When the Ghosts Speak: Oral and Written Narrative Forms in Maxine Hong Kingston's 'China Men.' (Special Issue: Varieties of Ethnic Criticism)
Slowik, Mary, MELUS
Maxine Hong Kingston begins China Men, her history of the Chinese immigration to America, with two peculiar chapters that suggest such a book is not easily written. The first chapter, "On Discovery," is the legend of Tang Ao, a Chinaman who sets off for America, the Gold Mountain, the land of infinite riches. Instead of finding America, he discovers rather the "Land of Women" where, in a grotesque parody of Chinese traditions, his feet are broken and bound, his ears are pierced, he is fed nothing but rice cakes and he enters into female enslavement. So much for discovery. For the Chinaman who thinks he can leave China, any sailing away from China is a sailing into China, its tradition enforced with a vengeance.
Chapter two, "On Fathers," suggests another kind of failed immigration. A young American girl and her sisters are waiting at their gate for their father to come home from work. They rush to greet him when he arrives, only to find out that they have greeted the wrong man, "from the back certainly looking like our father," but not him. Their mother reassures them, and they return to the sidewalk. Their father does finally come, but the chapter leaves us with the haunting image of a man who only from the back looks like the real father, a man easily mistaken. Some Chinese men may have escaped China after all, but if they are as elusive as Chinese fathers are to their daughters, their undertakings might never be known nor understood.
Maxine Hong Kingston places China Men in the middle of this gap between generations and countries. Her opening chapters ask two questions: Did the Chinese ever leave China culturally, and if so, can we ever know their story? The way these chapters are written, however, suggests even more difficult problems. At issue is not only a serious break in historical continuity, but the possibility of writing immigrant history at all. "On Discovery" is a folktale, evoking the authority of oral tradition, as it is revered, remembered, passed on, but also as it imprisons and ultimately destroys its characters. The first-person narration in "On Fathers," however, suggests a modern novelist's sensibility--isolated, subjective, and skeptical. To join the two stories, Maxine Hong Kingston must find the ground where oral and written traditions meet, where pre-literate and post-literate stories can question and ultimately free each other. That Kingston makes these issues of narrative as much the subject of her book as the history of the Chinese immigrants themselves establishes China Men as a seminal study in multi-cultural literature. The dilemmas of Tang Ao and the little girls are to some extent resolved--China Men of course has been written. How this happens is the subject of my study.
Let us look more closely at the narrative problems posed by Kingston in the opening chapters of China Men. "On Discovery" is not only a story about an aborted emigration, it is also a parable of fixed meanings. In a time outside of time, an omniscient voice speaking with the authority of fairy tale ("once upon a time"), historical document ("in the Women's land, there are no taxes and no war"), and scholarship ("some scholars say...") recounts the story of Tang Ao. There is an acknowledged agreement between narrator and audience. Everyone accepts without question the story to be told. The heroes and victims are unchanging in an unchangeable world. Their lives are fated as the story drives them unerringly to their pre-conceived ends. There are no alternatives to this story--for its characters or for its audience. Not only is "On Discovery" about a cultural paradigm gone tyrannical, it is also about a narrative form as enclosed and imprisoning as the story it tells.
On the other side of the self-enclosed omniscience of "On Discovery," however, is the self-enclosed subjectivity of "On Fathers." Although this chapter is particular, personal, and surrounded by the mystery of movement and flux (Participles, "waiting," "hastening," "pressing," replace the tense-less "once upon a time," of "On Discovery. …