Representing History – the Rape of Nanking and The Kitchen God’s Wife


In her analysis of the Amy Tan’s interaction with history in her novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife, Bella Adams wrote:

“”Historical literature” is often understood according to binary logic, with critics tending to privilege either phenomenalism or theoreticism. A phenomenalist approach assumes that historical literature is a reliable source of information about past experiences, and a theoretical approach argues that “‘events’ are never not discursively constituted and that the language of historiography is always also language” (Spivak, In Other Worlds 242). In short, historical literature is generally understood as either phenomenal fact or theoretical fiction. When imagined simply in terms of a binary opposition, both approaches are beset by limitations. It is the task of this discussion to examine these limitations via a reading of Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife, specifically the section narrated by Jiang Weili, otherwise known as Winnie Louie. This novel is valuable because in representing a particular period of Chinese history, namely Japan’s occupation of China during the 1930s and the 1940s as well as the Rape of Nanking (1937), it promotes an analysis that resists two equally conservative, if not downright oppressive, ideologies: neocolonialism and Japanese revisionism. These ideologies exploit phenomenalism and theoreticism respectively, allowing neocolonialists to factualize literature and Japanese ultranationalists to fictionalize history.

The Kitchen God’s Wife negotiates between these two extremes in terms compatible with deconstruction by generating a debate about the difficulty of referencing past experiences a la phenomenalism. This difficulty urgently needs addressing in the wake of [-p10] holocaust denial if the historical record is to be set straight about what happened during the Sino-Japanese War. It is important to note that “difficulty” does not mean the end of history; rather, it necessitates a theoretical inquiry into the concept of history. Such an inquiry about how history is constructed, both ideologically and linguistically, makes possible a radical critique of Japan’s claim that the Rape of Nanking never happened. Iris Chang argues that this claim effectively perpetrates “A Second Rape” (199). Whether rape is a phenomenal fact or a theoretical fiction, it functions oppressively in both instances. The Kitchen God’s Wife responds to rape in this second sense inasmuch as it affords insights about “the [ideological] forces of history and the [linguistic] process by which history is made” (Chang 200). At no point in Tan’s novel is doubt cast on the phenomenality of the (first) Rape of Nanking. Arguably, The Kitchen God’s Wife addresses the fictionalization of rape to affect radically historical understanding of the factual rape, which in turn ensures that both events are brought into history.

Moreover, an attention to language, particularly the literary or the rhetorical dimension of language, enables a radical critique of neocolonialism, which (mis)uses “ethnic” literature by valuing it merely for its capacity to teach dominant groups about “the really important things in life Roots, Culture, Tradition, History, War, Human Evil” (Wong 200). An emphasis on language resists the neocolonialist effort to displace the literary dimension of The Kitchen God’s Wife.” (pp9-10)

That “fiction is also historical” and that “history is also fictive” (Spivak, In Other Worlds 244) enables The Kitchen God’s Wife to disable misrepresentations of Chinese history in terms that safeguard a future for debate on history, literature, and historical literature. This debate, along with this particular discussion of Tan’s novel, depends for its future on resisting the binary logic of either phenomenalism or theoreticism.

A phenomenalist response to The Kitchen God’s Wife understands it as representing a particular period in world history, most notably Japan’s illegal occupation of China during the 1930s and the 1940s. More specifically, Tan’s novel charts the movement of the Japanese military from Shanghai to Nanking, along with its bombing raids on so-called “safe place[s] . . . almost to the edge of China” (277). China’s transformation from dynasty to republic(s) is also discussed, as are the internal conflicts that both preceded and succeeded the Sino-Japanese War: “The old revolutionaries, the new revolutionaries, the Kuomintang and the Communists, the warlords, the bandits, and the students-gwah! gwah! gwah!- everybody squabbling, like old roosters claiming the same sunrise” [-p12] (205). The Kitchen God’s Wife lends itself to “information retrieval” (Spivak, Postcolonial 9) inasmuch as it represents an unknown, if not a forgotten, history, which includes the Rape of Nanking by the Japanese:

‘Raped old women, married women, and little girls, taking turns with them, over and over again. Sliced them open with a sword when they were all used up. Cut off their fingers to take their rings. Shot all the little sons, no more generations. Raped ten thousand, chopped down twenty or thirty thousand, a number that is no longer a number, no longer people.’ (295)

As atrocious as this account is, it is conservative about what happened in China’s capital city. Indeed, it is estimated that “more than 260,000 noncombatants died at the hands of Japanese soldiers, . . . though some experts have placed the figure at well over 350,000.” The fact that this occurred in less than two months confirms that “the Rape of Nanking represents one of the worst instances of mass extermination” (Chang 4, 5).

Along with advancing historical knowledge about the Sino-Japanese War, The Kitchen God’s Wife is valuable on an ethicopolitical front. Indeed, the representation of the Rape of Nanking in literature potentially represents the 300,000 dead Chinese civilians. Extermination, together with exclusion from history by Japanese ultranationalists, ensures that these Chinese “cannot represent themselves; they must be represented” (Spivak, “Subaltern” 276-77). Arguably, The Kitchen God’s Wife takes up this ethicopolitical task in defiance of Japan’s claim that the Rape of Nanking never happened.” (pp11-12)

Adams goes on to discuss her take on the brevity of Tan’s depiction of the Rape of Nanking, arguing that the brevity both resists literary (and potentially spectacular) representation of such atrocity – and also asserting: “That the Rape of Nanking represents one moment in years of widespread hostilities towards the Chinese perhaps explains why The Kitchen God’s Wife resists singularity regarding the Sino-Japanese War. Spatial and temporal boundaries are also exceeded during this war mainly because it does not confine itself to a frontline in accordance with “norms” of warfare.”

The rape of a city and a woman

Adams responds to (an apparently on-going) discussion about ‘the conflation of the rape of a city and the rape of a woman’ in The Kitchen God’s Wife, writing: “The Kitchen God’s Wife represents both the Rape of Nanking and the rape of Weili, drawing attention to the similarities between the Japanese military and a Chinese husband.” (16)

For critic Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, Adams explains, “Chinese history is marginalized in The Kitchen God’s Wife because it is used as “a foil for personal dramas” (200).” (16) Adams acknowledges that “…the conflation of the rape of a city and the rape of a woman is problematic to the extent that the latter potentially detracts from the former, which is Wong’s concern. Subjectivity in relation to history raises the question of reliability,” she continues. “Aside from the fact that individuals died, the bringing together of the suffering generated by Japanese imperialism and by Chinese patriarchy is rhetorically effective. As Caesar notes, Weili’s personal experience conveys “a sense of the type of suffering that Tan suggests only metaphorically or seemingly incidentally-the Nanjing massacre, for instance” (169). Caesar also recognizes that representing the individual in history follows a current trend in American narrative: “personal emotional crisis. . . is the only suffering interesting enough to write about” (169). Although offering a powerful critique of imperialist and patriarchal ideologies, The Kitchen [-p17] God’s Wife apparently legitimates the ideology of western liberal humanism.

Once again, Tan’s novel demands further analysis because it makes possible a critical negotiation of this ideology insofar as the individual (western liberal humanism’s principal figure) is assumed reliable regarding historical events only in terms of a rhetorical effect. Weili’s Chinese identity, together with the fact that she is an American, Winnie Louie, potentially works to her advantage. Indeed, the (liberal) West’s preoccupation with imparting individuality to the “native” empowers Weili to speak, albeit as “the Chinese woman.” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak remarks on her own experience of this native populism, an experience that can also be extended to Weili: “A hundred years ago it was impossible for me to speak, for the precise reason that makes it only too possible for me to speak in certain circles now” (Postcolonial 60). That the oppressed are considered epistemically advantaged regarding the condition of oppression adds weight to Weili’s account of things: “Of course it’s a true story” (201). These narrative conventions are seductive in their affect, convincing Tan’s readers about the reliability of Weili’s historical representation. Commenting on this type of effect, Spivak observes that “the narrative takes on its own impetus as it were, so that one begins to see reality as non-narrated. One begins to say that it’s not a narrative, it’s the way things are” (Postcolonial 19).” (pp16-17)

Adams asserts that “…past experiences depend on linguistic structures to bring them into history. Nowhere is this more obvious than with the Rape of Nanking. For example, The Kitchen God’s Wife helps to ensure that this event does not “sink unremembered into history’s dark abyss” (Chan 21). Chang’s The Rape of Nanking does something similar in history. Without these kinds of representations of the Sino-Japanese War, there would be no understanding of Chinese history. However, it is also the case that the rendering of past experiences into language ensures that what happened is sunk or, indeed, raped in the sense that it is necessarily compromised by forgetting, by remembering, and by representation. In the words of Weili: “You are not choosing one thing over another. You are choosing what you want. And you are also choosing what somebody else does not want, and all the consequences that follow” (458). This vigilance about the limitations of representation in relation to the choices that The Kitchen God’s Wife unavoidably makes about the rape of a Chinese city and the rape of a Chinese woman helps to ensure that its articulation of these experiences does not bring history to a close. In addition, representation has consequences, consequences that “do not wash the trouble away” (459) because it entails the harmful marginalization of other experiences in all their heterogeneity.” (27)

Ref: Bella Adams (2003) ‘Representing History in Amy Tan’s “The Kitchen God’s Wife“‘ MELUS, Vol. 28, No. 2, Haunted by History (Summer, 2003), pp. 9-30Published by:The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS)


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