InChina Men, Maxine Hong Kingston tells the stories of her male relatives who came to America. The opening chapter, “Our Fathers,” signals her intention to embrace the community of Chinese immigrants. She challenges readers to reconsider the Eurocentric version of American history by bringing to their attention the contributions of Chinese to the building of America.
Kingston weaves her narrative from a poetic association of folklore, fantasy, and fact. In “On Discovery,” she relates a Chinese legend: the arrival in North America of Tang Ao during the reign of the Empress Wu (694-705). Captured and forced to become a transvestite, feet bound, face powdered and rouged, ears studded with jade and gold, Tang Ao was forced to serve meals to the court. The bewildering experience of this precursor is a metaphor for the emasculation of Chinese men in America as racism disempowered them, forcing them to perform women’s tasks: laundering and cooking.
In America, Kingston’s forefathers find themselves off center as they are marginalized by U.S. laws. A chapter on laws, in the middle of China Men, documents the legislation and court decisions that, beginning in 1868, systematically excluded Chinese immigrants from normal treatment until 1958. Particularly dehumanizing was the law prohibiting the immigration of the wives and children of Chinese men working in America.
Originally conceived as a single work, The Woman Warrior and China Men express two halves of the whole of Kingston’s life and her heritage, attempting reconciliation with, first, female ancestors and, second, with male ancestors. While Kingston’s mother appears garrulous and larger than life, her father is taciturn and does not share his history with her, so his biography and motivations are approached more speculatively, with Kingston at times posing several possible variations for one event as well as different motivations. She says she hoped that the different paths she described would not only capture the choices Chinese men made historically but would also compel her father to share with her the facts of his personal journey. Though the narrative line in China Men is simpler, moving consistently toward the father, the book as a whole is much more of a study in American history and American racism than is The Woman Warrior.
The six major sections of the book follow two short introductory pieces, one a personal reflection about elusive fathers and the other a scathing feminist essay protesting ancient Chinese customs that degrade or torture women. Together, the two brief essays set the tone for the entire book: angry, speculative, magical, and powerful. Brief lyrical pieces that may or may not directly involve Kingston’s relatives close each major section. These generally use re-created and Americanized Chinese myths or history to express themes of deception, suffering, or isolation. The image of a man trading his son for a beloved daughter defies all Chinese logic and marks him as mad, but signals Kingston’s strategy: rewriting realities in order to underscore them. Horrific is her description of a man captured by women and forced to endure what Chinese women endured for centuries: painful, debilitating foot-binding. Re-created folktales, newspaper stories, and family stories mingled provide a variety of perspectives.
Kingston’s father is the subject of two central sections of the book. In the first major section, “The Father from China,” Kingston traces her father’s birth and childhood, his success at the excruciating Imperial Examinations, his marriage to a woman who would not kowtow to him, and his unsatisfactory job as a village schoolteacher. The reader is then given a “legal” and an “illegal” version of how her father came to the United States. In the illegal version, he crosses the ocean furtively, nailed inside a shipboard crate. The legal version has him detained by immigration officials in San Francisco before settling in New York City and opening a successful laundry. He is joined there by his wife after she finishes medical school, but when his business partners swindle him out of his share of the laundry, he and his wife move to California.
In “The Great Grandfather of the Sandalwood Mountains,” Kingston “talks story” about her great-grandfather Bak Goong, who was lured to Hawaii with promises of getting rich quick in the sugar cane and pineapple fields. His optimism, fueled by the aromatic flowers and plentiful fruit, is soon dampened by harsh plantation labor under...