An-mei begins by talking about her daughter, who, despite An-mei’s best efforts, grew into a woman who can’t take action to ensure her own happiness.
An-mei sees her daughter crying over her broken marriage to a psychiatrist, but does nothing to prevent the divorce. Rose, her daughter, doesn’t want to make any choices, but by saying nothing, is making a choice.
An-mei sees the flaws in her daughter because they are An-mei’s flaws as well. An-mei was raised in the traditional Chinese way, desiring nothing and ignoring her own suffering. She sees that somehow Rose turned out this way too.
Then An-mei enters into a flashback.
An-mei is nine-years-old and Popo (her grandmother) has died.
Despite hearing from her aunt that her mother is a bad woman, An-mei only sees a respectful, sad, humble woman.
An-mei cries when she realizes that her mother is going to be leaving again, returning to her second husband and all of his wives in Tientsin.
Her mom tries to calm An-mei with a story about a turtle who swallowed An-mei’s mother’s tears and then turned them into magpies, birds of happiness. She says that your tears won’t keep you from being sad, they only end up feeding someone else’s happiness. The moral of the story is you should swallow your own tears.
The only problem is, An-mei’s mom is crying while telling the story. They both end up crying together.
An-mei wakes up the next morning to the sounds of her uncle shouting at her mother. He doesn’t want to let his sister take her children with her.
An-mei runs to her mother, who gives An-mei the choice of coming to Tientsin.
An-mei decides to go with her mom, despite her aunt and uncle shouting that she’ll be disgraced like her mother if she goes.
Her mother can’t ask An-mei’s brother to come too; she can’t take a son to live at someone else’s house.
An-mei rides for seven days on a train with her mother, getting scared as she realizes how far away she is from the life she’s known. But her mother tells her enticing stories about Tientsin,
Near the end of the trip, An-mei’s mother takes off her white clothes of mourning (mourning for An-mei’s dead father) and puts on Western clothes. She gives An-mei a new, white dress and shoes.
An-mei’s mother tells her that she will be starting a new life, with a new father, sisters, and a brother.
They reach Tientsin and no one is there to meet them so they take a rickshaw home. Her mom has become cross and exhausted. It is clear that her mother is not happy to be home.
Her mother lives as the third concubine (Fourth Wife) of a wealthy merchant named Wu Tsing.
An-mei is amazed by the richness of the house – a curving staircase, huge rooms, lots of Western furniture, and her mother’s luxurious bed.
Yan Chang, An-mei’s mother’s personal servant, explains the house to An-mei.
For the first few days in her new home An-mei is really content. She now realizes that she was completely unhappy in her uncle’s home.
Two weeks after their arrival, more of the family returns.
An-mei sees Wu Tsing be lifted out of a rickshaw. He’s wearing Western clothes, he’s pretty fat, and much older than An-mei’s mother.
Wu Tsing has returned with a fifth wife. Fifth Wife is very young, practically a girl, and reveling in her new status as one of Wu Tsing’s wives.
With Wu Tsing now home, An-mei’s mom mostly keeps to her own rooms.
An-mei has a feeling that something bad is going to happen.
One night, An-mei is woken up by her mother, who asks her to go to Yan Chang’s room for the night – Wu Tsing wants some private time with her mom.
An-mei leaves, crying.
The next morning, it’s obvious that Fifth Wife has been crying too, her face is all puffy. Looks like she’s found out that she’s Fifth Wife not First Wife. But like a little girl, she throws a fit and is rude to everyone.
Later in the day, Fifth Wife is happy again because she has gotten a new dress – probably a gift from Wu Tsing to shut her up.
An-mei sees her mother’s sadness for the first time. Her mother says that her life is shameful and that a fourth wife has no status at all, seemingly even less than the new Fifth Wife.
She wants An-mei to remember that she was once a First Wife, and the wife of a scholar, An-mei’s father.
There’s another problem with being the fourth wife: the word for "fourth" and "die" are very similar and "four" is an unlucky number.
Second and Third Wife return home with their children. Third wife is plain looking, but seems nice.
Second Wife is pretty, but not young, and dressed very fancy. She’s also obviously in charge; An-mei even has to call her "Big Mother."
Second Wife has a two-year-old son, despite her own old-ish age.
An-mei is enchanted when Second Wife gives her a beautiful pearl necklace.
Later that day, An-mei’s mother warns her against Second Wife’s tricks, her ways of buying and controlling people. When she sees that An-mei isn’t listening, she snatches An-mei’s new necklace and crushes one of the beads. The necklace is made of glass, not pearl.
An-mei wears the necklace for a week as punishment. At the end of the week, her mother gives her a beautiful sapphire ring.
First Wife comes home from her separate estate in Peking. To An-mei’s surprise, First Wife is like a ghost and doesn’t make Second Wife bow to her. Overall, First Wife ignores mostly everything around her, choosing to overlook things that might make her unhappy, like her marriage.
An-mei’s mother is excited at the prospect of having her own household estate, which Wu Tsing has promised her.
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.
Second Wife used to be a famous singing girl, and while she wasn’t pretty, she was seductive.
Wu Tsing asked her to be his wife so he could own the object that so many other men desired.
Second Wife quickly learned how to control Wu Tsing; when she wanted more money she would fake a suicide attempt, because no man wants the ghost of one of his wives haunting him.
The only thing Second Wife was unable to get was children – she’s barren. Yet obviously Wu Tsing would want a son.
Second Wife went about finding Wu Tsing a third wife so she could claim the new wife’s sons as her own. This is how Third Wife came about – a virgin, but clearly not a threat to Second Wife because she’s so ugly.
Third Wife bore no sons, so Second Wife needed to come up with a fourth wife – An-mei’s mother.
Yan Chang then tells An-mei about how Second Wife manipulated An-mei’s mother into becoming a concubine.
After An-mei’s father had died, An-mei’s mother went to the Six Harmonies Pagoda to pledge to observe the virtues of Buddhism in honor of her dead husband.
Wu Tsing and Second Wife were also in the area, and Wu Tsing was immediately struck by An-mei’s mother’s beauty.
Second Wife pretended to be nice to An-mei’s mom, and invited her over for dinner, but kept her so late that she had to stay the night.
During the night, Wu Tsing entered the room and raped An-mei’s mother.
No one believed that she was raped, they all preferred to think that she was a widow without honor. She had no choice but to submit to being Wu Tsing’s concubine.
An-mei’s mother later bore Wu Tsing a son, which Second Wife claimed.
Now An-mei sees through all of Second Wife’s manipulations.
An-mei’s mother is denied her own household when Second Wife performs another pretend suicide, making An-mei’s mother feel even more depressed and hopeless.
Two days before the lunar new year, An-mei’s mother commits suicide by taking poison. She dies slowly, and An-mei watches, unable to help.
An-mei’s mother strategically planned her suicide such that the third day after she died, the day when one’s ghost comes back to get even, is the lunar new year.
In order to prevent bad luck from following him all throughout the year, Wu Tsing has to appease the spirit of An-mei’s mother.
Wu Tsing promises to revere An-mei’s mother as if she were First Wife, and to raise An-mei and her brother as his honored children.
Second Wife loses her power.
The flashback ends and An-mei says that her mother had no choice, no control over fate, and no ability to speak for herself. But nowadays, people can control their own destiny. That’s why she wants her daughter to speak up and not swallow her tears.
An-mei says that the people in China no longer have to watch the magpies taunt them.
The peasants of China used to be plagued by magpies which would swarm the crops, eating the seeds and swallowing the peasants’ tears.
But eventually the peasants got sick of the magpies and decided to shout at them and make a lot of noise. The magpies became confused and didn’t land to eat the seeds, but eventually died of starvation.