Wang Lung is a poor young farmer in rural, turn-of-the-century China. During the time in which the novel takes place, Chinese society is showing signs of modernization while remaining deeply connected to ancient traditions and customs. When Wang Lung reaches a marriageable age, his father approaches the powerful local Hwang family to ask if they have a spare slave who could marry his son. The Hwangs agree to sell Wang a 20-year-old slave named O-lan, who becomes his wife. O-lan and Wang Lung are pleased with each other, although they exchange few words and although Wang is initially disappointed that O-lan does not have bound feet.
Together, Wang Lung and O-lan cultivate a bountiful and profitable harvest from their land. O-lan becomes pregnant, and Wang Lung is overjoyed when O-lan’s first child is a son. Meanwhile, the powerful Hwang family lives decadently—the husband is obsessed with women, and the wife is an opium addict. Because of their costly habits, the Hwangs fall on hard times, and Wang Lung is able to purchase a piece of their fertile rice land. He enjoys another profitable harvest, and O-lan gives birth to another son. Wang Lung’s new wealth catches the attention of his greedy, lazy uncle. Custom dictates that Wang Lung must show the utmost respect to members of the older generation, especially relatives, so he is forced to loan his uncle money despite knowing that the money will be wasted on drinking and gambling. The Hwang family’s finances continue to falter, and the Hwangs sell another tract of land to Wang Lung.
After O-lan gives birth to a daughter, a terrible famine settles on the land. In the midst of this crisis, O-lan gives birth to another daughter. She strangles the second girl because there is not enough food to feed the baby and the rest of the family. Wang Lung is forced to take his family to a southern city for the winter. There, O-lan and the children beg while Wang Lung earns money by transporting people in a rented rickshaw. They earn just enough money to eat. Wang Lung begins to despair of ever making enough money to return to his land. He and O-lan briefly consider selling their surviving daughter as a slave. Eventually, a group of poor and desperate people ransacks a rich man’s home, and Wang Lung and O-lan join them. Wang Lung steals a pile of gold coins. With this new wealth, he moves the family back home and purchases a new ox and some seeds. O-lan had stolen some jewels during the looting. Wang Lung allows her to keep two small pearls, but he takes the rest and hurries to buy three hundred acres of Old Master Hwang’s land. O-lan gives birth to twins shortly thereafter. The couple realizes that their oldest daughter is severely retarded, but Wang Lung loves the child dearly.
Wang Lung hires laborers to plant and harvest his land. He enjoys several years of profitable harvests and becomes a rich man. When a flood forces him to be idle, he begins to feel restless and bored. He finds fault with O-lan’s appearance and cruelly criticizes her for having big feet. He becomes obsessed with Lotus, a beautiful, delicate prostitute with bound feet. Eventually, he purchases Lotus to be his concubine. When O-lan becomes terminally ill, Wang Lung regrets his cruel words and comes to appreciate everything his wife has done for him. Meanwhile, to lessen the demands of his uncle and his uncle’s wife, who have moved their family into his house and continued to exploit his wealth, he tricks them into becoming opium addicts. Eventually, Wang Lung rents the Hwangs’ house and moves into it with his family, leaving his own house to his uncle’s family.
After O-lan’s death, Wang Lung’s sons begin to rebel against his plans for their life. They do not want to work as farmers and do not have his devotion to the land. Furthermore, his first and second sons often argue over money, and their wives develop an intense animosity toward one another. In his old age, Wang Lung takes a young slave, Pear Blossom, as a concubine. She promises to care for his retarded daughter after his death. In time, Wang Lung is surrounded by grandchildren, but he is also surrounded by petty family disagreements. By the end of the novel, despite Wang’s passionate dissent, his sons plan to sell the family land and divide the money among themselves, signaling their final break with the land that made them wealthy.