The Hundred Secret Senses Summary

Amy Tan


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 419 words.)