Carrying his old father on his back, Wang Lung makes his way through the town with his family. As he walks through the town, Wang Lung is bitter at the gods for their failure to help him, and refuses to turn to acknowledge the statues commemorating the gods. He hears of a “firewagon,” or train, that can take his family south more quickly than they could walk. Everywhere in town, crowds are assembling to go south in search of food. Outside the crumbling House of Hwang, a tattered group of starving men curses the Hwangs, who drink wine while people are starving. Wang and his family join the throng traveling to the train station, and though Wang Lung distrusts the loud, massive firewagon, he and his family board the train and travel away from the village.
On the train, Wang Lung tries to learn what life will be like in the south. Some men teach him how to beg, but Wang Lung is distraught at the prospect of begging and hopes that he will be able to find work. When they reach their destination, Wang Lung’s family purchases mats to build a hut and goes to the public kitchens to buy cheap rice gruel. They are forbidden to carry any of the food home out of concern that the wealthy are using it to feed their pigs. O-lan and the two boys are forced to earn money by begging. Wang Lung finds a job pulling a rickshaw, and, with effort, he is able to earn enough money to feed his family. Over time, he learns how to haggle for a good price. At first the family is discouraged. Even though Wang Lung works and the others beg, they can do no more than earn enough money to eat. They feel like foreigners in their own country until they see the Westerners living in the city, who are more foreign than they are.
Wang Lung hears young men in the streets speaking about the necessity of revolution. The city is filled with signs of wealth, yet there is a despairing multitude of people who live on the border of starvation. O-lan has begun to allow the children to steal, knowing that this may be the only way they can get enough food. One day Wang Lung returns home to find his wife cooking a piece of pork, the first piece of meat they have had since killing their ox. However, when his younger son brags that he stole the meat, O-lan is upset. He allows his family to eat the pork, but will not eat it himself. After dinner, he beats his son for stealing. Wang begins to long for a return to his home and the land.
The older poor people in the city accept their lot without complaining, but the young men are growing restless. They increasingly speak of revolt. O-lan is again pregnant. When planting time approaches, the family does not have the money to go home or buy seed. Wang Lung is desperate to leave the city and return home, and he tells himself that he will be able to do so eventually. O-lan remarks that they have nothing to sell but their daughter. She says she would be willing to sell their daughter into slavery for Wang Lung’s sake, since he wants to return home so much. Wang Lung recoils at the thought because he is fond of his daughter. Still, he is tempted by the idea. He moans aloud, torn between his love for his daughter and his love for the land. A man in a nearby hut hears his cry, and they begin talking. The man comments that there are always ways to level the discrepancy between rich and poor. Revolution seems to be in the air.
The difficult months in the city strengthen Wang Lung’s love of the land and of hard work. Wang Lung has been raised to believe that diligence and frugal living pay off in the end. He is not attracted to the idea of begging; he prefers the backbreaking labor of pulling a rickshaw around the city. When his sons begin to steal, he is more determined than ever to return to his land and earn an honest living.
As she has done throughout the novel, O-lan once again proves invaluable in dealing with misfortune. She does not waste time complaining, as Wang Lung does, but quickly educates her children in the art of begging, even beating the children when they do not beg effectively. She realizes that if they are to eat and survive, they must learn to entice pedestrians to part with a few coins.
In these chapters Buck begins to explore the cultural variety of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century China. Although Wang Lung and his family travel only a hundred miles from their home, it is as if they have entered another world. The language is different, the markets are stuffed with food, political rhetoric abounds, and the occasional Westerner roams the streets. Turn-of-the-century China did not have a centralized government, so culture, language, and economy all differed greatly over short distances. Buck emphasizes this fact by drawing attention to Wang Lung’s ignorance of trains in Chapter 10. Wang Lung’s life is so centered on his farm and village that even the nearby train station seems supernatural to him. Though he lives in a fairly modern world, Wang Lung and poor farmers like him have almost no knowledge of social change or technological innovations.
Although Wang Lung initially knows little of the outside world, the outside world begins to impose itself on his mind in these chapters, as the seeds of social unrest and violent revolution begin to sprout all around him. The gap between the rich and the poor in the city is astonishing. The anger and resentment of the poor is primed to explode, and the signs are evident long before the explosion finally happens in Chapter 14. The rich try to hold off rebellion by providing cheap rice gruel for the poor in public kitchens, but this tactic is effective for only so long. The city is full of young men longing for revolution: “The scattered anger of their youth became settled into a fierce despair and into a revolt too deep for mere words because all their lives they labored more severely than beasts, and for nothing except a handful of refuse to fill their bellies.” This poverty and anger foreshadows the revolutionary explosion that eventually occurs, as well as the intense social upheaval that takes place in China during later decades.