Chinese Whispers

D.J. Enright

The subtitle of Maxine Hong Kingston’s first book, The Woman Warrior (now published in paperback), embodies a pun: ‘Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts’ – that is to say, among Chinese story-ghosts and also among non-Chinese, who by definition are ghosts, if not demons. ‘Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fits in solid America.’ In her books Mrs Kingston comes near to suggesting that it is America which is invisible – populated by ghosts, the Mail Ghost, the Newsboy Ghost, the Garbage Ghost – while China, the China of her parents, or the China her parents told her about, is the solid world.

This raises a question which, though it sounds prissy, is legitimate: how much of this ‘China’ is true, how much is tale-telling or, as Mrs Kingston puts it, talking-story? For the insider, there is no settled boundary between actuality and myth: it is all part and parcel of life as it is lived. While realising this – for we all have our legends – the outsider still wants to know which is which. We are sufficiently able to distinguish between Hans Andersen and the real country of Denmark: we have heard tell of both of them more or less concurrently since we were children. China is a different kettle of mysteries.

Just as the last English gentleman is, if not an Indian, then an Englishman living in India, so Mrs Kingston, born in Stockton, California in 1940, may be more Chinese than the Chinese in China. There is nothing like emigration, especially when it shows in the face, for bringing out one’s nativeness: ‘characteristics’ are accentuated in a way they never were at home. ‘What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?’ One is moved to reply that one Chinese tradition is never to explain Chinese traditions to benighted foreign barbarians. Such refusal or reluctance can seem like arrogance, or – in a politer person – modesty: outsiders won’t understand, or outsiders surely don’t want to be bothered with understanding. Being a true writer, Mrs Kingston has no truck with either thought.

One way for Chinese girls to escape being merely wives or slaves was for them to be swordswomen. Mrs Kingston weaves a story about herself as heroine, based on the tales her mother told of Fa Mu Lan. In a less diluted Water Margin epic, she is a kind of Maid Marian as Robin Hood (‘My army did not rape, only taking food where there was an abundance. We brought order wherever we went’), or a female avenger, at times a Bruce Lee in drag. She defeats a giant, who changes into his true shape, a snake – whereupon his disgusted soldiers pledge their loyalty to her. Her followers, she remarks in a nice aside, never knew she was a woman: ‘Chinese executed women who disguised themselves as soldiers or students, no matter how bravely they fought or how high they scored on the examinations.’ Finally she overthrows the Emperor and beheads him, inaugurating ‘the peasant who would begin the new order’.

The ‘new order’ sounds rather like Communism. A male chauvinist baron also loses his head, exploiters of the people are tried, and ancestral tablets are torn down: ‘We’ll use this great hall for village meetings ... Here we’ll put on operas; we’ll sing together and talk-story ... This is a new year, the year one.’ No wonder, as she says when the tale ends, that ‘my American life has been such a disappointment’: if she tells her mother she has got straight A’s at school, her mother replies: ‘Let me tell you a true story about a girl who saved her village.’ To make matters worse, news comes from China that the revolutionaries have taken an uncle’s store away from him and killed him, along with other members of the family, for the crime of selfishness. ‘It is confusing that my family was not the poor to be championed. They were executed like the barons in the stories, when they were not barons.’ In her role as female warrior, ‘we would always win,’ she had declared: ‘Kuan Kung, the god of war and literature, riding before me.’ Now, it seems, war and literature have gone their separate ways.

From time to time, there comes a thin, mosquito-like sound of feminist grievance. No husband of hers – the author announces – will say that he gave up his cherished career for the sake of the wife and kids. No one will have to support her ‘at the expense of his own adventure’. But ‘then I get bitter: no one supports me; I am not loved enough to be supported.’ Even now her feet are bound, figuratively at least. Just to get dates she has to ‘turn myself American-feminine’. So she refuses to cook, and if she has to wash the dishes, she contrives to break them. Chinese women have more right than most to complain of their status and treatment. It took a whole revolution to nurture a Chiang Ching. (It must have taken all hellishness to produce a Chinese revolution.) Mrs Kingston dwells on those hurtful old expressions like ‘Better to raise geese than girls’ and ‘When fishing for treasures in the flood, be careful not to pull in girls’ and ‘Girls are maggots in the rice.’ In a forthcoming account of modern Chinese history Jonathan Spence mentions the young revolutionary poetess, Chiu Jin, who wrote in 1904:

We, the two hundred million women of China, are the most unfairly treated objects on this earth. If we have a decent father, then we will be all right at the time of our birth; but if he is crude by nature, or an unreasonable man, he will immediately start spewing out phrases like ‘Oh what an ill-omened day, here’s another useless one.’ If only he could, he would dash us to the ground.

Three years later Chiu Jin was captured by government troops, tortured and beheaded. In the case of the young Maxine, one feels sorry for her mother. Mothers tend to experience the dirty end of both sticks, masculism and feminism alike.

Brave Orchid, the mother, is a great character, a teller of myths but herself no myth. She had been a doctor before coming to America, the Gold Mountain, in the winter of 1939/40 to join her husband in running a laundry. On receiving her diploma from the To Keung School of Midwifery, she went to market to buy herself a slave. The parents who were selling their children liked to talk with buyers. ‘If they could just hear from the buyer’s own mouth about a chair in the kitchen, they could tell each other in the years to come that their daughter was even now resting in the kitchen chair. It was merciful to give these parents a few details about the garden, a sweet feeble grandmother, food.’ The little girls who were being sold by a professional dealer might stand in a line, bowing together, while the older ones chorused, ‘Let a little slave do your shopping for you’, or singing ‘a happy song about flowers’. Brave Orchid picked a healthy girl with a strong heartbeat, who pretended to be less than wholly competent in order to bring the dealer’s price down. The slave cost her the equivalent of $50, and she found her a husband when she left for America. The author cost her mother $200 in hospital charges at birth.

Here is a subject for someone to study: the ways whereby Eastern people have managed to clothe their fearful hardships and humiliations in something approaching dignity, in ritual, in the necessary, almost elegant euphemism, when nothing else remained to them. No doubt what discourages any such study (cf. the stridency of affluent reformers and educated revolutionaries) is the fear of seeming to condone the conditions which bred this precarious civility. But there is enough unpalliated horror in the chapter about the Lady Doctor: we hear of a baby without an anus, left in an outhouse (euphemism for latrine) to die, and of the box of clean ashes placed beside the birth bed in case the baby was a girl: suffocation by the midwife or a relative was ‘very easy’.

The account of Brave Orchid’s sister promises to be rather more jolly, chiefly because it shows first-generation American Chinese as viewed through Chinese eyes. In her late sixties, Moon Orchid arrives from Hong Kong in search of her errant husband, whom she hasn’t seen for 30 years. He is suitably terrified, having married again, as a citizen of a country where bigamy is frowned on. Moon Orchid is useless in the laundry, and upsets the children by trying to smooth their hair or leaning over them when they are studying. ‘They’re so clever,’ she exclaims: ‘They’re so smart. Isn’t it wonderful they know things that can’t be said in Chinese?’ But then the story turns sad. Moon Orchid imagines that Mexican ‘ghosts’ are plotting against her life, and has to be put away. She was too old to move. Her spirit, her ‘attention’, was scattered all over the world, her sister says. ‘Brave Orchid’s daughters decided fiercely that they would never let men be unfaithful to them.’

Mrs Kingston’s new book, in which (the blurb states) she ‘turns her attention to her patriarchal forebears’, starts off grimly with a fable about a man who is looking for the Gold Mountain but finds himself in the Land of Women, where he is forcibly rendered female: holes bored in his earlobes, his feet broken and bound, his womb improved by vinegar soup. There follows a short anecdote telling how the narrator and her brothers and sisters mistake a stranger for their father, whereas (one supposes the point is) they would not confuse their mother with another woman.

The suspicion or expectation that men are about to get it in the neck is strengthened by the beginning of the next chapter. The narrator’s father swears a lot, in the (not exclusively) Chinese manner: ‘bag cunt’, ‘your mother’s smelly cunt’ ... The narrator wants him to tell her ‘that those curses are only common Chinese sayings, that you did not mean to make me sicken at being female,’ that he was not referring to her or her mother or her sisters or grandmothers or women in general. The narrator herself is no shrinking violet, and this doesn’t ring altogether true. If it isn’t ritual sensitivity or a sign of American delicacy, it may be an excuse for what follows. Since BaBa is given to silence or few words (and those, apparently, obscene), she will have to tell his story for him. ‘You’ll just have to speak up with the real stories if I’ve got them wrong.’ In the event, she does men no wrong.

BaBa – the story goes – passed the last Imperial Examination to be held, turned to village teaching, married, got fed up with his pupils, listened to yarns about the streets that were paved with gold, emigrated (legally or otherwise, the narrator gives alternative versions), was detained at the Immigration Station outside San Francisco, started a laundry in New York, was joined by his wife 15 years later, then was cheated out of the laundry by his partners and left for California, ‘which some say is the real Gold Mountain anyway’. If women have a right to complain, it looks as if men have a right to curse. Except that later the author says her father was born in San Francisco in 1903. Then what was all that about the Imperial Examination? And what about the two children, brother and sister of the author, who (we were told) died back in China? Dream children are one thing; dream children killed off as testimony to historical hard times are another.

I do not think it is solely because I read it immediately after The Woman Warrior that China Men seems the less fresh and cogent of the two. One item here is a Crusoe-like story which adds little to Defoe and looks rather like padding. Another, ‘The Ghostmate’, takes a theme common to old Chinese stories, a love-affair between a young man and a beautiful woman who turns out to have been dead for centuries, and treats it conventionally, except perhaps for mention of a song we would like to have in full – ‘What does the scholar do with his bagful of books after failing?’ – and a concluding comment which blends Chinese realism with the author’s modernity: ‘Fancy lovers never last.’

But Mrs Kingston gets into her stride on moving to her great-grandfather’s adventures when clearing forests in Hawaii, the Sandalwood Mountains. The chapter contains an authentic description of the state of mind induced by opium-smoking, the only unlikely touch being that Great-Grandfather experienced these effects after his very first (and last) session. Even stronger is the story of the grandfather Ah Goong, who worked on the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad in the Sierras during the 1860s. It was the time when dynamite was invented, and tested by or on the railroad workers: ‘chinamen had a natural talent for explosions.’

‘Stupid man to hurt yourself,’ they bawled out the sick and wounded. How their wives would scold if they brought back deadmen’s bones. ‘Aiya. To be buried here, nowhere.’ ‘But this is somewhere,’ Ah Goong promised. ‘This is Gold Mountain. We’re marking the land now. The track sections are numbered, and your family will know where we leave you.’

Ah Goong lost his citizenship papers in the San Francisco fire of 1906, returned to China and lived to be bayoneted in the head by a Japanese soldier. This left him a bit queer – not surprisingly, since he must have been a hundred years old by then.

The author was a small child during World War Two, but remembers how her father was exempted from service – the draft, she says, was one reason for leaving China in the first place, the other was having to pay taxes with grain – because he was too skinny. She also remembers when the AJAs, Americans of Japanese Ancestry, were released from the relocation camps at the end of the war. One such family lived on her block:

We had not broken into their house; it had stood shut for years ... They gave us their used comic books, and were the only adults who gave us toys instead of clothes for Christmas. We kids, who had peasant minds, suspected their generosity; they were bribing us not to lynch them. The friendlier they were, the more hideous the crimes and desires they must have been covering up. My parents gave them vegetables; we would want them to be nice to us when the time came for us Chinese to be the ones in camp.

Yet the finest chapter, a noble conclusion to the book, concerns her brother, a high-school teacher who was drafted into the Vietnam War and resolved to ‘follow orders up to a point short of a direct kill’, on the grounds that it was better to be a pacifist in the Navy than a pacifist in gaol. As his ship nears Asia, he has fearful dreams in which he is unable to distinguish between villains and victims: they all have ‘Chinese faces, Chinese eyes, noses, and cheekbones’. He visits the Philippines and Korea, and Taiwan, ‘a decoy China, a facsimile’, where nonetheless there are apparently real Chinese who tell him how lucky he is to be an American. Planes from his aircraft-carrier bomb Hanoi, but he can’t see the bombs falling. Then he is promoted and transferred to Taipei: he has been cleared by Security, which means by implication that the whole family is truly, securely American, despite all the black marks (real or imagined) in its history. Mustered out, he returns to Stockton: ‘He had survived the Vietnam war. He had not gotten killed, and he had not killed anyone.’

Here there is, in Keats’s words, no ‘irritable reaching after fact and reason’, for fact and reason are safely within the reader’s reach. Elsewhere, it is because Mrs Kingston’s subject is real men and women, a real, long immigration, and a real nation or indeed two real nations, that one does feel some irritation. Her mother once told her: ‘You can’t even tell real from false’ – and if she cannot, then how can we? At other times, and much of the time, poetry doesn’t smudge truth, and we rest content in the spirit of another of Keats’s sayings: ‘What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not.’