No man is an island—especially in rural China where filial duty and social customs bind every man's life to another's. As Wang Lung's fortune changes, so do the lives of those around him. Although Wang Lung is consumed by thoughts of his own family, prosperity and land, all he has to do is to look in his neighbor Ching's face to see a reflection of his own humanity.
A Circle of Friends
When Wang Lung celebrates his marriage to O-lan, Ching is part of the small circle of men Wang Lung invites to dinner. A small, quiet man, "ever unwilling to speak unless he were compelled to it," Ching is merely a body at the dinner table. (p. 22) Ching exists on the periphery of Wang Lung's life but during the first year of the newlywed's marriage he appears again. This time, Ching has been forced to kill his pig that appeared to be getting sick before its meat became worthless. Because he has been frugal with his money and waited to sell his harvest until winter, Wang Lung is able to buy a leg of pork from Ching. And while others are struggling through the harsh winter, Wang Lung hosts another "feast" to celebrate his first son's month birthday, giving each of his guests ten red boiled eggs. (p. 42) In this sense, it seems everyone benefits from Wang Lung flaunting his good fortune, but they also grow to envy him.
Reaping What You Sow
In envy lie the seeds of jealousy, suspicion and resentment. When the drought ravages the province, Wang Lung's uncle spreads rumors in the village that Wang Lung is hording money and food while they all starve. Driven by desperation, Ching is among the villagers who raid Wang Lung's house. When O-lan shames the men into leaving, Ching lingers behind, weighted by his guilt, yet anxious to hang onto the meager portion of food he's stolen from Wang Lung. A silent understanding passes between the two men. "He would have spoken some good word of shame, for he was an honest man and only his crying child had forced him to do evil. But in his bosom was a handful of beans he had snatched when the store was found and he was fearful lest he must return them if he spoke at all, and so he only looked at Wang Lung with haggard, speechless eyes and he went out." (p. 75) And, according to ancient Chinese belief, when you save a man's life, that man literally owes you his life.