Summary and Analysis
In late 1937, the pilots and their wives are given one hour's notice that they must leave Nanking for a distant destination, Kunming in southwest China, taking only one suitcase apiece. Weili gives many of their possessions — clothes, radio, sewing machine — to Wan Betty, the telegraph operator in whom she has found understanding.
The small group traveling together, mostly by truck, consists of Weili and Wen Fu, Hulan and Jiaguo, two other pilots, two officials, an old man, and the truck driver, Old Mr. Ma. The challenging trip of about 1400 miles has five segments:
- From Nanking harbor southwest to the Hankow/Wuchang area via boat on the Yangtze River — about 400 miles on the twisting river, taking several days. (Note: Chiang Kai-shek moves the capital of the Nationalist government to Hankow in December 1937.)
- From Hankow/Wuchang south to Changsha overland by truck, with the passengers crowded together in the back — about 200 miles on narrow dirt roads. Wen Fu shocks everyone by shooting a farmer's stubborn pig that gets in their way.
- From Changsha southwest to Kweiyang — at least 400 miles on dirt roads. While they wait several days for truck repairs and gasoline, they enjoy good food but must endure a primitive hotel with mattresses infested with stinkbugs and with no enclosed toilet facilities. They learn that Nanking has been cut off by the Japanese.
- From Kweiyang to Heaven's Breath on the mountain ridge — about 200 miles, the last portion of which is a winding, uphill, one-lane road of many switchbacks beginning at a village called Twenty-four Turnarounds. Once they get through the dense fog near the top, they emerge above the clouds and under blue skies to drive along the mountain ridge to the town of Heaven's Breath. Even Wen Fu is moved by the beauty of the summit and breaks into song. In Heaven's Breath, they encounter an army truck on the way to help set up a new seat of government in Chungking. (Note: the transfer of power was completed in October 1938.) They learn that as many as 100,000 people were massacred by the Japanese in Nanking.
- From Heaven's Breath to Kunming — about 200 miles southwest from the mountain ridge.
In summary, the trip from Nanking to Kunming took about two months, covering approximately 1400 miles of river and primitive roads.
In early 1938, the truck finally reaches Kunming, a crowded, bad-smelling city that serves as a commercial center at the eastern end of the new Burma Road, with Burma itself about 300 miles to the west and French Indochina (later Vietnam) about 150 miles to the south.
After a brief hotel stay, Weili, Hulan, and their husbands move into a two-story house with a third couple, who are heard arguing loudly every night. The man, an inspector of roads, bridges, and railways, soon dies of malaria while checking progress on the construction of the Burma Road. This tragedy allows Weili and Wen Fu to move into better rooms in the house.
In her ninth month of pregnancy, Weili accidentally drops her scissors, which she considers very bad luck. The next day, her first child — a girl — is born dead. She names her Mochou, meaning "sorrowfree," before burying her in nearby foothills that "looked like sleeping maidens."
Over three months later, Weili goes to buy new scissors for the first time and accidentally knocks over a table with forty pairs of scissors. Fleeing home without scissors, she learns that Wen Fu has been seriously injured in an accident while driving an illegally borrowed jeep. He was driving too fast, and a young woman with him was crushed to death under the vehicle. Weili thus learns that Wen Fu has been seeing other women.
After the accident, Wen Fu's erratic violence is heightened to the point of psychotic behavior. Blind in one eye, he makes it impossible for anyone either in the hospital or at home to help with his care, except Weili, and he makes her life increasingly miserable. Hulan convinces Jiaguo not to charge Wen Fu with the crimes of bribery, stealing a jeep, and reckless driving resulting in a death. Although Weili was, in fact, looking forward to Wen Fu's imprisonment, she now feels a traditional indebtedness to Hulan for her intervention, and she performs many favors for Hulan as repayment.
Three pilots visiting Wen Fu witness his unprovoked violence when he knocks their food to the floor and brutally beats a kneeling, begging Weili. She wonders why no one helps her or stands up for her.
Winnie muses about forgiveness as preached by her second husband Jimmy Louie and admits she finds it difficult to replace anger with forgiveness. She compares herself with the unappreciated Kitchen God's wife, whose husband gets all the credit.
In early 1939, Weili has another baby girl — Yiku, "pleasure over bitterness." Wen Fu doesn't come to the hospital for two days, and then arrives with a hangover. He makes the baby cry when he bounces her and then gets angry at her in a ludicrous confrontation between a day-old infant and an infantile father who claims special treatment as a war hero because he lost sight in one eye in combat. When he doesn't get the food he demands, he goes to the hospital kitchen and demolishes it with a meat cleaver, threatening all the kitchen workers if they report him.
At home, the servant girl asks Weili to let her go, reluctantly revealing that Wen Fu has regularly sexually abused and raped her. Weili sympathizes with the girl and lets her go with extra wages. Weili decides not to confront her husband. ("Don't strike a flea on a tiger's head" — don't settle one trouble only to make a bigger one.)
Several weeks later, Weili learns that the girl has bled to death trying to abort a fetus — Wen Fu's baby. Wen Fu denies Weili's accusations about the girl or any other women and shows no remorse over the girl's death — the second one he has been responsible for. In the storm of his anger, Yiku cries and Wen Fu slaps her several times. From that time on, Yiku exhibits bizarre behavior, especially in the presence of Wen Fu. When a visitor comments on her strange behavior, Wen Fu gets angry and blames Weili for Yiku's actions.
The next day, Yiku has diarrhea and refuses food or drink. Weili runs to the house where the doctor, as well as Wen Fu, is playing mah jong. Wen Fu denies anything is seriously wrong and orders the doctor to stay, admitting, "if she dies, I wouldn't care." Later, Yiku goes into convulsions, and again Weili seeks out the doctor. Wen Fu accuses Weili of not telling them earlier how sick Yiku was. Yiku dies at the hospital.
The quiet end of Yiku's short, chaotic life is portrayed through a final "dialogue" between Weili and Yiku: As Weili watches the life drain out of the child, Yiku's clear eyes seem to absolve Weili — and even Wen Fu: "This is my quick life, no worse, no better than a long one. I accept this, no blame." Acknowledging her own desperation, Weili tells the dead Yiku, "Good for you, little one. You've escaped. Good for you."
Weili is already six or seven months pregnant with her third child.
Winnie interrupts her narrative at the beginning of Chapter 13 and at the end of Chapter 14 — and periodically throughout her story — to remind Pearl how differently Helen remembers events in which they both participated. The experiences in all three of these chapters illustrate why and how the two women became so closely bonded and yet frequently seem at odds with one another — for example, Weili giving away their possessions, star-gazing and storytelling in the mountains, and sharing the Kunming house and Weili's servants; Hulan persuading Jiaguo not to prosecute Wen Fu, Hulan urging Weili to submit to Wen Fu's humiliating demands, Hulan's false reassurance about Yiku's health, Hulan's delay in getting Yiku to the hospital, and details concerning the deaths of Mochou and Yiku.
For Weili, the extended trip from Nanking to Kunming with new, transitory experiences every day becomes a kind of limbo during which she matures and grows. For instance, having to accommodate severe discomfort and lack of privacy, she becomes less naive and self-conscious. Wen Fu's habitually abusive and contemptuous behavior toward her is virtually suspended during the trip, although the others observe his readiness to violence when he shoots the wandering pig and threatens to shoot the farmer. Weili is even treated to one of his more vulnerable, sympathetic moments when he compares his feelings at the top of the mountains with his experiences while flying. All too quickly after their arrival, however, she is the repeated target of some of his worst behavior.
In these three chapters, Wen Fu exhibits extremes of his erratic behavior which become even more violent and unpredictable after his head injury and loss of sight in one eye, ending his flying career. Wen Fu has always had a strong need for control, probably to compensate for his lack of natural ability. In all aspects of his life — familial, sexual, social, vocational — he must assure himself of some degree of control over others and over his life. When he literally loses control in the jeep accident, his subsequent need for control escalates, making life miserable for those around him whom he thinks he can control — Weili, his daughter Yiku, the nurses, the hospital kitchen employees, and the servant girl.
Wen Fu's rampage in the hospital kitchen, his physical abuse of Yiku, and his indifference to his responsibility for the deaths of two women suggest a severe mental disorder, perhaps sociopathic, possibly homicidal. In her need to find a reason for his behavior, Weili blames Wen Fu's mother "for letting the meanness in her son grow like a strange appetite, so that he would always feel hungry to feed his own power." The fact that she doesn't blame herself indicates considerable psychological growth for Weili.
Like most Chinese women of her time, Weili initially accepted the traditional roles of men and women, husbands and wives. Wen Fu was the warrior, the wearer of the uniform, the authority, the controller of their lives; Weili was responsible for setting up and keeping house, cooking, sewing, submitting to her husband's sexual demands, bearing and raising children, and even accepting her husband's straying to other women. As her marriage began to deteriorate, though, and her experiences with coping multiplied and became more traumatic, she discovered her inner strengths and identified her own needs, adapting her role for greater self-development and independence.
mu approximately eight-tenths of an acre.
dan-dan noodles Szechuan noodles served in a peppery sauce.
patterns of gods and goddesses of the night sky patterns of stars that form constellations, often named after mythical characters.
Yunnanese natives of Yunnan province, a perennially disputed border territory in southwest China adjoining Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam (formerly Burma, Siam, and French Indochina). Kunming is Yunnan's capital.
the Burma Road a dirt road about eight hundred miles long, completed in January 1939 to link Kunming with Lashio, Burma — the lifeline that supplied General Chiang Kai-shek's troops for three years. Freighter shipments entered Rangoon, on Burma's southern coast, and traveled 350 miles north by rail to Lashio, from where they were trucked to Kunming. Burma was under British control at this time.
malaria ate up his brain Malaria is a disease dating to ancient times in Asia. Parasites introduced into the bloodstream by the bite of a disease-carrying mosquito afflict major organs — kidneys, spleen, and brain — sometimes causing blackwater fever, coma, and death.
characters were written one on top of another Before twentieth-century simplification, Chinese characters, called graphemes or pictograms, were combined with other graphemes to create abstract concepts. For example, the symbol for mother was topped by the symbol for mouth to create the verb scold, a verb that would be difficult to draw without symbolic linkage to concrete nouns. This semantic notation via word clusters or radicals resulted in 50,000 characters, as demonstrated by an eighteenth-century Chinese dictionary. The burden of so much complex memory work deprived many Chinese of literacy. Only the wealthy had the money and leisure to be tutored in the entire Chinese vocabulary. Today, more people can learn Chinese because the character base has been pared down to two thousand units.
Double Seventh the forty-ninth day after the Chinese New Year; because 49 is the square of seven, it is generally considered a magic number. (Note: Winnie received her kitchenware and silver chopsticks on the seventh day of trousseau shopping, a suggestion that food, cooking, and the chopsticks would bring her good fortune.)
Mr. Roosevelt, Mr. Churchill The reference is to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (president of the United States) and Sir Winston Churchill (prime minister of England). The United States and England were both helping the Chinese defend themselves against their Japanese aggressors.
night soil human waste that is collected and used as fertilizer by some. Weili thinks Yiku's illness may come from vegetables Hulan bought from the Burmese, who used human waste as fertilizer, which could have spread germs causing cholera, dysentery, and typhoid fever.
Buddha Usually pictured in a tranquil seated pose, the Buddha represents the contemplative life of the "enlightened one," Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 B.C.), who conceived a faith based on asceticism or self-denial that leads to nirvana — a simple, elusive paradise resulting from obliteration of self.