Adapted from Pearl Buck's great novel, a Chinese farmer marries, survives famine and revolution, becomes wealthy, and beats off a locust attack.
On his wedding day Wang Lung (Paul Muni) gives his father (Charley Grapewin) tea and takes a bath. Farmer Wang meets his bride O-Lan (Luise Rainer), a slave in the great house, and leads her home. She cooks a feast for his friends and plants a peach seed. Wang is kind to O-Lan, and they work. During a harvest, it rains; but O-Lan works and gives birth to a son. His gambling Uncle (Walter Connolly) tells Wang the great house is selling land. Wang and O-Lan show their son there. Wang buys five fields and thanks God for three children.
Drought causes famine. Uncle asks Wang to sell land, and they quarrel. O-Lan slays the ox. Uncle prays for food, and men go to Wang but find none. O-Lan has a child and refuses to sell land, saying the child is dead. They walk south in crowds and get on a train. O-Lan teaches her children to beg. Wang finds no work and beats his son for stealing. Wang replaces a dead man working in a mine and hears of revolution and rain in the north. Soldiers flee, and people loot in a riot. O-Lan is trampled but finds a purse of gems. Republican soldiers line up looters and shoot them, but O-Lan escapes with a warning. They return home in a wagon, and Wang gives food away. Wang hires his friend Ching (Ching Wah Lee). Uncle sold his daughters and learns that Wang has jewels. O-Lan asks to keep two pearls but wants no slaves.
Elder son (Keye Luke) arranges a grain contract. Uncle takes Wang to see women. Wang wears silk and tells O-Lan that he bought the great house. He asks her for the pearls for another wife, and she complies. Father calls the second wife a bad woman, and Little Flower (Suzanna Kim) asks Wang for her own garden. She gives her slipper to Younger son (Roland Lui). He reads to his mother O-Lan a letter from Elder son at college. Younger son says he wants to go away to be a soldier. Wang disapproves and rejects O-Lan. Ching tells Wang of Younger son and Little Flower, and Wang fires Ching. Wang beats his younger son and sends him away; but O-Lan tells him to speak to Wang first. Uncle says they are ruined by locusts; but Elder son says how to fight them with fire. Locusts descend; they light fires and use shovels until the wind carries them away. Wang tells both sons and Ching to bring in the harvest, and Wang tells Uncle to sell the great house. They feast at the younger son's wedding, and ailing O-Lan welcomes the bride. Wang gives O-Lan her pearls and says she is the one; but she dies. In the final scene at the peach tree Wang says O-Lan is the earth.
This modern classic about a Chinese family conveys the importance of hard work, frugality, humility, and perseverance amid misfortune. Wang realizes that extravagance did not make him happy.