This parable is about a grandmother who observes her grandchild laughing.
She wishes that she could laugh like the child, but she is aware that
it is impossible for her to again have such childish innocence. Having
tasted the harsh realities of life, the grandmother has become bitter.
As she looks at the smiling face of her grandchild, she regrets her attitude.
She hopes that the child will cause her mother (the grandmother’s daughter)
to laugh and live with hope.
The old lady describes the laughter of the child by comparing it with
a “Laughing Buddha” and “The Queen Mother of the Western Skies.” The laughing
Buddha is uninhibited in expressing his emotion; in a similar manner,
the child laughs spontaneously, without inhibition. The child’s laughter
is also pure and clear like the reigning queen of the western skies. The
laughter symbolizes the uncorrupted innocence of childhood in comparison
to the corrupted bitterness of the grandmother, who now regrets her negative
attitude. She hopes that her own daughter, the child’s mother, will be
able to laugh and live with hope because of the child. This final parable
serves as a kind of thematic umbrella for the entire novel, for all of
the Chinese mothers have experienced terrible things during their life
times, and now expect to find evil everywhere they turn. As a result,
they border on bitterness like the grandmother in the parable; and like
the grandmother, they want their own daughters to have a better life --
to laugh and live with hope. In the final chapters remaining in the novel,
the mothers’ viewpoints will again be seen.
In the first part of this chapter, An-Mei refers to the story of an old turtle that lives in a pond drinking the tears shed by people. Out of those tears he creates greedy magpies, crows that make merry at the expense of others. An-Mei believes that her mother’s first husband, the evil Wu Tsing, and that her daughter Rose’s husband, Ted Jordan, are magpies, who flourish on the tears of those they hurt. At the end of the chapter, An-Mei again makes reference to the magpies that destroy the crops tended by the farmers. When the birds becomes unbearable, the farmers kill them, beating them to death.
Within the chapter, An-Mei reflects on her daughter Rose and her troubled marriage. She is particularly upset for Rose seems unable to do anything about the situation except to shed tears. An-Mei knows that tears solve nothing; instead, they are usually lapped up in pleasure by someone else, just like the turtle lapped up the human tears. An-Mei realizes that Ted is lapping up Rose’s tears.
An-Mei is also concerned about Rose’s visits to a psychiatrist and thinks that her daughter needs to assert her true identity, rather than assume one handed to her by a professional. Thoughts of her daughter make An-Mei remember her distant past.
She thinks about how her own mother endured suffering and then sacrificed her life, hoping to give An-Mei a brighter future.
An-Mei’s mother, the “fallen woman” who severed her own flesh to save her dying mother, had actually been a victim of circumstances. After she became a widow, she lost her status in society and grew insecure. While she was in mourning over her husband’s death, a lecherous merchant raped her and forced her to become his fourth wife. Her family did not accept that she had no choice in marrying the merchant and thought of her as the fallen woman.
After the death of An-Mei’s grandmother (with whom An-Mei had been living), her mother took her back to the merchant’s house with her. At first An-Mei was thrilled over the grandiosity of the place; but she quickly realized the misery of her mother’s life there. The other wives looked down on her mother, who, as the fourth wife, was last in her husband’s affections. To end her misery, An-Mei’s mother took an overdose of opium. Her dying words to An-Mei were that she had killed herself to give An-Mei a stronger spirit and a better life.
An-Mei admits that her mother taught her to stand up against the suffering
that one inevitably endures in life. An-Mei would like Rose to have the
same strength, but she does not know how to empower her fragile daughter.
An-Mei believes that both Wu Tsing and Ted were magpies; they used their women and did not care what happened to them. Since An-Mei’s mother and An-Mei’s daughter did not complain about their situations in life, they were easily exploited. In an effort to make certain that An-Mei could escape the merchant’s house and have a future, her mother killed herself. As a result of her early hardships, An-Mei grew up knowing about how to survive in spite of the struggles of life. She wishes she could find a way to empower Rose with the same strength.
In this chapter, Amy Tan is extremely critical of the status of women in China. Abused by their husbands, the Chinese women resigned themselves to their situations and suffered silently. In contrast, modern Chinese-American women are free to control their lives; the irony is that they frequently fail to do so. Rose is a perfect example; she lacks the courage to assert herself even though she lives in a culture that respects her status.
Tan’s story about An-Mei’s mother has many autobiographical elements. Tan’s grandmother had married a scholar. After his death, she too became the victim of a lecherous man who made her his concubine. As a result, society shunned her, and her family turned their backs on her. Suffering as a helpless victim of circumstances, she committed suicide by consuming a rice cake stuffed with opium.
The chapter highlights two themes: the abuse of power, especially between the sexes, and appearance versus reality. Both Wu Tsing and Ted abuse their power by exploiting women who are too weak to resist. Both men also hide behind the cloak of appearances. The glamorous world of the rich merchant, with his grandiose mansion, hides a world of sin. However, when An-Mei is taken there as a child, she immediately sees through the appearances and senses that something is terribly wrong in this wealthy world where her mother is treated so poorly. Ted also hides behind appearances. For a long time, he is involved in an affair although he pretends that his marriage is in tact. When Rose learns the truth about her husband, she is crushed by the reality.
The theme of appearance vs. reality is further developed through the second
wife of Wu Tsing, who lives in a world of pretension. Though she cannot
biologically bear a child, she feigns to be the mother of An-Mei’s half-brother.
She also gifts An-Mei with pearls that look real and enchanting; in reality,
they are made of inexpensive glass. When An-Mei crushes the cheap imitation
pearls, she is asserting her independence. Now she wants her daughter,
and all the other oppressed women of the world, to rise up and stand against
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