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.