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The Role of Chinese Women During WWII in Amy Tan's Novel the Kitchen God's Wife

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The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan is a moving novel that explores Chinese culture and the role of women in the time of World War II. Throughout the narrative, Winnie Louie recounts her past as Weili in an effort to be truthful to her daughter. The story turns to that of Weili, Winnie as a young woman, who is trapped in a loveless and often abusive marriage and must find her own way to survive. Tan displays a magnificent take on Chinese customs and the hardships that women had to endure on a day-to-day basis.

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The novel begins with Pearl Louie Brandt narrating. Her mother, Winnie Louie (although her Chinese name is Weili), has requested that she, her husband, and their two children, come to an engagement party. Pearl is hesitant because she does not relate to her Chinese background as well since she married an American named Phil. Her old traditions were mainly lost when she adopted a more American way of living and did not practice Chinese customs daily. Even though she does not want to attend the party, she does sense the old feeling of obligation to family and agrees to go.

Two days before the date of the party, Winnie calls Pearl again- this time to tell her that Auntie Du has died. While this may be sad news, she assures Pearl that the party will go on. The funeral will take place the day after the engagement celebration. Now Pearl knows for certain that she cannot back out of her agreement to attend. Missing the party would be one thing, but to miss a funeral? Unimaginable.

Leaving for San Francisco with Phil and their two daughters, Tessa and Cleo, she braces herself for the reunion with her family. Once she arrives, her Auntie Helen, the groom-to-be’s mother, confronts her. She demands that Pearl tells her mother of her multiple sclerosis. Pearl has suffered with this for years and much of the family knows, but she has so far refused to inform her mother. She worries about her reaction and thinks that Winnie will be angry with her for keeping it a secret. Helen claims that she herself is dying and her last living wish is that Winnie knows the truth, adding that she will tell her herself if Pearl does not.

Helen then tells Winnie that she must tell Pearl the truth about her past. She uses her brain tumor as a way to push both women. Winnie then agrees to tell Pearl and the narration switches to that of her. She begins with the story of her childhood as Weili, a story of abandonment and misplacement. Her mother mysteriously disappeared one day, and she was sent to live with her uncle and his two wives. She felt as though she did not belong there and was not as loved as Peanut, her uncle’s biological daughter.

When it was acceptable for her to be married, a traditional marriage was arranged for her, a marriage to Wen Fu. He had first been interested in Peanut but found out about Weili’s father’s riches. The marriage was not at all like how she had expected. He, a pilot during World War II, was abusive in many ways but this did not seem apparent to anyone but Weili. Others either worshipped or feared him, ignoring the times that he screamed or hit Weili. Throughout this marriage, she lost many children- one was stillborn, one was abused by Wen Fu, and one was sent away to escape that violence but eventually died from disease. Wen Fu’s violence only escalated throughout this time, and he blamed Weili for everything. He did not really want the children and said more than once that he hoped that he or she died.

Throughout the war, one of the things that kept Weili sane was Hulan, her supposed sister-in-law Helen. They are not actually related or in-laws, but have a friendship that was forged through these hard times. Hulan’s husband, Jiagou, who is in the air force with Wen Fu, has proven to be a much better husband, and Weili often finds herself jealous of the relationship that he has with Hulan.

Later in the story, Weili meets Jimmy Louie in China at an American military dance. He was very nice, something she was not used to, and gave all of the Chinese girls “American” names when they asked him. This is where Weili received the name Winnie. Jimmy and Winnie fall in love rather quickly, and he wants to help her escape her marriage. She needed a divorce paper signed by two witnesses and her husband. Auntie Du and Hulan agree to be the witnesses and Winnie goes to Wen Fu for his signature. It is then revealed that Wen Fu raped her during this meeting, and she was only able to escape by getting her hands on his gun and threatening him. Six days later, she was in America with Jimmy and nine months later, she had a baby. Winnie’s narration ends with the admission that she gave birth to Pearl nine months after Wen Fu raped her.

The narration goes back to Pearl who is shocked to learn that Wen Fu is her father. Winnie reassures her that she is not like the bad man that shares her genes. She says that Jimmy may not have been her biological father, but he was a dad to her in all the ways that counted. Pearl then realizes that she has to come clean with her secret after Winnie revealed all of this. She tells Winnie of her disease, and her mother becomes angry. This anger is not directed at Pearl, but at Wen Fu. She thinks that he gave her this disease, but Pearl is relieved that Winnie is just concerned for her. They are both happy with the other for disclosing their biggest secrets and finally being honest.

A few days later, Helen and Pearl are cleaning up from the wedding, and Helen reveals that she does not really have a brain tumor. She admits that she wanted both Pearl and Winnie to tell their secrets to each other. This is a cunning plan, and she is proud of herself that it worked. Helen knew that the two had to be honest with each other in order for their relationship as mother and daughter to remain intact. Helen does not tell Winnie this though, because they are planning a trip to China to a magic spring for her tumor. She wants an excuse to bring Pearl there in hopes of curing her disease and tells Pearl that they will pretend the spring cured Helen. Pearl does not want to lie, but Helen tells her that she needs her to get Winnie to China. She agrees and realizes that she is caught in a circle of lies, but that maybe they are just their own form of loyalty, something formed long ago when Weili and Hulan had first met.

At the conclusion on the novel, Winnie goes into a local shop looking for a gift for Pearl. She finds an unnamed goddess which she calls “Lady Sorrowfree,” the wife of the Kitchen god. Winnie tells Pearl the story of this goddess, of how she has been through many hard times, received no credit for all that she has endured and accomplished, and is still as resilient as could be.

The Kitchen God’s Wife is mainly set in China throughout World War II. This was a time when men were constantly going off to battle and women were expected to either wait patiently at home or go along with them. During this time, families were being uprooted and faults overlooked because of the war. Accordingly, China has been known as a place deeply rooted in customs. Traditions were made to be followed and family was the most important thing. One could not marry based on love, but instead had to follow the wishes of his or her family. Arranged and loveless marriages were commonplace throughout that time in China, which is one reason why the setting is so important to this novel.

Without the time period of World War II, this novel would not be able to accurately display what the war did to families. Weili and Hulan were just two of many women affected by the battle even though they were with their husbands for a duration of the time. Their homes were constantly uprooted to go from camp to camp with the air force and they lived in fear of what would happen. Even if one’s husband or relative was not in the air force, there was still ubiquitous fear. They had to be prepared for attacks and had to live cautiously. Weili described a dinner party with the pilots and what happened afterwards, “Two months later, half the pilots at that dinner were dead… [T]he way those planes fell from the sky- it was awful!” (204). The people of China had to constantly fear for the safety of both themselves and their families. There was nowhere to run where they could be one hundred percent free from the threat of attack.

Without the locale of China, the emphasis placed on upholding tradition and family reputation would not be as strong. One can understand that Chinese culture has made it so that customs are to be followed. If this novel had been placed in New York in the 1990s, for example, Weili would most likely not have been forced to marry Wen Fu and it would not have had an effect on what her family thought of her. Tan made good use of the setting by showing how Chinese culture constricted women and required them to obey their families and their husbands. This ideal is accurately expressed in the novel:

“The girl’s eyes should never be used for reading, only for sewing. The girl’s should never be used for listening to ideas, only to orders. The girl’s lips should be small, rarely used, except to express appreciation or ask for approval” (102).

Women were valued only as objects, not as individuals. This idea that women should only talk to express appreciation or ask for permission is seen throughout Weili and Wen Fu’s marriage. He obviously thought that that was what was right, and he became very angry when Weili talked out of turn or acted on her thoughts.

The setting of China most definitely impacted The Kitchen God’s Wife and made it the poignant novel that it is today. Tan accurately painted a picture of the devastation that war brought upon families and what they had to go to. Also, the issues surrounding women and traditional customs were made more affecting through the use of locale. During World War II, many women had to deal with oppression and forced marriages but in China this was abundant. Without this setting, the novel most definitely would not have had the same plot or the impact that it did when discussing war, families, and upholding traditions.

Explain the main characters:

There are many characters in The Kitchen God’s Wife, but a few of the main individuals are Weili, also known as Winnie, Hulan, also known as Helen, and Wen Fu. Weili, the story’s central narrator, is a young Chinese woman living during World War II. Hulan is one of her only friends throughout this time and is someone who keeps her sane during the hardest points of her life. Wen Fu, most definitely the antagonist, is Weili’s abusive and condescending husband who is an air force pilot. These three characters play an integral part in the novel.

There is definite conflict throughout the plot, many including these characters. Wen Fu and Weili’s marriage itself can be seen as a conflict, it being an abusive one. Weili does not want to remain married to him, but she cannot find a way out of the marriage. Every time she tries to escape, Wen Fu manages to keep her there, whether it be ripping up the divorce papers or hitting her into submission. Another less violent conflict that involves the characters is the one between Weili and Hulan in their later years, when they are known as Winnie and Helen. The latter wants the truth of their past, specifically Winnie’s, to be revealed to Winnie’s daughter, Pearl. The two bicker about this and Winnie remains adamant that the secrets are not to be told.

There are multiple love relationships in this novel, although many are not with who they are supposed to be. Weili, while married to Wen Fu, falls in love with Jimmy Louie, an American in the war. The two struggle to be together as Weili attempts to leave her marriage. Their love is long lasting, continuing until Jimmy’s death much later in life. Another love relationship is that of Hulan and her husband Jiaguo. This marriage is the one that Weili envies most while trapped with Wen Fu. She sees that a marriage with love is possible and that not all husbands are cruel and relentless like Wen Fu.

Throughout the story, there is definitely antagonism between the characters. The most obvious of these is Weili’s resentment toward Wen Fu. While at times she felt the abuse was her fault, at the end she realized just how wrong she was. Wen Fu was a foul and cruel man who made everyone fear him. At times in her past, Weili also found herself with a slight dislike of Hulan. When first beginning to know her, she judged how “all her movements were large and clumsy, not refined at all… Really, she had the manners of a village servant” (173). One could not say that Weili hated Hulan, but there was some obvious dislike at the beginning of their acquaintance.

These three main characters have very varied personalities. Weili, also known as Winnie, is a rather cynical woman; this is a result of her childhood and her abusive marriage. As Tan put it, Winnie is much like the Kitchen God’s Wife who had to endure a lot of suffering throughout her life. Helen, on the other hand, is sometimes overconfident and always believes herself to be right. Even when she is obviously wrong, she ignores the fact and carries on as if her opinion is correct. Finally, Wen Fu displays a shockingly awful personality. He is abusive and vindictive, always attempting to keep and control Weili. This man is self-centered and forbidding, causing Weili more and more pain.

Weili, Hulan, and Wen Fu are three very different characters that manage to make the plot of the novel function as well as it does. Their relationships with each other and the other characters enrich the content and add interest to the story. Weili displays great courage throughout an abusive marriage to Wen Fu and Hulan is there to help keep her sane, however unconscious of this effect she may be. These three characters in The Kitchen God’s Wife are very distinct and complicated characters with distinctive personalities.

Meaning

Type Quote Explanation

Simile “And then she was waving furiously, crazily, like a wounded bird, as if this effort and all her wishes and hopes could lift them up safely, one after the other, and send them to victory” (189). Hulan is being related to that of a wounded bird in the way that she is waving to the disembarking soldiers. She waved crazily, overcome with emotions.

Simile ‘“The water from this spring… is heavy as gold, sweet as honey, but clear as glass”’ (175). Hulan is relating the water to gold, honey, and glass. In this way she is stating how wonderful she thinks the water from that spring is.

Hyperbole ‘“You think you were scared?… I was chasing a chicken with my cleaver- the next moment that chicken was chasing me!’” (291). This is an exaggeration of how scared Auntie Du was when the bombing went off. The chicken was not literally chasing her, but that is how she felt.

Simile “All those people there became like ghosts” (72). The people are being compared to ghosts.

5. Paradox “A hand-written sign taped to the window claims to have ‘the best lucky numbers, the best fortune advice,’ but the sign taped to the door says: ‘Out of Business’” (18). The shops claims to be very lucky, but did not have the luck to keep itself in business.

Sound

Type Quote Explanation

Onomatopoeia “‘I was carrying the chamber pot down the stairs… Dang! Dang! Dang!- then bamp! Bamp! Bamp!’” (291). The servant is using dang and bamp to resemble the sound that she made as she fell down the stairs and dropped the chamber pot.

Consonance “So I tried to tell the hardware man how I put the light bulb in the socket” (254). The consonance in this sentence is the t sound, repeated four times.

Consonance “‘Even if I can return ten times all this, I still have to repay you forever”’ (221). The t sound in this sentence is repeated five times, making it a consonance.

Alliteration “…and on the side were offerings of oranges” (19). The o is repeated at the beginning of several words.

Alliteration “[A]ll the pilots were honored at a big banquet given by that famous American general” (165). The letter b is repeated several times at the beginning of three words.

Sentence Structure

Type Quote Explanation

Periodic Sentence “And then we were pushing and shouting, running in every direction, toward one of the city gates, because that’s what the loudspeakers were telling us to do: Run to the nearest gate and go outside the city!” (289). The main point, that the loudspeakers were telling citizens to leave the city, was withheld until the very end of the sentence after being preceded by more detail.

Parallel Sentence “And finally, after much discussion, more arguments, many translations, we learned what Shan Nao had really said” (165). This sentence is parallel in that each noun has an adverb that describes the amount.

Parallel Sentence “Under my two feet, it was dirt streets, dirt courtyards, dirt floors” (195). The nouns streets, courtyards, and floors are all described with an adjective before.

Periodic Sentence “The second and third class have a new assignment in Kunming, very important business there” (220). This sentence is periodic because the main point of important business is withheld until the end.

Parallel Sentence “Elderly mothers and sick fathers, arranged first wives and too many children, superstitions and Chinese calendar destinies” (72). The use of two nouns grouped with the word and shows parallelism.

The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan is a moving novel that accurately portrays the struggles women have to face in a patriarchal society, specifically the one in China. To demonstrate how the role of females has changed throughout the years, Tan begins the novel in modern day California. Pearl is a successful working woman with a devoted and respectful husband, Phil. He shares the responsibilities of their home life and one can see by how they interact with their children that they have a very functional relationship. Then, the novel changes to the setting of China during World War II. The point of view is now that of Pearl’s mother during her younger years, Weili.

Weili was born in an area with very Confucian ideals, meaning that women were expected to be passive and obedient. Those that were otherwise were often shunned or punished, much like Weili’s mother was. She, only mentioned briefly in the novel, was an independent woman who did not like to listen to others. In return, she gained a bad reputation and was generally shunned by the public. She was viewed as an outcast, a disgrace to society. While it is unknown what exactly she did, one can be almost positive that the negative view others had on her would not have existed had she been a male. The way men were viewed was the antithesis of the outlook on women. They could do no wrong, or if they did, it was easily forgiven. If a woman acted out of line, she was punished severely. Much of this punishment was not of the judicial system, but of home life. Women who were deemed to have acted inappropriately were punished by their husbands, fathers, or other male figures in their lives.

Weili’s estranged father, who did not usually converse with her, gave her only one piece of advice. It was that her future husband’s needs and opinions must come before hers. This was not just the view of her father; men everywhere in China believed that women were to be seen and not heard. Weili would be expected to wait on her husband hand and foot and not speak out of turn. While this was not always so harsh in many marriages, it was definitely severe in hers with Wen Fu. He became angry when she spoke without being spoken to or tried to voice her own opinions. Weili tried to explain how she felt when she was telling Pearl about her marriage:

“When Jesus was born, he was already the son of God. I was the daughter of someone who ran away, a big disgrace. And when Jesus suffered, everyone worshipped him. Nobody worshipped me for living with Wen Fu. I was like that wife of Kitchen God. Nobody worshipped her either. He got all the excuses. He got all the credit. She was forgotten” (255).

Weili is describing how no one cared about her suffering. They just ignored it, but by talking about Jesus, she is able to discuss the double standard that exists. Women are expected to deal with their suffering, but when men, like Jesus, suffer, they are worshipped and rewarded for their time. This system of honoring men does not discriminate based on whether the men are inherently good or evil- just because they are men, they are revered.

While Weili’s marriage is the one most expounded upon, it is not the only abusive one illustrated in the novel. Her cousin, Peanut, was trapped in an unhappy marriage for a time. She also knew a girl who committed suicide because “the husband’s family drove her to killing herself” (353). Not only did the husbands think they had control over their wife, their families believed that they did as well. These other marriages help to prove Tan’s point that many women had to suffer daily as Weili did. This was a normal occurrence and those not involved just looked the other way.

When Weili attempted to escape her marriage to Wen Fu, it was difficult at best and impossible at other times. Her first attempt resulted in him tearing up the divorce papers and screaming at her relentlessly. Although he did not really love her, he did not want to lose her. In a sick way, he enjoyed making her life hell. Months later, Wen Fu and Weili attend a victory dance at the Kunming airbase and Weili dances with an American, Jimmy Louie. This does not escape Wen Fu, and afterwards he threatens to divorce her. He demands that she write a divorce paper, which she is secretly delighted to do. Wen Fu then threatens to take away her son, forces her into begging for forgiveness, and rapes her at gunpoint. He leaves, but she cannot find anyone who will be witnesses on the divorce papers, so legally she is still trapped in the marriage. She is too ashamed of what he did to speak out, and even if she did, there is little chance that anyone would either believe or care.

Later in the novel, Weili runs from Wen Fu and is successful in fleeing, but she is later found and sent to prison for deserting her husband. Wen Fu lies and says that there are no divorce papers and that he wants Weili to go home with him. The judge sentences her to two years in jail unless she goes back to Wen Fu. She chooses jail. This whole debacle is an example of the unfair treatment of women throughout this time in China. Had it been the other way around, with a man deserting a woman, there would be no question about it. The divorce would most likely be invoked by a judge and that would be the end of it. Even then, most would probably find a way to blame the woman, saying that it was somehow her fault or that she did something to cause this.

The Kitchen God’s Wife is a great piece of literature by Amy Tan that displays the views of women during World War II and in China throughout many periods of time. She writes about many unhappy marriages, most of which are abusive. Weili and Wen Fu’s marriage demonstrates how women were often trapped with no way to speak up or get help. The theme that women are underappreciated and mistreated is often seen in this novel, and Tan shows how views have changed throughout the years.

Conclusion:

Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife is a wonderful novel that fully explores the obstacles and oppression that women had to, and sometimes still have to, face in China. Her view on the variety of characters and her use of a unique style adds something to an already thought-provoking plot. The main characters, either relatable or detestable, are all idiosyncratic individuals with their own backstories that explain more of the novel. The story of Weili and Wen Fu, while not the usual love story, is a moving one that challenges the view that women are lesser beings. The Kitchen God’s Wife is a poignant novel that re-echoes in the mind as a reminder that everyone is struggling, whether they show it or not.

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