Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 916
Ying-ying’s first husband: never named, Ying-ying called him “Uncle” when she first met him. He is murdered by a mistress
Ying-ying, the narrator, loves her daughter Lena, but they have never been close. She wants to tell her daughter everything about her life now in an effort to rescue Lena from herself.
The story flashes back to Ying-ying’s childhood. She says she was a wild, stubborn, and arrogant girl from a wealthy family. She met a coarse, drunken man the night her youngest aunt was married. The day after her aunt’s wedding, she saw a sign that convinced her she would marry him.
As they sat in a boat on Tai Lake not long after their marriage, Ying-ying fell in love with him and began to do everything just for him. She knew she was pregnant with a boy the night it happened, and she was very happy.
She began to worry when she noticed her husband taking more frequent and longer business trips, especially after she was pregnant. Eventually her youngest aunt told her he was living with an opera singer in the North. Even later she learned there had been many other women. In her grief and anger at being abandoned, she had an abortion. Ying-ying remarks ironically that Lena thinks she doesn’t know “what it means to not want a baby.”
Ying-ying was born in the year of the Tiger, and her tiger spirit helped her overcome adversity. The tiger’s colors symbolize its two sides: The gold side is powerful and active; the black side is shrewd and patient. She learned to be patient after her husband left her. Overcome by depression, she left her mother-in-law’s home and moved in with some cousins in the country outside Shanghai. She lived in crowded, dirty conditions for 10 years. Then she moved to the city and got a job selling women’s clothing.
Clifford St. Clair, an American clothing importer, introduced himself one day. Ying-ying found him unremarkable, but she also knew he was a sign that her life was about to change again.
Four years later a letter from her aunt told her that her husband was dead. Ying-ying “decided to let Saint marry [her].” She put aside her own spirit, her chi, because it had only brought her pain and describes herself as “a tiger that neither pounced nor lay waiting between the trees. I became an unseen spirit.” She came to America with him and raised a daughter with whom she did not feel close. She didn’t care, because she had no spirit. She can’t say she didn’t love her husband, but she says “it was the love of a ghost.”
Ying-ying wants to give Lena her tiger spirit, because, to Ying-ying’s shame, Lena has no chi. She can hear Lena and Harold talking downstairs. She knows that once she knocks over the vase and table, Lena will come upstairs. She says, “Her eyes will see nothing in the darkness, where I am waiting between the trees.”
The image that unites this story is that of the tiger. Ying-ying was born in 1914, a year of the Tiger. Her husband fills out her paperwork incorrectly when she enters the United States, we are told in “The Voice from the Wall,” but that does not change her from a Tiger to a Dragon.
According to the Chinese zodiac, which runs on a 12-year cycle, tigers have great courage. They are sensitive, emotional, kind to their friends, and capable of great love. They can also be mean and stubborn, and they do not trust easily. Many of these qualities describe Ying-ying.
As a child Ying-ying might be characterized as living in the golden, or yang, side of the tiger because she is very active. As a young woman she stubbornly believes she is too good for any one man. When she falls in love with her first husband, however, every action she takes is designed to please him.
When he abandons her for another, Ying-ying aborts his son. Here the reader learns the background for Ying-ying’s statement in “The Voice from the Wall” that the loss of her second son was her fault partly because “I had given no thought to killing my other son!” The years spent in the country may be seen as living in the black, yin, side of her tiger, passive and patient.
When the news of her first husband’s death comes 14 years later, she decides to marry Clifford St. Clair, whom she calls “Saint.” To do that, she says, “I willingly gave up my chi, the spirit that caused me so much pain.”
Chi describes not only force of personality, but also a sense of self-worth. When Ying-ying suppresses hers, Lena has no model to learn from. As a result both women are manipulated by their husbands without protest in “Rice Husband,” one linguistically and one financially. Ying-ying feels responsible that Lena will not speak up for herself. Before she dies, Ying-ying wants to pass on her chi, a final gift to Lena.
In the closing scene, she summons the pain she has avoided to fashion a metaphoric weapon. Lena, born in 1950 and also a Tiger, will resist her mother because she does not see what Ying-ying sees. The end of “Rice Husband” suggests that Lena is beginning to see that change is needed, however, so the reader is hopeful for both women’s sakes.
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