Summary and Analysis
At the Western Palace
Kingston, who in "Shaman" narrated the personal talk-story of her mother, Brave Orchid, now relates the failed assimilation into American culture of Brave Orchid's younger sister, Moon Orchid, whose inability to adapt to a new, American way of life destines her first to insanity and then to death. Estranged from her husband for thirty years after he left China and moved to America, Moon Orchid arrives in America from Hong Kong, where she lived a very comfortable life thanks to her husband, who regularly sent money to support her and their daughter, but who never personally corresponded with his Chinese family. He does not know that Brave Orchid has arranged for her sister to immigrate to America.
Unlike the other chapters in The Woman Warrior, "At the Western Palace" is narrated by a third-person narrator, who relates the talk-story about Kingston's aunt by constructing a linear plot progression. The chapter opens at the San Francisco airport, where sixty-eight-year-old Brave Orchid has been waiting for over nine hours for Moon Orchid's arrival. She is irritated that her children are wandering around the airport rather than sitting quietly with her. Moon Orchid's daughter, whom Brave Orchid also helped emigrate from China, and who has not seen her mother for five years, sits patiently with her aunt. Brave Orchid has been awake since before her sister's airplane took off from Hong Kong, intent on adding her "will power to the forces that keep an airplane up." When she sees a group of soldiers and sailors in the airport terminal, she suddenly remembers that her own son is serving in the Vietnam War. Forced now to split her shamanic powers between her sister's safety and her son's safety, her head hurts from the concentration in keeping Moon Orchid's plane airborne and her son's ship afloat. Anxious about this son, whom she considers to be a heedless boy who will surely die in the war, she divulges her worries about him to her niece. Her other children can take care of themselves, she says, but this son is not normal: He "sticks erasers in his ears, and the erasers are still attached to the pencil stubs. The captain will say, 'Abandon Ship,' or, 'Watch out for bombs,' and he won't hear."
In this episode, in which Brave Orchid waits for Moon Orchid to arrive from Hong Kong, Brave Orchid contrasts her children's behavior with her niece's. She is highly critical of her children's impatience, which she characterizes as a distinctly American trait; however, her niece's sitting with her impresses Brave Orchid as proper, respectful, Chinese deportment. "Her American children could not sit for very long," Brave Orchid muses to herself. "They did not understand sitting; they had wandering feet." She thinks of them as a "bad boy and bad girl," but her niece's opinion of her cousins is very different. For example, when Brave Orchid complains that her son in Vietnam is careless and "not normal," her niece defends him and his siblings. Speaking to her aunt, she says, "Your son can take care of himself. All your children can take care of themselves."
Brave Orchid does not understand that her children, in addition to caring for themselves, also protect her from situations that would upset her. Such is the case when Brave Orchid accuses her children of hiding letters written to her by her son in Vietnam. Because they know that Brave Orchid wanted her son to flee to Canada to avoid being drafted, and that she worries about his safety, they hide his letters to shield her from the constant threat of his being killed in war.
When Moon Orchid finally arrives at the airport, Brave Orchid is shocked by how old her sister looks. Earlier, Brave Orchid mistakenly identified a young woman as Moon Orchid, but her niece cautiously explained that Moon Orchid would look much older than the woman whom Brave Orchid believed to be her sister. Brave Orchid's initially identifying this young woman as Moon Orchid recalls the conversation between herself and Kingston at the end of "Shaman," in which Brave Orchid contended that time in China moves more slowly than in America, and that had she remained in China, she would be young still. Remembering that this previous conversation between Brave Orchid and Kingston chronologically occurs after the events in "At the Western Palace," Brave Orchid's continuing to believe in "Shaman" that time is somehow suspended in China, even after she sees how old her newly arrived, younger sister is, emphasizes how strongly ingrained are her misperceptions of her former homeland, and how wholly she identifies herself as Chinese, not Chinese American. Even during the car ride to Stockton, Brave Orchid and Moon Orchid keep saying "Aiaa! How old!" whenever they look disbelievingly at one another.
Back at home, Brave Orchid wants to perform a luck ceremony to welcome her sister, but Moon Orchid tells everyone to open the presents that she has brought for them. She becomes totally immersed in giving out the gifts, including a paper doll of Fa Mu Lan, who, Moon Orchid assures her nieces and nephews, "really existed." Brave Orchid considers these presents frivolous and extravagant. Unlike Moon Orchid, she is particularly wary of extravagances that may draw the attentions of jealous gods. Eventually, Brave Orchid has her luck ceremony, feeding candy to her children: "It was very important that the beginning be sweet." The sisters then prepare a huge dinner for the family.
Brave Orchid and her children's personal interactions during Moon Orchid's gift-giving are strained at best. The cultural gap between them is immense, in large part because Brave Orchid judges her children based on traditional Chinese manners. For example, when Moon Orchid passes out the paper dolls, the children immediately begin to play with them. However, Brave Orchid, raised by Chinese parents who taught her "correct" Chinese behavior, privately thinks of her children, "How greedy to play with presents, in front of the giver." This relationship between tradition and behavior is addressed most directly when Brave Orchid remembers that the Chinese word for "impolite" is "untraditonal." She characterizes her children as lazy, and when they balk at eating the luck-ceremony candy that symbolizes good beginnings, she thinks of them as stupid: "They'd put the bad mouth on their aunt's first American day; you had to sweeten their noisy barbarous mouths."
Another reason for the breakdown of Brave Orchid and her children's relationship is their lack of meaningful communication. Kingston recalls that when she was growing up, on certain occasions her mother opened the front door and mumbled something, and then opened the back door and mumbled again. Whenever the children asked her what and why she mumbled, Brave Orchid refused to interpret her actions. "It's nothing," she would say to her children. "She never explained anything that was really important. They no longer asked." In addition, at the supper table, Brave Orchid always invoked silence and did not allow anyone to speak — at least, not in Chinese. Kingston notes that children in other families whose parents forbade talking at the supper table created an elaborate sign language to overcome their parents' enforced silence. She and her siblings, however, talked freely in English, "which their parents didn't seem to hear." Because Brave Orchid does not consider English to be a "language," the children may speak it without getting into trouble. Unfortunately, this language barrier dramatically increases the cultural gap between Brave Orchid and her children: Brave Orchid will not master English because it symbolizes the barbarous American culture, and the children resist speaking Chinese because they want to be "American-normal."
Although Brave Orchid regularly denigrates American culture, which she views as wasteful and uncivilized, she is not immune to its effects. One example of her relaxing the many Chinese customs with which she was raised is the American practice of hanging pictures of living relatives on walls in the house, in this case her and her husband's own portraits. When Moon Orchid notices that her sister's and brother-in-law's pictures hang opposite her grandparents' and asks why, Brave Orchid casually remarks, "No reason. Nothing. . . . In America you can put up anybody's picture you like." Her answer appears to be insignificant at first, but its import is great: No matter how much she resists the American culture around her, it affects her more than she might be willing to admit. Also, she hangs the pictures because "later the children would not have the sense to do it."
After dinner, although it is late at night and Moon Orchid is tired from her long journey, Brave Orchid insists that Moon Orchid and Moon Orchid's daughter "get down to [the] business" of reuniting Moon Orchid with her husband. She wants to talk about the glorious moment in which her sister will confront her brother-in-law and reclaim her marriage rights: "Oh, how I'd love to be in your place. I could tell him so many things. What scenes I could make." For the last thirty years, Moon Orchid has been receiving money from her husband, but she has never told him that Brave Orchid had been planning to bring her to America: "She waited for him to suggest it, but he never did." She is frightened at the prospect of confronting her husband, but Brave Orchid is adamant that her sister should reclaim her rightful place as "Big Wife" — the first-married wife of a husband. Although Brave Orchid knows that the husband has a second wife, whom he married after he arrived in America, she does not consider this "Little Wife" a barrier to her sister and brother-in-law's reconciliation: Customarily, a wealthy Chinese man in China was married simultaneously to more than one woman.
Moon Orchid and her daughter stay with Brave Orchid for several weeks, a difficult time for Brave Orchid and her children. Brave Orchid is impatient with her sister, whom she regards as the "lovely, useless type." Moon Orchid is unable to do manual work either in the house or in the family-owned laundry. Because the laundry is unbearably hot, the most she can learn to do is fold towels late in the day, when the temperature inside the laundry has cooled. Used to a life of comfort, she is "eager to work, roughing it in the wilderness," but anything she attempts to do infuriates Brave Orchid because she works too slowly.
Moon Orchid's stay with Brave Orchid reveals how very different these two sisters are. Brave Orchid represents frugality and tradition; Moon Orchid is frivolous, extravagant, and ephemeral. Their contrasting identities are best embodied in their names: Brave Orchid is "brave"; Moon Orchid, whose name means "flower of the moon," is like a planet circling the sun, a body in orbit around her distant husband. Brave Orchid believes that a wife's primary role is to "scold her husband into becoming a good man"; her sister passively accepts whatever her husband tells her to do, even if that means not being a part of his America life.
Brave Orchid has a strong, overpowering personality that assertively exerts itself in any situation. Single-mindedly determined that Moon Orchid should confront her "barbarian" husband, Brave Orchid exudes unquestioned confidence that any one of the many possible scenarios she devises for Moon Orchid to accost her husband will succeed. Brave Orchid is so totally consumed by her sister's plight that she fails to realize that Moon Orchid's passive, non-confrontational demeanor will not allow her to confront her husband. Note how often Brave Orchid discusses how she would act if she were in her sister's stead. For example, strategizing how best Moon Orchid can impress her husband, Brave Orchid says, "Another thing I'd do if I were you, I'd get a job and help him out. Show him I could make his life easier; how I didn't need his money." However, Brave Orchid is not her sister: She relishes the dramatic opportunity to face her brother-in-law; Moon Orchid would rather move back to Hong Kong.
In contrast to Brave Orchid, Moon Orchid emerges as delicate and vacillating, happiest when following the lead of others. Physically, she has "long fingers and thin, soft hands." Her "high-class city accent from living in Hong Kong" symbolically reveals a frail woman who has never worked in her life, and who has had servants fulfill her every need. Brave Orchid contemptuously remarks of her "wishy-washy" sister, "Not a trace of village accent remained; she had been away from the village for that long." Brave Orchid also notes that "bright colors and movements distracted her" like they would a child. Faced with the looming threat of confronting her unsuspecting husband, Moon Orchid would choose — were it not for her sister's constant nagging — to remain estranged from him. "Do we have to do something?" she passively asks.
Moon Orchid's stay with Brave Orchid and her family also exposes the ever-present cultural gap between Brave Orchid and her children. This rift is caused, in part, by Brave Orchid's failure to realize that many traditional Chinese customs are not adaptable to American culture. For example, when Brave Orchid tries to convince Moon Orchid that her estranged husband's children by his second wife will recognize Moon Orchid as their mother, she tells her sister, "The children will go to their true mother — you. . . . That's the way it is with mothers and children." But that is not the way it is with Brave Orchid and her own children, who, Brave Orchid admits, are "antisocial and secretive." "Ever since they were born," she recalls, "they had burrowed little nests for themselves in closets and underneath stairs; they made tents under tables and behind doors." Because the children live in a home so totally dominated by their autocratic mother, who rejects their assimilation into American culture, they physically construct hiding places to escape emotionally from her control and to create individualized, "American-normal" identities.
Brave Orchid's children find Moon Orchid's behavior odd, as she does theirs. The running commentary that Moon Orchid provides as she follows them about the house emphasizes just how Americanized Kingston and her siblings are. Growing up, Moon Orchid was taught to look demurely askance at adults, never directly into their eyes; her sister's children, however, look straight into her eyes, "as if they were looking for lies. . . . They were like animals the way they stared." Traditionally, Chinese custom considered a person polite who denied, not accepted, a compliment, but Moon Orchid's nieces and nephews receive her compliments unashamedly. Initially, Moon Orchid suspects that Brave Orchid's children are "animals" who live in a barbarian culture; her suspicion is confirmed when she sees them eat undercooked meat. Worse, they are "savages" who always smell like cow's milk: "At first she thought they were so clumsy, they spilled it on their clothes. But soon she decided they themselves smelled of milk. They were big and smelled of milk; they were young and had white hair." Moon Orchid does not realize that many Americans drink milk their entire lives, but neither do Brave Orchid's children know that in traditional Chinese society, only babies drink milk.
When Moon Orchid's daughter must return to Los Angeles to her own family, Brave Orchid decides that it is also time for Moon Orchid to rejoin her husband. She forces her unwilling son to drive them all to Los Angeles. During the journey, Brave Orchid continues to imagine the approaches that Moon Orchid should take in confronting her husband and reclaiming her rights as his wife. Mood Orchid, however, remains unsure of herself, especially now that she has read in a newspaper that it is unlawful for an American man to be married to more than one woman at a time. "The law doesn't matter," Brave Orchid says to bolster her sister's confidence.
On the way to Los Angeles, Brave Orchid narrates a talk-story about an emperor with four wives, from which this chapter gets its ironic title. "A long time ago," Brave Orchid begins, an emperor had four wives, each of whom lived in a palace located at one of the earth's four major compass points. The Empress of the East, whom Brave Orchid likens to Moon Orchid, was "good and kind and full of light," but the Empress of the West, in her striving for ultimate power over the emperor's other three wives, imprisoned the emperor in the Western Palace. Only Moon Orchid, the Empress of the East, can save the emperor, her husband, from the evil clutches of the Empress of the West, her husband's second wife with whom he is living. "You must break the strong spell she has cast on him that has lost him the East," Brave Orchid encourages her sister.
Although Brave Orchid's talk-story about the emperor and his four wives is the shortest talk-story — only one paragraph — in The Woman Warrior, it is the best example of how talk-stories are meant to empower individuals. To Brave Orchid, the talk-story justifies her and her sister's moral righteousness in confronting the barbarian husband and his barbarian wife, and guarantees success for their mission. Knowing that Moon Orchid lacks the courage needed to confront her husband and demand the respect from him that she deserves, Brave Orchid attempts to bolster her sister's resiliency, to strengthen her mentally by likening her to a woman warrior who comes out of the dawn to "free the Emperor." Stylistically, note the magical, mystical images that Kingston uses to introduce this otherworldly, mythological realm of emperors and empresses: "They set out at gray dawn, driving between the grape trees, which hunched like dwarfs in the fields. Gnomes in serrated outfits that blew in the morning wind came out of the earth, came up in rows and columns. Everybody was only half awake." In only three sentences, we are transported into a wholly different world, a new reality in which women warriors fight for what they believe is right and just.
At times during the trip to Los Angeles, Moon Orchid grows momentarily confident in her ability to confront her husband, but as she approaches Los Angeles, she becomes more terrified than ever. However, Brave Orchid orders her son to continue the journey, and they track Moon Orchid's husband's address to a downtown skyscraper. There, Brave Orchid makes a reconnaissance visit to determine how best to surprise Moon Orchid's husband. She discovers that he is a brain surgeon, and that his Chinese-American wife, whom Brave Orchid describes as a "modern, heartless girl," works with him as a nurse. She also notes how poorly this second wife speaks Chinese. To get the husband alone, Brave Orchid devises a plan to trick him into leaving his office so that he can meet the sisters in their car on the street.
When the husband arrives at the car, Brave Orchid and Moon Orchid are taken aback by how commanding, young, and American he looks: "The two old ladies saw a man, authoritative in his dark western suit, start to fill the front of the car. He had black hair and no wrinkles. He looked and smelled like an American." Initially, he unknowingly addresses Moon Orchid and her sister as "Grandmothers," but when he finally recognizes who they are, he is angry at Moon Orchid. Demanding to know why she has come to Los Angeles and what she wants, he tells her that she is mistaken if she thinks that she can fit into his new American life. Although he does not want her to return to China ("I wouldn't wish that on anyone"), he also does not want her to visit him again. His second wife does not know that he has a Chinese family, and in America he could be arrested for having two wives. While he is prepared to continue supporting Moon Orchid financially, he will not acknowledge her in his home.
This episode, in which Moon Orchid unsuccessfully confronts her husband, emphasizes how important language is to personal identity. As Moon Orchid sits in the car outside her husband's office building, her confidence wanes in direct relation to her losing her ability to talk: "I won't be able to talk," she tells her sister. "And sure enough, her voice was fading into a whisper. She was shivering and small in the corner of the seat." When she finally sees her husband for the first time in thirty years, his presence reduces her to silence. He directly asks her why she has tracked him down, but all she can do is "open and shut her mouth without any words coming out," like a puppet. Only once in the entire exchange between her husband, her sister, and herself does she manage to say anything, and even then it is only the whispered, sorrowfully pliant question, "What about me?" Ironically, her loss of language is the deciding factor in her husband's decision that she cannot fit into his American life. Speaking of the many guests he regularly entertains in his home, he says to Moon Orchid, "You can't talk to them. You can barely talk to me."
Any chance of a renewed personal relationship between Moon Orchid and her husband is doomed to fail because of the vast cultural differences between them. Moon Orchid's traditional Chinese upbringing has so completely conditioned her to be passive toward men, to accept unquestioningly any directive of her husband, that she cannot muster the emotional stamina needed to challenge his authority. "You don't have the hardness for this country," her husband tells her. He, however, does. He "smelled like an American," and he "looked directly at Moon Orchid the way the savages looked, looking for lies." He admits to Moon Orchid and her sister that he has "turned into a different person," and that they have become "people in a book I had read a long time ago." When Moon Orchid notes that her husband has lived in America for so long that he "talked like a child born here," she finally realizes that his power of language, which she does not have, is the greatest obstacle between them. This language difference, which symbolizes the diametrically opposed cultures in which each lives, never can be overcome. "Her husband looked like one of the ghosts passing the windows," Moon Orchid thinks, "and she must look like a ghost from China. They had indeed entered the land of ghosts, and they had become ghosts."
Following the dramatic meeting between Brave Orchid, Moon Orchid, and her husband in the car, Brave Orchid makes her brother-in-law take the two sisters to lunch, an odd, understated finale to the tumultuous conversation that has just occurred. Brave Orchid's son then drives his mother and aunt to Moon Orchid's daughter's home, where Moon Orchid will live. On the way, Brave Orchid tries to console her sister by minimizing the disastrous confrontation with Moon Orchid's husband. "Oh, well," she casually says. "We're all under the same sky and walk the same earth; we're alive together during the same moment." This theme of universality is remarkably similar to Kingston's own comforting comments to Brave Orchid at the end of the previous chapter.
Moon Orchid moves in with her daughter. However, as each day goes by, she becomes more emotionally disturbed and develops paranoid schizophrenia. She fears that "Mexican ghosts" are spying on her, and the one time that she talks on the phone to Brave Orchid, she quickly hangs up, saying "They're listening. Hang up quickly before they trace you." She moves into an apartment of her own to escape the ghosts who are "plotting on her life" but eventually moves again, this time to Stockton to live with Brave Orchid, who tells Moon Orchid's daughter that she will cure her sister of this illness that is fear. To her own children, Brave Orchid explains their aunt's returning to live with them by expanding the talk-story about the emperor and his four wives: ". . . the wife who lost in battle was sent to the Northern Palace."
Living with Moon Orchid becomes more difficult day by day. She makes Brave Orchid's family turn off the lights and does not let them out of her sight. When Brave Orchid tells her family to humor her sister, the children hide in their rooms. Eventually, Moon Orchid starts to curse the family with bad omens, and Brave Orchid concedes that her sister has gone mad. Moon Orchid is institutionalized in an asylum and soon thereafter she dies. Like No Name Woman, she "slipped away entirely," without proper identity and status.
Language again plays an important role in Moon Orchid's demise here at the end of "At the Western Palace." Returning to live with Brave Orchid in Stockton, Moon Orchid assures her sister that she heard Mexican ghosts talking in English about her. When Brave Orchid points out that Moon Orchid does not understand English, her younger sister replies, "This time, miraculously, I understood. I decoded their speech. I penetrated the words and understood what was happening inside." Ironically, Moon Orchid's decoding and penetrating the Mexican ghosts' language is similar to what Kingston was forced to do while growing up and listening to her mother's talk-stories. Because Brave Orchid never explained how the talk-stories were relevant to Kingston's life, Kingston had to interpret their meanings. Unfortunately, because Moon Orchid does not understand English, her interpretation of the Mexicans' English is based wholly on the insecurity she feels having been summarily rejected by her husband and now living in what for her must be a foreign, barbaric country. As Brave Orchid notes, "Moon Orchid had misplaced herself, her spirit (her 'attention,' Brave Orchid called it) scattered over the world." Not even Brave Orchid, who calls her sister's name in hopes that Moon Orchid's spirit will return to her body, can help her sister regain her lost identity.
Only during her brief stay in the insane asylum, before she dies, does Moon Orchid regain a sense of identity through language. Speaking to Brave Orchid, she joyfully explains that she and the other female residents "understand one another here. We speak the same language, the very same. They understand me, and I understand them." For the first time since Moon Orchid emigrated from China, she feels a sense of community: "We are all women here."
Why Moon Orchid initially developed paranoid schizophrenia and then eventually died, even after regaining a sense of identity, if only a false one, is best explained by Brave Orchid. "The difference between mad people and sane people," she warns her children, "is that sane people have variety when they talk-story. Mad people have only one story that they talk over and over." During the period in which Moon Orchid became more and more schizophrenic, she was obsessed with only one talk-story, that of the "Mexican ghosts" who were trying to kill her. In the asylum, she "had a new story" about how the other female patients were her daughters, but this one talk-story was the only story on which she fixated. Kingston, on the other hand, seems to understand what Brave Orchid means about a variety of talk-stories, which empower her like they do her mother. She draws on many talk-stories for The Woman Warrior, and, more important, she incorporates them into her personal life as best she can.
Although "At the Western Palace" seems less of a talk-story than the previous chapters, Kingston is strengthened by recalling Moon Orchid's struggle to assimilate in America. At the chapter's end, Kingston writes, "Brave Orchid's daughters decided fiercely that they would never let men be unfaithful to them," and then she adds, tongue-in-cheek, "All her children made up their minds to major in science or mathematics." Ironically, because of this comical, almost flippant last sentence, we are left wondering if such a lesson is worth the great expense — Moon Orchid's life — that was paid for the daughters to learn what they did.
taro leaves leaves of the tuberous taro plant, used to wrap food.
butcher's block a square or rectangular surface, usually made of wood, on which a butcher cuts meat.
runners long, narrow tablecloths.
Brigitte Bardot (b. 1934) French actress who became an international sex symbol after starring in And God Created Women (1956), and who has worked tirelessly as an animal-rights activist.
"I Am a Person of the Middle Nation" In Chinese, the word "China" can be translated as "Middle Nation." The ancient Chinese believed that they were located at the center of the known world.
benevolent associations also known as tongs, protective associations that grew out of Chinese immigrants' need for protection against criminal members of their own society, as well as to secure social and economic rights for immigrants in the United States.
sandalwood a grayish brown tree native to Asia, whose wood is often used in wood carving.
pandanus fronds the narrow, spiny leaves, used in weaving mats, from the palmlike pandanus tree.
serrated jagged-edged, like a saw's teeth.
burlap also known as hessian cloth, a resilient fabric used in making sacks.
jade trees succulent plants, with fleshy water-retaining leaves, domestically grown either in pots or in gardens.
"the bus with the mark of the dog on it" a Greyhound bus.
Thorazine the trademark name of chlorpromazine, an antipsychotic drug.