The setting is rural China in the early 1900s. The poor farmer Wang Lung and his father have lived alone in a small house since his mother passed away six years ago. Wang arduously tends the fields around the house, which sits some distance from a gate, representing the entrance to the nearest town.
Today, Wang Lung wakes and realizes that it is a special occasion - his marriage day. He notices a soft wind in the air, which he takes as a sign of rain to come, and considers it a good omen. He tends quickly to his old father, excited that these chores will now be the job of his new wife. Moreover, if she grows weary, their children will take over the tasks. Wang looks around his empty house and imagines his children. He is careful to distinguish his future family from that of his uncle's brood, which he regards with disdain.
Wang takes extra measures on this day. Although water is precious and his father complains, he takes a full body bath. Ashamed of his tattered clothing, he dons a new suit and his festive robe. He also tidies up the house, though he is embarrassed that the fuss is for a woman.
The wife-to-be, O-lan, is a slave from the House of Hwang, a rich landowning family with a large estate. Wang's father, who arranged the marriage, chooses a plain bride for his son since an attractive woman is less likely to work in the fields or be a virgin.
As Wang heads into town to pick up his bride, he stops at the Street of Barbers and gets a head and face shave. Wang tries to bargain, but the barber outwits him and has a hearty laugh at his expense. Wang, feeling inferior to these town dwellers, quickly agrees to pay the full price, embarrassed lest his appear a country bumpkin. The barber remarks that the new style is for men to cut off their long braids - Wang is horrified and maneuvers his own braid out of the barber's reach. Wang is shocked that he has already spent so much, but he justifies it by saying that it is only once.
At the market, Wang buys pork, beef, and bean curd for his marriage celebration. (Though Wang has neglected to tell his father, he has invited his uncle, his uncle's son, and three neighboring farmers to dinner that evening.) Wang also purchases incense for the Earth God in the village temple, in gratitude for the good fortune of impending rainfall.
With his purchases, Wang makes his way to the House of Hwang to retrieve his bride. At the gate, he is gripped with fear. He is angry that he had not thought to bring someone to come with him. He stares at the front gate, and still too afraid to enter, he decides to go and eat first.
He orders noodles at a dingy restaurant nearby and slurps them up greedily. A beggar passes and begs Wang for change. Wang, never having been considered a man of wealth, is pleased and rewards the beggar. Wang continues to sit at the restaurant, unable to muster the courage to return to the House. However, seeing one of his invited dinner guests, Wang tells himself that the deed must be done, and he rises from his table.
At the House of Hwang, the gatekeeper rudely asks the reason for Wang's visit. Like the barber, the gatekeeper has a great laugh at Wang's inferiority and only agrees to admit Wang if he is given silver. The naï¿½ve Wang readily opens his purse to show the gatekeeper that he does not have much money to offer. The gatekeeper helps himself to the rest of Wang's silver and motions for Wang to follow him into the house. Wang enters, unsure of how to act in a rich man's house. He is led to a waiting room, and he is soon summoned to appear before the Old Mistress Hwang. The gatekeeper, disgusted at Wang's ignorance, yells at him to leave behind his meager parcel of groceries.
Wang is so overpowered by the Old Mistress, sitting on a raised dais and smoking opium, that he falls to his knees. The contemptuous gatekeeper tells the old lady that Wang does not speak because he is a fool, making Wang furious. Momentarily, the Mistress forgets the reason for Wang's presence, but her slave reminds her that he has come for the woman. She quickly calls for O-lan and tells her that Wang has come to take her away.
To Wang, the Old Mistress summarizes O-lan's past. Her parents had sold her when she was ten, in a year of great famine, and she has since lived in the House of Hwang. Although she is "somewhat slow and stupid," she has a strong body and will be a hard worker. To O-lan, the Old Mistress commands her to obey Wang and to bear many sons, of which she demands to see the first, once it is born. Then, she dismisses O-lan and Wang Lung, who walk back to the house as a couple (though she walks behind him as is the custom for women in China).
Along the way, he buys her some peaches, for which she is grateful. Wang is periodically forgetful that the woman is "his," and he has to remind himself. They stop at the village temple and light a stick of incense in front of the Earth God. Wang is pleased to see that O-lan attends to the burning incense, flicking away what has already burnt, and he considers it a symbol of their marriage.
Upon their return, Wang's father ignores the woman, since it is beneath him to notice her. However, when he sees the basket of meats, he reproaches Wang for spending money. Wang calmly explains that there will be guests that evening. Secretly Wang's father is pleased that there will be a feast, but he is quick with his complaints to show the new woman that they are not a family of great wealth.
O-lan prepares a delicious dinner, and everyone eats heartily. Wang is proud that O-lan has prepared such a fine meal although outwardly, he criticizes the dishes (as is customary). The guests converse a while after dinner, and after the last guest leaves, Wang rouses the napping O-lan. Again, he reminds himself that O-lan is his legal wife and he need not be shy around her. When they finally undress for bed, Wang laughs with satisfaction. He and O-lan end the day by consummating their marriage.
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Chapter 2 and 3
Chapter 4 and 5
Chapter 6 and 7
Chapter 10 and 11
Chapter 12 and 13