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Wang Lung would like nothing better than to sit in the sun beside his elder daughter and smoke tobacco in his water pipe. But his eldest son pesters him until he gets rid of the poor people who rent the outer sections and lets him refurnish the entire mansion. Then the second son protests at his brother's extravagance in remodeling. Wang Lung, caught between his two sons, promises to put a stop to the spending. The thrifty second son is made steward of the estate, marries his village bride, and moves into the Great House. Meanwhile, Wang's third son also will not be a farmer but wants a tutor.
At long last the uncle dies, and with him the memories of this troublesome family. Wang has his uncle's opium-drugged wife moved into a back section of the mansion with a slave to care for her.
A period of five years passes and Wang Lung becomes grandfather to four boys and three girls. With a slave nursemaid for each child and slave servants for each of the families, the mansion is a hive of activity. But the eldest and the second sons and their wives have no love for each other, and Wang Lung's only peace is in watching his grandchildren tumbling and playing around him.
The scenes of Wang Lung with two of his sons reveal clearly their fully developed characters. The eldest son is full of pretension and spends money lavishly to show off the family's rise to upper-class status. The second son cares not at all for show but only for money and is even stingy in spending for his own wedding. Although a good steward, he seems likely to become a harsh landlord to the tenant farmers.
Wang is flattered to hear that people in the town now talk of the "great house" of Wang as they used to talk of the House of Hwang. But he warns his eldest son that the family must keep its roots in the soil from which its wealth comes. Now that the youngest son has turned his back on farming as his brothers did, is this very likely? The comparison with the former great house of Hwang leaves little doubt that the new house of Wang will face a similar decline.
Wang Lung has heard of wars being fought, always far away. Suddenly one comes close. A band of soldiers invades the mansion, led by the long absent no-good cousin. In the town the soldiers have broken into every house; when one householder protests, they kill him.
Wang Lung and his sons gather the women and children into the innermost court and keep it guarded night and day. But the uncle's son, their cousin, is a relative and has the run of the house. He eyes the women, insults the eldest son's wife, jokes with the bold second daughter-in-law, flatters Lotus, and demands a woman for himself. He chooses Pear Blossom, the delicate young girl whom Wang bought at Lotus' request. Lotus orders her roughly to obey, but the girl weeps in terror and appeals to Wang Lung, who is touched and decides to spare her. He sends Cuckoo with a more robust woman to the soldier-cousin who leaves the woman pregnant, he says, with a grandson for his opium-drugged mother.
Soldiers were a terror to the Chinese countryside in the 1920s, the period in which the later part of the novel is set. The central or Nationalist government of the new republic had little power in the country at large and "war lords" competed for rule in the provinces. Their private armies lived off the people, taking their shelter, food, and women where they pleased and killing any who dared to cross them. The behavior of the soldiers in the Wang mansion is a fair example, and the arrogant, aggressive soldier-cousin gives a faithful characterization of these men at their worst.
Little Pear Blossom's appeal could not fail to move the tenderhearted Wang Lung. Cuckoo, delivering the substitute woman, observes that the cousin will pluck whatever fruit is nearest. But you may have caught the hint that Pear Blossom has plans and will be heard from again.