Chapter 3: Lindo Jong--The Red Candle
Lindo tells her daughter, Waverly, that she does not understand the meaning of a promise. When Lindo was two years old, she was promised to Tyan-yu, the spoiled son of a woman named Huang Tai Tai. When Lindo was twelve, a flood ruined her family's house and crops. Her family left, forcing her to move in with the Huangs before marrying Tyan-yu. The Huangs' luxuries were for show; in reality, they lived in a crowded and uncomfortable house. From the first day, Huang Tai Tai and Tyan-yu treated Lindo like a servant. She learned to be an obedient wife and never to think of her own needs or dreams.
Bad luck fell on the wedding day. The Japanese had occupied the region, it rained, and barely anyone came. Before the ceremony began, however, Lindo had had a revelation. She realized she was strong, and she promised herself that she would remain true to herself while honoring her family's wishes. An important part of the marriage ceremony was burning a special red candle with a wick on each end, one for the bride and one for the groom. The candle was lit and placed in the charge of a servant, who had to watch all night to make sure the candle burned equally at both ends until it was ash, as proof of the marriage's permanence.
Instead of consummating their marriage, Tyan-yu told Lindo to sleep on the couch. She was relieved and went where the servant was guarding the red candle. When the servant left it unattended, Lindo blew out Tyan-yu's end of the candle. She wanted an excuse not to spend the rest of her life with such a bad husband. But in the morning, the candle's ashes were shown as proof that it had not gone out. Lindo's fate was decided. Tyan-yu and Lindo never had sex, because Tyan-yu had no desire for Lindo (or perhaps for any woman). Yet, he told Huang Tai Tai that they were having sex all the time, so she would think their lack of children was Lindo's fault.
Lindo developed a scheme to end the marriage on the day of the Festival of Pure Brightness, a day of the ancestors. She told Huang Tai Tai what happened to the red candle, but she pretended that it was a nightmare and that a wind blew out the candle. She said the ghosts of her ancestors told her that if they stayed married, Tyan-yu would die. She pointed out supposed signs of this. She even convinced Huang Tai Tai that a servant girl was Tyan-yu's intended wife and was already carrying his child. (In fact, the child was that of a delivery man.) Lindo succeeded: the marriage was broken off, Tyan-yu married the servant, and Lindo received enough money to come to America. Lindo tells Waverly that every year on the day of the Festival of Pure Brightness, she revels in the fact that she was strong enough to keep a promise for her family while remaining true to herself.
Chapter 4: Ying-Ying St. Clair--The Moon Lady
Ying-Ying describes how both she and her daughter lost themselves; they have become "unseen and not seeing, unheard and not hearing, unknown by others." She lost herself gradually by trying to hide her own pain and "selfish desires."
Ying-Ying takes us back to a time when she was her full self, when she told the Moon Lady her secret wish. She was four on the day of the Moon Festival in 1918. Her Amah (nanny) dressed her in special clothes and explained the coming night's festivities. She would meet the Moon Lady and tell her one secret wish. She could tell only the Moon Lady this wish, because telling it to anyone else would make it a selfish desire, and in everyday life "a girl can never ask, only listen."
On the festival boat, Ying-ying wandered by herself and dirtied her clothes. Amah found her, scolded her, and stripped her to her underwear. She was left all alone. Ying-ying was so startled by some firecrackers that she fell into the water. Some fishermen took her to shore, where she found actors performing the myth of the Moon Lady. In the myth, the Moon Lady steals the peach of eternal life from her husband, the Sun, and is banished to the moon. The central moral of the myth is: "Woman is yin...the darkness within, where untempered passions lie. And man is yang, bright truth lighting our minds." After the show, Ying-ying ran backstage to tell the Moon Lady her secret wish. As the wish escaped her lips, she saw that the Moon Lady was really just a man in a costume.
Ying-ying recalls this moment as the first time she lost herself, the beginning of a long process of becoming "nothing." For a long time after, she forgot her wish along with the memory of what it is like to be whole. But she remembers her wish tonight, on the night of the Moon Festival, decades later. She has wished to be found.
Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the themes of superstition and deceptive appearances. As young women, Lindo and Ying-ying learned hard lessons about the fact that things are not always as they seem. The Huangs seem grand on the surface, but their luxury is just the facade over a rotten family structure. Tyan-yu is not the strong-willed man his family thinks he is; even his own mother does not know the truth about how dispassionate he is. In the end, Lindo harnesses this superficiality, making everyone else believe something that on the surface seemed to be true. This is first time we see how the mothers practice "the art of invisible strength" in their lives as they do in Mah Jong. Lindo does not lie outright to get out of her quandary, the equivalent of upturning the Mah Jong board in frustration, but rather uses facts already in place to vanquish her opponent, the Huang family.
In this story, Lindo's belief in superstition is questionable. By using superstition as a weapon of deception, Lindo rejects it to some extent; however, using superstition also affirms its power. It is unclear whether Lindo blows out the candle because she wants to use the belief in magic to her advantage, or because a part of her believes that the superstition is true, even if only symbolically. In turn, we are made to question whether magic is really involved. Despite the fact that Lindo harnesses the superstition of the candle, does the marriage fail because of her actions or because the superstition is true?
Ying-ying learns her lesson about superstition when she finds out that the Moon Lady is really a man in a costume. The magic disappears, and she finds herself more alone than ever. Now, not only has she been separated from her family, but also she realizes that there is nowhere, not even in fantasy, where she can express her desires. She was deceived into thinking that she could have one moment to be selfish and assert her identity, but the superstition was a lie. At the same time, Ying-ying and readers must question again whether magic was truly involved. After all, Ying-ying did get her wish of being found that night. Still, this wish goes deeper than her desire to be reunited with her parents at the festival. Throughout her life, Ying-ying carries the desire to find herself. She has been lost again as an adult; she has become so afraid to express her "selfish" desires that she has become "unseen and not seeing, unheard and not hearing, unknown by others." Therefore it is with both courage and desperation that she tells Lena the same wish she told the Moon Lady: she wants to be found, but this time she needs Lena to be the one who finds her.
The red candle represents the fate from which the mothers have escaped, that of being bound by what others want for them. Both Lindo and Ying-ying were expected to be quiet and "dark," not expressing their own opinions. They grew up in a society that urged them to forget their own desires; any wishes they had were sinful by definition. Like the Moon Lady, they would be punished and shamed for taking what sweetness they wanted out of life. This made them begin to disappear, to depend on others for illumination while finding only darkness within. This idea of desire and fulfillment connects these chapters with the theme of sacrifice. Both Lindo and Ying-ying had to sacrifice the approval of their families in order to get what they really wanted. This is really what all four mothers want for their daughters, to be independent and strong and fulfill their secret wishes. Ying-ying wants to impart this lesson unto Lena before she, too, becomes invisible and constrains her means of expression. But by encouraging their daughters to be strong and independent like them, they risk losing them. This is why Lindo wants to teach Waverly the meaning of a promise--so that she will remember to honor her heritage as well. She and Ying-ying, like all the mothers, can only hope that their daughters will realize they are not just old-fashioned, overbearing, unfashionable parents; they are strong, independent individuals who have been through terrible things and have risked everything for their daughters' future happiness.