Peasant Autonomy
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Story 36

Anhui Province, China – around 1900 (2)

Poor people in the big city

for bigger picture click on this photo

(Photo: Kimon Berlin)

Nanjing, China.

“The first thing you need to do is buy a few mats to make a hut” a fellow traveller in the train has advised. “And then, you look for a soup kitchen. For a penny, you will get a bowl of rice there.”
So Wang Lung buys a few mats from his copper coins, and his wife O-lan makes a hut from them. She builds it against the back side of a big wall. More huts are standing there. Thank God there is a soup kitchen nearby. Finally, they have something to eat again.

No copper coins are left now. “Go begging,” the man in the train has shouted. “That is better than working.” But Wang Lung fails to do that. With great difficulty, he learns to pull a rickshaw. Nevertheless, O-lan goes begging. She carries her baby on her arm. Hopefully, it will mollify the city people. Grandpa stays at the hut and looks after the toddler.

With great difficulty, they gather enough money to pay for the rent of the rickshaw, the bowls of rice, and a few urgent expenses. One night, when Wang Lung returns from his work, the hut smells of meat. When he takes his first bite, his son tells him with shining eyes that he has stolen the meat at the market. Furiously, Wang Lung smashes the meat on the floor and gives his son a few firm blows. “We are poor, but we are no thieves,” he shouts. But O-lan picks up the meat, washes it, and puts it back in the pot. “Meat is meat,” she says.

for bigger picture click on this photo

(Photo: Tzejen)

Nanjing, China.

One day, Wang Lung is frightened. Soldiers in rough long coats go through the city and round up all the men they can get. The soldiers are going to war and need coolies. Wang Lung succeeds in escaping by hiding himself in the back of the hut under some straw.
He doesn't dare to work during the day any more. Now he pushes carts with boxes and baskets during the night. It is heavy work and brings in only half of the money he earned with the rickshaw.

Wang Lung longs for his village, his land, and the good warm earth which has fed them year after year. They have to find a way to save some money and return even if they have to walk. When it is not possible this year, then next year. Life in the city is terrible for the poor and the land is waiting for them ...


The American writer Pearl Buck describes in The Good Earth (1931) the life of a peasant family with only a small piece of land. Halfway through the novel, the family becomes rich by chance. In one novel, you get an image of the life of a poor peasant, a rich farmer, and even a large landowner.

Go to:
= part 1: Famine - Anhui Province, China – around 1900 (1), story 35.
= the next page: The fur trapper - Siberia, Russia – 1902, story 37.
= the Table of contents, story 36.