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In almost every piece of literature there can be found references to the author’s or the narrator’s culture. Having an understanding of this culture can help one better understand a literary work. Reading a work that contains references to a culture can also spark interest and inspire the reader to learn more about the culture that is represented in the work. One such piece of literature is the poem "Ah Mah," written by Shirley Geok-lin Lim. This poem contains many references to Chinese culture that are very interesting and inspire curiosity. By researching the culture of China, one can better understand the references to it in "Ah Mah." Then, the poem has more meaning to the reader than if he did not posses any knowledge about Chinese culture.
"Ah Mah" is a poem about the author’s grandmother. The author, Lim, describes her grandmother in detail and explains how her grandfather "bought" her grandmother. Lim describes her grandmother as a very small and thin woman (10-11). She gives the impression that her grandmother had a hard life even though it appears that the family had enough money. The fact that the family is Chinese is also very apparent due to the many references to Chinese culture that are made as Lim describes aspects of her grandmother’s life.
The first aspect of the grandmother’s life that is a reference to her culture is the mention of silk. In the poem, Lim states that her grandmother "tottered / in black silk" (7-8). This reference may seem unimportant at first glance. However, if one has knowledge of the country of China, it becomes apparent that silk is important. Silk has been a major resource in China since ancient times. A route called the Silk Road was an important path followed by traders who traded goods with the Chinese for raw silk. Silk has been abundant in China for a long time and it was a more common fabric there before it was popular in other places. Silk fabric was still considered a sign of status in China, but it was more easily found there than in other parts of the world ("Chinese Culture").
Another reference to Silk in the poem that is more indirect is "Soochow flower song girl," which is referring to the grandmother (Lim 12). Soochow is a city in China that is also known as Suzhou or Wuxian city.
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The relationship between the grandfather and grandmother in the poem is also an example of Chinese culture. The grandfather took the grandmother into his home after all of his sons were married (11-12). In traditional Chinese culture, the relationship between a father and his sons is considered to be the most important relationship in the family. Even the relationship between a husband and wife is thought of as subordinate to a father’s relationship with his sons (Hsu 59). This could explain why the grandfather waited until his sons were married to obtain a wife. The poem says nothing about the man having a previous wife, but one would assume that she is deceased or he has divorced her. One could expect divorce to be inappropriate to a very traditional culture such as that in China, but it is acceptable for a Chinese man to divorce and desert his wife if he unsatisfied with her (105). It is considered appropriate and even expected for Chinese men to remarry or to obtain a concubine after a death or divorce, but it is difficult for a man to get a young unmarried girl after he has already been married and had children. It is possible for an older man to obtain a young girl as a second or third wife, but this usually happens only when the man is rich (104). The grandmother in this poem is described as a girl, and it appears that she has is young and has never been married. One clue that points to this is that the poem states that the grandfather "bought" the grandmother (Lim 11). Another clue that the grandfather had plenty of money is the mention of handmaids that the grandmother leaned on for support (8-9). It is very common in traditional Chinese families to have hired labor, especially if they can afford it (Hsu 67).
Another aspect of the relationship between the grandfather and the grandmother that reflects traditional Chinese culture is the grandfather’s decision to not have children. As the poem states, "he swore he’d not dress [her] in sarong of maternity." (Lim 21) This could be out of kindness that the grandfather decides this, but it could also be due to the fact that having more children after all of one’s children are grown is looked down upon in Chinese culture. This is because it is thought that the duty of continuing the family line is passed on to a man’s children when they are grown (Hsu 110).
Perhaps the most stirring and noticeable characteristic of Chinese culture in the poem is the practice of foot binding. Foot binding involves wrapping a girl’s feet in very tight cloth when she is about four years old. The cloth is kept tight and restricts the growth of the foot. Eventually, there is so much pressure on the foot that the bones break and the arches and toes curl under. It is a very painful process and deforms the foot tremendously for the rest of the girl’s life. Foot binding became popular in China in the thirteenth century and was later outlawed. However, the practice continued to spread for many generations. Some people considered foot binding as a means of keeping women under control because it often prevented them from being able to travel around very well (Wudunn). The grandmother in this poem has had her feet bound and must limp around "on two tortured fins" and rely on the support of handmaids (Lim 9-10). Foot binding was also considered to be important for a Chinese woman to be beautiful and to have a good marriage (Wudunn).
Another image that is often present in Chinese art and literature and can be seen in "Ah Mah" is that of flowers. Flowers are an important symbol in Chinese culture because they represent nature and Chinese religion and philosophy involves closeness with and respect for nature. The first reference to a flower in the poem is "Soochow flower song girl" (Lim 12). This phrase is connecting the grandmother to flowers and therefore conveying the fact that she is pretty or well liked. The next reference to flowers is when the grandmother’s bound feet are compared to "yellow petals of chrysanthemum" (17-18). This is because the petals of a chrysanthemum curl inwards much like the toes of the grandmother’s feet. Her small feet are also compared to lotus, which is another type of flower. The lotus flower is particularly important because it is a symbol of awakening and enlightenment in Buddhism, the main religion of China. The lotus flower becomes closed at night, and when it is closed it represents potential ("Chinese Culture").
By reading a culture rich poem such as "Ah Mah" and gaining an understanding of the culture within it, one can understand and appreciate many of the details that the author includes. With a background knowledge of Chinese culture, for example, many of the small details in "Ah Mah" become very interesting and important. They become much more interesting than they would have been without a knowledge of the culture. When encountering a work that contains unfamiliar references to a culture, one should search for information to help him or herself understand this culture and in turn better understand the work and the author’s reasons for including certain details within it.
"Chinese Culture." Apr. 2000. The China Pages. 6 Apr. 2000 <http://china.pages.com.cn/chinese_culture/culture.html>.
Hsu, Francis L.K. Under the Ancestors’ Shadow: Chinese Culture and Personality. London: Routledge, 1949.
Lim, Shirley Geok-lin, "Ah Mah." Bridges: Literature Across Cultures. Ed. Gilbert H. Miller and John A. Williams. New York: McGraw, 1994. 281-82.
"Suzhou." Columbia Encyclopedia Online. 2000 ed. 6 Apr. 2000 <http://www.bartleby.com/65/su/Suzhou-S.html>.
Wudunn, Sheryl. "The Greatest Leap: How China’s Women Have Traveled from the Ancient to the Modern in Four Generations." New York Times Magazine Online. Dec. 1999. 6 Apr. 2000