Spring returns, and more than ever, Wang Lung longs to return to his land to which he knows he belongs. Meanwhile, he continues to live in the big city, but many things go on there that he does not understand. Sometimes people hand out leaflets, but Wang Lung is illiterate and does not understand what they mean. One such leaflet shows a man hanging on a cross. Although Wang Lung does not know it, the paper was given to him by a Christian missionary, and the figure depicted was the crucified Christ. Another man gives out revolutionary leaflets, depicting a fat man stabbing a dead man again and again. Someone explains to Wang Lung that the fat man represents the rich and the capitalists, and the dead man represents the poor. This is the first time Wang Lung has heard the idea that rich people are responsible for the fact that he is poor. He is not convinced by the idea, because it has been his experience that poverty comes to him solely because of fluctuations in the climate. But many of his neighbors in the huts are susceptible to the arguments of the revolutionaries, and their discontent grows.
One day in the city, Wang Lung sees several men seized by soldiers, for reasons that neither the men nor he understand. He finds out from a shopkeeper that the soldiers are recruiting for a war somewhere. They need people to carry their bedding, guns and ammunition, so they seize laborers off the street and get them to do the job. Wang Lung only just escapes being seized himself.
From that point on, Wang Lung does not go out in daylight. Instead, he gets a night job helping to pull wagonloads of boxes through the streets. The work is hard, and the pay is only half of what he was getting before.
Fear spreads through the city because of the social unrest and the rumors of war, and many of the rich people leave. One day an army passes through the city and there are rumors that the enemy is approaching. Wang Lung loses his job and after a few days of idleness has no money left. In his desperation, Wang Lung almost makes the decision to sell his daughter into slavery. But then the news arrives that the enemy has entered the city. In the commotion that follows, a mob breaks into the rich house that adjoins the collection of huts in which the poor live. Wang Lung is swept along in the tide of humanity as the common people rush through the courts of the great house, stealing whatever they can. Only Wang Lung does not steal anything. But then he finds himself in an inner room that the mob has already swept through and left empty. A fat man who had been hiding creeps out, seeking to make his escape. When he sees Wang Lung, he is frightened, and begs for his life, offering Wang Lung money. Thinking that this money will enable him to save his daughter from slavery and get back to his land, Wang Lung takes all the man has, which is a considerable amount of silver. He decides to return to his land the very next day.
As soon as he is back on his land, he uses the silver to buy seeds, grain, and an ox. He learns from the villagers that during his absence in the winter, a band of robbers lived in his house.
Ching, his neighbor, visits him. He did not fare well during the famine. His wife died, and he sold his daughter to a soldier rather than see her die as well. Wang Lung feels compassion for him and gives him some wheat, rice and cabbage seed. He also offers to plough Ching's land with his ox. Wang Lung also discovers to his relief that his uncle has left the village, and no one knows for certain where he has gone.
Wang Lung and O-lan, who is pregnant again, buy furniture and supplies for their house. Back on his land, and working once again in the fields, Wang Lung regains his happiness. He has enough money to care for his family.
One night Wang Lung discovers that O-lan is wearing a heap of jewels in a cloth-wrapped bundle around her neck. She explains that she found them in a hiding place in the rich man's house, the same house where Wang Lung robbed the fat man. Wang Lung insists that the jewels be sold and more land be bought with the proceeds, since only land is safe. O-lan begs to be allowed to keep two small pearls, and Wang Lung reluctantly accedes to her wishes. He cannot understand why she would want such things.
Wang Lung goes to the House of Hwang to buy more land. There are only two people living in the House, the Old Lord and a woman named Cuckoo. Cuckoo tells Wang Lung that bandits swept through the house, carrying off all the wealth, and the slaves. The Old Mistress is dead, and the young lords have left. The Old Lord now trusts Cuckoo, who was a slave in the house, to conduct all his business. Cuckoo tells him that there is much land available for sale. After going away and thinking about it, and confirming with a shopkeeper in town the details of what Cuckoo had told him (for he did not wholly trust her), Wang Lung returns and buys large amounts of land with the jewels.
These chapters are pivotal for Wang Lung's fortunes. He knows that he will never feel at home in the city, no matter how long he stays there. He also never wavers in his knowledge that for his own happiness, he must return to the land as soon as possible. But he succeeds only at the cost of becoming morally compromised. Although he did not enter the rich man's house in order to steal, and he had never before taken anything that was not rightfully his, he nonetheless got caught up in the prevailing lawlessness and stole large amounts of silver from a helpless man. The words he utters to the fat man he robs are totally uncharacteristic of him ("Out of my sight, lest I kill you for a fat worm!") They are the harshest words he utters in the entire novel. He has in that moment lost his moral bearings. And yet this stolen money becomes the basis of the life he will now construct for himself as a wealthy landowner.
O-lan is in the same moral predicament, since she stole too, and profits from the sale of the jewels. She also gives in to her own vanity by wanting to retain possession of two of the pearls.
The fate of the rich in Kiangsu mirrors the fate of the House of Hwang in the smaller city near Wang Lung's land. It seems that no one, city or country dweller, rich or poor, is secure. The rich are destroyed when the poor turn on them, and the peasants and farmers are always at the mercy of climatic changes. Nevertheless, Wang Lung puts his faith in the land, insisting that his sons work in the fields as they grow up, so they too learn to value the land. He is convinced that the House of Hwang fell because they lost the connection to the land and ceased to value it. This is exactly what Cuckoo told him: "In the last generation the lords ceased to see the land and took the moneys the agents gave them and spent it carelessly as water. And in these generations the strength of the land has gone from them and bit by bit the land has begun to go also."
But as the story continues to unfold, Wang Lung himself will start to forget his own principles.