung took part in at the great house in the city. Furthermore, these mobs are invariably made up of the poor gathered against the rich, suggesting that Wang Lung should be wary of them.
Wang Lung watches the water, which stays below his house on a hill and doesn’t quite reach the new graves. No one can harvest anything, and people starve again. Some join the robber bands, which attack the town. Others go south, and others die. The water prevents anyone from planting the winter wheat, so there will be no harvest the next year either. Wang Lung argues with Cuckoo to keep her from spending so much money on food, and he’s glad when the flood prevents her from getting to town. He carefully rations the food and eventually sends his laborers south.
Ironically, the last famine occurred due to a want of water, and now an excess of it has the same effect. The cycle of famines in this region gestures to the many cycles in this book: the seasons, life and death, poverty and wealth. Through all of these cycles, only the existence of the land remains constant, which is perhaps why Wang Lung finds so much comfort in it. Now, even Wang Lung knows he needs to watch his spending.
Wang Lung has secretly hidden stashes of money and grain, so he knows his family won’t starve. But he knows that the starving people hate him because he’s still able to eat, so he guards his house carefully. He knows that his uncle’s presence protects him from being robbed, so he gives his uncle’s family privileges in the house. They can tell he’s afraid of them, so they begin to demand more and more. Wang Lung overhears his uncle’s wife and son urging the uncle to blackmail him for money, which angers Wang Lung, but he can’t think of what to do.
In the last famine, Wang Lung was one of the starving people who envied the rich who continued living comfortably and refused to share their food, but now he acts just as selfishly as if he didn’t know the other side of the situation. In this difficult time, angering the uncle’s family would have severer consequences than ever, and they never pass up an opportunity to take advantage of Wang Lung.
The next day, Wang Lung’s uncle asks for money, and Wang Lung has to give it to him, though he hates doing so. Before long the uncle comes back for more, and when Wang Lung says his demands will make them starve, the uncle says he’s lucky he’s not dead in a burnt house. Wang Lung has to give him the money again.
Wang Lung has no choice but to continue giving his uncle what he wants, since his uncle has the power to kill Wang Lung’s entire family. However, they might end up equally dead of starvation if the uncle takes all of their money.
Wang Lung’s eldest son keeps his wife shut up in their room away from his cousin, the uncle’s son, whom he doesn’t trust. When he notices Wang Lung favoring the uncle’s family, the eldest son accuses his father of caring more for them than for his own family. Wang Lung admits that he hates them, but has to keep them happy for fear of the robbers.
The uncle’s son once drew the eldest son into drinking and visiting a prostitute, so the son knows the evil influence that he can have. In fact, the uncle’s family turns family against family in a way that’s unnatural in a culture that places so much value on blood relations.
The eldest son is amazed and suggests that they push the uncle’s family into the water and drown them. Wang Lung can’t bear to kill, and he says if the uncle is gone, they’ll be in danger of the robbers. He wants to find a way to keep them in the house, but take away their power. The eldest son has the idea to buy the uncle’s family as much opium as they want. Wang Lung is doubtful, saying opium is expensive, and he needs to think about it.
The eldest son exhibits a willingness to take drastic action, while Wang Lung shows his soft heart again—remember, he couldn’t even kill his ox. Opium seems like a wise idea to neutralize the threat of the uncle’s family, but it’s also a distinctive marker of the rich. The Old Mistress, notably, was addicted to opium.
Before long, Wang Lung’s uncle’s son begins to look at Wang Lung’s second daughter, who is very pretty. One night he grabs her and touches her breast, and when she screams, Wang Lung runs out and pulls her away from him. His nephew shows no remorse. Wang Lung tells his eldest son what happened, and the son says they should send the second daughter to the house of her betrothed. The next day Wang Lung goes to Liu’s house to propose that the marriage happen soon, but Liu doesn’t have the money for it yet. Wang Lung says only that he can’t watch over her, and wants Liu to keep her virginity safe in his house. Liu agrees to the arrangement. On his way home, Wang Lung buys some opium.
The uncle’s son proves himself a despicable character, as he molests his own cousin and doesn’t even think he’s done wrong. With such a skewed sense of morality, there’s no telling what else he might do. Wang Lung, however, seems to mostly care about protecting his daughter’s virginity until she’s married, rather than for her general safety and well-being around her cousin. This incident finally puts Want Lung over the edge, and he decides to try subduing his uncle’s family by addicting them to opium.