Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1294
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 plays with it until the family leaves for the lake.
The boat the family has rented is a floating pavilion with elaborate furnishings and decorations. Alone at the back of the boat at sunset, Ying-ying dangles her legs over the side and looks at her reflection. Noticing the large full moon, she twists around to tell the Moon Lady her secret wish and falls into the lake.
By chance a fishing boat catches her in its net. Her rescuers leave her on shore, expecting her family to find her there.
Ying-ying hides in some bushes until she hears music and an announcement that a play dramatizing the Moon Lady’s story is about to begin. The Moon Lady in silhouette tells her story from behind a screen that represents the moon. As the play ends, one of the actors tells the audience that the Moon Lady will grant one secret wish to each person for a small fee. The audience breaks up, and no one notices Ying-ying leave the bushes and run forward with her wish.
She runs all the way to the other side to talk to the Moon Lady, who has left the stage. The actor removes both costume and wig, and Ying-ying sees, just as she is stating her wish, that the Moon Lady is a man.
The story returns to the present, and Ying-ying says that for many years she couldn’t remember what she wished for that night or how her family found her. She is certain that the entire experience changed her. But as she has grown older, some of the memories of the day have returned, and today, once again the Moon Festival, she has finally remembered her wish: to be found.
In “The Joy Luck Club,” when Jing-mei states she won’t know what to tell her half sisters about their mother, Ying-ying suggests telling them “what you know about her mind that has become your mind.” The theme of the mother’s way of thinking strongly influencing the daughter’s way of thinking is suggested at the beginning of this story; it becomes quite striking when all four of the stories about Ying-ying are put together. In this first story we see most clearly two motifs and the initial development of Ying-ying’s character.
The first motif, alluded to in “The Joy Luck Club,” is the Daoist concept of seeking balance: the yin and the yang. This motif dominates the novel. The Moon Lady sadly states, “For woman is yin, the darkness within, where untempered passions lie. And man is yang, bright truth lighting our minds.” The yin, or female principle, refers to emotion, passivity, chaos, wetness, and the body; the yang, or male principle, is logic, action, discipline, dryness, and the mind. Combined, they produce life. Out of balance, they bring misery, as the story of the Moon Lady and Master Archer suggests.
Ying-ying’s name, which means “clear reflection,” represents an amalgam of the two concepts. She illustrates problems occurring when life is not in balance. Her fascination with her shadow represents her yin, her undisciplined emotions. Her fall into the lake immerses her in yin and separates her from the yang, the structure and order, of her family. She is too young to handle so much chaos. Her response, suggested in the opening paragraphs, is to go too far the other way, hiding her yin and living entirely in yang. The reader will see the consequences of such an approach in future stories.
The second motif is specific to this story alone: the shadow. Ying-ying mentions it in the second paragraph, saying that she kept her real personality hidden “like a small shadow.” As a child she is amazed by it, saying, “I loved my shadow, this dark side of me that had my same restless nature.” The shadow represents Ying-ying’s emotions—her active, spirited self—her yin.
After nearly drowning, fearing for her life among strangers and being unable to locate her family among the throngs on the lake, Ying-ying states, “I felt I was lost forever.” The next mention of her shadow parallels that emotional state. Her rescuers leave her on the dock, and she sees her shadow again, “shorter this time, shrunken and wild-looking.”
The play Ying-ying watches from the bushes is done in silhouette, shadows against a screen. In it she sees a statement of Chinese belief about the true nature of women and men. Taking action has caused Ying-ying to ruin her clothes and to fall off the boat. Taking action also causes the Moon Lady’s woes. Ying-ying says of the Moon Lady, “I understood her grief. In one small moment, we had both lost the world, and there was no way to get it back.”
Ying-ying is too young to understand that the Moon Lady is an actor. When the young man offers the granting of a wish for a donation, Ying-ying says, “nobody was listening to him, except my shadow and me in the bushes.” Thinking it is really Chang-o, she runs up “to the other side of the moon” with her wish. What looked in shadow like a beautiful woman turns out to be a man with “shrunken cheeks, a broad oily nose, large glaring teeth, ... red-stained eyes ... [and] a [tired] face.” This Chang-o will not grant her wish.
Her family is gone, Amah is gone, and she can’t even trust her own perceptions. Ying-ying’s world is as lost to her as the Moon Lady’s. She recalls that both her wish and being found by her family “seemed an illusion … a wish granted that could not be trusted.” The reader will see in the other stories that Ying-ying spends the rest of her life trying to understand what she can trust, not only in the external world, but also in herself.
The reader must reflect on Ying-ying’s statement, “I never believed my family found the same girl” in order to understand her opening remarks describing both herself and her daughter as “unseen and not seeing, unheard and not hearing, unknown by others.” Even more pain lies in her future stories, ultimately leading her to keep her “true nature” safely hidden. This decision offers a measure of safety, but it also robs her of her energetic, trusting spirit. She remains tragically “out of balance” most of her life.
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