Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
In Jing-mei’s story “Best Quality,” she discusses the jade pendant her mother, Suyuan, gave her, which she called her “life’s importance.” Over the course of the story, the symbolic meaning of the pendant changes. At first, Jing-mei found the pendant garish and unstylish; to her it represented the cultural differences between herself and her mother. After Suyuan’s death, however, Jing-mei comes to see it as a symbol of her mother’s love and concern. It is particularly interesting to note that, in its very ability to change meanings, the pendant gains an additional symbolism: it symbolizes the human power to assign new meanings to the phenomena around us. The development that Jing-mei undergoes in understanding the gift of the pendant symbolizes her development in understanding her mother’s gestures in general. While Jing-mei used to interpret many of her mother’s words as expressions of superstition or criticism, she now sees them as manifesting a deep maternal wisdom and love.
In the story “Rice Husband,” a vase in Lena’s home comes to symbolize her marriage. Lena had placed the vase upon a wobbly table; she knew the placement of the vase there was dangerous, but she did nothing to protect the vase from breaking. Like the vase, Lena’s marriage is in danger of falling and shattering. According to the text, it was Lena’s husband, Harold, who built the wobbly table when he was first studying architecture and design. If one takes this information as similarly symbolic, one might say that the precariousness of the marriage may result from Harold’s failure to be “supportive” enough, “solid” enough in his commitment. In any case, Lena, too, is to blame: as with the vase, Lena realizes that her marriage is in danger of shattering, but she refuses to take action. When Ying-ying “accidentally” causes the vase to break on the floor, she lets Lena know that she should prevent disasters before they happen, rather than stand by passively as Ying-ying herself has done throughout her life.
When Lindo Jong is married, she and her husband light a red candle with a wick at each end. The name of the bride is marked at one end of the candle, and the name of the groom at the other. If the candle burns all night without either end extinguishing prematurely, custom says that the marriage will be successful and happy. The candle has a symbolic meaning—the success of the marriage—within the Chinese culture, but within the story it also functions as a symbol of traditional Chinese culture itself: it embodies the ancient beliefs and customs surrounding marriage.
Lindo feels conflicted about her marriage: she desperately does not want to enter into the subservience she knows the wedding will bring, yet she cannot go against the promises her parents made to her husband’s family. In order to free herself from the dilemma, she secretly blows out her husband’s side of the candle. A servant relights it, but Lindo later reveals to her mother-in-law that the flame went out, implying that it did so without human intervention. By blowing out the flame, Lindo takes control of her own fate, eventually extricating herself from an unhappy marriage. Thus, the candle also symbolizes her self-assertion and control over her own life.
It is important to consider the candle’s original symbolism as a sign of tradition and culture, for it is by playing upon the traditional beliefs and superstitions that Lindo convinces her mother-in-law to annul the marriage. Her act of blowing out the candle would have been meaningless without an underlying, pre-established network of belief. Thus the candle, first a symbol of tradition, then of self-assertion, ultimately comes to symbolize the use of tradition in claiming one’s own identity and power.