The parable that precedes the second section of the novel deals with an American-raised daughter’s conflict with her mother. The mother does not want her seven-year-old daughter to ride her bicycle around the corner because her daughter will suffer an accident when she is out of sight and earshot. The mother explains that a book, titled The Twenty-six Malignant Gates, details the dangers that can befall her child when she is away from the protection of the home. The daughter cannot read the book because it is written in Chinese, and when her mother will not tell her what the dangers are, the girl becomes angry and rushes away on her bicycle. She falls before she reaches the corner.
Lindo’s daughter Waverly Jong says that when she was six, her mother taught her “the art of invisible strength,” a lesson that helped her to become a child chess prodigy. She then begins the story of how her talent emerged: at Christmas, one of the members of the Jongs’ church in Chinatown dressed as Santa Claus and handed out wrapped Christmas gifts, the donations of members of another church. Waverly got a multipack box of Lifesavers, and one of her brothers got a secondhand chess set that was missing two pieces. By offering two of her Lifesavers to stand in for the missing pieces, Waverly convinced her brothers, Winston and Vincent, to let her play. The winner could eat both candies. Awestruck by what she deemed to be a sort of hidden power within each piece, Waverly closely studied the dog-eared instruction booklet and borrowed chess strategy guides from the Chinatown library. She soon learned that the game hinged on invisible strength in the form of secret traps and keen foresight. After her brothers lost interest in the game, Waverly began playing with Lau Po, an old man who played chess in the park. He taught her many new strategies.
Waverly began to attract attention because of her young age, and she became a celebrity within San Francisco’s Chinatown community. She played in tournaments, and by the age of nine she had become a national champion, 429 points away from grandmaster status. Lindo took great pride in her daughter’s talent, and although she gave her daughter preferential treatment, she also made use of Waverly to feed her own self-pride. She would force Waverly to come to the market with her, presenting her in all the shops. One day, exasperated, Waverly yelled at her mother in the street, telling her that she was embarrassed by her constant bragging. Waverly ran off, ignoring her mother’s shouts; when she returned later that night, Lindo said that because Waverly had no concern for her family, the family would have no concern for her. Waverly went into her room, lay down on the bed, and envisioned a chess game in which her mother was her opponent. Lindo’s pieces were advancing across the board, pushing Waverly’s pieces off; Waverly felt so dislodged that she had a feeling she would fly away; she felt she had lost her anchor. Waverly ends her story with the statement, “I closed my eyes and pondered my next move.”
Lena St. Clair says that her mother, Ying-ying, never spoke of her life in China. Lena’s father, a man of English-Irish descent named Clifford, says he saved Ying-ying from a terrible tragedy that befell her in China, about which she could not bring herself to speak. Clifford knew only a few phrases in Mandarin, and Ying-ying never learned English very well. Thus, she spoke using gestures, glances, and halting English. Because he couldn’t understand her, Clifford typically would put words into his wife’s mouth. Although Lena understands her mother’s words in Mandarin, she hardly ever understands her meanings, often considering what she says to be crazy or nonsensical. When she is forced to act as a translator for her mother, she often alters the English meanings of what others say so as to trick her mother into acting in more conventional-seeming ways; conversely, she translates her mother’s odd expressions into English words that convey more mainstream thoughts.
When Clifford received a promotion, the St. Clairs moved from Oakland across the bay to an Italian neighborhood in San Francisco. The apartment, built on a steep hill, disturbed Ying-ying, who continually rearranged the furniture, claiming that things were not “balanced.” Through the walls in her bedroom, Lena often heard the girl next door, Teresa Sorci, arguing with her mother. She imagined that Teresa was being killed or beaten, but whenever Lena saw her on the staircase of the building, she could never see a trace of blood or bruising on her. Soon after moving to the new apartment, Lena’s parents announced to her that Ying-ying was pregnant. But although Lena’s father looked forward to the baby with happiness, Ying-ying did not express joy or hope.
Ying-ying’s baby, a boy, died immediately after birth from severe medical complications. Lying in her hospital bed, Ying-ying blamed herself, speaking incoherently of another son that she had killed sometime in the past. But to her father, Lena translated her mother’s words into expressions of hope and consolation. After coming home, Ying-ying soon began to fall apart psychologically. Lena comforted herself by thinking that the girl next door was more miserable than she was. One day, however, Teresa knocked on the St. Clairs’ door, went straight to Lena’s room, and climbed onto the window ledge. She explained that her mother had locked her out and announced her intention to sneak back through her own bedroom window and shock her mother, who would be waiting for her to knock on the front door and apologize. Later that night, Lena heard Teresa and Mrs. Sorci yelling after Mrs. Sorci discovered her daughter’s prank. They were screaming accusations and sobbing, but also laughing with strange joy and love.
The opening parable of “The Twenty-six Malignant Gates” presents the universal struggle between children and parents over issues of independence—the struggle over when a child should obey and admit her parent’s wisdom versus when a parent should let go and allow the child to discover life for herself. The girl’s mother demands adherence to certain tenets, but she refuses to give any justification for her demands, merely making vague reference to a book that her daughter cannot read because it is in Chinese. Although, to the daughter, the mother’s warnings seem little more than superstition or modes of manipulation used to control her, her fall on her bicycle demonstrates the mother’s almost uncanny wisdom. At the same time, however, because the mother put the idea of falling into her daughter’s head, the mother’s prediction may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether or not the mother’s warnings and restrictions signify a supernatural prescience, the daughter realizes, in her fall, that the dangers her mother fears can often be quite real. As in many of the stories in the novel, the mother’s seeming tyranny or severity in fact speaks to her deep love for her daughter and her concern for her daughter’s well-being.
Like the little girl in the parable, Waverly Jong attempts to defy her mother. She clashes with Lindo because she misunderstands her mother’s pride in her achievements. Waverly wants chess to be strictly her own achievement, part of her own separate identity. When her mother hovers over her during her practice sessions, she feels invaded, as though her mother is somehow taking credit for what Waverly sees as her own personal strength. Moreover, Waverly is embarrassed by her mother’s bragging and desire to show her off. In Waverly’s next story, “Four Directions,” she continues the story of her chess playing and relates that she eventually realized that her mother’s pride actually functioned as an invisible support.
Although Waverly would probably be loath to admit it, her story connects thematically with her mother’s (“The Red Candle”). One of the most enduring things Lindo teaches Waverly is “the art of invisible strength.” Waverly uses the wind as a metaphor for this invisible strength, thus aligning herself with the same element her mother had identified with when facing her arranged marriage in China. Waverly’s success with chess owes in part to her ability to gain strength through the strategically timed concealment and disclosure of secrets. This same ability was what allowed Lindo, many years before, to escape from her marriage. When Lindo learned of the servant girl’s pregnancy she told no one, announcing the news at just the time she could use the revelation to her own advantage. When she lashes out at her mother, Waverly breaks her own rule. She essentially puts herself “in check” by revealing her secret weakness, her insecurities about her mother and her need to believe that her chess talent is hers alone.
While Waverly’s story testifies to the strengths of hidden truths and silences, Lena’s story demonstrates their dangers. Lena’s mother, Ying-ying, lives in perpetual fear of unnamed dangers. She bequeaths her paranoia to her daughter by telling her stories, such as the one about Lena’s great-grandfather, who had sentenced a beggar to death. According to legend, the ghost of the beggar later appeared to him, saying that in the instants preceding death he consoled himself with the thought that these final terrors would constitute the worst miseries he would ever suffer. But he was mistaken, he says: he has found that “the worst is on the other side.” With these words, the ghost grabbed Lena’s great-grandfather and pulled him through the wall into the land of the dead, in order to demonstrate what he meant. Both Lena and Ying-ying live in constant fear that “the worst” will invade their homes, snatch them from happiness, and pull them into agony.
Lena thus always anticipates the worst from all situations. We witness this cynicism in her story of her own wall. When Lena hears Teresa and her mother fighting through the wall of her bedroom, she imagines that someone is being killed, that a mother is taking her daughter’s life. Night after night, Lena listens to the fighting and, not knowing exactly what is happening, she imagines the worst possibility. After Lena speaks with Teresa, she realizes that the Sorcis’ shouting matches are their way of communicating with each other and expressing their love. Lena learns that reality does not always conform to one’s most terrible fears. Although Lena has always feared what lies beyond her wall, she realizes that the worse set of circumstances may lie on the St. Clairs’ side of the partition.
The tranquillity and silence of the St. Clairs’ household keeps the family in a state of perpetual doubt and timidity. Lena and her father seem to fear that by probing too deeply into Ying-ying’s fears and sorrows they might expose some unbearable horror. Thus, when Ying-ying lies like a statue on her bed after the baby’s death, acknowledging no one, Lena’s father says, “She’s just tired,” although both father and daughter know that the problem is much more serious. Similarly, when Lena asks her mother why she constantly rearranges the furniture, she does so only out of a feeling of duty; she in fact fears to receive a truthful answer.
By keeping silent, Ying-ying may be trying to avoid confrontation with a painful past. But by refusing to speak her feelings, she also—perhaps unwittingly—erects a kind of wall between herself and her loved ones. Thus, her family is unable to console her in the loss of the baby boy. This wall of silence, unlike the wall in the apartment, is one that no voices, no expressions of love or comfort, can penetrate.
Ying-ying does not bear sole responsibility for the emotional barrier in her home: the wall also results from problems of communication and “translation,” not only of language but of culture. Lena devotes a good deal of her story to a discussion of her mother’s immigration to America. Upon entering the country with his new wife, Lena’s father altered Ying-ying’s identity by changing her name, and also, accidentally, her birthday. She was held as a “displaced person” at the immigration station, and this image persists as a motif throughout the story. When the St. Clairs move to a new neighborhood, Lena’s father sees the shift as a rise in status, but Ying-ying judges her new apartment by different standards. She deems the house out of balance and feels a sense of foreboding, but she finds herself unable to explain her fears. In part, then, her “wall” owes not to her refusal to speak out but to her actual inability to articulate (or even consciously realize) her own worries and dissatisfaction—a dissatisfaction that stems in part from her first move, from China to the United States, and from her more general failure to keep a “balance” between both sides of her life, both sides of her identity. Like the mother in the parable, Ying-ying anticipates, but cannot express, the evils that lie in store for her and her children.
Is there any symbolism in this short story? I was assigned to analyze it like a "professor" and I am not sure if there is any symbolism. All I know is that when Jing-mei's mother offered her to keep to piano it was like a peace offering or forgiveness.
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You could always do it yourself. I mean, we sometimes get books in our lives that Sparknotes doesn't always offer to summarize and give us straightforward answers to.
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What is the function of the myth that introduces each section?