Summary of the Novel
The novel contains four sections, each beginning with a vignette depicting a stage in the life cycle. The four stories in each section explore the relationship between the mothers and the daughters at the same stage.
One series of stories focuses on Suyuan Woo, who comes to America in 1947, having lost her family, including twin daughters, during war. She does not know her daughters were rescued. Now remarried, she settles in San Francisco, has a daughter, Jing-mei (June), and starts a Joy Luck Club similar to one in China with three other women. The four form strong friendships.
As she grows up, Jing-mei and her mother struggle to understand one another. They never completely resolve their differences, and Suyuan dies unexpectedly. At the next meeting of the Joy Luck Club, her mother’s friends tell Jing-mei that Suyuan’s twin daughters have been found. They give her a check so she can visit them. As the novel ends, she meets her sisters in Shanghai.
A second set of stories focuses on An-mei, who lives with her grandmother because her mother has been disowned. When An-mei is nine, her grandmother dies; and An-mei leaves with her mother to live in the home of a wealthy man and his other wives. An-mei learns how her mother was forced into a dishonorable second marriage and why she has no control over her own life. Her mother’s subsequent suicide provides An-mei a better life.
As an adult An-mei comes to San Francisco. She and her husband have seven children, including Rose. Rose marries Ted, a dermatologist, who has an affair and divorces her. Rose is overwhelmed but recovers.
The third series of stories focuses on Lindo. She marries Tyan-yu, but he never sleeps with her. Unable to tell her domineering mother-in-law the truth, she devises a clever plan and is released from her marriage honorably. She comes to San Francisco and marries Tin Jong. They have three children—Winston, Vincent, and Waverly.
Waverly is a child chess prodigy. She and her mother maneuver through their differences throughout her childhood and into adulthood. Their differences climax over Waverly’s fiancé, Rich Schields, and the
two women reconcile.
The fourth series of stories focuses on Ying-ying. Born into a wealthy family, she is a spirited child who nearly drowns when she is four. She grows into a haughty young woman and marries a crude man who abandons her after she becomes pregnant. Ten years later she marries Clifford St. Clair, an American exporter, even though she doesn’t love him. They come to San Francisco and have one daughter, Lena. Their second child is stillborn, and Ying-ying is depressed for months afterward. Her depression affects Lena.
As an adult Lena marries Harold Livotny, who takes advantage of her. Ying-ying feels responsible for raising so powerless a daughter. She wants to encourage Lena to speak up for herself.
Estimated Reading Time
The novel consists of 16 short stories, each requiring 25 to 40 minutes to read, and four vignettes requiring five minutes each to read. The entire novel can be completed in about 10 to 11 hours.
The Life and Work of Amy Tan
Amy Tan’s grandmother, Jing-mei, was widowed when her daughter Daisy was young. She was later forced to marry a wealthy man who had raped her. Since Chinese custom prohibited widows from remarrying, both Jing-mei and Daisy were shunned. Jing-mei eventually committed suicide by eating food with raw opium in it. Daisy later married a man who abused her. She divorced him and came to America, but he forced her to leave their three daughters behind.
In California she met John Tan, an electrical engineer and Baptist minister who had also fled China in the late 1940s. They married soon afterwards. Amy, their second child and only daughter, was born in 1952. Her Chinese name, An-mei, means “gift from America.”
Amy Tan said her parents “wanted us to have American circumstances and Chinese character” (Current Biography, 560). However, in order to assimilate, the children felt forced to choose “American” ways and to refuse “Chinese” things. This led to a deep sense of “shame and self-hate,” Tan said (Current Biography, 560). For example, she once wanted to change her Chinese features so much that she went to bed with a clothespin on her nose every night for a week.
After the deaths of her father and older brother, eight months apart, the family spent a year in Europe. Tan was 16 years old. She finished high school early; when her family returned to America, she began college. There she met Louis DeMattei, her future husband, who is now a tax attorney.
Daisy Tan was unhappy when her daughter not only transferred schools to be with DeMattei, but also changed from pre-med to studying English and linguistics. The two did not speak for about six months. Amy Tan completed both her B.A. and M.A. degrees and was working on a doctorate when she left school to work with retarded and developmentally disabled people. Later she started a successful free-lance nonfiction writing business, partly in response to a supervisor who severely criticized her writing. When she and her husband bought Daisy Tan a place to live, Daisy conceded that perhaps writing was a good career for her daughter.
In 1987 Amy Tan went to China with her mother to meet her half-sisters, whom she did not know about until she was 26 (“Mother With a Past,” 47). Tan said later, “There was something about this country that I belonged to. I found something about myself that I never knew was there” (Current Biography, 561).
Her first short story, “Endgame,” was published in 1985 and was followed by “Waiting Between the Trees.” When she learned that publishers were interested in the outline for The Joy Luck Club, originally titled Wind and Water, she left her free-lance business and finished the novel in four months. It was followed by The Kitchen God’s Wife in 1991 and The Moon Lady, a collaboration with Gretchen Schields, in 1992. She also worked on the movie screenplay of The Joy Luck Club, released in 1993.
The Japanese invasion of China, part of World War II, began in 1937 and continued until 1945. The Japanese committed atrocities against Chinese prisoners for which they would apologize as late as the 1980s. Many Chinese people fled their homes as the Japanese approached; many died.
After World War II, civil war broke out between the Kuomintang (Nationalist Chinese) under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists under Mao Zedong and Chou En-lai. During this war as well, many Chinese people fled, either in disagreement with Communism or rightly fearing reprisals. The war ended with Communist victory in 1949. The Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek on Formosa (later Taiwan) was recognized as the official Chinese government by the United Nations and most of the Western world. Official diplomatic and trade relations between Communist China (The People’s Republic of China) and the United States were severed.
In 1971 the United Nations formally recognized mainland China, and in 1972 American president Richard Nixon visited China and met with Chairman Mao Zedong. Diplomatic relations began on a limited basis. In 1979 the two countries normalized their relationship.
American pop culture during the 1960s and 1970s was affected by events both at home and abroad. Bobby Fischer, a chess Grand Master, angered feminists by claiming that a woman would never be a Grand Master of chess. Life, a weekly news magazine with strong emphasis on photography, saw its sales decline, replaced by the immediacy of television. The Ed Sullivan Show was a Sunday-night variety program featuring quality acts of everything from opera to plate spinning. Overshadowing everything, the unpopularity of the Vietnam War tore at the unity of families, communities, and the nation.
San Francisco in 1987 was an energetic mix of cultures and lifestyles. Many Americans of minority descent increasingly claimed their ethnic heritage as part of their identity, resisting assimilation. Women sought equal status with men in the workplace, working in such nontraditional fields as tax law. The city was also well known for its substantial gay community, seriously affected by the discovery of AIDS in 1981. Minimalism, an artistic movement marked by spareness, was popular. Self-employment via freelance work was very common, as workers sought alternatives to working for large corporations such as Price, Waterhouse.
Released in March 1989, The Joy Luck Club remained on the New York Times bestseller list from April through November, an incredible success for a first novel. Critics often compared this novel to Maxine Hong Kingston’s autobiography The Woman Warrior, because both are about Chinese-American women. They praised Tan’s telling detail, skill with dialogue, and empathy for her characters. A few, notably Rhoda Koenig, have suggested that some of the stories resolve themselves too easily and that there may be too much intrusion from Tan’s personal life into some events of the novel, especially her reunion with her half-sisters. Most acknowledge, however, that one strength of Tan’s novel is its universal themes and common issues among mothers, daughters, and families. Anyone who has a mother will find her in this novel somewhere.
Feminist critic Marina Heung points out that this novel is noteworthy for its inclusion of mothers as subjects and women in their own right, rather than as objects their daughters revolt against (Heung, 598-99). Other critics point to the segmented narrative technique that encourages readers to “think simultaneously in different directions” (Miner, 567), avoiding traditional Western linear thought. These strengths emphasize the novel’s importance outside of its ethnic significance.
Master List of Characters
Suyuan Woo—founder of the Joy Luck Club, mother of Jing-mei (June) Woo and wife of Canning Woo. She dies two months before the novel begins. Her name means “Long-Cherished Wish.”
Jing-mei (June) Woo—age 36, daughter of Suyuan and Canning Woo. One of the narrators. Her name means “Pure Essence, Younger Sister.”
Canning Woo—Suyuan’s second husband and Jing-mei’s (June’s) father. He narrates part of one story.
Mei Han and Mei Ching—couple who adopt the abandoned daughters of Suyuan.
Wang Chwun Yu and Wang Chwun Hwa—twin daughters of Suyuan and her first husband, half sisters of
Jing-mei Woo. Their names mean “Spring Rain” and “Spring Flower.”
Aiyi—aunt of Canning Woo, great-aunt of Jing-mei.
Mr. Chong (Old Chong)—Jing-mei’s deaf piano teacher.
An-mei Hsu—friend of Suyuan, wife of George and mother of Rose, Ruth, Janice, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Bing. One of the narrators.
George Hsu—An-mei’s husband, Rose’s father.
Bing Hsu—One of An-mei’s children, he drowns. His name means “Good Fortune.”
An-mei’s mother—never named, she was disowned by her family because she married Wu Tsing. She commits suicide.
Popo—An-mei’s maternal grandmother. She dies of an illness.
An-mei’s brother—never named, he is younger than An-mei. After Popo’s death he remains with Auntie and Uncle.
Uncle and Auntie—An-mei’s mother’s brother and his wife. Popo and the children live with them.
Wu Tsing—second husband of An-mei’s mother. A rich merchant who raped her.
Rose Hsu Jordan—daughter of An-mei and George Hsu, wife of Ted Jordan. One of the narrators.
Ted Jordan—Rose’s husband, a dermatologist.
Mrs. Jordan—Ted’s mother. She tries to prevent Rose and Ted from seeing each other.
Old Mr. Chou—Chinese equivalent of the Sandman.
Yan Chang—An-mei’s mother’s servant.
First Wife—Wu Tsing’s wife. She has two daughters and is addicted to opium.
Second Wife—Wu Tsing’s first concubine. She dominates the household through manipulation.
Third Wife—another of Wu Tsing’s concubines. She is the mother of three daughters.
Fifth Wife—Wu Tsing’s newest concubine. She is young and from a poor family.
Syaudi—son of Wu Tsing and An-mei’s mother, An-mei’s half brother. Second Wife claims him as her own.
Lindo’s helper in Peking—never named, she gives Lindo advice about coming to America.
Lindo’s helper in San Francisco—never named, she helps Lindo get an apartment and a job.
Lindo Jong—friend of Suyuan, wife of Tin and mother of Winston, Vincent, and Waverly. In China she was married to Tyan-yu. One of the narrators.
Tin Jong—Lindo’s second husband, Waverly’s father.
Winston and Vincent Jong—sons of Lindo and Tin.
Waverly Jong—daughter of Lindo and Tin. One of the narrators.
Shoshana—Waverly’s daughter from her first marriage.
Lindo’s mother—never named.
The Matchmaker—arranges the marriage of Lindo and Tyan-yu.
The Matchmaker’s Assistant—she inadvertently makes possible a divorce of Lindo and Tyan-yu without disgrace to Lindo.
The Servant Girl—very kind to Lindo. Lindo arranges for her to marry Tyan-yu.
Tyan-yu—Lindo’s first husband. His name means “Sky Leftovers.”
Huang Taitai—Lindo’s first mother-in-law, mother of Tyan-yu.
Mr. Rory—Waverly’s hairdresser.
Marvin Chen—Waverly’s first husband, Shoshana’s father.
Lao Po—an old man in the park who teaches Waverly chess.
Rich Schields—engaged to Waverly, a tax attorney.
Ying-ying St. Clair—mother of Lena, wife of Clifford St. Clair. One of the narrators. Her name means “Clear Reflection.”
Clifford St. Clair—husband of Ying-ying, whom he calls “Betty,” and father of Lena.
Lena St. Clair—daughter of Ying-ying and Clifford St. Clair, wife of Harold Livotny. One of the narrators.
Ying-ying’s first husband—never named. He is murdered by a mistress.
Chang-o—the Moon Lady, a character from Chinese mythology.
Syi Wang Mu, Queen Mother of the Western Skies—a character from Chinese mythology.
Hou Yi, Master Archer of the Skies—husband of Chang-o, a character from Chinese mythology.
Number Two and Number Three—Ying-ying’s younger sisters.
Mama and Baba—Ying-ying’s parents.
Teresa Sorci—a girl about two years older than Lena who lives next door in their apartment building.
Harold Livotny—Lena’s husband, a restaurant designer and developer.
Arnold—a neighbor who was mean to Lena when they were children.
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Joy Luck Club takes its title from a gathering begun in wartime China by Suyuan Woo, who met with three women in a weekly attempt to maintain their sanity and luck. They prepared special foods and played mah-jongg, even though the city was filled with horror. In 1949, in San Francisco, Suyuan resumed the tradition with three new friends.
One critic has suggested that the book is structured like the four corners of the mah-jongg table at which the women sit, with four stories in each of the book’s four sections, and four mother-daughter pairs. In mah-jongg, one critic has noted, “The game starts, always, with the east wind,” and June Woo, whose narrative begins and ends the book, sits on the east side, taking her dead mother’s place. The game ends when one player has a complete hand, and June completes her mother’s life and dearest wish when she returns to China, with a ticket paid for by the Joy Luck Club, to meet the two half sisters her mother was forced to leave behind in her flight.
Recurring motifs link the stories of each mother-daughter pair. The second mother, An-mei Hsu, bears a scar from the spilling of hot soup on her neck as a child, an accident that nearly killed her. She carries a grievous inner scar as well: Her own mother had been banished, her name never spoken. Only later does she understand how her mother dishonored the family by becoming the third concubine of a wealthy married man. Yet when...
(The entire section is 712 words.)
Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan’s first novel, debuted to critical acclaim. It takes its place alongside Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1976) as a chronicle of a Chinese American woman’s search for and exploration of her ethnic identity. The Joy Luck Club is the best-selling, accessible account of four Chinese-born mothers and their four American-born daughters. One of the women, Suyuan Woo, has died before the story opens, but the other seven women tell their own stories from their individual points of view. Critics have noted that this approach is an unusually ambitious one. Nevertheless, the novel has reached a wide audience, especially since it was made into a feature film in 1992.
At the center of the story is Jing-mei “June” Woo, who has been asked to replace her dead mother as a member of the Joy Luck Club, a group of four women who meet for food and mah-jongg. Although Americanized and non-Chinese-speaking June is initially uncertain whether she wishes to join her mother’s friends, she discovers that these women know things about her mother’s past that she had never imagined. Her decision to become part of the Joy Luck Club culminates in a visit to China, where she meets the half sisters whom her mother was forced to abandon before she fled to the United States. The other Chinese-born women have similarly tragic stories, involving abandonment, renunciation, and sorrow in their native country. June...
(The entire section is 413 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
After Suyuan Woo passes away, her daughter, Jing-mei, is asked by her mother’s friends to take her mother’s place as a member of their Joy Luck Club, a group of friends who play Mah-Jongg together. At first, Jing-mei is reluctant to join the club. She is not very good at Mah-Jongg and not particularly interested in hearing her “aunties” talk about the past. Once she accepts, however, she begins to learn more about her mother’s past and about the twin daughters her mother left in China. She also learns about her aunties’ lives and about their daughters.
The aunties describe their childhood experience in China and their journey to the United States. An-mei Hsu recalls how her mother was mistreated by her husband’s family after his death, and how she was disowned by Popo, her mother, for marrying Wu Tsing, who already had a wife and two concubines. When Popo became very sick, An-mei’s mother nevertheless returned home to take care of her. An-mei later learned from a servant, Yan Chang, that her mother had been raped by Wu Tsing and tricked into the marriage, and that she was physically abused and emotionally tortured by Wu Tsing’s wife and concubines.
Lindo Jong was a child bride. Her husband, Tyan-yu, was several years younger than she and even more immature. When Huang Taitai, Tyan-yu’s mother, became angry with Lindo for not bearing the family a son, Lindo told her that from a meeting she had with the ghosts of the...
(The entire section is 875 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Feathers from a Thousand Li Away, Vignette Summary and Analysis
A young woman leaves China to come to America. She brings with her a swan she plans to give to the daughter she will have someday, a daughter whose life will be much better than hers. Once they arrive in America, though, immigration officials take the swan away from her, leaving her only a feather.
As the vignette concludes, the woman has grown old. She has a daughter but has never given her the feather because she wants to be able to explain her “good intentions” in “perfect American English.”
This vignette focuses on the mother’s actions when she was young and their effects later. Both the woman and the daughter are archetypes, or patterns, of the characters in the rest of the novel. Readers often try to identify the woman in the vignette as Suyuan, the mother in the next story, but she is not. The four stories in this section also focus on the mothers when they were young. As the novel progresses, the reader will see these events affect both mother and daughter later.
The swan is a symbol of the mother. In the first paragraph, the vendor says the swan was “a duck that stretched its neck”; in the second paragraph both swan and mother “[stretch] their necks toward America.” The swan is described as “a creature that became more than what was hoped for,” suggesting that the mother’s life in America will be better than she had hoped for in China. When immigration...
(The entire section is 354 words.)
The Joy Luck Club Summary and Analysis
Jing-mei (June) Woo: narrator of most of this story; age 36, daughter of Suyuan and Canning Woo
Suyuan Woo: narrator of part of the story; Jing-mei’s mother, Canning Woo’s wife, and founder of the Joy Luck Club. She dies two months before the story begins
Canning Woo: Suyuan’s husband; Jing-mei’s father
An-mei Hsu: Suyuan’s friend; one of the members of the Joy Luck Club
George Hsu: An-mei’s husband
Lindo Jong: Suyuan’s “best friend and arch rival”; one of the members of the Joy Luck Club
Ying-ying St. Clair: Suyuan’s friend; one of the members of the Joy Luck Club
Uncle Jack: Ying-ying’s younger brother
Waverly Jong: Lindo’s daughter, one month younger than Jing-mei
Lena St. Clair: Ying-ying’s daughter
Jing-mei, the narrator, attends a meeting of the Joy Luck Club to replace her mother, who has died two months earlier. The story flashes back to Suyuan and Canning Woo’s arrival in San Francisco. Suyuan invites three other women to start the Joy Luck Club. As Jing-mei remembers what her mother told her about the first Joy Luck Club, in China, the story shifts, and Suyuan becomes the narrator.
Suyuan’s first husband, an officer in the Kuomintang, had sent her and their twin daughters to Kweilin to escape the invading Japanese. To fight misery and despair, she started...
(The entire section is 1067 words.)
Scar Summary and Analysis
Popo: An-mei’s maternal grandmother. An-mei and her brother have lived with her the last five years
An-mei’s mother: she is never given a name. Her family has ostracized her because she disgraced them
An-mei’s brother: younger than An-mei
Uncle and Auntie: Popo and the two children live with them in Ningpo, China
An-mei, now an old woman, narrates this story. As a child, she and her brother live with Popo, Auntie, and Uncle. As Popo grows increasingly ill, she calls An-mei to her bedside and tells her stories with a moral to them. Both Popo and Auntie tell the children that their mother has no respect for the family. An-mei feels unlucky to have such a mother.
The story jumps ahead to when An-mei is nine, and her mother returns. Auntie, Uncle, and the
servants, unhappy with her presence, ignore her. She goes to Popo’s room and begins to take care of her. Popo is so sick she doesn’t even know who is there. If she had known who it was, she would have thrown An-mei’s mother out.
An-mei says her mother’s voice confused her, “a familiar sound from a forgotten dream.” Later she remembers when she had heard her mother’s voice before.
She had been four. During an argument between her mother and the rest of the family, a large pot of hot soup on the dinner table spilled on An-mei’s neck. The burn was very serious....
(The entire section is 864 words.)
The Red Candle Summary and Analysis
Lindo’s mother: never named
Huang Taitai: Lindo’s mother-in-law, mother of Tyan-yu
Tyan-yu: Lindo’s first husband
The village matchmaker: she arranges both the match and later, the wedding, between Lindo and Tyan-yu
The matchmaker’s servant: her mistake gives Lindo a chance to escape her marriage honorably
Another servant girl: she works for Huang Taitai and is kind to Lindo. When she becomes pregnant, Lindo helps her
Lindo Jong speaks to her daughter, Waverly, about the importance of keeping promises, comparing them to 24-carat gold. Then she talks about the promise her family made when they arranged the marriage between Lindo and Tyan-yu.
When she is 12, flooding destroys her family’s farm, forcing them to move away. Lindo moves in with the Huangs, where she is treated like a servant. Determined that Huang Taitai will not be able to say anything against her family, she makes the best of circumstances. For the next four years Tyan-yu goes out of his way to treat her badly, and Huang Taitai makes sure she is thoroughly trained in household chores. When Huang Taitai announces that she is ready to become a grandmother, preparations begin for the wedding.
Just before the ceremony, Lindo cries about being forced into this marriage. Then she notices the wind. She says, “I realized it was the first time I could see...
(The entire section is 1184 words.)
The Moon Lady Summary and Analysis
Amah: Ying-ying’s nanny
Chang-o, the Moon Lady: in Chinese tradition, wife of the Master Archer
Hou Yi, the Master Archer: husband of Chang-o, associated with the sun
The Queen Mother of the Western Skies: also called Syi Wang Mu, associated with the yin principle
Mama and Baba: Ying-ying’s parents
Number Two and Number Three: Ying-ying’s younger half sisters
The family on the fishing boat: they rescue Ying-ying
Ying-ying, the narrator, speaks of her daughter, Lena, who does not hear or see Ying-ying because Ying-ying has kept her “true nature” hidden, “running along like a small shadow so nobody could catch me.” She says that both she and Lena are lost, “unseen and not seeing, unheard and not hearing, unknown by others.”
The story flashes back to 1918, when Ying-ying is four, and her family is preparing to celebrate the Moon Festival. They have rented a large boat on Tai Lake for the day, and a special ceremony will take place in the evening. Part of the ceremony is when Chang-o, the Moon Lady, grants a secret wish.
Ying-ying chases a dragonfly. Amah becomes upset that Ying-ying’s clothes and hair are a mess. Her mother tells her that boys can be active and run, but girls must be still, so the dragonfly will seek their shadow. Ying-ying had not noticed her shadow before; captivated, she...
(The entire section is 1294 words.)
The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates, Vignette Summary and Analysis
A mother tells her seven-year-old daughter not to ride her bicycle around the corner. When the daughter wants to know why, the mother says the daughter will fall and the mother will not see or hear her. When the daughter asks how her mother knows this will happen, her mother replies that it is written in The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates, as are all the bad things that can happen to children who are away from their mothers. The daughter wants to see the book, but the mother says it is written in Chinese and she will not understand it. The daughter asks what the 26 bad things are in the book, but her mother does not answer; she sits and knits. The daughter repeats the question, and still her mother does not answer. The daughter decides her mother doesn’t know what they are and, further, doesn’t know anything at all. She jumps on her bike, pedals furiously toward the corner, and falls before she gets there.
This vignette, like the first one, consists of archetypal characters. Readers should resist the temptation to identify the mother of this piece as Suyuan or Lindo, the daughter as Jing-mei or Waverly.
The young woman who brought the swan and all her good intentions to America now has the daughter she dreamed of. Her Chinese approach to motherhood insists upon obedience; however, this trait does not come easily to her American-born daughter. The mother wants to protect her daughter from harm,...
(The entire section is 360 words.)
Rules of the Game Summary and Analysis
Waverly Jong: Lindo’s only daughter and youngest child; narrator
Vincent and Winston Jong: Lindo’s older brothers
Lao Po: an old man in the park who helps Waverly learn chess
The adult Waverly looking back on her childhood tells this story. An incident with her mother and some salted plums teaches her “the art of invisible strength,” encapsuled in two sayings: “Bite back your tongue” and “Strongest wind cannot be seen.”
One year at a Christmas celebration at the First Chinese Baptist Church, Vincent gets a used chess set; Waverly selects a box of Life Savers; and Winston receives a kit for a model submarine. Once home, Waverly offers two of her Life Savers to substitute for the missing two chessmen if Vincent will let her play. The winner could eat both Life Savers.
When Waverly starts asking too many questions, Vincent hands her the manual and tells her to read the rules for herself. Her mother encourages this, saying that immigrants are often not told all the rules so that they don’t get ahead of the local people. Waverly begins to study chess seriously.
In addition to learning each piece and the different moves, she comes to understand the importance of strategy and the value of not revealing her plans. She becomes so involved in chess that she makes a chessboard, hangs it on the wall in her bedroom, and stares at it for...
(The entire section is 1105 words.)
The Voice from the Wall Summary and Analysis
Lena St. Clair: Ying-ying’s daughter, 10 years old at the time of this story
Clifford St. Clair: Ying-ying’s husband, Lena’s father
Teresa Sorci and Mrs. Sorci: neighbors in the St. Clairs’ apartment building. Teresa is about 12 years old. Her bedroom is next to Lena’s
The adult Lena narrates this story. As a child she wondered about “the death of a thousand cuts,” in which a condemned man is sliced away little by little until he dies. Her great-grandfather had once ordered someone to die in this manner, and the ghost of the executed man returned and killed him. “Either that,” she says, “or he died of influenza a week later.”
Lena imagines her great-grandfather’s last moments. The ghost appears, saying he thought the worst that could happen to him was this torturous execution. “But I was wrong,” he says. “The worst is on the other side,” meaning the other side of life—death. In her daydream the ghost then drags her great-grandfather from this world through the wall to the other side.
When Lena was five, she fell down the basement stairs. Ying-ying told her to stay out of the basement because an evil man who had lived there thousands of years would impregnate her and eat her family. After that Lena saw danger everywhere with her “Chinese eyes,” she says, “the part of me I got from my mother.”
(The entire section is 1260 words.)
Half and Half Summary and Analysis
Rose Hsu Jordan: narrator of this story, daughter of An-mei and George, wife of Ted Jordan; a free-lance production assistant for graphic artists
Ted Jordan: Rose’s husband, a dermatologist
Mrs. Jordan: Ted’s mother
George Hsu: An-mei’s father
Janice, Ruth, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Bing Hsu: Rose’s sisters and brothers
Rose, the narrator, describes a “white leatherette Bible” her mother uses to prop up one leg of a crooked table. After spending more than 20 years on the floor, it is still “clean white.” As she looks at it, Rose wonders how she will tell An-mei that she and Ted are getting a divorce. She knows her mother will insist that she try to save her marriage.
At the beginning of Rose and Ted’s relationship, both mothers object to their dating because of the difference in race. Their parents’ opposition draws them closer together, and they are married just before Ted begins medical school.
Rose and Ted have an unusual relationship: He makes all the decisions because she wants him to. Ted becomes dissatisfied with this arrangement after losing a malpractice suit. He begins to insist that Rose choose. Finally, he tells her he wants a divorce. Rose is devastated.
Rose reflects on her mother’s faith, which An-mei mispronounces as “fate.” Rose wonders whether hope might be all that people can...
(The entire section is 1270 words.)
Two Kinds Summary and Analysis
Old Chong: Jing-mei’s deaf piano teacher
This story is narrated by the adult Jing-mei looking back on her childhood piano lessons.
When Jing-mei is nine, Suyuan wants her to be a prodigy like Lindo’s daughter and Shirley Temple. Jing-mei at first agrees, but after repeatedly failing to find her special talent, she quits trying.
A few months later Suyuan notices a young Chinese girl playing piano on The Ed Sullivan Show. Three days afterward she announces that she has made arrangements for Jing-mei to take piano lessons from Mr. Chong. Jing-mei quickly discovers he can’t tell when she is making mistakes because he is deaf. As long as she maintains the right tempo, “Old Chong” thinks she is doing well.
The adult Jing-mei interrupts here to observe, “Maybe I never really gave myself a chance. I did pick up the basics pretty quickly, and I might have become a good pianist at that young age. But I was…determined not to try.”
After about a year of half-hearted effort, Jing-mei enters a talent competition. Instead of memorizing the music in preparation, however, she practices her fancy curtsy. The night of the recital, in front of an audience that includes all the Joy Luck Club aunties and uncles, Jing-mei plays very badly. She gets the fancy curtsy right, but the audience is silent, except for Old Chong, who shouts, “Bravo! Bravo! Well...
(The entire section is 776 words.)
American Translation, Vignette Summary and Analysis
The mother insists her adult daughter move the mirrored armoire at the foot of her bed. She says her daughter’s “marriage happiness” will reflect off the mirror and turn to unhappiness. The daughter, annoyed, says there is no other place in the bedroom of the new condominium to put it. It will have to stay where it is.
The mother pulls a mirror, her housewarming present, out of a used Macy’s shopping bag. She tells her daughter to mount this mirror above the head of the bed, across from the other mirror, so the reflections will “multiply your peach-blossom luck.”
When the daughter asks what peach-blossom luck is, the mother only smiles mischievously, tells her to look in the mirror, and asks, “Am I not right? In this mirror is my future grandchild, already sitting on my lap next spring.” The daughter looks and—yes, there it is!—her reflection.
The mother in this vignette invokes the Chinese tradition of feng shui, which holds that locations can be lucky or unlucky. Feng shui influences Chinese and Chinese American architectural styles, building locations, and even furniture arrangement. Telling her daughter to move the mirror is one more way this mother tries to ensure her daughter’s happiness.
The daughter does not understand the theories of feng shui or her mother’s purpose in predicting trouble, nor does she care. She knows what she wants; the armoire...
(The entire section is 370 words.)
Rice Husband Summary and Analysis
Harold Livotny: Lena’s husband, an architect
Arnold Reisman: a neighbor who was mean to Lena when they were children
Ying-ying is visiting Lena, 36, and her husband, Harold, in their new home in Woodside. Lena worries that Ying-ying will see how precarious their marriage is.
The story flashes back to when Lena was eight. To encourage her to finish her food, Ying-ying told her that her future husband would have a pock mark on his face for every piece of rice she did not eat. Lena immediately thought of Arnold, a neighbor who had small marks about the size of grains of rice on his face and was mean to her. She was frightened she would have to marry him. At Sunday school later that week Lena saw a film about people with leprosy. She thought her mother would say their future spouses had left several meals unfinished. She tried to kill Arnold by not finishing her food, so she wouldn’t have to marry him.
Five years later her father read in the paper one morning that Arnold had died of complications from a case of measles he’d had about the time Lena refused to finish her food. Lena felt responsible for his death, and that night she ate ice cream until she vomited.
The story returns to the present, with Lena observing that people get what they deserve. As evidence she cites her husband, Harold, whom she met eight years earlier at the architectural firm where...
(The entire section is 1237 words.)
Four Directions Summary and Analysis
Mr. Rory: Waverly’s hairdresser
Marlene Ferber: Waverly’s friend
Marvin Chen: Waverly’s first husband
Shoshana: Waverly’s and Marvin’s daughter
Rich Schields: Waverly’s fiancé, a tax attorney
Lisa Lum: Vincent Jong’s girlfriend
Waverly, age 36, describes meeting her mother for lunch in an unsuccessful bid to tell her she’s marrying Rich Schields. Lindo has never met him, and she changes the subject whenever Waverly mentions him. Waverly takes Lindo to her cluttered apartment to show off a mink jacket, Rich’s Christmas gift. Lindo criticizes its poor quality and refuses to acknowledge the unmistakable signs that Rich lives there.
Waverly comments that Lindo “knows how to hit a nerve.” The first time it happened, she was 10 and a chess champion. They argued in the middle of a busy street and didn’t speak to each other for several days afterwards. Waverly said she wouldn’t play chess again. After another argument Waverly came down with chicken pox.
Lindo returned to her usual self during her daughter’s illness. Waverly returned to chess, but she noticed that Lindo didn’t pay as much attention to her success as she had before. She began to lose more often. At 14, she quit.
Waverly thinks Lindo will criticize Rich a little at a time until it ruins her feelings for him, as she did with...
(The entire section is 1087 words.)
Without Wood Summary and Analysis
Old Mr. Chou: the Chinese equivalent of the Sandman
When Rose was little, she had bad dreams. In one of them, she fell through a hole in Old Mr. Chou’s floor into a garden. When he shouted at her, she began to run through fields of surrealistic flowers until she came upon sandboxes, each containing a new doll. An-mei told Old Mr. Chou that she knew which one Rose would select, so Rose deliberately chose a different one. An-mei shouted, “Stop her!” and Rose ran off, followed by Old Mr. Chou, who told her she should listen to her mother. When Rose told her the dream, An-mei laughed and said Rose should ignore Old Mr. Chou and just listen to her; Rose protests that even Old Mr. Chou listens to her.
The story jumps to the present. Rose meets An-mei at a funeral one month after telling her that she and Ted are getting a divorce. An-mei talks during most of the service, telling Rose she is too thin, asking her if she has money, asking her why Ted has sent a check, deciding that Ted “is doing monkey business with someone else.” Rose disagrees with the last statement. An-mei asks why Rose can talk to a psychiatrist, but not to her, about her problems. She says a mother knows what is inside her children and that psychiatrists “only make you hulihudu, make you see heimongmong.” The English equivalents are “confused” and “dark fog.” The terms mean the sensation of being...
(The entire section is 1264 words.)
Best Quality Summary and Analysis
Jing-mei, the narrator, describes a pendant necklace Suyuan gave her a few weeks before her death. Called a “life’s importance,” the pendant is an elaborately carved piece of white and green jade about the size of her little finger. She believes the carvings symbolize her mother’s wishes for her, but she doesn’t know what they are, and no one else can tell her.
The story flashes back to the night her mother gave her the pendant. Suyuan had invited the Jongs over to celebrate Chinese New Year, so earlier in the day she and Jing-mei went shopping for crabs. As Jing-mei selects the tenth crab, she accidentally causes another crab to lose a leg. The manager sees them and forces them to buy the extra crab.
At dinner each person takes the best of the crabs left, until the platter reaches Jing-mei. She starts to take the one with the missing leg, offering the better one to her mother. Suyuan insists that Jing-mei take the good one. As the others eat, Suyuan quietly takes her crab into the kitchen.
The dinner conversation is friendly and lively until Waverly asks Jing-mei if she isn’t afraid to have her
hair cut by a gay beautician. After more insults, Jing-mei decides to embarrass Waverly. She asks when Waverly’s firm will pay for some free-lance copywriting she had done more than a month ago. Everyone grows quiet. Waverly tells June that her writing was not good enough. Jing-mei stammers that of...
(The entire section is 877 words.)
Queen Mother of the Western Skies, Vignette Summary and Analysis
A grandmother plays with her infant granddaughter on her lap. She says she doesn’t know which is better, innocence or safety. She was once innocent and laughed “for no reason” but gave up that foolishness to protect herself. She taught her daughter to do the same. Now she wonders if she did the right thing.
The baby laughs. The grandmother pretends the baby is Syi Wang Mu, the Queen Mother of the Western Skies, who has already lived many lifetimes and knows the answer. She listens, and thanks the baby for her advice. She says the baby must teach its mother, the grandmother’s daughter, “how to lose your innocence but not your hope. How to laugh forever.”
This vignette completes the cycle. In the first vignette, a young woman travels to America with a swan and dreams. In the second, the woman, now the mother of a young child, struggles to raise her. In the third, her daughter is an adult, but she still tries to help her. In this vignette the woman is a grandmother. She reflects on her life and wonders whether she has done the best she could for her daughter. She decides that the best way to raise children is to show them the evils of the world but to maintain the hope that life can be good despite evil.
Maintaining hope in the face of the realities of life is one of the most important themes of this novel.
(The entire section is 248 words.)
Magpies Summary and Analysis
Wu Tsing: An-mei’s mother’s second husband, a wealthy merchant in Tientsin
Yan Chang: An-mei’s mother’s personal servant
First Wife: Wu Tsing’s official wife, mother of two daughters. She is addicted to opium
Second Wife: Wu Tsing’s concubine. She dominates the other women in the household
Third Wife: Wu Tsing’s concubine. She has three daughters
Fifth Wife: Wu Tsing’s most recent concubine. She is very young
Syaudi: son of Wu Tsing and An-mei’s mother. Second Wife claims him as her own
An-mei, the narrator, talks about Rose’s divorce. Rose complains that she has no choice in the matter, but An-mei says refusing to make an effort is a choice. An-mei’s Chinese upbringing trained her to want nothing for herself. She tried to raise Rose differently, but “she came out the same way!” An-mei wonders if it’s just because they’re all women.
The story flashes back to when An-mei is nine, and her mother returns to the family home in Ningpo. She is not welcome. She mourns the death of her mother, Popo, even though Popo had disowned her years earlier. After Popo’s funeral, she prepares to leave. An-mei leaves with her.
During the long trip to Wu Tsing’s, An-mei’s mother points out that An-mei will have a new home, new family, and many new things. Every night An-mei falls asleep snuggled...
(The entire section is 907 words.)
Waiting Between the Trees Summary and Analysis
Ying-ying’s first husband: never named, Ying-ying called him “Uncle” when she first met him. He is murdered by a mistress
Ying-ying, the narrator, loves her daughter Lena, but they have never been close. She wants to tell her daughter everything about her life now in an effort to rescue Lena from herself.
The story flashes back to Ying-ying’s childhood. She says she was a wild, stubborn, and arrogant girl from a wealthy family. She met a coarse, drunken man the night her youngest aunt was married. The day after her aunt’s wedding, she saw a sign that convinced her she would marry him.
As they sat in a boat on Tai Lake not long after their marriage, Ying-ying fell in love with him and began to do everything just for him. She knew she was pregnant with a boy the night it happened, and she was very happy.
She began to worry when she noticed her husband taking more frequent and longer business trips, especially after she was pregnant. Eventually her youngest aunt told her he was living with an opera singer in the North. Even later she learned there had been many other women. In her grief and anger at being abandoned, she had an abortion. Ying-ying remarks ironically that Lena thinks she doesn’t know “what it means to not want a baby.”
Ying-ying was born in the year of the Tiger, and her tiger spirit helped her overcome adversity. The tiger’s...
(The entire section is 916 words.)
Double Face Summary and Analysis
Lindo’s helper in Peking: never named, she gives Lindo advice about coming to America
Lindo’s helper in San Francisco: never named, she helps Lindo get an apartment and job
Lindo narrates this story, set in the present. Waverly has second thoughts about going to China on her honeymoon with Rich. Lindo assures her that everyone in China will know she is not Chinese by the look on her face.
Lindo wanted her children to have “the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character.” She did not realize that the two don’t mix. She was able to teach Waverly the American part about opportunity but not the Chinese part about personal integrity.
Lindo and Waverly are at Mr. Rory’s, having Lindo’s hair styled. When Mr. Rory mentions that Lindo and Waverly look alike, Lindo tells Waverly a person can see someone’s character and future in their facial features.
Lindo recalls coming to America. She had paid a woman to advise her on how to deal with American immigration officials and how to complete paperwork. The woman had also given her the address of someone in San Francisco’s Chinatown who would help her after she arrived. The woman in Chinatown charged Lindo $3.00 for a hastily jotted list of addresses. Lindo used the list to find an apartment and a job in a fortune cookie factory, where she made a friend, An-mei Hsu.
(The entire section is 1000 words.)
A Pair of Tickets Summary and Analysis
Aiyi: Jing-mei’s great-aunt
Lili: Aiyi’s great-granddaughter
Wang Chwun Yu and Wang Chwun Hwa: Suyuan’s twin daughters, Jing-mei’s half sisters. Their names mean “Spring Rain” and “Spring Flower”
Mei Ching and Mei Han: the couple who find and raise the twins
Suyuan’s schoolmate: never named. She recognizes the twins and contacts Suyuan with their address
Jing-mei narrates this story. She and her father are on a train from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, China. Her father has tears in his eyes as he looks out the train window at the countryside. Even Jing-mei is moved by the sight, “as if [she] had seen this a long, long time ago, and had almost forgotten.” After they visit Canning’s aunt in Guangzhou, they will go to Shanghai to meet Jing-mei’s twin half sisters, whom she has never seen before.
At Guangzhou Jing-mei and her father meet Aiyi, his aunt, and her family. The city seems very modern, and the taxi pulls up in front of an imposing hotel that doesn’t fit Jing-mei’s ideas of Communist China. The rooms are even stocked with Western snacks and drinks. The family decides just to stay at the hotel so they can visit.
At 1:00 a.m. Jing-mei wakes up, sitting on the floor in her hotel room. Everyone has gone to sleep except Aiyi and Canning, talking quietly about Suyuan’s daughters. Jing-mei asks why her mother...
(The entire section is 1268 words.)