Summary and Analysis
The tension and optimism of watching planes fly into combat from Hangchow give place to the dark news that the air fight over Shanghai harbor was disastrous for Jiaguo's unseasoned squadron, many of whom died in their planes. The woman reporting the losses has herself been widowed by this unsuccessful assault. Weili and Hulan argue (". . . our friendship took on four splits and five cracks") over their contradictory ways of responding to bad news and showing sympathy to others.
Later, while cutting out pieces of green fabric for a dress, Weili considers how she would react to news of Wen Fu's death and admits to herself she wishes this would happen. If Wen Fu were to die, she herself would choose her own replacement husband. The completed dress does not fit her pregnant body — "Stuck in my dress, stuck in my marriage, stuck with Hulan as my friend."
At the end of the summer (1937), the pilots move northward about 160 miles to Yangchow, and the wives follow them by boat since many roads and rails have been blocked by the Japanese. Their quarters are again primitive, but Hulan cooks up mixtures for sealing the dirt floors and replastering the mud brick walls. With Hulan's welcome help, Weili prepares an expensive celebration dinner for her returning husband and his friends, the first of many such meals for the pilots. She spends her own dowry money for the elegant food since Wen Fu spends all his air force salary on drinking and gambling.
Weili finds a special friend in shy and awkward Gan, an unmarried pilot. Privately he shares with her his fear of a ghost that first appeared to him as a boy eleven years ago during the last Tiger year (1926). The ghost promised to return for him before the next Tiger year (1938), but only after Gan experienced nine bad fates. Gan has already experienced eight of the predicted fates, and 1938 is only four months away. Winnie admits to Pearl that, with Gan, she "almost" felt love from a man and love for a man — new feelings for her.
Many of the pilots whom Weili and Wen Fu entertained were subsequently killed — but never Wen Fu because he turned and flew away whenever an air battle was imminent. Jiaguo considers having him court-martialed for his cowardice, although Wen Fu always has a reason for fleeing the action. Gan is shot down and dies after two days of excruciating pain. Weili admits that after he died, "I claimed his love. He became like a ghost lover." Whenever Wen Fu shouts at her and abuses her, Weili thinks of Gan's kind words to her. She concludes that she herself was Gan's ninth fate, after which the ghost returned to claim him.
By winter 1937, war has ground down Jiaguo's squadron, which moves temporarily to Nanking, Chiang Kai-shek's new capital, less than fifty miles west of Yangchow. Almost immediately, they are told they will soon move again because of the approaching Japanese.
Wen Fu takes four hundred dollars of Weili's dowry money and buys a dilapidated old Fiat sports car with the top cut off. He glories in racing around the countryside, frightening Weili, ignoring her condition of being six months pregnant. With Jiaguo as his passenger, Wen Fu recklessly runs the car into a field and onto a rock pile that turns out to be a grave. The car catches fire and burns. Hearing the story from Hulan, Weili laughs hysterically at the irony of Wen Fu's recklessness, picturing the burning car as an offering to the dead pilot who was the car's former owner.
In Nanking, Weili telegraphs for more money — to be sent via Peanut in Shanghai this time. Then Weili and Hulan experience the terror of taonan, the untranslatable Chinese word that implies the mental lapse that precedes attempts to escape — the loss of connectedness to logic, to familiar faces, and to landmarks. The shoppers in the huge Nanking marketplace are menaced by several waves of low-flying Japanese planes which then disappear without dropping bombs. The frantic, scrambling mob shuffles through a swirl of propaganda leaflets dropped from the Japanese planes, offering good treatment in return for an unresisting populace. Weili loses contact with Hulan as they attempt to get away from a hurtling stampede of people fearing imminent invasion. In the chaos and fear that follow, Weili cries out for her mother and loses track of time. Sighting Weili's green coat, Hulan rescues her on a pedicab she has commandeered, beating off with a stick anyone who tries to take it from her.
They must leave Nanking the same day, and Weili forgets about the money she has sent for from her dowry.
Wartime brings the beginning of Weili's dependence on sisterhood — a strong motif of the book — reflected at the personal level in her appreciation of Hulan's fierce loyalty and pragmatism. The synergy of women working together results in a private bath-house in their Hangchow quarters; in Yangchow, it powers an upgrading of spartan, vermin-infested surroundings. Weili begins to appreciate Hulan's homely skills, as well as her sincere regard for Weili's well-being, as illustrated in the escape from the Nanking marketplace.
Weili turns her attention from potential widowhood to the celebration of the returning pilots. For the first time in her life, Weili appears to be building self-esteem by taking the limelight as creator and hostess for splendid feasts. These efforts help compensate not only for her devaluation by the Jiangs and by Wen Fu, but also for the privations of war and the deaths of pilots in their compound: "You found any kind of excuse to live life as full as your stomach could hold." The hint of a stronger, more fulfilled Weili bodes well.
When the dinners expose Weili to the personalities of the other pilots, she cannot help contrasting the strutting, arrogant, deceitful Wen Fu with his foil, Gan — a shy, considerate, honest young man who unabashedly enjoys Weili's company. Encountering a variety of men for the first time in her sheltered life, Weili wonders, "Why didn't I know that I had a choice?" The centuries-old patriarchy and traditional female servitude not only deny access to self-awareness, self-actualization, learning, and use of skills, but to the crucial choices that determine a satisfactory marriage with a person of compatible tastes and temperament. Symbolizing the relationship between Weili and Gan, the two play a game of "chickenfeather ball" in the moonlight, gently batting back and forth a game piece as light as their friendship, which ends before it can develop into an emotion that calls for commitment from either of them.
Tan heightens the pathos of the potential love affair with Gan's ghost story, colored with mystical beliefs and numerology — for example, prophesying ghosts, the twelve-year cycle of zodiac animals, and the nine fates (life-affecting incidents). The number nine traditionally represents completion and finality.
As with many socially awkward incidents, Weili's joking response to Gan is a form of distancing and denial:
- the inability to embrace a man she wants to comfort and protect
- the inability to acknowledge a logical fear of death in battle
- the ability to laugh or tease, to lighten the fear brought on by the prophecy.
Yet, deeper than Weili's fear of loss is her fear of love, with its implicit threat of hurt. In her words, "I had never felt love from a man, or for a man. And that night I almost did. I felt the danger, that this was how you love someone . . ." After Gan's death, Weili wears the proper wifely mask to conceal her grief but claims in retrospect, "My heart hurt the same way as when I lost my mother. Only, I was not aching for a love I once had. I was regretting I never took it."
Through this experience, Weili advances to a more introspective stage, an improvement over her childish pattern of limiting herself to action/reaction. Her acceptance here parallels the assertion by Alfred Lord Tennyson, "It is better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all" (Stanza 27 of In Memoriam).
Like her mother gazing for answers in the mirror, Weili arises from the humiliations of Wen Fu's bed and searches in her reflected face for the good that Gan saw in her. Her comforting memories of Gan are marred only by her conclusion that she and their incomplete relationship were his ninth bad fate, which cleared the way for the ghost's return to snatch him up.
the planes had flown late at night, toward the Shanghai harbor, swollen with Japanese boats By November 1937, Japan had taken Manchuria, Korea, and the territory around Peking. The Japanese continued pressing down the coast to secure the important cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Du Fu (sometimes, Tu Fu) a Chinese poet (712-770 A.D.) from Tuling, Shensi Province, who lost his family in wartime upheaval, spent his life as a wanderer, and composed 1,405 stanzas.
tai-tai a polite equivalent of the English "ma'am," directed to the mistress or lady of the house.
mah jong a Chinese table game played by four people, originating in China in the nineteenth century, played in several different variations. Similar in some respects to rummy, it uses small tiles instead of cards. An Americanized version, mah-jongg, became popular in America during the 1920s.
catty an Asian unit of weight weighing about 680 grams (1.36 pounds).
chicken-feather ball an outdoor game comparable to badminton.
last time it was a Tiger year 1926 was the preceding year of the Tiger; the next Tiger year, twelve years later, would be in 1938.