Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Wang O-lan

Woman of Taihu, William Armstrong
O-lan becomes the wife of Wang Lung in the opening chapter of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth [1931]. She has been a slave in a great house, but now is terribly proud to become the wife of a man who owns land. O-lan is not beautiful and does not have bound feet. She has “a brown, common, patient face.” Wang Lung likes her movements as he collects her at the great house. They go to a small temple and burn incense in front of the gods of Wang Lung’s fields. As they are going home, Wang Lung purchases six small green peaches for his new wife.

In the days to come, O-lan works hard, pleasing her new husband by all she does. When she does not have enough to do, she joins him in the field, which is a great happiness to him. She speaks very little, however. Very soon she becomes pregnant. She tells Wang Lung that she will have no one to help her from the great house. She wants to return only with her son in her arms, dressed in new clothes. The child is a son, but soon O-lan is back in the fields, working. The harvest is good this year and they are well-provided for against the winter.

When O-lan returns to visit the great house with her son, she and her husband are so proud that they are afraid of their good fortune. O-lan finds that the great house is poorer and needs to sell some of its land. Wang Lung decides to buy it with the extra silver he got from his harvest. To him, “land is one’s flesh and blood.”

Hard times come to the village with bad harvests. People are eating grass and bark from the trees. The children are starving, but Wang Lung’s father gets the first of any food they have. The Wangs’ third child, a girl, stops crying and lies still. O-lan makes sure her new baby dies, to prevent its suffering. When they are eating earth as gruel, Wang Lung is offered money for his land, but he refuses. The family sells its furniture and leaves for the south, where there is food and work, O-Lan carrying the little girl and Wang Lung his father on his back. When the “firewagon,” a train comes, they take it as they are too exhausted to walk.

In Kiangsu province there are public kitchens. Wang Lung cannot bear to beg, but he pulls a rickshaw. O-lan, however, practical and concerned for her children takes them with her, and her father-in-law, to beg on the streets. The Wangs feel like foreigners. There is food everywhere in the south, and the little boys take to thieving. Wang will not eat the food they take, but O-lan washes it off and puts it back in the pot. Wang Lung punishes his son and grows desperate to get back to his own land.

Soldiers begin to conscript men and Wang Lung must hide during the day. And then one night, the poor break into the houses of the rich. The Wangs are swept along with the crowd past the great gates and into the inner courts. Wang Lung comes across a fat man who gives him gold in exchange for his life and Wang Lung takes it. He buys an ox, seed, and the family goes back to their home, which is a ruin. O-lan mends the house and soon the pewter candlesticks gleam, the teapot and bowls are on the table, the beds are in their places and a new door hangs on its wooden hinges. O-lan once again becomes pregnant.

O-lan shows her husband the jewels she found behind a loosened brick in the rich man’s house in the south. She begs to keep two pearls, not to wear, but just to keep. Wang Lung buys more land with the jewels and has good harvests. He does not let O-lan work on the land, as he is now a rich man. O-lan works at home, making clothes and bedding. She gives birth to twins. The family is very happy, except that the first daughter cannot speak or do anything appropriate to her age. Wang Lung calls her his “little fool.” Wang Lung sends his first two sons to school, as they are anxious to learn and don’t want to work in the fields.

As Wang Lung becomes richer and more idle, he begins to wish for things. He takes a concubine who is beautiful, and even asks O-lan for the pearls to give to her. O-lan is miserable, but she keeps on with her housekeeping. For Wang Lung, the peace of his house disappears when the concubine comes. He has to build another part of the house for her to live in with her servant. And then he finds that his son is spending time with her. He thrashes the son and sends him away.

Returning to work on his land makes Wang Lung happier. He provides for his five children, the “little fool” remaining to sit silent in the sun each day beside her grandfather. But O-lan is ill. Her life is wearing out. Wang Lung is filled with remorse. He knows he owes his riches partly to her. As she lies dying, still a young woman, Wang Lung and his children realize “what she had been in the house, and how she made comfort for them all and they had not known it.” O-lan begs for the wedding of her eldest son and the woman chosen for him to happen. Lying on her bed, she is able to hear the feasting. Shortly afterwards, she dies muttering, “well, and if I am ugly, still I have borne sons.”

Though written by the daughter of missionaries to China, Pearl Buck learned Chinese and a wealth of Buddhist and Taoist tales from her nurse. She roamed the streets of Chinkiang and volunteered at a shelter for girls in Shanghai. She did not leave China until she was 43, and was heartbroken that she was never allowed to return. The epic story of Wang Lung and O-lan was welcomed in America at a time when Chinese immigrants had been banned for four decades. I loved O-lan for her stoic sense of herself and what she had accomplished, despite how she was treated and how women were regarded at the time. Her values, for her children, her home and the blessings the land itself confers, are enduring.