Although Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men is partly about the tense and ambivalent relations between women and men, its main theme is the experience of becoming Chinese-American, a process as filled with risk and ambiguity as the relationship between the sexes. The very title of the novel is calculated with this ambivalence in mind. As Kingston wrote in an essay published several years ago:
In the early days of Chinese-American history, men called themselves “Chinamen” just as other newcomers called themselves “Englishmen” or “Frenchmen”: the term distinguished them from the “Chinese” who remained citizens of China, and also showed that they were not recognized as Americans. Later, of course, it became an insult. Young Chinese Americans today are reclaiming the word because of its political and historical precision, and are demanding that it be said with dignity and not for name-calling.
Kingston’s China Men are the protagonists of that effort to become Chinese-American: first as sojourners, then as settlers, and finally as citizens.
Like her first book, The Woman Warrior, Kingston’s China Men is a mixture of myth, history, and recollection. Of these, the myths seem at first the most striking element, and they become the most perplexing. As Kingston herself has admitted, many of the myths she describes are largely her own reconstruction. Often, they are only remotely connected with the original Chinese legends they invoke; and sometimes they are only spurious folklore, a kind of self-indulgent fantasy that blends extravagant personal imagery with appropriately völkisch themes.
Yet this sort of self-resurrection is an important way for Kingston to establish a link between her present Americanness and the China of her ancestors’ past. Toward the end of the novel, for instance, she inserts a chapter on the legendary ‘Ch’ü Yuan, the third-century BC poet whose suicide by drowning is celebrated in South China by the yearly Dragon Boat festival. To Kingston, the tragic figure of Ch’ü Yuan epitomizes the eternal male sojourner, longing for home while unable to return. But he is far more for her than just a symbol of exile. By telling his story through a series of successively expanded images, each more ornate than the other, Kingston seems to be trying to enlarge the pathways connecting her self, as the daughter of a Chinese-American laundryman and a Cantonese midwife in Stockton, California, with the high culture of classical China.
To be Chinese, she claims at one point, is to know that culture at birth, without instruction. “All Chinese know this story,” her father says of the Ch’ü Yuan legend. “If you are an authentic Chinese, you know the language and the stories without being taught, born talking them.” Yet he himself does not speak of the past; he does not even seem authentically Chinese to his own daughter, who tells him:
You say with the few words and the silences: No stories. No past. No China, You only look and talk Chinese. There are no photographs of you …
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China Myths December 4, 1980