Summary and Analysis
A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe
In this final chapter of The Woman Warrior, Kingston discusses further the difficulties she experienced growing up as a Chinese-American female. Greatest among these challenges was learning to speak English to non-Chinese people, while struggling to confront traditional Chinese culture, represented by her mother, which inhibited her efforts to integrate fully into American culture. She searches to locate a middle ground in which she can live within each of these two respective cultures; while doing so, she creates a new, hybrid identity between them. At the close of the chapter, she draws on a talk-story about the legendary Chinese female poet Ts'ai Yen to demonstrate her own achievement of a delicate harmony between two competing cultures. Throughout her identity-forming process, she also finds that she must assert herself by breaking away emotionally from her mother, who has been the center of her life. Once free, she can develop an identity of her own.
"A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe" begins with Kingston admitting that she heard about Moon Orchid's disastrous confrontation with her husband, which Kingston related in "At the Western Palace," from her brother. She then amends this admission: "In fact, it wasn't me my brother told about going to Los Angeles; one of my sisters told me what he'd told her." This passing on of stories demonstrates the always-changing nature of talk-stories, whose telling is dependent on the teller. For example, Kingston recognizes that her brother narrates Moon Orchid's story differently than she. "His version of the story," she writes, "may be better than mine because of its bareness, not twisted into designs." However, she relishes her talk-stories' involved and complicated designs because they emphasize the complexity of both the talk-stories and, more important, their narrator — Kingston herself. Likening herself to a knot-maker who, long ago in China, would have continued to create a special, intricate knot even after the emperor banned its being made, Kingston tests the boundaries that her mother, Chinese culture, and American culture erect to manipulate her every thought and action.
Kingston follows the brief talk-story of the outlawed knot with a discussion between her mother and herself concerning Brave Orchid's supposedly cutting Kingston's frenum, the membrane under the tongue that restricts the tongue's movement. Although Kingston is unsure whether or not Brave Orchid truly sliced her frenum, she wants to believe that her mother did so as an act of empowerment: "Sometimes I felt very proud that my mother committed such a powerful act upon me." When Kingston again asks her mother why she cut Kingston's frenum, Brave Orchid's answer recalls the word "tied" from the talk-story about the Chinese knot-makers: "I cut it so that you would not be tongue-tied." Brave Orchid understands all too well the necessity of her daughter having the power of language, and the relationship between language and personal identity. Symbolically, Brave Orchid tells Kingston that she cut her frenum so that her tongue "would be able to move in any language. You'll be able to speak languages that are completely different from one another." Brave Orchid, a powerful Chinese woman in her own right, is concerned that Kingston succeed not only as a woman of Chinese descent, but as a woman of Chinese descent living in America. In order to be successful, Kingston will have to learn to speak English, no matter how upsetting that is to the resigned Brave Orchid.
Kingston is confronted with her first challenge to speak English while attending kindergarten, but the fear and intimidation of publicly speaking English last well into her adulthood. Although she claims that she is making daily progress speaking English to strangers, she cannot forget her first three years of school, when her silence was "thickest." During these three years, she completely covered her school paintings with black paint, "layers of black over houses and flowers and suns." Concerned by these paintings, Kingston's teacher called her parents to the school, but they did not understand English and so could not discuss their daughter's behavior, other than Kingston's father cryptically telling Kingston that in China, "The parents and teachers of criminals were executed." To Kingston, however, these paintings represented the happy possibilities of curtains about to reveal "sunlight underneath, mighty operas."
Kingston enjoys being silent at school, but life becomes miserable when she eventually realizes that she is expected to speak. "At first it did not occur to me I was supposed to talk or to pass kindergarten," she writes, but when she flunks kindergarten, "silence became a misery." Compounding her misery is her feeling of being bad when she is supposed to speak and cannot. When she does speak, her voice comes out as a mere whisper. Ironically, her teacher's constantly instructing her to speak more loudly hinders rather than helps her confidence. Her fear of speaking recalls the previous chapter, in which Moon Orchid's ability to talk greatly diminished when she met her husband. The silence that Moon Orchid, Kingston, and other Chinese girls in Kingston's school experience seems culturally based. Moon Orchid never overcomes her apprehension to speak Chinese, her native language, to her husband; the adult Kingston still struggles to speak English publicly; and the Chinese schoolgirls, although they speak English sooner and more confidently than Kingston, are silent initially. "The other Chinese girls did not talk either," Kingston notes, "so I knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl."
The major obstacle to Kingston's learning to speak English is culturally based on the individual's relationship to society. Traditionally, Chinese custom frowns on a person, especially a female, who boldly and assertively speaks: Such behavior implies the individual's raised status over others. American culture, however, is theoretically based on the rights of individuals, not on the collective whole of society, and the English language, in which a subject — oftentimes the first-person, singular "I" — generally begins each sentence, reflects this cultural emphasis on individualism. But when Kingston, raised by parents who speak only Chinese, reads aloud in English, she stumbles constantly when saying "I." She writes, "I could not understand 'I.' The Chinese 'I' has seven strokes, intricacies. How could the American 'I,' assuredly wearing a hat like the Chinese, have only three strokes, the middle so straight?" Taught by her parents that proper behavior always means demurely acquiescing to others, she struggles with the defiant assertion of the self symbolized by the first-person, singular pronoun: "'I' is a capital and 'you' is lower-case." Also, like the word "here," "I" lacks strong consonants and has a "flat" sound, making it hard for a Chinese speaker to pronounce.
In contrast to spoken English, Chinese pronunciation appears hard and loud, or "chingchong ugly," as Kingston later characterizes it after she becomes more consciously attuned to American speech and values. This critical statement suggests her embarrassment at how she believes spoken Chinese sounds to American ears. However, cultural inhibition is not the only reason preventing the Chinese girls from speaking aloud. Rather, they want to be accepted as soft-spoken, American, and feminine. Ironically, although they think that they are being feminine, they are, in fact, being too soft to be heard.
Each day, following American school, the Chinese children go to Chinese school. There, the girls do not have the same silence problem that they do in the American school: They "screamed and yelled during recess" like everyone else. Reading Chinese aloud is not as difficult as reading English in the American public school because the children are not singled out to read before the entire class. All of the students read in unison: ". . . we chanted together, voices rising and falling, . . . everybody reading together, reciting together and not alone with one voice." However, the security that "together" affords Kingston is shattered when a new teacher arrives and makes individual students stand up and read aloud. This experience is too painful for the self-conscious Kingston and her sister, whose voices falter as regularly as they do in the American school: "When it was my turn," Kingston writes, "the same voice [as her sister's] came out, a crippled animal running on broken legs."
Kingston's and her sister's experiences in the Chinese school again emphasize language's power to create personal identities. Although we might expect Kingston to find comfort in speaking Chinese rather than English, she informs us that "you can't entrust your voice to the Chinese either; they want to capture your voice for their own use." For example, Brave Orchid forces Kingston, because she is older and speaks English better than the other family members, to demand "reparation candy" from a drugstore whose delivery boy mistakenly delivered medicine to Kingston's parents' laundry. Because Brave Orchid cannot speak English, she commandeers Kingston's voice to do her bidding and in the process embarrasses her daughter. "They want to fix up your tongue to speak for them," Kingston says of Chinese adults who refuse to learn English.
Even in the Chinese school, not all of the Chinese girls manage to speak. Kingston tells the story of one Chinese girl who is always silent. When this silent girl reads aloud in the classroom, she whispers, and no one ever hears her talk outside of class, not even on the Chinese school's playground. In the eyes of the other children, there is little difference between Kingston and this girl, and Kingston resents this public perception of her as being the same as the silent girl. She also recognizes the unpopularity and non-conformity in the girl's demeanor and fears that the girl's public image implies her own unpopularity and non-conformity. Kingston hates this silent girl.
One day, finding herself alone with the silent girl in the Chinese school's bathroom, Kingston confronts her and tries to make her talk. Despite becoming violent and brutal to her, Kingston cannot force the girl to talk; however, she does make her cry, although that was not Kingston's intention in confronting the girl. Ironically, by the end of this scene, Kingston finds herself crying alongside the silent girl. She finally recognizes that the girl is trying to deal with fears similar to her own. They are not so different after all. Following this episode, Kingston falls sick and spends eighteen months in bed at home. Her "mysterious illness," she believes, is retribution for her cruelty to the girl.
Ironically, Kingston's bullying and cajoling the silent girl to speak is yet another example of how people "want to capture your voice for their own use," although at the time, Kingston would not be aware of the hypocrisy of her own actions toward the girl. This episode, one of the few talk-stories not to originate from Brave Orchid, mirrors earlier stories in the novel in which females, language, silence, and identity are wholly and inextricably intertwined: No Name Woman's family's refusing to honor the memory of their suicidal relative, and Brave Orchid's subsuming Moon Orchid's voice within her own when the two women confront Moon Orchid's husband. "If you don't talk," Kingston explains to the silent girl, whom she never names and thus denies an identity, much like No Name Woman's family denied her an identity, "you can't have a personality. . . . You've got to let people know you have a personality and a brain."
During her confrontation with the silent girl, Kingston's deep hatred of the girl lessens as she becomes more and more aware that she and the girl are alike: Both face similar fears inherent in assimilating into a new culture. Although Kingston resolves to make the silent girl speak, her inability to do so forces her to come to terms with her own fears associated with language and personal identity. At first, Kingston's voice is "steady and normal," but even after she physically hurts the silent girl by pulling her hair and pinching her skin and still the girl won't talk, Kingston begins losing control of her own emotions. She implores the girl to "Just say 'Stop,'" then screams "Talk" at the frightened girl, and then begs for any response: "Just say 'a' or 'the,' and I'll let you go. Come on. Please." Finally, desperate and scared, she attempts to bribe her nemesis. "Look. I'll give you something if you talk," she pleads. "I'll give you my pencil box. I'll buy you some candy." Ironically, Kingston's offering candy to the silent girl recalls Brave Orchid's demanding "reparation candy" from the drugstore.
Kingston's lack of confidence in speaking English continues into adulthood, although she admits that English is easier to speak as she gets older. However, it remains painful for her to ask a bus driver for directions, or even to say "hello" casually. "A telephone call makes my throat bleed and takes up that day's courage," she writes earlier in the chapter. Her difficulty in speaking English is mitigated by a feeling of shame about her Chinese culture and Chinese adults, who, from her Chinese-American perspective, appear unsophisticated — for example, her mother and her mother's generation still believe in ghosts and practice traditional Chinese customs.
Another reason for Kingston's anxiety about speaking English derives from her parents' mistrust of Americans, who, they suspect, will force them out of the country. Because of this deep-seated fear, Brave Orchid and her husband continually warn their children never to speak to American "ghosts": "There were secrets never to be said in front of the ghosts, immigration secrets whose telling could get us sent back to China." What Kingston's parents fail to recognize, however, is the precarious position in which they place their children, who are afraid to speak English for fear of entrapping their parents, but who are also mystified by the many secretive Chinese customs that Brave Orchid, who never explains her actions, performs. "Sometimes I hated the [American] ghosts for not letting us talk," Kingston writes; "sometimes I hated the secrecy of the Chinese. 'Don't tell,' said my parents, though we couldn't tell if we wanted to because we didn't know."
What complicates Kingston's divided loyalties between her parents' demanding that she not speak to Americans and her wanting to speak English to become more assimilated into American culture is her fear that "talking and not talking made the difference between sanity and insanity." She writes, "Insane people were the ones who couldn't explain themselves," which is precisely her predicament: She can't "explain" who she is because her parents order her not to, but she couldn't even if she wanted to because her parents refuse to tell her any factual information about their Chinese past, let alone the details of their coming to America. And what is even worse for Kingston are the many women she encounters who seem to support her belief that silence equals insanity. The "woman next door," who, we are led to believe, cannot conceive children, scares Kingston even though the woman "said nothing, did nothing"; Crazy Mary, who as a toddler was left behind in China by her parents when they immigrated to America, becomes insane because by the time she is re-united with her parents in America, Kingston infers, she is too old to master English; and Pee-A-Nah, "the village idiot, the public one," chases Kingston and her siblings, but not once does Kingston indicate that Pee-A-Nah actually says anything. Significantly, Kingston notes that the name "Pee-A-Nah," which one of Kingston's brothers made up, "does not have a meaning." Personal names are powerful words in that they represent our personal identities; however, a name that "does not have a meaning," that is indiscriminately used to identify a person, diminishes the unique individuality of that person. What frightens Kingston most is that she will become the village's next crazy woman, that she will be silenced like Crazy Mary and Pee-A-Nah and lose her emerging individuality.
To become more assimilated into American culture, Kingston believes that she must totally reject her "Chineseness," traits and customs that she connects most with her mother. She also decides that she will never be a slave or a wife, both female roles that she associates with Brave Orchid's talk-stories. When she suspects that her parents are planning to marry her off to one of the new Chinese emigrants, whom she refers to as "FOB's" — "Fresh-off-the-Boat's" — she displays behavior that she knows the suitor will find totally unacceptable in a traditional Chinese wife. Humorously, she writes, "I dropped two dishes . . . [and] limped across the floor. I twisted my mouth and caught my hand in the knots of my hair. I spilled soup on the FOB when I handed him his bowl." Because it was customary for the oldest daughter to be married before younger ones, Kingston knows that she can protect both herself and her sisters by being labeled an undesirable fool. By playing the fool, however, she plays a dangerous game, risking rejection from her Chinese society and being branded crazy — her biggest fear.
In addition to worrying about the newly arrived Chinese emigrants, Kingston becomes concerned when a Chinese boy starts visiting the family's laundry despite its always being hot and uncomfortable. When she realizes that this boy, whom she refers to as the "mentally retarded boy who followed me around, probably believing that we were two of a kind," visits the laundry because of her, she changes her work shift to avoid him. However, he figures out her new work schedule and continues to show up when she is working. Because her parents do not seem to mind the boy's visiting the laundry, Kingston suspects that they are matchmaking the two of them. She fears that the bumbling behavior she feigned to repel the "FOB's" is backfiring, and that her "undesirability" will lead her into a marriage with the boy: "I studied hard, got straight A's, but nobody seemed to see that I was smart and had nothing in common with this monster, this birth defect."
Kingston's belief that her parents are planning a wedding between her and the Chinese boy only compounds Kingston's fear that she really is as insane as Crazy Mary and Pee-A-Nah. She worries that she can so realistically imagine movies in her head, and that there are "adventurous people inside [her] head to whom [she] talked." When she no longer can keep her fears about her sanity to herself, she tries to tell one secret a day to her mother. Intentionally always talking to Brave Orchid when her mother is working late at night in the laundry, Kingston whispers her secrets to her mother, who only replies "Mm" and never stops working. One night, however, when Kingston "whispered and quacked" to let out another secret, Brave Orchid turns to her daughter and says, "I can't stand this whispering. . . . Senseless gabbings every night. I wish you would stop. Go away and work. Whispering, whispering, making no sense. Madness. I don't feel like hearing your craziness." Kingston is "relieved" that she can stop confessing to her mother, but Brave Orchid's comments about her daughter's "craziness" reinforce Kingston's fear that she might be insane: "I thought every house had to have its crazy woman or crazy girl, every village its idiot. Who would be It at our house? Probably me." She is, after all, the messy and clumsy one who had a "mysterious illness."
One day at the laundry, when the Chinese boy goes to the bathroom, Kingston's parents look inside the two mysterious cardboard crates that he always carries with him and find that the crates are full of pornography. To Kingston's amazement, Brave Orchid, rather than throwing the boy out of the laundry, only comments, "My goodness, he's not too stupid to want to find out about women."
Kingston's isolation from and frustration with her parents, and especially Brave Orchid, who, Kingston feels, doesn't understand how badly her daughter wants an "American-normal" life, reach a climax after Brave Orchid's off-handed comment about the Chinese boy and his pornography. One evening, as the family sits eating dinner at the laundry, Kingston's "throat burst open," and out pours the many complaints she has been brooding over. She screams at her father and mother to tell the boy — "that hulk" — to leave the laundry and never come back. The boy leaves, never to be seen at the laundry again, but Kingston's outburst does not end there; she and Brave Orchid have a vehement shouting match.
Kingston shouts that she has her own future plans, which do not include marrying: She plans to apply for financial scholarships to colleges because her teachers say she is very smart. In effect, she rejects her Chinese life, which she perceives as holding her back from becoming Americanized, and prefers to leave Chinese school and run for a student office at her American school and join clubs. She blames Brave Orchid for not being able to teach her English, and, even more damning, she accuses her mother of confusing her with talk-stories. At the height of her emotions, she realizes that her long list of grievances is now "scrambled out of order," and that she is recalling things that occurred many years ago.
Symbolically, Kingston's list of complaints recalls the ideographs for revenge that Fa Mu Lan's father carved on the woman warrior's back in "White Tigers." In that chapter, Kingston noted that Fa Mu Lan's family's "list of grievances went on and on"; in "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," she writes, "I had grown inside me a list of over two hundred things that I had to tell my mother. . . ." Also, Kingston prays for a white horse — "white, the bad, mournful color" — like the "kingly white horse" that Fa Mu Lan rides into battle.
Kingston and Brave Orchid's argument ends with Brave Orchid shouting "Ho Chi Kuei" — "Ho Chi" means "like," and "Kuei" means "ghost" — at Kingston, who struggles to find meaning in the words. Chinese immigrants of Brave Orchid's generation frequently referred to their children as "Ho Chi Kuei," or half-ghosts, an expression that implies the Chinese-born immigrants' resentment of the American-born generation's rejecting traditional Chinese culture. However, in an enigmatic and contradictory way, "Ho Chi Kuei" also suggests the older generation's jealousy — even pride — that their children can assimilate into American culture and prosper with relative ease. To Brave Orchid, Kingston has become "Ho Chi Kuei," or like a ghost-foreigner.
Although Brave Orchid, in her anger, threatens to kick Kingston out of the house, we are unsure if Kingston moves out immediately following the fight or later. However, while neither woman seems to win the argument, their relationship changes forever because each reveals closely held secrets. For example, when Kingston accuses Brave Orchid of always calling her ugly, Brave Orchid explains that the phrase is meant to protect Kingston, not harm her: "I didn't say you were ugly. . . . That's what we're supposed to say. That's what Chinese say. We like to say the opposite." Although Kingston does not fully understand that it is customary for Chinese parents to deny compliments paid to their children out of fear that vengeful gods might harm the children if the compliments are received vainly, she perceives that Brave Orchid is hurt by having to acknowledge her secret: "It seemed to hurt her to tell me that." She also discovers that Brave Orchid "cut" Kingston's frenum because Brave Orchid intended her daughter to "talk more, not less." And when Kingston accuses her mother of wanting to sell her as a slave, Brave Orchid, who argues that Kingston has misunderstand her all these years, retorts, "Who said we could sell you? We can't sell people. Can't you take a joke? You can't even tell a joke from real life."
Kingston's difficulty sorting what is factual in her life and what is imaginary continues even after she and Brave Orchid have their shouting match. For example, the phrase "Ho Chi Kuei" haunts her still, but she cannot ask anyone what this expression means: "I don't know any Chinese I can ask without getting myself scolded or teased, so I've been looking in books." However, she finds no definitive definition for the phrase, although she cynically remarks that one possible meaning is "dustpan-and-broom" — "a synonym for 'wife.'" Fearful of being ridiculed by Chinese people were she to ask them about Chinese customs she doesn't understand, Kingston searches for answers on her own but is unsuccessful. Consequently, she still cannot understand many of the things that Brave Orchid does — for example, placing drinks on the supper table for invisible ancestors. "I continue to sort out what's just my childhood, just my imagination, just my family, just the village, just movies, just living," she writes. "I had to leave home in order to see the world logically, logic the new way of seeing. . . . I enjoy the simplicity."
By confronting her mother, Kingston, for the first time in her life, discovers a strong, personal voice with which she can reconcile the competing Chinese and American cultures. She learns to exercise power over her world through the use of words and the ability to form ideas. Like Brave Orchid, she now can conquer her own ghosts using talk-stories. Apart from American ghosts, however, Chinese ghosts, particularly female ancestors and crazy women, still haunt her. Throughout the novel, the many women whom Kingston refers to, who commit suicide, are locked up, or even killed, suffer for their failure to find individualized voices that assert their selfhood. Similarly, Kingston, by asserting her identity — especially her female identity — through language, risks being branded "crazy" by her family and treated as an outcast, a "ghost," by the Chinese community.
Kingston introduces The Woman Warrior's final talk-story, which focuses on the second-century Chinese female poet Ts'ai Yen, by saying, "Here is a story my mother told me, not when I was young, but recently, when I told her I also talk story. The beginning is hers, the ending, mine." Here, Kingston's choice of words is especially important: She publicly acknowledges that Brave Orchid's talk-stories still play a significant role in her life, and that she and Brave Orchid share a special bond between them — a love for talk-story.
The talk-story begins with Brave Orchid telling how Kingston's grandmother loved Chinese operas, and how her family, once while they attended an operatic performance, were almost hurt and robbed by bandits. Kingston then imagines that one of the operas her grandmother saw involved Ts'ai Yen, who is not as well known as the mythical Fa Mu Lan but whose life is better documented factually. Born in 177, not in 175 as Kingston suggests, Ts'ai Yen, the daughter of a wealthy scholar-statesman, was a musician and a poet. During a village raid in 195, she was captured by invading horsemen, whose chieftain made her his wife. For twelve years, she lived with these "barbarians" in the desert, and she even bore two children by the chieftain. Whenever the children's father would leave the family tent, Ts'ai Yen would talk and sing in Chinese to her children. Eventually, she was ransomed and returned to her family so that she could remarry and produce Han — Chinese — descendants.
Among Ts'ai Yen's writings is the lamentation "Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," in which Ts'ai Yen relates her life among her captors and her return to her own people. The title of The Woman Warrior's final chapter, based on Ts'ai Yen's title, suggests that Kingston identifies herself as living among "barbarians." More significant, however, is the symbolic relationship between Ts'ai Yen and Kingston's parents: Ts'ai Yen was physically forced to leave her village, and Kingston's parents, especially her father, because of depressed economic conditions in China, had no choice but to leave their homeland and seek employment in America; Ts'ai Yen characterizes her captors as barbarians, and Brave Orchid thinks all Americans are "barbarians"; and Ts'ai Yen, held captive for twelve years, sings about China and her Chinese family as a means to remember her cultural past; Brave Orchid's many talk-stories are her means of preserving her cultural past.
Although Ts'ai Yen eventually is reconciled with her family in China, Kingston only briefly notes the former captive's return to her homeland. Instead, she focuses on Ts'ai Yen's recognizing the validity of the barbarians' culture rather than on Ts'ai Yen's lamenting over her separation from her native culture. Because the barbarians and their culture symbolize Brave Orchid's perceptions of America, had Kingston dwelled on Ts'ai Yen's separation from her family and village while disparaging the nomads' culture, she would have validated the superiority, or supremacy, of a Chinese identity over an American identity; she would have justified Brave Orchid's belief that American culture is barbarous. However, by concentrating on Ts'ai Yen's recognition of and reconciliation with the nomads, Kingston suggests an ability to live harmoniously in both American and Chinese cultures. The talk-story implies not only Brave Orchid's recognition of American influences on her daughter, but also Kingston's own eventual acceptance of her Chinese past, which, after all, "translated well."
barbarian uncivilized and ignorant; the Chinese traditionally regarded all non-Han people as barbarians.
frenum here, a small fold of membrane that restrains the tongue's movement.
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.
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.
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.
Cyclone fence a chainlink fence.
taps small metal discs attached to the soles of shoes, used to produce the metallic sounds when tap-dancing.
cardigan a sweater that opens down the front.
cutworms larva that feed on plants, eventually cutting off a plant at ground level.
cannery a factory where food is canned.
fly screen a meshlike material used to keep flies out of homes or buildings.
wetbacks offensive slang, generally used to disparage people of Mexican descent who illegally enter the United States; here, Kingston means illegal Chinese immigrants.
Big Six meaning China.
Seagram's 7 a brand of Canadian whiskey.
rictus a facial grimace.
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.
slough a depression in the ground, often muddy because of poor water drainage.
tules plants with grasslike leaves that grow in swamps and marshes.
cattails tall plants with flat leaves and elongated flowering spikes that grow best when rooted directly in water.
foxtails a perennial weedy grass with spiked flowers that resemble the tails of foxes.
dill a herb with aromatic leaves and seeds, which are used as a food seasoning.
chamomile a perennial herb with either yellow or white flowers; when dried, it is used to make herbal tea.
train trestle a bridge designed for trains to cross.
infanticide deliberately killing newborn infants.
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.
cudgel a club; here, a metaphor for a husband who beats his wife.
pestle a tool used for grinding or mashing food.
antiseptic sterile; non-threatening; not enlivening.
gaucheries rude, unmannered expressions.
bilingual the ability to speak more than one language fluently.
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.
desultorily lackadaisically, without fervor.
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.