abacus a mathematical device used to solve addition and subtraction problems; invented in China in the twelfth century, the abacus is made up of beads strung on rods in units of ten.
adamantine chin a strong-looking chin.
agoraphobia a fear of open spaces or public places.
almanac typically, an annual reference book used to predict the future; predictions are based on the positions and movements of the stars.
the ancestral tablets lists on which ancestors' names are inscribed; in ancient China, and to a great extent still today, ancestor worship was universally practiced. Because the dead are believed to have the same needs as the living, the actions of the living affect the dead, and the dead continue to help the living. By tearing down the evil baron's ancestral tablets, Fa Mu Lan defames the evil baron's ancestors and, thus, the evil baron himself.
anemia a deficiency of red blood cells, which contain hemoglobin, an oxygen-carrying pigment; because one symptom of anemia is paleness of tissue and the skin, Brave Orchid checks the color of the tissue under the female slave's eyelids.
Animalcules microscopic organisms.
antiseptic sterile; non-threatening; not enlivening.
atavism characteristics that reappear over time; Kingston likens herself to her aunt, No Name Woman: Both women share "an atavism deeper than fear," an unnamable anxiety about relationships with men.
atavistic the reappearance of some characteristic in a family bloodline that has not been evident for generations.
bacteriology the study of bacteria.
Bali an Indonesian island, approximately 1500 miles southeast of Vietnam, and directly east of Java; during the early-twentieth century, Chinese emigrants on Bali probably worked mainly for Dutch-owned private plantations.
bantams small, aggressive chickens.
barbarian uncivilized and ignorant; the Chinese traditionally regarded all non-Han people as barbarians.
baron socially and economically, the most important group of landowners — next to a country's ruler — during feudal times.
basin here, a shallow bowl used to hold water.
benevolent associations also known as tongs, protective associations that grew out of Chinese immigrants' need for protection against criminal members of their own society, as well as to secure social and economic rights for immigrants in the United States.
Betty Grable (1916-73) An American actress and film star, she was the most popular pin-up girl of World War II; she costarred with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in The Gay Divorcee (1934) and later appeared in such films as The Pin-up Girl (1944) and Moon Over Miami (1941).
Big Six meaning China.
bilingual the ability to speak more than one language fluently.
biplane an airplane with two sets of wings, one set over the engine and the other located on the tail; during World War I, and through the early 1930s, biplanes dominated both military and commercial aviation.
birth in the pigsty Giving birth in a pigsty reflects the superstitious belief that if a mother gives birth in a house and is proud of her baby, evil or envious gods might take the child from its mother; frequently, newborn babies were called pigs to trick the gods into thinking that the babies were ugly or deformed and, therefore, not worth stealing.
blunt-cut to cut hair to an even, sharply defined length around the entire head; the term "blunt-cut" implies a woman's de-feminizing her appearance.
boas large snakes that coil around and suffocate their prey; or, long scarves made of soft material, such as feathers or fur, wrapped around the neck or slung over the shoulder.
bob a short-clipped haircut.
bonded as apprentices made to serve a specific length of time as a helper to an experienced craftsman; after learning trades through their apprenticeships, apprentices become master craftsmen themselves.
brides' prices payments made to brides' families by grooms, as a gesture that brides will be treated well by their husbands.
Brigitte Bardot (b. 1934) French actress who became an international sex symbol after starring in And God Created Women (1956), and who has worked tirelessly as an animal-rights activist.
bunds here, low walls of dirt, used to enclose water in which rice is grown.
burlap also known as hessian cloth, a resilient fabric used in making sacks.
"the bus with the mark of the dog on it" a Greyhound bus.
butcher's block a square or rectangular surface, usually made of wood, on which a butcher cuts meat.
camphoraceous musty-smelling; camphor, used both to soothe muscles and to repel insects, is produced by the camphor tree, an evergreen tree native to eastern Asia.
cannery a factory where food is canned.
Canton known today as Guangzhou, the largest city in south China and the capital of Kwangtung Providence (Guangdong); it is one of China's main commercial centers.
cardigan a sweater that opens down the front.
cattails tall plants with flat leaves and elongated flowering spikes that grow best when rooted directly in water.
cervixes necks, or other necklike structures.
Chairman Mao Mao Zedong (1893-1976), founder of the Chinese Communist Party (1921), and the first chairman (1949-1959) of the People's Republic of China; even after his retirement as chairman, he retained control of the Chinese Communist Party, which in turn controlled the country.
chamomile a perennial herb with either yellow or white flowers; when dried, it is used to make herbal tea.
Changchow also known as Changzhou, a city in eastern China, west of Shanghai.
Chen Luan-feng probably a reference to a mythological figure who cut off the leg of Lei Kung, the thunder god, also known as Lei Shen. Lei Kung, who punishes humans guilty of secret crimes, uses a drum and mallet to produce thunder and a chisel to punish wrongdoers.
Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) leader of the Kuomintang, which means "national people's party"; in 1949, after three years of civil war, Chiang and the Nationalists were driven from mainland China by the Communists and established the Republic of China — in contrast to the Communist People's Republic of China — on the island of Taiwan, formerly known as Formosa.
chick mash highly nutritious food fed to baby chicks.
Ch'in the Ch'in dynasty (221-206 B.C.), from which China gets its name.
chrysanthemum also called mums; a popular garden plant that has large flower heads.
Chung-li Ch'uan one of the Eight Sages who probably lived sometime between 206 B.C. and A.D. 220; he is usually depicted as a fat, bearded, wine-drinking hermit.
commensal tradition a way of life in which one group of people gain something from another, unaffected group of people; Kingston condemns how Chinese families punish wrongdoers by treating the offenders as pariahs, forced to eat leftovers at an "outcast table."
concierge generally, a hotel employee who assists guests; Brave Orchid is fortunate that the To Keung School of Midwifery provides a concierge for its students.
Coney Island during the 1920s, a popular amusement park and famous boardwalk located in Brooklyn, New York, along the Atlantic Ocean waterfront.
Confucius Latinized spelling of the name K'ung fu-tzu (probably 551-478 B.C.), an itinerant teacher and sage. Three important doctrines of Confucius include believing in benevolence (doing unto others as to yourself), acting with benevolence, and acting in accordance with propriety. Confucius' teachings are recorded in Analects, compiled by his disciples.
conscription forced drafting into service, usually military.
contracts labor contracts, specifying the length and wages of work; by 1924, when Kingston's male relatives left China to work in other countries, the United States had severely limited the number of male Chinese emigrants allowed into the country. Only men who met a strict set of criteria were allowed to enter, but their wives, sons, and daughters were not allowed to come with them.
CORE Congress of Racial Equality; established in 1942 to improve race relations, one of CORE's major projects is voter-registration drives in the South.
cranium the skull.
crank here, a person who shams innocent people out of their money.
cudgel a club; here, a metaphor for a husband who beats his wife.
culpability deserving of blame; guiltiness.
cutworms larva that feed on plants, eventually cutting off a plant at ground level.
Cyclone fence a chainlink fence.
dermatology the study of skin.
descent line the chronological history of a person's ancestors; a genealogical family tree.
desultorily lackadaisically, without fervor.
dill a herb with aromatic leaves and seeds, which are used as a food seasoning.
dirigibles airships, or blimps.
dowries any material wealth that brides bring to their husbands at marriage.
drinking gourd a dried and then hollowed-out melon or squash, often oddly shaped, that can be used as a drinking vessel.
earthenware jugs containers made from either clay or heavy soil; once the material is sculpted into form, the container is cooked over flames and then set to cool.
efface to erase or eliminate.
Eight Sages also called the Eight Immortals, eight mythological Chinese men of great wisdom; although unacquainted in real life, the eight are frequently depicted as a group in Chinese art.
Ellis Island an island off of New York City that served as the primary immigration station from 1892 to 1943.
embossed carved or adorned.
"Ex-assistant étranger à la clinique chirugicale et d'accouchement de l'université de Lyon" French, meaning "The former foreign assistant at the surgical and birthing clinic of the University of Lyon [France]."
exorcised to have cast out evil spirits.
faggots bundled small branches, often used as kindling to start a fire.
fatalism a belief system whose adherents believe that all events are predetermined; a person cannot make personal choices because freewill does not exist.
ferule a rod used to punish children.
fiefdoms a land-holding system in which large tracts of land are owned and run by feudal lords; mini-kingdoms.
fighting monks a Buddhist order of monks trained in martial arts, often depicted in folklore and movies.
figs the fruit of the fig tree, a Mediterranean tree or shrub; gathered when they fall from the tree and then dried, figs are so widely used in Mediterranean countries that they are called "the poor man's food."
First Emperor of Ch'in refers to Chao Cheng, who came to the throne in 247 B.C., and, by 221 B.C., had solidified the Ch'in dynasty, mostly through conquests of rival territories; during the Ch'in empire, which lasted until 206 B.C., the Great Wall of China was begun, and all books except those on such subjects as medicine were burned to halt subversive thought.
flayed here, stripped of all protective emotions; left completely vulnerable.
flotage loose material adrift in water.
fly screen a meshlike material used to keep flies out of homes or buildings.
fontanel an anatomical term used to describe a baby's soft membranes between its skull's unformed bones.
foreheads tied with wild oaths scarf-like material wrapped around the forehead and tied at the back of the head; ideographs like those that Fa Mu Lan's father carves on the woman warrior's back would have been stitched into the fabric to spur warriors to perform great deeds.
Fourth Aunt and Uncle The title of a relative is accorded by the rank at birth; for example, Third Sister would be the third daughter born into a family.
foxtails a perennial weedy grass with spiked flowers that resemble the tails of foxes.
Fred Astaire (1899-1987) Hollywood's famous male dancer who teamed with Ginger Rogers in ten popular movies for RKO Studio during the 1930s, including Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936).
frenum here, a small fold of membrane that restrains the tongue's movement.
gall generally, resentment, or bitterness; because No Name Woman unknowingly goes into labor immediately after her family disowns her and kicks her out of the house, she fears that the pain racking her body is physically caused by her family's throwing her out.
gaucheries rude, unmannered expressions.
geishas a Japanese class of indentured women who entertain men; usually, a young girl is sold by her parents to a geisha organization, which then trains her in the duties of being a geisha.
gestation the time period from conception to birth of a baby.
gizzard lining refers to the thickly lined gizzard, found mainly in birds; located directly behind the stomach, the gizzard holds ingested gravel or some other grit-like material that birds must use to digest their food.
gnomes mythological dwarflike creatures who live underground.
Gobi Desert a desert that extends from southeast Mongolia south into northern China.
greatcoat an overcoat.
gurus spiritual advisors, or leaders.
gynecology the medical field devoted to the healthcare of women and their reproductive organs.
hairpin a small metal clip used to hold hair in place.
the Han people people of the Chinese race; the word "Han" is derived from the name of the dynasty that ruled China from 202 B.C. to A.D. 220.
Hanchow possibly Hangchow, a city southwest of Shanghai, in Chekiang Province; capital city of the Southern Sung dynasty (960-1279).
hexagrams that are the I Ching The I Ching, or "Book of Changes," the majority of which was written by Wen Wang (twelfth century B.C.), is an ancient Chinese text concerning Confucianism. Of great importance in the history of Chinese philosophy, the work explains ethical principles through a system that involves the oneness of humans and nature in daily communion. The complex hexagrams — six-sided figures — of the I Ching represent different positive qualities; the more hexagrams you "build" on top of one another, the closer you are to an understanding of the world.
homonyms words that sound alike but differ in spelling; for example, "meat" and "meet."
Hong Kong formerly, a British colony on the southeast coast of Kwangtung Province (Guangdong); Hong Kong reverted to mainland Chinese control in 1997.
"I Am a Person of the Middle Nation" In Chinese, the word "China" can be translated as "Middle Nation." The ancient Chinese believed that they were located at the center of the known world.
ideograph a symbol that represents an idea; for example, the symbol "@" means "at."
incense here, a pleasant odor.
incest sex between blood-related kin.
infanticide deliberately killing newborn infants.
ingots any standardized shapes of metal; for example, gold bars.
ink block a container in which ink is stored.
jade trees succulent plants, with fleshy water-retaining leaves, domestically grown either in pots or in gardens.
jasper a red, yellow, or brown variety of the mineral quartz.
Javanese pertaining to Java, the most heavily populated of the islands that comprise Indonesia, a country in Southeast Asia.
Joan of Arc (1412-31) the French heroine who, claiming that she regularly talked with dead Catholic saints, inspired the French to victory over the English at Orléans in 1429; she was later captured by the English, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake.
John Wayne (1907-79) American actor known for his ruggedness as a self-styled individualist in Western films.
Korean War (1950-53) the military conflict fought on the Korean peninsula between northern Marxists, supported by the former Soviet Union, and southern Korean nationals, backed by the United States; following the conflict, the Korean peninsula divided into North Korea and South Korea.
Kwangtung Province also called Guangdong, a province of southeast China; incorporated into China in 222 B.C., when the first emperor of the Ch'in dynasty conquered the area.
lepers' socks Leprosy is a chronic disease characterized by skin sores, gangrene, and even paralysis; because the disease is contagious, people with leprosy — known as lepers — often cover their skin to restrain the disease from spreading and because of the social stigma attached to the disease.
Li T'ieh-kuai one of the Eight Immortals; Li is depicted as an old man, with a gourd slung over his shoulder; the gourd holds medicine, which Li dispenses to the poor, and at night serves as his bedroom.
lichees the nutlike fruit of the litchi, or lichee tree, indigenous to China.
lion here, a large puppet, like a parade float, but manually operated, probably by men inside the lion.
Long Wall the fifteen-hundred-mile Great Wall of China; begun in the third century B.C. as a means of defense against invading marauders from the north.
loom a hand-operated apparatus used to weave cloth.
loquat tree a small evergreen tree, native to China and Japan, with white flowers and yellow, edible fruit.
maelstrom an incredibly violent and threatening storm, or situation.
magistrate a government employee who administers and enforces the law.
magpies Related to jays, magpies have long tails, black-green plumage, and white markings over their shoulders.
Malaya the peninsula directly south of Thailand, in Southeast Asia; Malaya gained its independence from British rule in 1957, and became part of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963.
mallard a colorful wild duck found throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.
metempsychosis reincarnation, the belief that after the human body dies, its soul is reborn — in human, animal, or even vegetable form; this process continues until the soul reaches perfection. Buddhists believe that the soul has five skandhas, or groups of elements: body, sensations, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness. In death, the soul ceases to exist, but its karma — perhaps what Kingston alludes to as the six paths, the five skandhas plus karma — is reborn in a mother's womb, in the body of a new baby. This system of regeneration continues until a person reaches the state of nirvana, in which personal desires do not exist.
midwifery the practice of a midwife, a person — usually a woman — who assists women during childbirth.
Mongols traditionally, the nomadic people of Mongolia, situated north of China; throughout their histories, Mongolia and China always have had a very contentious and uneasy relationship with each other.
monk's food scant, meager portions of food; Fa Mu Lan eats only nuts and dry roots during most of her time on the mountains of the white tigers.
moon cakes round pastries eaten during full moon of the eighth month of the lunar year.
Mount Fuji Japan's highest mountain, located sixty miles southwest of Tokyo; Mount Fuji, which is sacred to the Japanese, is a volcano, dormant since 1707 but still classified as "active" by geologists.
NAACP National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; created in 1909 to help abolish segregation and end discrimination against people of color.
nadir the diametrical opposite of the zenith; an astronomical term representing the lowest point below the observer.
nape the back of the neck.
nether underground, or the underworld.
night soil buckets portable containers used primarily for nighttime urine.
nock-whistles grooved whistles; the Hsiung-nu carved holes into their arrows; when shot, the arrows made whistling sounds because of the rush of air through the holes.
Oh, You Beautiful Doll a 1949 musical film about a songwriter who whimsically rewrites a serious composer's songs as popular tunes; Betty Grable did not appear in the film as Kingston suggests.
ophthalmology the medical field that specializes in the care of eyes.
origamied from the Japanese art of origami, which entails folding paper into different shapes without cutting or using adhesives.
paisley fabric distinguished by its swirling pattern of shapes.
palanquins Formerly used in eastern Asia, a palanquin is an ornate chair, often covered by a roof to protect the inhabitant and carried on the shoulders of servants using two poles fastened to the chair.
pandanus fronds the narrow, spiny leaves, used in weaving mats, from the palmlike pandanus tree.
pantomimed here, communicated using hand gestures.
peat dirt highly organic soil derived from peat, decomposed vegetable matter used as a fertilizer and, in some countries, as a fuel.
pediatrics the medical field that specializes in the care of infants and children.
Peiping means "Northern Peace"; present-day Beijing, the capital of China.
peony here, the tree peony, a woody-stemmed perennial with large white- or rose-colored flowers that bloom on three- to four-foot stalks. Tree peonies, which grow slowly, are native to western China but have been hybridized in the United States and throughout the world.
peroxide a chemical solution used as a disinfectant to kill germs.
pestle a tool used for grinding or mashing food.
phoenix notes Traditionally, only one phoenix, a fictional bird from ancient eastern Mediterranean lore, lives at any given time. The one-of-a-kind phoenix lives its five-hundred-year life span, then climbs onto a funeral pyre and sets itself aflame. From its ashes springs a worm that develops into a new phoenix decked in radiant red, purple, and gold plumage. The Chinese believe that the song of the phoenix is especially beautiful, and that the phoenix has an appreciation for human music.
pigeon-toed feet turned inward, in the shape of an inverted "V."
poppies flowers admired for their beautiful petals; perennial Oriental poppies are best known for their red blossoms with blackish-purple centers.
prodigal wastefully extravagant.
proxy a stand-in, or substitute; although the rooster that No Name Woman's soon-to-be-husband sends to her is intended to be a goodwill gesture, that he sends a rooster rather than meeting her himself indicates traditional China's low regard for women.
purple dromedaries one-humped camels; "purple" dromedaries are only imaginary.
quarries excavation pits from which materials such as stones, minerals, or coal are mined.
red carp an inland-water fish common throughout North America, Europe, and Asia; the red carp derives its name from its reddish-colored scales and fins.
red money Giving money is one of the many customs associated with the Chinese New Year, a fifteen-day festival beginning either in late January or early February. The focus of the celebration is the payment of debts, housecleaning, and the ending of quarrels to prepare the way for a peaceful new year. Often the money is given in red envelopes.
rheumatism inflammation of muscles or joints, causing stiffness and pain.
rictus a facial grimace.
Romany Romany is a catchall word that means gypsy, the language that gypsies speak, and the location from which gypsies come, although Romany is not a physical country or place.
runners long, narrow tablecloths.
samurais Ancient Japanese warriors, the samurais originated in eleventh-century Japan to enforce the laws of the imperial government, whose power was waning; their cultural dominance ended around 1700.
sandalwood a grayish brown tree native to Asia, whose wood is often used in wood carving.
scythes tools with long, curved blades used for hand-mowing or harvesting grains.
sea swallow also known as terns, graceful water birds that inhabit seacoasts and inland waters; most terns, which form breeding colonies of millions of individuals, lay their eggs on the ground, and in some parts of the world, including Malaya, their eggs are gathered for human consumption.
Seagram's 7 a brand of Canadian whiskey.
second Communist five-year plan (1958-1963) the economic program established by China's ruling Communist Party to spur the Chinese economy; this second five-year plan was marked by an experiment called the Great Leap Forward, which included a failed attempt to form agricultural communes, where peasants would live and work together to produce food for the entire country.
sedan chairs similar to palanquins.
self-immolation deliberate self-sacrifice, often by burning.
serrated jagged-edged, like a saw's teeth.
shadow geese refers to the art of contorting the hands to form different shapes, usually animals, which appear as shadows on a wall or other flat surfaces when the hands are illuminated from behind.
Shantung means "Eastern Mountains"; a northern coastal province in China, including the Shantung Peninsula, and China's third most populous province.
Shao-lin temple Shaolin, which developed in northern China, is a form of martial arts that emphasizes strength and speed. Martial arts training centers would have been called temples.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon Directed by the legendary John Ford, this 1949 Western film starred John Wayne in one of his greatest performances, as a cavalry commander who delays his retirement because of an impending war with Apaches.
Singapore an island country in Southeast Asia controlled by the British from 1824 to 1965; the city of Singapore is the country's capital.
slough a depression in the ground, often muddy because of poor water drainage.
Southern Hsiung-nu a nomadic people who lived in present-day Siberia and Mongolia; the Hsiung-nu were especially powerful from the third century B.C. through the second century A.D., repeatedly making raids into northern China, which resulted in China's building the Great Wall.
spirit money fake money that a deceased person's relatives burn to bribe the gods not to harass the deceased person's spirit.
strafed randomly attacked with machine gun or cannon fire.
strata horizontal layers of rock material, usually stacked one on top of the other.
Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) leader of the Chinese Kuomintang, a political party that overthrew the Manchu dynasty in 1911; Sun served as the first provisional president of the Republic of China (1911-12) and later as its de facto ruler (1923-25).
synonym two words that have the same, or similar, meaning; Kingston writes that in China, marriage is synonymous to "taking a daughter-in-law" because after the wedding, the husband and wife live with his family, never with hers.
Taiwan an island country less than a hundred miles southeast of mainland China; in 1949, Chinese Communist forces drove Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Kuomintang, which means "national people's party," and other Chinese nationalists to this island, formerly known as Formosa, where they established the Republic of China — in contrast to the People's Republic of China, which is Communist mainland China.
talismans objects believed to hold magical powers; for example, a person who carries a rabbit's foot will be lucky.
talismans objects that supposedly give their owners magical powers; for example, a rabbit's foot is a popular good-luck talisman.
taps small metal discs attached to the soles of shoes, used to produce the metallic sounds when tap-dancing.
taro leaves leaves of the tuberous taro plant, used to wrap food.
tarry oil thick, black oil made from tar.
teak an evergreen tree, native to southeast Asia, whose wood is used for furniture because of its durability.
tetherball a game in which two people try to hit a ball attached to the top of a pole by a rope until the rope is completely wound around the pole.
therapeutics the treatment of diseases, either by medical science or holistic means.
Thorazine the trademark name of chlorpromazine, an antipsychotic drug.
to have our feet bound Beginning during the T'ang dynasty (618-906), feet-binding was an accepted cultural practice in which a female's feet were severely constricted to retard normal growth. Parents wrapped their daughters' feet with toes extended downward, stretching the instep and inhibiting the shaping of the arch. Although feet-binding was a socially elite practice that signaled a man's wealth and social position because he could afford for his wives and daughters not to work, the female's feet would become so deformed that the woman no longer could walk without being physically supported by servants. This inhumane custom ended in 1911, when the dynastic form of government was replaced with a republic.
tong ax A tong is an association of Chinese individuals in the United States, believed to be involved in organized crime; Kingston speculates that an old busboy she encounters is really a swordsman, and that this busboy-swordsman uses an ax to kill people opposed to the tong.
totem an object or animal used to represent membership in a group, clan, or family.
tractably easily led; malleable.
train trestle a bridge designed for trains to cross.
transmigration here, changing physical shape.
tubercular handkerchiefs Tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by bacteria, called tubercle bacillus; because the disease can be spread from person to person, people already infected with tuberculosis would hold handkerchiefs or other material to their mouths whenever they coughed to lessen the chance of spreading the disease.
tules plants with grasslike leaves that grow in swamps and marshes.
varicose veins blood-swollen veins, commonly occurring in the legs.
were-people for Kingston, another term meaning ghosts, or spirits.
wetbacks offensive slang, generally used to disparage people of Mexican descent who illegally enter the United States; here, Kingston means illegal Chinese immigrants.
white crane boxing a style or system of martial arts, or fighting arts.
whorls spiraling forms; for example, a tornado.
whorls spirals; Kingston compares women who carried many objects on their backs to snails' coiled shells.
yams sweet potatoes, starchy root vegetables associated most with the southern United States.
yang and yin Yang is the masculine element of Chinese philosophy — that is, aggressive, hot, active, dry, and bright qualities. Yin is the feminine element of Chinese philosophy — that is, receptive, cool, inactive, moist, and dark qualities.
yellow croaker a saltwater fish; in China, yellow croakers are caught mainly in Kwangtung Province, which supplies about one-fifth of the fish consumed in China.
zenith here, the highest region of the sky.
zinnia a stiff, hairy-stemmed flower with a single flower head; except for blue, zinnias bloom in all colors.