Secret of a Thousand Beauties

Written by Mingmei Yip
Review by Shannon Gallagher

Set in 1930s China, Secret of a Thousand Beauties traces the life of a young woman, Spring Swallow, in what seems one tragedy after another. We meet her at seventeen on her wedding day. Her future husband is the spirit of an unborn baby boy; his mother had miscarried him years earlier. Ghost weddings were not uncommon in Chinese feudal tradition, which still held fast for much of the population, but regardless, when the wedding day dawns Spring Swallow cannot reconcile herself and the ghost bride she is about to become. She flees the ceremony, making a decision that will change the course of her life, and she senses that the world around her is on the verge of enormous change as well. Spring Swallow marks that everyone she encounters is an imperial loyalist or a revolutionary; no one seems to be undecided.

Spring Swallow is fortunate to be taken in by her Aunty Peony, who owns and operates an embroidery studio. Here she learns the craft of Su embroidery while she lives and works with other girls taken in as apprentices by her aunt, who have their own with tragic stories. Spring Swallow should consider herself fortunate, but her free spirit cannot be confined by Aunty Peony’s rules, among them celibacy for her apprentices. She decides to find adventure and begins climbing a nearby mountain and leaving poetry on the rocks there. When Shen Feng responds to her poems, she is shocked, and when she finally meets him, she falls quickly in love – only to be separated from him by a revolution that is more important to him than anything.

In the next two years, the countless tragedies makes the story seem near-implausible and drive a wedge between the plot and the reader, but ultimately by the conclusion, we reconciled. The surprising ending confirms Spring Swallow’s belief that one should never lose hope.