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China Men (Maxine Hong Kingston)

February 27, 2010

The structure of this novel is really interesting — it’s divided into six chapters (kind of), but each “chapter” also has one or two shorter sections attached to it that are more abstract and often tell the stories of fabled and/or historical Chinese figures. These shorter sections aside, the six main chapters revolve around the story of different male relations in the narrator’s life, and each of those men lives through some of the historically famous events of Chinese American men and of Chinese men in America. Through them, we experience the planting and farming of the sugar cane fields in Hawai’i, the building of the transcontintental railroad, the process of immigration and Angel Island, the Vietnam War, and the experience of trying to get by in America while family members who remained in China continue to ask for help (especially during the Cultural Revolution). It’s interesting that Kingston doesn’t give us these chapters in order, but instead begins with the story of the narrator’s father when he first came to America and ends with her brother upon his return from the Vietnam War. In between these two narratives, she also gives us a second narrative about the narrator’s father — one that picks up after the first one left off — as well as the stories of several of the narrator’s male ancestors. But it’s the shorter pieces that are more interesting. These shorter pieces present the reader with folk heroes, but also with the history of Chinese immigration to America (“The Laws”) and a rewriting of Robinson Crusoe (in “The Adventures of Lo Bun Sun”) with a Chinese man as the main character. While there’s a possibility that Kingston’s use of myths could have gone awry and exoticized or mysticized Chinese people as “others,” I don’t think she did. I think she successfully used these in-between stories as a means by which to rethink the history of Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans.

Another aspect of the novel that I thought was really interesting is evident in the title: China Men. That is, this novel’s focus revolves around men, even though the narrator appears to be a woman. It takes a close look at the narrator’s father (twice), grandfather, great-grandfather, brother, and (in the chapter called “The Making of More Americans”) several different men in her life (another uncle, a non-blood uncle, etc.). Women, therefore, are portrayed as obligations most of the time — someone the men have to return to, report to, send money to — but are rarely heard from. Even the in-between chapters, the main characters are men. This is not to say that Kingston is failing to represent women, or that she’s portraying them negatively — it’s simply to say that she’s not interested in them for the purposes of this novel, and so we only see/hear them through the men. I’ll have to reread The Woman Warrior before I can comment further on this.

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