The novel's main narrator. Winnie Louie is a woman who has suffered a great deal in her life. A Chinese immigrant to America, Winnie, known in China as Weili, lost her mother at a very young age and entered into an abusive marriage. Her suffering has made her sometimes cynical and always strong. She is a combination of pessimist and optimist that has lived her life trying to keep the past out of her present.
Winnie's daughter. Pearl is the child of Chinese immigrants and is a person who is caught between her American self and her Chinese ancestry and parents. She is married to an American man and feels more American than she does Chinese. She, like her mother, harbor's secrets, and she has not told her mother, when the novel opens, about her multiple sclerosis.
Pearl's husband. Phil is a regular American "guy." He is a good father and husband but often finds himself out of place among Pearl's Chinese family.
Helen's Aunt, Auntie Du is one of the most self-giving characters in the novel. She loves Winnie very much and is always helping in one way or another. She is kind and sincere, always shedding light and truth on situations.
Winnie's best friend, Helen is stubborn and also strong. She had grown up in poverty and married into a higher class, survived the war, and, with Winnie's help, had immigrated to America. She has a selective memory, is an optimist, and is always trying to repair situations.
Helen's first husband. Jiaguo was a good man who had done a serious wrong in his life. He marries Helen out of guilt for having wronged her sister, but the two turn out to have a good marriage. Jiaguo has a high rank in the air force but is humble. He forgives easily and is also easily swayed by his wife.
Helen's second husband. Henry loves his wife very much, and it is important for him to look good and strong in front of her. He is not as he seems, however, and is, in some ways weak, as is illustrated by the fact that he takes credit for Auntie Du's work in getting Winnie out of prison. Nevertheless, he is a good man.
Winnie's mother. She disappears from the novel early on, and yet she plays a central role since she mysteriously disappeared from Winnie's life and changed it forever. She had been a modern Shanghai woman who had wanted to marry for love and was, instead, forced to take on the position of second wife to a man for whom she did not care. Because she was strong-willed and independent-minded, she escaped her marriage and her station in life, one way or another.
Winnie's father. Jiang Sao-yan is a wealthy and powerful man at the beginning of the story who forces his daughter to live with his brother and his wives so as not to be reminded of Winnie's mother. He begins powerful but ends up a weak man with no memory and a lack of will. It is dubious whether he has the capacity to love, but one action—the act of giving his daughter the gold ingots—redeems him somewhat.
Jiang Sao-yan's senior wife. San Ma is stubborn and sneaky. She carries herself with arrogance and yet gives the impression of kindness as she shops with Weili for her dowry. She, like Winnie's father's other wives, is always full of gossip and jealousy—and she believes that her position in her husband's house gives her power.
Winnie's Aunts. New Aunt and Old Aunt raised Winnie in Winnie's father's house. Old Aunt is the more conservative of the two, basing her beliefs on ancient Chinese customs. New Aunt is younger, yet still conservative. Both treat Winnie as an outsider of sorts, and yet later, when the war is over, they seem to have real love for her.
The bratty daughter of Winnie's Uncle. Peanut is Winnie's cousin. Peanut and Winnie grow up together, and Peanut proves, in her youth, to be at once, vain, conceited, selfish, and insecure. Later in life, Peanut leaves her marriage and becomes an adamant communist, and yet she is still a "follower."
Helen's son. Bao-Bao is a silly boy whom Winnie pegs as a loser. He is constantly making jokes, is on the verge of losing his job when the novel begins (according to Winnie), and has already been married several times. It is his marriage, ironically, that brings the family together.
Helen's daughter. Mary is married to a physician and is also the daughter of immigrants. She is married to a doctor who had treated Pearl and, therefore knows about Winnie's condition. She is careful around Pearl, somewhat too careful. This overly "sympathetic" behavior deeply irritates Pearl. She is also a person that is very concerned with appearances.
Pearl and Phil's young daughters. Both girls are being raised in an American way, and yet they love their grandmother and her stories. Tessa is older and more confident; Cleo is younger and gentler, more sentimental.
Winnie and Jimmy Louie's son. Samuel never appears physically in the novel. He lives and works in New Jersey.
Referred to as "that bad man," Wen Fu was Winnie's first husband. He is self- centered, arrogant, ignorant, and ultimately abusive and cruel. The most despised character in the novel, Wen Fu is a villain, and throughout the novel he goes on ravages and rampages that cause Winnie more and more suffering.
Winnie's second husband. Jimmy Louie was madly in love with Winnie. He was a minister and a truly good man, husband, and father, serving as a foil of Wen Fu.