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Young An-mei lives with her uncle, auntie, grandmother (Popo), and little brother.
Popo tells An-mei that her mother is a ghost, meaning that An-mei is forbidden from talking about her mother.
In 1923, when An-mei is nine-years-old, her grandmother is very ill.
An-mei learns that her mother is now the concubine of a rich man who already has a wife and two other concubines.
An-mei’s relatives look down on her mother, viewing her as a traitor to An-mei’s dead father, a woman with no honor who brings shame to the family.
An-mei’s mother arrives one day to tend to her sick mother.
An-mei’s mother brushes her daughter’s hair, whispering, "you know me." And then she rubs the scar on her daughter’s neck, leading An-mei into a flashback.
In the flashback, An-mei is four-years-old and her mother is trying to take her away.
In the scuffle, a large pot of boiling soup falls on An-mei.
An-mei’s grandmother nurses her back to health and the scar heals.
That flashback ends and we are back to Popo being sick and An-mei’s mother nursing her.
As Popo grows steadily worse, An-mei’s mother cooks a soup and then adds a piece of meat from her own arm – an ancient remedy that fails to work in this case.
Seeing from the soup-remedy how a faithful daughter honors her mother, An-mei learns to love her own mother.
In one of Rose’s flashbacks to her childhood we see the following:
An-mei goes off to America and bears seven children.
She carries everywhere with her a small white leatherette Bible as proof of her devotion.
When her daughter, Rose, is fourteen, the entire family goes to the beach.
An-mei’s youngest child, Bing, falls into the sea.
When the rescue people can’t find Bing, An-mei returns the next morning with Rose.
An-mei begs God for the return of her son. She also begs the Coiling Dragon who lives in the sea, offering sweet tea to cool his temper, and her ring of watery sapphire (from her mom – we see that ring later in the book! It means something!) to distract him from Bing.
After some time, An-mei gives up.
Rose’s flashback ends.
In one of An-mei’s flashbacks to when she was nine-years-old, her mother comes and takes her away to Tienstsin.
When they arrive, it is clear that her mother is not happy to be home.
Her mother lives as the third concubine (Fourth Wife) of a wealthy man named Wu Tsing.
An-mei is amazed by the richness of the house.
Yan Chang, the personal servant of An-mei’s mother, explains the house to An-mei.
It is clear that An-mei’s mother is not happy.
Two weeks after their arrival, the rest of the family arrives, and Second Wife gives An-mei a beautiful pearl necklace. An-mei is in raptures.
Later that evening, An-mei’s mother warns An-mei against Second Wife’s tricks. When she can tell that An-mei is not listening, she snatches the necklace and crushes one of the beads. The necklace is made of glass.
An-mei wears the necklace for a week as punishment. At the end of the week, her mother gives her a beautiful sapphire ring.
During the coldest winter month, when it is too cold to go outside, An-mei sits with Yan Chang and hears stories about Second Wife, who controls the Wu Tsing by doing a number of pretend-suicides.
An-mei hears how Second Wife manipulated An-mei’s mother into becoming a concubine. An-mei’s mother later bore Wu Tsing a son, which Second Wife claimed as her own.
Two days before the lunar new year, An-mei’s mother commits suicide in order to give her children a better life.
Wu Tsing, who is afraid of dead, angry wives haunting him, promises to revere An-mei’s mother as a first wife, and to raise An-mei and her brother as his honored children.
Second Wife loses her power.
An-mei says that her mother had no choice, no control over fate. But nowadays, women can control their own destiny.