Chapter 12 presents the difficulties which Wang Lung and his family have in adjusting to the new and different ways in this southern city. Among the difficulties is a language barrier. This city speaks in a dialect which makes it extremely difficult for Wang Lung to understand it. He feels alien here and will constantly long to return to his land.
Wang Lung gradually learns things about the city and becomes more adept with his ricksha but is still unable to earn money enough to begin saving. Everything must go for the necessity of food. Throughout these chapters, a contrast is shown between the very poor living among plentitude but not being able to share in it. The underlying feelings of discontent and revolution in the city begin to come to the forefront in this section and are finally climaxed by the looting of the rich man's house. The contrast between the gentry and the poor people of the city is emphasized by the contrast drawn between Wang Lung and the rich man: "He lived in the rich city as alien as a rat in a rich man's house that is fed on scraps thrown away."
When Wang Lung discovers that his children, especially the second son, have resorted to stealing, Wang Lung's desire to return to his land is intensified. He cannot tolerate the idea of a man who owns land having a son who has to steal. He does not eat of the meat that the second son steals and even considers selling his daughter. The irony is that while he beats his second son for stealing a piece of meat, he takes gold from the fat old man and is later delighted with the jewels which O-lan was able to steal from the secret hiding place in the rich man's house.
As Wang Lung sees men being forced into service by soldiers, he gives up his job with the ricksha and accepts a night job which pays even less. Thus, his situation is gradually worsening, and he still thinks of selling his "fool" so that the family can return to the land. O-lan tells him to wait because there is unrest in the city, and she is anticipating that something favorable will happen.
In addition to the episodes with the soldiers, there are other explicit examples of unrest in the city. There is the young man who speaks of revolution; he condemns the rich and would divide the wealth of the rich among the poor. Also, there is the old man from the family in an adjoining hut who maintains that "when the rich are too rich, there is a way, and if I am not mistaken that way will come soon." Finally, there is an uprising when the gates of the rich are broken and the poor pour into the houses to pillage. Thus, it is by the opportunism of Wang Lung that he is able to get enough money to return to the land just at the point when he had decided that he must sell his "fool," even against his most basic principles.
Chapter 14 ends Wang Lung's first separation from the land. The chapter ends with his triumphant cry: "We go back to the land — tomorrow we go back to the land!"