In some traditional societies (such as hunter-gatherers), such stress forces gender respect and equality. In China, however, it simply strengthened the harshness and severity of patriarchal inequality. In Kingston’s ‘No Name Woman,’ Maxine learns of an aunt whose name must never be spoken because of her adultery. But everything about the story smells of the instinctive cruelty with which the men turned on women to cover up their crimes and avoid their responsibility.
From a practical point of view, the issue of adultery in hard times was clear: ‘…the men–hungry, greedy, tired of planting in dry soil, cuckolded–had to leave the village to send food-money home’ (2245).
Away in America for years, how could these men be counted on to remain loyal and supportive of their families back home unless infidelity was severely curbed and punished?
The aunt’s pregnancy spoke for itself, as her husband, whom she had met exactly once on her wedding night (2241), had been overseas for years.
The circumstances of the adultery were of no interest to the villagers: that someone known and close to everyone had demanded her to sleep with him; that ‘she obeyed him; she always did as she was told (2241); and that the man probably organized the attack on her family when he found out she was pregnant.
This, then, was the ultimate in patriarchal evil. A man who precipitated the adultery and the pregnancy then organizes a pogrom to force the woman’s shunning and death, to destroy any trace of his crime.
True to the tradition of twisted obedience and loyalty to male force, the aunt goes to her death without revealing the man, as he probably knew she wouldn’t. Kingston does not deny that this lonely woman, who raised an adored daughter and was dangerously obsessed with her appearance, also got caught up in the lust and romance of it. From our vantage point, however, why shouldn’t she? Who and what was she supposed to be loyal to? A husband she didn’t know, and had no hand in choosing? A life of misery, with no emotion, no children, no relief in sight? One of Kingston’s most fascinating insights into this strange culture was the terrible fear of uncontrolled emotion creating chaos. Describing a crowded multi-generational household trying to survive, she writes: Brothers and sisters, newly men and women, had to efface their sexual color and present plain miens. Disturbing hair and eyes, a smile like no other threatened the ideal of five generations living under one roof…people shouted face to face and yelled from room to room. The immigrants I know have loud voices, unmodulated to American tones even after years away from the village…(2244)
Trying to emerge as a human being in America from this legacy, Maxine is haunted by her martyred aunt, and draws a much more subtle lesson from the story than the one her mother intends her to: Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don’t humiliate us. You wouldn’t like to be forgotten as if you had never been born. The villagers are watchful. (2240)
Maxine, however, after fifty years, is determined to remember.