The opening parable of the fourth section depicts the woman of the first three parables as she plays with a baby granddaughter. She laments that she does not know whether to teach her granddaughter to shed her innocence in order to protect herself from emotional injury or to preserve her granddaughter’s optimism and faith in human goodness. The woman regrets having taught her daughter (the baby’s mother) to recognize the evil in people, because she suspects that to recognize evil in others is to yield to the evil in oneself. The baby begins to laugh, and the woman takes her laugh as a sign of wisdom. The baby, the woman says, is really the “Queen Mother of the Western Skies,” who has lived many times and has come back to answer the woman’s questions about evil. The woman tells her granddaughter that she has learned her lesson: one must lose one’s innocence but not one’s hope; one must never stop laughing. The woman tells the baby to teach her mother the same lesson.
In this final section of the novel, the mothers again resume their narratives. An-mei Hsu tells the first story. She begins by brooding on her daughter Rose’s decaying marriage. She remarks that although Rose believes she has run out of choices, Rose is in fact making a distinct choice in refusing to speak up for herself. An-mei knows this, she says, because she was taught to desire nothing, to absorb other people’s misery, to suppress her own pain. She received her first lesson in such passive stoicism when she was a young girl living at her uncle’s house in Ningpo. An-mei’s mother came and cut her own flesh for her mother, Popo, who was dying (see the story “Scar”).
After Popo’s death, An-mei’s mother prepared to leave, and An-mei began to cry. Her mother told her that once, when she was a girl, she had sat crying by the pond when a turtle surfaced, swallowing her teardrops as they touched the water. The turtle then said that he had eaten her tears and therefore knew her misery. He warned her that if she continued to cry, her life would always be sad. He spat out the tears in the form of tiny eggs, which cracked open to reveal seven fluttering magpies, birds of joy. The turtle said that whenever one cries, one is not washing away one’s sorrows but feeding another’s joy. For this reason, one must learn to swallow one’s own tears.
An-mei’s mother wanted to take An-mei with her. An-mei’s uncle told her she would ruin her daughter’s life as she had ruined her own. An-mei, defying the angry exhortations of her aunt and uncle, decided to leave with her mother. They allowed her to go, but her uncle deemed her “finished.” An-mei’s one deep regret was that her brother could not come along. Mother and daughter traveled to Tientsin, where An-mei’s mother had lived for the past five years in the household of a rich merchant named Wu Tsing. She lived with him as his third concubine, or “fourth wife.” The house was a huge Western-style mansion, full of luxuries and amusements, including a European cuckoo clock. An-mei lived in glorious happiness for a few weeks, until Wu Tsing returned home from his travels accompanied by a young and beautiful fifth wife, who replaced An-mei’s mother as the latest concubine. An-mei’s mother became depressed at her sudden decline in status and dignity.
Soon the winter came, and Wu Tsing’s second and third wives returned to Tientsin from their summer homes. Second Wife, an expensively dressed, older woman of forty-five, appeared especially intimidating to An-mei. Although she seemed a bit too old to still have young children, she carried in her arms a two-year-old son, Syaudi. Upon first meeting An-mei, Second Wife gave her a pearl necklace. An-mei felt honored by the attention, but her mother warned her not to be manipulated by Second Wife. Later, An-mei’s mother crushed one “pearl” of the necklace under her shoe, proving to An-mei that it was made of mere glass. Afterward, An-mei’s mother gave her a sapphire ring.
Yan Chang, the servant of An-mei’s mother, explained to An-mei that Wu Tsing’s original wife, known as First Wife, bore children with physical deformities or large birthmarks, thus failing to produce a suitable heir. She took many pilgrimages to honor Buddha, hoping to rectify her misfortune with a perfect child. Yet she had no more children. Wu Tsing gave her money for her own household. Twice a year, she visited his house, but she remained in her bedroom smoking opium. One day An-mei’s mother informed her that Wu Tsing had arranged for them soon to have their own household as well.