The development of Asian American literature can be divided into two periods. The first period was marked by the writers’ interest in an autobiographical approach to identify their relationship with mainstream American culture and to establish an increased awareness of their other cultural heritage. The second period began with the publication of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club in 1989, which heralded the emergence of a large group of Asian American writers who were interested in experimenting with various literary genres and styles in search of a medium that could reflect and depict their experience accurately. Besides rekindling hope for many Asian American writers, the success of The Joy Luck Club pushed publishers’ doors a bit wider. The book was succeeded in 1991 by Tan’s second successful novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife, and, that same year, by Gish Jen’s Typical American, David Wong Louie’s collection of short stories Pangs of Love (which won the Los Angeles Times 1991 Book Prize for first fiction), Frank Chin’s Donald Duk, and Gus Lee’s autobiographical novel China Boy.
In The Joy Luck Club, Tan intermingles intercultural and intergenerational conflict. The mothers who immigrated to the United States from China and still have very strong cultural ties to their old home want to raise their children in the traditional Chinese way. Their Chinese American daughters, however, feel trapped between traditional Chinese culture and mainstream American society, between their aspirations for individual freedom and their desire to satisfy familial and social obligations, and between their false and their true identities. The daughters eventually conclude that they are as American as they are Chinese.
Tan spoke of her constant search “to find a harmony between the self and the world.” Her thematic preoccupation with balance and harmony in The Joy Luck Club is revealed by chapter titles such as “Half and Half,” “Two Kinds,” “Four Directions,” “Double Face,” and “A Pair of Tickets” and in her skillful use of structure. The book begins with the mothers’ stories about their experiences in China and emigrating to the United States, and it ends with their conclusion that, much as they would like to believe they are still completely Chinese, they, too, now have two faces, a Chinese face and an American one. The daughters, on the other hand, come to the realization that “Once you are born Chinese, you cannot help but feel and think Chinese.”
Jing-mei Woo is first reluctant to join the Joy Luck Club, and she only halfheartedly accepts her Chinese name, though she mentions that it is “becoming fashionable for American-born Chinese to use their Chinese names.” She is not aware, however, that it is impossible for her to find her true identity without reclaiming her relationship with her ethnic cultural heritage. Only after joining the Joy Luck Club can she begin to understand her mother. The trip to China finally enables her to see that, together with her sisters, they look just like their mother: her “same eyes, her same mouth, open in surprise to see, at last, her long-cherished wish.”
Tan’s use of ancient Chinese myths and legends in The Joy Luck Club works well with her thematic concerns. In the story “The Moon Lady,” for example, Ying-ying St. Clair, who is told that woman is “yin, the darkness within where untempered passions” lie and that man is “yang, bright truth lighting our minds,” finds a friend in Chang-o, the Moon Lady. According to the legend, Chang-o took medicine that belonged to her husband and was sent to the moon as punishment. Tan uses Ying-ying’s story and the mythical story to lament the way women were treated in a feudalist society and to suggest that that way should be rejected in traditional Chinese culture.