To better understand The Good Earth, a brief review of the history of China at that time that the story takes place would be helpful. After the overthrow of the Ching Dynasty of the Manchus in 1911 by Sun Yat-sen and other dedicated intellectuals who envisioned a united and democratic nation, developments did not go quite as well as the leaders had hoped.
Since China is one of the largest nations on earth, it is natural that its people are not necessarily homogeneous. Even though they are basically of the same race and write the same language, there are at least a hundred spoken dialects, which means that a person from one province may not easily understand what a person from another province is saying; in many cases, verbal communication is totally impossible. However, an educated person could read Chinese, be it written by a person from the extreme South or a person from the extreme North, even though these two people would not understand each other's speech. As Wang Lung notes in Chapter 12, "But Anhwei is not Kiangsu. In Anhwei, where Wang Lung was born, the language is slow and deep and it wells from the throat. But in the Kiangsu city where they now lived the people spoke in syllables which splintered from their lips and from the ends of their tongues."
While perhaps over-simplifying the troubles in China after the overthrow of the Imperial power, most of the local military governors of the provinces were unwilling to be lorded over by what they considered a revolutionary government. Instead, they set up their own separate territories. This state of affairs went on for years.
Almost every province had its "strong man," popularly known as "war lords." Some were merely terrorists or bandits, but others controlled vast areas and held millions in thrall. Wu Pei-fu, for example, ruled five provinces in North and Central China and his "subjects" must have been well over one hundred million. In Manchuria, Chang Tso-ling held onto a territory almost as large as France and Spain combined. Even after his death at the hands of Japanese extremists, his son, the "Young Marshal," ruled until the Japanese finally took over in 1932 and established the satellite state of Manchukuo. The war lords collected taxes and had their own armies and civil service: their word was law. Even Chiang Kaishek, while he pursued his goal of a united China, could have been labeled a war lord. After the death of Sun Yet-sen in 1925, and a period of struggle within the ruling Kuomintang party, Chiang finally set up his headquarters in Nanking and his campaign against the local chieftains was largely successful until it became a conflict against the Communists of Mao Tse-tung and the Japanese.
By the late 1920s, the period which most resembles the period of this book, China was torn by civil strife from Canton to Peking, from the India border to the Amur River on the border of Russia. The lot of the Chinese peasant was not very good. Most of them were tenant farmers, working the land for the rich landowners, who may have owned thousands of acres (as does Wang Lung at the end of The Good Earth). But here and there were small, independent farmers working their own plots, as does Wang Lung at the beginning of the novel. These small farmers were constantly at the prey of marauding bandits — such as Wang Lung's uncle and the "red beards." They were also at the mercy of the grain merchants since they could not read or write; hence, the importance for Wang Lung to have his oldest son learn to read and write. Essentially, however, most of the farmers were left alone, for even the war lords had to eat. The farmer was thus protected to some extent by the same needs which plagued him and his family.
In times of favorable weather, the peasant lived a frugal but adequate life. He saw very little of actual money (during the first part of the novel, a piece of silver was a very rare thing for Wang Lung), but he usually had enough to eat, though it might be no more than garlic and unleavened bread. Wang Lung was often scorned by those who had education or an ability for commerce, and people often called him "Wang, the farmer" in a derogatory manner and held their nose in contempt for the garlic he ate. But in spite of these things, the small landowning peasant had a pride in the land he owned, and this pride is Wang Lung's most distinguishing characteristic. His final speech in the novel concerns the importance of retaining his land and never selling even a small portion of it.
Some critics have claimed that Pearl Buck is not writing about a Chinese farmer, but a universal farmer, one who knows that his riches and his security come from the good earth itself. This concept does give a universality to the novel, but for most readers the importance of the novel lies in Pearl Buck's knowledge of China and of the Chinese — a knowledge as great as that which any foreigner can possess. Her life in the rural areas of China also gave her a profound insight into the thinking of the Chinese peasant, something that Mao Tse-tung discovered when he was planning his revolution, and the Communist leader eventually came to depend on farmers like Wang Lung, with their strength of character, as a nucleus of his revolutionaries. Even Wang Lung's third son, we hear, became an important official in the revolutionary army.