Valley of Amazement 

The Valley of Amazement

Spanning fifty years and two continents, The Valley of Amazement is a tale of three women, connected by personal rebellion, betrayal, and a mysterious painting called "The Valley of Amazement."  As with all of Tan's novels, we are swept into the pivotal moments of Shanghai's history and the emotional turmoil of mothers and daughters, heritage and individuality, race and culture, ​and the damaging residue of secrets that lead to misunderstanding upon misunderstanding, from one generation to the next.  Lulu, Violet, and Flora, each of a different racial mix and status, must question what is fated from birth, where they belong, and what they can still change.

The story opens in 1905, in a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai, Hidden Jade Path, run by Lulu Minturn, an American woman with Yankee ingenuity and an unknown past. Her daughter, Violet, is unaware of the identity of her father, until she is left behind in Shanghai during the exodus of Americans when the Qing Dynasty falls. Sold into a courtesan house of low repute, fourteen-year-old Violet is groomed as the "virgin courtesan," a fate she resists, until she meets an older courtesan, Magic Gourd, who counsels her on the stupidity of clinging to American pride. She teaches her errant student how to survive and secure her future with business cunning and a practical assortment of tricks of the trade.  In the world of flowers, Violet matches illusions to each man's romantic sense of himself, while avoiding the greatest peril a courtesan faces: believing that the illusion of love she has created is real.

For the next two decades, Violet takes us on a careening journey steered by self-will, reckless desires, and clear-eyed resolve. That pursuit takes us into the boudoirs of courtesan houses and the homes of Western sojourners and opportunists, who have made the International Settlement in Shanghai their fiefdom during the boom years of foreign trade.  An older, more resigned Violet leaves Shanghai for a valley that lies in the shadows of five impassable ​mountains.  Across an ocean, in San Francisco, Lulu reflects on impetuous decisions that led to tragedy.  She recalls her lonely girlhood, the shocking behavior of her father, and the moment she first saw the painting of "The Valley of Amazement"--as well as its beguiling painter​.  A long-awaited letter, passed from hand to hand, finally reaches Lulu and she goes to the bucolic Hudson River Valley, the inspiration for the painting, and also where lies and truth can finally be unearthed.

  Ultimately, this is a story of the many hard facets of love that underlie fragile hope and the near impossibility of forgiveness--territory that Tan hones with
characteristic humor, insight, and poignant truth.


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My mother’s mother was regaled as old-fashioned, traditional, and quiet, a woman of few words,  who married late at age 24 and was widowed early, by the time she was 30.  According to one side of the family, our grandmother, a chaste widow, was later  raped and forced to become a concubine, a fate that led to her suicide within a year of her being taken to an island.  Other family members believe that she had willingly joined the household of a man name Tu, who was renowned and admired on the island as a benefactor who built the roads, schools, hospitals, and water system. He would eventually have a total of seven wives, many of whom were in their teens when they joined the household.  When one of them wanted to leave to go to school, he paid for her schooling.  How could a man like that be accused of rape?  Both sides of the family agree that our grandmother, age 36, was his favorite.  One elderly relative who lived in that house as a young child recalled gossip that our grandmother had a fierce temper.  If you tried to exert your own opinion -- "you got scared."  That was the temper my mother inherited.  

Whatever the case, the photos that clearly proved that parts of the family history were inaccurate.  My grandmother was not old-fashioned. She wore daring fashions. She was not traditional.  She went to a Western photo studio.  I imagined 



A few years ago, I went with my family to the Asian Art Museum to see an exhibit on Shanghai, the city where generations of my mother’s family had lived.   About a third of the way through the exhibit, we came upon an  illustration of women leaning over a balcony to view the city. The docent explained that they were courtesans, a class of women who had been quite influential in introducing Western popular culture to Shanghai.

Having had a strong Shanghainese mother, I’ve always been intrigued by the influential women of generations before. I bought an academic book in the museum shop on courtesan culture.   A few days later, while leafing through the pages, I came across a photo of ten women, which stunned me.  Five of the young women are dressed in the same clothes my grandmother is wearing in one of my favorite photographs of her.  In fact, it is identical in every detail:  a headband with intricate embroidery, a tight-fitting jacket with a tall fur-lined collar, sleeves that end just below the elbows with the white lining reaching to the wrists, complete with matching tight trousers.  The caption says: “The Ten Beauties of Shanghai.” They were courtesans who had won a popularity contest 1910, having been nominated by their clients. I was stunned.  The fashion details were specific to courtesans, I read, and no women other than courtesans went to Western photo studios.  My grandmother‘s photo had been taken in just such a place.  


I went searching in our family photo albums for other pictures. There were several tiny postage-sized ones I had glanced at over the years.   They were of my grandmother, but they had not seemed that special at the time.  I took out a magnifying glass and saw with new eyes.  One showed her as a young girl, wearing a radical hairstyle, tight-fitting dress, slightly Western in fashion.  Her hand is on her hip, and her face looks as if she is trying to keep from laughing.  In another, she is older and her expression is daring, nearly scowling. Her arms are akimbo, hand on hip, hand on chin.  There were others, all taken at different ages and in Western photo studios. 

I was shocked, baffled, filled with wonderment, and the excitement of a writer who has stumbled upon a mystery with the possibility of discovering new truth. The ancestors on both sides of our family have always been viewed as models of virtue, patriotism, and servitude to family, God, and or country. According to family history, my mother's father may have helped in the 1911 revolution to overthrow the Qing dynasty. My father's mother may have sewn a flag for Sun Yat-Sen during the establishment of the new Republic.  My mother’s side of the family originally came from Suzhou and may have been well to do.  It is not certain what they did or whether they were still rich whesn they migrated to Shanghai in the 1850s. However, according to family history, all the women in our family had  been virtuous.  


various reasons she might have had these photos taken. For instance, she might have been a rebellious girl, like teenagers throughout the ages, who enjoyed wearing the scandalous clothing of popular icons--and in those days courtesans were like today's rock stars. Perhaps the studios catered to school girls and had costumes available, those of empresses, heroines  in popular novels -- or even courtesans.  The fact that she wore these clothes was no more indicative that she was courtesan than my being a dominatrix simply because I wore the costume of one for my performances in an all-author rock band that raised money for charity. 

I then did the unthinkable: I contemplated the possibility that she might have indeed been a courtesan. But what circumstances would have brought her to the flower world?  The stories of courtesans are often tragic and include kidnapping, or being sold by poor families, or joining the business when the family fortunes fell.  She was adored by her parents, and by one of my cousins' account, the family was wealthy, so there was absolutely no reason she would have debased herself.  that cousin was furious that I would even suggest in the slightest that our grandmother would have been a prostitute.  Our grandmother suffered terribly and was our moral pillar. I had besmirched her. 



valley of amazement

Without my cousin's scolding, I had already felt that I had committed blasphemy by even thinking privately about the possibility. My grandmother was my heroine, my muse and inspiration. I feared her famous temper would be directed to me and she would leave my imagination. 

​ ​Yet I remained obsessed with the mystery of the photographs. I abandoned the book I had been working on and began a story about a courtesan, but clearly unlike my grandmother in background, circumstances, and appearance. In fact, she was half Chinese, half American, her mind caught in the turbulence and eddies of both. Like mine. And so the story latched onto me, for everything I write is based on a personal obsession, an examination of some refracted aspects of myself--my ambivalence, my intentions, my beliefs and my contradictions in what I believe. The story is not about me, but those questions about myself are always there. I can take those questions and drape them with imaginary circumstances. I can also think about those who influenced me, my mother, my grandmother. What circumstances shaped my grandmother’s life, her attitudes, her beliefs, her habits?   What did she pass on to my mother and which of those did my mother pass along to me?  What do I know of myself that may have descended from a rebellious teen or a victimized widow?  In me is a partial answer to who she was.  If I sit at a desk long enough, I can see a bit more of her and myself.  




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