Summary and Analysis
Before her wedding, Weili guesses that Peanut had already turned Wen Fu down, leaving her way clear for someone better (as told in her fortune). Now Peanut seems full of helpful suggestions about Weili's wedding.
Peanut passes on news about the unsavory business practices of the Wens, as well as a "sex story" to the sexually naive Weili. In the story, a young man dies because his penis becomes stuck in a woman whose overpowering yin destroys her groom, who has a lesser yang. Weili's casual glimpses of the tiny organs of her little boy cousins do not prepare her for the sight of Wen Fu's erect organ on their wedding night.
Relieved after telling Pearl about her wedding night ignorance and agony, Winnie turns her narrative to the circumstances under which she met Helen in 1937, one month after marrying Wen Fu.
While Chinese factions have been fighting among themselves, the Japanese have taken over Chinese territory in the northeast. A new Chinese air force is being trained under an American advisor, General Claire Chennault, for air support to General Chiang Kai-shek, head of the Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang). Using the false credentials of his deceased brother, Wen Fu has been accepted in the air force. With Weili in tow, Wen Fu reports for pilot training in Hangchow, about 100 miles southwest of Shanghai.
The living conditions in an old monastery at the training center are primitive, but the wives of the pilots make life as pleasant as possible. One of the wives is Hulan (later Helen), who is married to Long Jiaguo, Wen Fu's boss. Weili and Hulan become friends even though their differences in family background, education, worldliness, and personality frequently put them at odds with each other.
When the thread of Winnie's story returns to the private details of her marriage, Winnie is not at ease discussing her husband's cruelty and vulgarity — even to her married daughter, Pearl. She prefaces her first account of Wen Fu's abuse with:
So I will tell you what happened, although maybe not everything. Maybe I'll come to a part where I cannot say any more. And when that happens you just have to imagine what happened. And then you should imagine it again and make it ten times worse.
Returning to 1937, Weili is surprised at how tolerant Jiaguo is of Hulan's nagging. Weili and Hulan have found a little outdoor pavilion in which to picnic, relax, and work embroidery in the hot summer afternoons and from which they have a glorious view of the surrounding area. One afternoon during a thunderstorm, Weili admits strange and erratic desires for food. After a few questions, Hulan convinces her she is pregnant. Weili is both uninformed and misinformed about pregnancy and birth. Hulan tells of her own unfortunate experience in her home near Loyang, trying to help her unmarried sister give birth.
The baby's father had knocked the sister down in anger, precipitating the birth, and the sister died just before the baby was born dead. The man was Jiaguo, "so scared of my sister's curse that he married me," Hulan confides. Now Weili begins to understand his great patience with Hulan.
Wen Fu seems almost indifferent to the idea of a baby, and he continues to mistreat Weili. When Weili confides in Hulan, expecting commiseration, her trusted confidante reprimands her for not being more receptive to her husband's desires.
Suddenly they are told their husbands are flying out and the wives rush to pack their husbands' clothes. They arrive at the air force base just in time to see their pilot-husbands getting final orders and then flying away, apparently into an air attack in which victory is anticipated.
In Chapter 8, Tan continues spacing segments of oral transmission with digression as Winnie relates to Pearl her quick metamorphosis from scared maiden to war bride and more gradual transformation to assertive woman. Tan reminds the reader, first, that Pearl knows nothing of her mother's burden of humiliation, guilt, regret, and worry for her daughter, and second, that the autobiography is a necessary account, narrated on her own terms lest Helen tells the story her way.
The joy of a mother-daughter relationship is central to the story with the sad irony that, unlike Weili, Pearl has a mother but, at this point in the action, does not avail herself of a loving, confiding relationship. Instead of bolstering one another, Pearl has drifted from intimacy into annoyance with her mother and self-absorption, while Winnie has turned to Helen, her annoying, competitive pseudo-sister. Chapter 8 illustrates a motif of surface value vs. genuine worth — a reminder of the novel's theme of illusion vs. reality:
- Weili reflects on the happy days before the marriage, when Peanut's shallow worries concerned what kind of impression Weili would make on her father's clients and how much makeup the girls would wear, rather than the type of husband Wen Fu would make or what the prospects were for the couple's lasting contentment.
- Like the proverbial lamb to slaughter, Weili seems happy at the prospect of marriage and its escape, knowing little of the traditional sexual demands on a Chinese wife and even less of the evil nature of the man who waits to make her his property.
- A bountiful, festive atmosphere belies the two families' deceptions preceding the marriage that Weili is about to enter.
- Frequently uncharitable Old Aunt plays proxy for Weili's beloved mother, giving Weili her mother's imperial jade earrings in secret.
- Days before the wedding, Peanut leads Weili to their secret spot for girlish confidences — the dilapidated greenhouse. Echoing the green of her mother's jade earrings and foreshadowing later references to Weili's green dress and coat, the greenhouse windows wink a promise of hope and refuge from adult chicanery and the extended family's callousness. Almost immediately, the green of hope withers as Peanut relates the news about the Wen family's sordid "garbage business," a disreputable method of milking foreigners of money by passing off Chinese shrines and paintings of ancestors to the Americans and British as treasured antiques.
- Weili is surprised that Wen Fu seems well liked by the other Chinese pilots, when in fact we learn later that they are afraid to cross him because they fear his anger.
Weili's developing fetus causes her to search for a certain food to satisfy her hunger, a yearning that parallels her longing for a loving family and a secure home, both lacking since her mother's disappearance. The urgent desire for food and love reminds her of her mother, "always wanting something more, never happy with what life had given me."
moxa the leaves of mugwort, also known as artemisia, or wormwood, which are burned in a treatment called moxibustion. Practitioners of Oriental herbal medicine use moxibustion as a curative, soothing therapy, muscle relaxant, or cauterizing agent.
eunuch a man who has been emasculated or castrated, often to make him a non-threatening, asexual overseer of a harem or assemblage of royal or upperdass women.
yin the feminine element of Chinese philosophy — that is, receptive, cool, inactive, moist, and dark qualities.
yang the masculine element of Chinese philosophy — that is, aggressive, hot, active, dry, and bright qualities.
Madame Chiang Chiang Meiling Soong, a native of Shanghai and wife of General Chiang Kaishek, the leader of the Kuomintang since 1925. In early 1937, Chiang turned air force matters over to Madame Chiang, charging her to eliminate its corruption, confusion, and incompetence. Mme. Chiang's American-educated brother, Dr. T.V Soong, was Chiang's minister of finance and an enthusiastic supporter of using air power in China and of asking the U.S. to provide flight-training advisors. Herself educated at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Mme. Chiang regularly used her knowledge and influence to aid her husband. Later, the first female to receive a commendation from the Chinese government, she wrote autobiographical studies of China's revolutionary years. On July 17, 1937, Chiang (sometimes referred to as "Generalissimo") convinced China's leaders of the need for massive defense and retaliation efforts, and on August 7, the War of Resistance against Japan was officially declared. On August 12, Chiang was named Commander-in-Chief of all Chinese armed forces. Two days later, August 14, was the date of China's first offensive air action at Shanghai, the sortie from Hangchow that takes flight at the end of Chapter 10.
Claire Chennault A pioneer in American air pursuit tactics in World War I, he was nearing the age of forty-seven in 1937, when he found himself at odds with the U.S. Army Air Corps. He knew of the need for air expertise in China so he retired as captain from the U.S. Army and immediately went to China, where he became advisor to Chiang Kai-shek on air defense strategy. In 1941, in China, Chennault formed the Flying Tigers, an American volunteer group of skilled American pilots who were offered special bonuses to join the China mission. (Note: They celebrate early successes in Chapter 18 with the dance at which Weili meets Jimmy Louie.) Chennault was recalled to official duty in the Army Air Corps in 1942, when he officially headed the U.S. air task force in China. He finally retired in 1945 as a major general.
invisible body lice crabs or scabies, both obtained through intimate contact, which Weili incorrectly links to the prurient itch of a lustful woman.
a late-night shooting up north in Peking During the night of July 7-8, 1937, the Chinese repulsed a Japanese attempt to cross the Yungting River via two strategically critical bridges near Peking (then called Peiping, now called Beijing). However, on July 28, Peking fell to the Japanese.