Having explored the dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship in her first two novels, Amy Tan (born February 19, 1952) turns to the sisterly bond in her third, The Hundred Secret Senses, published in 1995. Reviews for the new novel were mixed; some commentators described it as Tan’s best work while others found fault with either Tan’s focus on supernatural elements or with the novel’s conclusion. Most reviewers did, however, acknowledge Tan’s gift for storytelling, and many pointed out that Kwan in Secret Senses is one of Tan’s most original and best character creations.
Readers familiar with Tan’s work will immediately recognize in The Hundred Secret Senses a number of distinctive Tan trademarks: a strong sense of place, a many-layered narrative, family secrets, generational conflict, Chinese lore and history, and an engrossing story. Employing multiple settings—twentieth-century San Francisco and Changmian, China, as well as nineteenth-century China during the final years of the Taiping Rebellion—Amy Tan spins out The Hundred Secret Senses across two centuries and two continents, unraveling the mysteriously interwoven stories of Olivia Bishop and her half sister, Li Kwan, and Nelly Banner and her ‘‘loyal friend’’ Nunumu.
The Hundred Secret Senses is a novel of contrasts—the story of two sisters, two cultures, two lives, two centuries linked by loyalties and betrayals, love and loss, life and death. At the heart of the novel is the complex and uneasy relationship between California-born Olivia and her much older Chinese-born half-sister, Kwan, who comes to America when she is eighteen years old. The daughter of Jack Yee and his discarded first wife, Kwan is markedly Chinese, while Olivia, whose mother is Jack Yee’s second—and American—wife, is so definitively American that her idea of ethnic food is take-out Chinese cuisine. Perhaps because she is already an adult when she emigrates, Kwan never truly assimilates into American culture, although she takes an unrestrained delight in all things American. Unfortunately, Olivia as a child is frequently mortified by her unusual new sister who asks too many odd questions, never learns to speak fluent English, and engulfs her with loyalty and devotion combined with a goofy determination to maneuver Olivia into sharing all of her secrets.
The most unnerving of those secrets is Kwan’s unshakeable belief that she is gifted with yin eyes, a term that she employs (and that Amy Tan invented) to explain her frequent conversations with people who are already dead and who inhabit an otherworldly existence that she calls ‘‘the World of Yin’’ (another Tan invention). Disturbed by Kwan’s nonchalant communication with ghosts, Olivia nevertheless grows up halflistening, but very much against her will, to Kwan’s stories about yin people and a previous life in nineteenth-century China. Although Olivia claims not to believe in the yin people, she has actually seen (or perhaps dreamed vividly about) at least one yin person when she was a child; and she has no compunction about enlisting their aid through Kwan’s mediation in her campaign to marry Simon Bishop. As an adult, Olivia tries to distance herself from Kwan and her tales, but Kwan’s stories do not disappear with time. In fact, as Kwan approaches her fiftieth birthday, her compulsion to talk about the yin people and her life in China increases tremendously, and Olivia finds herself bombarded with more stories and with snippets of reminiscences that Kwan seems to expect her mystified sister to ‘‘remember’’ or at least recognize somehow.
When the Bishop marriage disintegrates after seventeen years, Kwan begins to insist that she and her yin friends believe that Olivia and Simon should put behind them their divorce plans and instead work toward reconciliation. Finally, Kwan maneuvers the estranged pair into accompanying her to China to visit the village of her childhood and adolescence. Despite their misgivings about the journey, Olivia and Simon agree to go, and when they arrive in Kwan’s home village of Changmian, they are almost instantly catapulted into an alien landscape in which the dominant features are both unrecognizably strange and disturbingly familiar to Olivia. In this disorienting setting, she and Simon are forced to confront the hidden resentments and disguised angers that have destroyed their marriage.
Interwoven with Olivia’s story is Kwan’s intermittent but compelling series of narratives of her past life as a girl named Nunumu in the nineteenth century during which she claims that she worked as a servant in a household of English missionaries. Central to that life was the close friendship that developed between Nunumu and Miss Banner, whose affair with a bogus American general puts the entire group of foreigners in danger, and whose later love for a half-Chinese–half-American interpreter leads to her death as well as that of the faithful Nunumu.
Kwan’s need to reconcile past and present, and her desire to connect her lives, serve as the catalyst for the revelation of secrets, the articulation of unspoken pain, the reaffirmation of love and—at the end—the payment of old debts of loyalty. And although Kwan mysteriously disappears before Olivia’s and Simon’s daughter is born, the reader is left with the suggestion that the child is Kwan’s gift to the couple as well as a reminder of Kwan’s place in their history.
The plot of The Hundred Secret Senses follows two narrative threads: Olivia’s search for an integrated self, and Kwan’s desire to undo the damage of a century-old mistake. Although the two are closely related, the connections between them do not immediately become obvious but emerge gradually as elements of each plot come to light and reveal echoes of the other.
Borrowing a technique from the classical epic, Amy Tan begins the novel in medias res, or—colloquially translated—in the middle of the action. Over a century earlier in China, Kwan—with the very best intentions— told a lie, fabricating a story that had the unforeseen effect of disrupting the lives of two people and abruptly terminating the romance that had begun between them. The plot that has Kwan at its center is the history of her previous existence as Nunumu; the events of her life gradually reveal the incidents that lead inexorably toward the mistake that separates Miss Banner and Yiban. Now in California, Kwan is devoting her energies to the cause of rectifying her mistake and reuniting the lovers. Meanwhile, in the narrative of Olivia’s efforts to discover what she wants her life to become, Olivia and Simon already are separated and have initiated the legal transactions that will lead to divorce. Both women tell their stories, but whereas Olivia’s narratives suggest interior monologues with a pervasive component of self-questioning and no identifiable audience, Kwan’s stories—which are embedded in Olivia’s— are clearly addressed to Olivia.
As Olivia sorts through the emotional chaos resulting from her separation from Simon, she repeatedly is reminded of the events of their courtship, the early years of their marriage, and their more recent attempts to revive the companionship they felt when they were younger. Because Simon was and is her first and only love, Olivia is not dealing well with the break-up of her marriage, and Kwan, who is still the protective older sister although they are both adults, worries constantly about Olivia, inviting her to dinner, dropping in for brief visits, offering the opinion that the separation is a mistake and that Olivia and Simon should reconcile. In the first half of the novel, each overture by Kwan prompts Olivia to remember a story that Kwan has told her, and each story told by Kwan in turn somehow returns the narrative to Olivia’s emotional dilemma. With each new story, the outlines of connections become clearer. Initially, it appears that Kwan wants to bring the couple back together because she was responsible for the evening during which Elza—a yin person and Simon’s first love who had been dead for a while—supposedly told Simon to forget her and to find happiness with Olivia. But Kwan’s stories and everyday conversation are laced with oblique references to her belief that the rightness of Olivia’s and Simon’s union was determined by events in the distant past, and eventually Kwan manages to persuade Simon and Olivia to join her on a trip to China where, she points out mysteriously, they will discover the true pattern of their lives.
During the China trip, Olivia’s and Kwan’s narratives abruptly change. Removed from the familiar and confronted with a new culture, Olivia curtails her litany of past rejections and begins instead to detail events as they happen; and because she is in China, Olivia no longer has to rely on her memory of Kwan’s stories—China is all around her to be experienced. Kwan, for her part, increases the number and frequency of her stories about Nunumu and Miss Banner, adding stories that Olivia has never heard—for instance, the story of Yiban and the last days in the Ghost Merchant’s house, or the tale of the flight to the mountains. Early in the novel, Kwan’s stories emerge as Olivia’s memories, but in the final chapters, Kwan tells her stories in the immediate present. Gone is the slow gentle rhythm of memory; each tale now is urgent, immediate, triggered by the sight of a mountain or the taste of a special dish or, ultimately, the very palpable presence of a music box that Kwan claims to have hidden in a cave over a century earlier. Kwan’s final stories clarify connections: Olivia and Simon are Miss Banner and Yiban, and Kwan has brought them to Changmian to reunite them. The novel ends with an epilogue narrated by Olivia. She and Simon are working toward reconciliation. More important, they have a daughter who was conceived in China, and who is—Olivia firmly believes—Kwan’s final gift to them.
Tan employs the juxtaposition of past and present as a narrative device for her story of the indestructibility of love and loyalty. Past and present are so closely interrelated that Olivia ultimately admits to being occasionally confused about whether an event actually occurred or is merely an episode in one of Kwan’s frequently recounted stories. Toward the end of the novel, as Olivia and Kwan turn over the contents of the ancient music box that the latter says she hid in a cave more than a hundred years earlier, Olivia’s logical mind races from one explanation to another. Always the rational American woman of the 1990s, Olivia is inclined to doubt what her senses suggest; nevertheless, she cannot dismiss the fact of Kwan’s unflinching candor. In their time together, Olivia has never known Kwan to lie; in fact, Kwan says only what she truly believes to be true. And although Olivia knows that she should believe Kwan even now, another question surfaces: ‘‘[I]f I believe what she says, does that mean I now believe she has yin eyes?’’ (320). At that moment, Olivia realizes what she has known, has in fact believed all along—since childhood— that Kwan does remember events, the memory of which defies rational explanation.
Events in the past clearly and significantly influence the lives of both Olivia and Kwan. They are sisters, thanks to Jack Yee’s two marriages and the shameful act of thievery that provided him with the wherewithal to abandon a wife and child, to discard an identity, and to begin a new life and new family in America. Through her conversations with her yin friends about Olivia’s marital problems, Kwan bridges the chronological gap between her two lives, and Olivia is forced to endure advice and comments on her marriage from a certain Lao Lu, a friend of Kwan’s from the Taiping days in the Ghost Merchant’s house. Not even Olivia’s marriage is immune to the influence of the past: after nearly two decades of marriage, Simon still appears to be obsessed with his first love who was killed in an avalanche.
During the visit to China, Kwan becomes more and more insistent that she and Olivia have had a previous life together, and when the sisters are together on the mountain, Olivia begins to half believe that she does indeed recognize in her present circumstances a series of strong resonances from another time. Whether these frissons of memory are remnants of Kwan’s stories or genuine recollections from Olivia’s past is immaterial. What is clear is that Olivia finds the more distinctive elements of the Guilin landscape disturbingly familiar.
Present and past finally collide on a rain-drenched mountain just beyond Changmian. Assailed from all directions by a cascade of sensory and emotional stimuli (Kwan’s final story about her last hours in the nineteenth century, a hilly landscape that possesses a dreamlike familiarity combined with jarring strangeness, Simon’s disappearance into the cold mist, Kwan’s rediscovery of the music box that she last saw when she was Nunumu, and finally Kwan’s revelation of the truth about Simon and Elza), Olivia is drawn into an admission that her history with Kwan could have begun near this mountain in an earlier century. It remains only for Olivia to unearth the jars full of duck eggs that Kwan says Nunumu buried during the Taiping troubles. As Olivia holds the ancient crumbling duck eggs in her cupped hands, the act liberates her from the doubts that have undermined all of her relationships. And although Kwan vanishes into the Changmian caves and is never found despite an intensive and protracted search, Olivia believes that the daughter who is born to her and Simon nine months later is a gift from Kwan. The child is not Kwan, exactly, but she is connected with Kwan in some mysterious way—and in that little girl, the past and the present are fused into wholeness and the future.
As she does in her other novels, Tan relies on formal storytelling as a narrative strategy in The Hundred Secret Senses. Both Kwan’s nineteenthcentury existence as Nunumu and her twentieth-century childhood in Changmian before her emigration to America emerge through narrative set pieces that Kwan performs as though they are legends or folktales, artifacts of an oral tradition that she feels impelled to pass on to Olivia who is her captive audience.
Tan uses the flashback technique to superb effect in the novel. New words, chance remarks, familiar objects and mementos, the taste of traditional Chinese dishes, and celebrations trigger Kwan’s recollections, prompting her to narrate vignettes, brief tales, events, the particulars of specific episodes in her former lives. In one instance, when she overhears the neighborhood children referring to her as ‘‘a retard’’ and forces Olivia to define the word, Kwan suddenly is reminded of Miss Banner’s early attempts to speak Chinese, and she tells Olivia that Nunumu initially thought that Miss Banner’s inability to speak or understand Chinese indicated a lack of intelligence. On occasion, Kwan says, Nunumu actually laughed at Miss Banner’s feeble attempts to converse in the vernacular. The memory prompts Kwan immediately to launch into an account of Miss Banner’s first garbled description of her early life. Because Miss Banner cannot speak adequate Chinese, she ends up thoroughly confusing Nunumu by telling an impossibly surrealistic story about her origins, but Nunumu’s patience with her mistress eventually results in her success at teaching Miss Banner how to view the world ‘‘exactly as a Chinese person’’ would (49).
By providing multiple versions of and varying perspectives on events that are central to the novel, Tan explores the ways through which storytellers create meaning on many levels and from different points of view. In some cases, the plurality of versions is the inadvertent result of misunderstandings, incomplete information, or even partial fabrication; in other cases, variant editions of a story signal the storyteller’s intent to deceive. Tan seems to be suggesting that the truth exists both in each version of a story and somewhere in the unspoken narrative or in the spaces between stories.
A hallmark of The Hundred Secret Senses is the novel’s precarious position somewhere between the real and the surreal, between the prosaic and the magical. When Kwan as Nunumu first hears Miss Banner’s life story told in fractured stumbling Chinese, she forms the impression that Miss Banner has come from a peculiarly skewed and topsy-turvy universe. Miss Banner’s little brothers chase a chicken into a deep hole and fall all the way to the other side of the world; her father picks scented money that grows like flowers and makes people happy; her mother puffs out her neck like a rooster, calls for her sons, and climbs down the hole that has swallowed them. After her mother’s disappearance, Miss Banner’s father takes her first to a palace governed by little Jesuses, and later to an island ruled by mad dogs. At length, the father vanishes and Miss Banner lives with a succession of uncles including one who cuts off pieces of China and sails off on a floating island. The reality—which Kwan learns after Miss Banner becomes more fluent in Chinese—is that Miss Banner’s brothers died of chicken pox and her mother of a goiter disease; her father was an opium trader who put her in a school for Jesus-worshipping children in India; father and daughter left India for Malacca; and the uncles were actually a series of lovers. Tan’s clever juxtaposition of fact and whimsy complements the surrealism that pervades the entire novel and validates for the reader the simultaneous existence of twentieth century and nineteenth century, Chinese and American, Kwan and Nunumu, and the yin people in Tan’s fictional universe.
Tan also employs multiple versions of a story to create uncertainty and to describe a world in which no definite answers are possible. Jack Yee, the shadowy father that Kwan and Olivia barely remember, is an enigma to both daughters, but for different reasons. In Olivia’s version of Jack’s story—passed on to her by the American-born adults in the family—Jack was a good-looking university student in Guilin who was forced to marry a young market vendor when she became pregnant with his child. Five years later, when his wife died of a lung disease, the griefstricken Jack left his young daughter with an aunt and went to Hong Kong to begin a new life. Before he could send for his beloved daughter, the Communist takeover in China destroyed all hope for a reunion between father and child, and the despondent Jack emigrated to America. Kwan’s arrival replaces the sad story with an even more disturbing one. According to Kwan, her mother did not die of a lung disease; she died of ‘‘heartsickness’’ when her husband abandoned her with a four-yearold daughter and another child on the way. Kwan tells Olivia that all the water in her mother’s belly ‘‘poured out as tears from her eyes. . . . That poor starving baby in her belly ate a hole in my mother’s heart, and they both died’’ (14). In this way, years later, Olivia learns what Kwan has always known. Their father had no legal or hereditary claim to the name Jack Yee. The name belonged to the owner of a stolen overcoat that the young university student who became their father purloined from a drunken man who had been trying to sell it for whatever cash he could get. In the coat’s pockets were immigration permits, academic records, notification of admission to an American university, a ticket for passage on a ship, and cash—documents that would facilitate a new life in a wealthy country full of opportunity, far away from poverty, factory work, a pregnant wife, and a child. Donning the coat and the spectacles he found in one pocket, and appropriating the documents, the student became Jack Yee. But Amy Tan does not privilege Kwan’s version. Kwan, in fact, prefaces her tale by saying that she heard it from Li Bin-bin, her mother’s sister who raised her—and who, under the circumstances, would be unlikely to feel kindly toward the bogus Jack Yee. Thus the question remains: Who is the man behind the identity of Jack Yee? Kwan says that she has never known his true name, and she clearly knows almost nothing of his origins. And by extension, then, who are Olivia and Kwan? Who are their true ancestors? And who are Miss Banner and Nunumu? And, ultimately, how are all of these individuals connected?
Finally, Tan employs the many-layered triple narrative to interrogate the accounts of actual historical events, perhaps even to suggest that such accounts are unstable because they are the productions of gendered, class-defined, or racially constructed language. The Taiping Rebellion of the mid-nineteenth century is well known to Sinologists as well as to historians and geographers, but the standard texts tend toward factual, Westernized accounts of military battles, descriptions of territory gained or lost, and tallies of victories and defeats. Kwan’s version of the Rebellion privileges the perspective of a half-blind orphan who notices far more than battles between Manchu and Hakka. For one-eyed Nunumu, the Rebellion means the loss of her entire family, and life in a halfdeserted village populated only by the elderly and the very young, the physically and mentally disabled, and the cowardly; the Heavenly King and his armies succeed only in bringing her hunger and cold, and a life of servitude in a house full of missionaries. Nunumu’s experiences factor the personal element into a historical equation, revealing the frequently overlooked truth that military and political battles are always won or lost at the expense of thousands of individuals whose lives are forever disrupted by the ambitions of a powerful minority and their followers.
NARRATIVE POINT OF VIEW
The Hundred Secret Senses has two narrators: Olivia and Kwan. Olivia, from whose point of view the novel is structured, provides the frame story—an autobiographical narrative about her California childhood, her marriage, and her relationship with her older half-sister who emigrated to the United States when Olivia was a small child. Within the context of Olivia’s story, Kwan speaks about her own life, telling stories about her colorful past, giving shape to her personal histories, giving voice to events that connect people and relationships between centuries and continents.
As Olivia narrates her own story, she reveals that at the core of her identity lie angst and unhappiness, doubts and skepticism. In Olivia’s version of events, life has been one long series of rejections—first by her father who ‘‘abandons’’ her by dying when she is only four years old, then by her mother whose energy is consumed by a succession of boyfriends, and finally by Simon who appears never to have come to terms with the loss of his first love. Having decided that she needs her mother’s complete attention as well as Simon’s undiluted love, and having finally, grudgingly, decided that she will probably receive neither, Olivia is blind to Kwan’s genuine affection, failing to appreciate the gift of love that her half-sister wants to bestow on her. As an adult, Olivia is constantly plagued by guilt whenever she is irritated by Kwan’s ebullient attentions, and she worries because she feels incapable of reciprocating Kwan’s unflagging loyalty.
Olivia’s tendency to assume that she has been rejected influences not only her interpretation of the events of her life but also her assessment of Kwan’s and Simon’s places in her world. She is unable to accept Kwan’s unconditional love or to believe that Simon genuinely loves her and not the ghost of the dead Elza. Olivia brushes off affectionate gestures from Kwan and Simon, or misreads their words and actions, wondering suspiciously why they refuse to leave her life, armoring herself in a casual attitude that she believes makes her impervious to further rejection. Her stories are well-chosen and cleverly constructed, her remarks intelligent, glib, witty, flip, but her insecurity colors her voice, making her sound occasionally petulant, frequently self-pitying, even maudlin.
The other major voice in the novel is Kwan’s—a strong, memorable voice that is notable for its pragmatism as well as for its imagery. Although the novel is Olivia’s story, Kwan gradually takes over with her distinctive talk story blend of travel narrative, legend, folktale, wry observation, and misremembered or reconstructed history as she attempts to make Olivia understand and finally acknowledge that they have a history together that goes back over a century.
If Olivia is skeptical and full of self-doubt, Kwan has a voice that embodies faith and total confidence in the universe and in herself. She believes in the World of Yin, she believes in second chances, she believes television commercials, and she certainly believes in her own abilities. Kwan cheerfully takes people to task for risking their health, dispenses her own versions of herbal lore and remedies, and offers unsolicited advice on sundry aspects of life from mending shattered crockery to patching up broken relationships. In fact, Kwan is so perfectly sure of her fluency in English that she corrects her husband: ‘‘Not stealed. . . . Stolened’’ (21). She is equally certain about the soundness of the advice offered by her yin friends, and at one point she announces to the disbelieving Olivia that Lao Lu, a friend from the Taiping days and now a yin person, has decreed that Olivia and Simon must remain married because their fates are forever intertwined.
Kwan has two separate and distinctive voices. The voice in which she carries on her everyday conversations is an immigrant’s, characterized by her use of the Chinese American patois to negotiate with verve and surety the daily transactions of her life. Her other voice, which has the cadences and rhythms of myth, legend, and folktale, transports Olivia— and the reader—into another world and another time. Through this fluent voice with its haunting images and sensory details, Kwan brings to life the story of the friendship between Nunumu and Miss Banner. Although Kwan’s immigrant voice irritates Olivia, the poetic voice soothes, cajoles, resonates, and influences, leading Olivia to wonder, ‘‘So which part was her dream, which part was mine? Where did they intersect?’’ (29).
The Hundred Secret Senses is about the lives of two distinct groups of major characters from different centuries and different cultures. Dominating the novel through their position in the framing twentieth-century American narrative are Olivia, her half-sister Kwan, and her husband Simon, while in the nineteenth-century Chinese stories told by Kwan are Nunumu, Miss Banner, and Yiban. Scores of other characters populate the world of the novel, adding color, action, and variety.
In her late thirties, Olivia is a thoroughly contemporary Californian— Berkeley graduate, professional photographer, more yuppie than Chinese. With a Chinese father and a mother who describes herself as ‘‘American mixed grill, a bit of everything white, fatty, and fried’’ (3), Olivia seems overly conscious of her appearance, especially because she is sure that her name—Olivia Laguni—is completely at odds with her Asian features. Within her family, Olivia has always been compared with her Chinese father whose appearance and personality she is said to have inherited; an aunt frequently points out the fact that Olivia does not gain weight as her father did not, and her mother points out her tendency to be analytical, supposedly because she has her father’s ‘‘accountant mentality’’ (20).
As a child, Olivia was embarrassed by Kwan, who on arrival in the United States was too different from anyone Olivia had ever encountered. Kwan was too Chinese, too alien, too un-American in her behavior. Now an adult, Olivia is still embarrassed by Kwan, but with the wisdom of maturity, she also feels guilty about her attitude. Uncomfortably, Olivia admits that over the years she has not been kind or accepting to Kwan, refusing as a little girl to play with her odd sister, yelling derisively at her, and telling lies to avoid spending much time with her. ‘‘I’ve done nothing to endear myself to her,’’ says Olivia, baffled by Kwan’s insistent loyalty.
After years of listening to Kwan’s stories and trying not to credit them, Olivia publicly projects a skeptical persona although inwardly she continues to worry about whether Kwan might be right about the existence of yin people. Olivia still is uncomfortable when she recalls that as a child she was able to see Kwan’s invisible friends, and she constantly searches for ways to prove that her early experiences were the result of a child’s imagination run riot. ‘‘I was pretending,’’ she wails when Kwan reminds her that she has not always been an unbeliever. ‘‘Ghosts come from the imagination, not the World of Yin’’ (142). Olivia’s skepticism also is a function of her deeply felt conviction that she is unworthy of love. She believes that her mother and Simon have never loved her sufficiently. As a consequence, she finds it difficult to acknowledge Kwan’s unconditional love or to accept Simon’s genuine passion for her—and she conceals her doubts behind a bright skepticism tinged with suspicion.
Readers and critics have noted that Kwan is one of Amy Tan’s most delightful and memorable character creations. On first meeting her new half-sister at the San Francisco Airport, Olivia gets the impression of a loud, extroverted, odd little person, short and chubby and badly dressed. That first image proves indelibly accurate; on further acquaintance, Kwan proves to be ‘‘a tiny dynamo . . . a miniature bull in a china shop’’ (20). Moreover, Kwan never quite understands the principles that supposedly govern Western fashion, and she embarrasses Olivia by appearing in public in an outfit of turquoise trousers paired with a purple checked jacket.
Completely enamored of the United States and her new family, Kwan sets out to experience her new life with huge enthusiasm. So indiscriminately does she embrace all things American that Olivia’s brother Tommy remarks that Kwan ‘‘believes in free speech, free association, free car wash with fill-’er’-up’’ (20). Kwan’s delight in her new siblings turns her into the family babysitter and surrogate mother, and Louise Laguni cheerfully relinquishes all responsibility to Kwan. Olivia’s childhood memories all feature Kwan in the maternal roles that should have been played by Louise: when Olivia is taken ill at school, Kwan picks her up and brings her home; when Olivia weeps over some childhood disappointment, Kwan comforts her.
Kwan is a bit out of the ordinary in many ways, some of which defy explanation. She cannot come within three feet of a television without its hissing, and she has refused to wear a watch since the day she strapped on a digital watch and the numbers commenced to change rapidly like slot machine icons. After two hours, the watch stopped running permanently. Clearly, watches do not function properly on Kwan’s wrist. Another peculiarity is the fact that without any electrical training, Kwan is able to pinpoint the source of a problem in an electrical circuit. In addition, she can reactivate a nonfunctioning cordless phone temporarily by pressing on the recharger nodes. Kwan clearly—and mysteriously— has a profound effect on things electrical and electronic, although she does nothing to precipitate appliances’ strange reactions to her proximity.
Kwan’s most distinctive characteristic is her regular conversations with people who are already dead. ‘‘I have yin eyes,’’ she tells Olivia one night. ‘‘I can see yin people’’ (14). When Olivia sleepily demands an explanation, Kwan informs her that yin people are those who have already died. Although Kwan appears to have visitors from all sectors of the World of Yin and speaks with a multitude of yin people, her most talkative and opinionated contact from that invisible world is Lao Lu, who, like Kwan, lived with and worked for the missionaries who inhabited the Ghost Merchant’s house in nineteenth-century Changmian. Kwan claims that her ability to converse with the yin people is the result of her highly developed ‘‘hundred secret senses,’’ which she describes as similar to ‘‘ant feet, elephant trunk, dog nose, cat whisker, whale ear, bat wing, clam shell, snake tongue, little hair on flower’’ (102). She tells Olivia that The Hundred Secret Senses resemble the other senses, other modes of knowing, other avenues from the outside world into the soul. These secret senses are the keys to Kwan’s certitude about life; they are her connections to other lives.
Another of Kwan’s unique traits is her determined persistence. Although the young Olivia has assiduously avoided learning to speak Chinese, Kwan insinuates language lessons into her nightly conversations with the child, telling fascinating stories in Chinese, with the result that Olivia learns the language unconsciously and with little effort. ‘‘She pushed her Chinese secrets into my brain,’’ Olivia recalls, adding that her worldview has been immeasurably altered by her association with Kwan (12). Years later, when Olivia and Simon initiate divorce proceedings, Kwan determinedly maneuvers them into traveling to China with her because she is convinced that their true destiny awaits them in that country. Olivia finds Kwan’s persistence particularly trying, especially Kwan’s dogged determination to be loyal to her no matter how she behaves toward Kwan; despite countless rebuffs, Kwan cheerily persists in remaining an important component of Olivia’s life.
Olivia’s husband, Simon Bishop, is a more sympathetic—and somewhat more fully developed—character than most of the male characters in Tan’s other novels. Differing from the cardboard figures or nearly invisible men of The Joy Luck Club, men who tend to be patriarchal authority figures or male nonentities, or the brutal Wen Fu in The Kitchen God’s Wife, Simon is more multifaceted, very much a product of the late twentieth century. He is a man who mourns the death of his first love, who argues with Olivia over custody of a Yorkshire terrier–Chihuahua mixed breed dog, and who is not too proud to accept a dinner invitation from Kwan if it is the only strategy that will allow him to remain connected with Olivia. Although he helped to write the proposal for the travel article about Chinese cuisine, he offers to give up the China trip if Olivia thinks that she might be more comfortable traveling with another writer. Unlike the men in other Tan novels, Simon is neither monster nor detached observer; he is, instead, a vulnerable man who seems puzzled and even hurt by Olivia’s request for a divorce.
Like Olivia, Simon has a multiethnic background, which includes a Chinese ancestor; unlike Olivia, he is far less Chinese and more definitively Western. While Olivia grew up in and around Chinese communities, Simon spent his childhood in Utah. He, in fact, identifies himself as Hawaiian, although Kwan claims to see a resemblance between him and her sister, saying at one point that Olivia and Simon look like twins. Nevertheless, as attractive as he is, Simon remains far less interesting than the women characters, and, in fact, lacks even the vignette brilliance of minor characters like Zeng, the one-eared peddler; Rocky, the ambitious taxi driver in Guilin; or Du Lili, Kwan’s elderly friend in Changmian.
Kwan’s dream-like stories about her previous existence are focused on the linked lives of two women: Nunumu, the Hakka girl that Kwan claims is herself in a previous life, and Nelly Banner, the American woman to whom Nunumu gives her complete loyalty and, finally, her life. So vivid are Kwan’s narratives, so compelling are the episodes that she recounts, that the novel becomes as much the story of Nunumu and Miss Banner as it is the story of Kwan and Olivia.
Nunumu occupies the center of Kwan’s stories about life with the Jesus Worshippers. Orphaned in the mass enthusiasm for the Taiping cause, Nunumu is one-eyed, the result of a childhood injury from a falling rock, but she is courageous and resourceful. She eventually makes her way from her devastated home village to Jintian and then into the household of the missionaries where she works as a servant and as Miss Banner’s companion. Nunumu teaches Miss Banner to speak Chinese and becomes her confidante, and after six years during which their friendship grows and strengthens, they flee together into the mountains in a vain attempt to escape the marauding Manchu soldiers.
Nelly Banner is a drifter. American by birth, she spent part of her childhood in India and Malacca, and after her father died, she lived with a succession of lovers before she found herself abandoned by the latest lover in Canton where she met the English missionaries and began traveling with them. When Nunumu saves Miss Banner from drowning, the two women’s lives become entwined, and with her heroic act, Nunumu takes on the responsibility for Miss Banner’s life and well-being. Kwan tells Olivia that because of the rescue, Nunumu’s and Miss Banner’s lives had ‘‘flowed together in that river, and became as tangled and twisted as a drowned woman’s hair’’ (38).
Through the novel parades an astonishingly vivid collection of minor characters, none of them completely developed, but all of them distinctively rendered and memorable. The best of these fantastic figures inhabit Kwan’s stories about Nunumu’s life in the Ghost Merchant’s house: pompous and deceitful General Cape with his military costumes; half-Chinese and half-American Yiban, driven by his devotion to Miss Banner; nervous Miss Mouse; fervent Pastor Amen; opium-eating Dr. Too Late. But no less attention-getting are some of the dramatis personae from Kwan’s twentieth-century childhood: Buncake who never speaks but only waves her hands and carols ‘‘Lili lili’’ in a high voice; Du Yun who is so overcome with grief that she imagines she has become her dead adopted daughter; Third Auntie, the clairvoyant who explains to Li Bin-bin and Du Lili why Kwan and Buncake appear to have become one and the same little girl; and finally, the nameless young girls who struggle up a steep mountain to set birds free in return for wishes come true.
Setting in The Hundred Secret Senses serves to highlight the geographical backgrounds and cultural realities of Kwan’s life, as well as the rich dual heritage that Olivia and Simon share as American-born Chinese. Like Tan’s two earlier books, the novel is set in America and China— two locations that are separated temporally and spatially, culturally and historically—but unlike those two novels, Secret Senses also attempts to identify connections and draw parallels between two centuries.
Olivia’s San Francisco is a thoroughly American metropolis, a latetwentieth- century urban environment that embraces equally a motley assortment of inhabitants: free-lance artists and writers; the Market Street eccentric who loudly prophesies to passers-by that California will one day slide into the ocean ‘‘like a plate of clams’’ (19); people walking dogs on the trails of the Presidio; AIDS patients; women who regularly spend their time at spas; Chinese immigrants caught between the Old World and the New. Geographically, the novel’s San Francisco encompasses Golden Gate Park (where Olivia and Simon are married in an outdoor ceremony), Chinatown and Balboa Street, the Sunset district, and Pacific Heights, on the fringes of which Olivia and Simon have purchased a coop apartment in a renovated Victorian house. Although Kwan has been a San Francisco resident for over thirty years, the city has never become her natural landscape. She moves through the city and its neighborhoods with the ease of a long-time resident, sniffing out sales at ‘‘Emporium Capwell,’’ chatting with long-time customers at the drugstore where she works, arguing with a veterinarian over a bill; but China remains her constant point of reference, and Olivia notices that Kwan has recently begun to mention China in nearly every conversation.
Half a world away from San Francisco, twentieth-century Changmian seems to be almost a Chinese Brigadoon, unchanged and picturesque despite the major political and ideological upheavals. Olivia’s first glimpse of Changmian reveals to her a landscape straight out of a glossy travel poster, a scene that in reality has been photographed and displayed in glossy magazines countless times. She sees a rural community nestled at the base of two jagged karst peaks with vivid green forested flanks. The village itself consists of rows of whitewashed houses with tile roofs, and surrounding the houses are carefully tended fields and ponds bisected and intersected with stone walls and irrigation canals. Olivia immediately falls under the seductive spell of the village, feeling that she has discovered ‘‘a fabled misty land, half memory, half illusion’’ (205), and she realizes with surprise that Changmian is a familiar landscape, the setting for the stories that Kwan insinuated into her dreams time and again years before. Changmian is Kwan’s emotional and psychological homeland, the native landscape of her lives, and the place to which she must finally return to fulfill her dreams. And despite her thirty-year absence and a full life in a completely different culture and landscape, Kwan slips unobtrusively, seamlessly back into the domestic routine at Big Ma’s and Du Lili’s house in the village.
Kwan’s narratives also reveal another Changmian, a village that during the Taiping years is an impoverished enclave in a valley below rugged limestone mountains tunneled with hundreds of caves through which the wind blows incessantly. From the garden of the Ghost Merchant’s house, Nunumu can see the village houses below as well as the stone archway that leads into the next valley, and further away, the mountains where she once roamed as a child; but her daily existence is now defined by the walls that enclose the house, its overgrown garden, and the pavilion where the previous owner is said to have died. For six years, Nunumu’s circumscribed life within those walls reflects her position as a servant to the missionaries who inhabit the house and grounds. For five days each week, she washes and irons the missionaries’ clothing, mends torn garments, cooks, and cleans. On Sundays, like all of the other servants and many of the village people, she is required to attend long worship services conducted by Pastor Amen. Only on Saturdays does Nunumu venture beyond the garden walls, and then only in the company of Miss Banner to distribute religious tracts to the inhabitants of Changmian.
Throughout the novel, Changmian displays two faces: one face presents the magical timeless village of Kwan’s edited memories and Olivia’s first impressions; the other face belongs to the poor but vibrant community that proudly—and joyously—sends its best and strongest citizens to fight for the cause of the Heavenly King in the Taiping wars, and a century later participates with equal enthusiasm in the frenzied rush to cash in on a significant archaeological discovery—the luminous underground lake and prehistoric village that come to light during the search for Kwan in the mountain caves. In all of its incarnations, Changmian is the setting for Kwan’s epic narrative of love and loss and rebirth— and both Changmians become the sites of Olivia’s journey toward self. The mythic, timeless village calls Olivia back from twentieth-century California to the ancient landscape that witnessed the flowering of love between Yiban and Miss Banner; but it is in the primitive village with mud streets and lively chattering people that Olivia begins the process of reconnection with her psyche and then with Simon.
So adept is Amy Tan’s handling of figurative language, so precise is her choice of words and her crafting of verbal pictures, that memorable characters and thematically significant settings come to life in the novel. Through her use of symbol clusters and images, Tan creates fictional stages on which her characters play their roles, enacting the conflicts through which Tan explores the power of memory and the nature of relationships.
Sometimes whimsical, other times evocative, occasionally surreal, chapter titles reiterate the novel’s themes, foreshadowing and calling attention to the images and symbols that ornament the text. Images summoned by the titles serve to reinforce the sense of otherworldliness, the mystery of Kwan’s stories: ‘‘The Girl with the Yin Eyes,’’ ‘‘The Ghost Merchant’s House,’’ ‘‘The Catcher of Ghosts,’’ even ‘‘When Light Balances with Dark.’’ Other titles suggest temporality, important events and everyday occurrences, the passage of time: ‘‘The Funeral,’’ ‘‘Hello Goodbye,’’ ‘‘Kwan’s Fiftieth,’’ ‘‘The Year of No Flood’’; still others prefigure the novel’s food imagery: ‘‘Kwan’s Kitchen,’’ ‘‘The Best Time to Eat Duck Eggs,’’ or ‘‘Six-Roll Spring Chicken.’’
Miss Banner’s music box plays a significant role in the Changmian years and thus in Kwan’s stories, as well as later, in Olivia’s experiences. The box, a gift to Miss Banner from her father, is a safe hiding place for her diary and assorted keepsakes. During worship services, the missionaries use the box to accompany their singing although they have had to write new words to accompany the tune, which is inappropriate because it is a German drinking song. When Miss Banner attempts to elope with General Cape, Nunumu buries the box, symbolically obliterating all memories of her friend who has—Nunumu feels—betrayed their friendship. After Miss Banner returns and falls in love with Yiban, Nunumu unearths the box and restores it to its owner. Months later, with the missionaries dead and the clear threat of danger surrounding the Ghost Merchant’s house, Miss Banner and Nunumu carefully pack the music box with mementos and reminders of their dead companions—a pillbottle, a glove, a button, a travel book, a tin of special tea. They light candles, turn the key to play the music box, and listen to the tinkling notes of the familiar melody—and in that way, they perform a homely funeral service for their dead friends. When the comforting ritual is over, they flee, carrying the box, to the cave in the mountains where Nunumu has left Yiban waiting for Miss Banner.
In those very mountains a century later, Olivia watches as Kwan pries open a reddish wooden box trimmed in brass. When she lifts the lid, the lilting high-pitched sounds of a martial melody emanate from the box, and Kwan removes from the box a kidskin glove, a small book—A Visit to India, China, and Japan—with deckled edges, a small tin, a journal with notes about unfamiliar food and snippets of information about the Taiping followers. The journal is dated 1859, and Olivia remembers Kwan’s bedtime stories about a year identified as Yi ba liu si, the Chinese words for 1864. Kwan’s Nunumu stories are set in 1864, just five years after the journal’s date, and Olivia realizes that it is just possible for Miss Banner to have owned the volume. Struggling with her need for logical explanations, Olivia is forced to ask herself some crucial questions about Kwan’s stories, especially about the reasons why Kwan has been so insistent that Olivia listen attentively to those stories—and at that moment, on that mountain, Olivia experiences an epiphany. She realizes that she has always known somehow, instinctively, why Kwan persists in telling story after story about Nunumu and Miss Banner; however, Olivia has resisted acknowledging her awareness of Kwan’s reasons. Over the years, Kwan has asked, ‘‘Libby-ah, you remember?’’ And Olivia has denied, both to herself and to Kwan, any memory, knowing as she disclaims all knowledge of the past, that Kwan is hoping to hear her say, ‘‘of course I remember. I was Miss Banner’’(321). As Olivia and Kwan turn over the tangible evidence of the truth of Kwan’s stories about the Ghost Merchant’s house, Olivia realizes that she can no longer deny that she and Kwan might indeed have had a shared history that began a century before Kwan’s arrival at the San Francisco airport.
The major symbol group in the novel involves food in all its guises, its preparation, its consumption, its significance. Food becomes a literary language; gastronomic images and motifs provide Kwan with the means of re-creating her life as Nunumu in the last days of the Taiping regime, as well as with the words to re-create the story of Buncake, the little girl whose body Kwan appropriated long ago after the floods. Food also functions as a symbol for the intensity of the culture shock that Oliviaand Simon experience when they travel to China with Kwan. And in the end, food for Olivia comes to represent Kwan’s nurturing presence—and Olivia’s own salvation.
Attempting to nudge Olivia into overcoming her skepticism and traveling with her into the memory of their life together in the Ghost Merchant’s house, Kwan conjures up vivid recollections of the food and meals that she remembers from that existence. She contrasts the lavish Western breakfasts consumed by the missionaries during the peaceful years of plenty, with the sparse scavenged dinners that mark the years of starvation during the conflict between Manchu and Taiping. Bacon and eggs, corn cakes and fruit give way to fried locusts and grasshoppers, frogs and bats, that Nunumu and Lao Lu identify for the missionaries as ‘‘rabbit’’ so as not to disgust the squeamish Western palates. But although food imagery can be a powerful aid to the recovery of buried memories, Kwan’s recollections of these distinctive meals do not evoke any answering reminiscences from Olivia, who listens politely and even interestedly, but disclaims any memory of the meals that Kwan is describing in such detail.
One especially notable food motif is preserved duck eggs, which for Kwan symbolize Nunumu’s subversive resourcefulness. Because she loves duck eggs so much, Nunumu steals eggs—one or two at a time— from the missionaries, although she is careful to point out that they prefer chicken eggs to duck eggs. Nunumu preserves the eggs in quantities of precious salt to which she has free access because she supposedly needs the salt for removing stains from the weekly laundry. She coats the salted eggs in mud, and stores them in cracked pottery jars for which she barters some of her precious eggs. The preserved duck eggs represent security for Nunumu, who eventually squirrels away ten rows of jars full of eggs, and the eggs become the missionaries’ sustenance when food supplies run short during the Manchu wars with the Taiping kingdom. The eggs also create the opportunity for Nunumu to experience her own romance when Zeng, the peddler who supplies her with jars in exchange for eggs, decides that he wants her to become his wife. For Nunumu, the first hint of Zeng’s courtship surfaces when he offers to give her an unblemished jar even when she has no eggs to trade because the missionaries have eaten most of them.
Amy Tan also uses food imagery as a characterization device. When Kwan recounts the story of Buncake, Kwan’s description of Du Yun’s skillful preparation of fried frogs provides a painful parallel to Buncake’s recollections of how her mother and father died. Buncake, who has beenorphaned by the early ‘‘re-education’’ efforts that swept China just before the total communist take-over, is taken in by Kwan’s aunt, Du Yun, a woman who prides herself on one special culinary creation—freshly killed frogs, quickly sauteed in hot oil until they are crisp. As Du Yun deftly skins and dismembers the frogs, she fails to notice that Buncake is cowering silently behind Kwan with her fist jammed into her mouth ‘‘like a sandbag stopping a leak in a riverbank’’ (250). Speechless, Buncake is unable to explain to Du Yun that the scene is horrifically distressing, that ‘‘this tearing of skin from flesh’’ reminds her of how her mother and father had died while she watched from the tree in which her father had hidden her. Buncake has not spoken since then because her last promise to her mother had been that she would be quiet and not say a word or make a sound.
For Olivia and Simon, food symbolizes the profound dislocation that they experience in China. The trip is originally conceived as a journalistic odyssey during which they would work on a free-lance project for a travel and food magazine. ‘‘We would offer to write and photograph a story on village cuisine of China,’’ recalls Olivia, adding that their grand dreams included other similar articles, a book and lecture tour, even a TV series. When they finally are persuaded to accompany Kwan to China, Olivia and Simon envision taking exotic photographs and writing evocative text, and they arrive in Guilin ready to avail themselves of every possible photo opportunity. At first, they are not disappointed; they breakfast on freshly cooked pancakes from a street vendor as they stroll past colorful displays of fruit and other produce, as well as a variety of other wares for sale. As Olivia focuses a photograph of a bustling street market, Simon makes notes for the accompanying text and scouts around the stalls for other photographic possibilities. At the bird market, Olivia is fascinated by a beautiful white owl with eyes that remind her of chocolate. Sensing her interest, the seller offers Olivia and Simon the owl with the suggestion that they take it to a nearby restaurant to be butchered and cooked for their evening meal. The two are, predictably, disturbed. Protesting when Kwan begins a spirited round of haggling with the bird seller, and visibly upset when Kwan purchases the owl, Olivia is not appeased until she discovers that Kwan’s intent is to climb a mountain and release the owl so that it can fly from a mountaintop carrying Kwan’s wishes. What Olivia does not yet know is that the true test of their capacity to stomach the strange and the unfamiliar awaits them in Changmian at the home where Kwan grew up.
Fascinated by Olivia’s camera, Kwan’s family friend, Du Lili, goes outof her way to stage interesting photographic subjects, at one point slashing a chicken’s neck and then letting the bird stumble around on the ground until it falls dead. As she dismembers the chicken and then cooks it in its own blood, she chatters about how she has intentionally prolonged the butchering to give Olivia a more interesting subject to photograph. Appalled, Olivia worries about dinner, having finally confronted the tremendous difference between her expectations about China and the realities with which she is confronted. After watching Du Lili, Olivia finds the chicken stew unappetizing at best, but she also knows that there is nothing else that she can eat, ‘‘no ham and cheese in the fridge—there’s no fridge!’’ (266). Because they are hungry, she and Simon tentatively try the chicken, and to their surprise, they find the stew flavorful. Before the evening is over, they also have imbibed ‘‘pickle-mouse wine,’’ which displays at the bottom of the wine bottle a grayish object with a tail. The old Olivia of just a week earlier would have been sickened at the idea of drinking any liquid in which a mouse has been preserved—in fact, she is silently wondering why she does not feel the need to vomit. Instead, she and Simon burst out in uncontrollable laughter, apprehension giving way to catharsis, possibly because at that point they understand that this meal has been their gastronomic initiation— and they have not only survived but triumphed over their inhibitions and preconceptions. They have progressed far beyond their initial idea of superficial travelogue articles with glossy photographs to an authentic home-cooked Chinese meal in a genuine Chinese village. Moreover, they have thoroughly enjoyed the experience and are suffused with feelings of well-being.
Food for Kwan is a form of nurturing communication, the language of love and acceptance through which she continues her efforts to bond with Olivia. When she finds twelve-year-old Olivia weeping, Kwan immediately assumes that little Olivia has consumed more than her share of the Christmas cookies that Kwan has baked and is suffering from a stomachache. To Kwan, the solution is simple—she will decrease the sugar in the next batch of cookies so that Olivia can eat as many as she wants. Worrying years later about Olivia who looks unhappy and exhausted in the weeks following her separation from Simon, Kwan invites her to dinner, promising that the menu will include Olivia’s favorite dish, potstickers, and indicating that a supply of wontons will be available for Olivia’s freezer. For another dinner, Kwan offers Olivia dried scallops, a rare and precious delicacy that costs an astonishing sixty dollars per pound. Unfortunately, despite her enjoyment of Kwan’s excellent cooking, Olivia repeatedly fails to decode the messages of love and sisterly concern that Kwan conveys through her offerings of food.
At the end of the novel, food becomes Olivia’s salvation, revealing to her in rather dramatic fashion the unbreakable connections between the past and the present. Standing in a drizzle with the small group of mourners at Big Ma’s grave, Olivia watches as Du Lili places a preserved duck egg into Big Ma’s hand before the coffin is lowered into the ground. The sight of the egg awakens in Olivia the memory of Nunumu’s cache of preserved duck eggs, and before she is completely aware of what she is doing, she races to the ruins of the Ghost Merchant’s house and begins to dig frantically near where she thinks the old garden wall might once have stood. Her efforts soon reveal a pottery jar that she immediately breaks open with the handle of her hoe. From that jar, she extracts one age-darkened egg after another, cradling the fragile muddy eggs to her chest against which they crumble and disintegrate. For Olivia, the eggs are ‘‘relics of [her] past disintegrating into gray chalk,’’ but she is unperturbed at the loss of the eggs: ‘‘I knew I had already tasted what was left’’ (355). If Olivia has needed any further evidence to support Kwan’s reminiscences, she has that evidence lying before her in the muddy trench that she has dug in the Ghost Merchant’s garden: the eggs are the final corroboration that Kwan’s stories are records of real events and real individuals; each crumbling egg is the ultimate proof of connections and resonances between one life and the next, between one continent and another one on the other side of the globe.
CULTURAL AND HISTORICAL CONTEXTS
A fairly substantial portion of The Hundred Secret Senses is set in nineteenth-century China—more specifically in the 1850s and 1860s during the Taiping Rebellion, the most important peasant-led revolt in Chinese history. The Taiping regime, led by the charismatic Hong Xiuquan, gained strength during the Qing Dynasty in the wake of the opium wars, the opening of China’s borders to foreign trade, and the loss of Hong Kong to the British crown. At its height, the rebellion involved over 600,000 men and 500,000 women. Borrowing their ideology and teachings from Christianity, the Taiping followers rebelled against what they considered to be corruption and obsolescence in the imperial court, demanding widespread changes that included equality for women, agricultural reform, and the abolition of private property.
Educated in part by Western missionaries whose teachings apparently resonated with his own naturally mystical leanings, Hong Xiuquan converted to Christianity, and thereafter claimed not only that he was Jesus Christ’s younger brother, but also that his relationship to Jesus made him the Heavenly King on earth. He recruited thousands of followers from the peasant classes by announcing his intention to create Taiping tianguo, or ‘‘a Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace’’ in which the faithful would labor together for the good of the community. In this kingdom, everyone would have equal access to education, and foot-binding and slavery would be outlawed. In addition, undesirable habits such as gambling, drinking alcohol, and smoking tobacco would be forbidden.
The Heavenly Kingdom flourished until 1864 in Nanjing, which had become its capital. During that summer, two provincial armies, financed by a coalition of the French, the British, and the Qing government, marched into Nanjing. When he realized that he could not defend his ‘‘kingdom’’ against the superior might of the massed European and Chinese forces, Hong Xiuquan committed suicide. Rather than surrendering, his men followed suit. A few weeks later, Nanjing fell to the invading armies, and the Heavenly Kingdom ceased to exist.
Amy Tan has chosen to identify Nunumu/Kwan with a distinctive minority ethnic Chinese group whose name, Hakka, which means ‘‘foreigner,’’ was originally a pejorative label for the ethnic peoples who migrated from northern China to settle in the southern provinces. Because Hong Xiuquan was of Hakka origin, and also because the Taiping regime advocated equality for women and banned foot-binding and prostitution, Nunumu and her people—the Hakka—are attracted to the teachings of the Heavenly King and are eager to join the rebellion. Like the Taiping rebels, the Hakka were known for their egalitarian leanings, and Hakka women—famed for their industry, cleverness, and physical strength—never bound their feet, even during the Qing period when that custom was followed most rigidly. The independent Hakka found it difficult to gain acceptance from the peoples through whose lands they traveled. Speaking of her past life as Nunumu, Kwan says, ‘‘We were . . . Guest People—hnh!—meaning guests not invited to stay in any good place too long’’ (30). Because Nunumu is a one-eyed Hakka girl, she is an outsider. She has marginal status in China because of her ethnic heritage, in the Ghost Merchant’s house because she is a Chinese servant in a household of Westerners, in the population at large because she is physically deformed. In San Francisco, Kwan is likewise marginal. Bob Laguni does not adopt her as he does Louise’s children; consequently,Kwan never legally becomes a part of the family. And finally, despite decades of life in California, Kwan still has not truly assimilated into middle American culture. She retains her Chinese-English speech, continues to live in a Chinatown neighborhood, persists in dressing like an immigrant, and still dreams of one day returning to China.
THEMES AND MAJOR ISSUES
Like Amy Tan’s first two novels, The Hundred Secret Senses explores a number of issues that have become familiar to Tan’s readers: family relationships— especially connections between generations, and the bonds between sisters; linguistic differences and miscommunication; identity; biculturalism, ethnicity, and the tensions of living between worlds; cultural dislocation; and women’s roles. In this third novel, several new themes appear, among them love (in all its guises), loyalty, faith, and the unreliability of memory. Tan herself claims that the novel is about love, saying that The Hundred Secret Senses answers ‘‘a question about love, unconditional love’’ (Giles). While authorial intent and reader reaction are not always congruent, it is abundantly clear that love is a dominant theme in the novel.
Several forms of love are enacted throughout the novel: Louise Laguni’s numerous infatuations; General Cape’s mercenary courtship of a Chinese banker’s daughter as well as his lustful pursuit of Miss Banner; the steady affection between Kwan and George (and Nunumu and Zeng); Miss Mouse’s unrequited adoration of Dr. Too Late. Meanwhile, at the center of the novel are Olivia and Simon, soulmates by Kwan’s (and Lao Lu’s) definition despite the couple’s impending divorce. In Kwan’s universe, Olivia and Simon are simply continuing a great romance that began in the waning months of the Taiping when they were Miss Banner and Yiban Johnson. Complicating the central romance, however, is Olivia’s belief that Simon still loves Elza who died before he met Olivia, and Simon’s apparent inability to accept the finality of Elza’s death suggests briefly the possibility of an obsessive love. Through the turmoil of the relationship between Olivia and Simon, Amy Tan examines love and its resilience, its capacity for enduring even beyond the ultimate separation, death; and she portrays the lengths to which human beings will go in search of love.
Tan also portrays another form of love that is as binding and enduring as romantic love—the love that forges unbreakable links betweenfriends. This form of love, which is an intense combination of affection, respect, loyalty, and companionship, finds its clearest manifestation in the friendship between Nunumu and Miss Banner, and later in the unselfish sisterly love that Kwan offers to Olivia. During the trip to China, Kwan describes this kind of love as she remembers a fervent wish that she made before she left for America: ‘‘My first wish: to have a sister I could love with all my heart, only that, and I would ask for nothing more from her’’ (195). When her wish for a sister is granted, Kwan enthusiastically keeps her promise; her affection for Olivia is boundless and requires no reciprocity.
Another theme that surfaces in The Hundred Secret Senses involves loyalty and its opposite, betrayal. Kwan embodies loyalty; in fact she uses the word ‘‘loyalty’’ frequently in her everyday conversation as well as in her stories. In Kwan’s tales, the loyalty of Nunumu to Miss Banner is so intense that the former leaves the safety of her mountain hiding place to lead Miss Banner to safety, and when it becomes clear that the approaching soldiers will overtake them, Nunumu stays with Miss Banner and dies with her. Despite his betrayal of her, Nelly Banner remains loyal to General Cape until events force her to understand that he is using her to gain access to the missionaries’ funds and food supplies. And Zeng, whose courtship of Nunumu is so prosaic as to seem offhanded, proves his loyalty to her by returning immediately after he is killed by the Manchu to lead Nunumu and Yiban to the safety of the mountain caves. Zeng then vanishes immediately after promising that he will wait for Nunumu forever. Kwan herself is so loyal to her sister that Olivia’s mean jokes in childhood and snide remarks as an adult have not deflected Kwan’s love. On the contrary, each time Olivia rebuffs her efforts, Kwan simply tries harder and more often to be of use, to be supportive, to be helpful, and above all, to love.
As a contrast to Kwan’s (and Nunumu’s) loyalty, Amy Tan has created the character of the villainous General Cape who personifies treachery and betrayal. Telling one of her stories, Kwan recalls, ‘‘General Cape, he was rotten too. He threw away other people’’ (146). Cape abandons Miss Banner to marry the daughter of a wealthy banker, and when he is forced to flee after cuckolding the banker with the man’s younger wives, Cape comes to Changmian to resume his affair with Miss Banner whose misplaced loyalty to him leads her to take him back. After staying with Miss Banner and the missionaries for two months, Cape disappears with the group’s food supplies, pack animals, and mission money. When he reappears, he leads a gang of Manchu soldiers who lay waste to the countryside around Changmian. Cape and his men take over the Ghost Merchant’s house, and when Lao Lu protests, they kill him.
The novel illustrates other and less dramatic forms of betrayal. At her husband’s deathbed, Olivia’s mother Louise vows never to remarry, and to spend the rest of her life honoring the name of Yee and the Chinese heritage that it represents. Yet within a short time, she has met and married Bob Laguni, and is raising completely assimilated American children who know next to nothing about Chinese culture. When she is a child, Olivia betrays Kwan by telling their parents that Kwan communicates with ghosts, and the alarmed parents promptly incarcerate Kwan in a mental hospital. As an adult, Olivia unthinkingly continues her betrayal of Kwan in small ways: pretending to be so busy that she cannot find the time to accept Kwan’s invitations to dinner, giving Kwan only a token gift of an inexpensive faux tortoise-shell box at her big fiftieth-birthday celebration, never telephoning Kwan until the laundry basket is full and Olivia needs to use Kwan’s washing machine. Despite these daily betrayals, Kwan loyally continues to refer to Olivia as her favorite sister, and Olivia continues to be overcome with guilt each time Kwan invites her to dinner, presents her with pre-cooked dinners for her freezer, or even telephones her.
In The Hundred Secret Senses, Amy Tan explores the theme of sisterhood— a departure from her earlier focus on mothers and daughters in her first two novels. Sisters are prominently featured in myth, folktale, and literature, frequently as rivals or antagonists, often as women estranged by birth order or parental favor. Cinderella and her ugly sisters, as well as King Lear’s feuding daughters, are familiar examples of competition and conflict between sisters. Less generally familiar are Lizzie and Laura of Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘‘Goblin Market’’—sisters whose radically divergent attitudes toward life and experience separate them and threaten harm to Laura, until Lizzie’s love for her sister leads her to risk death to save Laura. Unlike these traditional and literary treatments of sisterhood, Amy Tan chooses to focus on the ways in which sisters influence each other as they each work through the complicated process of defining a clear sense of self and a balanced identity.
In her study, Psyche’s Sisters: Re-Imagining the Meaning of Sisterhood, Christine Downing points out that ‘‘the interactions among sisters . . . instigate the heroine’s journey toward self, toward psyche.’’ She continues, ‘‘Our sisterly relationships challenge and nurture us, even as we sometimes disappoint and betray one another’’ (3–4). The Hundred Secret Senses is primarily about Olivia’s journey toward self and wholeness, andabout the role that Kwan plays in Olivia’s quest. From the time of her adored father’s death when she was four years old, Olivia has felt unanchored, a feeling that has persisted into her adulthood, complicating every relationship she has had and rendering her incapable of freely accepting love. In the midst of Olivia’s uncertainty, Kwan is the constant; Kwan, in fact, provides Olivia with a continuing long-lasting and stable human connection, although Olivia has never recognized the importance of Kwan’s role in her life.
Before Kwan comes to San Francisco, Olivia at first mistakenly believes that she will be replaced when the new daughter arrives. Thus on hearing that Kwan will be an addition to the family rather than a replacement, Olivia is delighted, until she realizes that she will more than likely have to share her mother’s limited time with the newcomer. Already feeling neglected by her mother, Olivia is in no mood to be forced into competition for attention. But not until Kwan is installed in the Laguni household does a worse possibility become obvious to Olivia: with Kwan in residence to look after the younger children, Louise Laguni has more time than ever to spend with her friends. As a consequence, Olivia has resented Kwan from the beginning for taking the place of the mother whose attention Olivia wanted desperately; and although Kwan capably performs the maternal role that Louise has abandoned, Olivia refuses to accept the substitution, rejecting Kwan’s care and nurturance, and repudiating everything that Kwan represents.
The presence of Kwan in Olivia’s life problematizes Olivia’s relationship with and position in a cultural group to which she belongs by heritage— Asian Americans. For Olivia, Kwan represents ethnicity, a diaspora culture, and racial origins that comprise the visible half of Olivia’s genetic inheritance and almost nothing of her cultural bias. Kwan is indelibly Other—she speaks with an accent and an incomplete command of English vocabulary, she wears odd clothes that mark her as an immigrant, and she claims regular communication with invisible correspondents from an insubstantial existence. By contrast, Olivia is all- American except for her Asian features; she dresses fashionably, and she is rational to a fault and skeptical as well. And yet, Kwan and Olivia are sisters; they share a father, and Kwan has been an important part of Olivia’s life since the latter was a child.
Early in their relationship, young Olivia wants nothing to do with Chinese culture, which she equates with her strange new immigrant sister. She is embarrassed by her kinship with Kwan, playing cruel jokeson her that highlight their differences, and disclaiming any blood ties when neighborhood children taunt Kwan. As Olivia matures, her embarrassment gives way to guilt about her treatment of Kwan, and that guilt becomes a barrier to the development of any form of genuine companionship between the sisters. Yet despite Olivia’s resistance and the unacknowledged gulf between them, Kwan has been responsible all along for anchoring Olivia in a community—although Olivia remains oblivious for years to the importance of the cultural context that she has acquired through her sister’s insistent tutelage. Thanks to Kwan, Olivia speaks Chinese, knows late nineteenth-century Chinese history, and even identifies a Chinese dish as her favorite food. And when Olivia finally visits China and Kwan’s native village for the first time, she is overwhelmed by the feeling that she has come home; and for the first time, she begins to feel her kinship with Kwan and to move toward integrating the elements of her heritage into a complete identity that includes the existence of a Chinese half-sister.
Like Olivia, Kwan needs sisterly help as she works to restore the harmony that has been absent from her life since she was Nunumu and told the lie that separated Yiban and Miss Banner. On one level, Kwan’s stories about Nunumu and Miss Banner reflect her wistful hope that she and Olivia can forge strong ties of affection. The strength and persistence of her hopes become evident during the China journey when she remembers that as a young girl in Changmian, her greatest wish was to have a sister to love more than anyone else in the world. She admits having made a vow that if the wish were to come true, she would be perfectly content, never again wishing for anything else. On another level, Kwan’s stories are prompts or hints that she hopes will remind Olivia of their common history; for only when Olivia is able to acknowledge their century-old connection will Kwan be able to absolve herself of her guilt.
In China, Olivia and Kwan are together again as they were when Olivia was a child, as they have not been in almost thirty years. In the geography that has shaped their lives, they re-establish their emotional connections with each other and they reaffirm a relationship that has endured through at least two lifetimes. More importantly, they are blessed with a rare opportunity: they are empowered to correct the mistakes of an earlier time, and as they rewrite their story, each one finds what she has been seeking—an integrated self for Olivia and peace for Kwan.
ALTERNATIVE READING: JUNGIAN ARCHETYPAL CRITICISM
Advocates of archetypal criticism, sometimes called myth criticism, theorize the existence of what Gilbert Murray has described as ‘‘the memory of the race, stamped, as it were, upon our physical organism’’ (238–39). This racial memory—the residue of some form of universal human experience—is manifested in and through archetypes, or narrative patterns, symbols, images, themes, and character types that recur in literature, art, religion, folklore, ritual, and particularly in myths and dreams. An archetypal critic examines the appearance of these universal patterns and symbols in a literary text, studying their contextual implications, and seeking to formulate conclusions about the functions of those archetypes in the work.
Archetypal criticism had its earliest beginnings in the results of fieldwork in primitive cultures done by British anthropologist, Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941) whose research into ritual and magic among primitive peoples suggested to him the existence of recurrent narrative and ritual patterns common to widely dispersed cultures and societies. In his immense and influential comparison of mythologies, The Golden Bough (1890–1915), Frazer analyzes the parallels between the ritualistic patterns he had detected in primitive cultures and certain structural elements in myths, legends, and folktales. Although Frazer’s work was eventually superseded—even disputed—by the work of later generations of anthropologists, his identification and documentation of seemingly universal patterns influenced some early twentieth-century literary critics, among them Gilbert Murray.
Even more important to the development of archetypal criticism is the work of Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and the founder of analytical psychology, who coined the term collective unconscious to describe the primordial and universal images that, according to Jung, have existed in the human imagination since the beginning of time. The images that make up the collective unconscious, the universal patterns and motifs that form the residue of an inborn shared human past, are called archetypes. Unable to discover a way to account for the recurrent images and patterns that appear in the narratives of disparate cultures, Jung suggests that archetypes, which are manifested through dreams, rituals, myths, religious beliefs, and literature, were shaped during the earliest periods of human existence. He further proposes that creative and imaginative expression derives its basic structures from natural occurrences— among them the cycle of birth and death and rebirth, the passage of seasons—or universal narrative patterns such as the quest or the descent to the underworld.
Archetypal critics differ in their critical methodologies, some drawing their strategies from a variety of disciplines—anthropology, history, psychology— and others relying solely on evidence from literary texts. But they do share certain core assumptions and purposes: that archetypes and archetypal patterns are universal, although they are manifested differently from culture to culture; and that the collective unconscious and its companion archetypes are the essential keys to the meaning of myth and ritual, dream and fantasy, narrative and—in the case of Amy Tan’s fiction—talk story and feminine autobiography.
The Hundred Secret Senses lends itself particularly well to an archetypal analysis. To begin with, the novel contains several textual markers— narrative patterns or characters—strongly suggesting that an archetypal reading might yield valuable observations and insights. Early in the novel, Miss Banner’s first attempts to speak about her life in Chinese suggest a world that defies logical comprehension—a plane of existence that normalizes little boys falling through a hole to the other side of the world, a school full of little Jesuses, money that smells like flowers and makes people happy. The description of a rationally impossible, shapeshifting world points to an archetypal universe or the dream landscape that often signals a journey into the unconscious where archetypes give shape to unarticulated thoughts. Another marker is the presence of characters who represent particular archetypes. One of these archetypal characters is Lao Lu, a yin person, a ghostly visitor from another existence who represents the Spirit archetype, and whose presence is a clear indicator of the tension between the novel’s two worlds and the characters’ multiple existences. Kwan has unfinished business from a previous life, and Lao Lu functions as her chief advisor in her efforts to complete her mission. Another archetypal figure is Big Ma whose name is a variant form of the title, ‘‘Great Mother,’’ and who, in fact, has represented in Kwan’s life the contradictory qualities of nurturance and destruction that are ascribed to the Great Mother archetype. After the death of Kwan’s mother, Big Ma gave the orphaned child a home and raised her, but Kwan has always felt ambivalent about the older woman. Acknowledging Big Ma’s largesse, Kwan nevertheless continues to resent the frequent slaps she endured as a child. In addition, Kwan is still bitter that Big Ma cheerfully shipped her off to America. Consequently, second only toKwan’s desire to bring Olivia and Simon back together is her need to show Big Ma that the rejected orphan has become a successful American who can afford to visit her home village bearing heaps of gifts.
Still another archetypal marker is Tan’s focus on the Changmian caves. In myth and folktale, caves are privileged as significant archetypal locations, denoting primal origins, birth, and rebirth. Before Olivia and Kwan can create a satisfactory conclusion for their shared story that began a century earlier, they must travel to the caves that represent the traumatic separations of that earlier existence: en route to the caves, Nunumu sees Zeng’s shadow for the last time; in those caves, Yiban faces the knowledge that he will never see Nelly Banner again; and beside those caves, Nunumu and Miss Banner are killed by the Manchu soldiers. In addition to these markers, Kwan’s dream-like narratives as well as Olivia’s frequent references to dreams strongly indicate an examination that derives some of its methodology and critical apparatus from dream theory, which is a significant component of archetypal criticism. One might, in fact, read The Hundred Secret Senses as an extended archetypal dream through which Olivia attempts to sort out the psychological confusions and uncertainties as well as the emotional chaos of her life.
Early in the novel, Olivia introduces the dream motif, saying, ‘‘Because of Kwan, I have a talent for remembering dreams’’ (28), and then adding that throughout her childhood years, she believed that everyone remembered dreams as though they were other lives or even other identities. After years of drowsy listening as Kwan told stories at bedtime, and years of falling asleep while Kwan droned on at length about Changmian and yin people and Miss Banner, Olivia can no longer identify the boundaries between her own dreams and episodes in Kwan’s stories. She is unable to recall those critical points at which her dream life seamlessly incorporated Kwan’s voice spinning out events, people, and landscapes. For Olivia, dreams and stories are each part of the fabric of the other; stories are the verbal records of dreams, dreams are where the stories take shape.
The archetypal pattern that dominates The Hundred Secret Senses and structures the plot is the cycle of birth and death and rebirth, a pattern that is mirrored by the constant renewal in the natural world as winter gives way to spring and then summer, or the wet season succumbs to the dry months, year after year, century after century. Jungian psychologists have pointed out that the collective unconscious refuses to recognize finality, preferring instead to privilege cyclical change and renewal:
In our dreams, as in our myths, death may figure not as the end, but as part of an overall process of growth and transformation. Just as life is born from death in the material world . . . so our psychological and spiritual energies constantly recreate themselves, assuming new forms in our imagination. (Fontana 88)
Throughout the novel, birth and death are juxtaposed, linked in ways that suggest the clear relationship between the two events in Kwan’s stories as well as in the grand cycle of the universe. As a result of Jack Yee’s death, Kwan is ‘‘born’’ into the Laguni family to become Olivia’s loyal sister and friend, as well as her guide to a previous life. Years before that, Buncake must die so that Kwan can return to life, ‘‘reborn’’ in her friend’s body—again, so that eventually she can become a part of Olivia’s life. And a century earlier, before Kwan’s story begins, Yiban Johnson, born immediately after his mother’s suicide by hanging, grows to manhood and falls in love with Nelly Banner, only to lose her because Nunumu fails to realize how well Yiban can deduce Miss Banner’s thoughts. That mistake so haunts Nunumu that her primary mission in life after she becomes Kwan is to put things right by reuniting Nelly and Yiban, who are now Olivia and Simon.
Death is a pervasive motif in The Hundred Secret Senses, which begins when Olivia’s father dies, and ends with Big Ma’s funeral and the suggestion that Kwan is dead. With the exception of Jack Yee’s death from illness, the deaths in the novel are unusual, even slightly surreal, creating the ambiance of a nightmare world and underscoring the dreamlike tone of the novel. Elza dies in an avalanche that overwhelms her as she angrily skis away from Simon to whom she has just announced that she is pregnant. Big Ma is so overjoyed at Kwan’s impending visit to her village that she cannot wait, and hops aboard a minibus to surprise Kwan in Guilin. En route, the bus crashes, killing Big Ma on the very day that she should have been reunited with Kwan. Years earlier, Buncake drowns while she and Kwan are ensconced in a ditch that is so dry that they are pretending to be sitting in a boat. A sudden squall produces flash floods that overwhelm the two children who drown before they can scramble to safety. Kwan’s tales about Changmian in the nineteenth century include several unusual demises. When Lao Lu makes an obscene remark about General Cape and Miss Banner, a soldier (possibly Cape?) beheads him. In a bizarre scene reminiscent of mass suicides within religious cults, the missionaries end their lives rather than facetorture by the Manchu soldiers. After eating stale Communion bread and drinking water that they pretend is wine, Dr. Too Late, Miss Mouse, and Pastor and Mrs. Amen pray, then together they ingest all of the pills that remain in Dr. Too Late’s medicine bag. Finally, Nunumu and Miss Banner die together, just a short distance from the safety of the caves somewhere on a mountain near Changmian, possibly hanged, although Kwan discounts that possibility because she says that hanging is too much trouble to arrange in a place with no trees.
Dreams of death, whether one’s own or another’s, can have several interpretations. Such dreams often suggest that the dreamer is grappling with deep-seated concerns, frequently including fear of loss of self or identity, dread of retribution for some fault or sin, and fear of alienation of affection. All of these fears are personified in Olivia. Even as an adult who appears to be comfortably assimilated into American culture, Olivia is plagued with questions and doubts about her Chinese ancestry, and she steadfastly continues to resist any suggestion that she and Kwan might have far more in common than a shared father. A problematic ethnicity is not the only source of Olivia’s self-doubt. For over a decade and a half, she has identified herself primarily in relation to Simon, but throughout their marriage she has been unable to let go of her belief that Simon’s affection for her is inconsequential compared to the love he still feels for the long-dead Elza. Olivia is certain that for Simon she is only second-best. Coupled with her insecurities in her marriage is Olivia’s recurrent guilt about her inability to accept wholeheartedly Kwan’s love and loyalty, and although she has never identified what she believes the appropriate punishment might be for her emotional frigidity, her guilt is real and it creates a barrier between the two sisters. Finally, although Olivia initiated the quarrel with Simon and asked for the divorce, she is clearly unhappy with their separation. She is afraid to admit the depth of her need for Simon, and to a certain extent her sudden demand for a divorce is an extension of her fear that he might be the one who suggests that they end their marriage. During the life of their relationship, she has managed to convince herself that he does not truly value her presence in his life. Olivia is sure that for Simon she is merely a pallid substitute for Elza, and she is anxious to preempt any move he might make to dissolve the relationship.
Balancing the deaths in the novel and establishing relationships between one life and another is a series of rebirths and reincarnations that produce a sense of cyclical time and universal continuity. TheChangmian-San Francisco connection is integral to the text—essential to both plot and narrative structure. In the scheme of things that Kwan has been articulating since Olivia was a child, Kwan is Nunumu in the nineteenth century story, Olivia is Miss Banner to whom Nunumu pledges her deepest loyalty, and Simon is Yiban, Miss Banner’s true love. At the time of her death, Nunumu blames herself for causing the separation of Miss Banner and Yiban, and as Kwan, she is determined to do everything possible to get Olivia and Simon to Changmian where, she tells them, their fate is waiting to happen.
As has been implied, Kwan appears to be at the center of the most mystical rebirths and connections. She tells Olivia that as a child in her second life as Kwan, she drowns with her friend, Buncake. Kwan flies to the World of Yin, and there she meets Nelly Banner who is on the verge of returning to life as Olivia. Nelly/Olivia begs Kwan to return to life on earth so that in a few years they can be together again, and Kwan reluctantly obeys, only to discover that her body is so broken that it can no longer support life. With no other alternatives evident, she enters Buncake’s unmarred body, and thereafter is her friend’s doppelganger, although her mind and heart still belong to the old Kwan. This incident, minor though it appears to be in the almost epic story of Kwan and Olivia, highlights the durability and longevity of the emotional bonds that exist between them, and illustrates the cyclical patterns that inform and undergird the fictional universe of The Hundred Secret Senses.
The cycle of death and rebirth is echoed in the legend of Changmian, the village that serves as the setting for Kwan’s narratives in two centuries. In Kwan’s version of the legend, when the Manchu soldiers ravaged the countryside in the war against the Taiping, Changmian’s villagers fled to the nearby caves in the mountains where they concealed themselves. Failing to induce the villagers to come out of their refuges, the soldiers built huge bonfires at the cave entrances, but succeeded only in smoking out thousands of bats whose frantically flapping wings fanned the flames, turning the entire valley, including Changmian, into an inferno. Only two or three soldiers escaped the conflagration, and relief troops who arrived a week later found nothing but a completely, eerily, empty village and hundreds of new graves. But one month later, according to Kwan, a traveler passing Changmian found a thriving village full of people and dogs, all carrying on with their daily activities as though they had been doing so week after week without interruption. To compound the traveler’s bafflement and unease, the village peopleclaimed never to have seen any soldiers. Not surprisingly, once the traveler left the valley and recounted his strange experience, Changmian acquired a reputation for being a ‘‘village of ghosts’’ (340).
When Olivia and Simon see Changmian for the first time, they notice immediately that the village appears completely untouched by time. Changmian’s name, which has two possible and opposite meanings, emphasizes the village’s timeless and somewhat unearthly appearance, and foregrounds the contradictions in its history. Kwan tells Olivia and Simon that the word chang means ‘‘sing’’ while mian suggests ‘‘silk,’’ with the combination indicating ‘‘something soft but go on forever like thread’’ or a never-ending quiet melody (275). She adds, however, that it is also possible to pronounce Changmian differently, thus producing a contrasting meaning in which chang means ‘‘long’’ and mian indicates ‘‘sleep,’’ creating the phrase ‘‘long sleep,’’ which is a synonym for death. Embedded in those two meanings are death and rebirth—the juxtaposition of long sleep with the idea of a soft melody that never ends—the two constants in Kwan’s stories and, it seems, in the relationship between Kwan and Olivia, and between Olivia and Simon. The rebirth of Changmian, as well as that village’s implied participation as the site of Kwan’s own cycle of birth and death and rebirth, makes the village the ideal place for Olivia’s own reconnection with herself. Her story begins in Changmian and is interrupted there, and she must return not just to the village but also to the nearby caves to complete and continue the cycle that is her life.
In The Secret Language of Dreams, British psychologist David Fontana points out that archetypal dreams tend to occur at major transitional points in life, or during periods of uncertainty and disruption. He adds further that such dreams ‘‘mark the process toward individuation and spiritual maturity’’ (34). Olivia is in the midst of an emotionally and psychologically disruptive transitional point in her life—the break-up of her marriage to the man whom she has loved more than anyone else in her entire life. It is no consolation to Olivia to recall that she has precipitated the separation from Simon; her emotional pain is genuine and devastating. Kwan is likewise at a major transitional point: her fiftieth birthday, which is a milestone that marks half a century of life. Together, Olivia and Kwan embark on their shared archetypal quest, the journey to discover wholeness and integration. Significantly, they travel to a foreign country, an action that in archetypal dreams suggests a journey into the unconscious in search of wholeness; and their travel to China takes them to the east, toward a compass point that suggests rebirth and rejuvenation. They are leaving behind them their San Francisco past, moving toward the landscape of an older shared past, to put their lives in order for the future, which is linked to their shared histories. At the end of the quest, in China, Olivia and Kwan are finally able to rediscover and to assimilate the scattered fragments of their lives and their identities: Kwan is reconciled with Big Ma; Olivia and Simon reconnect; and Olivia acknowledges not just the existence but also the strength and permanence of the bond between herself and Kwan.
Salvation comes to the sisters in different ways. For Kwan, it is the opportunity finally to articulate to Olivia the still-unvoiced remainder of their shared history, to confess the guilt that has burdened her from one lifetime to another because she told the lie that makes her responsible for inadvertently separating Nelly Banner and Yiban Johnson. When she concludes her story on the rainy mountainside near Changmian, she is noticeably relieved. ‘‘Now you know all my secret,’’ she tells Olivia. ‘‘Give me peace’’ (343). Her final words are reassurances that Simon loves Olivia, and that Olivia has never been a substitute for Elza. And with that, Kwan enters the secret cave and disappears from Olivia’s life. During the week-long search for Kwan, Olivia commences her own journey toward an integrated self as she and Simon slowly begin to reexplore their relationship. Her discovery of the eggs in the Ghost Merchant’s garden suggests that new possibilities await her, that her life might change in ways that she has not anticipated.
The novel ends with the final juxtaposition of death and rebirth. Early on the morning of Kwan’s disappearance, Simon and Olivia make love for the first time in months on a bed that has belonged to Kwan’s family for generations. Nine months later, Olivia gives birth to Samantha, and as Samantha grows into toddlerhood, her favorite toy is the music box that Kwan gave Olivia for a wedding gift. Olivia no longer has Kwan, but in her sister’s place is little Samantha whose presence has created a new relationship between her parents. Olivia and Simon have begun to try to resolve their differences, to learn to communicate openly and without rancor, to enjoy being together—with Samantha—as a family. Out of Kwan’s death has come life and the strengthening of emotional bonds. And at last, Olivia knows that ‘‘the world is not a place but the vastness of the soul. And the soul is nothing more than love, limitless, endless’’ (358).
The Hundred Secret Senses. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995.
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Source: Huntley, E. D. (1998). Amy Tan: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.