The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan covers the different experiences of three women, with the focus being on being mixed race during and after the fall of the Qing dynasty in the Shanghai of the early 20th century. The protagonist, Violet Minturn, is born to an American mother and an unknown Chinese father, and how she deals with the differing parts of her identity, and how others deal with them, shifts as circumstances do.
The very courtesan house she grows up in (with her mother as the madam) is itself a transnational space, the only of its kind that welcomes both Chinese and Western patrons. However, even in such spaces there is shown to still be division in this duality. Violets American mother adopted a Chinese name for herself, Lulu Mimi, upon coming to Shanghai, and the courtesan house has two different names “Hidden Jade Path” for the American clients and “The House of Lulu Mimi” for the Chinese ones. Also, all those working for the house are Chinese, while only Violet and her mother are separate. One of the first ways that Tan shows how nationality is more of a construct than anything firm is the first time Violet learns she is mixed-race age eight, when one of the courtesans spits it out as an insult. Up until this point, both Violet and the reader have thought she was white.
The interpretation of the American through a Chinese lens is carries through to the title. The Valley of Amazement is the title of a painting owned first by her mother and then by Violet herself, with each generation reading into it differently depending on the circumstances. Later in the book, the reader learns that it is in fact a reproduction of an American painting of the Hudson Valley, produced by Lu Shing (Violets mystery father), one of the students sent to America to learn “Western ideals” in the drive for modernisation in the late 19th century.
It also discusses the damage of being cut off from your heritage, however tangled it is. Violet’s daughter is taken from her by her husbands (white) American family, the daughters life is shown to be unhappy; she believes herself white, just as Violet did in her childhood, and even when the three generations are at last brought together at the end of the novel, there are still such cultural divides and differences of experience that, while they are shown as not insurmountable, are clearly damaging and isolating.
The name Violet takes shifts dependant on the race people perceive her as. Violet as the ‘white’ girl (even her mother refuses to admit otherwise outright), then a new name when she is conned by a white business associate of her mother into a courtesan house instead of leaving for America when the Qing dynasty fell, the assumption of a white ladies name legally and white-passing in society in her marriage to Edward, and then the return to her own. How people perceive her shifts, but in the eyes of most there is no place for her true self–mixed-race girls throng the orphanages and are looked down on by both. This ability to pass is for Violet a short-term benefit and a long-term denial of the self. As soon as she discovers the truth of her heritage, she is torn over which part she is supposed to be loyal to. Amy Tan opens the novel with Violet narrating “When I was seven, I knew exactly who I was”. After she learns she does not belong to one race or one country as she thought, she is never that certain again.