One of Tan's "literary ingredients" — the settings in which the action of The Kitchen God's Wife takes place — deserves separate analysis because the settings play such a significant role in this book. They are not mere pictorial background for the scenes, but virtually characters in their own right.
China — especially the China of the war years — is not a familiar locale to most Western readers. Choosing to tell a story in such an environment risks confusing the reader with unfamiliar sights, sounds, and situations, if not so distancing the reader that he or she puts the book down forever. Tan is especially successful in minimizing both of these possibilities. The reader is instead compelled to continue the story for its own sake while gradually experiencing more and more comfort and compatibility with the foreign settings.
Tan eases into unfamiliar settings by beginning the story in California with a familiar situation — an American couple (Pearl and Phil) experiences tension over the demands of the wife's mother (Winnie). Even the engagement banquet scene in Chinatown is one most readers can identify with — encountering family members one would rather not spend time with, observing the petty jealousies and jibes of one relative toward another, enduring solicitous comments and questions of those not really interested. Pearl's visit to her mother's flower shop in Chinatown gently introduces the reader to several details of Chinese culture, and later the Buddhist funeral plunges Pearl — and the reader — into a much more alien environment. Tan backs off from the foreign setting briefly while Winnie fussily cleans her house in preparation for telling the long story that follows, so the reader is reassured that Winnie is at least currently a rather ordinary American widow living alone in the home where her family was raised.
As Winnie tells her life story to Pearl, a woman with little connection to her Chinese heritage, she has to explain details of the Chinese settings and customs to Pearl — and thus to the reader. And so we are all-Pearl and readers together — quickly swept up into the exotic setting in pre-war Shanghai.
Notable uses of setting, both as passive scenery and as active contributors to plot and mood, are the following:
- Weili's Shanghai home and Shanghai itself. The elegance of the home and the wealth and status of the family are clearly established, along with the wonders of 1925 Shanghai and the strangeness of a feudal household containing several wives. The reader accompanies Weili and her mother on their last-day excursion of the sights and sounds of the city. Twelve years later (1937), the reader accompanies Weili and San Ma on a seven-day buying expedition for Weili's dowry. These visits contrast with several views of the city and the house in 1945 after the end of the war, when Weili, Wen Fu, and Danru return to Shanghai. The emotions of Weili and other characters are reflected here in their settings.
- Tsungming Island. The house and town of Mouth of the River provide an early contrast with Shanghai, clearly illustrating Uncle's status as lower than Weili's father, but higher than other residents on the island. The New Year festival scene contributes a familiar country fair kind of atmosphere to the less familiar rituals of a traditional Chinese celebration. Weili's post-war visit to Tsungming Island and her foster home physically dramatizes the difficulties of survival and deprivation.
- Living quarters and surroundings at air bases. The unfamiliar, primitive, and uncomfortable conditions of Weili and Wen Fu's quarters in the old monastery at Hangchow provide a harsh, ironic setting for Weili's early experiences with Wen Fu's crude sexual demands. In contrast, the surrounding beauty of the area, the special bathhouse she helps the women create, the walks with Hulan to the "magic spring" or the restaurant with noodle soup — all these physical and sensory experiences tend to ameliorate the humiliations of her new marriage. Each of the subsequent air base settings — Yangchow, Nanking, and Kunming — has features that reflect Weili's gradual learning to cope with her circumstances, although never completely until she is back again in post-war Shanghai.
- The trips to and from Kunming. The 1400-mile trip by boat and truck from Nanking to Kunming is a wonder of both explicit and implicit descriptions, climaxing at the top of the mountains near Heaven's Breath, before its descent into the dirt and crowding of Kunming. Again for contrast, the return trip in 1945 allows glimpses of the ravages on both people and the nation by the disasters of the war.
- Experiences in air raids. The peaceful description of the Nanking marketplace and its colorful and delectable wares is torn apart by the strange air raid of propaganda leaflets, resulting in Weili's first experience of taonan and mass hysteria. By contrast, Weili's subsequent experiences in the bombing of Kunming become almost routine, except for her initial encounters with the horrors of violent death and mental aberration.
- Prison. One would expect, especially from Weili's initial experience in jail before her trial, that her prison experience would be one of the lowest periods of her life — which has been filled with lows. Yet the primitive setting of the prison almost disappears in the soft light of her acceptance of her circumstances-having made a clear choice against Wen Fu — and in the warmth created by her reaching out to the women sharing her circumstance. We experience the surprise of anticipating a potentially disastrous situation and delighting instead in the glowing accomplishment for Weili — a kind of "final examination" of her adaptability and self-development.
Amy Tan's remarkable use of her settings — as foreign as many of them are — leaves the reader feeling that he or she has in a small way traveled with Weili through the diverse locales of an unfamiliar country, finding much to appreciate and to associate with other fragments of almost forgotten information about the country, its social history, and its people.