About The Kitchen God's Wife



Since Tan realized such phenomenal success with her first published book, The Joy Luck Club, a reader might assume she could immediately go on to write another blockbuster novel. Our literature, however, abounds with memorable first novels by authors who never published another successful book. Appreciation of The Kitchen God's Wife can be enhanced by learning how Tan carried out the awesome task of its creation.

Tan admits to feeling daunted by the success of The Joy Luck Club as she approached the writing of her next book. She shuffled through six plots and wearying weeks of book tours, speeches, volunteer projects, and literary luncheons. Finally, she settled in with incense and recorded music over earphones — plus a telephone-answering machine to assure herself of the privacy and calm she needed. In "Angst and the Second Novel," a 1991 essay for Publishers Weekly, she confided that writing demands "persistence imposed by a limited focus." To that end, she fenced herself in as if she were "a priest, a nun, a convict serving a life's sentence."

Despite her concentration, self-doubts led her through a nightmarish procession of characters, plots, and discarded false starts — a tale about a girl orphaned in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, one set in Mongolia as described in the Manchu language, another about a potent elixir that accidentally poisons a magistrate, and yet another about the daughter of a missionary to China in the 1930s.

In "Lost Lives of Women," a Life magazine essay, Tan divulges a maternal background with obvious parallels to this novel's plot. Daisy Tan's mother, Jingmei, came from a refined background and married a poor scholar who died from influenza before he could assume a worthy job in a magistrate's office. Unprotected as a widow in a fiercely patriarchal society, Jingmei was raped and forced to join the rapist's household as a concubine shrouded in shame and dishonor.

To preserve her son's dignity, Jingmei abandoned him and immigrated with nine-year-old Daisy (called "Baobei," or Treasure) to an island off the Shanghai coast. After giving birth to a second son, Jingmei killed herself by concealing a lethal dose of opium in a New Year's rice cake. Daisy related Jingmei's story to Amy to illustrate the powerlessness of women in China in the 1920s.

Tan developed a talkative woman character but lost her focus until it occurred to her to make the story a gift — from herself as speaker to listener Daisy, who inspired the exchange after wondering aloud what her daughter would remember about her. In the reflective interview for Publishers Weekly, she claims:

I had to fight for every single character, every image, every word. And the story is, in fact, about a woman who does the same thing: she fights to believe in herself. . . . She is no innocent. She sees her fears, but she no longer lets them chase her.

Daisy has equated Amy's muse with the ghost of Jingmei, Amy's much maligned, but indomitable grandmother. When Amy and her mother visited Daisy's brother (the son that Jingmei had abandoned in Shanghai) in Beijing, China, Tan and her uncle agreed that Jingmei "is the source of strength running through our family." This verbal tribute moved Daisy to tears, releasing anxieties and sorrows of her early life.

In a sidebar accompanying an excerpt from The Kitchen God's Wife, published in McCall's, Tan says that the transfer of hope from mother to daughter is the key to the story. The novel satisfied Tan's expectations to "write something deeper and wider [than The Joy Luck Club] . . . something that examines many of the toughest issues in my life" — and of her mother's life. The book is Tan's effort to dispel the ghosts of her mother's wretched marriage and her experiences in China during the war with Japan. Tan dedicated the book "to my mother, Daisy Tan, and her happy memories of my father, John . . . and my brother Peter . . . with love and respect."

In its paralleling of real and fictional elements, the book resembles a roman á clef, a shadow saga of the Tan family:

  • the resemblance of fictional heroine Winnie Louie to real-life Daisy Tan and the resemblance of the malignant Wen Fu to Jingmei's unnamed rapist-husband
  • the dual tragedies of Daisy's and Winnie's mothers, whose hopes are destroyed by men who devalue them, treating them not as human beings, but as pleasure-giving possessions
  • the social mores of a patriarchal society that spawn feudal marriages intended to enrich or ennoble the groom and his family
  • the chaotic wartime circumstances that force change on an outmoded government as well as on its citizens
  • the settlement of the Tan family and of Winnie and Jimmy Louie in California before the Communists halt emigration from China
  • the reunion of Chinese family members with Asian-American relatives who dimly appreciate their relatives' struggles
  • the revelation of early episodes that shed light both on past hurts and debilitating regrets and on the disunity and misunderstandings that flourish in the present.

On one hand, The Kitchen God's Wife echoes the oral foundation, the confessional style, the theme of alienation, sweeping war scenarios, and mother-daughter situations of The Joy Luck Club. On the other hand, it has merited comparison to the darkly dramatic novels of Russian literary giants Leo Tolstoy, Feodor Dostoevsky, and Boris Pasternak.

The strength of The Kitchen God's Wife and its predecessor is Tan's skill at delineating wisps of love and admiration in the ragged, indirect, yet hurtful set-tos and silences between mother and daughter and at revealing the family secrets that chew like canker worms into the most vulnerable recesses of the family's heart.

The completed book sold quickly to Putnam, the publisher of her first book. The Literary Guild purchased distribution rights for $425,000, and pre-publication sales were made to five foreign publishers. Neither her readers nor her publisher have been disappointed: The Kitchen God's Wife held its place on Publishers Weekly's list of hardcover bestsellers for thirty-eight weeks. By the spring of 1991, The Kitchen God's Wife topped a quarter million sales as it headed into paperback for even wider distribution. It was nominated for a Bay Area Book Reviewers award and was selected as 1991 editor's choice by Booklist.

The financial as well as the critical success of The Kitchen God's Wife squelched fears that Amy Tan had already published her best work with The Joy Luck Club.

Narrative Structure

The entire novel is narrated in first person by two central characters: Pearl and her mother, Winnie.

Chapters 1 and 2 are narrated by Pearl Louie Brandt, a contemporary Asian-American woman in her forties. The events she describes are mostly in present time and are narrated in present tense.

Chapters 3 and 4 are narrated by Pearl's Chinese mother, Winnie Louie, as she begins to think about her family, her past, and her need to confide in her daughter.

Chapters 5 through 24 are narrated as if being told by Winnie to Pearl. This is the story of Winnie's life, most of it described through flashbacks, with occasional asides and editorial comments by the narrator. (Winnie's Chinese name in most of these flashbacks is Weili.)

Chapter 25 is in present time again, narrated by Pearl immediately following her mother's story.

Chapter 26 is narrated by Winnie in the days after she tells her story to Pearl.

Chronology of Historical and Fictional Events

Throughout The Kitchen God's Wife, Tan interweaves critical events of Chinese history with the fictional experiences of her characters. The historical events are not simply employed to provide color and realism, but are integral influences on the story itself. The chronology outlined below includes several historical events which are not mentioned in the novel but which play a significant role in the novel's historical and fictional events — for example, the U.S. entry into World War II and the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima.

Date Fact Fiction
1911 During the last of the Chinese dynasties, revolution spreads among China's provinces and brings an end to the Ch'ing Dynasty and the power of the Manchus, which prevailed for over 250 years.
1912 The Chinese Republic is established on January 1 with Sun Yat-sen as president; he soon resigns in favor of Yüan Shih-k'ai and takes command of the Kuomintang, which he founded in 1905. Weili's Gung-gung (grandfather) loses his government job and dies.
1915 A treaty between China and Japan establishes Japanese dominance in Shantung, Manchuria, and Inner Mongolia.
1916 President Yüan Shih-k'ai dies; warlords return to power in many provinces.
1918 Jiang Weili (Winnie) is born in Shanghai.
1919 Hulan (Helen) is born near Loyang.
1923 Sun Yat-sen reorganizes Kuomintang with support from a still-small Communist Party.
1925 Sun Yat-sen dies. Chiang Kai-shek takes over the leadership of the Kuomintang. Weili's mother disappears, abandoning Weili. Weili is sent to live in an uncle's house on Tsungming Island. She attends

a boarding school in Shanghai.

1926 The Communists call a general strike in Shanghai, overthrowing local warlords. Chiang turns on the Communists, killing thousands. Weili continues attending the missionary school in Shanghai.
1927 Chiang Kai-shek establishes a new Nationalist government at Nanking, challenged by Communists.
1931 The Japanese occupy the Chinese province of Manchuria and control two other provinces in northeast China. Mao Tse-tung creates the Chinese Communist Republic in Jiangxi province, where millions of Chinese are without means of earning a living.
1932 Japan invades and bombs Shanghai but is later forced to abandon it. Japan creates the puppet state of Manchukuo from Manchuria. Henry Pu-yi (the "last emperor" of China) is abducted from Tientsin and made Manchukuo's puppet emperor.
1934 As many as 100,000 Communists under Mao Tse-tung and Zhu De begin the "long march" of 6,000 miles north from Jiangxi to escape the Kuomintang.
1935 Perhaps 8,000 survive the long march and arrive in Shaanxi. Mao Tse-tung is chosen as the Communist party leader after the success of the long march.
1937 The Chinese Communists and the Kuomintang join together to fight the Japanese, their common enemy. Claire Chennault retires from the U.S. Army in April to become an air training advisor to the Chinese government (June). The Chinese repel a Japanese attempt to take some bridges near Peking (July). China declares a War of Resistance against Japan, now invading Shanghai (August). Chiang Kai-shek is named Commander-in-Chief of all of China's armed forces. The first offensive air mission over Shanghai (August 14) accidentally kills almost 1,000 civilians. Shanghai falls (November). Capital moved from Nanking to Hankow (December). U.S. ships are sunk near Nanking, which falls with enormous destruction and the massacre of many thousands. Weili meets and marries Wen Fu, who joins the air force to become a pilot. They move to Hangchow for pilot training, where Weili meets Hunan. The air force flies its first disastrous mission over Shanghai. The pilots are moved almost immediately to Yangchow and then to Nanking, where Weili and Hulan experience taonan when Japanese planes fly over the Marketplace. They are sent from Nanking on the long trip to Kunming in southwest China. Along the way, they hear the news about the destruction of Nanking.
1938 Chennault sets up an air training base at Kunming. The capital is moved from Hankow to Chungking. The Japanese attack China's industrial heartland the Wuchang-Hankow area. After five months of battle, the Japanese take Hankow and Canton, the last major Chinese port, effectively cutting China off from supplies by sea (October). The 700-mile Burma Road is completed as a supply road to China from the railhead at Lashio in Burma to Kunming. Weili's first child, Mochou, is born dead in Kunming. Wen Fu wrecks his jeep, killing a woman passenger and losing in sight in one eye.
1939 In the new capital of Chungking, 8,000 are killed in two days of bombing (May). The Japanese are defeated at Changsha, their first real defeat (October). Weili's second child, Yiku, is born in Kunming.
1940 In July, the British close Rangoon, Burma (under British rule), to incoming Chinese supplies to avoid confrontation with the Japanese. (Britain had to focus its military attention on the Germans gathering on the English Channel.) The effect was the same as closing the Burma Road. In October, the British reopen Rangoon, and the Burma Road flourishes again with military supplies for China. Yiku dies after abuse by Wen Fu and convulsions from illness. Danru, Weili's third child and first son, is born.
1941 Chennault's Flying Tigers (an American Volunteer Group) set up headquarters in Kunming. The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the U.S. declares War on Japan. The Japanese bomb Kunming repeatedly while Wen Fu and Jiaguo are in Chung king training people for defense and setting up an early warning system. Back in Shanghai, the Japanese take control of Jiang Sao-yen's business. He appears to be a traitor to the Chinese. At a Christmas dance in Kunming, sponsored by the Americans, Weili meets Jimmy Louie, who gives her the name "Winnie." Weili makes her first futile attempt to leave Wen Fu.
1942 Weili becomes pregnant several times and aborts the fetus each time.
1874 Japanese defeats by U.S. forces in the Pacific halt their advances in China. The Japanese are gradually pushed back in China. Friction between Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists increases. War has weakened and corrupted the Nationalists, while mobilizing and strengthening the Communists.
1945 Attempts between Nationalists and Communists to settle differences fail. The U.S. drops the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, ending the war for China as well as for the Allies. Japan surrenders (August). Weili, Wen Fu, and Danru travel back to Shanghai to her father's house. Soon after, Wen Fu's family moves into the house and takes control of the household.
1946 All-out war is declared between the Chinese Communists and Nationalists. Communists seize territory wherever they can. Weili and Danru visit the aunts on Tsungming Island and get Peanut's address. Weili accidentally meets Jimmy Louie, finds Peanut, and gets the final motivation to leave Wen Fu. She moves in with Jimmy.
1947 Open civil war erupts between Nationalists and Communists. Weili and Jimmy send Danru north out of Wen Fu's reach. Danru dies in an epidemic. Weili is arrested, tried, and imprisoned. Jimmy loses his government job and is ordered to leave China. He goes to San Francisco.
1948 The Communists denounce U.S. aid to Chiang Kai-shek. Martial law is declared by Chiang. Weili continues her term in prison. Jimmy studies to become a Christian minister.
1949 The Communists take control of Peking, Nanking, Shanghai, and Canton and proclaim the People's Republic of China. Chiang resigns as President, Mao is elected Chairman, and Chou En-lai is appointed Premier. The U.S. consul is ejected. Newly married to Kuang An and expecting his baby, Hulan visits Weili in prison. Auntie Du arranges for Weili's release (April). Weili wires Jimmy, and he tells her to come to the U.S. Before leaving, she tricks Wen Fu into signing divorce papers. He tracks Weili down and rapes her at gunpoint. She escapes and leaves China the next day to go to Jimmy in California, just five days before the Communists take over Shanghai and halt emigration.
1950 The Nationalist government flees to Formosa (Taiwan). The U.S. orders all consulates closed on mainland China. The U.S. is on the verge of war with China. Pearl Louie is born in California.
1952 Samuel Louie is born.
1953 Winnie and Jimmy help Hulan and her family get to America from Formosa.
1964 Jimmy Louie dies, and fourteen-year-old Pearl refuses to accept it. Together, Winnie and Helen open a flower shop in Chinatown, San Francisco.
1975 Pearl Louie marries Phil Brandt.
1982 Tessa Brandt is born.
1983 Pearl is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
1987 Cleo Brandt is born.
1989 Wen Fu dies in China of heart disease.
1990 Auntie Du dies in a bus accident. The family gathers for Bao-bao's engagement party and Auntie Du's funeral. Winnie finally confides to Pearl the story of her life, and Pearl tells her mother about her multiple sclerosis.

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