Representing history in Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife

Representing history in Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife

Bella Adams

“Historical literature” is often understood according to binary logic, with critics tending to privilege either phenomenalism or theoreticism. A phenomenalist approach assumes that historical literature is a reliable source of information about past experiences, and a theoretical approach argues that “‘events’ are never not discursively constituted and that the language of historiography is always also language” (Spivak, In Other Worlds 242). In short, historical literature is generally understood as either phenomenal fact or theoretical fiction. When imagined simply in terms of a binary opposition, both approaches are beset by limitations. It is the task of this discussion to examine these limitations via a reading of Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife, specifically the section narrated by Jiang Weili, otherwise known as Winnie Louie. This novel is valuable because in representing a particular period of Chinese history, namely Japan’s occupation of China during the 1930s and the 1940s as well as the Rape of Nanking (1937) it promotes an analysis that resists two equally conservative, if not downright oppressive, ideologies: neocolonialism and Japanese revisionism. These ideologies exploit phenomenalism and theoreticism respectively, allowing neocolonialists to factualize literature and Japanese ultranationalists to fictionalize history.

The Kitchen God’s Wife negotiates between these two extremes in terms compatible with deconstruction by generating a debate about the difficulty of referencing past experiences a la phenomenalism. This difficulty urgently needs addressing in the wake of holocaust denial if the historical record is to be set straight about what happened during the Sino-Japanese War. It is important to note that “difficulty” does not mean the end of history; rather, it necessitates a theoretical inquiry into the concept of history. Such an inquiry about how history is constructed, both ideologically and linguistically, makes possible a radical critique of Japan’s claim that the Rape of Nanking never happened. Iris Chang argues that this claim effectively perpetrates “A Second Rape” (199). Whether rape is a phenomenal fact or a theoretical fiction, it functions oppressively in both instances. The Kitchen God’s Wife responds to rape in this second sense inasmuch as it affords insights about “the [ideological] forces of history and the [linguistic] process by which history is made” (Chang 200). At no point in Tan’s novel is doubt cast on the phenomenality of the (first) Rape of Nanking. Arguably, The Kitchen God’s Wife addresses the fictionalization of rape to affect radically historical understanding of the factual rape, which in turn ensures that both events are brought into history.

Moreover, an attention to language, particularly the literary or the rhetorical dimension of language, enables a radical critique of neocolonialism, which (mis)uses “ethnic” (2) literature by valuing it merely for its capacity to teach dominant groups about “the really important things in life–Roots, Culture, Tradition, History, War, Human Evil” (Wong 200). An emphasis on language resists the neocolonialist effort to displace the literary dimension of The Kitchen God’s Wife. This displacement seems also to occur in this discussion, were it not for the fact that its theoretical insights respond to the novel’s complex negotiation of literariness. An emphasis on literary language does generate a problem, however, which Weili repeatedly highlights in her narrative. Theoretically speaking, she confronts the unreliability of linguistic structures as they simultaneously ratify and resist the production of reliable information about the phenomenal world.

Deconstruction responds to this resistance or the discontinuity between linguistic and natural reality, and thus stands accused of advocating “pure verbalism, … a denial of the reality principle in the name of absolute fictions, and for reasons that are said to be ethically and politically shameful” (De Man, Resistance 10). Although discontinuity is a condition, indeed, without it “we would never be able to ascertain whether the phenomenal … is really ‘out there'” (Godzich xiii), this does not mean that it is possible to abandon the ideological assumption of continuity between linguistic and natural reality. Such continuity is unavoidable because “the notion of a language entirely freed from referential constraints is properly inconceivable” (De Man, Allegories 49). Deconstruction, then, understands the phenomenal and the theoretical, the historical and the literary, and the factual and the fictional as “related but irreducibly discontinuous” (Spivak, “Subaltern” 275).

The preservation of a discontinuous relationship between these binary oppositions is as crucial for deconstruction as it is for The Kitchen God’s Wife. Were the latter not to negotiate between phenomenalism and theoreticism in such a manner, it would be forced to yield to either ideology or language, to either neocolonialism or Japanese ultranationalism. Although imperialist ideologies, both western and Japanese, (3) are radically called into question via a reading of The Kitchen God’s Wife, this does not mean that Tan’s novel is outside ideology, an impossibility given that an ideological understanding of linguistic structures renders them continuous with the phenomenal world. That “fiction is also historical” and that “history is also fictive” (Spivak, In Other Worlds 244) enables The Kitchen God’s Wife to disable misrepresentations of Chinese history in terms that safeguard a future for debate on history, literature, and historical literature. This debate, along with this particular discussion of Tan’s novel, depends for its future on resisting the binary logic of either phenomenalism or theoreticism.

A phenomenalist response to The Kitchen God’s Wife understands it as representing a particular period in world history, most notably Japan’s illegal occupation of China during the 1930s and the 1940s. More specifically, Tan’s novel charts the movement of the Japanese military from Shanghai to Nanking, along with its bombing raids on so-called “safe place[s] … almost to the edge of China” (277). China’s transformation from dynasty to republic(s) is also discussed, as are the internal conflicts that both preceded and succeeded the Sino-Japanese War: “The old revolutionaries, the new revolutionaries, the Kuomintang and the Communists, the warlords, the bandits, and the students–gwah! gwah! gwah!–everybody squabbling, like old roosters claiming the same sunrise” (205). The Kitchen God’s Wife lends itself to “information retrieval” (Spivak, Postcolonial 9) inasmuch as it represents an unknown, if not a forgotten, history, which includes the Rape of Nanking by the Japanese:

Raped old women, married women, and little girls, taking turns with

them, over and over again. Sliced them open with a sword when they

were all used up. Cut off their fingers to take their rings. Shot

all the little sons, no more generations. Raped ten thousand,

chopped down twenty or thirty thousand, a number that is no longer

a number, no longer people. (295)

As atrocious as this account is, it is conservative about what happened in China’s capital city. Indeed, it is estimated that “more than 260,000 noncombatants died at the hands of Japanese soldiers, … though some experts have placed the figure at well over 350,000.” The fact that this occurred in less than two months confirms that “the Rape of Nanking represents one of the worst instances of mass extermination” (Chang 4, 5).

Along with advancing historical knowledge about the Sino-Japanese War, The Kitchen God’s Wife is valuable on an ethico-political front. Indeed, the representation of the Rape of Nanking in literature potentially represents the 300,000 dead Chinese civilians. Extermination, together with exclusion from history by Japanese ultranationalists, ensures that these Chinese “cannot represent themselves; they must be represented” (Spivak, “Subaltern” 27677). Arguably, The Kitchen God’s Wife takes up this ethico-political task in defiance of Japan’s claim that the Rape of Nanking never happened.

The targeting of this event perhaps owes more to current intervention by Chinese and Chinese American scholars, historians, writers, artists, and computer hackers into the debate about Japan’s worst wartime atrocity than it does to a reading of The Kitchen God’s Wife. This is because Tan’s novel does not seem to accord special status to the Rape of Nanking; in slightly more than one page “we learn … the news about Nanking” (294). This apparently insubstantial account raises the problem of Chinese history functioning as little more than a “backdrop” (Wong 200). The relegation of the Rape of Nanking to backdrop demands criticism because it inadvertently contributes to the second rape. As brief as The Kitchen God’s Wife is on what happened in Nanking, this does not necessarily entail the displacement of larger historical issues in accordance with a Cold War ideology that effectively sanctioned holocaust denial. This ideology required the forgetting of Japanese atrocities, a forgetting that the Chinese communist government also perpetrated by isolating itself from the international community, so that the West and its new militaristic and politico-economic ally, Japan, could “better challenge communism in Asia” (Chang 182). It is possible to understand the brevity of the Rape of Nanking in The Kitchen God’s Wife apart from Japanese, Cold War, and Orientalist versions of Chinese history.

The Kitchen God’s Wife as obscuring Chinese history in terms that are ultimately compatible with Orientalism is forcefully argued by Sau-ling Cynthia Wong in “‘Sugar Sisterhood’: Situating the Amy Tan Phenomenon.” It is her contention that relegating Chinese history to backdrop “obscures the role of the West in causing the very historical catastrophes” (199) featured in Tan’s novel. Yet, Wong obscures The Kitchen God’s Wife because she leaves unacknowledged its mention of the West’s part in enabling Japan’s occupation of China. For example, Britain’s closure of the Burma Road ensured that the supplies needed to resist the Japanese were unavailable to the Chinese.

And the Americans were just as bad. One day they were bragging

how they were our good friends–Our Chinese pals, they said….

But the next day we heard the American companies were doing a big

business with the Japanese, selling them gasoline and metal for

airplanes–the same ones that were dropping bombs all over

China. (360)

The fact that The Kitchen God’s Wife makes explicit reference to the conduct of both the British and the Americans during the Sino-Japanese War does implicate the West in China’s historical catastrophes.

While Wong’s argument about obscuring western involvement is easily undone via a reading of Tan’s novel, her remarks concerning an obscured Chinese history as indulging the Orientalism of western readers are perhaps more difficult to problematize. This is because reading holds few guarantees, as Wong concedes but later dismisses. She recognizes that Tan’s readers are of “differing persuasions” (203), although she ultimately sees them as more or less united in their Orientalism, hardly surprising given that, in her opinion, The Kitchen God’s Wife uncritically “repackag[es] Orientalism” (197). Such repackaging involves sparing readers the bloody details of the Sino-Japanese War so that “the enormity of Chinese suffering is … made safe for literary consumption” (Wong 198). The alienation of readers via uncomfortable representations of atrocity is best avoided, particularly as “glamorize[d] suffering” (Wong 199) is “very popular now, nothing shameful in that” (Tan 92). It even “ennobl[es]” (Wong 199) the East and by implication the West, albeit at the expense of larger historical issues. According to Wong, the aestheticization of Chinese history makes it palatable, along with reinforcing the Orientalist binary opposition between eastern barbarity and western civility.

Wong’s argument undoubtedly makes sense, particularly in light of mainstream responses to Tan’s novel. However, it is also worth considering other reasons for The Kitchen God’s Wife’s one-page account of the Rape of Nanking. These other reasons complicate the representation of atrocity, along with calling into question the assumption that Tan’s novel obscures a violent historical event because of an uncritical determination to repackage Orientalism. That the Rape of Nanking represents one moment in years of widespread hostilities towards the Chinese perhaps explains why The Kitchen God’s Wife resists singularity regarding the Sino-Japanese War. Spatial and temporal boundaries are also exceeded during this war mainly because it does not confine itself to a frontline in accordance with “norms” of warfare.

For example, Japan is represented as repeatedly attacking both city and country: “bomb Kunming in the morning, Chungking in the afternoon” and “in almost every village, it seemed, were rows of one-story clay houses, with their middles crushed in, or their roofs torn off, or the walls on one side all fallen down” (Tan 371, 405). The movement of the narrative beyond Shanghai and Nanking via the representation of “taonan” (259), an (almost) untranslatable word that is used to describe the desperate attempt by all Chinese to “‘Escape! Escape!’–nothing else, day and night” (260), reinforces the notion that the Japanese are indiscriminate about where, when, and who they attack. That all Chinese are affected by taonan allows The Kitchen God’s Wife to include typically marginalized experiences of war, namely those of women and children. Affecting a diversity of people, albeit to different degrees, the war is “an epidemic” (359), problematizing all manner of boundaries even after the Japanese are defeated: “the war was like a bad illness, and when it was over, it did not mean everybody suddenly became healthy again” (437). Moreover, The Kitchen God’s Wife in and of itself articulates the impossibility of a postwar situation: “sweep away last year’s dust and all bad feelings …–as if it were so easy!” (90). These examples go some way towards explaining why Tan’s novel resists representing a discrete historical event.

Another possible explanation has to do with the fact that “the so-called artistic representation of the sheer physical pain of people being beaten to the ground by rifle-butts contains, however remotely, the power to elicit enjoyment out of it” (Adorno 189). In other words, bloody details potentially titillate, marginalizing the horror of the Rape of Nanking in that which supposedly grants it central status. By representing this event in minimal terms, The Kitchen God’s Wife arguably reduces the risk of enjoyment and titillation. Such minimalism also accords with Rey Chow’s comment about “the futility of intellectual discourse at the moment of shock…. This experience shocks us out of our assumed categories of thinking” (82). For instance, aesthetic categories enable the transformation of taonan into a “Chinese Gone with the Wind” (Wong 200). However, The Kitchen God’s Wife problematizes such categorization and, indeed, all conceptual categories by drawing attention to the way in which the horror of a surprise bombing raid resists “smart thoughts” (375):

I did not know whether I had fallen or whether the explosion had

pushed me down, whether one second had passed, or one day…. I

thought maybe I was dreaming, because people were walking slowly,

as if they were still dreaming too. Or perhaps we were dead and now

waiting to go to the next world…. And lying on the rooftops and in

the road were all the things that … I did not want to recognize.


This unwillingness, if not inability, to aestheticize trauma is also acknowledged in connection to the Rape of Nanking: “I tried to imagine it. And then I fought to push it out of my thoughts” (295). The devastating impact of this event is also suggested by a difference of perspective, one that understands war as affective only in terms of death: “What happened in Nanking, I couldn’t claim that as my tragedy. I was not affected. I was not killed” (295).

Wong also proposes that Chinese history is marginalized in The Kitchen God’s’ Wife because it is used as “a foil for personal dramas” (200). Weili’s personal experiences are represented, experiences that are told in a domestic setting to her American-born daughter, Pearl Louie Brandt. In addition to discussing Japan’s hostility towards China, Weili articulates her experiences at the hands of the monstrous Wen Fu. The Kitchen God’s Wife represents both the Rape of Nanking and the rape of Weili, drawing attention to the similarities between the Japanese military and a Chinese husband. For instance, neither Japan nor Wen Fu atone for their crimes, and both outrageously “assume the role of the victim” (Chan 21). Indeed, they distort events in order to represent themselves as receiving the “bashing.” With respect to The Kitchen God’s Wife, the patriarchal institutions of marriage and of law operate to ensure that Wen Fu’s version of things stands. As he puts it to the court, Weili “had given up a respectable life, turned [her] back on [her] father, let [her] own son die–all because [she] was crazy for American sex” (478). Judith Caesar remarks that this understanding of Weili as a child-killer, a thief, and a whore “is as true as the printed leaflets the Japanese drop on Nanjing, explaining that civilians will not be harmed” (169).

However, the conflation of the rape of a city and the rape of a woman is problematic to the extent that the latter potentially detracts from the former, which is Wong’s concern. Subjectivity in relation to history raises the question of reliability. Aside from the fact that individuals died, the bringing together of the suffering generated by Japanese imperialism and by Chinese patriarchy is rhetorically effective. As Caesar notes, Weili’s personal experience conveys “a sense of the type of suffering that Tan suggests only metaphorically or seemingly incidentally–the Nanjing massacre, for instance” (169). Caesar also recognizes that representing the individual in history follows a current trend in American narrative: “personal emotional crisis … is the only suffering interesting enough to write about” (169). Although offering a powerful critique of imperialist and patriarchal ideologies, The Kitchen God’s Wife apparently legitimates the ideology of western liberal humanism.

Once again, Tan’s novel demands further analysis because it makes possible a critical negotiation of this ideology insofar as the individual (western liberal humanism’s principal figure) is assumed reliable regarding historical events only in terms of a rhetorical effect. Weili’s Chinese identity, together with the fact that she is an American, Winnie Louie, potentially works to her advantage. Indeed, the (liberal) West’s preoccupation with imparting individuality to the “native” empowers Weili to speak, albeit as “the Chinese woman.” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak remarks on her own experience of this native populism, an experience that can also be extended to Weili: “A hundred years ago it was impossible for me to speak, for the precise reason that makes it only too possible for me to speak in certain circles now” (Postcolonial 60). That the oppressed are considered epistemically advantaged regarding the condition of oppression adds weight to Weili’s account of things: “Of course it’s a true story” (201). These narrative conventions are seductive in their affect, convincing Tan’s readers about the reliability of Weili’s historical representation. Commenting on this type of effect, Spivak observes that “the narrative takes on its own impetus as it were, so that one begins to see reality as non-narrated. One begins to say that it’s not a narrative, it’s the way things are” (Postcolonial 19).

As useful as The Kitchen God’s Wife is with respect to historical point of view, it should be increasingly apparent that phenomenalism is limited. Indeed, this approach to history imagines that suffering “shine[s] through the window of words” (MacCabe 8). Wong’s critique highlights the point that historical events are not easily represented and that the suffering of the Chinese is marginalized in the very discourse that supposedly accords it privileged status. Developing Wong’s argument further, perhaps in ways that resist her understanding of The Kitchen God’s Wife, it is possible to claim that Tan’s novel promotes a reading that raises the theoretical question of representation. In so doing, it resists the neocolonial understanding of “ethnic” literature as a “window on the world” (McAlister 106). Aside from mimesis, neocolonialists assign didactic and “psychospiritual” (Wong 200) functions to “ethnic” literature. Traditional aesthetic categories are sanctioned, perhaps explaining why “ethnic” literature is allowed into the larger literary canon. This canon is preserved because it determines a priori the meaning and functions of “ethnic” literature in a colonizing gesture designed ultimately to affirm its own aesthetico-ideological assumptions.

However, the fact that The Kitchen God’s Wife raises theoretical questions about the unreliability of mimesis or phenomenalism jeopardizes the authority of the larger literary canon. Mimesis is unreliable because “the production of discourse which … fully adequate[s] the real” (MacCabe 8) depends on an ideological understanding of the relationship between linguistic and natural reality. Such adequacy is ideological to the extent that it “confuse[s] … reference with phenomenalism” (De Man, Resistance 11). Nowhere is this confusion more obvious than when “ethnic” literature is “use[d] … entirely for lessons outside of literature” (Tan in Stanton 7). The ideological implications of assuming that “ethnic” literature references reliably are discussed by Melanie McAlister: “what is reinforced is a simplistic and condescending attitude toward ‘ethnic art,’ one that requires that representations of, and by, ‘the Other’ be contained and presented as information, rather than as any challenge to the aesthetic of the mainstream” (106).

It is also worth noting that a movement from neocolonial criticism to postcolonial critique is possible if the ideological underpinnings of mimesis and by implication the larger literary canon are unmasked. The Kitchen God’s Wife promotes a movement of this kind because it refuses to be contained and represented simply as historical information. Indeed, Tan’s novel enables a postcolonial critique in the sense that it problematizes traditional aesthetic categories by promoting theoretical insights about representing history. Although resistance to phenomenalism is beneficial from a postcolonial perspective, the movement towards theoreticism is potentially problematic.

For example, a theoretical engagement with history seems to cast doubt on the phenomenality of the Rape of Nanking. Theory represents too much of a risk because it appears to perpetrate the second rape. This link between theory, particularly deconstruction, and dubious ideologies is acknowledged by radical theorists. As Spivak notes, “deconstruction get[s] it in the rear from radicals” (“Neocolonialism” 238). These “radicals” support their argument by highlighting the fact that an important theorist of deconstruction, Paul de Man, collaborated with a Belgian pro-Nazi newspaper between 1940 and 1942. Some proclaim that “the wartime writings are to be interpreted as virtually complicitous with … deconstruction, and at least one commentator has gone so far to argue that the complex work of deconstruction serves to veil an implicitly National Socialist ethos” (Burke 3). From this particular perspective, theory accords with ultranationalism, involving itself not only with “Nanking. Dachau” (Auden 154) but also with holocaust denial. A theoretical approach to history thus risks reducing it to absolute fiction, a notion that is further enforced by different eyewitness accounts of Japanese atrocities.

Arguably, the second rape constitutes something of an inevitability because the representation of the Rape of Nanking really already involves misrepresentation, although not necessarily to the extent of Japanese revisionism. A similar scenario happens in The Kitchen God’s Wife when Weili is forced to acknowledge the unreliability of eyewitnesses or, alternatively, the unreliability of phenomenalism as the basis of historical understanding. For example, Wen Fu hits his wife at a dinner party and their guests do nothing. “And as I bowed and begged, cried and knocked my head on the floor, I was thinking. Why doesn’t anyone help me? Why do they stand there, as if I were truly wrong?” (319). Her beaten body does not generate the expected response. Yiku’s death is another case in point. She becomes dangerously ill while Wen Fu is at a friend’s house playing mah jong. A doctor is also present. Unable to nurse her daughter back to health, Weili is forced to seek the doctor’s help. Her interruption is not welcome: “‘Play! Keep playing! My wife is exaggerating…. If she dies, I wouldn’t care!’ he [Wen Fu] shouted” (336). Wen Fu instructs Weili to leave. However,

Yiku’s body was throwing itself up into the air, trying to jump out

of my arms…. ‘You stupid woman!’ Wen Fu shouted, then cursed.

‘Why didn’t you tell me she was this way? What kind of mother are

you!’ He acted as if he had forgotten everything! And not one person

in that room said, ‘You’re lying. Just one hour ago, she told you.’


What these two events reveal is that a beaten woman and a dying child do not function as evidence of suffering. In this context, their bodies fail to signify in a way that acknowledges both Weili’s and Yiku’s pain.

Mother and daughter bear the marks of abuse on their bodies, but this is not enough to call into question the authority of Wen Fu’s interpretation. As Weili is forced to concede, “how foolish I was! To think my body was my own,” particularly when words like “nuisance” and “rape” cannot be used about him (393, 324, 328). Describing a similar situation, Spivak says of an oppressed woman: “She had tried to represent herself, through self-representation of the body, but it had not come through” (“Subaltern” 306). Indeed, physical pain counts for little because Wen Fu (mis)represents himself as master of signification. He puts paid to Weili’s belief that suffering is transparently mediated. Moreover, her body is meaningful irrespective of her meaning. Not only does Wen Fu determine Weili’s bodily feelings and functions through physical manipulation, he also manages the sign system, assisted by powerful institutions such as the law and the media, in order to represent himself as violated by the loss of his son, wife, and property. During Weili’s trial these patriarchal institutions accept and promote Wen Fu’s “lies” (478), effectively permitting a sexual/textual violator to transform himself into the violated. Here, then, Chinese patriarchy is so powerful in its affect that there is no structure, no language even, for “criticiz[ing] men or the society they ruled, or Confucius, that awful man who made society” (325).

The unreliability of phenomenalism is also significant in relation to the larger issue of the Rape of Nanking. Like Wen Fu, the Japanese powerfully establish the meaning of historical events, albeit with the assistance of the West and China. Indeed, violence against a wife and a daughter fails to signify oppression mainly because significance is decided a priori by an abusive man, supported by patriarchal ideology. This situation is also discernible with respect to Japanese atrocities. Indeed, patriarchy and imperialism determine in advance the conditions of intelligibility for what happened to Chinese men, women, and children during the Sino-Japanese War. In this context, it would be naive for The Kitchen God’s Wife to utilize phenomenalism in the hope of setting the historical record straight because Japanese ultranationalism apparently appropriates all possible interpretations. A phenomenalist approach to history, although enabling The Kitchen God’s Wife to expose and to correct the Japanese misrepresentation of Chinese history, is compromised because the forces and processes that effected this misrepresentation in the first place are not liable to a radical critique. Whether the impetus behind Tan’s novel is to make historical discourse live up to its claim of impartiality or to limit historical misrepresentation out of an ethico-political concern, it is unlikely to achieve these objectives by uncritically adhering to phenomenalism. Hence the movement in The Kitchen God’s Wife away from a phenomenalist historical approach that takes for granted the reliable functioning of linguistic structures vis-a-vis past experiences.

If it is possible to imagine that The Kitchen God’s Wife constitutes an attempt to do something about the rape of Weili, the Rape of Nanking, and the second rape, it is compelled to involve itself with the theoretical. Making a similar point, Spivak remarks that “if we are going to do anything about the phenomenon, we have no alternative but to involve ourselves and mire ourselves in what we are calling the textuality of the socius.” Spivak’s deconstructive analysis “displace[s] and undo[es] that killing opposition between the text narrowly conceived as the verbal text and activism narrowly conceived as some sort of mindless engagement” (Postcolonial 120-21). In other words, it resists the notion that theory is concerned with purely linguistic questions by acknowledging the tension between the phenomenal and the theoretical. With respect to the cover-up of Japanese atrocities, theory does not simply relegate these phenomena to backdrop, as some radical thinkers claim. Rather, it helps to account for why it is that “an event like the Rape of Nanking vanish[es] from Japan’s (and even the world’s) collective memory” (Chang 200). Arguably, a theoretical approach to history critically engages the second rape in order to bring an understanding of the Rape of Nanking into history.

The Kitchen God’s Wife lends itself to an interrogation of history from a theoretical viewpoint in two related ways. First, the link between history and ideologies is unmasked. For example, global politico-economic factors are revealed to play a significant part in effecting holocaust denial. The collaboration between the West and the Japanese during the Cold War, alongside their respective activities during the Sino-Japanese War, helps account for the denial of the Rape of Nanking. The fact that Chinese leaders did “the worst possible thing” of collaborating with or “bow[ing] to the Japanese” (Tan 417, 360) helps explain China’s unwillingness to discuss openly what happened during the Sino-Japanese War. As powerful as it is to point out “big mistake[s]” (Tan 417) in global history, there can be no getting away from the fact that this first approach is limited to the extent that it assumes the possibility of a non-ideological viewpoint.

This possibility is particularly problematic for Chinese women because “the Oriental” and “‘hsiao ren’ (inferior or small human beings)” (Ling 7) enable racist and sexist discourses to oppress them in the name of an apparently non-ideological viewpoint. To assume neutrality, impartiality, and objectivity is to sanction the ideological categories that a Chinese woman like Weili should be calling into question. As it turns out, The Kitchen God’s Wife does problematize an understanding of history that uncritically adheres to the logic of dominant ideologies. For instance, Weili doubts the possibility of “independence, individual thinking, do what you want” (162). In so doing, she criticizes the assumption of a non-ideological history, together with unmasking the link between this particular understanding of history and the ideology of individualism. Moreover, Weili highlights the way in which a non-ideological history is compromised ethically inasmuch as it achieves authority through tactics of exclusion, if not indifference: “do what you want” and “That’s not my problem” (162, 459). It is no small wonder, then, that neutrality, impartiality, and objectivity fail to resonate with Weili in her representation of past experiences:

I could not make just one choice. I had to make two…. You are

not choosing one thing over another. You are choosing what you

want. And you are also choosing what somebody else does not want,

and all the consequences that follow. You can tell yourself, That’s

not my problem, but those words do not wash the trouble away.


In other words, Weili cannot help but privilege one experience over others, although she acknowledges that consequences follow in marked contrast to the independent thinking of a non-ideological history.

The limitations of exposing the link between history and ideologies necessitate a second approach, which looks at the way in which historical understanding is effected. The Kitchen God’s Wife raises the theoretical question of history as effect through a consideration of language, particularly the rhetorical dimension of language. In other words, there seems to be some sort of relationship between the historical and the literary. It is the nature of this relationship that Tan’s novel interrogates, most radically when it offers two incompatible representations of one event. Doubt is cast on Weili’s version of the build-up to the Rape of Nanking by contrasting it with Long Hulan’s (Helen Kwong’s). After the Japanese drop propaganda leaflets on Nanking, Hulan steals a pedicab in order to escape from the ensuing chaos. She fails to recall her actions: “how can you accuse me of stealing something? I never stole anything!” What is more, Hulan has happy memories of Nanking. “Isn’t this strange?”, comments Weili, “We were at the same place, at the same time. For me this was one of the worst moments of my life” (274-75). In addition, Hulan’s version of the events in Nanking seems reliable because it concurs with history, as represented by Japan. Things would have certainly been much nicer for Weili if this and other experiences fitted in with Hulan’s stories: “I sometimes believe they are true. That Jimmy [and not Wen Fu] was my first and only husband. That she introduced him to me in Shanghai. She was a witness at my wedding” (82). As well as offering Weili the possibility of comfort, Hulan’s stories are difficult to challenge because they are irrational: “How can I argue with Helen’s memory?” and “How could I argue with someone who makes no sense?” (320, 92). Two eyewitnesses advance contradictory readings of the same event, which in turn renders each history vulnerable, a vulnerability that is compounded because Weili and Hulan “have changed the past many times, for many reasons” (69). Developing this logic, it seems that both women have participated in the second rape.

The Kitchen God’s Wife seems to have reached an aporia that has serious epistemological and ethico-political implications. This situation is not merely due to the impact of dominant ideologies on historical representation; rather, the impossibility of perfect equivalence between the theoretical and the phenomenal or between linguistic and natural reality is a built-in constituent of history. The related difficulties of forgetting and of remembering, together with the problems that representation itself generates, compromise the rendering of history into literature. More precisely, The Kitchen God’s Wife begins with Weili wanting to forget, although this proves impossible because her attempt to isolate her past experiences in China is interrupted most obviously by Hulan’s threat to “let all … secrets out” (83). Hulan assumes that disclosure brings about closure with respect to Chinese history. However, The Kitchen God’s Wife resists this logic, underwriting the point that secrets “remain inviolable even when one thinks one has revealed [them]” (Derrida 21). Absolute remembering, like absolute forgetting, is impossible, a situation that is exacerbated because “no one would understand even if [Weili] could explain it all” (78). Historical representation is thus unable to bridge the gap between itself and past experiences adequately enough to make possible reliable understanding on the parts of both Weili and her audience, hardly surprising given that it is dealing with two different entities: the phenomenal and the theoretical, the historical and the literary or past experiences and linguistic structures.

Moreover, it seems that “the insidiously figural, rhetorical nature of discourse will always intervene to break up this felicitous marriage” (Eagleton 200), as is shown in The Kitchen God’s Wife. Signifier and signified most obviously fail to coincide between speakers of different languages. At a big banquet in honor of Chinese fighter pilots, an American general makes an announcement: “With your help, we won’t be sending the Japanese back to Japan, but to kingdom come.” That the Americans say one thing and the Chinese understand another is emphasized when the pilots think that the general is asking them to “give the Japanese a new kingdom” (204). Misreading also occurs between Chinese speakers. The old-style painting in her father’s study confuses Weili. He recalls her response: “You could not tell if the lady playing the lute was singing a happy or a sad song. You could not tell if the woman carrying the heavy load was beginning her journey or ending it” (177). Weili compares this ambiguous painting to her father: “His meaning it was like the painting, changing at each moment” (178).

The difference between linguistic and natural reality, together with the movement of rhetoric, problematizes the possibility of closure in relation to theorizing a painting, another person, and past experiences. Hence The Kitchen God’s Wife is embroiled in a number of aporias: between seeing and telling, between self and other, and between event and discourse. Aporia is a condition, but it ultimately proves unsustainable. More specifically, an aporetic discontinuity between the phenomenal and the theoretical is necessarily the case, although continuity cannot help but be imagined. Continuity is most dramatically articulated when Japan’s fictionalization of Chinese history is so powerful that it constitutes a second rape. In other words, the discontinuity between signifier, signified, and referent is exploited in such a way as to generate this second rape via the assumption of continuity between Japanese revisionism and Chinese history.

It is important to note that a simultaneous emphasis on discontinuity and continuity between linguistic and natural reality does not necessarily strengthen reactionary ideologies. Indeed, there is the possibility of a radical alternative, one that acknowledges the way in which the referential function of language engenders a meaning about past experiences that is simultaneously resisted. Resistance occurs because historical understanding depends for its production on a linguistic or, more precisely, a rhetorical effect. It is because rhetoric moves unreliably, both enabling and disabling the meaning of historical events, that finality regarding past experiences is prohibited. Prohibition on this count ensures that neither Japan nor China has the final word on the Sino-Japanese War, apart from ideology. This would be a problem, particularly for the Chinese, were it not for the fact that an insight about the contradictory movement of the rhetorical dimension of language is “a powerful and indispensable tool in the unmasking of ideological aberrations, as well as a determining factor in accounting for their occurrence” (De Man, Resistance 11).

A tool of this kind is particularly useful when mounting a radical critique of the second rape of Nanking. Japan is empowered to determine world history because it secures what seems to be a natural link between its revisionist account of past experiences and the Rape of Nanking. However, the insight that this link is established apart from nature empowers others to challenge holocaust denial by attending to both its linguistic and its ideological under-pinnings. What this promotes, in relation to the aporetic situation that The Kitchen God’s Wife finds itself in as a result of Weili’s and of Hulan’s radically different historical representations of the build-up to the Rape of Nanking, is an understanding of the impossibility of remaining fully embroiled in an aporia because the referential function of language forces meaning. Indeed, “a variety of textual and contextual factors (grammar, lexicology, tradition, usage, tone, declarative statement, diacritical marks, etc.)” (De Man, Allegories 201) make possible historical understanding.

For example, “deixis is the linguistic mechanism that permits the articulation of … distinctions between the here and the there, the now and the then” (Godzich xv). The referential capacity of deixis also establishes a link between Weili’s final encounter with Wen Fu and the experience of rape: “I did not say anything about the rape, although any smart person could have seen this: my hair, my torn dress, Wen Fu fastening his pants” (503). Deixis enables The Kitchen God’s Wife to refer to the Sino-Japanese War as well. From this perspective, phenomenalism is enabled by the theoretical, with “fiction-making … becom[ing] an ally of history” (Spivak, “Bonding” 28). As a linguistic mechanism or, more properly, a rhetorical mechanism, because it, like any trope or figure links different entities together, deixis also permits a “de-articulation,” which in turn renders Weili’s representation of past experiences vulnerable. In this sense, then, fiction-making becomes the “enemy” of history. As it turns out, however, the rhetorical dimension of language, because it moves “[b]ack and forth, this way and that” (Tan 223), enabling and disabling historical understanding simultaneously, ensures that there is a future for debate regarding the Sino-Japanese War. From ally to enemy and back to ally, tropes and figures disable a final understanding of past experiences thereby making possible history proper. History proper does not claim the final word on the Sino-Japanese War a la phenomenalism because it recognizes that its history is enabled by rhetorical effects and, as such, is ultimately unreliable. This does not mean that history proper leads to holocaust denial; rather, unreliability provides opportunity for representing history in all its heterogeneity.

More specifically, past experiences depend on linguistic structures to bring them into history. Nowhere is this more obvious than with the Rape of Nanking. For example, The Kitchen God’s Wife helps to ensure that this event does not “sink unremembered into history’s dark abyss” (Chan 21). Chang’s The Rape of Nanking does something similar in history. Without these kinds of representations of the Sino-Japanese War, there would be no understanding of Chinese history. However, it is also the case that the rendering of past experiences into language ensures that what happened is sunk or, indeed, raped in the sense that it is necessarily compromised by forgetting, by remembering, and by representation. In the words of Weili: “You are not choosing one thing over another. You are choosing what you want. And you are also choosing what somebody else does not want, and all the consequences that follow” (458). This vigilance about the limitations of representation in relation to the choices that The Kitchen God’s Wife unavoidably makes about the rape of a Chinese city and the rape of a Chinese woman helps to ensure that its articulation of these experiences does not bring history to a close. In addition, representation has consequences, consequences that “do not wash the trouble away” (459) because it entails the harmful marginalization of other experiences in all their heterogeneity.

By highlighting the necessity of choice and the inevitability of consequences, The Kitchen God’s Wife does not turn away either from history or from the possibility of meaning with regard to past experiences. It is not the case that Tan’s novel “absor[bs] … everything in the world into the world of discourse, the world of words, the world of texts … [and] is nothing more than another linguistic caper” (Spivak, Postcolonial 24-25). The theoretical analysis of the linguistic dimension of history is anything but frivolous considering that rhetoric plays a crucial role in effecting historical knowledge. History as representation is neither meaningless nor powerless in its impact on the world, as Japan’s second rape of Nanking demonstrates.

In addition to articulating the harmful impact of imperialist understandings of history, The Kitchen God’s Wife acknowledges the historical role played by patriarchal ideology in its moulding of Chinese women. As Weili puts it, “all those phrases about ladies with voices as pretty-sounding as lutes, skin as white as jade, their gracefulness flowing like calm rivers. Why did stories always describe women that way, making us believe that we had to be that way too?” (120). These stories objectify Chinese women, perhaps helping to explain why Japanese soldiers used them as “chamber pot[s]” (Tan 195) or “public toilets” (Chang 53) during the Rape of Nanking. Moreover, that these stories imagine Chinese women as having skin “the colour of summer peach” (120) could also help to account for them being eaten: “a [Japanese] sergeant-major raped and murdered a number of Chinese women. Then … he sliced off pieces from the women’s thighs, fried them and made a meal for the members of the unit” (Whymant 15). Whether historical or literary, dominant ideological representations violently determine the lives of the Chinese, most atrociously in the case of Chinese women.

It is therefore naive to claim that representation is at the expense of the past events featured in The Kitchen God’s Wife since it is precisely what brings them into history. This said, the linguistic structures history depends on are only reliable in terms of a literary effect, which at once ratifies and resists perfect equivalence between linguistic and natural reality. It is also important to note that literariness ensures that history as it is represented in The Kitchen God’s Wife is historical as opposed to being merely ideological. This is because literariness undoes the ideological attempt to make reliable pronouncements with respect to past experiences. Tan’s novel also lives up to the ethico-political responsibility imposed on it because it does not relinquish the possibility of understanding past experiences in a way that is resistant to ideological determination by imperialism, both western and Japanese, and by Chinese patriarchy.

In the final analysis, then, The Kitchen God’s Wife promotes vigilance with respect to the complexity of representing the Rape of Nanking and the rape of Weili, preserving the tension between past experiences and linguistic structures. The preservation of this tension makes possible the theoretical insight about phenomenalism as both inescapable and impossible, an impossibility that helps to ensure that history is properly historical. That historical literature engages theoretical concerns about the making of history without denying the phenomenality of atrocity empowers a radical critique of the second rape of Nanking, which in turn effects an understanding of the (first) Rape of Nanking apart from Japanese revisionism.


(1.) See Chang for “a full-length, narrative nonfiction[all” record of the Rape of Nanking in English: “In December 1937, in what was then the capital of China, one of the most brutal massacres in the long annals of wartime barbarity occurred. The Japanese army swept into the ancient city of Nanking (Nanjing) and within weeks not only looted and burned the defenceless city but systematically raped, tortured and murdered more that 300,000 Chinese civilians” (11, front flap).

(2.) “Ethnic” is problematized throughout this paper because it is relevant to all groups, not just marginal ethnic groups. That dominant groups typically envisage themselves apart from ethnicity ultimately functions to safeguard their privilege. Making a similar argument, albeit in the context of race, Russo remarks: “Typically when we (white women) raise the issue of racism, we tend to focus solely on the lives and experiences of women of color…. Not seeing race as a white issue is part of the privilege of being white” (299-300).

(3.) It is questionable whether the term “imperialist” is appropriate to Sino-Japanese relations of this period. Indeed, the Japanese government refuses to offer a written apology to the Chinese people for its wartime atrocities because it claims not to have actually colonized China. However, “Japan may not formally have colonised China, but it indubitably and illegally occupied it from 1931, when it invaded Manchuria, to 1945” (“A Debt Unpaid” 25). It is also possible to claim that “Imperialism can function without formal colonies (as in United States imperialism today)” (Loomba 7). For these two reasons “imperialist” is relevant to the relations between China and Japan at this time.

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Bella Adams works as a part-time lecturer at the Universities of Keele and Liverpool John Moores, UK. Her forthcoming book, Amy Tan, will be published shortly by Manchester UP as part of its Contemporary World Writers series.

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