Wang Lung, a poor farmer in rural China, has recently reached the age for marrying. His father wants to find him a suitable wife and approaches the prosperous Hwang family to ask whether they can spare a slave for Wang Lung. Wang Lung’s father insists that the woman be unattractive. He worries that a pretty girl would have attracted the young lords of the house and would therefore have lost her virginity. Wang Lung sees the wisdom in this, but he demands that his future wife at least be free of a split upper lip and pockmarks.
On his wedding day, Wang Lung meticulously washes himself. His father complains at the unusual use of so much water. Wang Lung is excited, though, and splurges, paying a man to shave his head and face. He also purchases food for his wedding feast and incense sticks for the gods. Nervousness assails him as he approaches the House of Hwang. The rude, bawdy gate man forces Wang Lung to pay a toll of a precious silver piece before he will allow him inside the gate.
In the House of Hwang, Wang Lung bows before the Old Mistress, who is smoking opium. The Old Mistress calls for Wang Lung’s bride, who is named O-lan. O-lan is tall and sturdy, and her face is smooth and brown. Wang Lung is disappointed that her feet are not bound. The Old Mistress states that her family purchased O-lan at the age of ten during a famine year. The Old Mistress believes O-lan is a virgin. Before letting the couple leave, she asks that O-lan bring her first child to see her.
On the walk home, Wang Lung carries O-lan’s heavy box and purchases some peaches for her. When they reach the house, he goes to the small temple on his family’s fields to burn incense in honor of the earth god and his lady. Wang Lung’s father complains about the expenses for the wedding feast, but he is secretly pleased that there will be guests. O-lan prepares the meal, but she refuses to be seen by other men until her marriage is consummated. Her modesty and her good cooking please Wang Lung greatly.
The first chapter of The Good Earth sets up a contrast between the poor, simple Wang Lung and the wealthy, powerful Hwang family. The decadent, opium-filled Hwang house is also a warning and a foreshadowing of the pitfalls of wealth that will seduce Wang Lung and his offspring. The Hwangs are a family of moral decay and narcissism.
Buck contrasts Wang Lung’s knowledge of nature to the Hwang family’s disrespect for their land. As a poor farmer, Wang Lung has an intimate relationship with the earth: having no money for workers, he must personally plant and harvest his crops, and as a result, he spends a great deal of time in the fields, alone with nature. His religion is based on worshipping the earth deity, for whom he burns incense before the wedding feast. This offering indicates Wang Lung’s recognition that the land is more powerful than he is. Because of this recognition, Wang Lung is frugal, hardworking, and modest. Conversely, because the Hwang family is rich, its members do not personally involve themselves in the labor from which they derive their riches. Instead, they hire laborers and buy slaves to work for them. Hiring others to do their work means they have become estranged from their land. The Hwangs worship wealth and the material goods wealth can buy, rather than recognizing that their wealth is derived from the land and subject to the land’s whims. For this reason, they have become careless with their money. They occupy their time with idle pleasures, spending money on expensive items, such as rich foods, opium, drink, and women.
Buck represents traditional Chinese culture, including the inferior position accorded to women, as objectively as possible. Buck, a lifelong feminist, does not overtly criticize the traditional role of Chinese women, but she is frank in her depiction of the difficulties women endured because of that traditional role. Her depiction of O-lan’s experiences makes these difficulties clear. Like O-lan, Chinese women had no real rights, no voice in choosing their spouses, and no means of meeting their husbands before the day of their marriage. The early interactions between O-lan and Wang Lung show that some women lived in constant fear. Although Wang Lung treats her kindly, carrying the heavier burdens and buying her fresh spring peaches, O-lan is filled with fear because she does not know what to expect from him next. And, as Buck subtly indicates, O-lan has endured unpleasantness from men. When Wang Lung wakes her to take her to bed on their wedding night, O-lan instinctively defends herself from a blow before realizing that it is her husband waking her. This behavior indicates that O-lan was probably physically abused as a slave, also a common practice in traditional Chinese culture.