"Then I will clean one ear and one nostril," rejoined the barber promptly. "On which side of the face do you wish it done?" He grimaced at the next barber as he spoke and the other burst into a guffaw. Wang Lung perceived that he had fallen into the hands of a joker, and feeling inferior in some unaccountable way, as he always did, to these town dwellers, even though they were only barbers and the lowest of persons, he said quickly, “As you will—as you will—" (1.55)
From the very first chapter, we learn that Wang Lung has an inferiority complex that will last throughout the whole novel. How would things be different in Wang Lung didn't have such a chip on his shoulder? Why is it there to begin with?
Here were these men from the town, having eaten and drunk, standing beside him whose children were starving and eating the very earth of the fields; here they were, come to squeeze his land from him in his extremity. (9.55)
Even though Wang Lung experiences exploitation at the hands of rich city folk, he doesn't understand later when men in the South say that rich people are stabbing him in the back. Are the men in the South correct? Is Wang Lung capable of understanding them without an education?
When he returned to the spot where he had left the others, they stood there waiting, although when he came the boys cried out at him in relief, and he saw that they had been filled with terror in this strange place. Only the old man watched everything with pleasure and astonishment and he murmured at Wang Lung, “You see how fat they all are, these Southerners, and how pale and oily are their skins. They eat pork every day, doubtless." (11.14)
The South is both scary and astonishing; it also seems strangely unnatural. Wang Lung's father is intrigued by how fat the Southerners are, how they have such pale and oily skin. He seems to envious—do you think he's right to be? This seems to be how people look who are cut off from the land. Is that something to aim for, or something to avoid?
It was the especial pleasure of each driver, seeing how strange Wang Lung and his family were, to crack his whip just as he passed them, and the sharp explosive cut of the air made them leap up, and seeing them leap the drivers guffawed, and Wang Lung was angry when this happened two and three times and he turned away to see where he could put his hut. (11.16)
How do you think all the drivers know that Wang Lung is just a country bumpkin? How do you think these city folk would fare on Wang Lung's farm?
Here with the coming and going of well-fed people upon the streets, with meat and vegetables in the markets, with fish swimming in the tubs in the fish market, surely it was not possible for a man and his children to starve. It was not as it was in their own land, where even silver could not buy food because there was none. (11.38)
Wang Lung thinks it must be impossible to starve in the city, but we're not so sure. There’s a lot of wealth, but it's only for a few people. That, Shmoopers, is called economic inequality, and Wang Lung's about to see what that's all about firsthand. (Why, though, is this inequality so much worse in the city?)
So it was that […] Wang Lung and his wife and children were like foreigners in this Southern city. It is true that the people who went about the streets had black hair and eyes as Wang Lung and all his family had, and as all did in the country where Wang Lung was born, and it is true that if one listened to the language of these Southerners it could be understood, if with difficulty. (12.3)
Wang Lung's life back on the farm is so different from his life in the South that he might as well be in a different country, with people speaking a different language. Are the differences at least partly the result of the fact that Wang Lung and the city people have different relationships with the earth itself?
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. And where Wang Lung's fields spread out in slow and leisurely harvest twice a year of wheat and rice and a bit of corn and beans and garlic, here in the farms about the city men urged their land with perpetual stinking fertilizing of human wastes to force the land to a hurried bearing of this vegetable and that besides their rice. (12.4)
It seems to Wang Lung that the difference between the Northerners and the Southerners is in the different ways they relate to the land. The Southerners "force the land," so their language is "splintered," and they end up using "stinking fertilizing of human waste" to make crops grow more quickly than the land would otherwise allow. Everything seems to be in confusion in the South, and this confusion seems to result from a deeper problem: a lack of understanding about their own land.
Then Wang Lung knew that this was indeed a foreigner and more foreign yet than he in this city, and that after all people of black hair and black eyes are one sort and people of light hair and light eyes of another sort, and he was no longer after that wholly foreign in the city. (12.13)
The only thing that makes Wang Lung feel less like a foreigner in the South is the sight of a white woman. This is interesting in many ways, one of which is that it points to the presence of missionaries (like Buck's father) in China. The culture these missionaries bring is even more foreign than Wang Lung's Northern culture. How does it contribute to the kind of change happening in China at the time?
Now there was in the town a great tea shop but newly opened and by a man from the South, who understood such business, and Wang Lung had before this passed the place by, filled with horror at the thought of how money was spent there in gambling and in play and in evil women. (18.29)
Even though the South and the North seemed totally separate earlier in the novel, little bits of the South like this tea shop have begun to seep into Wang Lung's hometown. That tea shop, by the way, also brings with it gambling and prostitution. Hmm. What does this tell us about the South?
And as these days went past to the night, the girl Lotus did what she would with him. When she laughed at the braid of his hair, although part of every day he spent in braiding and in brushing it, and said, "Now the men of the South do not have these monkey tails!" he went without a word and had it cut off, although neither by laughter or scorn had anyone been able to persuade him to it before […] When O-lan saw what he had done she burst out in terror, “You have cut off your life!” But he shouted at her, “And shall I look an old-fashioned fool forever? All the young men of the city have their hair cut short." (19.45)
For Wang Lung, the South has now become something more than a physical location: it's now a state of mind. Wang Lung behaves—and now, to some extent, even looks—like someone from the South, even though he's living back in the North.