Wang Lung chastises his uncle’s wife for letting her daughter, who is of marriageable age, run free in the streets. The uncle’s wife complains that they have no money for a dowry. O-lan gets pregnant again, and when she becomes sick, Wang Lung works the fields alone. One day, his uncle approaches Wang Lung for money. Unable to restrain himself, Wang Lung criticizes the laziness of his uncle and his family. His uncle slaps him for insulting an elder and threatens to tell the whole village. To placate him, Wang Lung loans him the money, ostensibly to pay for a matchmaker for his daughter.
The quarrel with his uncle makes Wang Lung concerned that his run of good luck is over, and when O-lan gives birth to a daughter, Wang Lung worries that this unlucky event—unlucky because the baby is not a son—is another omen of impending unhappiness.
The rains are late in coming, and the drought destroys most of Wang Lung’s crops. The drought drives the House of Hwang further into financial ruin, and Wang Lung is able to purchase a tract of land from the Hwangs that is twice as large as the last one. His own troubles, however, are not over: the harvest is scanty, and O-lan is pregnant for the fourth time. Finally, hunger forces Wang Lung to kill his work ox for food. His uncle complains to the villagers about how little food his nephew gave him, alerting the villagers that Wang Lung has money and food stored away. One day, a group of desperate villagers, convinced that Wang Lung is hiding a fortune, bursts into Wang Lung’s home and steals his small store of food. When they try to steal the furniture, O-lan chastises them because they dare to criticize Wang Lung when they themselves have not sold their own furniture. Ashamed, the thieves slink away from Wang Lung’s house carrying with them the little food they could find.
A famine settles across the land. Wang Lung’s neighbor Ching reports that some people are eating human flesh. Ching took part in the attack on Wang Lung’s home, and now, feeling guilty, he gives Wang Lung a handful of beans. O-lan gives birth to another daughter. This time, she strangles the baby so that it will not be an impossible burden on the family. Wang Lung goes to bury the tiny corpse, but a ravenous dog lies in wait to eat the body and refuses to leave. So weak from hunger that he is almost unable to support himself, Wang Lung leaves the body to the dog. Wang Lung’s uncle comes with men from town to ask Wang Lung to sell some of his land; the uncle thinks that he can force Wang Lung into selling for a low price, even though the uncle himself gave Wang Lung a great deal of advice about the importance of helping one’s relatives. Wang Lung refuses, but he does sell them his furniture. In despair over the death of his infant daughter and the disloyal behavior of his uncle, Wang Lung decides that the only way for the family to survive is to move south, away from the famine.
As Wang Lung’s previously good fortunes take a turn for the worse, Buck underscores the differences between Western and Chinese cultural values, asking her Western readers to understand how moral values and desperate circumstances might drive the novel’s characters to act as they do. It might seem strange to Western readers, for instance, that Wang Lung lets his lazy, wasteful uncle exploit him. However, in traditional Chinese culture, respect for the elder generation and filial piety are extremely important values. Wang Lung has been raised with these values, and he recognizes that his society will judge him harshly if he breaks with tradition. He must allow himself to be exploited by his uncle if he wants to maintain his reputation within the community.
It might also seem unthinkable that O-lan could bear to kill her daughter. However, both circumstances and cultural values lessen the horror of her choice. She has two sons and an older baby daughter, and the family is suffering from desperate poverty. The baby will likely die of malnourishment eventually anyway, and to feed it would take food out of the mouths of her husband and children. Just as the threat of starvation drives Wang Lung’s neighbors to raid his home, the same threat drives O-lan to kill her own child. Culturally, too, whereas it was unthinkable to kill a male infant, killing a female one was a common practice. This does not excuse O-lan’s deed, but it shows that there was a social precedent for it. Buck was a lifelong critic of the Chinese practice of killing female infants, but she was also aware that poor Chinese families facing starvation do not have the luxury of refusing all but the morally acceptable path.
The famine that reduces Wang Lung to grinding poverty provides a glimpse of the hard life facing poor farmers in old China. The drought is also a reminder that the earth is the only constant force in the world. For all of his hard work, Wang Lung is subject to the whims of nature. The novel’s large theme is that the fortunes of humanity are transitory compared to the earth’s permanence.