There are few Westerners who can understand the Chinese practice of concubinage as it was practiced up until the 1930s. In actuality, the practice of concubinage is a logical outgrowth of the Chinese family structure, particularly as it applied to the position of women in the Chinese family, in which the male was the supreme authority.
As a daughter, a Chinese girl had no rights at all. In fact, the birth of a female child was considered to be both a time of sadness and a time of an evil omen, as we see when Wang Lung considers the birth of his daughters to be signs that the gods are not favoring him. No celebration is held if a girl is born: Wang Lung even threatens the gods at the birth of his first grandchild. A female child was considered to be a liability to the family because she was thought to be only a temporary member of the family — someone who had to be supported until she could be married. And since she was married at an early age, she could never perform enough work in order to pay for the expenses for her years in the family. Wang Lung gives his daughter away when she is thirteen because he can no longer guarantee her virginity. After she leaves him, Wang Lung never sees her again. Also, in poor families, a daughter could be sold as a slave to a rich man; O-lan, for example, was sold when she was a young girl, and Wang Lung is even tempted to sell his "fool." Note, too, that Wang Lung, when he becomes rich, buys "slaves" (girls from poor families) for all the members of his household.
Thus, a daughter is trained to become a subservient person to her husband's will, and, as a wife, she is constantly expected to obey her husband without question. For example, when Wang Lung discovers that O-lan has a sack of jewels, he asks for them and she obeys without question--except for the bold request to keep two small pearls which she later surrenders to him when he demands them.
A wife can never divorce her husband, but he can divorce her for seven different reasons, some of which are related to concubinage. The seven reasons for divorce are: 1) loquacity, or talking too much. Thus we see throughout the novel that O-lan is naturally reticent and speaks out about something only on rare occasions; 2) An incurable disease. At the end of the novel, when O-lan is dying from a tumor, Wang Lung could divorce her, but the thought never enters his mind; 3) Theft. This does not refer to the type of theft that O-lan committed when she took the jewels from the rich man's house; instead, it means stealing from one's husband or his family; 4) Adultery. Whereas a man can sleep with any woman whom he owns, if a woman ever commits adultery, she is immediately cast out. If a man owns a concubine at the time, then the concubine is elevated to the position of the first wife; 5) Disobedience. When Wang Lung asks for the jewels, O-lan knows that she has to obey her husband because disobedience to him is reason enough for divorce; 6) Jealousy. When Wang Lung brings Lotus Flower into his house, O-lan virtually never complains about her. She does complain about the presence of Cuckoo, but she mentions Lotus Flower only in indirect reference, as when she tells Wang Lung that the eldest son goes too often "into the inner courts"; 7) Barrenness. This is by far the most important, the most tantamount, reason for divorce. In Chinese custom, sex is a means of propagating the family name because the family lives through the sons of the family. One of the most sacred, unwritten laws is that ancestors require male descendants. If one woman proves barren, then another woman must be found who can produce male children. If the wife comes from a wealthy family and brings with her many female servants, the wife herself, if barren, offers one of her servants to her husband.
The idea of concubinage dates back to at least the time of Confucius (551?-478? B.C.), who was the father of the religion of ancestor worship and who emphasized in his teachings the importance of male descendants. Consequently, if the wife did not bear male descendants, the man must look to other sources or else violate one of the concepts of Confucianism. Later Confucian scholars expressed the desirability of marrying a wife for her virtues and then taking a concubine for her beauty. Because of the practice of the family's arranging the marriages (Wang Lung's father arranges for Wang Lung's marriage) and because the Chinese man could not see his bride until the wedding day, the later possession of a concubine for her beauty alone was a common practice. If his wife happened to be beautiful, the man could congratulate himself, but if this were not the case, then he could turn elsewhere. Often, the bride's mother, if wealthy, would deliberately select attractive servants (or dowry maids) in the hope that her son-in-law would not have to go outside his own home in search of a sexual mate. Since the dowry maids were a part of the bride's dowry, then, he owned them in the same way as a wealthy man owned the "slaves" he bought. Thus, as with Pear Blossom, it was an accepted practice that the man could have any woman in his household without disgracing himself or his wife. Wang Lung, however, did feel some embarrassment or apprehension about taking Pear Blossom even though, technically, no one could condemn this act since she was his property.
Although it does not concern The Good Earth, another argument for concubinage concerns a wealthy man who has to travel. The first wife could not under any circumstance leave the house or the responsibilities for running the household, and a man was not expected to practice sexual abstinence during his travels. Thus, a second lady would generally accompany the master and her position took on legal status since she could not be deserted. Even though her position was not equal to that of a wife, yet various formalities were observed on her entrance to the household, and she was deserving of certain rights. If the first wife died, then she was elevated to that position and another lady was acquired to travel with the master.
In most households, there were two types or two kinds of concubines. The first, as noted above, was acquired through legal formalities and occupied a position from responsibility. The second type was purchased from a tea house, as was Lotus Flower. In either case, as with Wang Lung, the possession of a concubine was a sign that a man had wealth and enough money to devote himself to some of the finer refinements and joys of life. Thus the possession of a concubine brought Wang Lung prestige and respect.
The duties of the concubine were quite simple. She existed solely and completely for the entertainment and sexual gratification of her master. She was not expected to perform any household duties or to have any responsibilities other than those of the bed chamber. She was provided usually with a separate court of her own, and she was expected to remain in those quarters and always be ready for her master's desires. Whatever power and influence she possessed came solely from her ability to captivate her master and to gain his total favor. This was easy for Lotus Flower since Wang Lung has an all-consuming desire for Lotus Flower. Her beauty, including her small feet, totally captivated him.
In conclusion, a wife was expected to bear male children while the concubine was expected only to please her master. Furthermore, the wife had certain prescribed duties and was in charge of running the household, including the training of the girl children in the proper matters pertaining to managing their own households. The concubine, however, had no duties — except to keep herself beautiful and alluring for her master and to satisfy his every sexual desire.