Wang Lung’s uncle and his uncle’s wife eagerly accept the opium Wang Lung buys for them. They quickly become addicted and no longer trouble Wang Lung. Refugees return from the south and borrow money at high interest from Wang Lung to buy seed. Many are forced to sell some of their land to Wang Lung in order to do so, while others sell their daughters. They prefer selling their daughters to Wang Lung than to any other landowner, for they know Wang Lung is kind. When a man brings Pear Blossom, his small seven-year-old girl, Wang Lung buys her as a servant for Lotus. His uncle’s son does not become an opium addict and continues to idle around the house, eyeing whatever women pass by, including the wife of Wang Lung’s oldest son. Wang Lung’s oldest son comes up with the suggestion that Wang Lung rent the old great house of the Hwang family and allow the family of Wang Lung’s uncle to stay in the present house. Wang Lung’s second son supports the idea, and Wang Lung rents the house. Although he did not even know he wanted it, Wang Lung is deeply satisfied to live in the house that for him always epitomized wealth and success.
Wang Lung’s second son, who has never struck his father as interested in marriage, astonishes Wang Lung by expressing a well-considered desire to marry a hardworking, frugal village woman from a landed family. Wang Lung readily agrees, and his second son is betrothed to a woman recommended by Ching. Soon after, and to everyone’s delight except his mother’s, the uncle’s son decides to go join a war in the north. Wang Lung continues to adjust to the lifestyle of the rich: he purchases new clothing for his family and slaves, he sleeps late, and he takes a liking to expensive foods. Wang Lung’s daughter-in-law, the wife of his oldest son, gives birth to a healthy son. Wang Lung’s son hires a wet nurse for the child because he doesn’t want to see his wife’s breasts ruined and her energy drained.
Soon after the baby is born, the eldest son suggests that they set up tablets of their ancestors to worship during feast days, as other great families do. In the midst of all this happiness, Ching dies suddenly in the fields. Wang Lung prepares an elaborate funeral and insists that his family wear clothing of mourning. He wants to bury Ching near his father and O-lan, but he cedes to his son’s requests not to bury a servant with the family. Wang Lung walks in the fields less frequently, because his fields remind him of his faithful servant.
At his eldest son’s urging, Wang Lung allows the purchase of expensive furniture and decorations. He gets so careless about the cost of these purchases that he refuses to finance them only when his responsible second son complains of the excessive expense. Wang Lung learns that his third son does not want to be a farmer; reluctantly, Wang Lung hires a tutor for him. Wang Lung entrusts the family finances to the second son. In time, Wang Lung’s uncle dies and is buried in the family plot.
The battlefront of the war moves closer, and the son of Wang Lung’s uncle, now a soldier, exploits Wang Lung’s hospitality to house himself and some of his comrades. Meanwhile, Cuckoo suggests they allow Wang Lung’s cousin to pick a slave for himself. He asks for Pear Blossom, but Pear Blossom begs to be spared. Another slave offers to take her place, and the arrangement is sealed. When Wang Lung’s cousin departs, the slave is pregnant.
The slave gives birth to a girl, and Wang Lung marries the slave to one of his laborers. Meanwhile, his uncle’s wife dies and is buried in the family plot. Tension between the two older brothers increases. They argue over money, and their wives become enemies. Wang Lung’s third son announces that he would like to be a soldier, and Wang Lung offers him anything he desires if he will change his mind. However, when the son asks for Pear Blossom, Wang Lung is overcome with jealousy. He says that his son may not have children by the slaves, as it is immoral.
One night, Pear Blossom confesses to Wang Lung that she does not like young men because they are too “fierce,” whereas old men are kind. Wang Lung takes her for his concubine. Furious at this, the third son leaves his father’s house to go fight in the war.
Now, evil, idle sons—sell the land! . . . If you sell the land, it is the end.
As Wang Lung nears the end of his life, he gives Pear Blossom some poison and asks that she feed it to his retarded daughter when he dies. He fears that no one will care for his daughter in his absence and thinks it would be kinder to kill her than to let her suffer. Pear Blossom says she cannot kill her and promises to take care of his daughter after he dies. As Wang Lung ages, he becomes more and more senile. His children and grandchildren find his beliefs and attitudes about life humorously old-fashioned. He takes pleasure in his food and drink and in Pear Blossom. He feels he is dying, and asks his sons to buy a coffin. They do, and the coffin comforts Wang Lung. He moves to the earthen house with the coffin, saying he would like to spend his dying days there. One day he overhears his two elder sons discussing the sale of some of the land. He cries out, “If you sell the land, it is the end,” and although the sons assure him over and over that they will not sell the land, they smile at each other over Wang Lung’s head.
Though Wang has found moral redemption in working on his land, his family has its own momentum and comes to resemble the Hwang family. Even Wang Lung exploits the desperation of the returning refugees, purchasing their land at low prices and extracting high interest rates on their loans. This creates further hardship and forces many families to sell their daughters as slaves for extra money. With his newfound wealth, Wang Lung betrays the morals he had upheld during his impoverished youth. None of his three sons respects the land as the source of wealth and happiness. Each becomes attracted to various vanities: prestige, money, and military glory.
Wang Lung’s move into the Hwang family’s old home symbolizes his family’s complete usurpation of the Hwang family’s place in the world. Living in the Hwang house gives Wang Lung “satisfaction he had longed for all his days without knowing it.” His oldest son wants to increase their status as a great family still further by turning to ancestor worship. With this change, Wang Lung’s family ceases to venerate the land; they now venerate only themselves. Their estrangement from the land is not just physical, but spiritual as well.
Buck implies that larger social developments are eroding traditional Chinese values. As the revolt in the city in Chapter 14 indicated, social unrest has been increasing over the years, and signs of modernization have begun to appear in Chinese society. Wang Lung’s third son becomes an officer in the revolutionary army. This is probably a reference to the emerging Communist movement in early twentieth-century China, a serious challenge to the traditional structure of Chinese society. When the son of Wang Lung’s uncle returns to exploit Wang Lung yet again, the son does not even bother to make a show of appealing to traditional filial piety. He relies on the brute force of his soldiers and gets exactly what he wants. Buck may be implying that force is taking the place of traditional values.
In taking Pear Blossom as his concubine, Wang Lung once again repeats the behavior of Old Master Hwang, who spent his last years with young concubines. However, in this and in his other actions, Wang Lung’s transformation is not complete. He is not exactly like the Old Master. For example, Wang Lung is somewhat ashamed of taking a mistress who is so young, and asks Pear Blossom again and again if he is not too old for her. He is a kind and gentle master to his servants, and men come to him when they must sell their daughters. His judgment is respected, and people ask him for advice. Wang Lung, although he has repeated some of the mistakes of the Hwangs, is a good and honest man.
Buck paints the fortunes of Wang Lung’s family as no different from the fortunes of any other family. Families, like the seasons, follow a cycle, and Buck suggests that Wang Lung’s sons will likely ruin themselves by abandoning the land. The novel ends bleakly, as Wang Lung, the wisest and best man in his family, is condescended to by his wealthy, foolish sons.