Summary and Analysis
After summoning Pearl to her on a pretext of heart pain, Winnie begins telling her daughter a story she has incubated for forty years — the story of her life in China as "Weili."
Winnie finds her heart still emotionally torn with longing for her beautiful mother, who left their Shanghai home one morning in early 1925, when Weili was six, never to return. She remembers the room she shared with her mother in their fancy house, where they lived with Weili's wealthy father, Jiang Sao-yen, and his three other wives. She recalls in detail a day in 1925: She overhears her mother and father arguing, probably about her mother's status in the family. Later in the day, Weili and her mother take an extensive excursion alone — most unusual — to downtown Shanghai, walking around (her mother usually carried her), window shopping, attending a movie, and generally enjoying the sights and sounds of the city.
The same evening at home, her mother spends time showing Weili a new embroidery stitch, teaching her to count her fingers and toes, and displaying jewelry that will all be Weili's someday.
When Weili awakes the next morning, her mother has disappeared, leaving many questions in Weili's mind: Where did she go? Did she leave with the man she met at the movie theater? Why did she leave Weili behind? Who will look after her now?
The decision about Weili's immediate future is made by some unnamed power — perhaps her father and his third wife, the sensible San Ma. As a result, about a week after her mother's disappearance, Weili travels two hours by motorboat up the Huangpu River to Tsungming Island. Here she joins the household of her father's younger brother and his two wives, "Old Aunt" and "New Aunt" to Weili.
Remorse, yearning, and gossipy nonsense tangle the slender threads in Weili's memory of a mother who abandoned her daughter to free herself from a loveless marriage. She remembers her mother "ten thousand different ways." From the perspective of 1990, Winnie looks back on seven decades of imaginings about her mother's fate — as a drowning victim, a nunnery conscript, a romantic newlywed, a rebellious Marxist, or an unmourned corpse buried at the village of Mouth of the River. She has never been able to anchor the image of her strong-willed, fashion-conscious mother to a final fate or resting place.
Returning to 1925, we see Weili spending almost twelve years either in a missionary boarding school in Shanghai (never seeing her father) or in her uncle's house on Tsungming Island, which is ruled by the two aunts, who either ignore her or carp at her. In that house, Weili never enjoys the status of being a family member, ranking lower even than a perennial guest. For example, she finally has no choice: she has to embarrass her aunts in front of others before they will replace her worn-out clothes. Weili's younger cousin, nicknamed "Peanut," and Peanut's two younger brothers get the attention in the family.
In early 1937, before the Chinese New Year, Weili accompanies her overdressed, overpainted cousin Peanut and the two boys to the local marketplace. As part of the holiday celebration, vendor stalls sell special foods, toys, candies, hair ornaments, and much more. Fortune tellers nourish dreams of a bright year ahead, and Peanut spends more than her share of the money they have been given to pay for a fortune about what kind of husband she will have.
Actors in the marketplace perform a silly play and beg for money to support a local charity. One bold, flamboyant actor is Wen Fu, the eldest son of a family with an overseas business. He delights the two boy cousins and becomes attentive to Peanut, apparently aware that hers is the wealthiest family on the island. He even ferries her home from the marketplace in a borrowed wheelbarrow.
In the days that follow the 1937 Chinese New Year celebration, Wen Fu continues his wooing of Peanut with secret messages and meetings, arranged with Weili's disapproval and assistance. However, when a marriage is finally proposed through Auntie Miao, the local matchmaker, the offer by the Wen parents is for Wen Fu to marry Weili (who is a daughter of the successful textile magnate Jiang Sao-yen) rather than Peanut (the daughter of Jiang's less successful brother). Suddenly, Weili begins to dream of a home among loving family members.
Seeing herself betrayed, Peanut becomes physically and verbally abusive to Weili, who remembers that the fortune teller predicted Peanut would lose her local suitor to someone else. Neither of them are as yet aware of how greedy and heartless the Wens are.
Needing her father's approval of the marriage, Weili's aunts take her to Shanghai for a visit with her father. He agrees to the marriage and gives her a substantial financial dowry for her personal use. San Ma, her father's third wife, then takes her on a seven-day spree of dowry shopping, buying everything from triple dressers and armoires to intimate garments, tubs for personal hygiene, and ten pairs of silver chopsticks. Although the purchases seem very generous, Weili later learns that San Ma had purchased items for a much larger dowry — "five times bigger" — for another of Jiang's daughters. Weili concludes that her father must be aware of the Wens' poor reputation and that he must not have thought much of her to marry her to Wen Fu.
As an omen of how the Wens will treat her, most of her purchased dowry is taken by members of the Wen family as their own or sold overseas by the Wens to get the money. Her hidden sets of silver chopsticks and her dowry in the bank become her only possessions of value.
The loss of her mother in childhood is the dramatic source for many of Winnie's thoughts and feelings. According to Amy Tan's reflective article "Lost Lives of Women" (Life, April 1991), her own concept of Chinese "loss of face" began at home with the study of a photograph taken in 1924 showing female members of her family in mourning. After Daisy Tan confided the facts of the rape of her mother, Jingmei, and her subsequent subjection to the role of concubine, Daisy burst into an emotional defense: "How can you understand?" she said, suddenly angry. "You did not live in China then. You do not know what it's like to have no position in life. I was her daughter. We had no face! We belonged to nobody! This is a shame I can never push off my back." The outcry echoes the shame and anchorless emotion of Weili, whose treatment by her uncle and his two wives remind her daily that she is a burdensome relative living off their charity and condescending good will.
Tan herself traveled to China and followed the Huangpu River from Shanghai — the route Weili took after her father dispatched her to Uncle's house on Tsungming Island — to her grandmother's place of exile. She wrote in "Watching China" (Glamour, September 1987), "I can only imagine what has happened to my family in China."
Destiny, another key in this novel, weaves in and out of events like the dragon procession that concludes the Chinese New Year celebration. Pre-Communist China's superstitions play active roles in the characters' lives — mythical cures, curses, whimsical gods, spirit money, seers, lucky days, and other forms of numerology. For example, Weili overhears the fortune teller shaping marriage predictions to Peanut's wishes and reactions, "chasing away" the local man she was supposed to marry, sending him to someone else, and promising Peanut wealth with a man farther away. Later, Weili cannot explain (except through destiny) the transference of the ill luck that skips Peanut — that is, marriage to Wen Fu — into the catastrophe that overwhelms and dominates much of Weili's adult life.
For several pages, the story takes on the trappings of a fable. After Auntie Miao applies her mercenary skills to a satisfactory — that is, a mutually profitable — union between the Wens and Jiangs, the buoyant, reassuring visions of "happily ever after" transform Weili (her uncle's out-of-favor foster child) into the Cinderella of the moment. During her reunion with her dignified, refined father to discuss the marriage offer and an appropriate dowry, Weili allows herself a recapitulation of scenes from her childhood home and a sensual taste/touch/smell/look session in the room so shadowed by ill fortune that no one risks fate by moving in.
Even bittersweet memories of her mother fail to daunt Weili's joy in her betrothal. Although obviously forewarned, Weili pays allegiance to the same patriarchal system that held her mother in bondage and forced her to finally value her own freedom over her duties as a mother. Perhaps the young Weili believes her mother's story was a fluke, a rare example of a headstrong, Westernized, overeducated wife too sure of herself to allow a man to do her thinking for her.
Weili and San Ma's seven-day dowry-buying spree reads like a tale about a starving beggar following a philanthropist to a banquet table and sampling at will from a rich man's birthright. So long deprived of the family attention that builds self-esteem, Weili grabs at every bauble, every purchase that revalidates her inner worth. Like a pre-marital counselor, San Ma explains the importance of each item, such as the intimate garments and the special tubs in which she should wash to keep her body sweet and appealing to her groom.
The dramatic irony of the seventh day of shopping presents a wide-eyed bride-to-be handling the "Chinese silver, pure, soft silver, just like money you can exchange" and ignoring San Ma's dealings with the clerk over table settings to serve ten. Like man and wife in ideal matrimony, a pair of chopsticks in Weili's fingers are of equal length and value, mated with a silver chain to keep each from straying from the other. Mimicking her role as wife and nipping at imaginary morsels with heavy silver chopsticks — the only bridal gift that Weili will manage to save for herself — she actually clutches at nothing of true significance.
warlord a military leader who has assumed control of a province or a territory within a country-here, a province within China. Warlords sometimes individually waged war on one another and occasionally formed coalitions and alliances. In 1912, warlordism was replaced temporarily by popular nationalism. However, after the new president's death in 1916, regional warlords vied with each other for control of the central government. Most provinces continued under the control of local military commanders until the Communist unification in 1949. The collapse of the warlords in that year coincides with Weili's escape from her abusive husband, Wen Fu, who treated Weili as a feudal lord might treat his vassal, a virtual slave, always subject to the lord's peculiar whims.
English biscuits fancy crackers or cookies, usually packed in a decorative tin. These and other luxuries — the mirror, Western clothing, jewelry, a private room, servants, and freedom of movement-indicate that although Weili's mother was a "double second" wife, she still enjoyed being pampered.
chamber pot a portable container used primarily for nighttime urine.
Double Second Jiang's original second wife committed suicide out of humiliation when she was not promoted to first wife after the first wife died of tuberculosis. Thus, the place of "second wife" was considered a "bad luck spot" by the envious third, fourth, and fifth wives, San Ma, Sz Ma, and Wu Ma. Weili's mother allowed herself to become "Double Second." The argument overheard by Weili may have been her mother's attempt to become "first wife."
pedicab a three-wheeled taxi holding as many as three passengers and pedaled by the driver like a tricycle. The pedicab replaced the bulkier rickshaw, in which the driver ran on foot while pulling the cab with long poles grasped under each arm.
fatty man Fatty Arbuckle (1887-1933), a stout, baby-faced comedian of the silent screen, once as popular as Charlie Chaplin.
armoire an oversized storage cabinet or wardrobe with heavy hardware, often double-hinged doors, ornate detailing, painted scenes, or gilded oriental motifs called chinoiserie.
Tsungming Island an island forty miles long and eight miles wide in the mouth of the Yangtze River, north of Shanghai. Now called Chungming, the island grew hundreds of years ago from a sandbar in Shanghai harbor, an estuary of the Yangtze and Huangpu rivers.
bound feet a cruel and ancient Chinese custom for shaping girls' feet, a tradition that extended into the nineteenth century among families raising daughters to be "ladies." Parents wrapped their daughters' feet with toes extended downward, stretching the instep and inhibiting the shaping of the arch. Later, these women had to walk carefully in light, birdlike steps, creating an impression of fragility and modesty.
Confucius Latinized spelling of the name K'ung fu-tzu (probably 551-478 B.C.), who served as an adviser to an influential ruler. When the ruler died, Confucius became an itinerant teacher and sage. Three important doctrines of Confucius include believing in benevolence (doing unto others as to yourself), acting with benevolence, and acting in accordance with propriety.
Manchus rulers of the Ch'ing (Ching) Dynasty — the last Chinese imperial family, which dates its lineage from Manchuria in 1644. Emperor Hsuan T'ung, the teenaged heir of the Manchus, abdicated and was forced into house arrest on February 12, 1912. A month later, Yüan Shihk'ai became the president of the new Chinese republic. Later a young man of Manchurian ancestry, Henry Pu-yi, was made puppet head of Manchukuo, formerly Manchuria, by the occupying Japanese.
wedding sedan an ornate, enclosed ceremonial chair in which a prospective bride is concealed from view behind curtains and, like a gift in gorgeous wrappings, is borne to the groom-to-be in a joyful, colorful wedding procession.
Catch Her in the Ride what Winnie understands as the title of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, a teenage classic of emotional turmoil and insecurity. This novel of a runaway boy who flees failure at a private school was considered a shocking novel in the 1950s and is still the periodic target of book banning.
the Rat year 1924 (also 1936, 1948, and every twelfth year thereafter).
cinnabar red a gaudy vermilion red, named for the mineral of that color called cinnabar, a mercuric sulfide.
wonton noodle dough filled with a meat mixture, served either fried or boiled as dumplings in broth.
pomelo a ten-to-twenty-pound pear-shaped citrus fruit, native to Malaysia and Polynesia and resembling a grapefruit with its thick rind, pale yellow pulp, and tart juice.
twelve animals of the horoscope The Chinese horoscope is based on years rather than months like the Western horoscope. Each year is represented by one of the following animals: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Boar.
begging bowls shallow bowls such as Buddhist monks keep as their only possessions and use to collect donations thought to buy favor for the donors in the afterlife.
concubine a woman kept in a household primarily as a sexual partner, not a wife; she is considered inferior to those who are wives.
yuan the Chinese monetary unit in the mid-1930s, equal to about fifty cents in American money at the time. Thus Weili's dowry of 4,000 yuan was the equivalent of about $2,000 then — perhaps $4050,000 today.