“In fact, the birth of female child was considered to be both a time of sadness and a time of an evil omen.”(Lotus 54) A woman is still considered to be a weaker gender in today’s society and the inequality between male and female perpetuates. In fact, this situation is quite prevalent in Pearl S.Buck’s The Good Earth, whereby women continue to be suppressed by the more superior and masculine group which are men. Restrained by the traditional Chinese society’s belief, woman is expected to be an inferior group in every aspect of life. They are only capable of becoming a concubine, a wife, and a mother. In other words, their lives are dictated to men.
Society expectation’s on them is so low in the sense that they only can become subordinates to husbands, fathers and sons. Moreover, a birth of a girl is considered to be a great disaster in a family as they are believed to bring evil destiny. Because of this mindset, women are subjected to high-levels of infanticide or sold as slaves to wealthier families as female children only bring shame to a family. This shows the injustice of gender as females are continually oppressed and they have to face hardships constrained by ancient Chinese society’s belief in their whole life from abuse in childhood to servitude in adulthood. The oppression of women in Pearl S.Buck’s The Good Earth is evident through the way the Chinese society mistreats women and some of the olden practice such as concubinage, foot-binding practice, and slavery.
The birth of a female baby is seen to be a misfortune to a family as it is an evil omen. The birth of a girl is believed to bring bad luck in a family, and thus is fated to face discrimination in the ancient Chinese society. When O-lan gives birth to the first girl, she hollowly says, “It is only a slave this time-not worth mentioning”(Buck 51). Daughters are valued less than sons. When the first girl is born, Wang Lung suspects the girl is the source of all evil in his home, “Wang Lung stood still. A sense of evil struck him. A girl! A girl was causing all this trouble in his uncle’s house. Now a girl had been born into this house as well”(Buck 51). The birth of a female child will only bring burden to a family as they have to make sure the girl gets sufficient food to grow up. Thus, it is just a waste of family resources to raise a female child. Apart from that, when they are married off, the family needs to pay a dowry. O-Lan says, “Well, and who will pay for the dowry and for the wedding and for the middleman’s fees?”(Buck 47).
Obviously, she feels contempt towards the birth of female child since the child will be like a parasite to the family and she will not benefit the family in the future, “A female child was considered to be a liability to the family because she was thought to be only a temporary member of the family – someone who had to be supported until she could be married”(Lotus 54). The patrilineal system is practiced in the ancient Chinese society. Therefore, a girl will not be the member of her own family when she is married to other family as ancestry is traced through the male side of the family. That is why the birth of a son is considered a blessing to a family.
When Wang Lung has the first baby who is a female, their family celebrates it with joy: “We shall have to buy a good basketful of eggs and dye them all red for the village. Thus will everyone know I have a son!”(Buck 33). On the other hand, daughters are considered a disaster to a family. Consequently, O-lan kills her daughter by smothering her without asking Wang Lung when she realizes the daughter cannot be supported during the famine. It is a social norm for a Chinese family to kill female infants instead a male as they are a liability to a family. Daughters are sacrificed in many critical situations which show great discrimination against female gender.
The practice of taking a concubine is a tradition during Chinese ancient times. This is because there is no love between bride and bridegroom during marriage. The marriage purpose is only to provide a male inheritor to continue the family line. They both see each other for the first time on their wedding day. This is shown when Wang Lung marries with O-lan without knowing her appearance. He is satisfied with her look because there are no pock-marks and lip split except for her unbound feet. If the husband is not satisfied with his wife’s look or appearance, he will most probably go flirting outside and find a concubine to satisfy his carnal lust. This is proven from the quote: “because the Chinese man could not see his bride until the wedding day, the later possession of a concubine for her beauty alone was a common practice”(Lotus 56). Even a wife cannot withhold her husband from such practice, and to make it worse she cannot divorce him as it is an offense.
A man can divorce his wife as he like because of his supreme authority in a family. As for Wang Lung, he takes Lotus as his concubine because love does not blossom between him and O-lan. O-lan cannot thwart Wang Lung from taking concubine. She only can remain silent all the time when Lotus moves into her house, “Then when they slept and Wang Lung still sat at the table dreaming she washed herself for sleeping and at last she went into her accustomed room and slept alone upon her bed” (Buck 152). This reveals that women have to accept their fate of being betrayed by their husband. Men are allowed to do anything to a concubine as long as he provides the concubine with comfort and pleasant things. When he first sees Lotus, he is entirely attracted to her physical appearance especially her bound feet which O-Lan does not have. This is the reason:”This was easy for Lotus Flower since Wang Lung has all consuming desire for Lotus Flower.
Her beauty, including her small feet, totally captivated him.”(Lotus 57)If the love foundation between Wang Lung and O-lan is strong enough, he will not be tempted that easily to exercise his lust with Lotus. There is some news about women who cannot bear her husband for betraying them and kill themselves, “Some women will even hang themselves upon a beam with a rope when a man takes a second woman into the house”(Buck 153). As such, Wang Lung feels guilty and ashamed for his affair with Lotus. The feeling of guilty does not hinder him from demanding the pearls from O-lan to give to Lotus since she is too irresistible for him to stop continue having such affair. Wang Lung even releases anger on O-lan when his uncle’s wife arranges all the matter regarding Wang Lung and Lotus’ reunion. O-lan’s depression is showed by the quote, “I have borne you sons – I have borne you sons -“(Buck 149). He tries to convince himself that he has done nothing wrong as rich people taking concubine is a practice that time. Thus, this shows that woman has no power at all and is subjected to any kind of sufferings in every facet of life.
Women are also mistreated through foot-binding practice.
“Foot-binding was the act of wrapping three- to five-year old girls feet with binding as to bend the toes under, break the bones and force the back of the foot together. The tight binding primarily cut the circulation, and this retarded the growth of the foot.” (Chinese 51)The purpose of foot binding is
to produce tiny foot which looks beautiful to a man. Women have to go through such anguish process in order to attain affection from their husbands in the future. O-lan tells her daughter that her husband will not love her if her feet are not bound. Wang Lung’s daughter wept from the pain of her bindings when her mother tightened the bandages too tightly. Her daughter tells O-lan that she cannot sleep at night when her feet are bounded. The daughter claims that her mother tells her that her husband might not love her just as Wang Lung does not love O-Lan if she does not do so. The proof is:”and my mother said I was not to weep aloud because you are too kind…and then my husband would not love me even as you do not love her.” (Buck 190)There is an old Chinese saying: “For every pair of small feet, there is a jar full of tears.” Foot-binding cripples women and makes them unable to move properly.
Therefore, it is understandable that Lotus flower barely moves around Wang Lung’s house because of her bound feet: “Because woman could walk only a very short distance, she was confined primarily to her household”(Chinese 51). Chinese men use their superior position to coerce woman to conform to the standard of beauty which is gruesome. Thus, many women have to go through a cruel process in order to get men’s attention. “Bound feet were thought to be seductive. Men thought that if a girl bound her feet, her waist became more slender, and her breasts and hips bigger and more shapely.”(Chinese 53) When Wang Lung becomes rich, he realizes how disgusting his wife’s big feet are, “It seemed to him that she was altogether hideous, but the most hideous of all were her big feet in their loose cotton cloth shoes”(Buck 130). The sign of foot-binding practice becomes more prominent to Wang Lung when he becomes rich, “I have labored and have grown rich and I would have my wife look less like a hind. And those feet of yours – -” (Buck 130).
When he looks at Lotus at the first time, he is attracted to her because of her bound feet, “If one had told him that there could be feet like these, little feet thrust into pink satin shoes no longer than a man’s middle finger, and swinging childishly over the bed’s edge – if anyone had told him he would not have believed it” (Buck 137). Wang Lung thinks that the distorted beauty in Lotus’ bound feet is perfect for sexual satisfaction. Thus, she takes her as concubine. The possession of Lotus makes him well-respected by the villagers. In the olden days, the practice of foot-binding is also a reflection of a family’s responsibility to a girl. If the girl has her feet bound, it shows that she is raised properly by her parents. Henceforth, women have no choice but to comply with this torture. This is also another way of women’s discrimination during the Chinese olden times.
The injustice against women is also depicted through female slavery in ancient China. The selling of daughters as slaves is omnipresent during the time of poverty. They are sold as servants or prostitutes in order to give the son, who is a family’s asset, a better survival in the time of famine. There is one period in the novel when Wang Lung is desperate to cultivate his land because he cannot withstand the awful condition his family members are having, in where they resort to stealing and begging in order to survive. O-Lan tells Wang Lung that that she will sell his daughter so that he able to return to his own land but Wang Lung strongly opposes her. O-Lan tells him that she is sold so that his parents could return to their home. She stated that, “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”(Buck 90-91). Even a man from the next hut tells Wang Lung that he is not the only in that dreadful situation: “When the rich are too rich, there is a way, and if I am not mistaken that way will come soon”(Buck 92).
This shows that a daughter is regarded as worthless and thus is always used as a tradable object when a financial problem arises. In addition, a wife is always treated as a maid in the Chinese olden times. For example, O-lan acts like a servant to Wang Lung’s family rather a marital partner. O-lan does not only take the responsibilities of running household, but also helps Wang Lung to work in the field. She did not even complain to Wang Lung about her hard labour. Wang Lung is very satisfied with his wife that time, “But in the day her clothes, her plain blue cotton coat and trousers, covered all that he knew, and she was like a faithful, speechless serving maid, who is only a serving maid and nothing more”(Buck 26). A wife is expected to give birth to children, run the household, and serve all the family members. If they cannot do any of these tasks, they are considered to be useless and thus will be divorced by their husbands. This social custom portrays degradation of women’s position in the Chinese ancient times.
To conclude, Pearl S.Buck has well portrayed the oppression of oriental woman in his work The Good Earth. Women are oppressed because Chinese society considers female babies as an evil omen in a family, the practice of concubinage, and the practice of foot-binding and slavery. In the present, people are fighting for the equality between man and woman. Women’s status has changed. They are not looked down in China today. They have the right to do anything as long as they abide the laws. In this modern era, women play a role in prospering the country. They are given chances to face challenges in life and participate in this competitive society: “The role and status of women in China today is characterized by increased opportunities along with intense competition and major challenges”(Xie Heng).
I think the step to liberate women is appropriate as God creates human to be equal in all sense regardless the gender. God does not create junk. In other words, things that happened to O-lan should not occur again in the future as it is unjust. It is indeed a good sign that female is seen to stand as tall as their masculine counterparts in this modern age. However, discrimination of women still occurs in some places. It is necessary to rectify these problems so that the tragic events in Pearl S.Buck’s The Good Earth in which women are despised will not arise in the future. “A girl should not expect special privileges because of her sex but neither should she adjust to prejudice and discrimination.” (Betty Friedan, feminist)
Buck, Pearl S. The Good Earth. Great Britain: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1976.
Huntley, Stephen Veo. “The Chinese Custom of Foot Binding.” Cliffnotes 50-54. 23 Apr 2008Huntley, Stephen Veo. “Lotus Flower and Concubinage.” Cliffnotes 50-54. 23 Apr 2008Inspiring Quotes by Women. 17 May 2008 .
Xie Heng. “The Changing Role and Status of Women in China.” The 1990 Institute 23 April 2008 .