Wang Lung has been brought up to respect the land. Though illiterate and fairly simple, he is a hard worker and invests in land to increase his holdings. His wife, O-lan, is an exceptional woman and works hard to help him and bear him sons. The famine forces him to go south, and an uprising there nets him the gold and jewels to become a wealthy man. For a time he forgets his land, betrays O-lan's faithfulness, and takes Lotus as a concubine. But the land soon cures him again, and he builds the foundations of the great family Wang. At the climax of the novel, he moves into the House of Hwang, and he takes another concubine, Pear Blossom. This leads to his third son abandoning the family. At the end of his life he fears his sons will sell his land, precipitating the Wang downfall. Even as they assure him they will not, they smile at each other knowingly.
O-lan was sold as a slave as a child during a famine year. Because she was ugly, O-lan served in the kitchen and was told by many, including fellow slave Cuckoo, that she could not be loved. When she marries Wang Lung, he is satisfied with her because he is poor and she is a hard worker. She also bears him three sons, which is the mark of a good wife. Later when Wang Lung becomes rich and idle, he becomes dissatisfied with O-lan's appearance, especially her large feet. Even though he owes his large landholdings to the jewels she found during the looting in the south, Wang Lung betrays her and takes Lotus as a concubine. She dies from a tumor in her vitals in middle age. Wang Lung regrets his unkind treatment of her.
Nung En spends his toddler years poor and even has to beg with his mother, O-lan, and younger brother. Once they return to their land, Wang Lung has him work the land, but he allows Nung En to go to school so he may have someone to handle his business affairs, as Wang Lung himself is illiterate. Nung En goes to university in the south, marries Liu's daughter, and concerns himself with looking the part of a son of a great family. He takes a second wife and has several children.
Nung Wen begs and steals meat as a child while the family is in the south. Later he works on the farm and then goes to school with his older brother. Wang Lung decides to apprentice him to the grain merchant Liu. Nung Wen has a good head for sums and makes a fine businessman. He is also practical in terms of finding a wife, wanting a sturdy village maid. He later handles all Wang Lung's affairs and has several children.
Lotus is a "cup of jade" to O-lan's "earthen pot." When Wang Lung meets her at the tea house, she is a dream woman to him. Wang Lung becomes lovesick over her and will do anything she wants. After he takes her on as a concubine, he gradually becomes annoyed by her haughty behavior, especially toward his children. Though he loses his obsession with her, he keeps her on for pleasure and continues to spoil her, even in hard times. She eventually becomes fat and is compared to the Old Mistress.
Pear Blossom is pretty and slight. Wang Lung buys her when she is seven years old to be a personal maid to Lotus. She lives a relatively sheltered life as a slave until Wang Lung's uncle's son picks her out to come to his bed. She begs Wang Lung to prevent this. He does, angering Lotus. Wang Lung considers her as a wife for his third son but instead takes her for himself. She ends up being a great comfort to Wang Lung in his later years, even promising to take care of his eldest daughter, "poor fool." Pear Blossom possesses both beauty (like Lotus) and faithfulness (like O-lan).
Wang Lung's uncle
Wang Lung's uncle is Wang Lung's chief antagonist in the novel. He hardly works his land and blames his lack of success on his bad luck. He is greedy and comes to Wang Lung for money and support, something he is entitled to under the custom of filial piety. To neutralize him, Wang Lung gets him addicted to opium, and he eventually dies.