Simple day-to-day events in Winnie's ongoing love/hate relationship with Helen stir up scattered memories of her early life and its interweaving with China's political upheaval in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. She believed that immigration to California would relieve her of the many secrets and deceptions that helped her deal with her crisis-filled life in China.
After immigrating to America, Winnie managed to live without new lies until 1953, when her longtime friend Helen claimed repayment of an old debt, asking for Winnie's help in getting Helen and her family from Formosa to the U.S. So once more Winnie lied, stating that Helen was a half-sister, the offspring of one of her father's other wives. Then, being the wife of a minister, Winnie did not want to reveal her father's polygamy, so she recast Helen as her sister-in-law, once married to one of Winnie's brothers. Helen Kwong is not related to Winnie, even by marriage. Winnie acknowledges that the relationship with Helen reflects genuine sibling rivalry even though the two women are kin only in the lies they perpetuate and the trivial arguments they relish.
Winnie (whose Chinese name is Weili) was first married in China to an abusive, unprincipled man, Wen Fu, before she came to the United States and married Jimmy Louie. She has lived in continual fear of Wen Fu's reappearance in her life. Helen knows about Wen Fu and about most of Winnie's early life. Helen suddenly threatens to tell all their shared secrets before the Chinese New Year unless Winnie takes responsibility for making her own disclosures.
Helen tells Winnie there is no more need for all the secrets they have kept from their families. Through a letter from a mutual friend in China, Helen has learned that the despised Wen Fu died in China just the previous month. Winnie has difficulty absorbing the news and its impact on her life.
Uncertain how to deal with Helen's threat to reveal all, Winnie cleans her house, awakening memories of her family life in America through discovery of such items as an old copy of Playboy she had ordered her son Samuel to destroy, initials carved on Pearl's old dressing table, and Pearl's childhood treasure box containing a schoolgirl letter, an announcement of a Sadie Hawkins Day Dance, and a marked-up religious card from Jimmy Louie's funeral.
Facing the alienation that separates her from Pearl, Winnie acknowledges that she has always loved her daughter more than she loved her son. She admits to herself that she owes Pearl the truth about her own life, including the terrible fact that Wen Fu rather than Jimmy Louie is Pearl's father.
Beginning in Chapter 3, Tan shifts the narrative point of view from Pearl to the strong voice of her mother, Winnie. In these two chapters, Winnie's thoughts touch on an amazing range of events from her life, creating a fragile framework for the novel's focus — the story of a Chinese child from a wealthy background whose mother abandons her, leaving her devalued and ignored in a feudal household from which she must make her way into a world once defined by centuries of imperialism and warlords, then challenged by internal political divisions, invading Japanese, and communism.
Winnie maintains that her best friend — and persistent foil — Helen Kwong, has inborn luck, a quality that has seemingly dried up in Winnie because of "the fate that was given me, the choices I took, the mistakes that are mine." Central to Winnie's philosophy is the distinction between having luck and making luck. To Winnie, marriage to Wen Fu foreshadowed a long slide into physical pain, spiritual torpor, and diminished will. Yet, when seen from the point of view of growth, Winnie's inner worth blossoms when she is told by the sisterhood supporting her that only she herself can create her own good fortune.
In assessing her life and luck, Winnie recalls an incident years ago that changed the way she looked at life. Standing outside Jimmie Louie's church when Pearl and Samuel were very young, greeting members of Jimmie's Christian congregation after a Sunday service, Winnie was introduced to Lin, a man from her uncle's village whom she might have married, now a successful doctor. Overcome by heat as well as embarrassment at recalling a childhood faux pas, Winnie felt the fusion of "my past, my life today, my first husband, my second husband, Lin" — and then she fainted in front of everyone. Later, when she started to consider how things might have been had she married Lin, she had a sudden insight and "from that day on, I began to look at everything in my life two ways, the way it happened, the way it did not."
Her subsequent telling of her life story reflects that two-sided philosophy, occasionally cultivating fantasies that breed regret. Now, in her seventies, Winnie reevaluates her experiences with Lin, Wen Fu, and Jimmy Louie, and she concludes that she was grateful for a good second marriage but was "never completely happy."
smallpox an acute, contagious disease — now largely controlled through vaccination — that often leaves the face pitted or scarred with marks called pock marks.
lose face to suffer social disgrace or embarrassment. The concept of preserving outward appearances at all costs is a controlling social mechanism throughout the novel, often explaining why Tan's characters go to such lengths following age-old traditions and rituals to avoid shaming themselves. For example, receivers of gifts open them in private to avoid revealing disappointment and thus embarrassing both the givers and receivers.
Horse year Each full year of the Chinese calendar is symbolized by one of twelve traditional animals. The Horse years in this century took place, for example, in 1918, 1930, 1942, and 1954 on the Western calendar. Winnie characterizes a Horse year as a time "when people stamped their feet and became reckless."
Kuomintang The word means "national people's party" in Chinese. In 1912, Dr. Sun Yat-sen directed this political party. Suppressed by China's new president, the party twice tried to establish revolutionary governments in Canton. In 1925, after Sun's death and considerable inter-party strife, the Kuomintang passed into the control of General Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists. By 1950, ousted from mainland China by the Communists, the Kuomintang governed the Nationalist Chinese on Taiwan for many years under Chiang Kai-shek.
Marxist a Communist and follower of Karl Marx, the philosopher and writer whose Communist Manifesto (1848) proclaimed collectivism — the sharing of wealth among all citizens — as a more equitable social, economic, and political system than either capitalism or monarchy.
Formosa a shortened form of the Portuguese phrase ihla formosa, meaning "beautiful island." It was given by sixteenth-century Portuguese traders to the island, which is one hundred fifteen miles southeast of mainland China. This island, now called Taiwan, was under Japanese control from 1895 to 1945.
Taiwan means "terraced bay" in Chinese. In 1949, Communist forces drove Chiang Kai-shek and China's nationalists to the island, where they established the Republic of China — in contrast to the People's Republic of China, which is Communist mainland China.
Kowloon a part of the British colony of Hong Kong on the southeast coast of China.
Sadie Hawkins Day The first Saturday after November 11, this annual event was created by cartoonist Al Capp in 1939 in his American hillbilly comic strip Li'l Abner; it is the day when single women chase bachelors in order to get husbands. In the 1940s, this translated into the American lifestyle as a day or an event when girls could invite boys to escort them to a dance or a movie.