Wang Lung and his family walk into town on their hundred-mile journey south. Passing through the town they join a crowd of other people who are waiting for the steam locomotive that will take them to their destination. Wang Lung has never seen one of these "firewagons" before, but he pays the fare of two pieces of silver, and the family travels south by train. A man on the train explains to Wang Lung that the first thing he must do in the south is make a hut out of mats, and then go out begging.
When he arrives in the city, which is named Kiangsu, Wang Lung purchases six mats, and builds a hut against the wall of a house on the outskirts of the city, alongside a group of other huts. He and his family then go to the public kitchens and for a few pence buy some cooked rice, along with many other hungry people.
The next morning, O-lan, the children, and Wang Lung's father go out on the streets to beg, while Wang Lung hires a rickshaw and tries to get some business conveying people around the town. An old man asks to be taken to the Confucian temple. The work is hard, since Wang Lung is not used to pulling a wagon behind him carrying the weight of a man. The man pays him with a silver piece, and Wang Lung is pleased with what he has earned until another rickshaw puller tells him that the man gave him only half the correct fare. He mocks Wang Lung's inexperience, calling him a country lout.
During the rest of the day, Wang Lung gets three more passengers, but when he adds up his money at the end of the day, he has earned only a penny more than the cost of hiring the rickshaw. He is filled with bitterness, and only the thought of the land that he still owns gives him comfort. When he goes home he finds that between them, O-lan and the boys have received enough from begging to pay for the following morning's rice. Wang Lung's father acquired nothing, however, since he refused to beg.
As the days go by, Wang Lung gets to know the city, but he and his family feel like foreigners there. The city people speak in different accents, and eat elaborate foods. Wang Lung listens to some young men who stand at corners and speak about the coming revolution, in which the Chinese will rise up against the foreigners. Wang Lung has never encountered a foreigner until one day an American woman rides in his rickshaw. She pays him twice the usual fare.
Although food in the city is abundant, Wang Lung and his family still find it hard to earn enough to buy food. The younger son becomes adept at petty thieving. One day, he steals some pork from a butcher, and O-lan cooks it along with some cabbage. Wang Lung is angry at the boy's thievery, and refuses to eat the meal. After the meal is over, Wang Lung takes the boy into the street and beats him.
In the city, there is a great gap between the rich and the poor. The older poor people accept that this is the way things are, but the young men are filled with anger and ready to revolt.
By late winter, Wang Lung has a strong desire to return to his land, but O-lan reminds him that he has nothing to sell except his daughter, and he refuses to even contemplate selling her into slavery.
That night one of Wang Lung's neighbors comes to talk to him. He tells Wang Lung that many poor people sell their daughters into slavery, as sometimes it is the only way to survive. He also tells Wang Lung about the luxurious lives of the people who live in the house the other side of the wall that supports their huts. He hints that there comes a time when the rich are too rich, and then there are ways for the poor to survive. Wang Lung does not understand what the man means; all he knows is that he desperately wants to return to the land, but that he cannot afford to do so.
Wang Lung soon learns how different life is in the big city from the life he is used to in his village. However, he understands little of the violent undercurrents that arise because of the great disparity in the city between the rich and the poor. It is clear to the reader that social revolution is in the air. Young men harangue crowds at street corners, and Wang Lung's neighbor speaks cryptically of times when "the rich are too rich." Just as the peasants on the land are subject to changing fortunes caused by the weather, so the rich city dwellers, although they do not yet realize it, are subject to tidal waves of change arising from social unrest. Nothing is as stable or permanent as it looks. Values are permanent, however, or so it seems. Wang Lung is an honest man who earns his meager living in the city by honest means. He cannot bring himself to beg. He is also a man of deep feeling who cannot bear to sell his daughter into slavery, even though others do it. He is also horrified at what is happening to his sons, who appear to be turning into thieves. (Later, this incident, in which Wang Lung berates his son for stealing, will acquire ironic significance.) Wang Lung instinctively realizes that city life is harming his family and his values, and he knows that he must get back to the land, and the type of life with which he will be comfortable.