The Good Earth…And Water
An Introduction to Farming
A Report by Joanna D.
All things come from the earth: mud houses, crops, silver, and even man himself. It is the only thing which lasts. The possession of earth is paramount to prosperity. Yet the earth is not independent. Water is her dearest friend, because without water, the earth cannot bear up. On the other hand, the earth’s only enemy is water, because when the dykes break and the river overruns the field, who can eat? Floods cause as much famine as droughts do. When either one is absent, all prosperity vanishes.
Man comes from the earth, and all his possessions with him. Man was created by God on the sixth day out of the dust. When Wang Lung the farmer looks at his wife O-lan and his child they, “were as brown as the soil and they sat there like figures made of earth. There was the dust of the fields upon the woman’s hair and upon the child’s soft black head.” There was dust, as though they had just been created and the dust of their formation was still clinging to them. This dust symbolizes not only man’s origin, but also his fate. Just as he rose up out of the ground, man will also return to dust, but not only him. All things will return to the dust or their origin. “Some time at some age, the bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house, some time, return to the earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth.”
Everything that Wang Lung creates he does so from the earth. His house is made of packed earth. It is a practical house. One can drop tea on the floor without fear of mess. Even when he is richer and builds an addition to his house, and the roof is covered with tiles, “the walls were still made of the hard tamped earth from the fields” Not only is the earth good and practical for building, but it is also good for mending broken structures. O-lan, “took earth from the fields and mixed it with water and mended the walls of the house”. This is not said idly. This is a potent symbol for the healing strength of the earth. When Wang Lung is beset by the contrariness of his eldest son, he works outside, “Then the good land did again its healing work and the sun shone on him and healed him and the warm winds of summer wrapped him about with peace.” Indeed, the land does him the favor of sending locusts to his fields to show him that all the other things that he was worrying about really were not the worst things that could happen.
From the earth also come Wang Lung’s crops, which are the source of his prosperity. “It had come out of the earth this silver, out of his earth that he ploughed and turned and spent himself upon. He took his life from this earth; drop by drop by his sweat he wrung food from it and from the food silver.” From the land came Wang Lung’s prosperity. He recognizes this himself. “And if I had the gold and the silver and the jewels, I would buy land with it, good land, and I would bring forth harvests from the land!” And only when he begins to leave the land, to abandon the supervision of its growth, does his prosperity begin to grow less. That was how rich House of Hwang fell. They abandoned the industry that had made their house great and sold their land to Wang Lung. Then the peasants ransacked the houses to which they had sold their daughters as slaves. It is a saying with the people in China, “When the rich are too rich there are ways, and when the poor are too poor there are ways.” Wang Lung recognizes this. “‘It is the end of a family—when they begin to sell the land,’ he says brokenly. “Out of the land we came and into it we must go—and if you will hold your land you can live—no one can rob you of land—” “‘If you sell the land, it is the end.”
Wang Lung worships gods his grandfather made from the earth. It is interesting to note that while when Wang leaves incense at their temple, the year is good, but when he speaks harshly to his uncle, a thing unheard of in a region that respects the older generation, there is a great drought and everyone starves. When the drought ends and he offers incense to them again things are well until he forgets to offer them incense, and the locusts come. Again he grows careless and prideful, and he does not fear the gods. Shortly after, it floods. As the story goes on, Wang becomes ever more prideful and careless. Then, in his old age, his sons decide to sell the land, and there is nothing that he can do about it.
Whoever caused the floods and the droughts, water is essential to the earth. The Good Earth begins with Wang Lung feeling out the window for rain. Rain is essential to Man; without it, all the crops die and he starves to death. Moreover, man needs water not only for his crop, but for drinking. This creates a sort of double edged knife. “‘If the children must drink and the old man have his hot water the plants must go dry.’” Yet “‘Well, and they must all starve if the plants starve.” Inversely, the rain has the power of death over them because when rain falls for too long the plants become waterlogged and die. The water also holds peril for man when he falls in and drowns himself.
Again water is necessary for the building of their houses. The walls will not hold together until the constituent dirt has been mixed with water and mended. Just as O-lan uses mud to mend the walls of the house after the rains, so water is necessary for building. At the same time, when it flooded, “the water rose into the earthen houses and softened the walls and burst them apart and they melted down into the water and were as if they had never been.” Water is destructive and tears down even the dyke, and, when it is not mended, the river floods the land.
Water is necessary for the earth to bear its crops. When there is no rain, even with a river close by, one needs many men to water the fields. But who can get men to water his fields if he cannot pay them? Who but a rich man had enough money to do that when he may not get any if the crop does not survive? When it floods, however, the problem is worse. The plants wilt and rot and come loose from their soil. Even with many men to dig ditches, the fields may still go under water. Bailing water from a field is much harder than bailing water onto it. Supposing that a crop did come through, what would all money in the world mean in a region where there was not food to buy with it? Food many become a legal form of tender, but silver will be all but useless when there is nothing to buy with it. Land is the only kind of wealth that endures, and the man who, like Wang Lung, reinvest in the land itself, are wise indeed.
The gods of the earth that Wang Lung’s grandfather sculpted may hold the authority over the earth. As observed, they probably also control the insects, the rain, and the river. Ironically, however, when Wang Lung stops tending them because he has grown careless, the rains wear the faces of the gods away. When Wang Lung goes to see them after the droughts, “they were piteous to behold, their features washed from their faces with rain and the clay of their bodies naked and sticking through the tatters of their paper clothes.” If they are the gods of the earth and control the rain, then why does it have this power over them? Perhaps it is because they are self-destructive. To the extent that they discipline man and the earth under him, they actually harm themselves and man’s allegiance to them.
What is the prosperity that either the gods bring or the land brings? Many would say that it was silver. Wang Lung would probably call it land. I have said that the earth and the water must work together for prosperity to exist. I say, however, that prosperity is not an object. It is what one works for. “Each time before this that he had taken the silver out to give any one, it had been like taking a piece of his life and giving it to someone carelessly. But now for the first time such giving was not pain. He saw, not the silver in the alien hand of the merchant in the town; he saw the silver transmuted in to something worth even more than itself—clothes upon the body of his son.” As his wife lies dying, Wang Lung expresses it more clearly, “This I cannot bear! I would sell all my land if it could heal you.” Prosperity is neither silver nor land, but what one makes of the silver and land.
The Good Earth encompasses all that Wang Lung and his family do, but is that only because the earth is good? Is it not also that the earth has something else, supporting and protecting her to make her great? The earth is good and brings prosperity to those who work it diligently, but this is only to the extent that there is the Good Water. Have one without the other and prosperity crumbles.