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.