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.
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.
A Chapters 1-2
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.
A Cleo Brandt
Cleo is Pearl and Phil’s three-year-old daughter. She calls her Chinese grandma “Ha-bu.”
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.
A First-Person Narration
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.
A Political Climate
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 Kai-shek, 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.”
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.
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: 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.
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.