Summary: Effortless

LuLing and Kai Jing meet in secret to kiss and touch each other. They make plans to marry, but these plans are interrupted by the news that Japanese soldiers have begun to invade China. On the morning the orphanage receives this news and tries to make sense of what will happen next, LuLing is astonished to see GaoLing arrive. GaoLing explains that she now lives in Peking with her husband, Fu Nan Chang. The family fortunes have gotten even worse, especially now that many of the sons have gone off to support military efforts. GaoLing snuck away from her husband and is in no hurry to return. Eventually, with the help of one of the nuns who runs the orphanage, GaoLing concocts a plan to lead her husband to believe that she has been arrested, and she is then free to stay at the orphanage.

A few months later, LuLing and Kai Jing get married. The day is a mixture of happiness and fearfulness, since the threat of the Japanese invasion grows every day. LuLing and Kai Jing continue to work at the orphanage, with LuLing enjoying a close relationship with her father-in-law. However, after only a few months of happy marriage, Kai Jing and several of the other scientists are arrested by Chinese soldiers over their failure to enlist in the army. Eventually, the Japanese seize control of the area. This briefly allows Kai Jing and the others to return to the orphanage, but the next day, the Japanese come and arrest them again, convinced that they will be able to share the location of where the Chinese troops have fled. Kai Jing, along with others, is questioned and then executed.

Summary: Character

LuLing mourns for Kai Jing, believing that her life no longer has any purpose. Eventually, the United States declares war on Japan, and Miss Grutoff is arrested as a prisoner of war. Before she leaves, she reveals that she has left money and instructions for how to evacuate the orphans to safe houses in Peking. Showing bravery and ingenuity, LuLing evacuates her group of orphans. Once they settle into new lives, GaoLing and LuLing move into some rooms in the back of the old ink shop, along with LuLing’s father-in-law and one of the teachers from the school. The Chang family tolerates them living there because they implement several ideas that improve sales. Unfortunately, after the war ends, GaoLing’s husband returns to claim her. He also announces that he has sold the ink shop. The others are resigned to finding somewhere else to live, but GaoLing refuses to give up her family business. Before a conclusion can be reached, they learn that Miss Grutoff has been released from the prisoner of war camp and is now very ill. They rush to see her and learn that she is planning to return to the United States for medical treatment. There is an opportunity for one person to accompany her as her caregiver.

The group discusses who should go with Miss Grutoff, knowing that the chance to immigrate is a huge opportunity. LuLing is eager to go but puts on a pretense of being unwilling to leave GaoLing, but GaoLing agrees to go. The plan is that once she is in the U.S., she will sponsor LuLing to come be with her. In the meantime, LuLing will move to Hong Kong to wait. Teacher Pan will stay in Peking since he is considering remarrying. The group has a party to celebrate, imagining reuniting someday in the U.S.

Summary: Fragrance

LuLing moves to Hong Kong, where she stays in a shabby rooming house. After a few months, she receives a letter from GaoLing with updates. Unfortunately, Miss Grutoff died almost as soon as they reached the United States, and GaoLing learns that it will not be easy for her to sponsor LuLing. She works as a house cleaner and does not earn much money, and her family in China pressures her to send money home. GaoLing thinks her best chance is to find an American husband, and she is prepared to hide the fact that she is already married. LuLing is crushed and decides to return to Peking, but she learns that the train fare is now more than she can afford. She contemplates selling the bone, and when she takes it to several shops, she realizes that the bone is very valuable. She decides that she will not sell it and will instead work until she saves up enough money to pay for her train ticket.

LuLing moves into the cheapest accommodations she can find in Hong Kong and gets a job as a maid. She works in the home of two British women, Miss Patsy and Lady Ina. During the two years she works for them, LuLing learns English. GaoLing’s letters mostly focus on how difficult her life in the U.S. is, but one day, she reports that she has met two brothers and thinks they might make good husbands for her and LuLing. As LuLing thinks about this possibility, she runs into Fu Nan Chang, who demands to know where his wife is. LuLing defiantly shares that GaoLing has gone to America but becomes alarmed when Fu Nan threatens to find her and tell people that she is already married. LuLing begins to pay off Fu Nan until she receives a letter from GaoLing saying that she has procured a visa for LuLing, and the Young brothers are interested in meeting her. Relieved, LuLing sells the bone and uses this money, along with her savings, to pay for her voyage to California.

Analysis: Part Two: Effortless–Fragrance

As LuLing grows older, economic and historical realities become more important influences in her life. In 1937, war broke out between Japan and China and would rage on until 1945, eventually becoming subsumed into the wider global conflict of World War II. Much like the events around the discovery of the Peking Man, Tan only represents these events through the limited perspective of LuLing, who is not particularly politically savvy or interested in global affairs. However, these events affected the lives of everyone, even sheltered civilians. LuLing’s life in the orphanage, which is American-run, provides her with some additional protection, but it cannot keep her young husband safe. Once the United States declares war on Japan in December 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Americans at the orphanage automatically become prisoners of war. Both during the war, and after it ends, LuLing also has to contend with economic consequences and how difficult the war makes it for her to earn a living and plan for her future.

LuLing’s experience of romantic love is quickly followed by loss. She and Kai Jing build a relationship based on mutual love, desire, and respect. Even though she is young, LuLing feels a sense of agency and choice at a time when many marriages were arranged based on social and economic considerations. LuLing follows in her mother’s footsteps by being empowered to marry the man of her choosing and feels genuine enthusiasm and desire for this relationship. LuLing learns that GaoLing married the man she had been intended for, and GaoLing has become trapped in an unhappy cycle of abuse. This news confirms that Precious Auntie was right all along and was able to effectively protect her daughter from marrying into the Chang family, even though it cost her life to do so. However, while LuLing enjoys a brief period of happiness, it is quickly followed by loss, which foreshadows the death of her second husband as well. Knowing this tragic chapter of her history makes it more obvious why LuLing subsequently finds it difficult to open her heart and be emotionally intimate with others.

The surprising intersection of LuLing and GaoLing’s adult lives suggests that GaoLing is a more complex character than originally shown. At first, GaoLing seemed like a docile and traditional foil to LuLing. However, she shows true loyalty and a mind of her own because she stands up for her “sister” even when no one else does. She shows herself to be resourceful and clever through her efforts to track down LuLing, even though it takes her years. GaoLing ends up in an unhappy marriage, but she does not passively accept her fate. She relies on her intelligence and a community of female allies to outwit her husband and live independently. In a parallel to LuLing, GaoLing finds ways to make her life better. This similarity between the two women helps to explain why they retain a lifelong bond. It also shows that under harsh and sometimes repressive conditions, women will still find ways to thrive.

The opportunity to immigrate to California represents a new horizon of hope for both GaoLing and LuLing. By this point, China has little to offer them. The loss of the Liu family’s control over its business limits their economic opportunities and, at this time, they would be limited in the careers they could establish as unmarried women anyway. LuLing associates China with grief and the losses of her mother and her husband. GaoLing knows that if she stays, she will always be at risk of Fu Nan Chang finding and reclaiming her. Both women would have more uncertain futures, but greater possibilities, if they moved to a new country. Although they have endured a lot of suffering already, they retain some youthful optimism and innocence in terms of what they imagine America will be like.

The decision regarding which of them will go to America first reveals the mixture of loyalty and opportunism in GaoLing’s character. She is sincere in her promise to bring LuLing to America, and she stays faithful to this commitment even though it requires years of waiting and hard work. However, GaoLing is more assertive and less committed to displays of politeness. She seizes the opportunity to be the first one to travel to California. Her boldness might reflect that she does not feel the same shame and self-loathing as LuLing does. Because LuLing is so traumatized by what happened with Precious Auntie, she tends to be more accepting of suffering, and even feels that she deserves it. GaoLing, however, is always looking for ways to improve her situation and make her life as good as possible, whether it is by escaping her husband or moving to a new country.

LuLing’s life while she waits to immigrate is a period of hard work and isolation but also a time when the true values of her character emerge. As a teenager, LuLing had been annoyed by Precious Auntie’s refusal to sell the oracle bone, but now she displays that same integrity and loyalty to her family’s heritage. With so many connections to her past and her mother lost, the bone has taken on more value in her eyes. LuLing is no longer a spoiled and lazy girl, and she would choose years of hard work if it would allow her to live according to her values. However, LuLing is also not so rigid that she cannot compromise when necessary. She does eventually sell the bone to pay for her passage to join GaoLing. With the prospect of a new life ahead of her, LuLing decides to try and let her past go.