Clearly the character Jiang Weili — later Winnie Louie — has the primary responsibility for carrying the story, for keeping the reader involved, and for making the novel believable. To the reader, she becomes a real person with many commendable qualities, but she is not perfect. How does this woman of another time and another place become so real, so admirable, so familiar, and yet we are always learning something new about her, right to the last page? We may find answers by studying not Weili's primary experiences in the novel, but by searching Weili's background and personality as revealed by her reactions to her experiences.
In the background of Weili's childhood insecurities flit brief snapshots of her mother — combing her hair, examining her face in the mirror, offering her daughter an English biscuit. There is no explicit reason for the mother's second-rate position in Jiang's life, but the lack of a son suggests that Jiang might have resented the birth of a girl. Independent, rebellious, the mother sets the norm for Weili by smiling while pouring out angry words to Jiang and by retreating into her lonely room, perhaps to nurture romantic daydreams of Lu. For Weili, the penalty for independence strikes when her mother can no longer pay the cost. It is Weili who must endure a blend of "funny and bad stories, terrible secrets and romantic tales" told about the runaway mother.
Significant is the fact that Weili later attends her mother's alma mater, the Catholic missionary school in Shanghai, and enjoys some degree of wealth and privilege as her mother's syin ke, or "little heart." This establishment of place in a household hierarchy of women precedes an unexpected adaptation to another household, where her aunts and cousins outnumber Uncle. In her pathetic attempts to make sense of her mother's disappearance, Weili gathers slivers of facts and raw shards of gossip along with needling from her uncle's family, who take no delight in another girlchild to raise. In sorrow after her mother leaves, Weili too willingly accepts guilt, admitting to Pearl: "In my heart, there is a little room. And in that room is a little girl, still six years old. She is always waiting, an achy hoping, hoping beyond reason." To fill that empty niche, Weili waters a dried flower bulb hoping "it would grow into a fairy maiden who could be my playmate."
In her optimistic moments, the adult Winnie is a natural wit — sometimes unintentionally so. Some of the novel's best lines owe their grace and charm to her refreshing candor: "How can I sing 'Silent Night, Joy to the World,' when I want to shout and say, So glad he is dead! Wrong thought, wrong day." On a minor pilgrimage about her home, she makes the womanly gestures that reveal her makeup — the bargains from Happy Super, a private moment to dust Jimmy's picture, an anticlimactic frown at a Playboy that Samuel bought in 1964. Perhaps intuitively, she fears that she will pass into the distant chambers of her family's heart like Auntie Du, who smelled of mothballs. Already, like Alice in Wonderland hoping that her cat Dinah misses her, Winnie feels unneeded, disconnected, and believes that no one listens to her since Jimmy died and left her to manage for herself.
Too introspective, too demanding of self and children, Winnie recalls the turbulent teen years when she warned Pearl against tampons, blue eye shadow, and attachment to "that Randy boy" who asked for a beer. Winnie's narrative follows the stages of coming to knowledge through three levels:
- from scapegoating ("Confucius, that awful man who made that society")
- to appreciating and celebrating female strength, illustrated by the woman with the broom searching for a child buried in rubble and crying, "My fault! My fault!"
- and finally to verbalizing her first anger and defiance of Wen Fu.
After Danru's birth, Weili congratulates herself for changing gradually, for exploring her feelings, and for getting to know Gan, a friend and potential lover. The setbacks sting her vulnerable ego, reminding her "How foolish I was! To think my body was my own." Like Joan of Arc facing the societal and religious establishment of her time, Weili smiles at the courtroom and shouts, "I would rather sleep on the concrete floor of a jail . . . than go to that man's house." Only Winnie knows how much that brazen smile cost her.
Later in her life, Winnie climbs from the pit of patriarchal oppression by observing and by recovering from her own mistakes. She readily admits to Pearl that Samuel was second in her love. Concerning Hulan, she chafes at the very qualities that kept her alive during the war years: candor, spunk in delivering the unnamed villager's baby, and an effort to end the secrecy and lying that isolate Winnie from Pearl. Winnie stereotypes the young Hulan as plump, plain, and unfashionable like laundry hung out to dry, with backwoods manners. Unlike Weili, who grew up among genteel people, Hulan harbors no prudery about her body, relishes the imaginative superstition about a magic spring, and provides the red skirt that enables Old Mr. Ma to ease the truck over treacherous mountain passes to safety. Weili recognizes signs of weakness in Hulan that are correctable: She overeats during famine so she can avoid the hunger she recalls from her past, and she appreciates new glasses, through which she studies Chinese characters as Weili teaches her to read.
Through strengths and faults, Weili and Hulan profit from their wartime sisterhood when events drag them down. The parallel development of Weili and Hulan — choosing husbands who had been involved with other women, laboring to upgrade infested housing, and grieving for the deaths of Danru and Jiaguo after the epidemic — suggests that their lives are so intertwined that they share too many secrets, too many projects, too many sorrows that no one else can appreciate. In the end, Helen giggles to Pearl, "I said I was going to die so you would both tell each other your secrets." Like Little Yu's mother and Peanut, Helen has always respected Winnie's courage and has treasured the jade earrings that represent Winnie's tie with the most precious woman in her life, her mother.
Overall, Tan speaks the story of Weili with a kind of pride in womanly courage that comes from experience and from knowing Daisy Tan, a mother just like Winnie. As Tan notes in The Moon Lady:
But you see, I had already found myself. I found out what kind of tiger I really was. Because I now knew there were many kinds of wishes, some that came from my stomach, some that were selfish, some that came from my heart. And I knew what the best wishes were: those I could make come true by myself.
In shaping her own destiny, Weili has the courage to defy and shoot at Wen Fu, toss his pants out the window, rejoice at his death, then burn him in effigy and enjoy his agonies in hell. Helen congratulates Winnie for, years ago, having swallowed water from the magic spring, the antidote to bitterness, and "changing everything — your stomach, your heart, your mind. Everything sweet." Winnie, careful not to leave the last word to Helen, retorts, "Peaceful . . . no worries, no sorrows."
Selecting a personal goddess for the altar of the deposed Kitchen God, one which she will give to her daughter Pearl, is Winnie's ultimate act of self-determination.