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The Joy Luck Club

by Amy Tan

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Exploring Mother-Daughter Differences

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Published in 1989, Amy Tan's first novel, The Joy Luck Club, remained nine months on the New York Times bestseller list. The book was considered a sensation and its success has not yet been duplicated by any other work of Asian-American literature. The film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club, directed by Chinese-American director Wayne Wang, was enthusiastically received as well. Though highly lauded, even Tan's later works The Kitchen God's Wife (1991), The Moon Lady (1992)—a children's story based on an episode from The Joy Luck Club, and most recently, The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), have not matched the legendary stature of Tan's first novel.

The success of The Joy Luck Club, according to Sao-Ling Cynthia Wong, is due in part to its "persistent allure of Orientalism." Other literary critics have attributed the author's achievements to Tan's excellent treatment of a prevalent theme in ethnic American literature: mother/daughter relationships. While most mother/daughter texts portray the daughter's struggles for identity, what distinguishes Tan's text from other ethnic novels, as Maria Heung points out, is the "foregrounding of the voices of mothers as well as of daughters." An analysis of Amy Tan's narrative techniques will explain how Tan brings the mothers' voices to the foreground.

The first narrative technique readers will notice is Tan's use of multiple points of view to narrate the stories, sixteen interlocking tales told from the viewpoints of four Chinese immigrant women and their four American-born daughters. (One of the mothers, Suyuan Woo, is recently deceased, so her story is told through her daughter, Jing-Mei (June) Woo.)

Tan's technique is relatively rare in literature. What is even more unusual is the portion of stories told from the mothers' points of view. The novel is divided into four parts. The mothers' stories constitute the first and fourth parts of the novel with the second and third parts told by their daughters. In other words, the mothers tell half of the stories in the novel.

Furthermore, the mothers are all depicted as strong and determined women who play significant roles in the daughters' stories. For example, Waverly Jong's stories portray her mother's power over her, a power so great that Waverly loses her ability to win chess tournaments after she becomes angry at her mother in the marketplace. Lena St. Clair remembers her mother's "mysterious ability to see things before they happen." Rose Hsu Jordan's mother wants her to fight her divorce. And Jing-Mei Woo remembers her mother's high expectations of her becoming a child prodigy on the piano. The presence of such significant mothers is one way The Joy Luck Club distinguishes itself from other mother/daughter texts.

Because of their significant presences, the mothers reinforce Tan's portrayal of tension existing in the intricate relationships between mothers and daughters. Gloria Shen notes that the Joy Luck Club "mothers are possessively trying to hold onto their daughters, and the daughters are battling to get away from their mothers." Lindo Jong may be the most possessive and powerful of the mothers. In both stories narrated by her daughter, Lindo often hovers over Waverly's shoulders as she practices chess; gives Waverly instructions such as "Next time win more, lose less"; takes credit for Waverly's victories; and brags about Waverly in the marketplace. Finally, Waverly, not able to bear her mother's boasts, says, "I wish you wouldn't do that, telling everybody I'm your daughter." The tension between mother and daughter then erupts into Lindo's prophecy of Waverly's future failures at chess. Lindo's prophecy is fulfilled; Waverly eventually gives up chess at fourteen. Twenty years later, Lindo Jong's power over Waverly nearly inhibits Waverly from reporting her forthcoming second marriage for fear of Lindo's disapproval. However, the daughter's battle song about getting away from her mother has a positive finale. Waverly's narrative about the conflict between her and Lindo ends with Lindo's acceptance of Waverly's fiance.

The mothers' overbearing presences in their daughters' stories are not meant to portray the mothers negatively. Almost all of the mothers' stories, in the first and fourth parts of the novel, begin with the mothers' concerns about the well-being of their daughters. In "The Red Candle," Lindo Jong addresses her story to Waverly: "It's too late to change you, but I'm telling you this because I worry about your baby." Ying-Ying St. Clair explains why she must tell her story to her daughter Lena: "All her life, I have watched her as though from another shore. And now I must tell her everything about my past. It is the only way to penetrate her skin and pull her to where she can be saved." The telling and the stories themselves demonstrate the mothers' efforts to ensure better understanding between their daughters and themselves.

Both mothers and daughters try hard to communicate with each other, but sometimes misunderstandings result from linguistic differences. As Victoria Chen points out, "The lack of shared languages and cultural logic remains a central theme throughout all the narratives in Tan's book." For example, Jing-Mei Woo laments, "My mother and I never really understood one another. We translate each other's meanings and I seemed to hear less than what she said, while my mother heard more [than what I said]."

Tan's shrewd ear for dialogue captures the linguistic differences well. The mothers' English is undoubtedly imperfect. Subjects, articles, and prepositions are often missing. Verbs often do not agree with nouns. After, for instance, Waverly becomes angry at Lindo Jong for bragging about her at the marketplace, Lindo says, "So shame be with mother? .... Embarrass you be my daughter?" Waverly desperately tries to explain, "That's not what I meant. That's not what I say." Lindo persists, "What you say?" Further communication at this point is impossible. Mother and daughter do not talk to each other for several days after the incident. In another example, Ying-Ying St. Clair's uneasiness with the American way of life manifests itself in the way she pronounces the profession of her daughter and son-in-law: "It is an ugly word. Artytecky." Similarly, An-Mei Hsu cannot pronounce "psychiatrist" correctly: "Why can you talk about this with a psycheatric and not with mother?"

As we have seen, the linguistic differences between mother and daughter are a feature of Tan's narrative technique. This language difference not only explains communication problems but also marks the cultural identity of these two generations of women. The American daughters are adapted to the customs and language of the new country; the mothers still dwell in those of China. Tan gives readers an allegory of the cultural differences between mother and daughter in the prologue to the first part of the novel, "Feather from a Thousand Li Away." The old woman in the prologue dreamt that in America she would make her daughter "speak only perfect American English." But now that the old woman's wish is fulfilled—the daughter "grew up speaking only English and swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow"—the old woman cannot communicate with her daughter. She waits, "year after year," for the day she can tell her daughter "in perfect American English" about a swan she brought from China with her and her good intentions. None of the Joy Luck Club mothers speaks perfect English, so they are not able to communicate their good intentions in a way that the daughters will understand.

Despite linguistic and cultural differences, the mothers are eventually able to help their daughters embrace their racial identity. Before Jing-Mei's trip to China, she denies her Chinese heritage. She remembers Suyuan Woo telling her, "Once you are born Chinese, you cannot help but feel and think Chinese." Whenever her mother says this, Jing-Mei sees herself "transforming like a werewolf." But after Suyuan's death, the rest of the Joy Luck Club mothers insist that Jing-Mei visit her half-sisters in China. It is during this visit that Jing-Mei comes to terms with her true identity: "[M]y mother was right. I am becoming Chinese." Moreover, Jing-Mei has become her mother by taking over her mother's place at the mah jong table, "on the East [side of the table], where things begin." Her trip to China culminates in her realization that both her mother and China are in her blood.

In sum, through first-person narratives and linguistic differences, Tan brings the mothers to the foreground. In other words, the heroines of The Joy Luck Club are the mothers. While most mothers in ethnic American literature sit silently in the background, Tan's Joy Luck Club mothers speak assertively. Disagreeing with popular assumptions that the Chinese are "discreet and modest," Amy Tan, in her article, "The Language of Discretion," urges us to reject such stereotypical views. Tan observes that "the more emphatic outbursts always spilled over into Chinese." Indeed, when asked why Chinese people commit torture, Lindo Jong, a strong, assertive Joy Luck Club mother, replies simply and emphatically, "Chinese people do many things. Chinese people do business, do medicine, do painting. Not lazy like American people. We do torture. Best torture."

Source: Shu-Huei Henrickson, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997.
Henrickson is an instructor of English at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Illinois.

Drowning in America, Starving for China

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The only negative thing I could ever say about this book is that I'll never again be able to read it for the first time. The Joy Luck Club is so powerful, so full of magic, that by the end of the second paragraph, your heart catches; by the end of the first page, tears blur your vision, and one-third of the way down on Page 26, you know you won't be doing anything of importance until you have finished this novel.

The main narrative here is taken up by Jing-mei Woo, a first-generation American-Chinese woman whose whole tone is tuned to the fact that she is, essentially, lost. She's swimming upstream in American culture, doing the best she can, but she's gone through several jobs, she's gotten into the habit of settling for less than she should, and her own Chinese mother appears to be bitterly disappointed in her. Then, her mother dies, and Jing-mei is asked by three old family friends to take her mother's place at their mah jongg table, at a social club they've been carrying on in San Francisco for the last 40 years.

Here is Jing-mei (who goes by the name of June, now), recording her first night as a bonafide member: "The Joy Luck Aunties are all wearing slacks, bright print blouses, and different versions of sturdy walking shoes. We are all seated around the dining room table under a lamp that looks like a Spanish candelabra. Uncle George puts on his bifocals and starts the meeting by reading the minutes, "Our capital account is $24,825, or about $6,206 a couple, $3,103 a person. We sold Subaru for a loss at six and three quarters. We bought a hundred shares of Smith International at seven. Our thanks to Lindo and Tinn Jong for the goodies. The red bean soup was especially delicious...."

Not the stuff of high adventure. But the original Joy Luck Club was started in Chungking during the last of World War II by Jing-mei's mother when she was a young widow, literally setting herself and her friends the task of creating joy and luck out of unimaginable catastrophe: "What was worse, we asked among ourselves, to sit and wait for our own deaths with proper somber faces, or to choose our own happiness? We decided to hold parties and pretend each week had become the new year. Each week we could forget past wrongs done to us. We weren't allowed to think a bad thought. We feasted, we laughed, we played games, lost and won, we told the best stories., And each week, we could hope to be lucky."

The reason that the men in the present Joy Luck Club buy stock now is so that every member can feel lucky and have some joy, because by this time it has become unacceptable to lose anything more. The four women who have consoled themselves in America for 40 years with friendship, mah jongg and stories, have already lived lives that are, again, unimaginable. On top of all their other terrors and adversities, their pasts have been lost, as if these horrors have taken place not just in another country but on another planet. Their deepest wish is to pass their knowledge, their tales, on to their children, especially to their duaghters, but those young women are undergoing a slow death of their own; drowning in American culture at the same time they starve for a past they can never fully understand.

The author leavens this angst with Marx brothers humor, making you laugh, literally, even as you cry. What can you do with a Chinese couple who name their four boys Matthew, Mark, Luke and Bing? What can you tell a mother who thinks she's getting "so-so security" from the government, or (as Jing-mei remembers her own mother deep in indignation about an irate neighbor who believes that she's killed his cat) "...That man, he raise his hand like this, show me his ugly fist and call me worst Fukien landlady. I not from Fukien. Hunh! He know nothing!"

But the understandings don't come merely from vagaries of language. The Joy Luck Club is about the way the past distances itself from the present as speedily as a disappearing star on a Star Trek rerun. It's gone, gone, and yet the past holds the only keys to meaning in every life examined here. On her first night at the mah jongg table, her mother's friends revealed to Jing-mei that she has two half-sisters still in China, and that the Joy Luck ladies have saved money so that she, Jing-mei, can go home to tell them about their mother. "'What can I tell them about my mother?' Jing-mei blurts. 'I don't know anything....'" But the book is dedicated by the author: "To my mother and the memory of her mother. You asked me once what I would remember. This, and much more." What results from this stunningly devotional tour de force is an entrance into eight separate lives: four women whose "real" life occurred in China, in another world in another mind; and four of their daughters, themselves grown women now. To say they are all products of conflicting value systems is heavy-handed inaccuracy, wimpy paraphrase.

Here, for instance, is Eurasian Lena St. Clair, Ying-ying' s daughter, translating her mother's Chinese to her Caucasian father, after Ying-Ying has given birth to her stillborn baby brother. Lena's mother cries out "...Then this baby, maybe he heard us, his large head seemed to fill with hot air and rise up from the table. The head turned to one side.... It looked right through me. I knew he could see everything inside me. How I had given no thought to killing my other son!" Lena translates to her sad, ignorant father: "...She thinks we must all think very hard about having another baby ... And she thinks we should leave now and go have dinner."

And, 15 or so years later, it seems inevitable that Lena should end up with a Hungarian "rice husband" (so named for all those Chinese "rice Christians" who hung around missionaries in China simply so they could get a square meal). In the name of feminism and right thinking, this husband is taking Lena for every cent she's got, but she's so demoralized, so "out of balance" in the Chinese sense, that she can't do a thing about it.

If, so far, I haven't done justice to this book, that's because you can't turn a poem into prose, or explain magic, without destroying the magic, destroying the poem. One can only mention scraps. The four mothers come from different parts of (and times in) China, so for instance, the author allows us to see one peasant mother, Lindo Jong, who remembers she was not worthless: "I looked and smelled like a precious bun cake, sweet with a good clean color." Lindo, betrothed at 2, wangles her way out of a horrible marriage with courage and wit. But another mah jongg lady, An-mei, has watched her own mother lose her honor and "face" by becoming third concubine to a hideous merchant in Tiensing. An-mei's mother times her suicide in such a way that her ghost can come back to haunt the house on New Year's Day, thus insuring a good future for her child, who, in turn, comes to America, has a daughter, Rose, who somehow rustles up the courage to defy an American husband who's trying to swindle her...

But the stories of the four mothers, the four daughters, are not really the point here. The Joy Luck Club is dazzling because of the worlds it gives us: When Lindo, old now, says, "Feel my bracelets. They must be 24 carats, pure inside and out," if you have any sense at all, you let yourself be led down a garden path into a whole other place, where a little girl in San Francisco becomes chess champion at age 6 by using her mother's "invisible strength," where a woman who comes from the richest family in Wushi (with boxes of jade in every room holding just the right amount of cigarettes) is given the name of Betty by her dopey American husband, who doesn't know she's already "dead," a "ghost..."

At the perimeters of all these stories are all the men, buying and trading in this Mountain of Gold, selling Subaru at a loss, each one of them with his own story that has yet to be told. The Joy Luck Club has the disconcerting effect of making you look at everyone in your own life with the—however fleeting—knowledge that they are locked in the spaceships of therr own amazing stories. Only magicians of language like Amy Tan hold the imaginative keys to the isolating capsules. Which is why we have novels and novelists in the first place.

Source: Carolyn See, "Drowning in America, Starving for China," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 12,1989, pp. 1, 11.

Your Mother Is in Your Bones

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In 1949, when the Red Army marched into Beijing, America's "special relationship" with China abruptly ended, and so hostile did our two countries become toward each other that people on both sides of the widening divide seemed to lose the ability even to imagine reconciliation.

Apart from the international crises, and even wars, there was another consequence, which, although more subtle, was equally tragic. Those millions of emigrants who were part of the great Chinese diaspora—beginning in the middle of the 19th century when indentured laborers went to California, and ending in the 1950's when millions of refugees fled Communism—were left almost completely cut off from their homeland. While the members of the older generation who had grown up in China before Mao Zedong were at least able to bring a sustaining fund of memory with them into exile, the younger generation was denied even this slender means of connection to the ancestral homeland. Seeing old China as hopelessly backward, and contemporary China as besmirched by Communism, many in this new generation of Chinese-Americans wanted nothing more than to distance themselves as far as possible from the zuguo, or motherland.

But, unlike the children of European emigrants, they had obviously Oriental features, which made it difficult for them to lose themselves in the American melting pot. Living in the confinement of Chinatowns with parents who spoke broken English ("tear and wear on car," "college drop-off") and who clung to the old Chinese way, they felt an indelible sense of otherness that weighed heavily on them as they tried to make their way into middle-class American life.

When political barriers began to fall in the 1970's, older emigrants welcomed the chance to end their long and agonizing exiles. But their sons and daughters looked with a deep ambivalence on the idea of having to awaken a dormant Chinese side in themselves. And so, as the exterior world went about recognizing China, re-establishing diplomatic relations and initiating trade and cultural exchanges, these young Chinese-Americans found themselves wrestling with a very different and infinitely more complicated interior problem: how to recognize a country to which they were inextricably bound by heritage, but to which they had never been. It is out of this experience of being caught between countries and cultures that writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston and now Amy Tan have begun to create what is, in effect, a new genre of American fiction.

Born in Oakland, California, in 1952 to a father educated as an engineer in Beijing and a mother raised in a well-to-do Shanghai family, Amy Tan grew up in an American world that was utterly remote from the childhood world of her parents. In The Joy Luck Club, her first novel, short-storylike vignettes alternate back and forth between the lives of four Chinese women in pre-1949 China and the lives of their American-born daughters in California. The book is a meditation on the divided nature of this emigrant life.

The members of the Joy Luck Club are four aging "aunties" who gather regularly in San Francisco to play mahjongg, eat Chinese food and gossip about their children. When one of the women dies, her daughter, Jing-mei (June) Woo, is drafted to sit in for her at the game. But she feels uncomfortably out of place in this unassimilated environment among older women who still wear "funny Chinese dresses with stiff standup collars and blooming branches of embroidered silk sewn over their breasts," and who meet in one another's houses, where "too many once fragrant smells" from Chinese cooking have been "compressed onto a thin layer of invisible grease." The all-too-Chinese ritual of the Joy Luck Club has always impressed her as little more than a "shameful Chinese custom, like the secret gathering of the Ku Klux Klan or the tom-tom dances of TV Indians preparing for war."

She is made uncomfortable by the older generation's insistence on maintaining old customs and parochial habits, which she views as an impediment to breaking loose from her parents' cultural gravity. What she yearns for is to lead an independent, modern and American life free of the burden of her parents' Chineseness and the overweening hopes for their children that they can't even "begin to express in their fragile English."

"At first my mother tried to cultivate some hidden genius in me," recalls June. "She did housework for an old retired piano teacher down the hall who gave me lessons and free use of a piano to practice on in exchange. When I failed to become a concert pianist, or even an accompanist for the church youth choir, she finally explained that I was late-blooming, like Einstein, who everyone thought was retarded until he discovered a bomb."

What she fears most of all is being dragged under by all that the Joy Luck Club symbolizes and transformed "like a werewolf, a mutant tag of DNA suddenly triggered, replicating itself insidiously into a syndrome, a cluster of telltale Chinese behaviors, all those things my mother did to embarrass me—haggling with store owners, pecking her mouth with a toothpick in public, being color-blind to the fact that lemon yellow and pale pink are not good combinations for winter clothes."

Part of June's struggle is to distance herself from the kind of helpless obedience that she recognizes in traditional Chinese women, and that she fears is manifesting itself in passivity in her own, American life. "I was raised the Chinese way: I was taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people's misery, to eat my own bitterness," says June's mother, spelling out the dangerously congenital nature of this Chinese female submissiveness. "And even though I taught my daughter the opposite, still she came out the same way! Maybe it is because she was born to me and she was born a girl. And I was born to my mother and I was born a girl. All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way." With a weary fatalism that speaks for June as well, her sister Lena confesses her propensity for "surrendering everything" to her American husband "without caring what I got in return."

However, after the death of June's mother a mixture of grief, guilt and curiosity, coupled with the relentless goading of the aunties of the Joy Luck Club, conspire to draw her into the very world from which she had so assiduously sought to distance herself. As the aunties talk over their mahjongg game, even scolding June at one point for her evident lack of interest in her parents—"Not know your own mother?" asks one of them. "How can you say? Your mother is in your bones!"—June begins to see her mother's generation in a different light. Rather than viewing the aunties as expressionless aliens from an opaque and distant land who hound and embarrass their children, bit by bit she begins to understand the real dimensions of the "unspeakable tragedies they had left behind in China," and to sense how vulnerable they actually are in America. Slowly she begins to comprehend how, after all they have endured, they might well be anxious and concerned lest all cultural continuity between their pasts and their children's futures be lost.

"Because I remained quiet for so long now my daughter does not hear me," laments one auntie. "She sits by her fancy swimming pool and hears only her Sony Walkman, her cordless phone, her big, important husband asking her why they have charcoal and no lighter fluid." It comes as a revelation to June that "they are frightened. In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America. They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who think they are stupid when they explajn things in fractured English. They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these closed American-born minds 'joy luck' is not a word, it does not exist. They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation."

When the aunties finally inform June that the two half-sisters her mother had been forced to abandon during the war miraculously survived and are now living in Shanghai, she is finally jolted into feeling the ways in which her mother is, in fact, still "in her bones." But it is not until she actually leaves with her aging father for a pilgrimage to China and a rendezvous with these half-sisters that the reader feels the intensity of heat building up, heat we know will finally fuse her to her hitherto elusive ancestral home. And when at last she steps off the plane to embrace these errant relatives who have grown up on the other side of the divide that once separated China from the United States so absolutely, we feel as if a deep wound in the Chinese-American experience is finally being sutured back together again:

"Mama, Mama," we all murmur, as if she is among us.

"My sisters look at me proudly.... And now I also see what part of me is Chinese. It is so obvious. It is my family. It is in our blood. After all these years, it can finally be let go."

As Amy Tan tells us of her own homecoming on the jacket of The Joy Luck Club, it was just as her mother had told her it would be. "As soon as my feet touched China, I became Chinese."

Woven into the narrative of the lives of June and her mother are the stories of the three other Joy Luck aunties and their California-born daughters. Moving back and forth across the divide between the two generations, the two continents and the two cultures, we find ourselves transported across the Pacific Ocean from the upwardly mobile, design-conscious, divorce-prone and Americanized world of the daughters in San Francisco to the World of China in the 20's and 30's, which seems more fantastic and dreamlike than real.

We come to see how the idea of China—nourished in America by nothing more than the memones of this vanished reality—has slowly metamorphosed in the minds of the aunties until their imaginations have so overtaken actual memory that revery is all that is left to keep them in contact with the past. When we are suddenly jerked by these sequences from the comforting familiarity of the United States into a scared child's memory of a dying grandmother in remote Ningbo, to remembrances of an arranged marriage with a murderous ending in Shansi or to recollections of a distraught woman abandoning her babies during wartime in Guizhou, we may readily feel bewildered and lost. Such abrupt transitions in time and space make it difficult to know who is who and what the complex web of generational Joy Luck Club relationships actually is.

But these recherches to old China are so beautifully written that one should just allow oneself to be borne along as if in a dream. In fact, as the story progresses, the reader begins to appreciate just how these disjunctions work for, rather than against, the novel. While we as readers grope to know whose mother or grandmother is getting married in an unfamiliar ceremony, or why a concubine is committing suicide, we are ironically being reminded not just of the nightmarishness of being a woman in traditional China, but of the enormity of the confusing mental journey Chinese emigrants had to make. And most ironic, we are also reminded by these literary disjunctions that it is precisely this mental chasm that members of the younger generation must now recross in reverse in order to resolve themselves as whole Chinese-Americans; in The Joy Luck Club we get a suggestion of the attendant confusion they must expect to endure in order to get to the other side.

In the hands of a less talented writer such thematic material might easily have become overly didactic, and the characters might have seemed like cutouts from a Chinese-American knockoff of Roots. But in the hands of Amy Tan, who has a wonderful eye for what is telling, a fine ear for dialogue, a deep empathy for her subject matter and a guilelessly straightforward way of writing, they sing with a rare fidelity and beauty. She has written a jewel of a book.

Source: Orville Schell, "Your Mother Is in Your Bones," in The New York Times Book Review, March 19, 1989, pp 3,28.
Critic Orville Schell is recognized as an authority on China.

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Critical Overview


The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan