Summary – Chapter Five, ‘A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe’
The first-person narrator tells how her brother said that he drove ‘Mom and Second Aunt’ to Los Angeles to see Aunt’s husband. He told one of their sisters the tale and the narrator says his version of the story might be better for its ‘bareness’ in comparison to hers, which is ‘twisted into designs’. She compares herself to the Chinese knot-maker who made his design so complex he blinded himself.
She shifts directly from this to say that this might be why her mother cut her tongue (her mother pushed it up and ‘sliced the fraenum’). She does not remember this happening and just remembers her mother telling her that she did this when she was a baby. Her mother says she did this so she would not be ‘tongue-tied’ and would be able to speak different languages (and did not do this to her siblings).
The narrator says if her mother is not lying about this, she should have cut more because she has ‘a terrible time talking’; or, she should not have tampered with her speech at all. The narrator became silent at Kindergarten when she had to speak English for the first time. Her voice stills cracks in two even when just casually saying hello. Her silence was total for three years at school and this was also the time when she covered her school paintings in layers and layers of black paint.
She recalls ‘the other Chinese girls did not talk either’ and so she ‘knew’ the silence ‘had to do with being a Chinese girl’. She can read aloud at this time and finds this is easier than speaking, but has trouble understanding ‘I’ and compares it to the intricacies of the seven strokes of the Chinese ‘I’. She also struggles with the word ‘here’.
When the second grade class do a play, the whole class goes to the auditorium except the Chinese girls. Their voices are ‘too soft or non-existent’ and their parents never sign the permission slips anyway: ‘They never signed anything unnecessary.’
After American school, they go on to Chinese school from five to seven thirty pm, where they all chant together. The children are louder here and there are no rules: ‘Nobody was afraid of children hurting themselves or of children hurting school property.’ The differences between Chinese and American music are alluded to too, as is the difference in voices between ‘normal Chinese’ women and ‘American-feminine’.
The narrator goes on to tell the story of a girl at her school who never speaks. When alone with her one day, the narrator tells her she is going to make her speak. She hates her ‘fragility’ and pinches her cheeks and pulls her hair and shouts in her ears. She describes the bullying and how she stops when their sisters arrive. The narrator spends the next 18 months in bed ‘with a mysterious illness’ and says the world is ‘sometimes just’. She has to ring a bell for help and uses a bedpan. She also recalls it as ‘the best year and a half of my life. Nothing happened’. She returns to school when her mother, the doctor, decides she is better.
At school, she is allowed to see her files when older and sees that in the first grade she was marked as having zero for her IQ. She also remembers questioning that her father was described as a farmer. She wanted to say he was a gambler, but could not as this was a secret: an ‘immigration secret’: ‘Sometimes I hated the ghosts for not letting us talk; sometimes I hated the secrecy of the Chinese.’
She explains how there were several ‘crazy’ girls and women in the area and thought she would be seen as the crazy one of their house. She thinks how at this time she thinks of herself as ‘unsellable’ and worries that her parents need to only go back to China ‘where anything happens’ to sell her there.
It is also related how nobody tells them that in China Mao is freeing women from prisons where they had been put for refusing business men chosen to be husbands by their parents.
Her parents answer advertisements in the Gold Mountain News of young men looking for wives. These come to work for a week and talk Chinese with her parents. They are newly arrived from China (and they call them FOBs, meaning ‘Fresh-off-the-Boats). As the eldest, she thinks she is expected to marry first but makes herself as unattractive as possible when the subject arises.
The narrative moves to the time when she thinks of her tongue being cut loose, and that this might be why she wants to tell her mother over two hundred true things about herself, and to stop the pain in her throat. She confesses to several things and her mother says nothing, but after a few days of this her mother says she cannot stand this whispering any longer and does not want to hear her craziness.
One day the narrator burst out about how she wants them to stop the ‘ape’ coming in the shop (the young man who has been following her and has learning difficulties). She also says how she is intelligent and is applying to colleges and does not want to hear anymore of her parents’ stories. She says she does not even know their real names and they tried to cut off her tongue to stop her talking but it did not work.
Her mother shouts at the same time that she cut it to make her talk more not less and says she is not so smart as she thinks as she cannot tell a joke from the truth.
The narrator’s ‘telling list’ comes out scrambled and she knows she has outgrown some of them but repeats them anyway. She says how her mother always says she is ugly, and her mother replies that this is what she is supposed to say as, she says, ‘“We like to say the opposite”’.
The novel ends with a story that begins with her mother’s version and finishes with the narrator’s.
In China, her grandmother loved the theatre. When one visited their village, grandmother bought a large section, enough for the entire family and a bed. However, there was a danger that bandits would raid households that were ‘thinned out during performances’, and the rest of the family worried about this. Grandmother insisted, though, and said they should leave the house wide open so that they might go to the theatre without worries.
The bandits did come, but to the theatre and not their house. Grandmother and the narrator’s mother hid in a ditch and when they returned home at daybreak they saw the rest of the family and the house were safe. This was proof to grandmother ‘that our family was immune to harm as long as they went to plays. They went to many plays after that.’
The narrator likes to think that at some of these performances they heard the songs of Ts’ai Yen, a poetess born in AD 175, and had been captured by a chieftain and fought as a captive soldier (and had two children). She used to hear the music played by her barbarian captors and went on to sing with sadness and anger and it was thought she was singing about ‘forever wandering’. After 12 years, she was ransomed and married and brought her songs back from ‘the savage lands’. One of them is ‘Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe’ and is ‘a song that Chinese sing to their own instruments. It translated well’.
Analysis – Chapter Five, ‘A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe’
This final chapter takes its title from a song by Ts’ai Yen and in so doing it highlights once more how the lives of women of history and fiction, of the past and present, are of significant value even if they have been overlooked in a patriarchal society.
By placing this story alongside the tale of her grandmother refusing to be cowed by bandits, a connection is made through time between women who use the arts to express their desire for peace and fairness. Hong Kingston draws on these stories about women to counterbalance the effects of patriarchy and to remind the readers that women hold up half the sky. In so doing, she places her work within the tradition she celebrates.