Reading Amy Tan's hologram: the Hundred Secret Senses

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Author: Benzi Zhang
Date: Jan. 2004
From: International Fiction Review(Vol. 31, Issue 1-2)
Publisher: International Fiction Association
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,628 words

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I have to write what I have to write about, including the question of life continuing beyond our ordinary senses.--Amy Tan

In Amy Tan's novel The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), the world of yin and the world of yang are presented adjacently and ambiguously. As Laura Shapiro observes, Tan's book is somewhat like a hologram: "turn it this way and find Chinese-Americans shopping and arguing in San Francisco; turn it that way and the Chinese of Changmian village in 1864 are fleeing into the hills to hide from the rampaging Manchus." (1) Readers can easily find cross-references of the same personae and their reincarnations in both yin and yang existences. As we move deeper into the heart of the book, we find that the yin/yang hologram produces a rebounding circularity that indicates an endless narrative recursion in which the narrative levels are relative without a clear hierarchy. In Olivia's dreamy narratives, Kwan is a character who reads and interprets Olivia's life against numerous yin characters. At the same time, Olivia, as well as her previous incarnations, is also a character in Kwan's stories about the world of yin. In other words, the two main characters "create" each other in their own narratives, interpreting each other's lives in relation to their previous existences. These narratives, at once overarching and kaleidoscopic, shift without warning from one level to another, and from one existence to another. Moreover, the stories of their overlapping lives and deaths, which span two continents and two centuries, are convoluted in a manner of recursion: all versions/visions seem to coexist in a Chinese box of stories within stories and dreams within dreams. "With my half-awake mind," says Olivia, "I would trace my way back to the previous dream, then the one before that, a dozen lives, and sometimes their deaths." (2) If we are to read Olivia's dreams and Kwan's stories about the world of yin as a series of echoing narratives, the distinction between dream and reality and between yin and yang is not clear-cut. The irrational states of the world of yin are correlated to the real situations and events in the world of yang. The process of relating the life of yang to the world of yin has intricate implications. On the one hand, the puzzling hologram connects with broad cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual issues; on the other, it suggests that Tan's art cannot be understood entirely in terms of Western rationalism. In more than one respect, Tan's novel moves toward the subversion of our rational perception of life, elaborating on "the question of life continuing beyond our ordinary senses." (3)

The meaning of the novel is articulated through the interplay and cooptation of its related narratives. Through a process of reverberation, readers slowly realize that the stories of Olivia and Kwan in twentieth-century San Francisco are actually an incarnated rendition of their previous lives in nineteenth-century Changmian. Furthermore, moving through the complex work of Tan's hologram, we find in the relation of yin and yang that boundaries of time and space collapse. The links between San Francisco and Changmian provide the foundation for both plot and narrative developments. Through the relation of yin and yang worlds, Tan attempts to present a broader vision of the various dimensions of life, a vision that is revealed only through the most elaborate and even conjectural strategy. The novel requires readers to adjust their ordinary senses to be willing to intertwine the real and the unreal.

Kwan's unshakeable belief in the world of yin presents a big challenge for Olivia's sense of reality. At first, Olivia is annoyed by Kwan's constant communication with people from the world of yin: "For most of my childhood, I had to struggle not to see the world the way Kwan described it" (54). Growing up in modern Western civilization, Olivia is influenced by a scientific view of life and the universe, which emphasizes the observable realities of the material world, while playing down or overlooking the spiritual aspects of life. The world of yin, so to speak, mediates Olivia's experience against her own rational mind. As Olivia says, "Kwan saw what she believed. I saw what I didn't want to believe" (57). "Because I'm not Chinese like Kwan. To me, yin isn't yang, and yang isn't yin. I can't accept two contradictory stories as the whole truth" (277). Western rationalism and materialism have left Olivia with a limited view of life, and she cannot grasp the spiritual values embodied in Kwan's Chinese way of thinking.

Kwan's stories introduce an alternative way of looking at things, highlighting the secret senses--"the senses that are related to primitive instincts, what humans had before their brains developed language and the higher functions" (237). Moreover, the secret senses seem to enable Kwan to have a pair of "yin eyes" with which Kwan "sees those who have died and now dwell in the World of Yin" (3). The secret senses, therefore, not only provide a channel of communication between the yin and yang worlds, but also suggest an extrasensory aspect of human beings beyond that which medical doctors and scientists can understand. In the beginning of the novel Olivia describes how a group of doctors in San Francisco diagnose Kwan's secret senses "as a serious mental disorder. They gave her electroshock treatments, once, she said, then twice, she cried, then over and over again. Even today it hurts my teeth to think about that" (17). The secret senses, which modern science fails to explain, seem to connect to a mysterious, illusive part of the human world. Although she cannot fully grasp Kwan's Chinese way of thinking, Olivia decides to subject herself to her secret senses and to suspend her disbelief in Kwan's "make-believe." "In fact," she says, "the idea of searching for make-believe eggs in China sounds charming" (188). Olivia is indeed charmed, when she finds jars of eggs in the Ghost Merchant's Garden in Changmian, which Kwan claims to have buried a century earlier. As a result, Olivia is galvanized to see life in a way that she has never anticipated: that is, the way of yin-sight. Relying on her secret senses, Olivia starts to perceive what she had failed to notice before--that is, a paradox of "light within dark, dark within light" (361). Her recognition of the indivisible duality of light and dark, yang and yin, and the rational and the irrational allows her to understand life more fully. The image of a yin-yang hologram, in a sense, epitomizes the relationship of two halves of a divided whole. In Changmian, Olivia eventually finds "the other half" of herself: "being here, I feel as if the membrane separating the two halves of my life has finally been shed" (230).

The name "Changmian" in Chinese has two possible meanings, suggesting the village's uncanny peculiarity: "Chang mean 'sing,' mian mean 'silk,' something soft but go on forever like thread. Soft song, never ending. But some people pronounce 'Changmian' other way, rising tone change to falling.... This way chang mean 'long,' mian mean 'sleep.' Long Sleep" (308). Here, Tan purposely makes an interesting "slip," since the opposite is true: the falling tone of chang means "sing" while the rising tone indicates "long" in Mandarin Chinese. This slip successfully creates a transposition of two incompatible meanings that insinuate the juxtaposition of yin and yang, pointing to a cycle of death and rebirth. Moreover, the slip suggests a tangling of chronology and synchronicity, in which Olivia undergoes an "out-of-herself" experience that brings her beyond the limits of her life and time to reach "the other side"--the yin side--of the phenomenal world. The notion of other-sidedness transcends the realms of the empirically verifiable and the rational, as it touches the nerve of our spirituality. This moves the novel away from Western rationalism to a holistic revisionism that does not negate perceptions of other modes of existence. In this sense, the novel as a whole represents Olivia's journey, as guided by Kwan's yin-sight, to the other side of existence to explore the deeper dimensions of her life. Tim's novel, therefore, moves beyond the conventional understanding of the human world. Through its unique yin/yang hologram, Tan portrays Olivia's quest for relocating her sense of identity beyond the boundary of her empirical senses. Olivia admits that her previous effort to understand life rationally is a failure: "It was like fitting all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle only to find the completed result was a reproduction of corny art, great effort leading to trivial disappointment" (139). Through relating yin and yang, Olivia eventually transcends the limits of her ordinary senses and the one-sided view of rationality that blocks her in-sight, or rather yin-sight.

The yin/yang hologram reverberates with the long tradition of the Chinese cultural sensibility. By juxtaposing the yin and yang worlds and by layering both rational and irrational elements in life, the novel creates an image of a larger, eternal whole of which one's individual life and experience are only a tiny part. Olivia's rationalism obstructs her from fully grasping the world of yin. Toward the end of the novel, Olivia discovers the music box that Kwan claims to have hidden in the cave in her previous lifetime. The presence of the music box brings into focus not only a wide range of epistemological questions, but also an ontological conundrum about the relation between yin and yang, and between the real and the unreal. Olivia seems to have reached the limit of her ordinary senses: "if I believe what [Kwan] says, does that mean I now believe she has yin eyes?" (358). The yin/yang hologram not only contextualizes the emotional and intellectual powerlessness that troubles Olivia, but also provides a wide cultural landscape for Olivia to relocate the deep dimension of her identity. Olivia struggles with the question of yin in a broad cultural context, since among all other things yin signifies her cultural roots--the depths and breadth of her identity.

In Olivia's dreams and Kwan's narratives, yin people and events constantly recur in confused regression with people in the yang world. One of Olivia's disturbing dreams is about the moments just before she "dies" in her previous life: "I've smelled my own musky fear as the rope tightens around my neck. I've felt the heaviness of flying through weightless air. I've heard the sucking creak of my voice just before life snaps to an end" (31). Tan's novel highlights the mysterious nature of human life and rebirth, suggesting that if we deny the possibility of the recycling of life, part of the meaning of life will be lost. Looking back at Olivia's dreams through the prism of Kwan's multilayered death-before-life stories, we can understand what it is that Olivia fails to recognize: the necessity to accept the world of yin, which implies her previous existence and her connection with her ancestry. Through the reimposition of the yin and yang worlds as two sides of a hologram, Tan shows the extra dimensions of life and afterlife that lie just on the far side of yang existence. Facilitated by her unique "yin-eyes," Kwan helps Olivia perceive the mutually illuminating connectedness of yin and yang. From Kwan, Olivia learns how to view herself and the world in a new way: "[Kwan] pushed her Chinese secrets into my brain and changed how I thought about the world" (13). Relating yin and yang enables Olivia to achieve an awareness of her cultural tradition and to assert an identity connected with her cultural ancestry.

At the end of the novel, after finishing all her stories about the world of yin, Kwan tells Olivia: "Now you know all my secret. Give me peace" (382). With that, Kwan vanishes into the enigmatic cave in Changmian. Kwan's mysterious disappearance provokes a magical effect that can be found in a traditional "Chinese tale where the imperial architect, turning from the wrath of his emperor, opens the door in the drawing of the palace he has made and disappears inside." (4) When Kwan, like the Chinese architect, enters the cave of her own stories and disappears "yin-side," readers are left with the feeling that the world of yin is eventually translated into real life. Readers are not only told that the relation of yin and yang is mysterious, but also that the undecipherable mystery might not be too far from "the truth of this fiction" (1). As Olivia says, "I now believe truth lies not in logic but in hope" that can survive "all sorts of contradictions, and certainly any skeptic's rationale of relying on proof through fact" (398). To represent the elusive world of yin is to represent the unrepresentable, to visualize the invisible, and to think the unthinkable. Tan's novel, therefore, encourages readers to pass through the world of sensory experience and to search for meaning in the negotiations between yin and yang, and between the ordinary and the extraordinary.

"By providing multiple versions of and varying perspectives on events that are central to the novel," E. D. Huntley writes, "Tan explores the ways through which storytellers create meaning on many levels and from different points of view." (5) The hologram presented in Tan's novel highlights the coexistence, interaction, and interdependence of two perspectives that express simultaneously the various contents of the worlds within a single work. Tan's novel is not a sum of unrelated fragments, but a work in which the implicit dialogue or interplay intervenes between different worlds. Tan's work unveils "the very roots of Chinese thinking and feeling" wherein "lies the principle of polarity, which is not to be confused with the ideas of opposition or conflict," as Alan Watts observes. "In the metaphors of other cultures, light is at war with darkness, life with death"; but "to the traditional way of Chinese thinking, this is as incomprehensible as an electric current without both positive and negative poles.... Thus the art of life is not seen as holding to yang and banishing yin, but as keeping the two in balance." (6)

The Hundred Secret Senses recognizes the nature of yin/yang multiplicity and balance. The meaning of the world of yin, therefore, resides in its relation to the world of yang--through yin we find the meaning of yang and through yang we understand the significance of yin. "The key to the relationship between yang and yin," Watts notes, "is called hsiang sheng, mutual arising or inseparability." (7) This idea communicates the unusual wisdom of Oriental thinking. "If someone puts a question to you and asks about the existing," Zen master Tripitaka tells us, "mention the non-existent in your answer. If you are asked about the nonexistent, mention the existing in your answer.... [Thus] the mutual dependence of the two extremes will bring to light the significance of the 'mean." (8) The notion of "mutual dependence" helps us understand Tan's hologram which comprises the "existing" and the "non-existent," life and death, yang and yin. By juxtaposing the yin and yang worlds and by layering both rational and irrational elements of life, the novel seems to tell us that "the world is not a place but the vastness of the soul" (399).

(1) Laura Shapiro, "Ghost Story," Newsweek 126.19, 6 November 1995: 91.

(2) Amy Tan, The Hundred Secret Senses (New York: Ivy Books, 1995) 31. Subsequent references are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text.

(3) Amy Tan, "The Salon Interview,"

(4) Robert Alter, Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-Conscious Genre (Berkely: University of California Prep, 1975) 20.

(5) E. D. Huntley, Amy Tan: A Critical Companion (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998) 119.

(6) Alan Watts, Tao: The Watercourse Way (New York: Pantheon Books, 1975) 20-21.

(7) Watts 22.

(8) Charles Luk, ed. and trans., Ch" an and Zen Teaching, vol. 3 (London: Rider, 1962) 92.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A122580771