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.”
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 fortune-tellers 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.
D Patriarchal Society
The Kitchen God’s Wife illustrates several facets of the humble status of women in Chinese society in the early 20th century. The tradition of arranged marriages demonstrates women’s lack of control over their own lives and their inability to pursue any other course than that which is expected of them. 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?