Wang Lung : Wang Lung is a young man of about twenty when the novel begins. He is a small farmer who manages to eke out a living from the land he and his father own. As a countryman, he feels out of place in the town and is intimidated when he first goes to the House of Hwang to collect the bride his father has arranged for him. He does not know how to behave amongst wealthy people, and is conscious of his lowly status, although he does not resent it.
Wang Lung is an honest, hard-working man who loves the land, even though drought, famine and flood make his living a precarious one. He adheres to traditional values, honoring his relatives, for example, even when his uncle shamelessly exploits his good nature.
When famine forces Wang Lung and his family to go south in order to survive, he earns money carrying a rickshaw. But when a mob breaks into a rich house, he is carried along with it and steals a large amount of silver from a frightened man.
Wang Lung returns to his land and uses the silver to build his prosperity. He buys more land and employs people to attend it, and builds a bigger house. He becomes known in the town for his wealth, he is respected. People borrow money from him and ask his advice, and he adjudicates on property disputes.
But after Wang Lung becomes wealthy and no longer has to fear penury, he faces other challenges. He no longer works directly on the land and seems in danger of losing his connection to it and the values it represents to him. He gets infatuated with a prostitute and spends money on her and himself, which is quite unlike his usual responsible self. He allows himself to become vain, and he also neglects his wife.
All Wang Lung’s wealth and his large family do not bring him peace, since his sons are often a worry to him. But he never completely loses touch with the values he grew up with, in which the land was the basis of human happiness. At the end of the novel, when he is about seventy years old, he leaves his house in the town and returns to live on his land until his death.
O-lan : O-lan is a slave at the House of Hwang from the age of ten until about twenty, when she is given to Wang Lung as his wife. She is not pretty, and says little. However, she becomes a hard-working and loyal wife, running the household well, and helping Wang Lung in the fields. She also produces three sons and two daughters. Even though O-lan has much down-to-earth, practical wisdom, never complains about her lot, and offers her husband sound advice, Wang Lung does not regard her as his equal. Nor does he love her, a bitter fact that O-lan is aware of. When Wang Lung becomes wealthy, he takes a mistress, no longer sleeps with O-lan, and criticizes her cruelly. O-lan dies after a long illness, clinging to life just long enough to see her eldest son married.
Wang Lung’s father : Wang Lung’s father is an old man who lives with his son. As long as he is given food and drink, he does not take much notice of the world around him. When during the famine, the family is forced to move south in search of food, he refuses to beg on the streets like O-lan and her sons. He also has traditional values and objects to the presence of his son’s mistress Lotus in the house.
Wang Lung’s uncle : Wang Lung’s uncle is a feckless, lazy man whose lands are never profitable. He borrows money from Wang Lung and eventually, when he sees how wealthy Wang Lung has become, moves his family into Wang Lung’s house. He cunningly exploits Wang Lung’s sense of duty to his family, and yet Wang Lung cannot get rid of him because it transpires that the uncle is a leading member of the Redbeards, a notorious gang of robbers. It is only because of him that Wang Lung’s house has not been robbed. When he discovers this, Wang Lung forces himself to be polite to his uncle and his family. But he manages to turn his uncle into an opium addict, after which the uncle just lies on his bed all day smoking the drug and not giving Wang Lung any trouble.
The wife of Wang Lung’s uncle : The wife of Wang Lung’s uncle is a foolish, fat and lazy woman who always craves sweet foods and wants new shoes from the town. She has seven children, six of whom are girls. Three die during the drought and famine. Along with her husband and son, she moves into Wang Lung’s house. Wang Lung, although he dislikes her, finds that she has her uses. She acts as go-between for negotiations between Lotus and Wang Lung regarding Lotus’s move into their house. She also befriends Lotus. Later, like her husband, she becomes an opium addict.
The son of Wang Lung’s uncle : The son of Wang Lung’s uncle is a quarrelsome, insolent young man. He is also lazy. He does no work, and just hangs around the house all day. He is also notorious for his lustful pursuit of women. Although when they are young, he and Wang Lung’s eldest son were friends, they later quarrel, and the son accuses his cousin of looking lustfully at his wife. The son of Wang Lung’s uncle eventually leaves the house to become a soldier and join a war. Some time later he returns with an army that is billeted in Wang Lung’s town. He remains belligerent and obnoxious, and during his stay in the town he fathers a child by Pear Blossom.
Wang Lung’s first son : Wang Lung’s first son is sent by his father to school at the age of twelve. He later helps his father at the grain markets because he can read and write, and then continues his studies at a university in the south. The eldest son develops different values from his father. Arrogant and accustomed to wealth, he does not have the same connection to the land that Wang Lung does. He spends money freely when the family moves to the old House of Hwang, because he thinks they should live in a manner that befits their wealth. He is very conscious of keeping up social appearances. He and his younger brother plan to sell the land after Wang Lung’s death.
Wang Lung’s second son : Wang Lung’s second son is apprenticed to Liu, the grain dealer. In contrast to his elder brother, he is very careful with money, and Wang Lung puts him in charge of managing his land. The second son, however, turns out to be a miser who always does things as cheaply as possible.
Wang Lung’s third son : Wang Lung intends that his third son, unlike his first two, remain on the land. He is a quiet boy, and Wang Lung has little idea of what he is really like. But when he is in his teens he expresses an interest in learning to read, so Wang Lung reluctantly employs a tutor for him. Later, he declares he wants to be a soldier. Finally, he disappears from home after learning that his father has taken Pear Blossom as a mistress. He secretly wanted her for himself.
The wife of Wang Lung’s first son: The wife of Wang Lung’s first son is the daughter of the wealthy grain merchant, Liu. She marries when she is sixteen. However, she and the wife of Wang Lung’s second son do not get along well together. Also, since she was brought up in a wealthy family, she is spoiled. She talks a lot about what was in her father’s house, and expects her son to spend money acquiring similar things.
The wife of Wang Lung’s second son : The wife of Wang Lung’s second son is a village maid from a good family. She quarrels with the wife of Wang Lung’s first son, and they become enemies.
Wang Lung’s first daughter : Wang Lung’s first daughter is mentally retarded and never learns to speak. Wang Lung takes care of her, calling her his “poor fool.”
Wang Lung’s second daughter: Wang Lung’s second daughter, the twin of his third son, is a pretty girl who is betrothed to one of the sons of the merchant, Liu. She has small feet, as a result of them having been bound as a child, in keeping with traditional practice.
Ching: Ching is a farmer and a neighbor of Wang Lung. He is a small, quiet man who speaks only when he has to. He and Wang Lung help each other in bad times, and a bond develops between them. Eventually, Wang Lung makes Ching a steward over his land, and Ching becomes a faithful employee and servant.
Cuckoo: Cuckoo is a slave at the House of Hwang who later becomes the mistress of the Old Master. Later, at the tea shop, she acts as a go-between for Wang Lung in his desire to meet Lotus. Cuckoo then comes to live in Wang Lung’s house as a servant to Lotus. O-lan cannot stand her, since when they were both slaves in the House of Hwang, Cuckoo did not treat her well. In later years, Cuckoo and Lotus become firm friends.
Old Mistress Hwang: Old Mistress Hwang is the matriarch of the Hwang family when Wang Lung goes to the House of Hwang as a young man to fetch his bride. She is addicted to opium, and when times get hard, she is responsible for selling off much of the family land. She dies when the house is sacked by a mob.
Old Master Hwang: Old Master Hwang is the patriarch of the Hwang family. However, he does not look after the family interests wisely. He spends money too freely, and insists on new concubines each year. The eventual result is the ruin of the family.
Liu: Liu is an elderly, prosperous grain merchant. He and Wang Lung strike up a mutually profitable association. Liu’s daughter is married off to Wang Lung’s eldest son; Wang Lung’s second son is apprenticed to Liu; and Wang Lung’s second daughter is betrothed to Liu’s second son.
Lotus: Lotus is a prostitute who conducts her business upstairs at the tea shop where Wang Lung visits. She is petite and attractive, although not as young as she first appears. Wang Lung becomes infatuated with her and moves her into his house. Lotus is vain and lazy, with a sharp temper.
Pear Blossom: Pear Blossom is a young slave whom Wang Lung purchased. She assists Cuckoo and Lotus. In his old age, Wang Lung takes a fancy to her, and keeps her as his mistress.