I find it puzzling that this was a bestseller when it was published in 1932. It’s the – very readable – story of a dirt-poor northern Chinese farmer in 1910 or so, who starts the story with nothing but a small plot of land. He then takes a wife and begins a family, survives a famine, finds money to buy more land and slowly grows in wealth and property until he becomes the wealthiest man in the region.
This might sound like an inspirational ‘rags-to-riches’ tale. It isn’t. Wang Lung ignores his wife, is disappointed with his sons and takes a mistress. He refuses to admit that he’s ever in the wrong and won’t be diverted from his one overriding concern: the land. It’s the one constant in his life, the only thing that doesn’t disappoint him. Yet as the book ends, his adult sons are making plans to sell it when he dies.
It is a good read. The story is brisk. It keeps you turning the pages. But if it isn’t a cautionary tale about the dangers of ‘success’, I don’t know what is. I really don’t know why it was so popular, especially in America, the home of The Dream.