Summary and Analysis
An-mei Hsu: Magpies
To her mother (An-mei), Rose reveals that her marriage is falling apart. Paralyzed with grief and indecision, Rose can do nothing but weep. An-mei understands that by refusing to do something decisive about this problem, Rose is, in effect, choosing to do nothing. She knows that her daughter must make a choice: Rose must try to assert herself or she will lose her chance forever. An-mei understands this character flaw because she herself was taught to demand nothing for herself.
An-mei remembers sixty years ago, when she first saw her mother. An-mei's mother had returned home when her own mother, Popo, lay dying. After Popo died, An-mei's mother prepared to leave. On the eve of her departure, she told An-mei a story from her childhood, when she was a little girl about An-mei's age. Her mother, Popo, told her that she could no longer be a child. From this experience, An-mei's mother learned that it is useless to cry, for tears only feed someone else's joy.
On the morning of her departure, An-mei's mother suddenly takes An-mei with her. On the long journey, she entertains the little girl with stories about the wonders that the child will encounter. On the morning of their arrival, An-mei's mother shocks her daughter by discarding her white mourning dress for Western-style clothes. She has a fine dress for An-mei, too, and explains that they will live in the home of Wu Tsing, a rich merchant.
Despite her description of the wealth that awaits them, An-mei is stunned by the lavish Western-style house and by the scores of servants that she sees. She learns about First Wife, Second Wife, Third Wife, and about her mother — Fourth Wife. At first, little An-mei is delighted by her new home, but about two weeks later, she begins to understand her mother's lack of status in this new household.
Old Wu Tsing arrives with his fifth wife, a woman only a bit older than nine-year-old An-mei, who suddenly realizes that something is wrong here. A few nights later, An-mei is awakened when Wu Tsing comes to her mother's bed. The child is taken to a servant's bed for the night. That afternoon, for the first time, An-mei's mother tells the child about her deep sorrow. As Fourth Wife, she has almost no status within the household.
Soon afterward, the other wives return. First Wife is a plain, honest woman; Second Wife is full of treachery. She gives An-mei a string of pearls to win her affection. To counter Second Wife's trickery, An-mei's mother crushes one of the pearls beneath her feet. The child sees instantly that the pearls are false. From then on, she learns more and more about the wives and their various powers.
First Wife has the most power by virtue of her position, but her spirit was broken after the birth of her first child, who was born with one leg shorter than the other. Her second child had a large birthmark over half her face. First Wife now spends her time going to Buddhist temples seeking cures for her children. She has her own home — and thus, An-mei's mother also wants her own home. Second Wife was a sing-song girl who knows how to control men. To get an increase in her allowance, she feigns suicide by swallowing a piece of raw opium. She continues this ploy until she gets everything she wants — but she cannot have children; therefore, she arranged for Wu Tsing to take a third wife, who gave birth to three daughters. Later, Second Wife arranged for An-mei's mother to become Fourth Wife by tricking her into staying the night, whereupon Wu Tsing raped her. She later gave birth to a son, which Second Wife claimed as her own.
Two days before the New Year, An-mei's mother poisons herself. Empowered by her action, An-mei crushes the pearl necklace that Second Wife gave her. Now, An-mei wants her daughter to stand up for herself and stop suffering in silence.
The story of An-mei's mother is based on truth. Tan's maternal grandmother, Jing-mei, had been widowed after her husband, a scholar, died. A wealthy womanizer forced her into concubinage by raping her. Society and her family cast her aside in horror. In an article that Tan wrote for Life magazine in April 1991, she explained that Jing-mei "killed herself by swallowing raw opium buried in the New Year's rice cake." After her mother's death, Daisy (Amy's mother) married her abusive first husband in China and had three daughters. Amy and her two brothers are children from Daisy's second marriage.
This story focuses on power — its use and abuse. Wu Tsing and the system that he represents have abused women for centuries. As a widow, An-mei's mother had no value at all, despite such traditional female assets as beauty and refinement. Notice that she does not even have a name, for she has no identity of her own. But she refuses to be defeated by the system. By killing herself, she effects a change in her daughter, giving her the power to rebel. She makes this stand clear to An-mei: "When the poison broke in her body, she whispered to me that she would rather kill her own weak spirit so she could give me a stronger one." An-mei seized power from her mother's sacrifice. By crushing the false pearls, she is announcing her independence. This action is echoed in the actions of the Chinese peasants at the end of the chapter. For thousands of years, they have been tormented by birds. Finally, they rise up and beat the birds back. "Enough of this suffering and silence!" they shout — and beat the birds to death.
In the same way, Tan suggests, women must rise up and beat back oppressive systems, especially male-dominated ones. An-mei's daughter, Rose, has been defeated by her marriage to Ted, but there is no need for such misery today, her mother says. Rose should stop pouring out her tears to the psychiatrist — just as An-mei should not have cried to the turtle. Such tears only feed someone else's joy. Instead, Rose should assert herself, as An-mei has done. As we know from the section entitled "Without Wood," Rose does indeed stand up to Ted. "You just can't pull me out of your life and throw me away," she says. She refuses to sign the divorce papers and move out of their home.
In a sense, both An-mei and Rose have remade themselves, invented new identities to survive. Tan reinforces this concept of strength by having the trip to Tientsin take seven days, the same number of days as in the Hebrew myth of creation. Notice also how she interweaves the theme of appearance and reality. It appears that An-mei's mother is a "fallen woman," but in reality, she was trapped by rape and a vicious social system. An-mei believed that Second Wife was kindly, but she is full of evil. The child assumed that the pearls were real; they were but glass. Tan inverts the symbol of the magpie to reinforce this theme. "Magpie" is the common name for members of the crow family. The birds are found in North America, Asia, Europe, and northwestern Africa. Chinese people traditionally regard the bird as a symbol of joy. Tan, however, inverts the symbol, using it in the Western sense as a harbinger of evil. The birds destroy crops and must be beaten back. So also must women cry out against evil and fight for what is right for them.