Searching for One’s Identity: the Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

June 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

The Hundred Secret Senses


The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan is a modern novel that delves into the search for an identity and the tumultuous life that family can bring. Throughout the novel, Olivia Yee Bishop narrates her life with her half-sister Kwan and the tales that she tells. Kwan, believing that she has yin eyes and can see ghosts, often tells Olivia stories of a past life that both women were a part of. While Olivia believes that Kwan’s stories are complete fallacy, time and trying circumstances begin to change her mind. Tan once again creates a brilliant story, one that shows Olivia’s self-exploration and how she finds it in her heart to accept her sister as she is.

Plot Summary:

The novel begins with Olivia Yee Bishop explaining how her relationship with her half-sister Kwan began. Olivia lives in California with her parents and brothers. As her father is dying, he asks her mother for a promise. This is to find his daughter, Kwan, in China and bring her home. No one in the family knew that he had another daughter, so this is a complete shock to them. Out of grief, Olivia’s mother ardently promises to find Kwan. After a long search, they are able to find her and bring her to California. Olivia, only five years old, is afraid that Kwan is going to get all of her mother’s attention and does not want her to live with them. Kwan, on the other hand, is a very open and naïve seventeen year old girl.

Olivia, whom Kwan calls Libby-ah, finds her older sister to be strange and annoying. One road block in their relationship is the fact that Kwan believes herself to have what she calls yin eyes, meaning that she can see and speak to ghosts. Immediately alarmed, Olivia tells the adults about the ghost stories, despite Kwan’s trust that she would keep it a secret. Kwan is soon put into a mental facility and forced to undergo electroshock therapy. After this, she is released and does not talk about ghosts- except to Olivia. The latter is overcome with guilt and does not tell anyone this time. Kwan, despite her period at the facility, does not fault Olivia. In fact, her love continues to grow and she sees them as a real family. She often cares for Olivia like a mother would for her daughter.

As time goes on, Kwan continues to tell stories of a so-called past life. She says that it begins in 1864 and that she is a young one-eyed girl called Nunumu. The village in which she lives becomes somewhat overrun with American foreigners, including General Cape, Yiban, and Miss Banner. Throughout the novel, obvious links between Miss Banner and Olivia are revealed, as well as links between Yiban and Simon. In Kwan’s stories, Miss Banner and Yiban fall in love and are constantly torn apart, but in the end their relationship endures. Olivia first thinks that Kwan is just trying to convince her to stay with Simon, but she slowly begins to believe the tales. In a way, she thinks that she is going crazy but she feels like she remembers what Kwan is talking about.

When Kwan is about forty, she tells Olivia once again how much she misses China. Olivia, feelings guilty for being a bad sister, decides that the two should take a trip there. Wanting to play matchmaker, Kwan arranges for Simon to join them as well. She hopes that this trip will smooth things over and perhaps save the marriage. The three journey to China and end up in Changmian, the village that Kwan grew up in. This village just happens to be the setting of the stories that Kwan tells Olivia. The premise of the trip is an article that Simon and Olivia have applied to write, Olivia being the photographer and Simon jotting down notes along the way.

The trip is interrupted when Kwan’s aunt, Big Ma, is killed in a bus accident. Before the funeral takes place, Simon and Olivia decide to go for a walk to the caves. They wander and wander, and Simon eventually goes off on his own. Olivia waits for him for the ten minutes he promised he would be gone and then goes to search for him. He is missing all night and later Kwan insists on going by herself to search for him in the caves. A few hours later, Simon returns from the opposite direction that Kwan left and Olivia is frantic. She, realizing that she is still in love with him, runs to him hurriedly.

The story jumps to that of two months later. Kwan still has not been found and has been pronounced dead by officials. A search party had been called in, but instead of finding Kwan, they found an “intricate maze of caves” (351). The search for Kwan was all but forgotten in the frenzy created by the newfound discovery. After Big Ma’s funeral, Simon and Olivia go back to California and try to put the past behind them.

Almost two years later, the final chapter begins. Simon and Olivia have a fourteen-month-old baby girl. Her name is Samantha Li, Kwan’s last name which both Olivia and her daughter have taken. They do not live with Simon all of the time, but they are trying to work things out. He comes over on the weekends and they are attempting to learn how to be a family. Olivia remembers Kwan and thinks about her often. She says that Kwan “intended to show [her] the world is not a place but the vastness of the soul” (358). Kwan and Olivia, despite their obvious differences, have influenced each other throughout their time together.

Setting Analysis:

The Hundred Secret Senses moves between California and China throughout the story. The modern part, with the Bishops and Kwan, takes place in California where the three live. The story that Kwan tells, on the other hand, occurs in China in the mid-1800s. This is during the final years of the Taiping Rebellion. During this time, Americans visited Changmian and set up their lives there. Nunumu, otherwise known as Kwan in a past life, and the Hakka people were approached by these missionaries. The missionaries claimed to be God Worshippers and wanted to live there. General Cape, the leader, called the people who lived in Changmian God Worshippers as well. He urged them to join him as soldiers and brought out gifts for the villagers, promising “Great Peace” (34). The Hakka people listened intently, believing that this peace was just around the corner. Eventually, he betrayed them and the people that were left in Changmian after the soldiers departed were stuck with next to nothing and very poor lives.

Without the time period of the Taiping Rebellion, this would not have been able to take place. The villagers would not be so desperate as to believe some foreigner’s empty promises and Nunumu would not be forced to try and save Miss Banner and Yiban. While they were foreigners, Nunumu could see that they did not know the goings on that General Cape had created. They were simply two people in love that wanted a better life for themselves. The setting of Changmian is also important. It is a remote little village that has not seen a lot of action. They are, in effect, a quiet town that functions normally. The arrival of these foreigners turns out to be the downfall of them. This setting is an essential part of the story as a whole.

Flashing forward to modern day Changmian, this setting is equally as important. It is still the same village, but it is also where Kwan grew up. The town, while basically destroyed by the foreigners back during the Taiping Rebellion, is shown to have recovered. It is once again quiet and somewhat insignificant. This location is a crucial part because of the caves. It is where Simon is initially lost and where Kwan disappears. This is the place that the search parties discover caves that the Hakka people may have escaped out of back in the mid to late 1800s.

The setting of Changmian, both in the flashbacks and in modern time, impacted the story greatly. It made Kwan’s stories possible, with Nunumu having to help Miss Banner and Yiban attempt to escape from the traitorous foreigners. This location is also what brought Simon and Olivia closer and what ultimately led to Kwan’s disappearance. While a different setting may not have altered the story completely, Changmian is what really made The Hundred Secret Senses as poignant a novel as it is.

Explain the main characters:

The main characters in The Hundred Secret Senses include Olivia, Kwan, and Simon. Olivia is the narrator who is going through a rough time in her life. Kwan, her older half-sister, is the one to try and change Olivia’s life, believing that fate will fix things. Simon, Olivia’s estranged husband, plays a key role in her journey to self-discovery. These three individuals have an intertwined storyline that develops throughout the novel. As they travel from California to China, all three undergo specific changes that affect themselves and each other.

There is conflict between the main characters, namely Olivia and Simon. The two, once married and in love, are separated and a divorce is pending. Olivia feels that Simon is still pining over his deceased girlfriend, Elza. While he has been open about his past relationship, Olivia cannot help but feel that Elza is everywhere in their life. This may have something to do with Kwan and her stories of ghosts. Simon, not realizing how unhappy Olivia is, continues with life as usual. One day, she tells him how depressed she is feeling with the direction their life is heading and he responds that she is just in a funk. Throughout the novel, the two have disagreements as they attempt to work out their differences. This conflict is, in fact, well on its way to being solved by the end. The two have a daughter and are trying to make things work. Although they do not live together, the events that occur throughout the novel make their relationship stronger.

There are many love relationships throughout this story. There is, of course, Simon and Olivia, as well as Kwan and her husband George. In the flashbacks, or stories that Kwan tells, there are additional love relationships, including Miss Banner and Yiban. This is a tumultuous relationship and parallels that of Olivia and Simon. Throughout the novel, there is some antagonism between characters as well. The first of this is between Olivia and Kwan- completely one-sided, of course. It began when the two first met and Olivia did not like Kwan. This odd relationship continued until the trip to China, where Olivia learned to really appreciate her sister. The antagonism that existed was resolved by the end, but the beginning of their lives as sister was full of that one-sided dislike.

These three main characters have very different personalities. Olivia is a very cynical woman who has become disappointed with where her life is leading. She feels stuck in a way and wishes that she had something more exciting to look forward to. Simon, her husband, is a somewhat oblivious man who pretends that everything is just fine. He, of course, does not see the real issues but is aware that their relationship is not perfect. Finally, Kwan is the most unique of them all. She, while naïve at times, is very optimistic and believes in the power of destiny. Her belief is that Simon and Olivia will end up together and that all will end well. She displays a very distinct personality when compared to the other two main characters.

Olivia, Simon, and Kwan are three very idiosyncratic personalities that complement and change each other. They challenge and console one another. Their relationships, both with each other and with other characters in the novel, add to the plot and make the novel what it is. Olivia slowly discovers herself along a journey that Kwan made possible, helping to save her marriage to Simon and their ultimate happiness. These characters in The Hundred Secret Senses are dissimilar and complex characters that enrich the story.

Thesis Essay:

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan is a thought-provoking novel that explores the journey of love and acceptance. This begins with Kwan and Olivia’s relationship when they first meet. Kwan, a naïve and optimistic girl, is deaf to Olivia’s sarcasm and embarrassment. She continues to tell her of the ghosts that she both sees and speaks to. The dislike in this sisterhood is completely one-sided, with Kwan’s obvious love for Olivia from the start. She takes on the role of her mother, as Olivia’s real mother is not always there for her. While she treated Olivia with nothing but love, what she received was the opposite. Olivia was mean to her and often ignored her. When she did not know what a word was, Olivia would tell her the wrong one. For example, Kwan once wanted to know the word for pear, not knowing how to say it. Her sister told her that the word for it was barf. This was only the beginning, as the two had just met shortly before this. Olivia was still a young child in school and often embarrassed by Kwan.

When the two are adults, their relationship has not changed much. Olivia talked to Kwan on the phone out of duty and attended parties as if they were mandatory. When talking about her sister, she says, “I’m not saying I don’t love Kwan…. But I often feel bad that I don’t want to be close to her” (21). She obviously wishes that she wanted to be closer to her sister but cannot find it in her heart. Olivia thinks of her relationship with Kwan as a mere requirement, but this begins to change after she and Simon break up. When thinking about Kwan and their past together, she says:

I think about Kwan, how misplaced her love for me is. I never go out of my way to do anything for her unless it’s motivated by emotional coercion on her part and guilt on mine… I never take any pleasure in simply being nice to her… I’m no better than my mother! – careless about love. I can’t believe how oblivious I’ve been to my own cruelty. (154)

This is where Olivia begins to realize that she has not treated Kwan as kindly as she should have. Kwan has been nothing but nice to her and loved her as a sister. Shortly after this revelation, she speaks to Kwan on the phone, which brings up the idea of a trip to China.

During their trip, Olivia begins to really appreciate Kwan for all that she is and does. She sees that she has been unfair throughout their time together. While she did not always believe the ghost stories, and usually thought Kwan to be insane, she is starting to believe them. Olivia remembers dreams about what Kwan talks about, but now she cannot remember if they are dreams. When Kwan talks about Miss Banner and Nunumu and their friendship, Olivia feels as though she went through the same things. The stories begin to mean more to her and she realizes that even if they aren’t true, the parallelism to their sisterhood is still there. Throughout their journey and the novel as a whole, Olivia grows to appreciate and accept Kwan.

The theme of love and acceptance is also shown through Olivia and Simon’s relationship. At the beginning, she accepted his past with his girlfriend Elza. She realized that they had to move on in order for things to work. Of course, the faults in their marriage are seen throughout their fights and the impending divorce. The one fight that is really focused on is the one where Olivia explains what is really bothering her. She feels like they are trapped and going nowhere fast, saying, “I can see where we’re headed. I don’t want to become like those people we saw in the restaurant tonight- staring at their pasta, nothing to say to each other except, ‘How’s the linguini?’ As it is, we never talk, not really” (127). This is what really shakes up their marriage and ultimately leads to the divorce becoming a possibility. Simon was oblivious to what Olivia was feeling and actually believed that she was happy. While he did not ignore her unhappiness on purpose, she definitely felt that he was patronizing her and telling her that she was just in a funk.

What really brings these two together is the trip to China and the adventures that they go on while there. During this journey, Olivia and Simon talk out their differences in another attempt to work things out. Right before Simon became lost in the caves, they were discussing what went wrong. It is obvious that both had some desire to make things work. While Olivia had been putting up a façade of being one hundred percent okay, it is revealed throughout this trip that she is not fine. After returning to California, they attempt to make their relationship work. They now have a daughter and Simon sleeps over on the weekends. Things have not returned to normal yet, but Kwan has shown Olivia how to be open to things. She has realized that people change and that she should give Simon a chance. Olivia has accepted Simon and their relationship as it is and has become dedicated to becoming a family together.

This novel shows many instances of love and approval throughout the story. These characters have learned to adapt and accept one another. Olivia is the character who can be seen changing in this way during the trip to China and her life with Kwan and Simon. Kwan taught her how to be a better person and how to live openly. Now she remembers Kwan fondly, wishing that she had more time with her. Kwan taught her that “believing in ghosts- that’s believing that love never dies. If people we love die, then they are lost only to our ordinary senses. If we remember, we can find them anytime with our hundred secret senses” (358). The theme of love and acceptance, while only one of many messages shown in this novel, is expressed beautifully throughout Olivia’s journey in finding herself. She learned to accept not only those around her, but also herself. Amy Tan creates a fantastic picture of self-exploration and acceptance in The Hundred Secret Senses.


Amy Tan’s The Hundred Secret Senses is a beautiful novel that explores the trials of relationships, both with family members and significant others. The characters that she has created are both realistic and utterly human. They are all completely different yet somehow linked to each other. Tan’s style adds to the story, making it her own and showing how one person can change the people around them. The story of Olivia, Kwan, and Simon, while not the typical story of family, is one that pushes the boundaries of the norm and shows how people change. People can learn to open their hearts and to accept others as well as they can. The Hundred Secret Senses is a moving novel that will be remembered as a story of self-exploration and a reminder that things are not always as they seem.

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