Maxine Hong Kingston’s work has long fascinated critics for its investigation of speech, language and storytelling as a means of unlocking some of the deepest secrets of the Chinese culture, a culture that observes very clear behavioral distinctions between genders.
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Kingston belongs to a culture wherein women “use story as a means to understanding and survival,” whereas for the most part the men of the Chinese culture “tend toward silence” (Pinkser n.p.).
In Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Great Grandfather of the Sandalwood Mountains, from her non-fiction work China Men, the author explores the theme of enforced silence and its consequences in numerous facets. The story details not only what happens from the standpoint of political oppression, but also how the theme of enforced silence plays itself out in families, often in an intergenerational manner.
Critic Sanford Pinsker understands that the enforced silence, especially that which is staunchly observed among Chinese men, “forces Kingston to invent multiple versions of what may have happened in her father’s past” (Pinkser n.p.).
The Great Grandfather of the Sandalwood Mountains exists as an epic family history, and follows the world travels of a number of generations of Chinese men. Kingston recounts the journeys of her “family of male sojourners across America and away from womenfolk and children in China.
This dispersed arrangement of family members was the predominant form the traditional Chinese extended patrilineal family system took during the peak years of emigration” (Pinkser n.p.). Although these generations of men traveled the world and witnessed many wonders, their culture of enforced silence bid them not to share most if not all of the details of their experiences.
In Kingston’s The Great Grandfather of the Sandalwood Mountains therefore, we see the impact of this silence as family members attempt to make sense of their heritage with only anecdotal and speculative information available to them, often delivered from third and fourth hand sources, not from the grandfathers themselves.
One of the reader’s first experiences of the theme of enforced silence occurs when Kingston discusses the third wife of her maternal grandfather (Kingston 85). The woman in question is not given a name, nor does Kingston reveal the grandmother’s origin, explaining only that “my maternal grandfather had brought a third wife back from his third trip West, Bali or Hawaii or South America or Africa” (Kingston 85).
The impact of the silence – in this case, the suppression of detail about this element of the family – reveals itself in the fate of the grandmother. Kingston claims that “I am glad to see the black grandmother ended up with a son and grandson who are articulate. When she came to China she “jabbered like a monkey,” but no one answered her. Who knows what she was saying anyway? She fell mute” (Kingston 85).
In this passage from the text we glimpse the consequence of enforced silence on the grandmother – her family essentially ignores her, until she stops attempting to communicate with anyone at all (Kingston 85). In this example, though Kingston does not overtly state it, the enforced silence destroyed a member of her family (Kingston 85).
The above example also brings up the idea of enforced silence in the area of interracial marriages. Despite the fact that interracial marriages clearly happened between the grandfathers who traveled the world and the women of other races and cultures that they met and fell in love and married there, all details of these unions are kept silent and buried in the culture, and even within the families where they occur, as evidenced by the lack of information that Kingston seems to know about this relative.
Critic Linda Ching Sledge has spoken of the issue of interracial marriages and its treatment in Kingston’s work and in the Chinese culture at large. In Sledge’s words, Kingston’s The Great Grandfather of the Sandalwood Mountains draws an accurate portrait of “the thorny issue of miscegenation” in the Chinese culture (Sledge 19).
According to Sledge, “it is well known that intermarriage was strictly forbidden to Chinese by Confucian teachings, for it went against the classical notion established in the Li Chi that marriage was a religious duty between consenting families to secure the services in the ancestral temple for the predecessors and to secure the continuance of the family line for posterity….” (Sledge 19).
The enforced silence in regards to the black grandmother in this case has deep cultural roots in the ancient teachings of Chinese philosophy, economic practices and social customs, although the appearance of the black grandmother herself speaks volumes about the “long ignored problems of sojourner history—loneliness, homesickness, sexual frustration—without cultural bias” (Sledge 19).
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Despite the fact that silence was culturally bred, clearly once the sojourners left China, their natural desires trumped their cultural taboos. In Kingston’s The Great Grandfather of the Sandalwood Mountains, we see the impact of enforced silence in the way that the black grandmother is treated, but not in the action of the grandfather himself, who took her as his wife.
In Sledge’s opinion, the reader comes “to understand and accept the emotional needs motivating these men to enter relationships which violated so profoundly cherished family and religious attitudes because we view such relationships from a sojourner’s (Bak Sook Goong) own point of view” (Sledge 19).
We also see the practice of enforced silence applied in the political arena in Kingston’s The Great Grandfather of the Sandalwood Mountains. In this case the enforced silence relates to keeping quiet and not drawing attention to oneself and one’s family, for fear of rousing the interest and ire of the Communist party.
Interestingly, this fear transcends physical borders in The Great Grandfather of the Sandalwood Mountains, and the family remains cognizant of the long arm of the Communist Party – real or perceived – even though they live in the United States. We find an example of this in the text wherein Kingston discusses the enforced silence as an obstacle to her trip to China.
“I’d like to go to China if I can get a visa and – more difficult – permission from my family, who are afraid that applying for a visa would call attention to us: the relatives in China would get in trouble for having American capitalist connections, and we Americans would be put in relocation camps during the next witch hunt for Communists” (Kingston 87).
In Kingston’s The Great Grandfather of the Sandalwood Mountains, the author also illustrates a contrasting perspective on enforced silence, one that provides an important insight as to how the Chinese sojourners were able to move beyond the constrictive silence of their culture, travel the world and enjoy a fuller experience of life.
Kingston’s The Great Grandfather of the Sandalwood Mountains attributes this phenomenon to the influence of nature. In her mind, certain parts of China transcend the enforced silence of their culture through the example provided by the natural world – nature itself is dynamic, ever changing, and certainly rarely silent.
In the following example, the reader witnesses the impact of enforced silence slowly eroded by the natural curiosity displayed by the ocean. “”Ocean people are different from land people. The ocean never stops saying and asking into ears, which don’t sleep like eyes.
Those who live by the sea examine the driftwood and glass balls that float from foreign ships…Sometimes ocean people are given to understand the newness and oldness of the world; then all morning they try to keep that boundless joy like a little sun inside their chests.
The ocean also makes its people know immensity. They wonder what continents contain the ocean on its other side, what people live there” (Kingston 90).
Here Kingston’s The Great Grandfather of the Sandalwood Mountains gives the reader a glimpse of how the enforced silence of the Chinese men can be broken – through curiosity, through an understanding that there exists a large world out there, one that offers different experiences, different people, and one that perhaps does not suppress verbal expression to the same extent that the Chinese culture does.
In this passage Kingston offers the reader one of the main clues as to how the Chinese men who grew up in a system of enforced silence were able to move beyond it and expand their horizons to the wider world.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. “The Great Grandfather of the Sandalwood Mountains.” China Men. New York: Random House, 1977. Print.
Pinsker, Sanford. “Maxine Hong Kingston: Overview.” Contemporary Novelists. Susan Windisch Brown. 6th ed. New York: St. James Press, 1996. Web.
Sledge, Linda Ching. “Maxine Kingston’s China Men: The Family Historian as Epic Poet.” MELUS 7.4 (Winter 1980): 3-22. Web.