The Kitchen God's Wife
The Kitchen God's WifeIntroduction
Amy Tan wrote The Kitchen God's Wife about her mother, Daisy. Most of Winnie's story in the novel is drawn from Daisy's life, including the difficult life and marriage she left behind in pre-communist China. The presentation of Winnie's story, as she tells her story to Pearl, is reminiscent of the oral tradition. Tan, like Pearl, had never given much thought to her mother's life in China, and she was amazed at what she learned.
When Tan started on her second novel, she wanted to avoid rehashing material and ideas from her successful first novel, The Joy Luck Club. She sequestered herself with soothing music and incense, realizing that solitude was her surest path to the next novel. Although she tried numerous times to write about something different, the story in The Kitchen God's Wife cried out to be told, and Tan realized that the pursuit of diversity was not a good reason to write about one topic over another. Her mother's eagerness to have her story fictionalized was also a major influence.
And so, The Kitchen God's Wife shares certain themes with The Joy Luck Club. Both The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife portray strained relationships between immigrant mothers and their American daughters. The theme of alienation also appears in both works. Despite its similarities to the first novel, the second novel won applause from Tan's readers and critics. Her novels contain a multitude of stories that converge into a cohesive work, and Tan is admired for her ability to move from the past to the present in her storytelling.
Amy Tan was born in 1952 to first-generation Chinese-American parents. At her birth, Tan was given the Chinese name An-Mai, meaning "Blessing of America." Her father, John, was an electrical engineer and a volunteer Baptist minister who came to America in 1947. Her mother, Daisy, was a medical technician who had fled China in 1949 to escape an unhappy arranged marriage, leaving three daughters behind. In 1967, Tan's older brother, Peter, died of brain cancer, and, within a year, her father died of the same illness. After consulting a Chinese fortune teller, Daisy left the "evil" house and took her surviving children, Amy and John, to Europe.
The Tans settled in Switzerland, where Amy completed high school. It was an unhappy time for her; she felt like an outsider and was still grieving and angry over the losses in her family. Because being upright had not saved her brother and father, Tan decided to be rebellious and wild. Her friends were drug dealers, and she almost eloped to Australia with a mental patient who claimed to be a German army deserter.
When the Tans moved to Oregon, Daisy chose a college for her daughter and planned her pre-med curriculum. She was deeply disappointed when her daughter changed her major to English. In 1970, Tan moved to California to be closer to her boyfriend, Lou DiMattei. She transferred to San Jose State University and graduated in 1973. The next year, she and DiMattei married, and she received her Master's degree in English and linguistics.
As a freelance technical writer, Tan was highly successful, but she routinely worked ninety-hour weeks. Seeking to cure her compulsive working, she took up jazz piano and joined a writers' group. She took a trip to China with her mother in 1987 to connect with her Chinese heritage, an element that was lacking in her childhood. She soon realized that her best writing came from her Chinese-American perspective. Her short stories were published, and a planned collection of short fiction soon became the enormously popular The Joy Luck Club, published in 1989. The novel stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for nine months and received the 1989 Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for Best Fiction and the American Library Association's Best Book for Young Adult Readers Award. The novel was also a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
When The Kitchen God's Wife was published in 1991, critics and readers praised the novel as being at least as good as the first one. Her first two novels established Tan as a serious writer whose unique perspective and storytelling ability captivate readers and impress critics. Although both novels center on mother-daughter relationships and intergenerational conflicts, Tan is resistant to being dubbed an expert on family relationships. Further, she does not want to be categorized as an ethnic writer because she seeks to portray universal themes and wants critics to evaluate her work on its merits, rather than as sub-genre writing.
The first two chapters of The Kitchen God's Wife are narrated by Pearl Brandt, the daughter of Winnie Louie, a Chinese woman who immigrated to the United States in adulthood. Winnie has convinced Pearl to attend an engagement banquet for her cousin in San Francisco. Reluctantly, Pearl agrees and then stays in the city an extra day to attend the funeral of Auntie Du.
During the engagement banquet, Winnie's close friend Helen tells Pearl she (Helen) has a brain tumor and will be forced to reveal Pearl's secret (that she has multiple sclerosis) to her mother unless she tells her herself. She hints that her mother also has secrets she may share with her daughter.
The relationship between Winnie and Pearl is strained because the Americanized daughter and her immigrant mother have little in common. The one thing they both understand is their grief, years previously, over the loss of Pearl's father, Jimmy, who was Winnie's great love. At the funeral for Auntie Du, Pearl has a breakthrough in which she finally cries for Jimmy. In her will, Auntie Du leaves Pearl her altar to the Kitchen God, a minor deity who, as a mortal, was an abusive husband to his virtuous wife. As a deity, he reports to the Jade Emperor about who has been good and who has been bad.
Helen has told Winnie, too, of her illness and of the need to bring secrets into the open, so Winnie asks her daughter to sit with her in the kitchen while she tells all of her secrets. Chapters three through twenty-four are told from Winnie's point of view.
Winnie begins her story by describing her mother, the vain second wife of her wealthy father. When Winnie is six, her mother takes her on a fun-filled trip into the city, where they share wonderful experiences and see exciting things. The next day, Winnie's mother mysteriously disappears, and Winnie is sent to live with an uncle and his family so as not to remind her father of his missing wife. Winnie is unhappy in the new family because they are not as wealthy and treat her like a guest instead of like a family member. She makes friends with her cousin Peanut, a girl about the same age as Winnie. The two grow into adolescence together, carrying on like sisters.
During a New Year's festival, Winnie and Peanut go in search of trinkets and fortunes when they meet a charming young man named Wen Fu. He flirts with Peanut and later courts her. Winnie is suspicious of Wen Fu but says nothing. When Wen Fu finds out that Winnie's family is much wealthier than Peanut's, he proposes to Winnie. Despite Peanut's initial resentment, Winnie accepts and seeks her father's approval for the match. He agrees and explains to his daughter that when she is a wife, she will have to be obedient. He then sends one of his wives into town with Winnie to buy things for her dowry. It is a spectacular spending spree, and Winnie cannot believe the expense being put into her dowry. She later learns that the other daughters were given dowries ten times the size of hers and that her father knew that Wen Fu was from a questionable family.
Soon after the marriage, Wen Fu signs up with the military, as China recruits men to defend their country against the invading Japanese. The newlyweds move to Hangchow where Wen Fu trains as a member of the American Volunteer Group led by American pilot Claire Chennault. Winnie eventually discovers that her husband was only accepted because he used his deceased brother's name and credentials and that he is a coward who retreats when his fleet engages in air battle. Because of his social standing, however, no one challenges him. Wen Fu becomes abusive toward his new wife, often humiliating her sexually. Still, she tries to be a good wife, and her developing friendship with Helen, the wife of another pilot (Long Jiaguo), becomes her only supportive relationship.
The pilots begin to fly in battle, and their numbers begin to dwindle. Finally, Wen Fu, Winnie, Helen, and Jiaguo flee to distant parts of the country with the air force group. Along the way, they learn of the terrible defeats China is suffering, and they feel fortunate to be alive. Traveling in her last months of pregnancy, Winnie anticipates the birth of her first child and is heartbroken when the baby girl is stillborn. Meanwhile, Wen Fu has become even crueler, especially after he suffers an injury in an auto accident that is his fault. At a military party, Winnie meets a Chinese-American man named Jimmy Louie, and she is immediately drawn to him. They dance and then go their separate ways.
Winnie gives birth to a second daughter, who becomes very ill months later. She goes to get the doctor, who is playing mah jongg with Wen Fu. Wen Fu refuses to let the doctor tend to his daughter, and she dies. When Winnie becomes pregnant again, she has a boy, and she vows that he will never be like his father. She ends several subsequent pregnancies by abortion because she cannot bear the idea of carrying another of Wen Fu's children. Her attempts to secure a divorce from him only anger him, causing him, more than once, to tear up the papers and rape her.
After the war, Winnie and Wen Fu part ways with Helen and Jiaguo. Winnie looks forward to getting back to her family and telling her father how terribly Wen Fu has treated her. When they arrive, however, Winnie's father is a frail man who, having suffered a stroke, is unable to speak. Wen Fu's family moves in and begins selling off the old man's precious belongings, as he sits powerless to stop them. Unable to stand her life any longer, Winnie seeks out Peanut, who has escaped her own unhappy marriage. On her way to see Peanut, Winnie runs into Jimmy, and they sit and talk. Winnie sends her son to live with Helen and Jiaguo until she can get away from Wen Fu, but the child dies during a plague while he is away.
When Winnie's escape plans fall through, Jimmy suggests that she come and live with him. She does, but when word reaches Wen Fu, Jimmy is sent out of the country. He promises to come back for Winnie in two years. For her part in the incident, Winnie is arrested for deserting her husband and causing her son's death, and she is given the choice between prison and returning to Wen Fu. She chooses prison but is released early thanks to Helen and Auntie Du. She immediately contacts Jimmy, and he asks her to come to America and be his wife. She makes plans to flee the country, including tricking Wen Fu and his new wife into signing divorce papers. Wen Fu finds her, tears up the papers, rapes her, and steals her tickets. Helen arrives and helps Winnie overpower him. They throw his pants out the window and retrieve the tickets. Winnie arrives safely in America just before the communists take over and no one is allowed to leave China. A little less than nine months later, Pearl is born, meaning that her father is probably Wen Fu, not Jimmy.
In response to this dramatic story, Pearl tells her mother about her disease. Winnie promises to help Pearl fight the disease and wonders if it is somehow Wen Fu's fault. Later, Helen reveals that she does not really have a brain tumor. She made up the story so that Winnie and Pearl would tell each other their secrets. Winnie buys a new deity for the Kitchen God's altar, only this one is a woman. She names her Sorrowfree and prays to her for her daughter's health.
Cleo is Pearl and Phil's three-year-old daughter. She calls her Chinese grandma "Ha-bu."
Pearl is Winnie's forty-year-old daughter. She lives fifty miles away from Winnie with her husband, Phil, and their two daughters. She does not feel the same impulse to be with her family for gatherings as her mother does, but she feels a sense of duty to be present.
Pearl works as a linguist and speech therapist for mentally challenged children. She has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis but has not told her mother. She has, however, told Helen, who claims to be dying and thus insists that Pearl tell her secret to her mother.
Although Pearl has always believed that Jimmy was her father, she learns from her mother's story that her father is probably Wen Fu.
Phil is Pearl's husband. Phil is a forty-three-year-old Caucasian man who has difficulty understanding the Chinese customs and expectations of his mother-in-law. Still, he has come to have affection for the quirky woman, even though she often exasperates him. He is a pathologist and feels powerless to do anything to help his wife with her multiple sclerosis.
Tessa is Pearl and Phil's eight-year-old daughter. Pearl was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a year after Tessa's birth. She, too, calls her Chinese grandma "Ha-bu."
Mary Kwong Cheu
Hulan and Henry's daughter, Mary is responsible for introducing Pearl and Phil. Although she thinks of herself as one of Pearl's best friends, Pearl now only tolerates her. They have known each other for a very long time, and Mary's husband went to medical school with Phil. For this reason, Mary and her husband know about Pearl's illness.
Auntie Du Ching
Hulan's aunt, Auntie Du, is outspoken but very gentle. In a bold act, she saves her money and escapes the Japanese in order to meet up with Hulan in Kunming. It is she who arranges for Winnie's release from prison, although she allows Hulan's new husband to believe he managed it. When Auntie Du comes to America, Winnie takes care of her until her death. When she dies, she leaves Pearl her Kitchen God altar.
Danru is Winnie's third child and only son. His name means "nonchalance." Winnie swears that she will not allow him to become like his father. As Winnie plans her escape, she sends Danru to stay with Helen so that Wen Fu cannot get to him. While away, the child dies in an epidemic.
Wen Fu is Winnie's abusive and domineering first husband. While planning to marry Peanut, he discovers that Winnie's family is wealthier and turns his attention to her. As a husband, he is verbally and physically abusive and enjoys frightening and humiliating Winnie. He is a coward, a womanizer, and a schemer.
When the war effort is underway, Wen Fu enlists in the air force and joins the group led by American pilot Claire Chennault. Winnie later discovers that Wen Fu was only accepted because he used his deceased brother's name and credentials. He becomes extremely violent after an auto accident claims one of his eyes, and each time Winnie tries to get a divorce he flies into a rage. Only when Winnie hears the news that he is dead does she feel completely free.
One of the pilots in Wen Fu's squadron, Gan is kind to Winnie and compliments her often. He is a gentleman who gives Winnie her first experience of feeling valued by a man.
Known affectionately as "Peanut," Jiang is Winnie's cousin and becomes a sister figure as the girls grow into adolescence. She thinks of herself as worldly and rebellious, wearing makeup and kissing Wen Fu when he visits her. Hoping for a wealthy husband who lives far away, she pays a fortune-teller to drive away any local suitors. Ironically, her marriage turns out so badly that she joins the communists, runs away from her husband, and later provides a place for other runaway wives to stay.
Long Jiaguo is Hulan's first husband. He is a pilot in the same group as Wen Fu, although Long Jiaguo is Wen Fu's superior. He is even-tempered, reasonable, and dominated by his wife.
Henry is Hulan's second husband.
Hulan (who is called Helen in America) is Winnie's oldest and dearest friend. In fact, they call each other sisters. Until Pearl hears Winnie's story, she believes that Hulan is her aunt.
Hulan co-owns the flower shop in Chinatown with Winnie. She is brash and uneducated, and her first marriage is unconventional in that she is usually the one in control. Her friendship with Winnie is unbreakable, although they often argue.
Roger is Hulan and Henry's son. He is called "Bao-bao." Already divorced twice and having recently broken an engagement, he is newly engaged at the beginning of the novel. It is his engagement banquet that brings Pearl to San Francisco.
Winnie's great love, Jimmy is a Chinese-American man who acts as a translator for the military. He and Winnie meet at a military dance, and when they meet again by chance, they begin to make plans together. He is a kind man who becomes a Baptist minister in the United States. When Winnie is released from prison, he asks her to join him in America and be his wife.
- Audio adaptations have been made by Dove Entertainment (abridged and unabridged), in 1991 and (with The Joy Luck Club) 1998.
Jimmy dies of stomach cancer when Pearl is fourteen years old. His death leaves an emotional scar on both Winnie and Pearl. Winnie theorizes that his death was the result of being a minister and swallowing everyone else's problems for so many years. It is not until Auntie Du's funeral that Pearl is able to tap her unexpressed grief and finally cry for the loss of the wonderful man she knew as her father.
Winnie's son is a few years younger than Pearl. He lives in New Jersey.
Winnie, known as Jiang Weili in China, is Pearl's mother. The majority of the novel comprises the incredible story of her arduous childhood and young womanhood in China, before she escaped her abusive husband and came to America. She was born into a wealthy family to her father's second wife, who doted on Winnie until her mysterious disappearance when Winnie was only six. Winnie marries a man she hardly knows and endures many trials and much suffering, including the loss of three children.
When Winnie flees to the United States, she marries Jimmy Louie, a kind Chinese-American man she met in China. She is a superstitious woman who adheres to many of the traditional Chinese beliefs. As a parent, she is demanding, warning her daughter of the dangers of blue eye shadow and certain boys. Her experiences in China have taken her from naivete and dependence to wisdom and self-confidence. When she finally shares her story with her daughter, they are able to relate to each other in a meaningful way. Her character represents the triumph of the human spirit, the commitment to survival, and the ability to endure tremendous hardship and create a new life for oneself. Having always identified with the Kitchen God's wife, Winnie "corrects" the myth at the end of the novel by replacing the Kitchen God (who had been an abusive and cruel mortal) with a female deity, whom she names "Sorrowfree."
San Ma is Winnie's father's third wife. She takes Winnie shopping for her dowry and takes care of her husband when his health fails.
Min is a concubine whom Wen Fu brings home for his pleasure while Winnie gives birth to Danru. She is illiterate and a performer. Winnie befriends her.
Mochou is Winnie's first child, a stillborn girl. Her name means "Sorrowfree," the name Winnie later gives her new deity.
Jiang Sao-yen is Winnie's father, a successful businessman who made his fortune in textiles. He has several wives and many children. He approves Winnie's marriage to Wen Fu, even though he apparently knows the family is not honorable. Late in life, he suffers a stroke and is unable to speak. His weakened health is the only thing that saves him from being executed by the Communists. When his daughter returns with Wen Fu, he understands that she is trying to escape and nods to show her where he has gold hidden. Winnie learns that he has died while she is in prison.
This is Winnie's uncle, the younger brother of Jiang Sao-yen. Because of his lack of success, his older brother gives him a textile factory to manage. When Winnie's mother disappears, Winnie is sent to live with Uncle and his family.
Her name is never given in the novel, but she is the second wife of Jiang Sao-yen. When she marries him, she occupies the second-wife position to replace the previous second wife, who committed suicide. She is a vain woman who takes her little daughter on a fun-filled day in town the day before she mysteriously disappears.
Winnie's second daughter, Yiku's name means "sorrow over bitterness," and she dies in infancy when Wen Fu refuses to release the doctor from a game of mah jong to check on her.
A central element in Eastern culture is duty, and Winnie exhibits this sense of responsibility throughout her life. When Wen Fu proposes marriage, she is both eager to leave her uncle's house and aware of her duty to marry. Her father talks to her after he has approved the union and reminds her that, as a wife, her duty will be to honor and obey her husband. She soon realizes that Wen Fu is an evil and sadistic man, but her duty (and lack of power to leave) forces her to stay with him. As an adult in America, Winnie dutifully takes care of Auntie Du in her old age.
Although she is fully assimilated into Western culture, Pearl also recognizes the importance of duty, although to a lesser degree. She attends family gatherings only out of duty, as is typical for many Americans. Pearl is uncertain why she continues to fulfill family obligations that she has come to resent. She also perceives a sense of duty in her husband as she notices that their arguments become less petty after the birth of their first child. She comments in chapter one that this is "perhaps because Phil developed a sense of duty toward the baby, as well as to me, or at least to my medical condition."
Topics For Further Study
- Winnie Louie's life in China was difficult and tumultuous. Research China in the 1940s with special attention to political events. Pretend you are a simple villager and write a two-week diary in which you make the decision either to stay in China or to leave before the Communists claim power.
- Study Chinese visual arts and prepare an overview of how they did and did not change over the course of the twentieth century. Given the historical context, try to account for the changes as well as the adherence to tradition.
- Review Chinese religious belief systems and consider how they would respond to one of the following modern-day issues: genetic manipulation, space exploration, or racial tensions. Write an essay in which you present three different possible responses to one of these issues, based on what you have learned about Chinese religions.
- The role of women in China has changed since the events of Winnie Louie's life. Hold a debate on the following topic: During the twentieth century, women's roles in the United States changed in much the same manner as women's roles in China changed, and women's rise in status in the two countries is comparable.
- Provide three compelling and well-supported reasons why Japan was determined to claim Chinese land in the 1930s and 1940s. Consider areas such as military strategy, imperialism, resources, and the historical relationship between the two nations.
- The Kitchen God's Wife is a novel of conflict—interpersonal conflict, international conflict, and intergenerational conflict. Draw five examples of conflict from the novel and determine what you believe the root cause to be in each case. Can you think of possible ways to resolve any or all of these conflicts, or are they unable to be resolved?
Winnie makes frequent references to luck. She believes that luck plays a major role in people's lives and that people have the power to improve their luck. By the same token, people can do things—intentionally or unintentionally—to attract bad luck. This is illustrated in the idea of daomei, which asserts that negative thoughts can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Winnie imagines her husband dying while engaged in air battle, and he returns wounded, filling her with guilt for having made it happen. The Chinese New Year is considered a time when people can change their luck, so they perform rituals and visit fortunetellers to discover their lucky days and numbers. Even minor domestic occurrences are regarded as having an effect on luck. One of Uncle's wives reprimands a cook for cutting squid the wrong way because it will not form good-luck balls. Another example is the Kitchen God, whose role as a minor deity is to report to the Jade Emperor all those who have behaved well and who have behaved badly. This determines who receives good luck and who receives bad luck. To gain the Kitchen God's favor and manipulate their chances of being blessed with good luck, people offer him gifts and burn incense in his honor.
Winnie also believes that some people are lucky throughout their lives and that Helen is one of them. She states in chapter three:
Helen thinks all her decisions are always right, but really, she is only lucky. For over fifty years I have seen this happen, how her foolish thinking turns into good fortune…. Even though Helen is not smart, even though she was born poor, even though she has never been pretty, she has always had luck pour onto her plate.
Situations can also be a source of bad luck. When Winnie's mother marries Jiang, she occupies the position as second wife to replace a wife who killed herself. Because of the circumstances, the second wife's place is considered bad luck, and Winnie's mother's mysterious disappearance seems to confirm this. Early in their relationship, Helen tells Winnie that the city of Loyang was once famous for having one hundred thousand statues of Buddha. Now, however, the Buddhas' heads have been cut off, so if the air force sends them there, a place filled with wounded Buddhas, it can only mean tragic luck.
Conflict exists at every level in the novel, ranging from mother-daughter conflicts to international warfare. Winnie experiences conflict with her cruel husband. The conflict between Winnie and Helen is so embedded in their relationship, it is not a threat to their longstanding friendship. Pearl is in cultural and generational conflict with her immigrant mother.
The Japanese invasion of China provides a backdrop of terrifying conflict that is present throughout most of Winnie's young womanhood. Winnie, Helen, and the others in their group hear horrific stories of wartime violence and bloodshed. At the same time, China was enduring internal political conflict. Winnie comments in chapter nine:
That's how everything was in China then. Too busy fighting each other to fight together. And not just the Americans and the Chinese. The old revolutionaries, the new revolutionaries, the Kuomintang [Nationalists] and the Communists, the warlords, the bandits, and the students—gwah! gwah! gwah!—everybody squabbling, like old roosters claiming the same sunrise.
The Kitchen God's Wife illustrates several facets of the humble status of women in Chinese society in the early twentieth century. The arranged marriage demonstrates the woman's lack of control over her own life and her inability to pursue any other course than that which is expected of her. Wen Fu's proposal is approved by Winnie's father after which Winnie must submit to Wen Fu's cruel whims. His family rapidly depletes her dowry, and she is powerless to object. Her story is unusual, however, because she ultimately escapes by fleeing China and going to America. Her discovery of a group of runaway wives suggests hope because she is not alone in her willingness to take risks to live differently.
Women were not considered suitable for a thorough education because as domestic figures they were not expected to voice opinions or engage in intellectual discussions. In chapter five, Winnie recalls that her grandfather did not want to send her mother away to school:
That was the modern thought—educate sons, educate daughters a little to prove you were not too feudal-thinking. But Gung-gung did not want to send her to France, or England, or America…. Why should he educate a daughter only to turn her into a girl he did not like?"
The Kitchen God's Wife is an interesting example of a first-person narrative because of its complexity. The story is told from both Pearl's and Winnie's points of view, and Winnie talks about both the past and the present. The structure of the novel, with the mother and daughter as the speakers, suggests indirect communication between the two of them through the reader. Of course, by the end of the novel, this has become direct communication as the two women share the secrets they have hidden from each other.
As Winnie tells her life story to her daughter, she occasionally makes a reference to contemporary life or asks Pearl a question, which reminds the reader that the story is being told by Winnie to her daughter as they sit in Winnie's kitchen. The tone is confessional and reminiscent of the oral tradition as Winnie relates events of the past with the wisdom of the present. Critics commend Tan's ability to create unique voices for Pearl and Winnie. When Winnie speaks, her syntax, word choice, and idioms all support the realism of the speaker. In contrast, when Pearl speaks, the text reads just as if a typical American were speaking.
Roman à Clef
Because Winnie's story is drawn heavily from Tan's mother's life, the inclusion of actual historical events and figures is not surprising. In fact, the historical context is so striking and real, the novel can be considered a roman à clef, which is a novel in which real people and events are presented in a fictional context. Examples of this type of novel include Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind and Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.
There are many real events and people in the novel. Winnie, of course, is based on Daisy Tan, the author's mother. Wen Fu is based on Daisy's first husband. The social context of the novel, with its patriarchy and arranged marriages, is an accurate depiction of what life was like in China at that time. The details of the war, from the stories of cities bombed by the Japanese to the character of Claire Chennault, are drawn directly from history.
In The Kitchen God's Wife, Tan includes lots of domestic details and descriptions of landscapes to give the reader a strong sense of the characters' lives. This serves two purposes: first, it draws the reader into the story and brings the characters and scenes to life; second, it provides much-needed context for Western readers, to whom the characters and their surroundings are unfamiliar. Domestic details include food preparation, the importance of good sewing needles, and the social separation between men and women in the home. At night, the men play cards and smoke while the women attend to household duties or sit quietly. Each time the pilots and their wives move, Tan presents rich descriptions of the landscapes, including ponds, trees, rolling hills, and the darkness of night.
Tan also includes a great deal of sensory detail. This type of detail helps create vivid atmosphere and appeals to the universal experiences of seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, and smelling. In chapter one, Pearl visits her mother in her flower shop:
I open the door and bells jangle. I'm instantly engulfed in the pungent smell of gardenias, a scent I've always associated with funeral parlors. The place is dimly lit, with only one fluorescent tube hanging over the cash register.
In this short excerpt, Tan includes sound, smell, and sight, describing fully the experience of walking into the flower shop. Tan also shows how a sensory experience can have an emotional impact, as when Pearl and her family stay at Winnie's house before Auntie Du's funeral. Pearl and Winnie have said good night, and Pearl notes, "I hold my breath. There is only silence. And finally, I hear her slippers slowly padding down the hallway, each soft shuffle breaking my heart." Later, Winnie explains that she can no longer stand the taste of eels because of an experience during the war. She and her group had left Nanking, and as they were enjoying the delicacy of white eels, Nanking was ravaged and its people brutalized. Because of her overwhelming guilt, she can never eat eels again. She wonders in chapter thirteen, "Why do some memories live only in your tongue or in your nose? Why do others always stay in your heart?"
Perhaps Tan's education in English accounts for her use of a wide variety of literary devices. Inventive similes intrigue the reader, as in chapter one, when Pearl thinks, "I've always found [funeral] wreaths hideously sad, like decorative life-savers thrown out too late." As Winnie tells her story, there are occasional instances of foreshadowing. In chapter eight, she remarks, "Of course, maybe my marriage never really had a chance…. But without the worries Peanut put in my head, maybe I would have found a few moments of happiness before all the truth came out." Some of the Chinese words are examples of onomatopoeia, such as the fish called the "wah-wah yu," named for the sound it makes, which resembles a baby crying.
Winnie's story takes place in pre-communist China when China endured internal struggles between the Nationalists and the Communists, in addition to attacks by Japan. Because China had grown wealthy under Nationalist rule, Japan was eager to claim it. While defending their country, members of the Nationalist and Communist parties joined forces. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and attacked the rest of the country in 1937. That year, Chiang Kaishek, the Nationalist leader, recruited American pilot Claire Chennault out of retirement to train pilots with little military experience. Despite cynicism about the project, Chennault's squadron soon became a respected military force. In The Kitchen God's Wife, Winnie meets Chennault in Hangchow, and she comments on the Chinese name he has been given, which sounds very much like his American name and means "noisy lightning."
War ravaged China until 1942 when Japanese defeat was imminent. With the external threat diminished, the Communist Party soon reemerged in a struggle for power. This was called the Liberation War, and it lasted from 1946 to 1949, ending with Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek's retreat to Taiwan. Fearing Communist rule, many people fled the country just before it officially became the People's Republic of China.
Superstition and Religion
In The Kitchen God's Wife, many characters hold syncretic, or combined, beliefs, which represent a blend of Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and popular lore. At the center of syncretism is the individual's impulse to master his or her fate. This is reflected in the belief that one's thoughts and actions, intentional or not, make a difference in what happens. Daomei, for example, is the belief that negative thoughts and feelings bring about unlucky events. Winnie imagines her husband dying in battle and is filled with guilt when he returns injured. Even before Pearl hears her mother's story, she knows how important daomei is to Winnie. Pearl thinks that if she tells her mother about her multiple sclerosis, Winnie will somehow blame herself for Pearl's illness.
Compare & Contrast
- 1930s: In China, marriage is arranged to provide the husband's family with the most wealthy or powerful relations possible. Often, either the couple has never met or they have known each other for only a short time. The woman has no say and is expected to comply with her father's wishes regarding her groom. Once married, she and her children became subordinates to her husband. Divorce is extremely rare because both parties have to agree to it.
Today: In America, marriage is entered willingly by both parties. Generally, men and women take time to get to know each other before deciding to get married, and the decision rests solely with the bride and groom. Marriage is often egalitarian, with both people involved equally and both people voicing opinions, ideas, and needs. Divorce is extremely common.
- 1930s: In China, the bond between a mother and daughter is considered sacred and unbreakable even if the relationship is strained. The clan and family mentality shapes adult relationships.
Today: In America, the bond between a mother and her adult daughter is sometimes cherished and nurtured and sometimes non-existent. While many mothers and daughters enjoy the changing nature of their relationship and come to enjoy each other's company as adults, the individualism of American culture often leads to distant relationships among family members.
- 1930s: In China, the political climate is threatening and unstable. Conflicts emerge from within and without. People live in fear and uncertainty.
Today: In America, the political climate is stable. There are regular elections in which citizens have the opportunity to make choices about their governments, and political parties have a formal process for seeking power. Still, low voter turnout is a consistent source of disappointment to candidates and party leaders.
Superstition plays a major role in many of the characters' lives. The altar to the Kitchen God is a way to influence the deity to bring good luck to the family, a practice that goes back as far as the eighth century B.C. People believe that if they behave properly and offer gifts, the Kitchen God will take good reports of them to the Jade Emperor. The Chinese New Year involves various rituals that are in-tended to bring about good luck in the coming year. People consult fortune-tellers and astrologers regarding what can be expected. If the news is bad, fortune-tellers provide corrective practices or rituals that individuals can perform to change their luck. In the novel, Peanut does not like what the fortune-teller says about her marriage prospects, so she has the fortune-teller change things. Winnie believes that the husband Peanut should have had was Wen Fu, who married her instead.
Marriage and Women
According to Chinese tradition at the time of Winnie's youth, marriages were arranged to make a good match for the families. This meant that little attention was given to whether the pairing was suitable for the bride and groom. Men sought to marry into wealthy or powerful families that could improve their social standing. As for women, their needs and desires were of no consequence. The bigger the dowry a young wife brought to her new family, the better. It was the father's responsibility to approve the match, making sure that his daughter was marrying into a respectable family. In The Kitchen God's Wife, Winnie's father approves her marriage to Wen Fu, explaining to her that once she is married, her opinions will be of no value. Instead, she is expected to think only of her husband's wishes. Later, when she realizes that her father knew what kind of people Wen Fu's family were, she understands that by letting her marry Wen Fu, her father was demonstrating that she was of little value.
Once married, a woman was placed at the bottom of the hierarchy of her husband's household. Men had multiple wives, and the older wives were more powerful than the newer wives. At the top of the hierarchy was the man, who was granted complete control over his wives and children. In abusive situations, there was nothing women or children could do. Although The Kitchen God's Wife is based on Tan's mother's story, there is one important episode that was completely changed. In reality, Daisy's mother did not simply disappear one day but was widowed at a young age before her husband had been able to take a good-paying job. She was raped and then taken as a concubine into the dead man's family where she endured humiliation and shame. To preserve her son's honor, she abandoned him so that he would not be associated with her. She then took her daughter and fled to Shanghai. On New Year's Eve, she committed suicide by hiding a lethal dose of opium in her rice cake. Daisy told Tan this story to show how vulnerable and powerless women were in early twentieth-century China.
After the success Tan enjoyed from her first novel, the challenge of releasing a second novel was daunting. The much-anticipated publication of The Kitchen God's Wife, captured the attention of readers and critics alike. Response was overwhelmingly positive as readers found themselves swept up in the drama and detailed storytelling that had made The Joy Luck Club so impressive.
While critics can be harsh on authors whose second books are noticeably weaker than their first, reviewers declared The Kitchen God's Wife at least as good as The Joy Luck Club. In fact, Wendy Law-Yone of Washington Post Book World declared The Kitchen God's Wife "bigger, bolder, and, I have to say, better" than Tan's first novel. Similarly, Pico Iyer of Time commented that "Tan has transcended herself again." In Women's Review of Books, critic Helen Yglesias expressed her certainty that "readers who loved the first [book] will surely love the second, since both tell the same story—and this time around Tan has executed the work better in conception, in design, in detail and in sheer pleasure for the reader." Reviewers found that by focusing on one woman's story (rather than a group of four, as in The Joy Luck Club), the novel exhibits more unity and compels the reader to feel more compassion.
Critics were generally impressed with Tan's techniques in The Kitchen God's Wife. Yglesias noted, "Amy Tan commands an intriguing style, which, along with her highly specialized subject matter, makes for a unique contribution to contemporary writing…. Tan is gifted with a quirky style, a broad historical sense, and great energy as a storyteller." Many reviewers were especially taken with Tan's inclusion of details in creating the novel's settings and the characters' daily lives. "It is in its details that The Kitchen God's Wife excels," wrote Yglesias, adding, "Tan weaves trivia into rich and illuminating character portrayal, treasures that literally appear on every page." In Belles Lettres, Scarlet Cheng wrote, "Tan captures beautifully this helter-skelter period in China."
Criticism is divided on the subjects of characterization and plot structure. Elgy Gillespie of San Francisco Review of Books found that although the characters are sometimes exaggerated, the dialogue brings each one to life. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of New York Times Book Review, however, concluded that the portrayal of Wen Fu, Winnie's first husband, undermines the novel. He declared that
the novel's fairy tale quality also works against it, particularly in the character of Winnie's evil husband, Wen Fu, a man of such one-dimensional malevolence that one can only regard him as a caricature…. There is no accounting for Wen Fu, and this inexplicability shrinks Ms. Tan's story to the moral dimension of pop fiction.
Lehmann-Haupt concluded, "Where Ms. Tan writes about contemporary Chinese Americans, her portraits are often witty and complex…. But the plight of a maiden victimized by an arranged marriage seems very old stuff. Amy Tan can probably do better. One hopes that she soon will." A few critics found the novel's structure arduous, as the narrative switches back and forth from past to present. Robb Forman Dew of New York Times Book Review wrote:
It is irritating each time she insists on bringing us back from Winnie's mesmerizing tale. Whenever Winnie halts her narrative to ask her daughter some question whose answer we only infer—Pearl does not speak—Ms. Tan challenges our suspension of disbelief. But never mind…. Don't worry about the obstacle of the framework of this novel, simply give yourself over to the world Ms. Tan creates for you. It's the story she tells that really matters.
Critics admired the poignant and moving storytelling and the bittersweet humor of the novel. Charles Solomon of Los Angeles Times Book Review found that the novel shows how "shared afflictions can create ties between people closer than blood relationships." Dew introduced his discussion of Tan's novel by stating, "Within the peculiar construction of Amy Tan's second novel is a harrowing, compelling, and at times bitterly humorous tale in which an entire world unfolds in a Tolstoyan tide of event and detail." Sabine Durrant of London Times described the book as "gripping" and "enchanting," while Charles Foran of Toronto Globe and Mail deemed it "a fine novel" carried by its "exuberant storytelling and rich drama."
Commenting on The Kitchen God's Wife's bestselling status, Gillespie discouraged readers from assuming that the book lacks literary merit. Gillespie noted, "It is … quite possible for a bestseller to be an estimable piece of writing as well as a ripping read." Similarly, Judith Caesar of North Dakota Quarterly explained:
Under the outward layer of a highly readable popular novel, Tan has written an extremely complex postmodern literary novel that challenges the dominant narratives of contemporary American society, particularly our ideas of who matters and who does not, of whose version is 'true' and whose is not, and indeed of how one can find what is true.
The result of Tan's mainstream appeal, Gillespie added, is that many Americans gain "an education for the heart," having learned about the forgotten millions who suffered throughout Chinese history and "how, why, and from where Chinese-American society evolved." In the same vein, Caesar wrote, "Tan verifies the reality of a world outside the American experience as nevertheless part of the human experience and questions the sense of entitlement and cultural superiority that allows Americans to dismiss the sufferings of foreigners." Gillespie declared that Tan's achievement in this sense is significant: "All this is the most important job of fiction, of course; and since Chinese women lived lives not just of forgotten obscurity, but of hermetically sealed oblivion, Tan is handing us a key with no price tag and letting us open the brass-bolted door."
Bussey holds a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor's degree in English literature. She is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, she discusses the tension between Eastern culture and Western culture in Tan's novel.
Amy Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife has been compared in various ways to Tan's first novel, The Joy Luck Club. Both novels have garnered the praise of critics and readers, most of whom cannot help but notice the similarities between the two books. Perhaps the most obvious similarity is the theme of mother-daughter conflict as the result of Americanized daughters having so little in common with their immigrant mothers. This tension—really a tension between Eastern and Western cultures—is at the heart of The Kitchen God's Wife, in which Pearl has trouble relating to her mother, Winnie. The plot development, however, takes these two characters from distance to understanding and respect. The story is about how secrets create distance in the relationships that should be closest. Once Winnie has told Pearl all of her secrets from her life in China, Pearl is free to tell Winnie her own secret—that she has multiple sclerosis. With insight into each other's struggles, these two women come to common ground in a very unexpected way, and they do so without compromising their distinctly Eastern (Winnie) and Western (Pearl) identities.
Winnie, although she lives in the United States, is still very much a Chinese woman. She lives in San Francisco and co-owns a flower shop in Chinatown with her lifelong friend, Helen. She has found a place in America where she can still feel like she is in her element and resist assimilating without sacrifice. She is displaced; after all, she left China to escape her husband, not because she didn't love her country. She has built a life for herself in America, but that life is deeply rooted in her friends and family, who are also Chinese. Many of them are figures from her stormy past and thus perhaps represent the best of the life she led in China.
Winnie resists becoming Americanized and often scoffs at Western ways of doing things. Describing her uncle, she says that every year he took up a new hobby such as growing flowers. She remarks in chapter six, "He always called it 'hobby,' just like the English, no Chinese word for doing something only to waste time, waste money." In chapter twelve, she describes putting on her coat and shoes to walk into town, three or four li away. She explains to Pearl that a li is about a half-mile, adding, "'And I had to walk that distance. I wasn't like you, getting into a car to go two blocks to the grocery store.'" Similarly, she describes the truck that carried her and the air force group across the country. It pulled a tank of gas behind it because "that was the only way to get to Kunming back then. We didn't have gas stations every ten miles, no such thing. And we did not travel on big highways, with seventy-mile-an-hour speed limits." Winnie means only to express her pride in her native land and to emphasize how difficult life was for her then, especially compared to Pearl's life of convenience. In chapter thirteen, she remarks:
We didn't complain too much. Chinese people know how to adapt to almost anything. It didn't matter what your background was, rich or poor. We always knew: Our situation could change any minute. You're lucky you were born in this country. You never had to think that way.
Of course, the irony in Winnie's statement is that she has not adapted to American life. Perhaps this is simply a choice, not a matter of not knowing how to adapt; she simply chooses to live as Chinese a life as she can.
Many of Winnie's characteristics point to her Chinese heritage and lifestyle. Her reliance on superstition and luck is a critical part of her thinking. Despite marrying a Baptist minister, she adheres to the religion of her past, complete with household deities, like the Kitchen God, and ghosts. Her daughter Pearl recalls a childhood memory of seeing a ghost swirl out of a jack-o-lantern's mouth. She told her mother, who immediately began searching for the ghost. Winnie's father, on the other hand, explained that there are no such things as ghosts, and that the only ghost is the Holy Ghost, who would never try to scare children. Pearl remarks,
I was not comforted by his answer, because my mother had then stared at me, as if I had betrayed her and made her look like a fool. That's how things were. She was always trying to suppress certain beliefs that did not coincide with my father's Christian ones, but sometimes they popped out anyway.
This memory reveals another important side of Winnie's character, which is her driving sense of duty. From her first days as Wen Fu's bride, she understood that her role was to obey and please her husband. Even as the wife of a different man in America, she still tries to suppress her own religious beliefs in favor of her husband's. When Auntie Du comes to America, Winnie considers it her duty to take care of the old woman until her death.
In Winnie's language and conduct, she exhibits many characteristics of Eastern culture. She is subtle and often talks around what she means to say, a method of communication that is lost on her daughter. Other Chinese people of Winnie's generation, however, understand exactly what is being said, even when someone is speaking indirectly. Persuading her daughter to stay for Auntie Du's funeral, Winnie tells Pearl that Auntie Du was always proud of her. Winnie knows that what Auntie Du meant by this was that she loved Pearl. Winnie is often aware of the differences in the Chinese and English languages. Just as she states that there is no Chinese word for hobby, she describes her relationship with Helen in chapter three by saying, "And yet we are closer perhaps than sisters, related by fate, joined by debts. I have kept her secrets. She has kept mine. And we have a kind of loyalty that has no word in this country." Winnie also speaks in metaphors and similes that draw from nature, which is regarded as consistent with Eastern expression. In chapter three, for example, she comments, "If I try to say what happened, my story would not flow forward like a river from the beginning to the end, everything connected, the lake to the sea."
Pearl, in contrast to Winnie, is representative of the Western sensibility. Although she is only one generation removed from China, she has lived her entire life in America. She and her Anglo husband and their two daughters live in the city and lead typical middle-class American lives. She is a linguist who works with mentally challenged children, and he is a pathologist. She enjoys a satisfying marriage in which she and her husband share power, and she is comfortable with keeping a comfortable distance between herself and her family in San Francisco. Pearl is so unfamiliar with the nuances of Chinese conduct and culture that she sometimes missteps in the presence of the older members of her family. She speaks only a little Mandarin and is uncertain about what happens at a Buddhist funeral. Because her life experience has been so different from her mother's, the two have little common ground on which to build a relationship.
In the landscape of her extended family, Pearl is the bridge between life in China and life in America. Had she not been given the opportunity to learn about her mother's painful and dramatic past, it is likely that Pearl's daughters would have no connection whatsoever to their Chinese roots. The Kitchen God's altar would be, as suggested by Pearl's husband, Phil, nothing but a dollhouse for their playtime until they grew tired of it.
While Winnie talks around topics, Pearl is a typical American in that she believes in talking plainly about what needs to be said. When Winnie expresses her wish that Helen had been more helpful in caring for Auntie Du, Pearl simply suggests that she tell Helen how she feels. At the same time, when Pearl talks to her mother, she tends to avoid certain topics and maintains a polite distance in their conversations. This is not the direct approach she advocates, but she understands that her mother's communication is different than her own and tries to "meet her halfway."
Tan intersperses numerous reminders of how different Eastern and Western cultures are. This serves to keep the theme close to the surface without placing all the weight of the theme on the mother-daughter relationship. After the funeral, for example, Pearl, Phil, and their girls are back at Winnie's house. Phil is anxious to get started on the drive back home (the Western way), but Winnie is unconcerned with his impatience and continues to talk to her daughter. When Winnie tells the story of the Kitchen God in chapter two, she tries to explain his status by comparing him to a store manager, who is "important, but still many, many bosses above him." Pearl notices Phil chuckling at Winnie's attempts to provide an American context, and she wonders if that is how her mother thinks of Chinese deities or if her comparison is strictly for their benefit. Later in the conversation, Phil likens the Kitchen God to Santa Claus because he reports on who has been good and who has been bad. Winnie responds, "'He is not Santa Claus. More like a spy—FBI agent, CIA, Mafia, worse than IRS, that kind of person!'"
In their expression of affection, the Western characters are much more demonstrative than the Eastern characters. When Pearl first sees her mother after arriving in town for the banquet, the two begin a superficial conversation. Pearl thinks, "Although we have not seen each other since Christmas, almost a month ago, we do none of the casual hugs and kisses Phil and I exchange when we see his parents and friends." In chapter seven, Winnie describes seeing her father after twelve years of absence, when she comes seeking his approval for her marriage. She says, "'Of course, he did not hug me and kiss me, not the way you Americans do when you have been reunited after five minutes' separation. We did not even talk very long after my aunties left.'"
As the story closes, Winnie and Pearl have come to better understand each other's personal struggles and, as a result, regard each other with more compassion and respect. By portraying, in these two characters, the Eastern and Western sides of her own identity, Tan allows the reader to see how the two cultures clash but also how they can coexist. Many critics credit Tan with opening American readers to the beauty and depth of Chinese culture and thus paving the way for other Asian-American writers. In a sense, the bridge created between Winnie and Pearl is a bridge that takes American readers to an understanding and appreciation of Eastern belief, thought, and behavior.
Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on The Kitchen God's Wife, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
In the following essay, Caesar asserts that The Kitchen God's Wife is "an extremely complex postmodern literary novel that challenges the dominant narratives of contemporary American society, particularly our ideas of who matters and who does not."
If, as Jean-Francois Lyotard says, a "master narrative" is required to legitimate artistic expression, for the past thirty years the legitimizing narrative of mainstream American literary realism has been the quest for personal fulfillment. The increasingly stagnant, if not outright polluted, mainstream has produced novel after novel concerning the mid-life crises (and sometimes accompanying marital infidelities) of self-centered American men, with even the once rich Jewish and Southern literary traditions now given over to novels like Bernard Mala-mud's Dubin's Lives, Walker Percy's The Second Coming, and Reynolds Price's Blue Calhoun, all concerning a middle-aged (and in the first two instances, wealthy) white man's discontent. All are a far cry from the writers' earlier ethical and philosophical concerns. The consideration of the reflective person's stance toward questions of political and social justice, central to the 19th-and early 20th-century novel from Charles Dickens' Bleak House to Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, seems to have become limited to experimental postmodern novels (E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Thomas Pynchon's Vineland) and to the kinds of essays on domestic politics, international affairs, and human rights that appear in The New Yorker, Harpers', and The Nation. Worse, American literary realism's concentration on the purely personal has led to a delegitimation of other experience, namely, the experience of introspective and articulate people who have lived lives devastated by social and political forces outside their control. These people are relegated to inarticulate images on the television screen—in Sarajevo, in Somalia, in the Middle East, in Thailand, and in China. These people, then, whose real stories and histories remain untold to the American public, become less "real" than many of the characters who populate American literary fiction.
In this context, it is very significant that the supposedly "popular" novels of minority American women—Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Louise Erdrich, and now Amy Tan—seem to be reaching a larger audience than much mainstream literary realism. In part, this is because all five can create such an engaging and often witty surface and because all seem to deal with the popular topics of TV talk shows: spouse abuse, recovering from divorce, finding one's roots, etc. And of course all are hyphenated Americans of some sort, a fact which engages the curiosity of readers who do not share the writers' backgrounds. (Chicana and Native American writers like Sandra Cisneros and Leslie Silko, who use more experimental techniques and deal with a wider range of subject matter, have yet to reach the Waldenbooks reader.)
Yet Tan, for one, does much more than articulate popular media issues. She causes us to question the very basis of how we know what we know. She creates her own narrative by seeming to affirm popular American assumptions in the formula of the popular novel and then undermining that very narrative in a complex political allegory that questions the basic American (indeed Western) concepts of truth and rationality.
In keeping with this subtly deceptive plan, The Kitchen God's Wife seems at first like a lively but somewhat clichéd popular novel, a modern pseudo-feminist retelling of the folklore story of the abused wife (patient Griselda in the West, the kitchen god's wife in the East) who wins her husband's love by passing all his tests or his remorse by her generosity of spirit. What makes it modern is that the abused wife is angry at her ill treatment and seemingly "finds herself" in that anger. The women, moreover, are the "good guys" while the men seem quite unrelievedly evil, with the exception of the male rescuer. It seems, in short, to be a type of formula novel which provides women readers with clear heroines, heroes, and villains, all without disrupting the Gothic romance's illusion of rescue by "the right man." Jiang Weili, the narrator of the central three-fourths of the novel, endures the most horrifying abuse from her brutal husband, Wen Fu, while traditional Chinese society not only fails to intervene but colludes in her victimization. The only twist seems to be that instead of winning her husband's love, Weili is rescued by a handsome prince, in this case, Jimmy Louie, a Chinese-American soldier who marries her and takes her back to the United States. In fact, one can see the novel as a rather smug indictment of the misery of women in traditional Chinese society in contrast to American society's enlightened feminism. Moreover, the story that frames the story, that of Jiang Weili's daughter Pearl and her relationship with her mother, seems like yet another story about returning to one's roots to discover some less complicated identity. In short, there seems little here to challenge conventional American thinking.
Yet nothing in the novel is as it seems. Certainly, in the beginning, nothing is as it seems to Weili's American-born daughter Pearl, who narrates the opening chapters of the novel and embodies the American sensibility in all its directness and in all its limitations. Like well-meaning Americans in China, Pearl makes cultural gaffes in dealing with the older Chinese-American community and even with her mother because she doesn't seem to understand the differences between outer display and actual feeling or the realm of implied meanings that are so much a part of Chinese tradition. Thus, at the funeral of elderly Grand Auntie Du which opens the novel, Pearl sees a group of sobbing women in threadbare padded jackets and takes them for recent immigrants from China, Grand Auntie Du's "real friends," when in fact they are Vietnamese professional mourners. Worse, with all the confidence of American pop psychology, Pearl advises her mother to speak frankly to her contemporary, Auntie Helen, about her feelings that Auntie Helen should be sharing more in Grand Auntie Du's care. Pearl says,
"Why don't you just tell Auntie Helen how you feel and stop complaining?" This is what Phil [Pearl's Anglo husband] had suggested I say, a perfectly reasonable way to get my mother to realize what was making her miserable so she could finally take positive action.
Of course, Pearl doesn't realize that her mother is quietly boasting to Pearl about her own dutiful-ness and implying that more could be expected of Pearl as well. Thus, Pearl is shocked when her mother is so profoundly offended that she will barely speak to her for a month.
She knows her mother as Winnie Louie, her American name, her kindly but often inexplicably crotchety mother to whom she is bound by sometimes tiresome traditions that don't seem to apply to other Americans. She doesn't realize until the end of the novel that her mother is also Jiang Weili, a woman brought up in China who has survived both a disastrous marriage and the invasion and occupation of her country by a brutal enemy army. And because she doesn't know who her mother is, Pearl also doesn't know that she herself is not the daughter of the kindly Jimmy Louie but of Wen Fu, the brutal first husband. This is but one of the novel's pattern of multiple and mistaken identities that suggests the ambiguity of all knowledge and the incompleteness of the official (legitimate) narrative.
What Do I Read Next?
- Patricia P. Chu's Assimilating Asians: Gendered Strategies of Authorship in Asian America (New Americanists), (2000) explores the increasingly important role of Asian authors in America and the ways in which they employ traditionally Western techniques to tell their stories. Chu also examines the ways in which female authors differ from male authors.
- Typical American, Gish Jen's 1991 novel, relates the story of three Chinese immigrants who make new lives for themselves in America. They soon find that their beliefs, values, and expectations change as they become immersed in their new culture.
- Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (1976) is considered a precursor to Tan's fiction. It is an intense and bitter story of a Chinese-American girl growing up in California, caught between the world of Caucasian "ghosts" and her mother's "talk-stories" about China.
- Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club (1989) presents the lives of four Chinese women living in America who recall their troubled and dramatic lives in their native land. Because of their altogether different life experiences, the women's daughters have difficulty relating to them. This novel was made into a successful movie in 1993 by Hollywood Pictures.
- Ben Fong-Torres' The Rice Room: Growing Up Chinese-American—From Number Two Son to Rock'N'Roll (1994) is the author's account of growing up Chinese American. Although expected to adhere to his Chinese heritage, Fong-Torres wanted nothing more than to assimilate into American culture.
- Anzia Yezierska's novel Bread Givers: A Struggle between a Father of the Old World and a Daughter of the New World (1925) is the story of Sara Smolinksy, a young Jewish girl struggling to free herself of the traditional expectations of women in Orthodox Jewish society. When she sees her father, a rabbi, marry her sisters into unhappy marriages, she runs away to make a new life for herself.
In particular, the novel explores the incompleteness of the American narrative, an incompleteness that comes from a refusal to see the validity of the knowledge of other cultures or of the experiences of people who are not Americans. Pearl, with her confident American knowledge of the way things are, her faulty Mandarin, and her imperviousness to implied meanings, misses much of what is going on beneath the surface, although she is sensitive enough sometimes to realize that there are some things she doesn't under-stand: "… apparently, there's a lot I don't know about my mother and Auntie Helen," she thinks at one point. Since the bulk of the novel is Weili's story, it would seem that one of the purposes of having Pearl as the initial narrator is not only to contrast the American sensibility with the Chinese, but to alert the American reader to the subtext beneath Jiang Weili's story as well. Although the reader would first identify with the American, Pearl, it is very clear that Pearl doesn't know all that needs to be known.
Weili's story is also much more than it would first seem to an American reader. Most obviously, Jiang Weili's is the story of a progressively more violent and degrading marriage set against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion of China. Weili is married off to a man of a socially "suitable" family, although both her father and her aunts and uncles clearly have a sense of the man's flawed character. Because they know something of his deceptiveness, if not his outright cruelty, they marry Weili to him and not her favored cousin, nicknamed Peanut, who had wanted to marry her. Wen Fu proves to be a sexual sadist who delights in humiliation games, a liar who uses his dead brother's diplomas to become an officer in the Nationalist air force (another confused identity), and a coward who manages to save his own life throughout the war by deserting his fellow pilots whenever they encounter Japanese aircraft. Because of Wen Fu's social position, however, no one acknowledges any of these failings.
As the war continues and the Nationalist army flees from Shanghai to Nanjing and finally to Kunming, so Wen Fu degenerates. He refuses to leave a card game to get a doctor for his sick daughter, and then he publicly blames Weili when the child dies. He brings a concubine into the house and then discards her when she becomes pregnant. He forces Weili to "admit" publicly to being a prostitute, despite her very obvious fidelity. He is the enemy of whatever is life-affirming and generous (Weili's maternal responses to save her child, her sisterly desire to help the ignorant concubine) disguised as patriarchal morality. Throughout all of this abuse, no one interferes; in fact, when Weili tries to run away from Wen Fu, her friends Hulan (later Helen) and Auntie Du tell him her hiding place. The increasing viciousness of Wen Fu parallels the increasing closeness of the Japanese army, so that by the time Weili has run away and been brought back to a still more degraded life, the Japanese are bombing Kunming.
The parallel between the victimization of Weili and the Japanese conquest of China is further emphasized by the fact that old Jiang, Weili's father, has collaborated with the Japanese, betraying his country in the same way he betrayed his daughter. His pattern of ineffectual resistance and subsequent capitulation, moreover, continues throughout the novel. He throws a teacup against a priceless painting to show that he would rather destroy China's heritage than betray it—and then accedes to Japanese demands; in Shanghai, when both he and Weili are Wen Fu's victims, he gives Weili the money with which to leave Wen Fu—and then is too ill to help her when Wen Fu accuses her of theft and has her imprisoned.
Even at this level of the political allegory, however, there is little in equating Chinese patriarchy with Japanese expansionism and imperialism that would discomfort or challenge an American reader. It is still "those people" who have done these terrible things, not "us." Yet it is not so comforting if one carries the political allegory to its logical conclusions. Weili's victimization couldn't have taken place if Chinese society had not condoned it to such an extent that even her best friends didn't want to blemish their reputations by helping her escape—at least until the very end of the novel, when they try to get her out of jail (ineffectually, it turns out) by saying that they had witnessed her divorce. These friends, who later join her in the United States, are not all that different from the United States itself, which, as Tan points out, helped to keep the Japanese war machine running by supplying the Japanese with oil and scrap metal all through the 1930s and later helped China only after the United States itself was under attack. Hulan thinks that she freed Weili through her second husband's influence with the Nationalist government; in fact, it is Weili's cousin Peanut, now a communist cadre who runs a shelter for abused wives, who gets Weili out of prison because Nationalist officials in charge of Weili's case fear reprisals from the communists. If Weili is China, then it is a communist who helps to liberate her, although the liberation is far from complete.
Moreover, if we interpret the novel as a fairly literal political allegory, there is yet another disturbing implication. Wen Fu is never punished. When Weili finally gets word of his death, she learns that he has died an old man, surrounded by his family and respected by his community—the very definition of a righteous man's proper death in Chinese tradition. In contrast, Weili's good husband Jimmy Louie dies relatively young and in great pain, seemingly denied by Pearl, the daughter whom he raised. The pain and prematurity of Jimmy's death is one reason it so haunts Weili. Weili, furthermore, is eking out a living in a foreign country (America), widowed and at least, as the book opens, culturally estranged from her children. One could see this as paralleling the fact that all the former imperial powers—Japan among them—are both more prosperous and more respected than their former victims. To cite the most literal sort of example, the Western media tends to blame the human rights abuses and the political unrest in China and the rest of the former colonial world on the ideological systems that ejected the colonial powers, not on the after-effects of imperialism itself. And the crimes of imperialism did go unpunished. The war crimes trials after World War II focused on the Japanese abuse of western POWs, not on the Japanese imprisonment and massacre of millions of Chinese civilians.
One reason for Tan's equation of imperialism and patriarchy is essentially rhetorical. It is easier for an American audience to sympathize with the victims of patriarchy than with the victims of imperialism. Many American women have been the victims of patriarchy, after all, while very few have been the victims of imperialism. We have not had our country invaded and occupied by a foreign army or had laws imposed on us by people who didn't know our language or culture—except, of course, for Native Americans. The type of suffering Weili endures, moreover, is primarily emotional and psychological rather than physical. She is humiliated and exploited; she cannot even complain about her plight. But she is not being starved, beaten, or tortured at a time when millions of her countrymen (and women) were, as Weili herself points out. Weili's suffering is that of a middle-class woman married to a bully. An American reader can identify with this, at least to some degree; and once one has done this, one can begin to get a sense of the type of suffering that Tan suggests only metaphorically or seemingly incidentally—the Nanjing massacre, for instance. Then other events fit into place. Weili and Wen Fu's children die, one the direct victim of Wen Fu's neglect, two the indirect victims of the Japanese. Tan's presentation helps to legitimize a narrative of suffering otherwise so far outside the American experience that it could seem beyond our capacity for empathy.
But there are more complex philosophical reasons for linking imperialism and patriarchy. For one thing, they both shape the "legitimate" printed narratives of Weili's story. To the Shanghai press covering Weili's case, Wen Fu is a war hero whose wife has been seduced and corrupted by a lecherous American. In this patriarchal narrative, Weili wants to escape Wen Fu not because she has been abused, but because she is "crazy for American sex." This is as true as the printed leaflets the Japanese drop on Nanjing, explaining that civilians will not be harmed.
Behind these official narratives is the assumption that some people's suffering is more significant than other people's sufferings. The Chinese historian Szuma Chien once ironically remarked that some deaths are as heavy as Mount Tai, while others are lighter than a feather—that is, in official versions of events. Thus, the honor of men is more important than the dignity of women, and the deaths of ordinary Chinese simply aren't important at all. This assumption isn't merely Oriental, moreover, since it underlies the current American narrative that the personal emotional crisis of an American is the only suffering interesting enough to write about. The official narratives are used to ignore or justify the sufferings of the powerless.
Consequently, all the official facts in Tan's novel are questionable. Weili's divorce is officially valid when Wen Fu holds a gun to her head and makes her sign the paper, but it can be made invalid by her ex-husband's tearing up the paper. What is a divorce and what does it mean under those circumstances? Weili can be "officially" a thief for taking the gold her father gave her, and then later be "officially" innocent when her imprisonment is termed an "error of the court." Even Pearl's official American knowledge that World War II began with the bombing of Pearl Harbor is questionable, since, as Weili points out, it began for China with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. (Or did it begin even earlier, with the German concession of the Shantung peninsula to the Japanese?) The Western narrative is at best an incomplete truth. When does a divorce or a war begin or end?
The narrative structure of the novel also suggests the problematic nature of truth. As Edward Said has pointed out in Culture and Imperialism, the narrative structure of the classic 19th-century realistic novel, with its omniscient narrator or reliable first-person narrator, helped to underscore the idea of an authoritative and "correct" version of events. Despite the polyphonic narrations of the high modernist novel, the 20th-century popular novel has generally preserved the 19th-century technique, as has much of contemporary literary re-alism. The modernist novel, moreover, focuses on the psychological and philosophical implications of competing narratives (Mrs. Dalloway, As I Lay Dying, etc.), not on their political implication. Much contemporary fiction thus tends to confirm the value of Americanness over foreignness, a kind of contemporary imperialism. (Think, for example, of Cormac McCarthy's National Book Award-winning All the Pretty Horses in which the good guys are all American men and the bad guys either Mexican or female. Consider how different it would be if any of the Mexican or women characters gave their version of events.) In contrast, Tan has two narrators and three versions of events—Pearl's, Weili's, and Hulan's, all of which seem credible in some respects.
While Tan's use of a polyphonic narrative is significant in itself, perhaps more significant is who speaks. Through much of the novel, after all, it is an elderly Chinese immigrant whose syntax and word choice reflect the patterns of Chinese-accented English, a speech pattern marginalized and mocked by contemporary mainstream American society. Tan helps to give this voice a validity and dignity in the same way that Walker and Morrison have helped to legitimize African American speech. She has made the sufferings of those who speak in this voice "as heavy as Mount Tai."
The details of the novel confirm both the validity of these Chinese women's experience and the subjective nature of truth. What Hulan remembers is different from what Weili remembers, yet Hulan's insights are given sudden credibility when she tells Pearl, "You know how she [Weili] is, very hard to thank …", and we realize how very true this is of both Weili and Pearl. Just as Pearl rejects her "cousin" Mary's comforting casseroles when Mary learns of Pearl's illness, Weili would indeed be repelled by the idea of being indebted to Hulan in any way. We also realize the extent to which Hu-lan's behavior, which Weili had interpreted as simply contrary and obstructive, was well intended. What is interesting here is that in personal relationships, unlike political ones, conflicting versions of the truth are not necessarily divisive, since neither version is used as a means of control or suppression. Thus even the quarrels between Winnie (once Weili) and Helen (once Hulan) are not precisely quarrels at all. Pearl observes,
I watch them continue to argue, although perhaps it is not arguing. They are remembering together, dreaming together.
Tan also contradicts this idea of a rational Western truth through the pattern of double and shifting identities of her characters and by her clear indications that the commonly accepted criteria for determining identity are sometimes irrelevant. Tan shows a world of multiple and contradictory truths, truth as a series of Chinese boxes, not a unitary truth to be "discovered" in the Western sense. Tan's is not even a Western "postmodernist" truth of multiple linear narratives, but of contradictory truths and partial truths intermixed in layers of meaning. Through the contradictions in Winnie's (Weili's) character, we see that a complete person can be both large-spirited and petty, loving and distant. Indeed, self-knowledge consists of acknowledging these seemingly contradictory traits. At one point Weili tells Pearl,
I have told you about the early days of my marriage so you can understand why I became strong and weak at the same time. Maybe according to your American mind, you cannot be both, that would be a contradiction. But according to my life, I had to be both.
The simultaneous existence of these opposites is indeed very different from what our American minds tell us is rational, and thus it calls into question the validity of that rationality.
Moreover, none of the characters is precisely what they seem, even concerning the most common determiner of identity, family relationships. Consider, for instance, the ways in which the characters seem to be related but aren't. Pearl calls Hulan "auntie" and thinks of Hulan's children Bao-Bao and Mary as her cousins. Indeed, Winnie and Helen, with all their feuding and tenderness, act like sisters. And Pearl is as exasperated and yet connected to the "cousins" as she would be with any blood relative, a relationship Tan underscores by using them as foils to Pearl. Pearl has believed the "official version" that Helen is the widow of Winnie's younger brother, but she learns very early in her mother's story that Helen is "merely" a person she has known ever since her youth.
Thus it is not surprising that Pearl's discovery of her parentage, her "real identity" does not have the significance the episode's placement in the novel would seem to grant it. Finally, the great climatic revelation that Wen Fu is Pearl's "real" father seems to be irrelevant after all. It is the pattern formed by all the revelations leading up to it that is important. That Jimmy Louie is Pearl's "real" father is simply one more item in the list of things that seems true, isn't true, and finally is in a larger sense as true as any of the novel's other ambiguous truths. And on the level of character, it doesn't mat-ter either. Pearl is not at all like Wen Fu, as Winnie points out. Ancestry and blood relationship finally do not matter very much—a very non-Chinese idea in a very non-American narrative.
Meaning and truth exist in layers, and what is true on the surface is contradicted by another truth underneath, which is in turn contradicted by a third layer. And all are "true." We see this kind of paradox even in the names of minor characters. Pearl's cousin Roger is named Bao-Bao, "precious baby," because his parents were so happy to finally have a child, but the nickname sticks as he grows up because it becomes a sarcastic description of his superficial and immature behavior. The only one of the Chinese-American characters to have a Chinese name, he speaks like a cartoon of an American and gets married and divorced as carelessly as a character in a Woody Allen comedy. Is it then because he is so American that he is so superficial? In fact, in his self-centeredness and sexual inconstancy, he seems like a comic and relatively benign version of Wen Fu. He's a beloved precious baby who has become a spoiled precious baby whose faults are equally American and Chinese.
In this context, it is not surprising that nationality doesn't matter very much in determining the identity of both Weili and Pearl either. It merely determines their modes of expression. Pearl is very much an American version of Weili. Like Weili, she is a concerned and loving mother, she faces difficulties (her multiple sclerosis, for example) with such stoicism that she cuts herself off from both her husband and her mother, she is witty and critical, and she is willing to let things be understood without spelling them out. Yet in her manners and beliefs, she is an American. When, at the end, she accepts her mother's herbal cures and the offering to Lady Sorrowfree, she does so as an acceptance of her mother's solicitude, not her beliefs. She hasn't found a "Chinese identity" in the way the characters in Song of Solomon and The Color Purple find an African identity; instead she has found a closer relationship with her mother and an insight into the seemingly conflicting layers of reality in the world around her, beginning with the multiple identities of her mother and the Chinese "relatives" whom she thought she knew. Personal identity, like both personal and political truth, is many-layered and elusive, something accepted rather than discovered.
Under the outward layer of a highly readable popular novel, Tan has written an extremely complex postmodern literary novel that challenges the dominant narratives of contemporary American so-ciety, particularly our ideas of who matters and who does not, of whose version is "true" and whose is not, and indeed of how one can find what is true. Through the voices of characters like Weili and Hulan, Tan presents a world in which complex and intelligent people must find a way of accommodating hostile political and social forces against which they are powerless to rebel—a type of suffering from which most American readers have been sheltered. Thus, Tan verifies the reality of a world outside the American experience as nevertheless part of the human experience and questions the sense of entitlement and cultural superiority that allows Americans to dismiss the sufferings of foreigners. This sense of entitlement, the idea that "our" deaths are as heavy as Mount Tai and "their" deaths are light as feathers underlies the callousness of all imperial narratives—the novels of contemporary America, as well as narratives of the Imperial China of which Szuma Chien wrote and of patriarchal China and Imperial Japan, of which Jiang Weili speaks. By making us question the validity of American knowledge and the "otherness" of what Americans consider foreign, Amy Tan has helped to enlarge the American narrative.
Source: Judith Caesar, "Patriarchy, Imperialism, and Knowledge in The Kitchen God's Wife," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 4, Fall, 1995, pp. 164-74.
In the following review, Cheng lauds The Kitchen God's Wife, stating, "The ending, with its extraordinary convergence of all that has gone on before, is a marvel."
Yes, it's true: Amy Tan has done it again—with searing clarity of vision she has spun a tale that lyrically weaves past and present, myth and memory. And she has written a true novel this time, one sustained story that lasts all of some four hundred pages.
For the many who read her first book, The Joy Luck Club, the second opens on familiar territory—Pearl is the grown daughter of a very Chinese mother, Winnie, who speaks English with the snappy cadence and salty metaphors of her native tongue and whose way of thinking—of linking the visible and the invisible worlds—has come with her across the Pacific to the San Francisco Bay Area.
While Winnie still lives in Chinatown, Pearl is living fifty miles outside the city with a Caucasian husband and two Americanized little girls. They come together for a cousin's engagement dinner and for an aunt's funeral. Each has been guarding a secret: Pearl has multiple sclerosis; Winnie a checkered past she tried to leave behind in China.
But meddlesome Aunt Helen takes it on herself to set the record straight. When she nags Pearl to reveal her illness, Pearl protests that she does not want to worry her mother.
"This is her right to worry," says Aunt Helen. "She is your mother."
"But she shouldn't have to worry about something that isn't really a problem."
"That's why you should tell her now. No more problem after that."
"But then she'll wonder why we kept this a secret from her. She'll think it's worse than it is."
"Maybe she has some secrets too." She smiles, then laughs at what must be a private joke. "Your mother, oh yes, plenty of secrets!"
Winnie does have plenty of secrets, and revealing them takes most of the book. While both mother and daughter learn to share what has been locked deep inside, this is really Winnie's story. She tells of the turns of fate she suffered in a China that was attempting to modernize but was still fundamentally feudal and often brutal to women.
First Winnie (Weili in her other life) conjures up the romantic memory of her own mother, the first of the moderns of Chinese society to have unbound feet. "When my mother was eight years old," Winnie recalls, "her feet were already unbound, and some people say that's why she ran wild." Her mother received an education, which some later called "bad." But Winnie says, "If you were to ask me, what happened to my mother was not a bad education but bad fate. Her education only made her unhappy thinking about it—that no matter how much she changed her life, she could not change the world that surrounded her."
Her bad fate was to fall in love with one man but be forced to marry another. Then one day she mysteriously disappears, and her young daughter is dispatched to be raised by relatives on a remote island. Weili grows up dreaming for her disgraced fate to change. When she gets matched to the dashing young Wen Fu, a man from a well-to-do family, she believes that it has. But as soon as she is married, her in-laws make off with her immense dowry, and her groom turns out to be a selfish brute whose behavior gets progressively worse.
As one of the first pilots for the Chinese Air Force, Wen Fu is transferred from training camp to military base and finally to Kunming, the Kuomingtang stronghold towards the end of the war. Weili naturally moved with him, trying to maintain the semblance of home, preparing special meals and treats purchased with the dowry money that was, fortunately, banked in her own name.
In such ways Weili and her friend Hulan, both alternately foolish and valiant, seek happiness even as the world around them is collapsing. Tan captures beautifully this helter-skelter period in China, when many lived on the run, never knowing how long they would be in one place—or one piece, as the Japanese battered cities with aerial raids.
It seems that Weili endures one humiliation, only to have greater sorrow come to crush her. She is physically beaten, her babies die, and more, much more. Yet this woman grows less foolish, more resilient, until she finds the courage to grasp her own happiness.
The ending, with its extraordinary convergence of all that has gone on before, is a marvel.
At a recent appearance in Washington, D.C., Amy Tan said, "I always find that it's necessary to write with some reader in mind, and for me, that someone is always my mother." In a haunting way, she has also successfully taken on her mother's voice in The Kitchen God's Wife—or, at least, the voice of someone of her mother's generation who lived through the tumultuous period of history her mother did. In addition to this remarkable mediumship, Tan displays superb storytelling—spinning personae and situations that are credible and compelling. But more, she has the courage to share heartfelt sorrow and grief, to acknowledge human imperfection and fate's ambiguities. Tan shows us that a life can encompass all that—grief, imperfection, ambiguity—and still add up to triumph, a triumph of the spirit, of the human soul to endure, to show compassion, and to hold fast to dreams.
Source: Scarlet Cheng, "Amy Tan Redux," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 7, No. 1, Fall 1991, pp. 15, 19.
Caesar, Judith, "Patriarchy, Imperialism, and Knowledge," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 4, Fall 1994–1995, pp. 164-74.
Cheng, Scarlet, "Amy Tan Redux," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 7, No. 1, Fall 1991, pp. 15, 19.
Dew, Robb Forman, "Pangs of an Abandoned Child," in New York Times Book Review, June 16, 1991, p. 9.
Durrant, Sabine, Review of The Kitchen God's Wife, in Times (London), July 11, 1991, p. 16.
Foran, Charles, Review of The Kitchen God's Wife, in Globe and Mail (Toronto), June 29, 1991, p. C8.
Gillespie, Elgy, "Amy, Angst, and the Second Novel," in San Francisco Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 1, Summer 1991, pp. 33-34.
Iyer, Pico, "Fresh Voices above the Noisy Din: New Works by Four Chinese-American Writers Splendidly Illustrate the Frustrations, Humor, and Eternal Wonder of the Immigrant's Life," in Time, June 3, 1991, p. 67.
Law-Yone, Wendy, Review of The Kitchen God's Wife, in Washington Post Book World, June 16, 1991, pp. 1-2.
Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher, "Books of the Times: Mother and Daughter, Each with Her Secret," in New York Times Book Review, June 20, 1991.
Solomon, Charles, Review of The Kitchen God's Wife, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 5, 1992, p. 10.
Yglesias, Helen, Review of The Kitchen God's Wife, in Women's Review of Books, September 1991, pp. 1, 3-4.
Bloom, Harold, ed., Amy Tan, Chelsea House, 2000.
Ching, Julia, Chinese Religions, Orbis Books, 1993.
Ching presents the history and development of Chinese religious thought in three parts: indigenous religions, foreign religions, and syncretism. The author presents insightful comparisons rather than a cursory handling of each belief system.
Fitzgerald, Penelope, "Luck Dispensers," in London Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 13, July 11, 1991, p. 19.
In this review of Tan's novel, Fitzgerald discusses the story of the Kitchen God's wife and states that the book's strength comes from its depiction of the attitudes of the older Chinese-American generation.
Huntley, E. D., Amy Tan: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press, 1998.
Huntley discusses The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God's Wife, and The Hundred Secret Senses, commenting on Tan's expert use of setting, themes, plot structure, characterization, and literary techniques. This book is written by a literary scholar specifically for the high school English student.
Tung, May Pao-May, Chinese Americans and Their Immigrant Parents: Conflict, Identity, and Values, Haworth Press, 2000.
This book presents an analytical view of the struggles between Chinese Americans, who are profoundly affected by American culture, and their Chinese parents, who are shaped by their Chinese heritage.
Wong, Shawn, Asian American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology (HarperCollins Literary Mosaic), Addison-Wesley, 1995.
Wong offers a compilation of Asian-American literature divided into sections of Memoirs and Nonfiction, Fiction, Poetry, and Drama.