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In observance of the New Year, Wang Lung buys red squares of paper printed with letters symbolizing happiness and wealth, and pastes them all over his home and farm equipment. O-lan prepares moon cakes for the holiday, similar to those eaten in the House of Hwang. O-lan plans to take the best moon cakes and give them to the Old Mistress when she goes to the Hwang house to present her new son.
Dressed in new clothes, Wang Lung and O-lan take their baby son and the cakes to the House of Hwang. The gate man is duly impressed with how O-lan and Wang Lung have fared. O-lan leaves her husband and goes to visit. While Wang Lung waits, the gate man’s wife gives him tea. He hardly acknowledges her and does not drink the tea, pretending the leaves are not of the high quality he is used to. When O-lan returns, she tells Wang Lung that their baby is more beautiful and better dressed than any of the Old Master’s children. She also reports that the Hwang family has struggled and that for the first time in her memory the slaves and the Old Mistress do not have new coats for the New Year, as she herself does. A cook told O-lan that the family spends money recklessly: the Old Master keeps taking more concubines, and the Old Mistress is addicted to opium.
Hearing about the Hwangs’ difficulties and thinking about the rise in his own fortunes fills Wang Lung with joy. He rejoices in his mind about how well he has done and how lucky he is to have such a beautiful son. Realizing that he has been displaying his joy, Wang Lung becomes fearful that evil spirits will steal his fat, attractive son. To protect the child, he laments out loud that it is too bad that their firstborn is a girl with smallpox.
When O-lan mentions that the Old Mistress told her the Hwangs must sell some of their land, Wang Lung resolves to buy it.
After bribing the Hwangs’ agent, Wang Lung purchases the small parcel of land. He is happy to own this new land, but he must now work much harder to tend his fields. When O-lan becomes pregnant, he is irritated rather than glad, since he believes she will be unable to work during the harvest season. However, irritation gives way to happiness when O-lan gives birth to a second son and returns to the fields to work. Wang Lung has another good harvest, and again he has silver to spare.
The idle, decadent Hwangs pursue women and drugs, and their fortune slides. In contrast, the hardworking Wang Lung continues to prosper. In Chapter 5, the gatekeeper serves as a gauge for how far Wang Lung has come since marrying O-lan: on Wang Lung’s first visit to the Hwangs’ house in Chapter 1, the gatekeeper mocks him and demands a bribe before letting him in; now, the gatekeeper is visibly impressed with Wang Lung’s new suit and invites him in for a cup of tea. Similarly, Wang Lung was originally overawed by the spectacle of the house; now, however, he does not drink the tea brought to him by the gate man’s wife, as if the tea is not good enough for him.
Buck ascribes Wang Lung’s success to his continuing devotion to the land, and the Hwangs’ decline to their distance from it. When Wang Lung buys a parcel of land from the Hwangs, it both proves that he is growing richer and suggests that he wants to return his wealth to the land. Still, Wang Lung has begun to show subtle signs of change, and as his dream of material success comes true, he begins to lose some of his honest, simple frugality. We see this change in Chapter 5, when he behaves rudely to the gate man’s wife; it is perhaps most evident, however, in his gradually changing treatment of O-lan.
Buck presents an evenhanded picture of O-lan’s life. O-lan recognizes her good luck in marrying Wang Lung and shows her gratitude by being the perfect wife. She knows that her marriage brought her out of slavery and that Wang Lung is a kindhearted man who treats her well. Because she has become a wife and a mother of sons, her social status has improved, and she can depend on her sons to support her in her old age. Yet even in this fine situation, O-lan is constantly marginalized. Once the novelty of marriage wears off, Wang Lung begins to take O-lan for granted. In Chapter 6, for example, he is annoyed when she becomes pregnant, because it removes her from the fields. O-lan is an ideal wife, seldom complaining and always devoted, but Wang Lung does not appear to notice this.
O-lan does not outwardly complain about her former life as a slave. However, she seems pleased to hear of the Hwangs’ troubles, and she delights in presenting her son to the Old Mistress and proving that her social status has improved since she lived as a slave. However, Buck suggests that even in victory, O-lan must succumb to the dictates of a patriarchal world, for had O-lan given birth to a girl, she never could have taken pride in her daughter.
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