Right after the 5th Pamiyabe Creative Writing Fellowship back in my college freshman days, I went to a book store and bought a copy of this novel. I was so inspired to read a classic then, and seeing that this was shelved in the classics section, I picked it up.
I told this classic inspiration to our editor-in-chief and about this book shopping, and she was rather horrified at the thought of the book. She said she reached halfway through it, and with a surge of annoyance, ditched the book. She swore never to open the book again and wished me luck.
What pushed her to such a conviction made me only more curious. I had to read it right away.
O-lan and Wang Lung are Chinese peasants. I can’t believe that I still remember the names, but yes, I barely remember the turn of events.
Anyway, this is the story of a poor couple and how they rose above poverty. What happened upon reaching a taste of success must be the strong points of this novel. Together, the couple held on to each other towards that path. And yes, money, too much money, destroyed their family peace and happiness.
Their kids didn’t grow up as they hoped they would be. Wang Lung took to vices and concubines. The kids quarreled over money, the husband transformed into a monster, and what about O-lan? She just remained there in the background, sticking to her silent resolve, working as hard as ever, and dying in the middle of the novel.
I guess this is the point when our editor-in-chief gave up. Even for me, it seemed that the novel ended there. The rest was like an extended epilogue, and to think that this novel is a part of the series, our editor-in-chief would have been mortified if I told her this.
O-lan was never the doting and perpetually jealous wife. She just carried on, trying to keep her family together, sucking in everything to herself. I remember she has this precious stone that was given to her by Wang Lung when they started reaping the rewards of their hard work. She never wore it, thinking that she doesn’t deserve it and that it was totally way out of her league. She just held on to it, keeping it inside her bosom, and taking it out now and then, clutching it, marveling at it, and putting it back inside her chest, close to her heart, wrapped with a fine piece of clothing.
One day, Wang Lung lost huge amounts of money thanks to his newfangled addiction, gambling. Running short on money, he forced O-lan to sell this precious stone. I imagine it is a sapphire, but it could be an emerald. Upon hearing her husband suggesting the unthinkable, of taking back a gift that you have grown attached to, she held back. She didn’t want to just return it and have it sold for such a lousy reason. In fact, I don’t think she would have let go of it no matter what. Only death could tear her apart from that piece of jewelry.
But alas, she gave in. She was only Wang Lung’s woman after all. With a heavy heart, she took it out of her chest. And that was the only time that I saw O-lan in her weakest. All the suffering, pain, and anger that she warded off all her life broke her down. Then after a while, she died of a disease that she hid from her family.
And Wang Lung was devoured by guilt. In the end, while on his deathbed, he asked his sons never, ever to sell their farm, the good earth that they cared for and the good earth that gave life to them. He had their word, but once his sons were out of sight, they started negotiating.
The selling of that piece of jewelry is what I best remember from this. It is enough for me to like it despite the ending that I didn’t enjoy, which left me hanging in a limbo.
Their kids grew up to be brats, who never held a hoe in their life. They went to expensive schools, but their schooling never contributed to their education. Yes, I am paraphrasing someone.
This only means that schooling does not necessarily make a man. I have met a lot of people from different strata of life, and I have to say that the ones that moved me are the uneducated ones. This could be misconstrued as utter pity for them, but I could say that this is out of compassion.
I somehow know their pains. In a way, my life story is similar. Poor parents who had a little success and who ended up poor again. I know how hard it is to live a life in squalor, that’s why my heart always go out to people who strive so much to make their lives better.
And what about my own schooling? I am proud to say that the only lessons that matters to me are the ones I learned in kindergarten. In fact, I did not learn them at kindergarten. I learned them from my mom. These are reading and writing.
When I learned how to do these two, everything else followed. I learned how to count, how to color, how to tell the time, how to draw, how to sing, how to follow instructions. I learned how to think critically, I learned how to listen carefully, and above all, I learned how to appreciate the wonders of life in this earth.
If you really think about it, schooling is all about reading and writing. You are responsible for your own education, so read well and write well.