Summary and Analysis
The time is Christmas 1941, and the Americans at the Kunming air base sponsor a victory dance to celebrate the success of the Flying Tigers. Weili meets and dances with a tall, handsome, good-humored Asian-American. The healthy open joy and the wholesome sexuality in Jimmy Louie's smiles strike Weili at the right moment in her maturity. To herself, she admits that, at age twenty-two, she is ripe to "be caught by happiness, like a fish in a net."
Jimmy is a translator with the United States Information Service. Women flock to him for easily pronounced, Americanized versions of their Chinese names. Among those he finds names for are Hulan (whom he names Helen), Weili (whom he names Winnie), and their husbands — Jock for Jiaguo, and Victor for Wen Fu. Predictably, Wen Fu demands something more special than his wife's name and more unusual than all others. Jimmy Louie then suggests Judas as Wen Fu's new name, "someone who changed history forever." Wen Fu likes the power connotation, not knowing about Judas of the Christian New Testament, but Weili does and is secretly delighted. She and Jimmy share their private joke on Wen Fu during a romantic dance to "Moonlight Serenade."
Jimmy Louie's effect on Weili does not escape Wen Fu's attention. After the dance, Wen Fu calls her abusive names for dancing with Jimmy, and he threatens to divorce her. To her secret joy, she writes out the divorce statement he demands. Then he threatens to take Danru, forces her to beg for his forgiveness, and finally rapes her at gunpoint, humiliating her every way he knows.
After he leaves for work the next morning, Weili packs a few clothes and takes the discarded divorce paper, hoping that Hulan and Auntie Du will be the needed witnesses on the paper. Hulan refuses to believe that Wen Fu is a monster, rejoicing that there were no witnesses to the signing of the divorce papers. Sanguine and cheerful, she urges, "Now sit down, eat your morning meal. Calm down, no more worries." They will not be witnesses for her, but they finally agree to help her get away and find a place to stay until Hulan finds transportation out of the area.
Weili and Danru take refuge in a filthy rooming house nearby. They are awakened the next morning by Wen Fu's roaring voice. Thinking Wen Fu will be remorseful and kind once he knows how upset Weili is, Hulan has told him where to find them. Instead, over the months that follow, he continues his abuse of Weili. She repeatedly becomes pregnant and repeatedly has abortions because she wants no more of his babies. She considers suicide many times but cannot bring herself to carry it out. This bitter low of Weili's life continues for more than three years at Kunming.
The war begins to turn in China's favor as the armies (with help from the Allies) gradually push back the Japanese. This gives new life to the internal power struggle between the Chinese Nationalists and the Chinese Communists. Finally, in August 1945, the families learn that the Japanese have gone forever. (What Weili does not mention is that the Americans dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Japanese surrendered to the Allies.) After a seven-year absence from Shanghai and an eight-year marriage to a child and wife batterer, Weili looks forward to an immediate return to the protection of her father.
In sisterly fashion, Hulan and Weili exchange gifts and, with their families, separate at Wuchang — Weili, Wen Fu, and Danru to Shanghai — Hulan, Jiaguo, and Auntie Du to Harbin in the far northeast.
In September, nearing her father's home, Weili sorts through the perversities of her life with Wen Fu and prepares to tell her father about the untenable pattern of abuse. However, his severe physical and mental debilitation prevents Weili from confiding in him, and Wen Fu's Kuomintang uniform strikes fear into the old man. San Ma, Weili's honorary mother, tells Weili the details of slanderous newspaper articles about Jiang, the unexpected resurgence of his five factories under Japanese management, his personal dishonor, and the stroke that has left him partially paralyzed and mute. According to San Ma, Jiang's helpless physical state saves him from a traitor's execution by the Kuomintang, but not from the spite of local patriots. Wen Fu's family soon install themselves in the house and begin selling off Jiang's priceless antiques, quickly running through most of what is left of the Jiang family wealth.
As the denouement, or falling action, of the novel begins, Jimmy Louie appears almost as though he were the deus ex machina, the hero waiting in the wings ever since Winnie first began confessing past hurts and fears to Pearl. An unlikely rescuer, Jimmy brings to Weili what has been missing from her personal life — the supportive relationship of a man who begins his courtship with simple acts of friendship, building Weili's trust into a lifelong love.
Like her incessant search for bargains, Weili has been cheated out of the best of men. Change from the past will require significant character development. Still chained to the evil, swaggering, self-absorbed Wen Fu, she must assert total independence, find a way to escape with Danru, and accept Jimmy Louie as her lover in much the same way that her mother may have deserted her own marriage. The promise of a daring escape as prelude to a normal life entices Weili to take chances that bring out a survivalist streak in her character as yet unseen in the novel and unknown to Pearl.
At this point, the novel moves full circle on symbolic feet: Peanut had lured Wen Fu during Chinese New Year by hobbling herself in a tight-bottomed coat and tottering on ridiculous high heels through the marketplace in a display of inappropriate fashion. Weili, whose ill fortune placed her in Peanut's stead as Wen Fu's wife, breaks the curse of his mounting savagery, child abuse, and tirades while struggling to cope with a broken heel of a shoe at the Christmas dance. Amid decorations carried at great risk over the Burma Road, Weili breaks her heel, takes a personal risk at bettering her life, and is rescued by a man who falls in love with her. Jimmy Louie makes a lifetime joke out of it: "I fell in love with her right from the beginning. As for Winnie — she only fell. But what matters is I caught her." (Note the parallel here to the fainting episode in Chapter 3, when onetime-suitor Dr. Lin diagnoses heat stroke and Jimmy Louie carries his wife into the church to get her out of the sun. She recalls that Jimmy "had once baptized me to save my soul. And now, he said, both laughing and crying, the doctor had baptized me to save my life.")
The treachery that follows Weili's pleasant evening at the dance and the subsequent abuse at gunpoint weaken the sisterhood rituals that have united her with Hulan. After Hulan betrays her by leading Wen Fu to her hideaway, Weili nurtures a bitterness that still taints their friendship in 1990. Although Hulan will eventually become convinced of Wen Fu's psychopathic behavior and of Weili's suffering — and will even declare she knew about them all along — Weili continues to endure humiliating sexual episodes with a man who uses her "as if I were — what? — a machine!" Weili aborts the fetuses of the next three pregnancies to save more children from abuse. In frustration at her virtual enslavement, she recalls, "I cried to myself, This is a sin — to give a baby such a bad life! . . . So I let those other babies die. In my heart, I was being kind." Tan justifies Weili's drastic actions on the rationale of avoiding future violence to their children. In 1990, Winnie looks to Pearl as a woman who can empathize with so deep a depression that the young Weili wanted to die.
Balancing the despair of Wen Fu's recapture of Weili and Danru are the joyous cries of national victory and the sweet-sad ritual that requires an exchange of gifts to mark the separation of wartime friends. Auntie Du, lacking an item of worth to give Weili, laments that she will receive a treasured perfume bottle but that Weili must travel on to Shanghai empty-handed. Weili's gentle thanks for a surrogate mother and grandmother for Danru smooth over the embarrassment. Weili apologizes to Hulan at the last minute for having disputed Hulan's report of how many beans she should pick up with chopsticks without dropping any. In a departing gesture of love, Hulan offers a rare commodity in Chinese social intercourse: She tells Weili the truth about a depth of poverty that required her to count out individual beans to share with her sister for their daily nourishment.
Macy's a large American department store chain.
ah-vuh-gee a phonetic pronunciation of the initials of the American Volunteer Group.
"Air Mail Special" a wartime song hit composed in 1941 by Big Band leader Benny Goodman.
"Moonlight Serenade" One of the romantic hits of the Big Band era, this song was written by Mitchell Parish and Glenn Miller in 1939 and became the memorable theme song of Glenn Miller's orchestra.
stinky bean curd a fermented bean paste or puree baked like brie and served soft and runny as a breakfast food.
phoenix a fictional bird from ancient eastern Mediterranean lore. The one-of-a-kind phoenix lives its five-hundred-year life span, then climbs onto a funeral pyre and sets itself aflame. From its ashes springs a worm that develops into a new phoenix decked in radiant red, purple, and gold plumage.
Imperial Emperor Hirohito Japan's titular leader during World War II. Hirohito (1901-1989), who was revered like a god, actually had little power over military incursions in Manchuria and the Hawaiian Islands yet insisted on a surrender, which he delivered over national radio in an uncharacteristic person-to-person communication with his subjects. At the end of the war, the Allies stripped Hirohito of all but ceremonial significance and left Japan's governance to its parliament.
Wen Tai-tai a respectful title indicating that Wen Fu's mother is assuming the position of lady of the house in Jiang's residence.
fen 1/100 of a Chinese penny.