The Good Earth begins at dawn on a spring morning in the late nineteenth century in China. A young Chinese peasant farmer, Wang Lung, is about to get married. Wang Lung lives in a three-room house with his father; his mother died six years before. He looks forward to having a woman in the house to do the chores, and also looks forward to having many children. He boils water for his father and sprinkles some tea leaves in it, and gives it to the old man, who is coughing and complaining. Wang Lung complains silently to himself that his father thinks of nothing but eating and drinking. He prepares his father's breakfast of cornmeal and gives it to him.
Having washed and put on fresh clothes, Wang Lung walks into town. He has been promised a woman, a slave at the House of Hwang, the wealthiest family in the city. He has never met the woman and knows nothing about her, except that she is not pretty. The marriage was arranged by his father.
Once he gets inside the city gates, he visits a barber for a shave. Then he goes to the market and buys two pounds of pork and six ounces of beef, and other supplies. He has invited guests for the evening, and this is for the meal.
At the gate of the House of Hwang he is terrified, and wishes he had asked his father or his neighbor to accompany him. He decides to go and have some food in a small restaurant first, where he buys noodles and tea. He is appalled at how much everything costs in the city.
At noon he returns to the House of Hwang. The gateman insults him and demands a tip. Wang Lung hands over more money. He is taken before the Old Mistress, who commands that the slave girl named O-lan be brought before her. O-lan is plain but not ugly, although neither is she beautiful. The old mistress informs Wang Lung that the girl has lived as a slave in the house for ten years, since she was ten years old. She says O-lan is a good, strong worker and will do what is required of her, although she adds that O-lan is also slow and stupid.
After the Old Mistress dismisses them, Wang Lung realizes he is very happy to have acquired a wife, even though she is not beautiful. On the way back, he buys her some peaches. They also stop at the temple, where Wang Lung burns incense before the two earthen figures that represent the god of the fields and his lady.
It is early evening when they return home, where his father complains about the money that has been spent. Wang Lung gives his wife the food to prepare for his guests. His relatives and neighbors arrive, and Wang Lung is pleased that he has a wife to cook for them, and he takes note of the fact that she is a good cook.
Over the next few months, Wang Lung gradually becomes accustomed to married life. He works in the fields every day, and when he returns, O-lan always has his food ready for him. O-lan also proves to be an excellent, hard-working housekeeper, relieving Wang Lung of the burden he had formerly carried himself. But O-lan says very little, talking to her husband only about the necessities of life.
In the early summer, O-lan takes to joining her husband, hoeing in the fields. They work together silently, hour after hour. One day, she announces that she is pregnant. Wang Lung and his father are both joyful at the news.
When the time comes for O-lan to give birth, she refuses all help and insists on being alone. She even interrupts her labor in order to prepare the evening meal for Wang Lung and his father.
She gives birth to a boy, and Wang Lung is proud to be a father.
These first three chapters sketch the character of Wang Lung and the circumstances in which he lives. He is a modest farmer, who earns just enough to live on, but not much more. He husbands his resources carefully, and does not like to waste anything. As a peasant, he has no experience beyond the life he has led on the small family farm. Because he is poor, the only wife he can acquire is a slave girl from the house of a wealthy family in the city. When he goes to collect her, he feels completely out of place in the city, and is shocked at how much everything costs. Even the waiting boy at the small restaurant where he eats is impudent towards him. At the House of Hwang, he does not know how to behave or what is expected of him, and he is intimidated by the Old Mistress. His lack of worldly knowledge and experience makes him a sympathetic character to the reader.
The culture in which Wang Lung lives is a traditional one. For example, when he visits the barber in the city, the barber suggests to him a more fashionable cut, but Wang Lung exclaims that he cannot cut the braid of his hair without first asking his father's permission. This is a traditional society in which the old ways of doing things are slow to change. Another sign of this is the fact that Wang Lung's marriage is arranged by his father. Wang Lung does not even meet his bride until he goes to collect her at the House of Hwang.
As the novel unfolds, Wang Lung's traditional values will be challenged in several ways. But for the moment, what should be noted is his deep, almost mystical attachment to the land. He is aware that it is the earth that gives him life, and he is completely in harmony with its rhythms and its seasons. The theme of the "good earth" will continue throughout the novel. The early chapters set up a basic contrast between this simple life on the land, and the riches and luxury symbolized by the House of Hwang.