Summary—An-mei Hsu: “Scar”

An-mei’s mother became the concubine of a man named Wu-Tsing when An-mei was four, so she and her little brother went to live with their grandmother, Popo, who forbade them to speak their mother’s name. After a few years, An-mei forgot her mother entirely.

When Popo became terminally ill, An-mei’s mother visited for the first time in five years. As she brushed An-mei’s hair and caressed a scar on her neck, An-mei’s memory came rushing back; she remembers that when she was four, her mother arrived at Popo’s house to beg her to give An-mei back. An-mei cried out for her mother, and a bowl of boiling soup spilled over her neck like a flood of boiling anger. Popo and the rest of the family chased An-mei’s mother away, and after a while, the burn wound turned into a scar.

Later, just before Popo died, An-mei saw her mother cut a piece of her own flesh out of her arm and put it in a soup for Popo. According to ancient tradition, such a sacrifice might cure a dying family member. It is also a sign of bone-deep filial respect. After that night, An-mei loved her mother, who wounded her own flesh in order to alleviate Popo’s pain, and in order to remember what was in her bones.

Summary—Lindo Jong: “The Red Candle”

I made a promise to myself: I would always remember my parents’ wishes, but I would never forget myself.

See Important Quotations Explained

Lindo Jong tells the story of her relationship with her mother. After Lindo was promised in marriage to Huang Tyan-yu at the age of two, Lindo’s mother began referring to her as the daughter of Tyan-yu’s mother, Huang Taitai, in order to get used to the idea that Lindo wouldn’t be hers for ever. To Lindo, it felt as if Taitai, as her future mother-in-law, had already displaced Lindo’s own mother. When Lindo was twelve, her house was severely damaged by a flood, and the family moved to another village. Lindo, however, went to live with Tyan-yu’s family, where she was treated as a servant. She soon came to live for Taitai’s praise and to think of Tyan-yu as a god.

At age sixteen, Lindo was married. On her wedding day, Lindo was filled with despair as she anticipated a life spent in pursuit of someone else’s happiness. She considered drowning herself in the river, but, chancing to look out the window, she noticed the fierce wind and realized that, like the wind, she too was strong. She resolved to honor her parents’ promise but to do as much for her own happiness as she could. According to custom, the matchmaker arranged for the couple to have a red candle marked with Lindo’s name on one end, and Tyan-yu’s on the other. The couple lit the candle, which had a wick at each end, during their marriage ceremony. A servant was instructed to watch over the candle all night, because if the candle burned until dawn without either end extinguishing prematurely, the matchmaker would declare the marriage imperishable. That night, the servant ran from the room where she was watching the candle because she mistook a thunderstorm for an attack by the Japanese. Lindo, who was walking in the courtyard, went into the room and blew out Tyan-yu’s end of the candle. The next morning, however, the matchmaker displayed the candle’s burnt remains and announced that the marriage was sealed. Looking at the servant, Lindo read an expression of shame and realized that the servant must have relit the candle because she feared punishment for her negligence.

For months, Tyan-yu forced Lindo to sleep on the sofa. When Taitai discovered the arrangement, Tyan-yu told his mother that Lindo was to blame. Thereafter, Lindo began sleeping in Tyan-yu’s bed, but he never touched her. When Lindo failed to become pregnant, Taitai confined her to bed, saying that if Lindo remained horizontal, Tyan-yu’s assumedly sowed “seed” could not become dislodged. Finally, Lindo found a way out of the marriage. She told Taitai that her ancestors came to her in a dream and said that the matchmaker’s servant had allowed Tyan-yu’s end of the candle to go out, which meant Tyan-yu would die if he stayed in the marriage. Lindo then convinced Taitai that the ancestors had planted the seed of Tyan-yu’s child into the womb of a servant girl, secretly of imperial lineage, who was Tyan-yu’s “true spiritual wife.” Lindo knew that the servant girl was in fact carrying the child of a deliveryman, but the servant gratefully “confessed” to Lindo’s story in order to give birth to her child in wedlock, and to marry into comfort. The marriage between Tyan-yu and Lindo was annulled, and Lindo emigrated to America.

Summary—Ying-ying St. Clair: “The Moon Lady”

Ying-ying tells the story of the Moon Festival she attended when she was four. Although she can recall everything about that day, she had forgotten about it for many years. She laments that she has kept so quiet throughout her life that even her daughter Lena does not see or hear her. The reason for her reticence, Ying-ying explains, was her fear of voicing selfish desires.

On the day of the Moon Festival, Amah, Ying-ying’s nurse, dressed her in a silken yellow outfit with black bands. She told Ying-ying that she would see the Moon Lady, who granted secret wishes, but cautioned that if she voiced her wishes to anyone else they would become only selfish desires. Amah told Ying-ying that it is wrong for a woman to voice her own needs, and that “[a] girl can never ask, only listen.” This notion stays with Ying-ying her whole life.

The feast was held in a boat on a lake. Mesmerized, Ying-ying watched the chef kill and gut the fish for the meal. After a while, she looked down and realized that her dress was spattered with fish blood and scales. Hoping to hide the specks by dying the whole outfit red, Ying-ying smeared her clothing with some turtle blood that was being kept in the kitchen. When Amah saw her, she became angry and, after stripping off Ying-ying’s bloody clothes, went to a separate part of the boat where the party was being held, leaving Ying-ying alone in her white underclothes and slippers.

Partway into the celebrations, firecrackers began to go off, and Ying-ying, startled, fell overboard into the water. A fisherman caught her in his net and pulled her into his boat. He tried to help her find her family, but when Ying-ying spotted a floating pavilion and asked the fisherman to row over to it, she found that the faces above the railings all belonged to strangers. The fisherman finally brought her ashore, where he assumed her family would find her eventually. Feeling so alone that she believed she had lost her own self, Ying-ying watched a play that was being staged about a Moon Lady, and she made a wish that she would be found.

Analysis—“Scar,” “The Red Candle,” & “The Moon Lady”

An-mei’s, Lindo’s, and Ying-ying’s stories of their childhoods in China deal with the maternal figures who influenced them and with the societal role of Chinese women in general. All three tell of how they learned of the expectation that they would sacrifice themselves for their husbands. An-mei suffered because her mother had been disowned for choosing to become a concubine rather than remaining as a widow—for refusing to sacrifice herself for her husband even after his death. Lindo lived a life of near enslavement to her future husband and mother-in-law, and then endured a marriage of further degradation, in which her bed became a kind of “prison” because she wasn’t fulfilling her wifely duty of giving birth. Similarly, Ying-ying’s lifelong reticence traces back to her Amah’s assertion that girls should not think of their own needs, that they should “only listen” to the needs of others. On the day of the Moon Festival, Ying-ying “loses herself” not only by becoming temporarily lost from her family but by learning to stifle her own desires.

Read more about sexism as a motif.

Instead of being angry with their mothers for abandoning them and for treating them coldly, An-mei, Lindo, and Ying-ying sympathize with them and attempt to excuse their mothers’ actions by portraying a tradition that requires women to sacrifice their daughters. Their mothers’ opinions were never asked, and they had no say in whom they married or in whether their children would be taken from them. This may account for their cold behavior: by acting sternly, they hoped to steel themselves to their pain, and to harden up their daughters, whom they knew would have to face similar sorrows. Lindo notes that her own mother, upon bidding her farewell and leaving her with the Huangs, acted with particular sternness, which Lindo knew to belie great sorrow. The Huangs were wealthier than Lindo’s family, and Lindo’s mother knew that marrying Tyan-yu would considerably elevate Lindo’s social position and provide her with material comfort. When her mother would refer to her as Taitai’s child, Lindo knew that she did not do this out of lack of love. Rather, Lindo explains, she said this only “so she wouldn’t wish for something that was no longer hers.” An-mei’s grandmother, Popo, repeatedly said that she and her brother had fallen to earth out of the insides of a goose, like two unwanted eggs, bad-smelling and bad-tasting. But, An-mei realizes, “[s]he said this so that the ghosts would not steal us away. . . . [T]o Popo we were also very precious.”

Read more about sacrifices for love as a motif.

Although the characters recognize the hardships caused by a strict adherence to the patriarchal tradition, they value greatly the tradition of duty and loyalty. Their respect for custom is at odds with their sense of injustice. Thus, for example, Lindo deeply honors her mother’s allegiance to the marriage contract in word and deed, whereas she scorns her daughter Waverly’s American ideas about promises. To Waverly, Lindo complains that an American daughter might make a “promise” to come to dinner, but the moment that she has a headache, encounters heavy traffic, or finds that a favorite movie is showing on TV, this promise disappears. In contrast, Lindo viewed her parents’ promise as her own promise, and underwent degradation and humiliation in the Huangs’ home for years in order to fulfill it.

Read an in-depth analysis of Lindo Jong.

An-mei’s story is also about respect for the ancient ways and the elders. She understood that her mother’s attempt to cure Popo by cutting her own flesh and putting it in a soup was an act of deep love and reverence. An-mei, too, carries a scar that represents her tie to her mother. These bodily wounds function as symbols for An-mei of a daughter’s corporeal bond to her mother, as reminders that one’s mother is in one’s bones.

Read an in-depth analysis of An-mei Hsu.

Even Ying-ying remains loyal to her ancestral traditions. She felt intense pain at the way her own mother left her in the care of her Amah, and she was traumatized by the fact that no one—neither her mother nor her substitute mother, her nurse—noticed when she fell off the boat. Yet, the only person for whom Ying-ying seems to harbor any contempt is her daughter Lena. She criticizes Lena for being too Americanized, for being “lost” to her mother and her heritage, even though Ying-ying herself feels lost because of her heritage.

Read an in-depth analysis of Ying-ying St. Clair.

In one respect, Lindo’s story diverges from An-mei’s and Ying-ying’s. In a manner that resembles Suyuan’s willful creation of her own happiness through the Joy Luck Club, Lindo took her fate into her own hands when she saw that the price of keeping her promise to her mother, and to tradition, had become too high. Lindo explains that before her wedding, she made a second promise, a promise to herself: “I would always remember my parents’ wishes, but I would never forget myself.” This promise maintained and even affirmed Lindo’s respect for the force of promises, but it also shows that Lindo refused to sacrifice her own identity to that force. The trick she plays on Taitai in order to extricate herself from the marriage demonstrates the power of language and imagination in directing one’s own life. At the same time, however, it was an understanding of tradition that enabled Lindo to assert her own power. By playing on Taitai’s cultural superstitions and reverence for her ancestors, Lindo escaped a situation of misery without suffering punishment. For, as An-mei’s mother’s story demonstrates, the rigidity of cultural expectation often penalizes a woman for breaking the bonds of marital sacrifice, punishing her attempt at independence with total ostracism.

Read more about Lindo’s red candle as a symbol.