The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan: Questioning Myth

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Questioning Myth, Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife.

By – Rajani C. V (introduction after the Paper), Vol. III, Issue.XXVI, March 2017



This paper aims to examine Amy Tan’s questioning and challenging attitude in the novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife. The novel questions popular myth of China i.e. the Kitchen God’s through mother-daughter relationship. She could be categorized under the banners like South-Asian Diaspora writer, Asian-American writer as well as Chinese-American writer. The writer uses this hyphenated relationship to explore challenges faced by Chinese immigrant population in America. It has been said that “to be hyphenated is to be American (Barber 614); however the hyphen presents many different issues (Quoted Nicola Adcock 4).

Keywords: Amy Tan, Questioning Myth, the Kitchen God.


Questioning Myth, Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife.

                The paper aims at exploring Amy Tan’s questioning and challenging attitude in the novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife. The novel questions popular myth of China i.e. the Kitchen God’s. The novelist foregrounds the wife of Kitchen god, who has been silenced and ignored in main stream Chinese mythology and culture. She wants to give a place to wife of the Kitchen God in the cultural history. Through giving place and voice to the Kitchen God’s wife in gendered society she appeals for a space for women.

The Kitchen God’s Wife is Amy Tan’s second novel, published in 1991.The novel deals with the hyphened relationship of mothers/daughters. The novel talks about the relationship between the mother, Winnie and her daughter Pearl. The novel could be called a semi-autobiographical novel. In the book, Opposite of Fate Tan writes “for the first ten years of my life, I did not know of my mother’s first marriage… When I set out to write my second book I remembered that conversation with my mother, about her marriage to a man she grew to despise. I decided to write about a woman and her secret regrets, and used my American assumptions to shape the story”.

The story begins with the narration of Pearl Brandt, the daughter of Winnie Louie, a Chinese woman who immigrated to the United States. The novel tells the story of Winnie the mother who spent her youth in China and her daughter Pearl who was brought up in America. Both Pearl and Winnie talk alternately in the first person. Winnie lived in Chinatown, San Francisco. She co-owned a flower shop called Ding Ho Flower Shop on Rose Alley in Chinatown with “Auntie Helen” Winnie’s very old friend. Pearl, the daughter, lived in San Jose, a hundred miles away from her mother with her Caucasian husband Phil Brandt, a doctor, and his two daughters Cleo and Tessa. She worked as a speech and language clinician with the local school district. The novel begins with BaoBao’s engagement discussion. The novel introduces us to the two families of the novel, the Kwongs and the Louies. The Kwongs consisted of Pearl’s Aunt Helen, Uncle Henry and three cousins -Mary, Frank and Bao-Bao. The Louies were Pearl, her parents, and her brother Samuel. These two families were considered the ‘whole family’ for as long as Pearl could remember but they are not blood relations. Winnie’s brother happened to be the first husband of Auntie Helen so they were related by marriage. Pearl hadbeen told and had believed this since her childhood. Butit was revealed later that Auntie Helen was not the wife of Winnie’s brother. Auntie Helen was Winnie’s friend. Winnie and Auntie Helen shared a lot in their past. Winnie looked at their friendship in following words “she is no related by blood, not even by marriage… not a friend…. I do not admire her character…we are closer perhaps than sisters, related by fate, joined by debts. I have kept her secrets. She has kept mine. And we have a kind of loyalty that has no word in this country”. (KGW, 73)

Pearl came to know that her mother and Auntie Helen had met in the spring of 1937 in Hangchow, where their husbands finished their training at an “American-style” air force school. Auntie Helen was called Hulan in her past life in China. Pearl came to know that her father was not Jimmy Louie but was Wen Fu; who was Winnie’s first husband in China. Wen Fu was a sexual sadist. He took delight in tormenting Winnie. Winnie was stripped of her dignity by the time she found a way to run away from him. As she decided to immigrate to America with Jimmy, she was raped by Wen Fu her first husband. However she came to America and married Jimmy Louie, who was a pastor in the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco.

After Auntie Du’s funeral Pearl got a picture of Kitchen God’s.The novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife revolves around a Chinese popular myth of Kitchen God’s. Tammy S. Conardin the article “Creating an Asian-American Mythology: Storytelling in Amy Tan’s Fiction” defines myth “a mythology, agroup of stories that reflect the values of our society and represent common ideologies and interests”3 (78).The story of Kitchen God goes like this “The myth of a rich farmer called Zhang, whose kind and patient wife Guo. “Zhang as very lucky man. Fish jumped in his river…that was because he was blessed with a hardworking wife named Guo. She caught his fish and herded his pigs. She fattened his ducks, doubled all his riches, year after year” (KGW, p. 59).He brought a pretty carefree women named Lady Li to his house. She chased Zhang’s wife out of the house. Zhang did not run out call his wife back. They spent all his riches lavishly. His money was gone, so Lady Li run off with another man. Zhang became a beggar. Nearly at death’s door, starving and sick, he was taken into the house of a kind lady who happened to be none other than his good wife Guo. In his shame and disgrace, Zhang tried to hide in the fireplace but was burnt to ashes, “Good wife Guo poured out many tears to try to put the fire out. No use! Zhang was burning with shame and, of course, because of the hot roaring fire below”(KGW, p. 61). But when here ached the other world, the Jade Emperor rewarded him, because he had admitted his fault, by making him the Kitchen God and commended him with the task of watching over human behaviour and deciding who deserved good luck, who bad. Zhang, for all his unfaithfulness and meanness was converted into a God. On the other hand, Guo, in spite of being treated badly by her husband; she gave him shelter and tried to save his life. Guo was totally ignored in the myth.

The popular Chinese myth of the Kitchen God is slightly revised by Amy Tan in the novel. The Chinese myth goes like this the ‘Kitchen God’ was once a simple, poor and unsuccessful mason who failed to succeed in any of his ventures. There came a time when he hadto sell his own wife to another man in order to keep himself alive. A woman’s value was not worth a man’s single meal. As chance would have it, he happened to work for his wife’s husband. He did not recognize his wife but his wife ‘had him much in mind’. She decided to help him discreetly by baking him some sesame cakes with coins inside each of them. She gave him the cakes as he departed. On the way, the husband stopped at a wayside teahouse. He met another traveler who requested him to part with one of his cakes. The man bit into the cake and found the money. Without revealing what he had found he bought all the cakes from the husband for a modest amount. The husband gladly sold the cakes, thinking himself lucky to have got such a handsome amount for a few cakes, ‘in accordance with his characteristic ill-fortune’. When he learnt later what his wife had tried to do for him, he killed himself, thinking that there was ‘no point in his continued existence’. When here ached Heaven, he was rewarded by the Ruler for his honesty and goodness and was appointed the ‘Kitchen God’ (Christie, p.104-105).

                 In both stories, Amy Tan’s revised as well as Original Chinese myth good and honest wife was silenced and ignored. Tan has used this myth to show the plight of women in China. The fate of the Kitchen God’s wife symbolises the fate of the ancestral woman, back in China. In China, according to Winnie, the fate of the woman ancestor was like that of “a chicken in a cage, mindless, never dreaming of freedom, but never worrying when your neck might be chopped off” (KGW, p. 399). Marianne Hirsch talks about this silence of mother in Western myths. In her introduction to the book The Mother/Daughter Plot ‘Unspeakable Plots’ throws light on not just male thinkers even feminists ignore voice of mother “Both  (Lauretis) and Rukeyser are attracted by the enigmatic, powerful, monstrous and terrifying Sphinx; both omit the powerless, maternal, emotional, and virtually silent Jocasta” (Hirsch, p.2). “Why do even feminist analyses fail to grant Jocasta as mother a voice and a plot?” (Hirsch, p.3). Amy Tan tries to give voice and name to the mythical figure ‘Guo’, who is usually called ‘the kitchen god’s wife’. In the final section of the novel Amy Tan names the goddess ‘Lady Sorrowfree’.

     Amy Tan in her novel The Kitchen God’s Wife gives voice to maternal figures. Winnie unfolds her mother’s as well as her own story both as daughter and mother. In this novel the myth of Kitchen god’s does not remain just as a tale but it parallels with the life of Winnie particularly and generally many ancestral woman in China. Women in China even after giving up everything they could not get their rights or position and they are not treated as human beings. Tan deconstructs the original myth, questioning the values of a patriarchal tale, leaving her readers to wonder, “What about the Kitchen God’s Wife?” The Kitchen God’s wife, like all women in a patriarchal society, is expected to remain faithful and submissive to her husband, despite his infidelity. Such kind of ideology is present not only in Chinese cultural attitudes but in American stereotypes of Asian women as well. Asian women are usually associated with passivity and quiet acceptance of their circumstances.

          The Kitchen God’s wife in Chinese myth obediently accepts her misfortune, and she does not challenge or question, she never has a voice in the myth. She does not question her misfortunes even after remaining honest and obedient to her husband. She does not question the authority. She does not ask, neither when her husband reduced to a beggar nor when he was bestowed to be a Kitchen God who had the authority to judge some one’s fate and luck. She has been absent in Chinese myth. Her identity remains and connected to her husband. She is known as the Kitchen God’s Wife. She does not have her own name this shows her identity and status no other than being a wife. The Kitchen God dwells in kitchen, kitchen is a place; traditionally women have authority or in charge of the place but this Kitchen God exits and has the authority over this place.

            So Amy Tan, who is seen as a new ethnic voice in American literature, questions this ideology. She knew that Patriarchal attitudes and stereotypical conceptions of Asian women shape the figures in these myths. She could not accept this prevalent notion about women. She portrays women who are strong enough to question these ideologies and build their own stories and foreground their own myths. Ultimately, her fictional mothers/daughters learn however, that they would not let these patriarchal myths and images to define their life and character. As ancestral women found fault in their Chinese mythologies they searched for alternatives but they did not find alternatives even in American culture; so they invented their own identities and myths.

           Amy Tan not just revises the original myth but reconstructs it. In the last chapter of the novel, “Sorrowfree” Winnie and Helen visit the shop of god and goddesses figurines. Winnie tells Helen that after listening to Pearl’s disease she felt as if through the Kitchen God Wen Fu, (Winnie’s first husband) was smiling who cursed her that she would not get relief or peace of mind, she always be tormented. So she put the picture over the stove, the Kitchen God is also known as the god of stove. Symbolically he was burning by his own place (through his own act) like Wen Fu. She says “You go see Wen Fu! You go to hell down below!” (KGW, p.413). When smoke detector went off with a noise Winnie assumed that Kitchen God’s wife shouting with approval that he has to go hell down below. From the beginning Winnie was not happy with the prevalent belief system, while telling the story of Kitchen God’s she tells that “Why should I want that kind of person to judge me, a man who cheated his wife? His wife was the good one, not him.” (KGW, p. 55) Winnie unhappy with not just eastern belief system but also with western beliefs. She could connect those belief system with her life. She believes that women life far more complicated, patriarchal belief system of gods and worship has failed to give her an alternative. She expresses her resentment about his husband’s sermon and Western belief. “When Jesus was born, he was already the son of God. I was the daughter of someone who ran away, a big disgrace. And when Jesus suffered, everyone worshipped him. Nobody worshipped me for living with Wen Fu. (Echoes the same thing that even after undergoing of turmoil Kitchen God’s wife did not bestow the position of goddess by the Jade emperor instead her husband got the opportunity of becoming the god, even after doing almost all vices). He got all the excuses. He got all the credit. She was forgotten.” (KDW, p.255)

     While searching a figurine for Pearl’s the little red altar temple, Winnie said that she wanted to buy “a goddess that nobody knows. Maybe she does not yet exist.” (KGW, p.413)The shop owner then thinks about a statute of a goddess, but the factory had made a mistake “forgot to write down her name on the bottom of her chair” (KGW, p.414) She adds up to that “Who wants to buy a mistake?” (KGW, p. 414) She fixes the mistake and writes the name using her gold paints. She replaces the statue by the Kitchen God’s and thins that she would no more be called Mrs. Kitchen God. “Why would she want to be called that, now that she and her husband are divorced?” (KGW, p.414) Winnie explains her daughter that “her smile is genuine, wise and innocent at the same time… she is about to speak … she is telling you to speak. She is ready to listen. She understands English. You should tell her everything” (KGW, p. 414) Further she tells her daughter that this goddess listen to all her sorrows. “She will wash away everything sad with her tears. She will use her stick to chase away everything bad. See her name: Lady Sorrowfree, happiness winning over bitterness, no regrets in this world”. (KGW, p. 415) In The Kitchen God’s Wife, Winnie Louie replaces the Kitchen God with the goddess Lady Sorrowfree because the Kitchen God is determined by her to be an unfit god for her daughter’s altar. The Kitchen God is unfit because he became a god despite his mistreatment of his good wife. Amy Tan reconstructs and recreates a new myth which upholds the identity for women. By introducing a new faith through Lady Sorrowfree she defines a new identity as well as space to Chinese women in America. Lady Sorrowfree becomes an identity for displaced and silent women.

Winnie even though born in China and raised in much traditional way she has the courage and strength to leave her abused husband and choose a person who is kind to her. So through her story she questions and challenges the myth. The novel challenges Chinese as well as dominant American cultural ideologies and values. Tan’s characters do not represent stereotypical images of Chinese and Chinese-American. Her protagonists reject traditional, patriarchal Chinese ideologies. Moreover, the mother and daughter narratives describe cultural displacement, identity struggles, and conflicts with either Chinese or dominant American traditions. Neither China nor America’s cultural ideologies succeed to give models to these displaced women. So women like Winnie prepare themselves to create their own cultural ideologies and myths. Winnie creates her own counter culture to Chinese traditional culture. Tan never describes or projects America as a solution to Chinese displaced women. Instead, she shows that whatever the culture or wherever the place women have to fight and struggle to uphold their identity and design their own life.

The fate of the kitchen God’s wife symbolises the fate of the women in China. Tan questions the values uphold by traditional Chinese myths. In this novel, Amy Tan tries to change the fate of women, which is not defined by someone else but self-defined one, like Winnie’s. Tan wants to put a full stop to women’s suffering so, through Winnie Tan gives a model of an independent, individual, free-thinking woman. She makes us remember our women who have been ignored and neglected in main stream history and myths.


  • Adams, Bella, Amy Tan. Manchester University press 2005.
  • Adcock, Nicola. “Studying the Hyphen: Mother – Daughter Relationships in selected works by Amy Tan” Thesis. Uclan, 2008.
  • Christie, Anthony. Library of the World’s Myths and Legends: Chinese Mythology. Published by Newness Books. P. 104-105
  • Conrad, Tammy S. “Creating an Asian- American Mythology: Storytelling in Amy Tan’s Fiction”. Thesis. Texas Tech U, 1998.
  • Hirsch, Marianne, The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, Indiana University, Bloomington, 1989.
  • Tan, Amy. The Kitchen God’s Wife, IVY Book, Publishers 1990.

Rajani C. V is a research scholar, department of English, Kuvempu University, Karnataka.

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