August 27, 1956
Carefully constructed, The Wedding Banquet tells a tale of love revolving around sexes, cultures and even time. There are two paralleling love stories within the screenplay. The first one is between Wai Tung and his American boyfriend Simon, and the other is between Wei-Wei and her desire for Wai Tung’s love. The movie also illustrates Chinese wedding traditions and what happens to them when they clash with the fast paced world of the west. But what is really curious is how the story is constructed- around numbers. For, throughout the movie’s screenplay, it is the element of time and of numbers, that furnish the movie with confines.
Three specific moments in the movie show where time is not only mentioned but impacts the story symbolically. The first mention is that of 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the hour of Wai Tung and Wei-Wei’s marriage. The importance of this moment centers around the deconstruction of the wedding traditions that bind Chinese Americans to back to China. To the horror of Wai Tung’s parents, their son’s marriage mocks them in that none of the traditional wedding ceremonies are carried out. In accordance to Chinese customs, a huge extended marriage and elaborate ceremonies were expected by the parents. Instead Wai Tung plans for the wedding to take place at two o’clock in the afternoon, at the city courthouse. A more fitting introduction to modern American marriage customs.
The second instance where time becomes meaningful occurs during the plans for the wedding banquet, once again at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Although Wai Tung had planned for his parents to visit America only briefly to see his falsified marriage to a woman whom he had absolutely no interest in and then have them leave, he consents to a traditional wedding banquet in honor of his parents, their Chinese ancestors and their cultural customs. In doing so, the screenplay is further elaborated in that the tension between himself, Simon and Wei-Wei is heightened.
What are the symbolic implications of the two times? In Chinese mythology, that the number two represents opposition (The Encyclopedia of Religion 14). From the number two comes the popular opposing but balanced yin-yang symbol which is also said to be the “balancing act between two opposing life forces” (Dictionary of Symbols 20). Wai Tung and Wei-Wei are seen together as the opposing forces within the screenplay and it is because of their opposition that they cannot function well together. The number two as repeated during a marriage whose fundamental purpose is to join two individuals into one suggests another strong connection.
Two minds are better than one, as the old saying goes and but the dichotomy of the separation of man and wife instead of joining them together is why marriage is important to this screenplay. The marriage is not out of love but necessity for there is no natural love between the couple. Wei-Wei uses the marriage to remain within the United States to become a prominent artist while Wai Tung uses it to make his parents happy and to keep his homosexuality a secret form them. Neither one realizes until it is too late that in the creation of a false marriage they lost the respect of those who the marriage was to benefit- Wai Tung’s parents.
As soon as Wei-Wei discovers her pregnancy, she is frightened and combined with the fact that Wai Tung can never love her in the way that he loves Simon, she decides that it would be better if she terminated the child. Hence the third important time indication. This final episode involving time concludes when Wei-Wei sets the abortion appointment for 2:30, which to her is the only way that she can continue her own life once after Wai Tung and Simon discard her away from them to continue their own life.
This movement away from the continuity of two o’clock appointments suggests that where two reflects a perfect balance of opposing forces, three may upset the balance and create more confusion. This is but one-half of the solution. The other piece of the puzzle comes in that the notion of two going to three and becoming much more stronger is very central to the three youngsters relationships to one another.
It is said that “all things come in threes” (The Encyclopedia of Religion 15) and within the movie’s framework this is true. For in the end Wei-Wei keeps her child and agrees to live with both Simon and Wai Tung in that “two fathers are better than one.” By themselves Simon, Wei-Wei and Wai Tung are isolated, alone and not much good at getting anything accomplished within their personal lives. But the notion of two people are better than one suggests that the two couples are able to function and build upon each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Hence the notion of two turning to three becomes a positive indication of a stronger, extended family and it is from this renewed sense of hope that the movie ends.
In accordance with traditional Chinese and Chinese American beliefs, the symbolism of numbers has a strong impact on how a person goes about their business or becomes married to another. Numerology as it occurs in the Chinese traditions is said to have begun in the days of Confucius, but perhaps their superstition for numbers and how they are the language of the universe dates even further back (The Cambridge Encyclopedia of China 289 and 301). The most common form of Chinese numerical divination comes in the form of the I Ching. Beginning as early as the third millennium B.P, the I Ching (also known as the Book of Change) “has been used throughout time to isolate the present moment and predict the future” (Wing 9).
The I Ching utilizes concepts develop by the Chinese that reflect the world’s ability to balance good and bad into a perfect harmony between all things in the universe- tao and the yinyang. In using the I Ching early Chinese Kings, Emperors and even fishermen have been able to gain a little insight into how they relate to the much larger order of the universe. Today the I Ching is still amongst one of the most popular divination tools to gain insight into that which disturbs the balance within.
Sixty-four hexagrams, each with many meanings, comprise this Book of Change. The divination is used in conjunction with throwing sticks, or in modern times- coins, to determine what hexagrams answer questions of importance. As it relates to The Wedding Banquet there are three hexagrams in question. These are hexagrams 2, 3 and 23. To come up with these numbers I used the first two times of two o’clock and used the two from them. Then in the third I took both the two and three as the stand separately and also as they form the number 23.
Hexagram number two is also called Natural Response or the Receptive by Wing. In general, Natural Response “reproduces, adapts and evolves itself appropriately; it heals itself when injured and deftly maintains a balanced economy” (Wing 36). Applying this divination to Wai Tung, Simon, and Wei-Wei’s situation this hexagram shows the natural responses of the characters as they attempt to restore balance to their world through a false marriage that while it benefits them all, it also causes much pain and sadness.
As it relates to human relationships, Natural Response says to “hold, at this time to traditional values in the managing of interpersonal affairs and avoid aggressive attempts to get into your way” (36) and to not try to act upon ones own for it upsets the sense of balance the number two offers (36). Wai Tung breaks away from traditional Chinese marriage customs when he sets up his appointment for marriage in a courthouse. As a result, according to the I Ching, he allows himself “to become confused” due to his independent action therefore causing more problems to occur than normal.
The next hexagram that is significant to the screenplay is number three also Difficult Beginnings. The name alone suggests many connections within the screenplay. Difficult Beginnings is said to mark the birth of every new adventure “because we are entering the realm of the unknown” (38). Up until the day after the wedding banquet the tone and mood of the movie is very jovial and comedic. After Wai Tung and Wei-Wei’s consummation is where the Difficult Beginnings start. Tensions between all three parties are high and emotions are allowed to get the better of each person. Wai Tung confesses to Simon about his wedding night , which almost results in the loss of their relationship; Wei-Wei mentions to all that she is pregnant and has no real desire to keep the baby, which not only upsets the in-laws but Wai Tung and Simon even further. Not only this but when Wai Tung confesses to his mother about his homosexuality the feeling of shame and wrongness permeates the rest of the scenes until the end when all is sadly reconciled.
Difficult Beginnings also occur when one tries to master that which “has not fully materialized yet” (38). Oddly enough throughout the course of the movie it is Simon who falls prey to this. He has no true knowledge of Chinese culture although he can speak enough of the language to get him by. When Wai Tung’s parents first visit he presents them with gifts that are practical but also make the them aware of their age and place in society. It is because of this where his actions to Wai Tung’s family become misinterpreted and becomes even more of an outcast than he was before the suggestion of Wei-Wei and Wai Tung’s marriage.
The final hexagram represented in The Wedding Banquet is Deterioration or Splitting Apart, number twenty-three. What separates Deterioration from Difficult Beginnings is that here there is absolutely no action one can do to change the situation except to wait until things have had a chance to work themselves out for the better (78). Splitting Apart is suggested through the end where Simon, Wei-Wei and Wai Tung’s parents abandon Wai Tung once the truth has been told about his sexuality. But, more importantly, the idea of Splitting Apart bears direct impact upon the fact that Wei-Wei desire to split the child from herself- ending the lie in which this whole movie is constructed.
“If there is a breach in personal relationships,” the I Ching suggests, “remain calm and quiet for the present and if you can, be generous and supportive of those dear to you” (68). There is one incidence within the screenplay where this occurs. At the moment after Wei-Wei declares that she will keep her child (at approximately 2:30pm) she demands that Wai Tung listen to her proposition to reconcile all that has taken place. His decision to help support Wei-Wei and his child and if Wei-Wei consents to also keep his relationship with Simon open and together show that he is willing to be receptive to others and help them when needed.
Time has more influence upon daily interactions between people than we think. It is because of this construct around time, that the characters in The Wedding Banquet are bound to act and react within. Chinese saying of Double Happiness and Double Luck show the notion that twice the amount is better than one but if an extra one is added to make three then the opposition is restored to harmony. But, for Simon, Wai Tung and Wei-Wei it is in the end where they are better off as being together as a pair of three then if they were alone or as a couple of two.
The I Ching hexagrams of Natural Responses, Difficult Beginnings and Deterioration add complexity to their situation as well as show how carefully constructed the elements of the movie are related around Chinese numerical superstitions. Kim suggests in her introduction that “the challenge that Kingston and other Asian American writers face is how to preserve the artistic integrity of their writing and be understood at the same time by readers whose different cultural experiences might necessitate discourse and explanations that interfere with the art” (xvii). This is what the screenwriters have done in grounding The Wedding Banquet around Chinese numerology. It is a subtle symbolism that if one looks hard enough will find that it is central to the understanding and meaning of the plot.
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of China. ed. Brian Hook. Cambridge, Eng. : Cambridge University Press, 1991. 289, 301.
The Encyclopedia of Religion. ed. Mircea Eliade. New York : Macmillan Publishers, 1987. 14-15.
Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature; An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia : Temple University Press, 1982. xvii.
Liungman, Carl G. Dictionary of Symbols. Santa Barbara, CA. : ABC-Cleo, 1991. 20.
Wing, R.L. The I Ching Workbook. New York : Doubleday, 1979.