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.