Themes and Meanings
The role reversal in which Tang Ao, the male warrior, becomes womanized involves a three-part discovery. First, Kingston protests against the ancient Chinese custom of foot-binding, the products of which were considered marks of beauty, although they rendered women virtually helpless. If the protagonist in “On Discovery” had been a woman, the impassioned description of the horrors and humiliations of the ritual would not be a story at all but merely a history lesson. By making the subject a man, and a warrior at that, Kingston forces the reader to participate imaginatively in each painful step of the hobbling procedure and thereby elevates the event to mythic stature.
The second discovery involves the role reversals that actually took place among the Chinese American immigrants about whom Kingston writes. Chinese men typically left their homeland and traveled to the New World alone until they earned enough money to send for their wives and children. This process often took decades, emptying whole villages of men so that the women left behind were forced to assume governance of both family and town. Thus, a strong matriarchal society arose in certain Cantonese villages. This historical situation becomes the impetus for the imaginary Land of Women society in which the empress Wu allows her subjects alternately to shackle, make fun of, torture, and soothe the hapless Tang Ao.
The third discovery illustrates the intense loneliness of the Chinese male immigrant, or wandering sojourner. Tang Ao, searching alone for the Gold Mountain, a reference to the California gold mines, is further isolated by the strange, unpredictable land in which he is held captive. The isolation of Tang Ao, then, symbolizes the suffering of tens of thousands of Chinese sojourners who came to the alien land of North America. Their survival, like the survival of Tang Ao, depended on their ability to accept both physical and psychological torture at the hands of alien captors.