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Running about the city all day, Wang Lung becomes more and more aware of the gap between the rich and the poor who serve them. In the slum around their hut, children are born and die with such frequency that even their parents scarcely know how many there have been. O-lan is pregnant again. With spring in the air, Wang longs for the fields which he should be plowing. If they had something to sell, he tells O-lan, they could go home now. O-lan answers that they have something, their daughter. The little girl has grown and filled out, and is learning to walk although she doesn't talk.
A neighbor who works all night pulling heavy supply wagons into the city tells them he has sold two daughters and will sell a third if the child his wife is now carrying turns out to be a girl. Others kill their newborn daughters but he sells his. He has sold one to the mansion on the other side of the wall, a rich man's house where even the servants eat with ivory and silver chopsticks.
Wang Lung considers selling his small daughter. She would be fed and clothed, and he would be able to take the family back to the land. This is one of the ways to survive, when the poor are too poor. But his neighbor also says ominously, "When the rich are too rich, there are ways."
Pearl Buck here draws her sharpest picture of the desperation of the city's poor. Wang's old father has been through times like this twice in his youth but each time he returned to the land because it is always there. Wang has almost decided to sell his small daughter. He doesn't wonder about his neighbor's second piece of wisdom, about what happens when the rich are too rich. But to you this is a promise. After wondering how Wang and his family can ever escape from this situation, you might now expect some dramatic turn in their story.
Leaflets are handed out by speakers on the street. One leaflet shows Jesus, another depicts a fat rich man standing over a worker who is skin and bones. Christianity and Communism were two of the alternatives being offered the desperate. Both, you should notice, were systems foreign to China. Wang understands nothing of all this. But one day he sees soldiers dragging away men like himself. The shopkeeper who hides him explains that the soldiers are capturing the men in preparation for a battle nearby. Wang Lung, to avoid being seized, changes his work to hauling the heavy wagons at night, for half as much as he made with his riksha. Meanwhile O-lan and the boys see people in silks and wagonloads of their possessions leaving the city. Presently the market stalls are bare and the shops shut.
With his daughter in his lap, thinking that he must sell her, Wang Lung asks O-lan about her life as a slave. She tells him she was beaten every day. And the pretty slaves? They were taken to the young lords' beds and then given to the men servants, while they were still children. Wang Lung, horrified, can still think of no other way to return to his land but to sell the girl. Suddenly his burly neighbor calls out that the rich man's gates are open. O-lan quickly steals away. Wang is swept through the gates with the mob.
While the mob fights over the richly painted boxes of clothing, bedding, dishes, and household goods, Wang comes upon a fat man, richly dressed, who was too slow to escape. The man begs for his life, offering money in return. Wang takes all the man's money and lets him go, then hurries back to the hut, rejoicing: "Tomorrow we go back to the land!"
Here Pearl Buck gives us another stunning picture, this time of the fleeing rich, the shut-down city, and the famished poor falling upon the possessions of the rich. She even gives us a moment of comedy when Wang Lung, who was too soft-hearted to kill an ox to feed his starving children, thunders at the fat man after taking all his money, "Out of my sight, lest I kill you for a fat worm!" Now Wang Lung has what he could never have achieved by his back-breaking toil and O-lan's begging: an escape from poverty. Pearl Buck seems to indicate that only by plundering the rich can the poor escape their hopeless condition. What do you think now of the morals of Wang Lung, who punished his second son for stealing a bit of meat but feels no guilt in extorting the rich man's money? Or will Wang pay a high price in the future for this act? What grows out of this seed money when he returns to his village?