This post is in partnership with Publisher’s Lunch, the book industry’s “daily essential read,” delivering web and print publishing news, original reporting and insightful analysis.
The final installment of a weeklong series of book excerpts, produced in partnership with TIME.com, is Amy Tan’s latest novel: a sweeping, evocative epic of two women’s intertwined fates and their search for identity, from the lavish parlors of Shanghai courtesans to the fog-shrouded mountains of a remote Chinese village.
Amy Tan is the New York Times bestselling author of The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life, Saving Fish from Drowning, and two children’s books, The Moon Lady and Sagwa, which has now been adapted as a PBS production. Tan was also a co-producer and co-screenwriter of the film version of The Joy Luck Club. Her essays and stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. Her work has been translated into thirty-five languages.
Publishers Lunch’s just-released free ebook Buzz Books 2013: Fall/Winter includes a pre-publication excerpt from The Valley of Amazement—from which this shorter selection is adapted—plus samples of dozens of other high-profile books that will published in the months ahead. To get a free copy of the book, click on the widget at the bottom of the page.
Hidden Jade Path
When I was seven, I knew exactly who I was: a thoroughly American girl in race, manners, and speech, whose mother, Lulu Minturn, was the only white woman who owned a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai.
My mother named me Violet after a tiny flower she loved as a girl growing up in San Francisco, a city I have seen only in postcards. I grew to hate my name. The courtesans pronounced it like the Shanghainese word vyau-la—what you said when you wanted to get rid of something. “Vyau-la! Vyau-la!” greeted me everywhere.
My mother took a Chinese name, Lulu Mimi, which sounded like her American one, and her courtesan house was then known as the House of Lulu Mimi. Her Western clients knew it by the English translation of the characters in her name: Hidden Jade Path. There were no other first-class courtesan houses that catered to both Chinese and Western clients, many of whom were among the wealthiest in foreign trade. And thus, she broke taboo rather extravagantly in both worlds.
That house of flowers was my entire world. I had no peers or little American friends. When I was six, Mother enrolled me in Miss Jewell’s Academy for Girls. There were only fourteen pupils, and they were all cruel. Some of their mothers had objected to my presence, and those daughters united all the girls in a plot to expel me. They said I lived in a house of “evil ways,” and that no one should touch me, lest my taint rub off on them. They also told the teacher I cursed all the time, when I had done so only once. But the worst insult came from an older girl with silly ringlets. On my third day, I arrived at school and was walking down the hallway when this girl walked briskly up to me and said within hearing distance of my teacher and the younger class girls: “You spoke Chinee to a Chinee beggar and that makes you Chinee.” I could not bear one more of her insults. I grabbed her ringlets and hung on. She screamed, and a dozen fists pummeled my back and another bloodied my lip and knocked out a tooth that had already been loose. I spit it out, and we all stared for a second at the glistening tusk, and then I clutched my neck for dramatic effect and shrieked, “I’ve been killed!” before collapsing to the floor. One girl fainted, and the ringleader and her pack scampered off with stricken faces. I picked up the tooth—a former living part of me—and the teacher quickly put a knotted kerchief to my face to stanch the blood, then sent me home in a rickshaw with no parting words of comfort. Mother decided on the spot that I would be tutored at home.
Confused, I told her what I had said to the old beggar: “Lao huazi, let me by.” Until she told me that lao huazi was the Chinese word for “beggar,” I had not known I was speaking a hodgepodge of English, Chinese, and the Shanghainese dialect. Then again, why would I know the word beggar in English when I had never seen an American grandpa slumped against a wall, mumbling with a slack mouth so that I might have pity on him? Until I went to school, I had been speaking my peculiar language only in Hidden Jade Path to our four courtesans, their attendants, and the servants. Their syllables of gossip and flirtation, complaints and woe, went into my ear, and came out of my mouth, and in conversations I had with my mother, I had never been told there was anything amiss with my speech. Adding to the mess, Mother also spoke Chinese, and her attendant, Golden Dove, also spoke English.
I remained troubled by the girl’s accusation. I asked Mother if she had spoken Chinese as a child, and she told me that Golden Dove had given her rigorous lessons. I then asked Mother if I spoke Chinese as well as the courtesans did. “In many ways, yours is better,” she said. “More beautifully spoken.” I was alarmed. I asked my new tutor if a Chinese person naturally spoke Chinese better than an American ever could. He said the shapes of the mouth, tongue, and lips of each race were best suited to its particular language, as were the ears that conducted words into the brain. I asked him why he thought I could speak Chinese. He said that I studied well and had exercised my mouth to such a degree that I could move my tongue differently.
I worried for two days, until logic and deduction enabled me to reclaim my race. First of all, I reasoned, Mother was American. Although my father was dead, it was obvious he had been an American, since I had fair skin, brown hair, and green eyes. I wore Western clothing and regular shoes. I had not had my feet crushed and wedged like dumpling dough into a tiny shoe. I was educated, too, and in difficult subjects, such as history and science—“and for no greater purpose than Knowledge Alone,” my tutor had said. Most Chinese girls learned only how to behave.
What’s more, I did not think like a Chinese person—no kowtowing to statues, no smoky incense, and no ghosts. Mother told me: “Ghosts are superstitions, conjured up by a Chinese person’s own fears. The Chinese are a fearful lot and thus they have many superstitions.” I was not fearful. And I did not do everything a certain way just because that was how it had been done for a thousand years. I had Yankee ingenuity and an independent mind; Mother told me that. It was my idea, for example, to give the servants modern forks to use instead of ancient chopsticks. Mother, however, ordered the servants to return the silverware. She said that each tine was more valuable than what a servant might earn in a year, and thus, the servants might be tempted to sell the forks. The Chinese did not hold the same opinion about honesty as we Americans. I agreed. Now if I were Chinese, would I have said that about myself?
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Copyright © 2013 by Amy Tan. Used by permission of HarperCollins