Tan uses first-person narratives as the basis of her first three books. The Joy Luck Club was conceived and written as a collection of short stories, but early reviewers erroneously began to call it a novel. Her publisher carefully skirted the issue by referring to Tan’s “first work of fiction” on the book jacket.
The book is composed of sixteen related stories narrated by three mothers and four daughters. It recalls such loosely structured works as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), and Erdrich’s Love Medicine, which feature individual narratives that together reflect a culture or a period. Tan organizes The Joy Luck Club in terms of the contrast between generations—two sections in the voices of the Chinese-born mothers and two in the voices of their California-born daughters. The exception is June Woo, whose mother, Suyuan, founder of the Joy Luck Club, has just died. June’s voice is heard in all four sections of the book.
Tan’s second book, The Kitchen God’s Wife, is constructed like a traditional novel, following one major story line. It is narrated by two voices—three chapters by daughter Pearl and all others by mother Winnie Louie, who tells Pearl of her earlier life. This is a book of revelations, illuminated vertically as well as horizontally, for things are never what they seem. When characters think they know the truth, they know only part of it. Similarly, The Hundred Secret Senses employs two narrators, but Tan uses a traditional third-person viewpoint in The Bonesetter’s Daughter, a choice that sometimes distances her characters from the reader.
In books exploring emotionally intense events, Tan’s humor is a pleasant surprise. June, an aspiring child prodigy, takes piano lessons from a deaf teacher. Another family names its four sons Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Bing. Some of the dialogue is priceless: June’s mother calls her “a college drop-off,” and another mother collects “so-so security.” Tan also masters the one-line retort. Learning that Grand Auntie Du is dead at ninety-seven, Pearl asks, “What was it? . . . A stroke?” “’A bus,’ my mother said.”
A major theme of Tan’s work is the conflict between cultures and generations. The Bonesetter’s Daughter even traces that same conflict across three generations. Of the Chinese women, an extreme example is Winnie Louie’s Old Aunt, whose feudal upbringing taught that a woman’s eyes should be used for sewing, not reading; ears should listen to orders, not ideas; and lips should only be used to express gratitude or approval. When Winnie’s cousin Peanut married a homosexual, her mother-in-law bought her a baby to save face. Their schoolmate, forced to marry a simpleminded man and chided by her unsympathetic mother, hanged herself in despair. Winnie realizes that she has been wrong to hold such women responsible for their troubles, but, she says, “That was how I was raised—never to criticize men or the society they ruled. . . . I could blame only other women who were more afraid than I.” Another woman dreams, “In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch.”
These little bits of history are things of which the resentful American daughters have no awareness. They do not understand the intensity of their mothers’ need to protect them from life, and they have little sense of their mothers as people. Instead, their mothers seem to be embarrassments—stingy, fussy old women. Pearl, in her old bedroom, finds her worn slippers and is impatient that her mother refuses to...
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throw anything away. Later, Winnie, cleaning the same room, takes comfort in these traces of her daughter’s childhood.
Tan explores not only the rift between mothers and daughters but also its healing. She believes in the power of love. The daughters have a desperate need to communicate with their mothers and one another which they do not even recognize, and as the barriers to communication begin to crumble, their first tentative steps toward reconciliation promise more.
Tan also examines a deeper question that she has stated as, “What in our life is given to us as fate, and what is given to us as sheer luck of the moment, and what are choices that we make?” The mothers raised in China were taught to believe in fate and luck. In The Joy Luck Club, An-mei Hsu’s mother is the widow of a respected scholar. She is befriended by the Second Wife of a rich man who is attracted to her. Second Wife arranges the rape of An-mei’s mother by this man so that he will take her as a third concubine, as she is now disgraced, and will stop spending so much money in teahouses, leaving more for the wife. When a son is born to An-mei’s mother, Second Wife claims the baby as her own. The mother eats poisoned sweet dumplings, telling her daughter, “You see how this life is. You cannot eat enough of this bitterness.”
An-mei points out again and again how her unhappy mother had no choice. Yet An-mei has learned from her mother’s suicide that choices can be made, and she tries to teach her American daughter, whose marriage is ending, to stand up for herself: “If she doesn’t speak, she is making a choice. . . . I know this, because I was . . . taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people’s misery, to eat my own bitterness.”
The mothers’ wisdom and finely drawn characters are revealed in all of these books by a peeling away of layers down to the unblemished heart. Though their lives have been harsher, the mothers are incredibly stronger than their uncertain, unhappy daughters. If the mothers were not permitted choices, suggests Tan, perhaps the daughters are weakened by having too many.
Tan employs a world of metaphor and symbolism, especially in The Joy Luck Club. A thematic title and vignette introduce each section of that book. For example, “The Twenty-six Malignant Gates” section alludes to a Chinese book that warns of dangers to children, and here each daughter tells of a problem she faced as a child. In an ironically titled story, “Rice Husband,” the shaky marriage of Ying-ying St. Clair’s daughter is represented by a wobbly end table, designed by her husband and ready to collapse. The marriage is further symbolized by the remodeled barn that is the couple’s new house, furnished in the husband’s preferred minimalist style, pared down and stingy like him. Ying-ying thinks “everything . . . is for looking, not even for good-looking. . . . This is a house that will break into pieces.” The Hundred Secret Senses adds the mystical elements of reincarnation and the World of Yin, while the vengeful ghost of Great-Granny Liu haunts the outhouse in The Bonesetter’s Daughter.
The Joy Luck Club
First published: 1989
Type of work: Novel
These linked stories reveal the intricate lives and conflicts of four Chinese mothers and their Chinese American daughters.
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 An-mei’s grandmother was dying, her mother returned to cut a piece of flesh from her own arm to make a magic healing broth. “This is how a daughter honors her mother,” An-mei remembers. “It is shou [respect] so deep it is in your bones.”
This same mother poisoned herself, timing her death so that her soul would return on the first day of the lunar new year to settle scores with the rich man and Second Wife, ensuring a better future for her children. Dead, she had more power than ever in life.
Lindo Jong, the daughter of peasants, was betrothed at the age of two to her first husband and became a servant in his mother’s house until their marriage. Although the family nearly convinced her that a daughter belonged to her mother-in-law and that her husband was a god, Lindo discovered herself on her wedding day: “I was strong. I was pure. I had genuine thoughts inside that no one could see, that no one could ever take away from me.”
Thus, Lindo’s willful and brilliant American daughter Waverly learns “the art of invisible strength” at six from her mother, who tells her, “Strongest wind cannot be seen.” Waverly becomes a chess prodigy, but her early confidence falters as she tries to outwit the mother she fears. The tension between mother and daughter seems strongest with this pair. Waverly wants to become her own person, but her mother wonders, “How can she be her own person? When did I give her up?”
Little Ying-ying St. Clair, daughter of the wealthiest family in Wushi, celebrated the Moon Festival by falling off an excursion boat at night and never found herself again. After an unfortunate first marriage, she lost her “tiger spirit” and became a listless ghost. Motifs of the dark other self, of dissolution and integration, appear in her stories, yet mother-daughter love forms a stronger bond. Ying-ying’s daughter struggles to rescue her mother’s spirit after the devastating birth of an anacephalic child, and the mother, in turn, tries to give her daughter courage to break free of an empty marriage: “I will use this sharp pain to penetrate my daughter’s tough skin and cut her tiger spirit loose. She will fight me, because this is the nature of two tigers. But I will win and give her my spirit, because this is the way a mother loves her daughter.”
In the final section of the book, the mothers connect their past to their daughters’ lives and encourage them to be strong. As a Chinese grandmother tells her baby granddaughter, “You must teach my daughter this same lesson. How to lose your innocence but not your hope.”
The Kitchen God’s Wife
First published: 1991
Type of work: Novel
Winnie Louie recounts her hardships in China and is reconciled with her daughter Pearl.
In The Kitchen God’s Wife, Auntie Helen confronts her friend Winnie, who has secrets, and Winnie’s married daughter Pearl, who has multiple sclerosis but is afraid to face her mother. Helen announces that they must confide in each other or she, who is dying of a “B nine” brain tumor, will tell everything. Winnie agrees and summons her estranged daughter.
Winnie’s mother, born into wealth and educated in a missionary school, had met a young revolutionary and threatened to swallow gold if her family did not allow them to marry. Instead, she was made second wife to her grandfather’s friend. Winnie remembers living with her mother until she was six, when her mother suddenly died or disappeared; she is never sure which. The child was sent away to relatives.
After a few years, a young man, Wen Fu, became interested in her cousin Peanut, but Winnie was a better marriage prospect because of her father’s wealth, so the Wens chose her. Though she did not love Wen Fu, she hoped for a better life. Instead, the greedy Wen family seized her dowry and sold it or used it for themselves. When Wen Fu began to brutalize and humiliate her, she was not angry: “This was China. A woman had no right to be angry.”
In 1937, Wen Fu joined the Kuomintang army under his dead brother’s name in order to qualify for an American-staffed flight school. There, Winnie met Helen, wife of another officer. Although popular with other pilots, Wen Fu enjoyed playing sadistic games. He was never injured in their bombing missions because, a coward, he always flew the other way.
As the Japanese army invaded China, pregnant Winnie was sent south to Kunming, where her first child was stillborn. After Wen Fu stole a jeep to impress a woman, he was partially blinded, and the woman was killed in an accident. From that time, his behavior became even more violent. He destroyed the hospital kitchen with a cleaver. His servant, raped and impregnated, died from a self-induced abortion. Winnie’s second baby, brain-damaged by his beatings, was allowed to die. Their son later died of plague.
When World War II was over, they returned to Shanghai, where Winnie’s father, a collaborator with the Japanese, was viewed as a traitor. Wen Fu offered to manage his business to protect him, then took control of his money and terrified the household.
Just as Winnie decided to ask her cousin Peanut to help her leave her abusive marriage, she encountered Jimmy Louie, a kind Chinese American officer she had met in Kunming. On a pretext, she escaped her father’s house and agreed to stay with Jimmy. In order to divorce Wen Fu, she hired a lawyer, but after his office was vandalized by Wen Fu’s thugs, he refused to help her further.
Wen Fu had Winnie jailed for theft and desertion. Jimmy, who would become her second husband, returned to the United States because of the scandal and waited for her there. After more than a year, Helen’s Auntie Du arranged Winnie’s release from prison and helped her to obtain a visa and airline tickets. Wen Fu was tricked into stating publicly that they were divorced so that he could have no further control over her. He returned to rape Winnie at gunpoint before she fled China.
Pearl now realizes that she is probably Wen Fu’s daughter, the secret her mother has kept from her. She tells Winnie of her own illness, and Winnie offers hope. She and Helen will go to China to find good medicine for Pearl, for Helen has confessed that she has no brain tumor. She merely pretended to be ill as a way to bring Winnie closer to her daughter.
The Kitchen God is the inhabitant of a small shrine left to Pearl by Grand Auntie Du. He was an unfaithful husband who burned in the fireplace rather than face his good wife. Winnie realizes, “I was like that wife of Kitchen God.” She determines to replace his picture with a luckier one. Eventually, she finds a statue of an unnamed goddess for the shrine and names her Lady Sorrowfree, advising Pearl, “She is ready to listen. She understands English. You should tell her everything.”
The Bonesetter’s Daughter
First published: 2001
Type of work: Novel
An American ghostwriter unearths the multiple secrets of her Chinese family, discovering the intense and confusing bonds of mother-daughter love.
The Bonesetter’s Daughter focuses on ghostwriter Ruth Young, her present life with an almost invisible lover, and the ongoing struggle with her mercurial Chinese mother, LuLing. Fully professional as she rewrites her clients’ books, Ruth is otherwise hesitant. After LuLing fries eggs with the shells on and prowls the neighborhood in her nightgown, she is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and cannot live alone safely. Reluctantly, Ruth moves in. LuLing, a fine calligrapher, presents her with a manuscript of her life in China, but Ruth resists reading it.
Narrated in the voice of LuLing, the manuscript reveals her story. Her nursemaid, Precious Auntie, was the daughter of a famous bonesetter, a healer who showed her a secret cave of “dragon bones” that, when powdered, would cure any pain or could be sold for profit. Liu Hu Sen, a gentle inkmaker from a neighboring village, sought the bonesetter’s aid after an accident and was soon betrothed to Precious Auntie. Coffinmaker Chang, a fellow suitor, was rejected.
En route to Hu Sen’s village, the wedding party was attacked by Chang, who coveted the valuable dowry of bones and left Precious Auntie’s father and bridegroom dead. Because the Lius refused to believe that Chang had murdered their son, Precious Auntie, grief-stricken and already pregnant, attempted to commit suicide by drinking boiling ink. She survived, but her lower face was severely disfigured and she could no longer speak. Protected by matriarch Great-Granny Liu, she gave birth to a daughter, LuLing, and was kept on as the baby’s nursemaid. LuLing was not told that Precious Auntie was her real mother.
Eventually Chang, learning that LuLing knew the location of the secret cave, sought to gain control of it by arranging her marriage to his son. Precious Auntie was helpless to intervene; LuLing alone could read her messages and understand her gestures. After writing a letter to Chang’s family, threatening to haunt them forever if the marriage took place, she killed herself to protect her daughter. Only then did LuLing learn the truth. She was sent to an orphanage, where she later met her first husband, a scientist excavating nearby caves for the bones of Peking Man. When Japan invaded China, she escaped to the United States.
As Ruth reads her mother’s manuscript, she understands better the bonds that connect her to her mother and grandmother. Accepting her obligation and her love for her mother, she prepares to care for LuLing.
Tan uses silence as a metaphor for loss of power. Although Ruth provides an effective voice for her clients, she frequently loses her own. LuLing briefly loses her voice at the orphanage and later forgets words, even her family name. Most significant is Precious Auntie, who speaks only with hands, eyes, and chalkboard, yet in death bequeaths her strength to her daughter and granddaughter.
The excavation of bones, as scientists come to dig for Peking Man, provides another metaphor for uncovering the past, revealing its hidden truths of identity, parentage, and name. Ruth’s discovery of her heritage brings her understanding and reconciliation, allowing her to become whole.