Amy Tan Tan, Amy (Feminism in Literature) - Essay


(Feminism in Literature)

Tan's two best-known novels, The Joy Luck Club (1989) and The Kitchen God's Wife (1991), both showcase the complex and often difficult relationships between mothers and daughters—specifically immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters. Focusing on the nuances of culture and language—issues she discusses explicitly in her essay "Mother Tongue" (1990)—Tan uses humor and traditional oral conventions to explore generational disconnections among women.


Tan was born in 1952 in Oakland, California, to parents who had immigrated to the United States from China separately in 1947 and 1949. Tan was strongly influenced by her mother's storytelling about the family's Chinese heritage, and she later used oral storytelling as a narrative device in her fiction. Tan's older brother and her father both died of brain cancer in the late 1960s. After their deaths, her mother moved the family to Europe to escape what she believed to be the evil of their "diseased house" in California. The family settled first in the Netherlands and then in Montreux, Switzerland. Tan finished high school at the College Monte Rosa Internationale, where she was considered an outsider among the children of ambassadors, tycoons, and princes. Filled with anger and resentment at the loss of her father and brother, Tan rebelled and fell in with a group of drug-dealing social outcasts; she was arrested when she was sixteen years old. She later planned to elope to Australia with a mental patient who claimed to be a German army deserter. Shortly thereafter, her mother moved the family back to the United States.

Tan entered Linfield College in Oregon, where she intended to study medicine but decided to pursue a degree in English instead, much to her mother's dismay. She transferred to San Jose State University, where she earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1973. The following year she received a master's degree in English and linguistics. Tan enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of California at Berkeley, but withdrew from the program in 1976 after the murder of her best friend and a subsequent relapse into a period of anger and depression. From 1976 to 1981 she worked as a language-development specialist for disabled children. She edited a medical journal and worked as a technical writer in the 1980s.

Tan's first novel, The Joy Luck Club, brought her acclaim, and rose quickly on The New York Times bestseller list. She followed her initial success with another critically and popularly admired novel, The Kitchen God's Wife. Her other novels include The Hundred Secret Senses (1995) and The Bonesetter's Daughter (2001). Tan has also written a collection of essays and several children's works.


Through sixteen interconnected stories told by four immigrants from China and their four American-born daughters, The Joy Luck Club illuminates the nature of mother-daughter relationships in both cultures. An important theme in the novel is the impact of past generations on the present. The structure, in which the daughters' eight stories are interwoven with those of the mothers, implies that the older generation may hold a key to resolving the problems of the young. The Kitchen God's Wife also concerns mother-daughter relationships, but focuses on only one family and the tension between a woman named Winnie Louie and her daughter Pearl, who have persistently kept secrets from each other. Once they begin to reveal their secrets, they establish a connection. In The Hundred Secret Senses Tan delineates the relationship between two sisters: Olivia, an American-born daughter of a Chinese father, and Kwan, her older Chinese-born sister from her father's first marriage. Kwan's mystical belief in the existence of ghosts and previous lives clashes with Olivia's pragmatic attachment to the concrete and real. In The Bonesetter's Daughter an American-born Chinese woman named Ruth finds two packets of writings in Chinese calligraphy, and learns that they are the memoirs of her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease and has written down events of her life before her disease renders her incapable of doing so. Ruth works with a translator to decipher her mother's writing, and discovers details concerning her mother's past in the remote mountains of China.


Tan's work has achieved both popular and critical acclaim, and appeals to her largely female readership because of her ability to illustrate the common breakdown in communication that occurs between women of different generations. Critics have praised her complex narratives and storytelling as well as her poetic use of language in the evocation of a woman's search for identity within languages and stories that are often not of her own making.

Principal Works

(Feminism in Literature)

The Joy Luck Club (novel) 1989

The Kitchen God's Wife (novel) 1991

The Moon Lady (juvenilia) 1992

The Joy Luck Club [with Ronald Bass] (screenplay) 1993

Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat (juvenilia) 1994

The Hundred Secret Senses (novel) 1995

The Bonesetter's Daughter (novel) 2001

The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings (essays) 2003

Primary Sources

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Tan, Amy. "Mother Tongue." In The Best American Short Stories 1991, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, pp. 196-202. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1991.

In the following essay, originally published in The Threepenny Review in 1990, Tan explains her youthful embarrassment of and adult pride in her Chinese mother's use of English.

I am not a scholar of English or literature. I cannot give you much more than personal opinions on the English language and its variations in this country or others.

I am a writer. And by that definition, I am someone who has always loved language. I am fascinated by language in daily life. I spend a great deal of my time thinking about the power of language—the way it can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth. Language is the tool of my trade. And I use them all—all the Englishes I grew up with.

Recently, I was made keenly aware of the different Englishes I do use. I was giving a talk to a large group of people, the same talk I had already given to half a dozen other groups. The nature of the talk was about my writing, my life, and my book, The Joy Luck Club. The talk was going along well enough, until I remembered one major difference that made the whole talk sound wrong. My mother was in the room. And it was perhaps the first time she had heard me give a lengthy speech, using the kind of English I have never used with her. I was saying things like, "The intersection of memory upon imagination" and "There is an aspect of my fiction that relates to thus-and-thus"—a speech filled with carefully wrought grammatical phrases, burdened, it suddenly seemed to me, with nominalized forms, past perfect tenses, conditional phrases, all the forms of standard English that I had learned in school and through books, the forms of English I did not use at home with my mother.

Just last week, I was walking down the street with my mother, and I again found myself conscious of the English I was using, the English I do use with her. We were talking about the price of new and used furniture and I heard myself saying this: "Not waste money that way." My husband was with us as well, and he didn't notice any switch in my English. And then I realized why. It's because over the twenty years we've been together I've often used that same kind of English with him, and sometimes he even uses it with me. It has become our language of intimacy, a different sort of English that relates to family talk, the language I grew up with.

So you'll have some idea of what this family talk I heard sounds like, I'll quote what my mother said during a recent conversation which I videotaped and then transcribed. During this conversation, my mother was talking about a political gangster in Shanghai who had the same last name as her family's, Du, and how the gangster in his early years wanted to be adopted by her family, which was rich by comparison. Later, the gangster became more powerful, far richer than my mother's family, and one day showed up at my mother's wedding to pay his respects. Here's what she said in part:

"Du Yusong having business like fruit stand. Like off the street kind. He is Du like Du Zong—but not Tsung-ming Island people. The local people call putong, the river east side, he belong to that side local people. That man want to ask Du Zong father take him in like become own family. Du Zong father wasn't look down on him, but didn't take seriously, until that man big like become a mafia. Now important person, very hard to inviting him. Chinese way, came only to show respect, don't stay for dinner. Respect for making big celebration, he shows up. Mean gives lots of respect. Chinese custom. Chinese social life that way. If too important won't have to stay too long. He come to my wedding. I didn't see, I heard it. I gone to boy's side, they have YMCA dinner. Chinese age I was nineteen."

You should know that my mother's expressive command of English belies how much she actually understands. She reads the Forbes report, listens to Wall Street Week, converses daily with her stockbroker, reads all of Shirley MacLaine's books with ease—all kinds of things I can't begin to understand. Yet some of my friends tell me they understand 50 percent of what my mother says. Some say they understand 80 to 90 percent. Some say they understand none of it, as if she were speaking pure Chinese. But to me, my mother's English is perfectly clear, perfectly natural. It's my mother tongue. Her language, as I hear it, is vivid, direct, full of observation and imagery. That was the language that helped shape the way I saw things, expressed things, made sense of the world.

Lately, I've been giving more thought to the kind of English my mother speaks. Like others, I have described it to people as "broken" or "fractured" English. But I wince when I say that. It has always bothered me that I can think of no way to describe it other than "broken," as if it were damaged and needed to be fixed, as if it lacked a certain wholeness and soundness. I've heard other terms used, "limited English," for example. But they seem just as bad, as if everything is limited, including people's perceptions of the limited English speaker.

I know this for a fact, because when I was growing up, my mother's "limited" English limited my perception of her. I was ashamed of her English. I believed that her English reflected the quality of what she had to say. That is, because she expressed them imperfectly her thoughts were imperfect. And I had plenty of empirical evidence to support me: the fact that people in department stores, at banks, and at restaurants did not take her seriously, did not give her good service, pretended not to understand her, or even acted as if they did not hear her.

My mother has long realized the limitations of her English as well. When I was fifteen, she used to have me call people on the phone to pretend I was she. In this guise, I was forced to ask for information or even to complain and yell at people who had been...

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Victoria Chen (Essay Date 31 March 1995)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Chen, Victoria. "Chinese American Women, Language, and Moving Subjectivity." Women and Language 13, no. 1 (31 March 1995): 3-9.

In the following essay, Chen discusses the effects on Chinese American women of "dual cultural enmeshment," particularly where language is concerned, as it is explored in works by Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston.

It was not until the 1970s that Asian American literature became recognized as a separate canon and a "new tradition" of writing. While this "new" form of expression created a new political consciousness and identity, the images and stories that abound in...

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M. Marie Booth Foster (Essay Date 1996)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Foster, M. Marie Booth. "Voice, Mind, Self: Mother-Daughter Relationships in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife." In Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in 20th-Century Literature, edited by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, pp. 208-27. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

In the following essay, Foster examines the importance of individual voice in the development of Chinese American women's identities, especially within the mother-daughter relationship as Tan portrays it in her novels.

In The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife,...

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Title Commentary

(Feminism in Literature)


SOURCE: Romagnolo, Catherine. "Narrative Beginnings in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club: A Feminist Study."1Studies in the Novel 35, no. 1 (spring 2003): 89-107.

In the following essay, Romagnolo argues that the "master narratives" imposed on The Joy Luck Club have resulted in incomplete readings of the novel. She suggests that a return to the fundamental narrative beginning can result in a fuller reading of the novel's ideological implications.

Like virginity, literary introductions are...

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Further Reading

(Feminism in Literature)


Bow, Leslie. "The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan." In A Resource Guide to Asian American Literature, edited by Sau-ling Cynthia Wong and Stephen H. Sumida. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2001, 345 p.

A bio-critical essay, with bibliography, concerned with The Joy Luck Club.

Braendlin, Bonnie. "Mother/Daughter Dialog(ic)s In Around and About Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club." Synthesis: An Interdisciplinary Journal 1, no. 2 (fall 1995): 41-53.

Offers a feminist approach to assessing Tan's depiction of mother-daughter...

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