Dragon Seed Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1942

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical

Time of work: 1930’s-1941

Locale: A small village in occupied China

Characters DiscussedLing Tan

Ling Dragon SeedTan, the patriarch of a family that includes five children, three boys and two girls. His story begins as that of a simple farmer who is happy to have his family well provided for through their collective labor. He has a few cattle, pigs, and chickens. Two of his three sons are married, as is his eldest daughter. As the Japanese invade China, his life becomes harsh. The novel is told through his and other peasants’ eyes. He becomes clever at hiding food from the Japanese, protecting his children and his neighbors from the invaders and launching attacks against them. His affection and respect for his wife are depicted as genuine. They each know their duties and responsibilities, and they make good decisions for their children and extended families.

Ling Sao

Ling Sao, Ling Tan’s wife, a benevolent woman not overly critical of her sons and their wives or of her own daughters. She and her husband work together and discuss important decisions. She sees her place as ensuring the biological continuation of the family, finding good wives and trying to provide for grandchildren.

Lao Ta

Lao Ta, the oldest son, who is married and has one child as the novel opens. During the occupation, his wife gives birth to another child. He is largely content with his life on the family farm, but with the occupation, his wife is in danger. His wife and children die of disease, and he becomes a wild fighter.

Lao Er

Lao Er, the second son, more dynamic than his brother. He loves his wife deeply and passionately, and he tries to please her. He is also faithful to his parents. He takes her north, away from the invasion, but returns to his parents with his family after Lao Ta’s children die. They stay to wage war on the Japanese with his father and brother. His dedication to the resistance and his care of his wife and pride in her accomplishments mark him as an ideal new man of China.


Jade, the wife of Lao Er, intelligent and educated, with a mind of her own. She is the first to really understand the democracy movement and the Japanese invasion. She helps her husband to escape; after they return, she helps him to fight the Japanese. She is as modern a woman as could be found in China in the 1930’s, when a limited number of women were educated. She is a fierce fighter and a competent mother and wife.

Lao San

Lao San, the youngest brother, a teenage boy at the beginning of the invasion. He is more carefree than his older brothers. After being raped by the Japanese because they could find no women in the household, he becomes a bloodthirsty fighter. His parents worry especially that he and his oldest brother will not return to normal. The whole family contrives to find him a worthy wife. He becomes interested in Mayli, who has returned from life in the United States to be with her people.


Pansiao, the youngest member of the family. She has spent most of her life weaving in a small room in the family house. She gets her opportunity to study when the women must hide with a Christian missionary. When the rest of the family members go back home to fight, she joins other young women at a mission school in the North and starts her education. Her family loyalty is expressed in her quest for a wife for Lao San.

Third Cousin

Third Cousin, a partially educated but essentially lazy man. His wife and son cause him a lot of trouble, but they are the ones with spunk and ideas. His wife becomes a spy for Ling Tan’s son-in-law, Wu Lien, who collaborates with the Japanese. He tires of his wife’s control and becomes an opium addict. With the help of a stolen radio, he passes information to the peasants in a teahouse. He is the mouthpiece through which readers are connected to the world outside the little village and the larger town nearby.

Wu Lien

Wu Lien, the husband of Ling Tan’s oldest daughter, a well-off merchant in the town who deals in foreign as well as domestic goods. When a general strike is called, along with an embargo on selling foreign goods, he does not comply, and his shop is destroyed. He lives with the Ling family for a while, then manages to make connections with the Japanese and lives in their compound, a seized large family home. A collaborator with the Japanese, even though they killed his mother, he nevertheless keeps silent about the Ling family’s guerrilla activities and helps them financially.

Bibliography“Bloody Ballet.” Review of Dragon Seed, by Pearl S. Buck. Time, January 26, 1942, 80, 82. Calls the novel the “strongest . . . most instructive story” about China during World War II, but criticizes the latter pages as artistically weak.Buck, Pearl S. My Several Worlds. New York: John Day, 1954. Buck’s autobiography describes vividly her years in China and the impact these experiences had upon her life and work. Discusses her progressive ideas on social issues.Buck, Pearl S. The Story of “Dragon Seed.” New York: John Day, 1944. This monograph explains how the author came to write the novel. Describes her personal contact with Chinese farming families living near Nanking and her learning of “the horrors of the Japanese invasion.”Cavasco, G. A. “Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel.” Asian Studies 5 (1967): 437-450. Praises Buck’s Chinese fiction, dividing her work into three categories. Argues that her novels about China are her best work and that they will always be popular because they adhere to the structure of Chinese fiction.Doyle, Paul A. Pearl S. Buck. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Analyzes the plot of Dragon Seed to show why the novel is not considered “an artistic success.” Compares the work to The Good Earth.
Categories: Characters