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The Good Earth



Gritty, moving tale of couple in turn-of-the century China.

What parents need to know

Educational value

The sweeping changes that occurred at the turn of the 20th century in China are brilliantly depicted by an author who witnessed them firsthand. Readers get a vivid picture of the lives of poor farmers, and their relationships to the land, their emperor, and each other, and the beginnings of modernization that would lead to the 1949 revolution. The social traditions that oppressed women, from foot-binding to arranged marriages and subservience to husbands, are explored in an eloquent, moving manner.

Positive messages

The themes of the search for meaning in life and life's inevitable tragedies both predominate. The Good Earth derives its title from the author's conviction that a connection to and reverence for the earth can actually lead to inner goodness and peace, and that a disconnection from nature can only result in a lack of fulfillment. Buck presents human beings as transitory, with the earth as the only constant.

Positive role models

As protagonist Wang Lung journeys from poverty to success, we see the price he pays for his upward mobility. By today's Western standards, his wife, O-lan's, subservience and victimhood are appalling. Yet, she retains a quiet power and dignity throughout her ordeals, and her strength is both inspiring and exemplary.


Violence in the usual sense isn't shown, but the lives of the poor Chinese peasants -- particularly women -- are depicted graphically. Foot-binding, daughters sold into slavery, women as concubines, and female infanticide by strangling are all presented unblinkingly.


No explicit sex, but the reality of life as a concubine -- and the acceptance of the role of the concubine in the Chinese culture of the period -- are presented very matter-of-factly.

Not applicable
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Drinking, drugs, & smoking

The drinking of rice wine and the smoking of tobacco and opium are presented in the historical context of the time and place, but are not made to look glamorous or even particularly significant.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this book is unsparing in its depiction of the oppression of women and the horrors of peasant life in turn-of-the-century China (in one scene the corpse of an infant is left to be devoured by a starving dog). The author also makes her views on wealth as a destroyer of traditional values quite clear.

What's the story?

In turn-of-the-century China, Wang Lung, a poor young farmer, is sold a slave, O-lan, who becomes his wife. Although they steadily become prosperous and enjoy the birth of a son, they soon fall prey to famine and economic instability. The novel follows the couple from young marrieds to old age, and parallels the growth of China itself from an ancient dynasty to a nation of very modern crises.

Is it any good?


Young readers will be impressed by the gritty realism, the graphic depiction of a certain kind of society (that still exists today), and the redeeming lessons learned by the characters. THE GOOD EARTH won the Pulitzer Prize and is considered a classic. It has been in print since its first publication in 1931, and was made into a popular film in 1937. It is a fine example of the work of Pearl S. Buck, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the advantages of wealth and materialism (status, comfort, security) and disadvantages (separation from nature, the erosion of values).

  • How and why are the Western Christian missionaries (which both of the author's parents were) satirized?

  • What factors contributed to the Chinese culture of this period oppressing and abusing women even more so than other cultures?

  • Why might it be important to foster and maintain a relationship to the earth and nature, when doing so is no longer necessary?

  • Wang Lung and his eldest son share many similarities, but what are their crucial differences?

Book details

Author:Pearl S. Buck
Genre:Historical Fiction
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Washington Square Press
Publication date:March 2, 1931
Number of pages:337

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Teen, 13 years old Written byDaking March 6, 2014

Best book ever by far

Everyone should read this book
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models
Parent Written byMixL August 6, 2013

Kids will be bored.

Yes Good Earth is a classic. Yes it is an interesting story. But the pace is slow and I cannot imagine any 12 year old I know not being bored to tears by it.
Parent Written byAndrew H July 14, 2015

Exceptional, Harrowing and Euphemistic

A wonderful book, I still read it 20 years later. A spot on look into the Chinese collective unconscious, the best book I've ever read on the backdrop of modern Chinese culture. Changed how the world viewed China with its incredibly realistic portrayal, practically a first hand account. However, I think families should know that there are several euphemistic treatings of philandering and polygamy. The main character frequents a prostitute and later sleeps with a young girl. While opium is clearly looked down on it is mentioned quite frequently. The realism is exceptional but it has these costs. It's a great read, a page turner, Story at its best and a beautiful but harrowing (again, strict realism) look into the soul of China.
What other families should know
Educational value
Too much sex