Historical Perspective

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.”

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.

B 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.

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 8th century bc. 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 intended 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.

C 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 20th-century China.

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