The novel opens on the wedding day of Wang Lung, a simple Chinese farmer. He has never met his bride-to-be, and on this morning he goes to the nearby town to fetch her from the wealthy house where she works as a slave. After much nervousness, he finally appears before the Old Mistress of the House of Hwang, who presents him with his wife, O-lan. They return to Wang Lung’s house, stopping on the way to burn incense in a temple to the gods of the earth. Wang Lung has a wedding feast that night, and then he sleeps with O-lan.
Over the next few months, O-lan works hard in the house, and when she runs out of tasks, she come to help Wang Lung with his work in the fields. Wang Lung is very happy with her. Before long, she becomes pregnant and gives birth to a healthy son, bringing joy to the house. They have a large harvest that winter, and Wang Lung guards it carefully, saving the money he makes.
When New Year’s arrives, O-lan bakes beautiful cakes to bring to the Old Mistress. She dresses her son in fine clothes and Wang Lung accompanies them to the great house, proud of his prosperity. O-lan learns that the House of Hwang is suffering from a lack of money and hoping to sell some land. Wang Lung triumphantly buys it. In the spring, O-lan gives birth to another son. His harvests continue to be large, and he begins to become an important man in his village.
Wang Lung worries that his lazy uncle will ruin his family’s reputation, so he admonishes his uncle’s wife for letting her daughters talk to men. The next day, his uncle comes to demand money for his eldest daughter’s dowry. Wang Lung grudgingly gives it to him. At the same time, O-lan gives birth to a girl, which Wang Lung sees as bad luck.
Soon after, a drought comes. Wang Lung buys more land from the House of Hwang, though he doesn’t have much money. As the drought worsens, Wang Lung’s family becomes more and more desperate for food. His uncle, however, spreads rumors that he’s hoarding food and refuses to share, so men from the village tear apart his house trying to find it.
As the family starves, O-lan gives birth to another girl, whom she kills immediately. One day, men from town come to buy Wang Lung’s land, but he refuses. Instead, O-lan sells them all the furniture in the house. With the money they’ve made, the family sets out for the south, hoping to find food. They end up on a train, where the other passengers tell Wang Lung how to survive by begging in the southern city.
When they arrive in the city, they build a mat hut against a wall and get rice from public kitchens. O-lan and the children beg on the streets, while Wang Lung pulls a ricksha (rickshaw) around the city. They make just enough money to eat consistently, but Wang Lung feels like a foreigner in the city. He constantly dreams of going home to his land. O-lan suggests that they could sell their eldest daughter to raise the money they need, but Wang Lung is too attached to her.
Wang Lung hears men blaming their poverty on the wealthy, but he isn’t convinced by their arguments. One day he sees soldiers snatch men off the street to force them into slavery, so he begins to hide in his hut during the day and work at night. The city becomes unsettled, but he doesn’t know exactly why. Just as he decides he must sell his daughter to return to his land, a mob forces its way into the wealthy house behind the wall. Wang Lung gets caught up in it and forces a fat man to give him large amounts of gold.
The family returns home and uses the gold to reestablish their farm’s old success. One night, Wang Lung discovers that O-lan has been guarding a handful of jewels that she stole from the wealthy house in the city. Wang Lung takes them to the House of Hwang to buy more land and finds that the House was robbed during the famine. Only the Old Lord and a female slave named Cuckoo remain. Much to Wang Lung’s dissatisfaction, he has to do business with Cuckoo.
Wang Lung expands his house and hires men to work his lands, putting his neighbor Ching in charge of them. He sends his sons to school so that they can learn to read and write, which he can’t do.
After seven good years, the region floods. Many people starve, but Wang Lung has enough set by to live comfortably. However, he has no work to do while his fields are underwater, and he grows restless and grumpy. He suddenly realizes how ugly O-lan is, and tells her so. He begins to go to a fancy tea shop, where he finds Cuckoo in charge of a number of prostitutes. She convinces him to hire one, and he’s astonished by the beauty of the girl, whose name is Lotus. Wang Lung returns to her night after night, but his passion is never entirely fulfilled. He starts spending exorbitant amounts of money on gifts for Lotus and on finery for himself.
One day, Wang Lung’s uncle brings his family to live with Wang Lung, and Wang Lung can’t turn them out because they’re family. He decides to buy Lotus and bring her to live in his house. Cuckoo comes as her servant, and O-lan lashes out at her while pretending Lotus doesn’t exist. There are constantly conflicts between Wang Lung’s family and Lotus. Finally Lotus insults his children, and Wang Lung’s passion for her cools. He returns to his fields.
Wang Lung decides he should find his eldest son a wife, but before he can do so, his son becomes moody and refuses to go to school. One morning, the son comes home drunk, and Wang Lung discovers that he’s gone to a prostitute, Yang, with Wang Lung’s uncle’s son. Wang Lung visits the prostitute and convinces her to turn his son away if he returns. Wang Lung tries to throw his uncle’s family out, but his uncle reveals that he’s part of a robber band that will destroy Wang Lung if he’s cruel to his uncle. Wang Lung finally engages his son to the daughter of a grain merchant named Liu.
An infestation of locusts arrive, killing many crops but leaving most of Wang Lung’s intact. Soon after, the eldest son announces that he wants to go to school in the city to the south, but Wang Lung refuses to let him go. Then O-lan tells him that the son goes to Lotus’s rooms when Wang Lung is gone. The next day, Wang Lung surprises his son in Lotus’s court and, furious, tells him to go to the city.
Wang Lung apprentices his second son to Liu and engages his second daughter to Liu’s son. Wang Lung begins to think about O-lan more often, and he realizes she’s in pain. He brings a doctor, who says that she’s dying. Wang Lung is distraught. He spends the winter at O-lan’s bedside. Just before the New Year, O-lan says she wants to see her son married before she dies, so Wang Lung brings him back from the city and makes the wedding arrangements. O-lan is happy during the wedding, but dies soon after. Not much later, Wang Lung’s father dies as well. He makes a burial plot on his land and buries them both in it with a grand funeral.
Another massive flood comes, and Wang Lung rations his food and money, but he has to give his uncle’s family privileges to protect his house from the robbers. They become increasingly demanding. When the eldest son learns of the situation, he suggests that Wang Lung get them addicted to opium so they won’t cause trouble. Wang Lung only agrees after his uncle’s son tries to molest his second daughter.
When the flood recedes, Wang Lung’s eldest son can no longer stand living alongside his cousin, and he suggests that they move into the House of Hwang, now abandoned by the old family. Wang Lung visits the house and likes the feeling of power it gives him, so he decides to rent it. His eldest son’s family moves there, but Wang Lung stays behind in his old house.
Ching arranges a marriage for Wang Lung’s second son, and Wang Lung’s nephew leaves to fight in a war. Wang Lung eventually moves to the house in town, where he relaxes in luxury. However, there always seem to be problems in his household. His eldest son spends lots of money to decorate the house lavishly and become well respected in the town, but the second son doesn’t want him to waste so much money. The youngest son wants to go to school instead of working the land, which Wang Lung grudgingly allows, putting the second son in charge of the land.
There are rumors of an approaching war, and one day soldiers fill the town and garrison themselves in all the houses. Wang Lung’s uncle’s son brings many soldiers to Wang Lung’s house, and he has to let them live in the outer courts, though they destroy them. The uncle’s son lusts after the women in Wang Lung’s household, so he gives him a slave woman to keep him busy.
Finally, the soldiers leave for the war. Wang Lung marries off the slave he had given to his uncle’s son, sitting where the Old Mistress did when she gave O-lan to him. Wang Lung’s youngest son decides he wants to become a soldier, but Wang Lung refuses to let him go. Meanwhile, Wang Lung begins to lust after a young slave named Pear Blossom. He makes her his concubine, and when the youngest son finds out, he runs away to the army.
As the years pass, Wang Lung sits in the sun and relaxes like his father did, focusing only on his physical comfort and paying little attention to the goings-on around him. He still goes out to his land in the spring, and he has his eldest son buy him a coffin. Eventually he moves back to his house on his land to live out his last days. One day he hears his sons discussing how they’ll sell the land. In the face of his distress they promise not to sell it, but their smiles tell a different tale.