We really don’t have to get very far into this novel before we meet a character who really opens the modern readers eyes to the reality of what it was like to be a woman in pre-revolutionary China: O-lan.
In a previous post I commented on the opening scene of the “Marriage Day” and how I thought there would have been more rejoicing and celebration. However, we read that Wang Lung washes his body for the first time in years–good idea–and there is the promise of rain which we are told is a good omen. So, for our protagonist, there actually is a fair amount of anticipation and eagerness on this day.
But then Wang Lung’s father says this: “It will be ill if we start the woman like this–tea in the morning water and all this washing!”. p. 5 He wants to set clear expectations for his new daughter in law from the beginning-she is there to serve the family, to work and bare sons and he doesn’t want her ‘softened’ by special treatment early on. He even says as much to Wang Lung “We must have a woman who will tend the house and bear children as she works in the fields…” p8. Not cool Mr Lung, not cool at all! 😦
This introduces an important theme that runs throughout the book: the role of women in society. Essentially, to be born a woman was to be born into slavery; O-lan was sold by her parents when she was 10 years old. There was a famine that year and selling her allowed the family to buy food and to return to their home in the north. It is hard to find the words to describe this but let me try…absolutely reprehensible! And to think that this was a ‘normal’ everyday occurrence only 100 years ago!
Another theme in the book should be fairly obvious: the Earth. Wang Lung and his father are poor farmers who live in a home made of the earth “… And thatched with straw from their own wheat”, their kitchen is made “… Of earthen bricks…” p2 even their oven was made “out of their own earth” p2 by his grandfather. Here they prepare food grown and harvested from their own soil and live a simple life connected to the land. We read that rain is considered a good omen, evidence of ‘well wishes’ from the supernatural and he burns incense to earth gods “… Formed from the earth of the fields…” p20 illustrating not only Wang Lung’s devotion and connection to the land, but the cyclical nature of their lives.
These two themes are introduced early on and allow us to observe a man and his family whose life and livelihood come from the land; it also offers us a look at the role women play and the contributions they make.
I am drawn into this story from the very beginning because it’s a world I know very little about. Also, this character of O-lan, sold into slavery at the tender age of ten, touches my heart. I want her to find happiness and to build a life and raise a family with her husband. I want her to find love and respect; I want to see her life change for the better once she marries Wang Lung and is ‘set free’ from slavery. But, this is a glimpse of a different time and a different culture; and their sensibilities back then were far different from ours today. I think this is why there is so much to glean and to learn from this novel. It brings history to life by allowing me to not only see what life was like back then, but, in the process, to realize and to feel the injustice of it all!
What are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree? Tell me in the comments below.