I was drawn to Secret of a Thousand Beauties after reading an interview with Mingmei Yip on Women’s Fiction Writers. Her fascination with the Chinese tradition of female oppression aroused my curiosity. Set in China during the 1930’s, Secret of a Thousand Beauties explores one woman’s journey to escape the horrible fate of a Ghost Marriage.
Couples were often betrothed in childhood, or even before birth. Since only half of children survived to adulthood, many lost their fiancés. Because they had already pledged marriage, the cruel custom was to marry the woman to the dead man. As a practical matter, this meant she was a slave to her supposed in-laws.—Mingmei Yip
Finding the right starting place for a story is essential, yet often difficult. I don’t know if Yip struggled with the opening of Secrets of a Thousand Beauties, but her choice to have Spring Swallow run away after the marriage ceremony to her dead fiancé is brilliant. The immediate peril for our heroine makes us fear for her safety, wonder how she will survive and worry about the consequences if the in-laws find her. As the story progresses we come to understand Spring Swallow’s rebellion is only the first of many. She is forced to take risks because Yip refuses to allow our heroine to get comfortable.
In my experience, death like a cunning fox, is always lurking around the corner ready to catch you off guard.
Spring Swallow learns to stay one step ahead of the fox when she joins a community of embroiderers. The lessons given by Aunty Peony—a former imperial embroiderer—provide a solid foundation from which her inner strength blossoms. These secret techniques of this ancient art form are life lessons Spring Swallow continues to draw upon. They are also invaluable guideposts for writers.
Pause and think for a moment before you sew your first stitch—since the next thousand stitches all derive from this first one. Placing the first stitch is like laying the first brick of a house. If it is done wrong, the structure will be slanted and collapse.
Although rebellion on Spring Swallow’s part persists throughout the story, once she receives this lesson we never see her do anything quite as impulsive as running away after her ghost marriage. She weighs options and chooses sensibly not only for herself, but for the other women she has grown to care about.
Yip seems to have followed this advice as well. By starting the story in the midst of upheaval she set her heroine on a trajectory of action. Starting earlier would have created a sense of lethargy for the protagonist and the reader; later, and our heroine’s inner turmoil and motivation would’ve been less clear.
Even if a mountain collapses outside your window, you shouldn’t look, but continue to work.
Even though Aunty Peony has taken on a lucrative assignment that will take a year to complete Spring Swallow is not allowed to help. Five months pass before she is given the opportunity to embroider simple items like hats and slippers. Yet, she works daily for such long periods her fingers swell and become calloused. Eventually Aunty recognizes her skill and promotes her to lead embroider.
There is controversy over Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,ooo Hour Rule. Although I agree with this Huffington Post article that other factors are also important to master a skill, I believe as Spring Swallow and Aunty Peony that the most important ingredient is showing up to do the work.
These are not art, only craft. […] They try too much to please. […] when work is slick, the connoisseur will reject it.
Mingmei Yip’s novel is the antithesis of this statement by Aunty Peony because as Amy Sue Nathan mentions in her interview with Yip, Secret of a Thousand Beauties resonates with “the passion the author has for her subject and for storytelling.”
The soul Aunty Peony hopes her apprentices will bring to their own work is one of the hardest lessons for Spring Swallow to learn. But her devotion to perfect the ancient art of embroidery allows her to develop into the strong woman she was meant to be, and in turn, helps her secure a family that she never expected to be in her future.
Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip is a tender and compelling tale that shines a spotlight on Chinese culture, life and art.