Brave Orchids sister, Moon Orchid, is moving to America from Hong Kong. Brave Orchid has not seen her sister for thirty years, but has now finally raised enough money to afford to pay for her plane fare. Brave Orchid, her children, and Moon Orchids adult daughter await her arrival at the airport. When they finally meet again, each is amazed at how old the other looks.
Moon Orchid, who has never been to America—”the Gold Mountain”—before, is thrilled by everything around her. She follows her nieces and nephews around the house in Stockton, commenting on their intelligence and abilities, much to the childrens annoyance. Indeed, she is soon little more than an annoyance to the entire household. Her inability to perform even the easiest tasks, such as washing dishes or mending clothes, renders her useless in Brave Orchids mind. Brave Orchid can barely even employ her sister to fold towels in the family laundry.
Brave Orchid has brought her sister to America for a reason, however: to help Moon Orchid reclaim her status, after thirty years of marriage, as the wife of a successful doctor in Los Angeles. Moon Orchid, like her sister and so many other Chinese women, married in China just before her husband left for the Gold Mountain, and received a generous allowance from him while she was still living in China. It had become clear in the many years since he left, however, that her husband had no plans for bringing Moon Orchid over to America, and had in fact married again and started a family. Though Moon Orchid is too timid and embarrassed to confront her husband, Brave Orchid wants her to march straight into his house and treat his new wife like a servant, to reclaim his new children as her own. She tells a talk-story about one of their brothers, who took a new wife in Singapore and then had to build a second house for her and their children when his first wife returned and confronted him.
Moon Orchids opportunity to see her plans through arises when her daughter must return home to Los Angeles. The daughter had once tried to contact her father, Moon Orchids husband, but had been rebuffed. Moon Orchid reluctantly agrees to make the trip to Los Angeles, so they pile into a car with one of Brave Orchids sons. On the drive down, Brave Orchid tells talk-stories about a Chinese myth of an Emperor with four wives. The Empress of the West had imprisoned the Emperor in the Western Palace, and it was up to the Empress of the East to rescue her husband.
When they finally arrive at her husbands office building, Moon Orchid is too scared to enter, so Brave Orchid goes to the mans office instead. Brave Orchid sees her brother-in-laws new wife, a pretty nurse, and decides to have her son trick the doctor in to coming down to the car. Brave Orchids plan fails miserably. The doctor, younger than both of the two women, addresses them as “Grandmothers.” When Brave Orchid tells him the truth, he coldly tells Moon Orchid that he wants nothing to do with her, and that he could get in trouble if anyone ever found out about their marriage. They never see each other again.
Moon Orchid moves to Los Angeles to be with near her daughter, but begins to have delusions about Mexican “ghosts” plotting to kill her. Brave Orchid brings her sister back to Stockton, but her delusions only become worse. She walks around the house turning off lights and locking doors, believing someone is going to come and take all of them away. At the end of the chapter, Brave Orchid takes her sister to a mental asylum, where she eventually dies.
“In the Western Palace” is different from the rest of The Woman Warrior in both tone and voice. Kingston is hardly present at all, and in the few instances in which she does appear, she speaks about herself in the third person—the “absent-minded and messy” eldest girl, or the one married to a husband who does not speak Chinese. The narrative of Moon Orchid and Brave Orchids trip to Los Angeles is told in a fairly vivid manner, but one wonders how Kingston, if she was not there herself, knows so many of the details. We learn in the next chapter that Kingston learned the story of the trip from her sister, who in turn learned about it from the brother who drove the car.
The fourth chapter marks the first appearance of Kingstons siblings and her father. Through Brave Orchids descriptions of the children we learn bits about their lives: a son, in Vietnam, who is known to “stick pencils in his ears”; a daughter with the “unlucky mark” of a curled lip; a second son who is “thick- headed”; a third son who is an “inaccessible cliff”; and a bratty sister, the “raging bellows.” These less than complimentary descriptions are all, we presume, given to Moon Orchid by her sister, Brave Orchid. Indeed, Brave Orchid spends much of the chapter criticizing her own children for being impolite and for not respecting or understanding Chinese customs. Brave Orchid is equally critical of both her own sister and niece, thinking of them as “lovely, useless” women who are no good to anyone.
Like the other chapters, “In the Western Palace” is a story of culture clash between old world, as represented by Moon Orchid and Brave Orchid, and new world, as embodied in Brave Orchids children and Moon Orchids doctor husband. Moon Orchid and the children can barely comprehend each other; she follows them around the house, while they talk in English about how crazy she is. Brave Orchid, for her part, stubbornly clings to the notion that it is her Moon Orchids right to live with her husband in America. In doing so, she forces her poor sister into a horribly traumatic confrontation with her husband. Brave Orchid makes her decision based on Chinese myth—the talk-story about the two Empresses—and the story of her brother who took two wives. When Brave Orchids son questions her decision, she criticizes him for knowing nothing about how Chinese society works.
Part of the power of “In the Western Palace” comes from its blending of humor and sorrow. Moon Orchid is at once both a comic and a tragic figure. She makes us laugh as she follows the children around the house, marveling at their every action; furthermore, the ludicrous schemes she and Brave Orchid concoct regarding the confrontation with her husband have an almost slapstick quality. This very confrontation, however, is anything but funny; it is hard not to wince when her husband sees the two sisters and calls them “Grandmothers,” as Moon Orchid sobs hysterically. In a sudden and powerful role reversal, Brave Orchid and Moon Orchid become the ghosts in America.
Despite all her mistakes and shortcomings, we do see—as we saw at the end of “Shaman”—Brave Orchids tender side. She tries desperately to comfort Moon Orchid as she slowly deteriorates. Like the girls who chanted her own spirit back home in medical school, Brave Orchid takes her sister in her arms and tries to make her spirit come home. She stays awake with her sister in her madness and often sleeps at the foot of her bed. She humors Moon Orchids paranoid delusions and decides to put her in a home only when her ravings have become too upsetting to the children. In a chapter in which Brave Orchid is usually criticizing her children, the story is an important reminder of Kingstons own feelings towards her mother.