Lindo Jong begins her narrative by talking about promises. She says that she sacrificed her life to keep her parents’ promise, but her own daughter doesn’t have the same understanding of what it means to keep your word.
Lindo no longer worries about her daughter (it’s too late), but focuses her energy on her granddaughter. She worries that her granddaughter will forget about her.
We enter into a flashback.
Lindo is two-years-old and a matchmaker comes to her house to arrange a match between Lindo and Huang Taitai’s one-year old son.
Unlike in the cities where men could choose their wives, the rationale for this match is based on old-fashioned, rural ideas about Lindo being an "earth horse" and whether Lindo will be a dutiful daughter to Huang Taitai (her future mother-in-law).
After the contract is signed, Lindo’s parents stop treating her as their daughter, but as Huang Taitai’s daughter.
Lindo continues living with her parents, and meets her future husband for the first time when she's about nine-years-old. He’s a spoiled crybaby who continues to sit on his grandma’s lap despite being eight year old. (He’s probably crushing the poor woman.)
Lindo continues to see the Huang family during festivals and learns to be polite to her future mother-in-law, even calling Huang Taitai "Mother."
When Lindo is twelve, a flood destroys most of her family’s property, leaving them essentially bankrupt.
The entire family moves to Wushi, leaving Lindo behind to join the Huang household.
Her mother tells her not to disgrace the family, and gives her a beautiful pendant called a chang. She also reminds Lindo what a lucky girl she is.
When Lindo arrives at the Huang house, she’s immediately put in her place. There’s no welcome of any sort. Huang Taitai pushes her straight to the kitchen – the realm of servants and cooks.
When she sees Tyan-yu (her future husband), he acts like a little jerk (or "a big warlord" in Lindo’s words). The punk is still shorter than Lindo but makes every effort to bully her and make her cry. Awesome future husband.
Lindo is treated badly, but even though she can’t trick herself into thinking she’s happy, she remains determined to honor her family.
She learns to cook, clean, and embroider to suit the exacting standards of Huang Taitai, who never does any work herself.
Lindo learns to treat Tyan-yu as a god and his mother as her real mother.
When Lindo turns sixteen, Huang Taitai makes preparations for Tyan-yu and Lindo to be married.
Huang Taitai prepares an elaborate wedding, but the week before the wedding, Japanese soldiers begin invading the region.
On the day of the wedding, there’s a thunder and lightening storm. People mistake the bad weather for Japanese bombs and decide not to leave their homes for the wedding. There are very few guests.
Before her wedding, Lindo cries over her bad luck and the promise she made to her parents.
Lindo watches the wildness of the rainstorm and contemplates the wind – although it's invisible, it's powerful.
She vows never to forget herself, her value, and her inner, genuine thoughts. This is a moment that most New Age-y LA women would call "finding yourself."
During the ceremony, a candle with two ends is lighted. It's supposed to burn continuously throughout the night, symbolizing a marriage that can never be broken. Even if Tyan-yu died, the marriage bond would still hold so Lindo would never be able to re-marry.
The candle is supposed to seal Lindo to the Huang family forever.
After the marriage ceremony, the guests push the newlyweds up to their bedroom.
Once the guests leave, Tyan-yu throws Lindo out of his bed, instructing her to sleep on the sofa.
Lindo isn’t really disappointed. After all, Tyan-yu is more of a bossy mama’s boy than a hunk.
Lindo goes out to the courtyard where she can see a servant looking after the marriage candle. The servant is supposed to ensure that the candle never goes out.
The servant is scared by loud thunder and runs away. Lindo creeps up and blows out one end of the candle. Clever girl. She’s taking some action to change her fate.
In the morning, the matchmaker declares that the match is good – the candle didn’t go out. But the servant who was supposed to be watching the candle looks guilty – she probably relit the candle after Lindo went back to bed.
Lindo and Tyan-yu never consummate their marriage, but Lindo remains an obedient wife.
Huang Taitai finally gets mad that she doesn’t have any grandchildren yet. Tyan-yu points the finger at Lindo, telling his mom that his wife refuses to sleep with him.
In order to avoid Huang Taitai wrath, Lindo gets daring and creeps into bed with Tyan-yu. She’s practically throwing herself at her husband.
Tyan-yu refuses to touch her, even when she gets naked.
Lindo speculates that he’s like a little boy that never grew up, and begins to love him as a younger brother who needs protection.
Huang Taitai gets super frustrated that Lindo still isn’t pregnant.
Huang Taitai is sure this is all Lindo’s fault because Tyan-yu has told mama that "he’s planted enough seeds for thousands of grandchildren."
Huang Taitai confines Lindo to bed rest. She follows all sorts of superstitions to make Lindo fertile, like removing all the scissors and knives from Lindo’s bedroom.
Four times a day, a nice servant girl feeds Lindo some awful medicine.
Lindo watches the servant girl enviously, watching her go about her chores and flirt with a cute delivery man.
After the bed rest goes on for a while with no results, Huang Taitai consults the matchmaker, who argues that Lindo is too balanced in all the elements. Huang Taitai is more than happy to reclaim all of Lindo’s jewelry and liberate the girl from her metal element.
But instead of making Lindo pregnant, getting rid of metal has the effect of lightening up Lindo and making her start to think independently. She plots a way to escape her marriage without breaking her promise to her parents.
She waits for a lucky day—the Festival of Pure Brightness, a day for honoring your ancestors when Huang Taitai is sure to be thinking of grandsons.
Lindo "wakes up" wailing and tells Huang Taitai about a (made up) dream in which Tyan-yu’s grandfather came to her to inform her that a) the marriage candle blew out; b) Tyan-yu will die if he stays married to Lindo; and c) that a pregnant servant girl is really of imperial blood, is Tyan-yu’s true wife, and is carrying Tyan-yu’s baby. (The servant girl is actually carrying the cute delivery man’s baby.)
Lindo manages to convince Huang Taitai by arguing that the marriage is rotten, offering as proof an empty spot in her mouth where a tooth fell out, and a mole on Tyan-yu’s back.
The evidence is indisputable. Without much urging, the servant girl admits that she’s of imperial blood and carrying Tyan-yu’s child.
Everyone winds up happy: Huang Taitai gets a grandson, Tyan-yu doesn’t have to have sex with anyone, and the servant girl is a respectable, wealthy wife instead of a poor single mom. As for Lindo, she gets enough money to go to America.
Well, that’s the end of the flashback of Lindo’s life.
Back in the current time, Lindo wears many twenty-four carat gold bracelets to remind her of her worth.
Once a year, however, on the Festival of Pure Brightness, she takes off all her bracelets to feel the lightness come back into her body and remind herself of the day she learned to follow her inner, genuine thoughts.