The drama in which the Moon Lady is a major character concerns the loss and reclamation of cultural and individual identities. Four-year-old Ying-ying, who has fallen overboard, is desperate to be "found" — to once again be reunited with her family — and with herself. She feels as though she has not only lost her family, but that she has also lost her "self." As an old lady many years later, Ying-ying poignantly tells how she "lost herself." She says that she surrendered her identity as she felt herself being transformed into a shadow, insubstantial and fleeting.
In contrast to that loss and eventual reclamation, Ying-ying explains that today, as an old lady, she realizes that she and her daughter have suffered similar losses, and she wonders if these losses will ever be recovered. She and her daughter can no longer hear one another because Ying-ying rarely voices her thoughts. It was not always so; on the night when she was four years old, she shared her thoughts with the Moon Lady.
The Moon Festival fell on a very hot autumn day. Ying-ying was restless; her nurse (her amah) had dressed her in the heavy silk jacket and pants that Ying-ying's mother had made for her daughter to wear to the Moon Festival. Ying-ying remembers that her amah told her that soon they would see Chang-o, the Moon Lady, who becomes visible on this day only, and when people see her, they can ask for one secret wish to be fulfilled. The Moon Lady is not an ordinary person, the amah explained.
Ying-ying recalls that the departure was delayed because the adults talked. She became increasingly restless until, finally, the servants began to load a rickshaw with provisions, and the family climbed aboard and departed for the river.
Arriving at the lake, they discover that the air is no cooler there than it was inland. The children race around the deck of the floating pavilion, delighting in the ornate decorations, the pretty garden area, and the bustling kitchen. The excitement wanes, however, and after the meal, everyone settles down for a nap. Ying-ying watches some boys send a shackled bird into the water to catch fish. Later, she watches a servant gut fish, chickens, and a turtle, and, with alarm, she realizes that her new outfit is flecked with blood and fish scales. Panicking, she rubs more turtle blood over her clothing, thinking that no one will notice her transformation.
The amah shrieks in terror when she sees Ying-ying covered with blood but gratefully strips off the soiled garments when she realizes that the child is unharmed.
Alone on the back of the boat in her undergarments, Ying-ying waits as the moon rises. She turns to find the Moon Lady and slips into the water. She is caught in a fishing net and dumped on the deck of another boat. By now, there are so many boats on the water that Ying-ying cannot see her family's boat. She is put on shore, where she watches the Moon Lady performing. Instantly, she is enchanted by the pageant and by the beautiful, soft-spoken Moon Lady. When the play ends, the Moon Lady announces that she will grant a wish. Ying-ying rushes backstage and there, she sees the Moon Lady pull off her hair, drop her gown, and she realizes that the Moon Lady is a man.
Although Ying-ying is rescued by her family, she never believes that she is the same girl. She also forgets many of the details of the day. Today, many years later, when her life is coming to an end, she finally remembers what she asked the Moon Lady: she asked to be "found."
In addition to dealing with the theme of loss, Tan also deals with the concept of the doppelganger. Note that Ying-ying felt that she had surrendered herself "to a shadow, insubstantial and fleeting." Recall, too, the scream of an exploding firecracker and Ying-ying's falling overboard. Stripped of her special tiger clothes and wearing only anonymous cotton undergarments, Ying-ying could be anyone. Indeed, for a moment, she thinks that she may be a little girl on another boat whom she saw, pushing her way through her mother's legs. Ying-ying cried out, "That's not me! . . . I'm here. I didn't fall in the water." The people on the boat laugh at Ying-ying's attempt to understand what has happened.
The phenomenon of the doppelganger, according to psychologists, is fairly common. People feel as though they have met — or seen — their "double," a life-sized mirror image of themselves. Most often, these experiences happen late at night or at dawn and occur during periods of stress and fatigue. This idea of a phantom "double" has existed for centuries. In this case, Ying-ying sees a little girl who is safe; at the same time, she is trying to reinstate herself on shore, as a safe little girl who did not fall in the water. She feels that she should be the little girl's "double" — united with her family again, on dry land.
Writers have long used this literary device to probe conflicts within characters, struggles that the characters may not even know they are having. In Dostoevski's The Double, for example, a poor clerk sees his double, a man who has succeeded — in contrast to the clerk, who has failed. Conrad's The Secret Sharer is also built around the notion of a doppelganger. One dark night, a young sea captain rescues a murderer — his double — from the ocean. The captain hides his double and has visions of his own darker side. The narrator of Poe's "William Wilson" is hounded by his double, a man who speaks only in a whisper. Here, Ying-ying is torn between her antithetical desires for both independence and belonging. Like the Moon Lady, she feels as though she doesn't belong anywhere: "In one small moment, we had both lost the world, and there was no way to get it back."
A number of symbols in this section serve to reinforce Tan's themes. First, there is the shadow. "A girl should stand still," Ying-ying's mother admonishes her: "If you are still for a long time, a dragonfly will no longer see you. Then it will come to you and hide in the comfort of your shadow." Later, Ying-ying discovers her shadow, "the dark side of me that had my same restless nature." The shadow here is symbolic of Ying-ying's being pulled between obedience, which leads to her being part of a group, and independence, which leads to isolation. The image of a shadow also echoes the phenomenon of the doppelganger.
In some ways, Ying-ying is like the bird with the ring around its neck, but she is shackled by psychological rather than by physical means. Ying-ying has repressed her identity for so many years that she is unable to communicate with her daughter. This shackle of communication, ironically, yokes the two women, despite the fact that the daughter blocks out her mother's voice by using a mechanical device. She physically closes her ears to Ying-ying's voice with her Sony Walkman and cordless phone. "We are lost, she and I," Ying-ying realizes, "unseen and not seeing, unheard and not hearing, unknown by others." Like the bird, Ying-ying's throat is constricted.