But Wang Lung thought of his land and pondered this way and that, with the sickened heart of deferred hope, how he could get back to it.
One day, a Western missionary gives Wang Lung a paper. Wang Lung is illiterate and cannot read the words printed on it. His father looks at the paper, which is printed with a picture of a man nailed to a crosspiece, and states that the man must have been evil to have met such a fate. O-lan uses the paper to line her family’s ragged shoes. Another man hands Wang Lung a paper depicting a fat man stabbing a thin man dressed in rags. A man giving a speech states that the fat man represents the rich and the capitalists, and the thin man represents the poor. Wang Lung snorts at the man’s speech since he views land, rather than money or food, as the only lasting thing. He saves the paper for repairing shoes.
Soldiers begin forcibly conscripting poor men into the army. Wang Lung does not know what the fighting is about or who the combatants are. The rich begin transporting their goods out of the city. The markets empty out and the public kitchens close. Wang Lung again considers selling his daughter. Worried for his daughter’s safety, he asks O-lan if she was beaten in the House of Hwang. She replies, in a passionless monotone, that she was beaten every day with a leather thong. When he asks her if pretty girls were beaten, she replies in a long speech that not only were they beaten, but from the time they were children, they were raped by the lords of the house, sometimes by different lords in one night.
As Wang Lung wonders what to do with his daughter, the enemy invades the city, and the impoverished multitude ransacks the houses of the rich. Wang Lung participates in the looting and comes away with a stash of gold coins. He is thrilled, because the gold will provide him with the means to return home.
Hunger makes thief of any man.
Wang Lung purchases some seed and an ox and returns home. There, he discovers that his house has been ransacked. Ching informs Wang Lung that some bandits, rumored to be affiliated with Wang Lung’s uncle, lived in Wang Lung’s house during the winter. Ching’s wife has died, and he gave his daughter to a soldier rather than see her starve. Wang Lung gives Ching some seed to plant his land and offers to plow it for him. He wants to repay Ching for the handful of beans Ching gave him months before. Wang Lung learns that his uncle sold all of his daughters.
Wang Lung is not disheartened about the dilapidated state of his house; it will be easily mended, and his land is still the same. Excited about their renewed prosperity, but worried about bad luck, Wang Lung and O-lan buy incense sticks to burn for the gods.
Wang Lung discovers that O-lan stole some jewels during the looting in the south. Because she had lived in a wealthy house, she knew where the rich hid their treasures. Wang Lung declares that they should buy more land with the jewels. O-lan asks to keep only two small pearls, and Wang Lung agrees. When he goes to the House of Hwang to inquire about buying more land, Wang Lung is amazed to find that only the Old Master and a slave, Cuckoo, still live there. Over the course of his discussion with the slave, who is running the place, he learns that bandits raided the house, taking the slaves and the goods, and that the Old Mistress died from shock during the furor of the attack. Wang Lung uses the jewels to purchase three hundred acres of the Old Master’s land.
In Chapter 14, Buck lampoons the absurdity of the Christian missionary project. In general, the Western missionaries are unaware of the bleak reality facing the impoverished masses. They have no idea of the prices of things or the appropriate amount of money to give to beggars. They are far too wealthy and too remote to appreciate the anguish and suffering felt by the poor. They are also profoundly ignorant about Chinese culture; their missionary project is merely a form of cultural imperialism. The paper depicting the crucifixion symbolizes this almost complete lack of actual communication between the two cultures. Wang Lung cannot read it, but he does realize the value of paper for mending shoes. Here, Buck strongly implies that missionaries would better spend their energies by attending to the economic needs of the Chinese poor rather than to any perceived spiritual needs.
Although Buck was a fierce opponent of the practice of selling female children as slaves, she is also realistic about the social conditions facing poor Chinese families. Though O-lan is fully aware of the abuse her daughter will potentially face as a slave, she must consider the option of selling her. If the daughter were to remain with the family, all of them might starve. If she is sold to a wealthy family, she will be provided with food and shelter, and her sale will give the family money to survive. Also, O-lan considers selling her daughter because she sees how desperately her husband wants to return to the land. This willingness to please him demonstrates her steadfast adherence to the customs that mandate loyalty from wives. Buck does not criticize O-lan for considering selling her daughter into slavery, just as Buck did not criticize O-lan for smothering her younger daughter during the famine. Instead, Buck criticizes a society that creates the desperation that requires such behavior.
Wang Lung is forced to compromise his own values during the raid on the rich man’s house; he becomes a thief, even though in the previous chapter, he beat his son for stealing. Just as O-lan’s desperation partly explains her willingness to sell her daughter, Wang Lung’s extremely dire situation may excuse his momentary hypocrisy: his family is facing starvation. The futility of living many long months in poverty have made Wang Lung more realistic about what he needs to do to provide for his family. He has begun to do what it takes to survive, with less regard for the traditional values to which he felt connected when he worked the land. Ironically, his urban-minded, anti-traditional theft allows him to return to the honest rural life he reveres.
Because Wang Lung has raided another man’s house, he now understands why Ching stole from him with the rest of the villagers. Thus, he forgives Ching, gives him seed, and offers to plow his land. Buck asks the reader to learn, as Wang Lung does, that desperation can force even the most moral people to compromise their values.