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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 273

The tension of cross-cultural bonds and the mysterious role of one's heritage are but two of the themes of Amy Tan's 1995 novel. It centers on the relationship between a pair of siblings, Olivia, the Chinese-American narrator, and her half-sister Kwan, a Chinese native, who joins her sister's American family...

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The tension of cross-cultural bonds and the mysterious role of one's heritage are but two of the themes of Amy Tan's 1995 novel. It centers on the relationship between a pair of siblings, Olivia, the Chinese-American narrator, and her half-sister Kwan, a Chinese native, who joins her sister's American family in San Francisco following the death of their father, when they are children.

Kwan, who is eight years older than her sibling, proves to be a spirited and loving, but eccentric presence. Indoctrinated with ancient religious beliefs and practices, Kwan believes herself to be possessed of 'yin eyes' that can see the dead, and spends considerable time and energy in conversing with her deceased relatives and friends. For this reason, she is eventually sent to a mental hospital, not long after her arrival.

The Hundred Secret Senses jumps forward decades, with Olivia now a photographer in her late thirties. The middle-aged Kwan, still deeply devoted to her sister, arranges a journalistic assignment for she and her estranged husband Simon, in an attempt to re-unite them. As the trio travel to Kwan's native village of Changmian, the novel comes to focus on Olivia's discovery of the 'World of Yin,' which she had so long disdained. Kwan tells of her incarnation in the 19th century as the servant of Christian missionaries in her native village and of her close friendship with an American woman very much like Olivia.

As Olivia learns more about the 'World of Yin,' she gradually sheds her contemptuous attitude and embraces what she now sees as the deeper wisdom of the 'shadow world,' a place of limitless, boundless love.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 419

The Hundred Secret Senses, Amy Tan’s third novel, continues her interest in Chinese and Chinese American culture, especially the strife between family members who are traditionally Chinese and those who are more Americanized. Half-Caucasian, half-Chinese Olivia meets, at age six, her eighteen-year-old Chinese half sister, Kwan, the daughter of her father’s first marriage. Kwan instigates Olivia’s struggle with her Chinese identity. Olivia is alternately embarrassed, annoyed, and mystified by this sister who claims that she has daily communication with “yin people”— helpful ghosts—many of whom are the spirits of friends from Kwan’s past lives. Despite her ambivalence, however, Olivia gains most of her awareness about her Chinese background from Kwan. The sisters’ Chinese father has died, and Olivia is being raised in the United States by a Caucasian mother and an Italian American stepfather. After Kwan’s arrival from China, the older girl is largely responsible for her sister’s care. Thus, Olivia resentfully learns Chinese and learns about her Chinese heritage, including knowledge about the ghosts who populate her sister’s world. Olivia is understandably skeptical about the presence of these yin people. In Olivia’s culture, such ghosts are the stuff of scary movies, while for Kwan, they are a part of everyday life. The title, then, refers to the hundred secret senses that, Kwan asserts, enable one to perceive the yin people. Kwan’s stories about a past life are the fairy tales with which Olivia grows up.

Later, Olivia marries a half-Hawaiian, half-Caucasian man, Simon, and as the novel opens, they are beginning divorce proceedings after a long marriage. Olivia begins these proceedings in part because she believes that Simon is still in love with a former girlfriend, who died shortly before Simon and Olivia met. Olivia must develop her own sense of personal and ethnic identity in order to release this ghost from her past. She must begin to believe that she is worthy of Simon’s love, and in order to discover her self-worth, she must travel to the tiny Chinese village where her sister grew up.

Although Olivia believes herself to be very American, once she, Simon, and Kwan arrive in China, she begins to feel much closer to her Chinese heritage, and in the storytelling tradition of all Tan’s novels, Olivia learns about her family’s past while talking to residents of the village in which Kwan grew up. Olivia also is able to confront her difficulties with Simon as a result of the trip.

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