Day by day beneath the opulence of this city Wang Lung lived in the foundations of poverty upon which it was laid. With the food spilling out of the markets, with the streets of the silk shops flying brilliant banners of black and red and orange silk to announce their wares, with rich men clothed in satin and in velvet, soft-fleshed rich men with their skin covered with garments of silk and their hands like flowers for softness and perfume and the beauty of idleness, with all of these for the regal beauty of the city, in that part where Wang Lung lived there was not food enough to feed savage hunger and not clothes enough to cover bones.
Men labored all day at the baking of breads and cakes for feasts for the rich and children labored from dawn to midnight and slept all greasy and grimed as they were upon rough pallets on the floor and staggered to the ovens next day, and there was not money enough given them to buy a piece of the rich breads they made for others. And men and women labored at the cutting and contriving of heavy furs for the winter and of soft light furs for the spring and at the thick brocaded silks, to cut and shape them into sumptuous robes for the ones who ate of the profusion at the markets, and they themselves snatched a bit of coarse blue cotton cloth and sewed it hastily together to cover their bareness.
Wang Lung living among these who labored at feasting others, heard strange things of which he took little heed. The older men and women, it is true, said nothing to anyone. Greybeards pulled rickshas, pushed wheelbarrows of coal and wood to bakeries and palaces, strained their backs until the muscles stood forth like ropes and they pushed and pulled the heavy carts of merchandise over the cobbled roads, ate frugally of their scanty food, slept their brief nights out, and were silent. Their faces were like the face of O-lan, inarticulate, dumb. None knew what was in their minds. If they spoke at all it was of food or of pence. Rarely was the word silver upon their lips because rarely was silver in their hands.
Their faces in repose were twisted as though in anger, only it was not anger. It was the years of straining at loads too heavy for them which had lifted their upper lips to bare their teeth in a seeming snarl, and this labor had set deep wrinkles in the flesh about their eyes and their mouths. They themselves had no idea of what manner of men they were. One of them once, seeing himself in a mirror that passed on a van of household goods, had cried out, “There is an ugly fellow!” And when others laughed at him loudly he smiled painfully, never knowing at what they laughed, and looking about hastily to see if he had offended someone.
At home in the small hovels where they lived, around Wang Lung’s hovel, heaped one upon another, the women sewed rags together to make a covering for the children they were forever breeding, and they snatched at bits of cabbage from farmers’ fields and stole handfuls of rice from the grain markets, and gleaned the year round the grass on the hillsides; and at harvest they followed the reapers like fowls, their eyes piercing and sharp for every dropped grain or stalk. And through these huts passed children; they were born and dead and born again until neither mother or father knew how many had been born or had died, and scarcely knew even how many were living, thinking of them only as mouths to be fed.
These men and these women and these children passed in and out of the markets and the cloth shops and wandered about the countryside that bordered on the city, the men working at this and that for a few pence and the women and children stealing and begging and snatching, and Wang Lung and his woman and his children were among them.
The old men and the old women accepted the life they had. But there came a time when the male children grew to a certain age, before they were old and when they ceased to be children, and then they were filled with discontent There was talk among the young men, angry, growling talk. And later when they were fully men and married and the dismay of increasing numbers filled their hearts, the scattered anger of their youth became settled into a fierce despair and into a revolt too deep for mere words because all their lives they labored more severely than beasts, and for nothing except a handful of refuse to fill their bellies. Listening to such talk one evening Wang Lung heard for the first time what was on the other side of the great wall to which their rows of huts clung.
It was at the end of one of those days in late winter when for the first time it seems possible that spring may come again. The ground about the huts was still muddy with the melting snow and the water ran into the huts so that each family had hunted here and there for a few bricks upon which to sleep. But with the discomfort of the damp earth there was this night a soft mildness in the air and this mildness made Wang Lung exceedingly restless so that he could not sleep at once as was his wont after he had eaten, so that he went out to the street’s edge and stood there idle.
Here his old father habitually sat squatting on his thighs and leaning against the wall and here he sat now, having taken his bowl of food there to sup it, now that the children filled the hut to bursting when they were clamoring. The old man held in one hand the end of a loop of cloth which O-lan had torn from her girdle, and within this loop the girl child staggered to and fro out falling. Thus he spent his days looking after this child wbo had now grown rebellious at having to be in her mother’s hosom as she begged. Besides this, O-lan was again with child and the pressure of the larger child upon her from without was too painful to bear.
Wang Lung watched the child falling and scrambling and falling again and the old man pulling at the loop ends, and standing thus he felt upon his face the mildness of the evening wind and there arose within him a mighty longing for his fields.
“On such a day as this,” he said aloud to his father, “the fields should be turned and the wheat cultivated.”
“Ah,” said the old man tranquilly, “I know what is in your thought. Twice and twice again in my years I have had to do as we did this year and leave the fields and know that there was no seed in them for fresh harvests.”
“But you always went back, my father.”
“There was the land, my son,” said the old man simply.
Well, they also would go back, if not this year, then next, said Wang to his own heart. As long as there was the land! And the thought of it lying there waiting for him, rich with the spring rains, filled him with desire. He went back to the hut and he said roughly to his wife.
“If I had anything to sell I would sell it and go back to the land. Or if it were not for the old head, we would walk though we starved. But how can he and the small child walk a hundred miles? And you, with your burden!”
O-lan had been rinsing the rice bowls with a little water and now she piled them in a corner of the hut and looked up at him from the spot where she squatted.
“There is nothing to sell except the girl,” she answered slowly.
Wang Lung’s breath caught.
“Now, I would not sell a child!” he said loudly.
“I was sold,” she answered very slowly. “I was sold to a great house so that my parents could return to their home.”
“And would you sell the child, therefore?”
“If it were only I, she would be killed before she was sold… the slave of slaves was I! But a dead girl brings nothing. I would sell this girl for you—to take you back to the land.”
“Never would I,” said Wang Lung stoutly, “not though I spent my life in this wilderness.”
But when he had gone out again the thought, which never alone would have come to him, tempted him against his will. He looked at the small girl, staggering persistently at the end of the loop her grandfather held. She had grown greatly on the food given her each day, and although she had as yet said no word at all, still she was plump as a child will be on slight care enough. Her lips that had been like an old woman’s were smiling and red, and as of old she grew merry when he looked at her and she smiled.
“I might have done it,” he mused, “if she had not lain in my bosom and smiled like that.”
And then he thought again of his land and he cried out passionately.
“Shall I never see it again! With all this labor and begging there is never enough to do more than feed us today.”
Then out of the dusk there answered him a voice, a deep burly voice,
“You are not the only one. There are a hundred hundred like you in this city.”
The man came up, smoking a short bamboo pipe, and it was the father of the family in the hut next but two to Wang Lung’s hut. He was a man seldom seen in the daylight, for he slept all day and worked at night pulling heavy wagons of merchandise which were too large for the streets by day when other vehicles must continually pass each other. But sometimes Wang Lung saw him come creeping home at dawn, panting and spent, and his great knotty shoulders drooping. Wang Lung passed him thus at dawn as he went out to his own ricksha pulling, and sometimes at dusk before the night’s work the man came out and stood with the other men who were about to go into their hovels to sleep.
“Well, and is it forever?” asked Wang Lung bitterly.
The man puffed at his pipe thrice and then spat upon the ground. Then he said,
“No, and not forever. When the rich are too rich there are ways, and when the poor are too poor there are ways. Last winter we sold two girls and endured, and this winter, if this one my woman bears is a girl, we will sell again. One slave I have kept—the first. The others it is better to sell than to kill, although there are those who prefer to kill them before they draw breath. This is one of the ways when the poor are too poor. When the rich are too rich there is a way, and if I am not mistaken, that way will come soon.” He nodded and pointed the stem of his pipe to the wall behind them. “Have you seen inside that wall?”
Wang Lung shook his head, staring. The man continued,
“I took one of my slaves in there to sell and I saw it. You would not believe it if I told you how money comes and goes in that house. I will tell you this—even the servants eat with chopsticks of ivory bound with silver, and even the slave women hang jade and pearls in their ears and sew pearls upon their shoes, and when the shoes have a bit of mud upon them or a small rent comes such as you and I would not call a rent, they throw them away, pearls and all!”
The man drew hard on his pipe and Wang Lung listened, his mouth ajar. Over this wall, then, there were indeed such things!
“There is a way when men are too rich,” said the man, and he was silent for a time and then as though he had said nothing he added indifferently,
“Well, work again,” and was gone into the night.
But Wang Lung that night could not sleep for thinking of silver and gold and pearls on the other side of this wall against which his body rested, his body clad in what he wore day after day, because there was no quilt to cover him and only a mat upon bricks beneath him. And temptation fell on him again to sell the child, so that he said to himself,
“It would be better perhaps that she be sold into a rich house so that she can eat daintily and wear jewels, if it be that she grow up pretty and please a lord.” But against his own wish he answered himself and he thought again, “Well, and if I did, she is not worth her weight in gold and rubies. If she bring enough to take us back to the land, where will come enough to buy an ox and a table and a bed and the benches once more? Shall I sell a child that we may starve there instead of here? We have not even seed to put into the land.”
And he saw nothing of the way of which the man spoke when he said, “There is a way, when the rich are too rich.”