Waging War in Catherine Lims' The Bondmaid

Antwan Jefferson, Class of 2000, English 119, Brown University

As a child, young Han sleeps on a worn mattress with her five siblings. They share three pillows and two bolsters, which are rotated between the six of them nightly. The mattress that they share is heavily infested with bedbugs that attack their small sleeping bodies nightly. The young children share a bond, a unity that is manifested in their nights sleeping together, but is also demonstrated in their daily travails. It was not solidarity that united the children for the duration of their childhood, but unmistakable dependence upon one another. Even during times of discipline when the father would line the children up and hit them all, the children would wait until all had undergone the punishment before retreating together to the room.

As a woman, Han embraces the love given her by the young master Wu during their shared childhood as it becomes the sole motivation for which she lives. While the young master is away at school, being trained in the finer things that prepare him for patriarchy within the House of Wu, Han manages to find a reason to continue, a reason to endure the harsh treatment thrown upon her by bondmaids, Fourth Older Brother, and the Reverend. Unwanted sexual advances, a dying mother who once abandoned her, and slowly fading memories of her young love all challenge the desire that she maintains to live.

As a child, Han wards off the eminent danger of her father's discipline falling upon each of her siblings. Her method is a dance which she performs along with a song that speaks bees, and birds, and flowers, attesting to the innocence of the young girl, soothing the heart of her enraged father, and delivering her siblings from the hands punishment. When left (in the entryway to the House of Wu) by a mother who has sold her into bondage, Han wages war against onlookers, against bondage itself, by singing the song that protected her siblings. When she learns that it does not bring her mother back to her, thus protecting her from the loneliness and strangeness of the land, Han reverts to different measures. Instead of singing and dancing, she screams, kicks, and bites.

As a woman, Han no longer applies the song of the purity of nature. She does not sing of the flowers, or of the birds and bees. Rather, she has shed this innocence in her bondage, and manipulates the dance to suit her current goal. Instead of dancing to appease the onslaught of opposition in her naivete, Han uses her body to capture the young master Wu. Because his future is arranged, he must marry someone from another House, Han understands that she must fight against the same forces against which she stood years before. Rather than dance for the House of Wu, she dances for the young master Wu, without the song, to bring him to her with such force and manipulation that he can not possibly succumb to the direction of his family. As they dance outside against the storm, Han believes that she can stand against the wishes of the House of Wu.

Never a good story-teller, always preferring to listen instead, she was now eager to unload her story upon her audience of one. Spitface, ever alert to her beckoning sign, came to squat by her chair and look up at her. She sang her story:

The bird looks
The bee cries
The ants yearn
For my little flower
My little opening flower.

It was not a celebration of the flower's desirability, but a lament of its abandonment. He had come, taken away the opening beauty and gone on his way. He had left her emptied and despairing." [p.323]

Preferring to soon be wed to the master Wu, Han learns that the war waged on the House of Wu was only partly successful. The outcome was not what she expected but its outcome joined her to him for life. She was with child, his child.

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Catherine Lim