Bao-bao, or Roger, is Helen’s son. It is on the occasion of his fourth marriage that Pearl is thrust back into her Chinese family and comes to learn Winnie’s secrets.
Wan Betty was a woman Winnie knew in China. Also known as “Beautiful Betty,” she operated the telegraph office where Winnie sent telegrams requesting money from her dowry when she and Wen Fu and the others are forced to flee Nanking. It is she who sends the news to Helen and Winnie that Wen Fu has died, decades after Winnie left him. By passing on this news, she sets in motion all sorts of memories for Winnie, who knows she must at last tell Pearl about him.
Pearl is the Chinese-American daughter of Winnie and Jimmy Louie. Her upbringing as an American has kept her from understanding her mother, whose superstitions and lack of warmth both puzzle and anger Pearl. She does not feel able to tell her mother that she has multiple sclerosis, because she dreads her mother’s reaction; Winnie always seems to blame herself for not preventing someone’s bad luck.
Phil is Pearl’s husband. Together, they have two daughters, Tessa and Cleo.
Tessa and Cleo Brandt
Tessa and Cleo are Pearl’s two young daughters.
Danru was Winnie’s second child with Wen Fu (their first child, a daughter, had died). When she left Wen Fu, Winnie took Danru with her to live with Jimmy Louie. She decided to send him to stay with Hulan and Jiaguo in Harbin when she feared Wen Fu was getting close to finding them. However, Danru died of an epidemic before Winnie could join him there. She always blamed herself for his death.
Gan was a pilot who had a crush on Winnie while she was married to Wen Fu. He was gentle and kind to Winnie, and they might have developed a relationship if he had not been killed in a crash.
Grand Auntie Du
Grand Auntie Du is Helen’s aunt. The old woman had lived with Helen in China and come with her to the United States. As Winnie recounts her life in China, she tells how Auntie Du stood by her when she was jailed for two years, then finally contrived a way to get Winnie released. After Pearl attends Grand Auntie Du’s funeral, she finds that Auntie Du left her a Buddhist alter in which a statue of the Kitchen God resides.
The Fortune Teller
The Fortune Teller is the one whom Winnie blames for her marriage to Wen Fu. When she changed Peanut’s fortune so that she would marry a rich outsider, Peanut’s original fortune (to marry Wen Fu) diverted to Winnie.
Wen Fu was Winnie’s first husband. He wanted to marry Winnie’s cousin, Peanut, but a fortune teller caused him to marry Winnie instead. After their marriage, he revealed his true colors as a brutal husband, a liar, and an adulterer. He thought of himself as a war hero, although he was actually a cowardly pilot.
Auntie Helen is Winnie’s longtime friend. She is not really Pearl’s aunt, nor is her real name Helen. Winnie met her in China during the war, when their husbands were stationed together as pilots. Her name was Hulan then, and she came from a poor family. After Winnie went to America and married Jimmy Louie, Winnie helped Hulan and her husband (known to Pearl as Uncle Henry) escape China. The two women keep each other’s secrets for many years, until Helen, who pretends to be dying, threatens to tell Pearl everything.
Jiaguo was Helen’s first husband. He was in charge of the Chinese pilots, including Wen Fu. Winnie discovers that he married Helen because he had been responsible for her sister’s death.
Little Yu’s Mother
Little Yu’s Mother is the mother of one of Winnie’s and Peanut’s old school friends. After she her daughter, Yu, committed suicide to escape a bad marriage, Little Yu’s Mother made it her mission to help other women escape their marriages. She helps Winnie escape from Wen Fu.
Jimmy was Winnie’s second husband. He is the man Pearl knew as her father, although she finds out that Wen Fu could likely have been her real father. Winnie tells how she met Jimmy during the war, at an American dance, and later fell in love with him. Although he looked Chinese, he was born in America and worked for the United States Information Service. After Winnie was jailed, he had to return to America, but he waited for her and then married her when she was able to come to America. He became a Baptist minister.
San Ma is one of Jiang Sao-yen’s wives. She helps Winnie select her dowry items, never letting on that her own daughter was given a much larger dowry. She stands by Jiang even after he is denounced as a traitor.
Mary is Helen’s daughter. She irritates Pearl because she seems to pity Pearl after she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Min is Wen Fu’s first mistress. He shames Winnie by keeping her in the same house as Winnie. Winnie eventually becomes friends with the girl and tries to use her as a means to force Wen Fu to divorce her. Wen Fu, however, simply kicks Min out.
Old Aunt and New Aunt
Old Aunt and New Aunt are the wives of Winnie’s father’s brother. New Aunt is Peanut’s mother. Winnie is under their care when she is sent to live in Tsungming after her mother’s disgrace.
Peanut, whose real name was Huazheng, was Winnie’s pretty, spoiled cousin. After she married Wen Fu, Winnie learned that Peanut married a rich man. After the war, Winnie learned that Peanut had left her husband and become a communist in Shanghai. She inspired Winnie to leave Wen Fu and introduced her to the woman who had helped her escape her own marriage.
Jiang Sao-yen was Winnie’s father. Winnie harbored resentment towards him for ignoring her after her mother’s disgrace, for allowing her to marry Wen Fu when he knew he was dishonorable, and for giving her a dowry much less than that of his other daughters. During the war, he tried to save his textile empire by cooperating with the Japanese, but after the war he became a broken old man branded as a traitor. When Winnie tells him she is leaving Wen Fu, the stroke-ridden old man gives her some hidden gold ingots. In this way, he tries to repair the damage he has done her.
Winnie Louie is Pearl’s mother. Throughout the novel, she reveals to Pearl the terrible secrets of her life in China. Born Jiang Weili, Winnie recounts a life of bad luck that began when her mother abandoned her when she was six. She recounts details of her miserable marriage to an abusive man, Wen Fu. She also tells about losing all her children, about surviving World War II, and about being jailed when she tried to escape from her marriage and elope with a Chinese-American man, Jimmy Louie.
Yiku, whose name means “pleasure over bitterness,” was Winnie’s first baby with Wen Fu. She was healthy until Wen Fu hit her; after that, the baby was never normal. She died of a fever when Wen Fu refused to listen to Winnie’s pleas for a doctor.
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