The Hundred Secret Senses
Olivia Yee Bishop, daughter of a Chinese father and an Anglo American mother, is a cold and unhappy woman who is separated from Simon Bishop, her husband and business partner. She agrees to a travel assignment in China at the urging of her half-sister Kwan, who wants to visit her aunt in the village of Changmian, where she grew up. Kwan did not come to the United States until long after their dying father confessed to Olivia’s mother that he had a daughter in China; upon her arrival, she was met with jealousy and fear from Olivia, twelve years her junior. Now Olivia suspects rightly that Kwan is using the proposed journey as an excuse to bring her together with Simon. In fact, two relationships are at stake here: that of Olivia and Simon and, more important, that of Olivia and Kwan.
Like The Joy Luck Club (1989) and The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991), The Hundred Secret Senses visits Amy Tan’s familiar ground—the dual settings of the United States and China, a protagonist struggling with two disparate cultures. Here, present events are paralleled by Kwan’s account of her previous life as Nunumu, a one-eyed maiden of the Hakka, a northern Chinese people who migrated to the southern mountains. Nunumu saves the life of and becomes a companion to Miss Banner, an American who has attached herself to a group of English missionaries in Changmian during the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864). Miss Banner is in love with a self-styled American general whom the Chinese call “General Cape.”
In addition to Kwan’s tales of an earlier incarnation (which Olivia treats with good Western skepticism), the novel spans two worlds—the real world of the sisters’ childhood and present and the World of Yin, which Kwan is able to view with her “yin eyes.” Either Kwan can see and speak with ghosts from both continents, those who have not yet been reincarnated, or, as Olivia believes, she has never fully recovered from her stay in a mental hospital.
The ambiguity of Kwan’s character—is she benignly insane, or does she truly see beyond reality? is she Kwan, Nunumu, or both?—is mirrored in the clouded past of the women’s father, Jack Yee. Olivia was told that he had been a university student in Guilin and had left his first wife and baby to earn money in Hong Kong. After her mother died of lung disease, Kwan was placed in the care of the mother’s sister in Changmian. After the Communists seized control of China in 1949, Jack, prevented from returning for Kwan, went on alone to America.
Kwan believes that her mother died of heartsickness after Jack Yee abandoned her as she was about to have another child. “That poor starving baby in her belly ate a hole in my mother’s heart, and they both died.” Later, she warns Olivia not to change her name back to Yee because it is not really their father’s name. In 1948, he took the identity papers of another man in order to emigrate to America. Her aunt’s revenge was to refuse to tell Kwan her father’s true name so that she could never honor him.
Further ambiguity is seen in the language of China, where the same word may mean opposite things. For example, the name Changmian can be translated as “chang” (sing) and “mian” (silk—something that goes on forever like thread), thus “soft song, never ending,” a reference to the sound of wind blowing through the caves above the village. With a slightly different tonal pronunciation, “chang” becomes “long” and “mian” means “sleep,” thus “Long Sleep” or death. There is no single vision here. Changmian may be a fortunate place or a bad-luck village, or both.
Tan’s central theme, the search for self, is most obvious in the figure of Olivia. Her confusion is highlighted when she cannot determine which surname to use: Yee, Laguni (her stepfather’s name), or Bishop. When she tentatively decides on Laguni, her brother points out that it is a name given to Italian orphans. Like many of Tan’s characters, Olivia is also struggling with racial identity, finding herself not really Chinese and not Anglo American. Handsome Simon also embodies these contradictions as the descendant of Hawaiian Chinese and the Bishops, a famous white missionary family.
In addition, Olivia is burdened by guilt, believing herself responsible for her father’s death (actually caused by his faulty kidneys). She knows that her betrayal of Kwan’s secret visions led to Kwan’s hospitalization and shock treatments. Thirty years later, Olivia still scorns and at the same time fears her sister, although she recognizes her own unfairness and ingratitude for all Kwan...
(The entire section is 1901 words.)