Personification is a literary technique in which a written word provides non-human entities with human characteristics.
Waverly describes how her mother would twist her thick black hair into two tight pigtails before school each morning, using the hard comb to brush through her "disobedient hair." Here, Tan is giving human intention to Waverly's hair; it provides the hair with the agency to resist being combed to indicate how tough it is to brush.
When Waverly's brother Vincent receives the used chess set for Christmas at the church party, their mother instructs Vincent and Winston to throw away the set. Waverley then describes her brothers as having "deaf ears" to indicate that they did not listen to their mother and kept the set.
Waverley then describes how fascinated she is with the chessboard, which she claims "hold[s] elaborate secrets waiting to be untangled." Waverley is giving the chess set human characteristics, namely, the ability to keep secrets; it is not merely a toy or game to her but something that seems to possess some measure of agency.
When an author personifies something, she's giving human qualities to something that isn't human. (Saying that the rain is screaming, for example, is personification: rain can't really scream; it's something that humans do, but by saying that it is, you're adding interest and imagination to your description.)
Tan's use of personification, in particular, is one of the tools that brings her stories to vivid life. Let's check out some examples from "Rules of the Game."
“A light wind began blowing past my ears. It whispered secrets only I could hear.”
Here, Tan personifies the wind, saying that it whispers secrets to Waverly. In this passage, this use of personification conveys the excitement and magic of Waverly’s chess victory being described.
“Seated across from me was an American man, about the same age as Lau Po, maybe fifty. I remember that his sweaty brow seemed to weep at my every move.”
In this description, Waverly’s grown-up American chess opponent has a sweaty forehead that “weeps.” This use of figurative language helps us see not just the visual image of the sweating forehead, but also the sad distress of the chess player who’s being beaten by a little girl.
“Her lips would be sealed tight, and after each move I made, a soft ‘Hmmmmph’ would escape from her nose.”
Waverly describes her mother in this way, saying that the disapproving sound would “escape” from her mother’s nose. By presenting the sound of annoyance and criticism as something that can, like a person, work its way free from restraint, Tan not only characterizes Waverly’s mom as a deeply controlling person but also artfully touches on the theme of the need for personal freedom and escape.