Remember that old Highlights comic Goofus and Gallant? Here's the setup: Gallant is the good kid, and he does all the correct stuff; Goofus is the bad kid, and he does all the wrong stuff. One family in this novel is Goofus, and the other is Gallant. Can you guess which is which?
The easiest way to explain why Wang Lung's uncle's family members are the Goofuses of the novel is to list their faults. There are a lot of them. Let's start with laziness.
Wang Lung's uncle is the laziest farmer you will ever meet. “His uncle was always having to sell his grain before it was even well ripened. Sometimes he even sold it standing in the field to save himself the trouble of harvesting and threshing to get a little ready cash" (4.11).
This dude can't even be bothered to harvest his own crops. We wouldn't be surprised if he just throws seeds on the ground and hopes they sprout. Wang Lung knows all about it, so he doesn't even want to touch that land (5.51). Trying to do anything with it would just be a waste of time and materials.
Of course, Wang Lung's aunt and cousins are just as lazy as the old uncle. They like to blame all of their problems on bad luck: "'If it had been my good destiny,' continued his uncle mournfully, 'to have married a wife as your father did, one who could work and at the same time produce sons, as your own does also, instead of a woman like mine, who grows nothing but flesh and gives birth to nothing but females […]'" (7.19).
Right. Totally. We believe you. No. Really.
Laziness wouldn't be a problem if these folks weren't also greedy. Whenever they want something, they come to Wang Lung. How greedy do you have to be to walk into someone's house and start chowing down? Pretty greedy, but they do it, anyway.
Things get even worse when Wang Lung's uncle becomes a gangster, thereby rendering him pretty much un-kick-out-able. Once he figures out the truth about his uncle, Wang Lung realizes pretty quickly that the only reason he and his land have been left alone during the famine is that his brother's mob would have taken out anyone who tried to do it.
Why would Wang Lung's uncle's family really care about what happens to Wang Lung's property? They want to take Wang Lung for everything that he's worth, of course.
This is something that we guess runs in the family, and is mostly a problem with Wang Lung's cousin. Both Wang Lung and his son are fans of the ladies, but his cousin takes it too far. It's Wang Lung's cousin that introduces his son to the prostitute, and he even flirts with his own relatives. Incest is a pretty big taboo to break, and he goes there.
This problem doesn't go away until Wang Lung's cousin gets married and has a kid. Not surprisingly, he abandons both his wife and unborn child. Also not surprisingly, he’s proud of it.
In case you still didn't get the memo that these were bad people, Buck describes them doing some seriously nasty things.
In Chinese society, it was very important to treat your relatives well. This is why Wang Lung puts up with his uncle. Wang Lung's uncle takes advantage of this, of course, but he also doesn't play by the rules. He actually tries to hurt Wang Lung by inciting a mob against him: “Wang Lung's uncle shivered about the streets like a lean dog and whispered from his famished lips, 'There is one who has food—there is one whose children are fat, still,' the men took up poles and went one night to the house of Wang Lung and beat upon the door" (8.44).
It gets worse. Somehow, Wang Lung's uncle seems to have eaten when everyone else was starving. Wang Lung thinks he knows how his uncle has been eating: "'Eaten!' he cried. 'If you could see my house! Not a sparrow even could pick up a crumb there […] And of our children only four are left—the three little ones gone—gone—and as for me, you see me!' He took the edge of his sleeve and wiped the corner of each eye carefully. ‘You have eaten,' repeated Wang Lung dully'" (9.49).
Are you thinking what we're thinking? Yeah. We thought so. Chances are pretty good this dude at three of his children. Nasty. NASTY.
This one is tricky. On the one hand, these people are drug addicts, but on the other hand, it's Wang Lung's fault. In order to get them off his back, Wang Lung gets his aunt and uncle hooked on opium.
At the same time, it's not like they go kicking and screaming: “Then Wang Lung's uncle took it greedily, for it was sweet to smell and a thing that only rich men used, and he took it and bought a pipe and he smoked the opium, lying all day upon his bed to do it" (28.7). We would like to point out that not only is it immoral for Wang Lung to do this, it's also illegal.
Because of Wang Lung, his aunt and uncle shrivel and die. In fact, they remind us of someone. Hmm, who could it be? Oh, yeah: the Old Mistress who died from doing too much opium. What a great ending, huh?
There is one thing that keeps his uncle's family in Wang Lung's life, and that's filial piety. Because these people are family, Wang Lung can't abandon them. If he did, he'd have a bad reputation for life. So he is forced to help them time and time again.
Here's the lowdown: "Wang Lung's Uncle began at this time to become the trouble which Wang Lung had surmised from the beginning that he might be. This uncle was the younger brother of Wang Lung's father, and by all the claims of relationship he might depend upon Wang Lung if he had not enough for himself and his family" (7.1). Wang Lung basically doesn't have a choice. And, as it turns out, he does benefit from the alliance, even if he feels weird about it.
Even though they are examples of all the things that Chinese society would have found evil, these folks do show us how filial piety is even more important than how immoral your relatives are. It doesn't matter what they do. They're still family.