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Free Study Guide: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

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CHAPTER 4: "At the Western Palace"

Summary (Continued)

After lunch, Brave Orchid takes her sister out for some fun in Chinatown. Brave Orchid takes her to a large storefront room where the people, many of them fellow villagers, are eating black seaweed gelatin. She introduces her sister "who has come to the Gold Mountain to reclaim her husband." The women advise her to blackmail him or have him arrested. After gambling for awhile, they leave again for the laundry, and Moon Orchid is put to work folding towels and handkerchiefs, a task she will do each afternoon. In the evening, she closely observes her nieces and nephews, who roll their eyes in exasperation at her.

Brave Orchid plans the trip to Los Angeles for Moon Orchid. She coaches her sister on what to ask her husband when she sees him. She should demand an allowance, freedom to visit him when she wishes, and an inheritance for her daughter. Brave Orchid further advises her to act pathetic and make life unbearable for the second wife so she will leave. Moon Orchid says she would not mind if the second wife stayed since she could do the chores and take care of the boys. Each day Brave Orchid asks her sister if she is ready to go and see her husband yet, and Moon Orchid keeps reassuring her she will be ready soon. On a Friday, Brave Orchid finally makes her oldest son drive her sister, her niece, and herself to Los Angeles.

During the drive, Brave Orchid tells the story of the Western Palace, which took place a long time ago when the emperor had four wives, “one at each point of the compass.” The Empress of the West was power hungry, while the Empress of the East was good. Brave Orchid tells her sister that she is the Empress of the East, and the second wife is the Empress of the West, who has imprisoned the Emperor in her palace. Brave Orchid also details all the ways Moon Orchid could surprise her husband. She thinks it would be most dramatic to go to his house alone and call him by his own name, while pushing past him to sit in the most important chair. When Moon Orchid is surprised to think that her husband might not welcome her, Brave Orchid realizes her sister is very naive.

Moon Orchid begs her sister to come with her to the home of her husband. Brave Orchid agrees that she will because it will be exciting to go and accuse him of murderous things. She is also curious to see his new wife. Moon Orchid is not curious at all; she wants to turn back, fearing her husband will hit her. Brave Orchid chuckles and answers that she will just hit him harder. Moon Orchid’s daughter is not interested in being present for the meeting and asks to be dropped off at her house. Brave Orchid had tried to get her niece to confront her father five years ago when she came to the United States, but her niece had refused. She only sent him a letter stating that she was in the country and asking him for a visit; but he had not wanted to see her. At her daughter's house, Moon Orchid wants to go in and see her grandchildren, but Brave Orchid will not let her until after the confrontation.

They drive downtown to the address they have; it is a skyscraper. When Moon Orchid resists going in, Brave Orchid tells her to stay in the car while she scouts the building. As she walks past a mirror inside, she thinks she is still fast and feels young. “It was mirrors, not aches and pains, that turned a person old.” She waits outside the elevator until it is almost filled, for she does not know how to operate it by herself. She gets off on his floor, finds his door, and realizes it is his workplace. She is glad because this way she will not have to deal with the younger wife. She has never liked second wives since her father took one of them after marrying her mother.

Brave Orchid enters a waiting room and sees a receptionist, who must summon a nurse to speak Chinese. It happens to be the second wife. Brave Orchid tells her she has the flu. The nurse suggests finding another doctor because this doctor is a brain surgeon. Brave Orchid quickly realizes her brother-in-law must be smart, “smart enough to learn ghosts ways.”

(She has never practiced medicine in the United States because she would need more training and she could never learn English.) Brave Orchid knows she will have to think of a way to outwit Moon Orchid’s husband. She leaves and goes to the car. Brave Orchid tells her sister that she has met the second wife, who is pretty and young. Then, she powders Moon Orchid's face so she can compete. She decides her sister must walk directly into the office and make an announcement to the patients that she is the doctor's wife. Moon Orchid is afraid and says, “I won't be able to talk.” In fact, her voice was already fading into a whisper.

Brave Orchid devises a new plan. She tells her son to go to the office and tell the doctor there has been an accident out in the street. She wonders for a moment if they should put Moon Orchid in the middle of the street lying down with her leg bent under her. Her son suggests sarcastically, that they push her down in the intersection and pour ketchup on her and he will "run over her a little bit." Brave Orchid tells him to stop being silly, claiming that he doesn’t take life seriously. At her son's reluctance, she tells him he will ruin his aunt's life if he does not follow directions. "You can't understand business begun in China." As Brave Orchid’s son departs, Moon Orchid groans and holds her stomach. Brave Orchid scolds her to sit up and stop crying.

The son soon comes running with his uncle, carrying a black doctor's bag. Moon Orchid’s husband, with black hair and no wrinkles, enters the front seat, authoritative in his business suit. He asks where the accident is. The women are both silent. "Brave Orchid held her words back. She would not let herself interfere with this meeting after long absence." When he calls them grandmothers, Brave Orchid shouts that this is his wife. He recognizes her and asks her what she is doing here. "But all she did was open and shut her mouth without any words coming out." Brave Orchid speaks up and tells him she sent for her sister. He looks directly at Moon Orchid and asks her what she wants. She shrinks from his stare. He tells her it is a mistake for her to be here, that she does not have the hardness for this country; he also states that he has a new life. Moon Orchid whispers, "What about me?" He tells her to go live with her daughter, and he will mail her money as always. He insists that he has been a good husband. Brave Orchid tells him he has made her sister live like a widow. "Moon Orchid was so ashamed, she held her hands over her face.”

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