Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter is an autobiographical account, though it is written in the third person, of a Chinese American girl’s growing up in California in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Like many coming-of-age stories, this one concentrates on how the subject chooses a career, establishes viable relations with her parents, and develops a life philosophy adequate to both her ancestry and the new situation she faces. Ironically, though much of the conflict in the book is generated by Jade’s struggle to break with the role of obedient Chinese daughter—a role that her father most demands that she play—ultimately Jade’s desire to be an independent woman is rooted in her father’s advanced views on women, which had already separated him from his own generation.

Wong’s work differs from those of later Chinese American women writers in centering the protagonist’s desire for more autonomy in the Chinese milieu rather than in a conflict between Asian and American environments. For example, in The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991), by Amy Tan, the daughter’s distance from her mother is based in the fact that her mother grew up in China and she grew up in California, so they “necessarily” have opposed views on interfamilial relations. Wong, on the other hand, shows that her independent streak was formed before she was even exposed to American life.

Although she does go to American schools, until she enters...

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Fifth Chinese Daughter Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Wong came of age at a time when women were playing an increasing part in economic life. With the United States’ entrance into World War II, there was a new demand for production, particularly of military supplies, at the same time that there was a drain on the male employment pool, since men went into the armed services in droves. Women obtained work in all fields of heavy industry and earned the respect that went with such employment. Further, and even more important for understanding Wong, China was an ally of the United States in the war, and Chinese citizens were viewed as members of a loyal minority who were contributing in their own way to American life.

Because of this situation, Wong’s autobiography had much more impact on race relations than on women’s issues. In fact, the book was popular with the U.S. government because it described no instances of racial prejudice (except for a racial taunt hurled in grammar school). Eager to disseminate this picture of America as a land of ethnic harmony, the State Department had the book translated into a number of Asian languages and sponsored Wong on a fifty-four-stop speaking tour of the Far East.

Later Asian American critics have looked askance at Wong’s rosy portrayal of Chinatown life. Wong, they point out, never discusses such things as the United States’ exclusionary immigration policies. Elaine Kim makes this charge in Asian-American Literature (1982), as well as...

(The entire section is 495 words.)

Fifth Chinese Daughter Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Each of the twenty-eight chapters of Fifth Chinese Daughter focuses on an episode that helped to shape Jade Snow Wong’s search for her own identity. Although the book is an autobiography, it is written in the third person because, according to Wong, using “I” would be terribly immodest for anyone reared according to the rules of Chinese propriety.

The first five chapters of the book describe Wong’s perception of the events and people in her life as a young child before the age of six in a Chinese-American household in San Francisco. Her world included only Chinatown and Chinese individuals. The focus of her life was the discovery of what was “proper” and “improper” behavior, and this determination was based on what actions brought punishment and what actions were not punished.

When Wong began public school at the age of six, she came into her first contact with Westerners and with American customs. She experienced racism for the first time when a schoolmate called her names. In fourth grade, in comparing Chinese and American customs, she began to doubt the ways of her parents for the first time. In chapters 5 through 16, the episodes chronicle her gradual rebellion against traditional Chinese customs. Wong experienced conflict between the Chinese custom of submerging one’s identity within that of the family and her own need to be an individual. She declared her independence after learning about traditional American...

(The entire section is 574 words.)

Fifth Chinese Daughter Bibliography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Chin, Frank. “Come All Ye Asian-American Masters of the Real and the Fake.” In The Big Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature, edited by Jeffery Paul Chan et al. New York: Meridian, 1991. Chin argues that Wong breaks with a proper Chinese literature in two ways: She chooses Christian Chinese as models rather than Chinese who remain with their ancestral religion, and she portrays Chinese men as either lifeless or inconsequential.

Hong, Maria, ed. Growing Up Asian American: An Anthology. New York: William Morrow, 1993.

Kim, Elaine. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982. Kim finds Wong’s very reticence about certain aspects of Chinese life admirable. Wong does not play up the Christianity or Americanization of her heroine. Kim does find the protagonists of Fifth Chinese Daughter manipulative, for by the end she is acting “Chinese” for Caucasians and “Caucasian” for Chinese.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. New York: Vintage Books, 1977. Kingston’s heroine follows a similar route to independence as Wong’s, by going back to Chinese tradition; however, Kingston does everything in a grander way. The Chinese woman’s traditional subservience is denounced more militantly, and the cultural values embraced by the heroine are more playfully distorted than in Wong’s book.

Ling, Amy. “Chinese American Women Writers: The Tradition Behind Maxine Hong Kingston.” In Redefining American Literary History. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1990.

Lowe, Pardee. Father and Glorious Descendant. Boston: Little, Brown, 1943. This was the first full-length second-generation Chinese memoir published in the United States, preceding Wong’s by seven years. The book is considered more Americanized than Wong’s, exhibiting Asians as quaint exotics and more blatantly extolling American values.

Tan, Amy. The Kitchen God’s Wife. New York: Putnam, 1991. Tan’s book is not so much about a daughter combining Chinese and American tradition—the daughter is too Americanized for that—but about her coming to appreciate her mother’s experience. In appreciating it, she comes to value some of the same things in Chinese culture that Wong does.