The novel opens on Wang Lung's wedding day. Wang is a Chinese peasant farmer who lives with his father; his mother died six years earlier. His intended bride, O-lan, is a slave in the prosperous House of Hwang. Wang walks to the House of Hwang, where he is embarrassed by his shabby appearance, and collects O-lan after appearing before the Ancient Mistress of the House. The couple returns to Wang's farm, where O-lan prepares dinner for guests — including Wang's unnamed uncle and the uncle's unnamed son — invited to celebrate the wedding. Later that night, Wang and O-lan consummate their marriage.
Over the next few months following their marriage, O-lan tends the house and joins Wang in cultivating the fields. We learn at the end of Chapter 2 that she is pregnant. The events of her pregnancy are skipped over, and we soon find O-lan ready to deliver her baby; she asks Wang for nothing except a newly peeled reed, slit, so that she may cut the baby's umbilical cord. She delivers a son and soon rejoins Wang in working the fields. The harvest is prosperous, and Wang and O-lan are able to hide silver dollars from the harvest in their house.
On the second day of the New Year, Wang and O-lan, dressed in new clothes that O-lan has sewed, take their son to the House of Hwang to present him to the Ancient Mistress. Their appearance of prosperity is in stark contrast to Wang's appearance the first time he visited the House. O-lan relates to Wang her suspicion that the great House of Hwang is having financial difficulties, so much so that the House is looking to sell a portion of its land. With the silver coins from their previous harvest, Wang purchases the land. Soon thereafter, O-lan delivers a second son. Along with this second son comes another prosperous harvest, even better than before, and Wang and O-lan again are able to stash silver in their house.
At the same time that O-lan is delivering yet another child — a girl this time — Wang's uncle approaches Wang and cajoles Wang into giving him silver to be used as a dowry for his eldest daughter. Wang resists giving the money to his uncle, who is a despicable character, but out of guilt — and the threat of blackmail of his good name — Wang acquiesces.
Times grow bad for Wang and the other farmers, but he continues to buy land from the House of Hwang — although he does not tell O-lan that he's using up all of their silver. Food grows scarce, and the family is forced to slaughter their ox and eat it. Wang's uncle maliciously spreads the false rumor among the farmers and villagers that Wang has hordes of food and silver, and men force their way into Wang's home and take what little food they find, to which Wang comforts himself by saying that at least no one can take the land that he owns. Wang decides to move his family in hopes of finding a job, but he refuses to sell his land. Along with many others, Wang and his family take a train south.
Arriving in an unnamed city in the south, Wang and his family support themselves by O-lan and the children begging for food and Wang hiring himself out as a ricksha driver. Daily they eat at the public kitchens. Soon, armed soldiers regularly appear in the city, for there is talk of war; the rich begin fleeing the city, abandoning their opulent houses. A mob of people including Wang break into one of these abandoned houses, and Wang forces a man who failed to flee the house to give him gold. With this gold, Wang and his family return to their land and once again establish themselves as prosperous farmers. Wang learns from O-lan that while in the southern city she stole a cache of jewels from the house where Wang stole the gold. With this newfound prosperity, Wang buys up all of the remaining land of the House of Hwang. He is becoming as rich and established as the House of Hwang formerly was.
Seven years pass of increased fortune, but in that seventh year a great flood comes and covers the fields. With idle time on his hands, Wang begins visiting the town's tea shop. There, he is introduced to a woman named Lotus Flower and takes her for his concubine, moving her and her servant into his house. The household further grows when Wang's uncle and aunt and their son forcibly move themselves into Wang's house. Additionally, Wang's sons marry, and they and their families live in the house. It is during this time that O-lan and Wang's elderly father both die and are buried.
Wang's oldest son approaches his father and suggests that the family move into town, into the great house formerly occupied by the House of Hwang. Wang likes this idea, and the entire family — except Wang's uncle and aunt — move; Wang's uncle's son goes to join the war. The House of Hwang has now become the House of Lung. Wang spends less time surveying his many lands, and he begins renting some of his lands to tenants — just as the Old Lord of the House of Hwang had done. It is during this time that Wang's uncle dies, and Wang moves his aunt into the house in town.
As Wang grows older, he becomes less attracted to Lotus Flower and finds that his affection for a slave named Pear Blossom increases. Ultimately, he takes Pear Blossom as his new concubine. His passion for her soon wanes, but he remains fond of her. He, Pear Blossom, and his first daughter return to the house on the land. His two oldest sons visit him, and they promise him that they will never sell the land — but it is clear that they are lying, and that they eventually will sell the land once Wang dies.