As Ying-ying visits Lena’s new home, all she can see are bad omens, including the rickety end-table that breaks in “The Voice from the Wall.” Lena’s failing marriage reminds Ying-ying of her first marriage in China. Back then, Ying-ying was wild and loud, spoiled by her family’s wealth. When she turns sixteen, she meets an older, coarser man who initially disgusts her with his lewd humor. However, she has a premonition that she’s meant to marry him, and soon learns that a marriage is being arranged between them.
Part of Ying-ying’s timidity stems from her absolute acceptance of whatever fate assigns her. She is unable to see her own power to change her life’s direction.
Ying-ying bitterly notes that Lena has no idea about Ying-ying’s first marriage, or how beautiful Ying-ying once was. Her first husband praises her for having “tiger eyes,” which “gather fire in the day” and shine golden at night. She childishly falls in love with his compliments, and wants only to please him. The night she conceives his child, Ying-ying immediately knows it’s going to be a boy. Her husband starts taking long business trips after the pregnancy announcement, and runs off with an opera singer a few months before Ying-ying is supposed to give birth. Enraged by his abandonment, Ying-ying aborts the unborn baby.
Following tradition and her own premonitions, Ying-ying happily slips into wifely submission, thinking her husband has ultimate authority. When he abuses that trust, Ying-ying has no way of protecting herself or seeking revenge, beyond killing the only thing left of him: her own baby. She sees the baby as her husband’s legacy, rather than her own flesh and blood, and feels no ownership toward it, even though it’s in her body.
Ying-ying then explains that she was born in the year of the Tiger, and thus has a Tiger’s spirit. A Tiger has a gold side to its spirit, leaping with a fierce heart, and a black side, devious and cunning. She channels the black side of her nature for ten years after her husband leaves her. No longer an innocent girl, Ying-ying moves to the city and works in a clothing shop, where she meets an American, Clifford St. Clair. Clifford, taken by Ying-ying’s beauty, tries to woo her with cheap gifts, and Ying-ying pretends to be impressed, even though she knows how worthless the trinkets are.
Even though Ying-ying is shown as meek and distant throughout the novel, she is fated by birth to have a complexly fierce nature, which manifests in unexpected ways. She uses her cunning to lure Clifford into loving her, as he represents an opportunity for a better future in America.
Lena thinks that her father saved her mother from China, but Ying-ying actually made Clifford wait for four years “like a dog in front of a butcher shop.” One day, Ying-ying receives a letter saying her first husband is dead. Something “strong and bitter” flows through Ying-ying, and she takes the letter as a sign to marry Clifford, even though she does not love him. She becomes “pale, ill, and more thin… a tiger ghost.” She goes to America with her new husband and raises a daughter, but lacks any spirit. Though Clifford loved her, Ying-ying was too much of a ghost to love him back.
Ying-ying reverses the expected romantic narrative by not being a weak woman who needs saving; their relationship unfolds on her terms. However, she is incapable of loving Clifford because she believes fate, not her own spirit, directs her life. Everything feels enacted upon her, sucking away her autonomy until she is nothing more than a shadow.
Ying-ying says her greatest shame is raising her daughter, also born in a Tiger year, without any spirit. But now, with Clifford deceased and Lena on the brink of divorce, Ying-ying is finally ready to embrace her fierceness again, and tell Lena about her painful past that has been buried for decades. By freeing all her memories, Ying-ying will be able to pass her powerful Tiger spirit to Lena, because “this is the way a mother loves her daughter.”
Ying-ying regrets that Lena has only had access to Ying-ying’s passivity and pessimism, and inherited the worst parts of their shared nature. In order to pass on the best parts, Ying-ying must confront her trauma and sacrifice her comfort to save her daughter while there’s still time for Lena to learn.