Summary – Chapter One, ‘No Name Woman’
The narrative begins with a story told to the first-person narrator by her mother. She is told not to tell anyone what she is about to tell her, and proceeds to explain that her father had a sister in China and she killed herself by jumping into the family well: ‘We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born.’
The story is told how in 1924 there were 17 ‘hurry-up weddings’ (to make sure the men who were going away would come back). The narrator’s father, grandfather, uncles and her aunt’s new husband set off for the United States and sent money home when they were working.
The narrator’s mother noticed one day that her sister-in-law was pregnant. Nobody said anything, but her husband had been gone for years. On the night the baby was due to be born, the villagers raided their house and people walked across their land and tore up the rice. Some of them wore white masks and some had white bands around their foreheads, arms and legs. They threw mud and rocks and then eggs, and slaughtered their animals. They came in the house and smeared animal blood on walls and doors, and blood from a dead chicken was splattered around. They went to her room and ripped her clothes and possessions and tore up her work on the loom. She gave birth that night in the pigsty and in the morning the narrator’s mother found her and her baby ‘plugging up the family well’
Her mother tells the narrator this story when she begins to menstruate as she does not want ‘them’ to humiliate her. She also says how she would not like her to be forgotten like her aunt.
The narrator asks how, as a Chinese-American, she can distinguish between what is ‘Chinese tradition’ and ‘what is the movies’. Her mother tells her the ‘useful parts’ of stories and is powered by ‘Necessity’, which is ‘a riverbank that guides her life’.
She looks at this story about her aunt and sees adultery could be perceived as ‘extravagance’ in a time of poverty and having a daughter at such a time ‘was a waste enough’. She goes on to think her aunt did not choose, but was raped and wonders if ‘he’ masked himself ‘when he joined the raid on her family’. The narrator imagines he could have terrified her and how she was married and would have almost forgotten what her husband looked like. She also imagines the rapist organised the raid.
When the narrator’s mother and father talk about their lives back home in China, they sometimes speak of an ‘outcast table’, where ‘wrongdoers’ were made to eat alone. Her aunt should have been living with her in-laws, but was back at home with her family at the time of the raid. The narrator presumes her aunt would have eaten at this table.
Her aunt’s brother, husband, uncles and father ‘became Western men’ for some years and she was left to ‘keep the traditional ways’, ‘to maintain the past against the flood, safe for returning’. The narrator imagines her aunt as being in love and of her dreaming of her lover. She thinks of her combing her hair secretly at the beginning of the year and this was thought of as hexing beginnings. The narrator also imagines her as the ‘precious only daughter’ and as being welcomed back from her in-laws when her husband left.
The narrative shifts to the narrator considering how the immigrants she knows speak loudly, whereas she has tried to be different and what she calls ‘American-feminine’ and speaks ‘in an inaudible voice’.
Her aunt never told anybody the name of the father of her baby. The villagers punished her ‘for acting as if she could have a private life, secret and apart from them’. It was also a time of poverty and strife, and a time when adultery became a crime. The narrator thinks of how her aunt might have thought her child would not be able to find her grave with no marker and no descent line and so taking the baby to the well ‘shows loving’. The narrator also thinks the baby could have been a girl: ‘It was probably a girl; there is some hope of forgiveness for boys.’
The narrative cuts back to the narrator’s mother saying her to tell no one she had an aunt, and how her father does not want to hear her name: ‘She has never been born.’ The narrator sees this silence as a way of avoiding inciting the kinspeople against them ‘even here’. She also thinks it is a way of participating in her aunt’s punishment, and she says she has done this. She sees the ‘real punishment’ as the family ‘deliberately forgetting her’.
The chapter ends with the narrator saying her aunt haunts her and is now ‘devoting pages of paper’ to her (as others devote paper replicas of houses, cars and foods to their ancestors). She says she is not ‘telling on her’ and she was a ‘spite suicide’ in that she drowned herself in the drinking water: ‘The Chinese are always very frightened of the drowned one, whose weeping ghost, wet hair hanging and skin bloated, waits silently by the water to pull down a substitute.’
Analysis – Chapter One, ‘No Name Woman’
This first chapter is dominated by the story of the ‘no name woman’ of the chapter title. By breaking the silence surrounding her aunt’s life and death, the narrator refuses to participate in the family punishment and instead uses her story as a means to examine her aunt’s state of mind, and to privilege her for once by placing her at the centre of the narrative.
It should also be noted that the narrator is also a ‘no name woman’ in that she avoids referring to her own name. This work has generally been accepted as a an autobiography and a non-fiction book, but nevertheless the narrator avoids fully making this connection between author and narrator. Her ‘inaudible’ voice is, however, given the opportunity here to be heard and so breaks the silence she has previously associated with American femininity.
The privileging of males over females in her ancestors’ culture is also made emphatically apparent throughout this narrative, having been introduced in this first chapter. The author’s criticisms of patriarchy highlight how the unequal treatment of women occurs in both Western and Chinese cultures.