Red Beans and Pearls
When there is famine in the land, Ching gives Wang Lung some red beans, and these become a symbol of friendship and trust between the two men. Later, when Wang Lung repays the favor by giving Ching some seed, he says, "Do you think I have forgotten that you gave me that handful of beans?" (p. 69).
If the beans symbolize friendship, the two pearls that O-lan cherishes have a more complex meaning. The pearls are part of the collection of jewels that O-lan stole from the rich house in Kiangsu. When Wang Lung demands that she hand all the jewels over, so he can buy more land, she begs to be allowed to keep the pearls. She keeps them wrapped in a bundle that she wears close to her breast. The pearls may symbolize her vanity, but more likely they show how much she wants to be valued. She knows her husband does not love her, and in her life she has never had much affection bestowed on her. Owning the pearls is one way of reassuring herself of her own worth. The fact that her husband let her keep them may also be a sign that for her, they symbolize her husband's affection and respect, if not love. It is therefore all the more devastating for O-lan when Wang Lung later demands that she hand over the pearls so that he can give them to Lotus, the prostitute. In this respect, the pearls symbolize the corruption that wealth brings. Wang Lung will do anything to please his new mistress, even if it causes great pain to his wife. He has become too attached to material things.
The land is a metaphor for life itself. Its years of bounty, followed by drought, famine and flood correspond to the growth, decay, death and renewal of human life over generations. At the end of the novel, when Wang Lung goes back to live on his land, the land is clearly shown to represent life and renewal, but against a background of the passing of human generations, and impending death. It is spring, and Wang Lung reaches out with his "trembling hands" and "pluck[s] a bit of budding willow and a spray of peach blossom." In the fall, he gathers up some earth in his hand, "and it seemed full of life between his fingers" (p. 306). Sandwiched between these two descriptions is his visit to the family graveyard, his thoughts of death, and his awareness that soon he too will be laid in the earth "and back in his own land forever" (p. 305).
In the Chinese society depicted in the novel, women with small feet were considered more attractive and therefore more marriageable. The custom of binding the feet of girls to restrict the growth of the foot was extremely widespread. It was a sign of social status. Only the poor did not practice it, since they could not afford the luxury of having a member of the family who was unable to work because she could not walk far or for long. In the novel, O-lan, a slave, does not have her feet bound, and this is one of the first things Wang Lung notices about her. He thinks she has "big feet" (p. 19), but this probably means that her feet were normal size. But even long into their marriage, he dislikes her feet, which he considers "hideous" (p. 146). It is Wang Lung's dislike of her feet that leads O-lan to promise that she will bind the feet of her second daughter. Thus foot-binding becomes a symbol of the rise in status of Wang Lung's family.
The practice of foot-binding started when a girl was as young as five. The toes, except for the big toe, would be folded under the foot and tightly bandaged so they could not grow properly. The practice was extremely painful for the girl, and resulted in a deformed foot that was no longer than three inches. In the novel, Lotus's tiny feet are part of what Wang Lung finds attractive about her. She has "little feet thrust into pink satin shoes no longer than a man's middle finger" (p. 155). The wife of Wang Lung's eldest son also has bound feet.