Summary and Analysis
From her son Danru's first day of life in 1940, Weili is determined that he not be like Wen Fu, even if he resembles Wen Fu in some features. Wen Fu is now being trained in radio communications, since he can no longer fly.
When Weili returns home after Danru's birth, she finds not only that Hulan's widowed Auntie Du Ching has moved into the house from northern China, but also that Wen Fu has moved a beautiful, illiterate young woman, Min, into her bed. Actually pleased that Wen Fu has someone to meet his sexual needs, Weili simply moves the concubine into another room and lets Wen Fu go to her regularly. Weili finds Min to be good company, and they become friends, even as Wen Fu begins to tire of her. Formerly a dancer and singer in a Shanghai club called The Great World, Min learns from Weili how to be more ladylike and how to write her name; in turn, she teaches Weili the tango and other dances.
Auntie Du finally tells Weili what she already knows — that Wen Fu has been fooling around with Min-and something she does not know — that Min is pregnant. Weili decides to use this nominal disgrace as an excuse to divorce Wen Fu and take Danru away. Wen Fu, however, tears up the divorce paper she prepares.
Min leaves the house and Weili tracks her down to give her money for an abortion. Min has already had an abortion, but Weili gives her money anyway. Min leaves town, and Weili compares her own life with the bizarre illusion of torture that Min once performed at The Great World.
The following summer, in 1941, Weili still reassures herself Danru is not like Wen Fu. Meanwhile her life with Wen Fu continues to deteriorate, as does China's existence after the closing of the Burma Road by the British, who were absorbed in the fight against their German enemies nearer home. Jiaguo and Wen Fu go to Chungking for a while to train military personnel for defense and to set up an early warning system. Weili determines that if she can't change her fate, she must change her attitude.
Weili is finally so upset by Hulan's poor vision that she takes her for glasses, and Hulan is amazed at what she can see with glasses. Just then, Weili, Hulan, and Danru are caught in a devastating Japanese air raid of Kunming, the first of many.
Weili helps Hulan read part of a letter from Jiaguo and learns that Jiaguo and Hulan have had a sexless marriage, an issue they argued about just before he left. Hulan does not realize Weili read that part of the letter and continues to keep the matter a secret.
In another destructive air raid, Weili, Hulan, and Danru are separated, but they all survive safely.
Interaction with the two new women of the house intensifies Weili's reliance on sisterhood — a reassuring wartime interdependence among female noncombatants to help each other cope with the servility and powerlessness imposed by patriarchy, as well as with the terrors of bombardment. Auntie Du, the sage adviser, nudges Weili out of her naïveté toward self-preservation, especially in the matters of Min's pregnancy and Wen Fu's growing disaffection with Weili and their marriage.
Divorce, an unthinkable alternative in early twentieth-century China, nevertheless becomes a necessity in Weili's mind. In her first attempt, she plans to get Wen Fu to agree to a divorce so he can have Min, and then she and Danru will sail from Haiphong to her father's house in Shanghai. Her plan fails because she doesn't acknowledge Wen Fu's need for control. His show of mastery of his wife leads to divorce papers as tattered and worthless as Weili's self-esteem. His swagger carries the moment with its ill-concealed malice: "When I want to divorce you, I will tell you. You don't tell me what to do."
For the second time, Weili envies someone who has escaped from Wen Fu's manipulation and bullying. She takes comfort in Danru's obedience and trust, and her thoughts as she contemplates Danru's future exemplify the internal monologue that echoes through her mind:
- the urge to flee pain and fear
- a maternal instinct calling for gentle, uplifting words to her children
- a need for peace through placation of an insane husband
- an acquiescence to the parade of nameless, faceless paramours whom Wen Fu frequents
- a tenuous tolerance of the game of one-upmanship that Wen Fu perpetrates on his resilient wife
- the instinctual will to survive.
A unifying thread of Amy Tan's novel is the verbalization of snippets of logic, self-assurance, and self-preservation that Weili whispers to herself from the 1930s right tip to the unburdening of her spirit to Pearl after Auntie Du's funeral in 1990. While observing tribal groups at Han rallies, Weili remembers a common Chinese saying that typifies her current coping style: "If you can't change your fate, change your attitude," an expression comparable to the American truism, "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade."
After four years of making assumptions about Hulan's marriage and her comments about Weili's marriage, Weili accidentally learns that the facts of Hulan's marriage are quite different. Unknown to Hulan, Weili reads part of a letter from Jiaguo promising that he will return in the spring and assume the role of a proper husband — that is, he will assume his sexual responsibilities toward Hulan. Weili suddenly understands Hulan's position. Hulan lives with a guilt-ridden man who withholds sex from the sister of a woman whose death he caused. Weili, who smarts at Hulan's betrayals after Wen Fu's insane attacks and crazed sexual assaults, realizes that Hulan would trade a sexless union for the fulfillment of regular marital relations and a child like Danru. Each wife envies the other for the perceived wholeness of the other's marriage.
Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movie pictures Hollywood's famous dancing duo who started out separately as child dancer/actors, then teamed up in ten popular movies for RKO Studio during the 1930s, including Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936).
tango, fox-trot, lindy hop contrasting dance styles. The first is a smooth, sensuous Latin dance that requires intense coordination of long, gliding steps, interlocking gaze, and intertwining legs. In contrast, the fox-trot is a rather tame, but safe choice of dance steps, variations on the box step to a brisk 4/4 beat. The lindy hop, a vigorous dance named in honor of flier Charles A. Lindbergh, contrasts the tango and fox-trot with its energetic rhythm and gymnastic steps.
cholera epidemic a common result of hasty refugee camps and contaminated water and food. A fast-moving killer, cholera depletes the body of electrolytes as a result of diarrhea and vomiting. The human wastes, loaded with bacilli, spread the disease by contaminating linens, groundwater, hands of patients and health workers, and food supplies.
Han blood A distinct, proud Oriental race, the Han or Han-Jen, whose ties with a ruling family date to 202 B.C., predominate in north central, northeastern, eastern, and southeastern China.
kaoliang cakes hard, dried patties made from meal mixed with either pumpkin or turnip, topped with sausage, and eaten cold or fried as a New Year's delicacy.