The story presents two different models for relationships between human communities. They can choose conflict or cooperation. At first the unnamed city of the Mandarin and the growing city of Kwan-Si choose the conflict model. Each city feels threatened by the other. For example, the people in the first city think that the wall shaped like a pig will allow Kwan-Si to devour their city, which has walls shaped like an orange. Therefore, the first city elects to counter the pig by building a wall shaped like a big stick. Kwan-Si soon develops a strategy to counter this, which in turn is countered by the first city, and so the conflict goes on and on, escalating all the time. The conflict model—the idea that these two cities must necessarily have opposing interests—proves to be disastrous. The cities keep trying to outwit each other, but their triumphs are always short-lived. The other side always has an answer and a fresh challenge. The result is that neither city flourishes. In the first city, for example, all the attention given to building a wall takes valuable resources away from business and agriculture. The people therefore get poorer. The longer the rivalry between the cities continues, the worse the situation becomes:
“Sickness spread in the city like a pack of evil dogs. Shops closed. The population, working now steadily for endless months upon the changing of the walls, resembled Death himself, clattering his white bones like musical instruments in the wind.”
In other words, all the city’s resources are being poured into its futile attempt to defend itself against a perceived threat. The result is the opposite of what is intended. Instead of preserving itself and flourishing, ‘‘the city [grinds] to a halt.’’ Everything that is really important for people’s welfare, in terms of the quality of their lives, is being neglected. The same thing happens in Kwan-Si, as the Mandarin of that city admits when the two mandarins meet. The fact that the Mandarin Kwan-Si is very ill and is carried into the meeting by ‘‘four starving footmen’’ is ample indication that Kwan-Si is suffering from the perpetual conflict just as much as the first city.
Finally, the two cities agree to try a different kind of relationship. They switch from a conflict model to a cooperative model in which both sides can flourish. They recognize that their cities can in fact nourish each other by supplying what the other needs. They do not have to operate on a system that rewards the one only by punishing the other, since this system has proved to be a failure for both sides. As a result of changing the way they think and act, the two cities flourish as never before. The harvests improve, their economies get stronger, and the people recover their health. The ingenuity that before went into stoking their perpetual conflict now is used to enhance the welfare of both cities.
The two cities are ruled by men, but the conflict between them is finally ended by the wisdom of a woman. This woman is the daughter of the Mandarin, to whom he always looks for advice. At the beginning of the story, when the Mandarin first consults her, she stays calm while he gives vent to his emotions. Then it is the daughter who devises a strategy to combat Kwan-Si’s pig-shaped wall. The Mandarin is so dependent on his daughter that she even has to stand behind him, concealed by a screen, and supply him with the words he needs to say to his architects and builders. She is, quite literally, the power behind the throne, and she is also self-effacing, wanting no credit for herself. When the Mandarin turns around to thank her, she is gone.
When the situation has become completely intolerable, it is the daughter who insists that Mandarin Kwan-Si be summoned. It would seem that no one has thought before of bringing the two leaders together for talks. The daughter then at last devises a strategy to end the conflict, and she explains it carefully to both mandarins as if she is speaking to two children. Then she assumes the voice of authority and tells the mandarins what they are to do. Wisdom has finally broken through, although it has taken even the daughter quite a while to find the correct solution. However, it is clear that she is the only one who could do it; she is the only character with any ingenuity or the capacity to think ‘‘outside the box,’’ to envision doing something differently from the way it has been done before. It is ironic that when the men praise her, they try to make her into a male figure, calling her a ‘‘boy, a man, a stone pillar, a warrior, and a true and unforgettable son.’’ This rather ignores the fact that the men in this story behave with a kind of uniform stupidity and do not have a worthwhile idea between them. It is the woman who eventually saves them from themselves.
Because she is something of a mysterious presence, her voice emerging as a whisper ‘‘like a snowflake’’ from behind a screen, the daughter might be thought of symbolically as the creative aspect of the mind, the inner zone from which ideas emerge. Sometimes this creative voice is strong, sometimes it is faint; sometimes the ideas are good, sometimes they are not. Without it, though, nothing new can emerge.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Ray Bradbury – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.