(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Joy Luck Club Amy Tan

(Full name Amy Ruth Tan) American novelist, screenwriter, and children's writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Tan's The Joy Luck Club (1989). See also Amy Tan Criticism.

The Joy Luck Club (1989) is Tan's most successful and widely acclaimed novel. It is regarded as a significant achievement in documenting the hardships and struggles of immigrants in America and in portraying the complexities of modern Chinese-American life.

Plot and Major Characters

The Joy Luck Club is a collection of sixteen interrelated stories, centered around the diverse emotional relationships of four different mother/daughter pairs. To escape war and poverty, the four mothers emigrate from China to America. In the United States, they struggle to raise their American-born daughters in a vastly different culture. The novel opens with the death of Suyuan Woo, the matriarch of the Joy Luck Club, a social group of women who play the Chinese tile game mah-jongg and rely on each other for support. Suyuan founded the club in China and later reformed it in San Francisco. Suyuan's daughter, Jing-mei, takes her mother's place at the east side of the club's mah-jongg table. Jing-mei's interactions at the table with her older “aunties” symbolize the generational conflicts that play a major role in all of the stories. Each of the mother/daughter pairs has their own personal and cultural conflicts that are unique to their situation. In each relationship, events in the mother's past deeply affect how she identifies with and relates to her daughter. Because Suyuan lost a husband and was forced to abandon her twin daughters during the Japanese invasion of China, she consistently pushed Jing-mei to succeed and make a better life for herself. But her mother's high expectations paralyze Jing-mei, who begins to doubt her own talents and abilities. “Auntie” Lindo managed to escape her disastrous arranged marriage by manipulating her husband's family. In America, Lindo's daughter Waverly becomes a junior chess champion whose achievements give Lindo a great sense of pride. Waverly feels that Lindo takes too much credit for her success and, eventually, she accuses her mother of living vicariously through her. This confrontation causes each of them to question their own personal identity and the respect they have for each other. “Auntie” Ying-Ying grew up in a wealthy family. After her husband leaves her, Ying-Ying is forced to move in with some of her poorer relatives. She emigrates with her second husband, Clifford, to America, where she is forced to change her name to “Betty” and adjust to an even lower standard of living. Ying-Ying's daughter, Lena, is a successful architect, but her husband doesn't value her. Furthermore, Lena's lifestyle and materialism clash with Ying-Ying's traditional Chinese ways, which she fears will be forgotten. “Auntie” An-mei Hsu's mother served as a wealthy gentleman's concubine. Because of her mother's occupation, young An-mei was raised surrounded by riches, but was not allowed to share in any of the luxuries. Her mother eventually commits suicide, giving An-mei a way to escape the life of a concubine. Rose Hsu Jordan, An-mei's daughter, struggles with filing divorce papers after her husband leaves her. Rose's indecisiveness comes from recurring nightmares, inspired by her mother's stories and her mother's assertion that she can read Rose's mind. The novel concludes with Jing-mei, who decides to discover the end of her mother's life story by finding and meeting her abandoned twin half-sisters. Her aunties give Jing-mei the money she needs to travel to China, affirming the healing effect of storytelling and the very real—if elusive—bond between generations.

Major Themes

The major theme of The Joy Luck Club concerns the nature of mother-daughter relationships, which are complicated not only by age difference, but by vastly different upbringings. The daughters—who have grown up embracing the American emphasis on individuality—feel that their mothers are “Old World fossils.” They rebel against the Chinese tradition of heeding their elders and pleasing parents above all else. The mothers are appalled at their daughters' insolence. They fear that their daughters' desire to achieve the American Dream will prevent them from ever learning about or understanding their Chinese heritage. Despite these fears, all four of the mothers attempt to give their children the best of both worlds. As Lindo states, “American circumstances but Chinese character. … How could I know these two things do not mix?” The painful events in the mothers' pasts and their “Chinese character” have a definite impact on their daughters' present lives. The power and importance of storytelling is another significant theme in the novel. One reason the mother-daughter relationships suffer is that neither generation speaks the language of the other—literally and metaphorically. The mothers try to compensate for this difficulty in communication by relating information through stories. However, most of the stories only frustrate their daughters, who are at a loss to interpret what they really mean. When the daughters—particularly Jing-mei—are finally able to see the true meaning behind their mothers' tales, they find that the stories are an important form of instruction and comfort. Issues of self-worth and identity are also central to The Joy Luck Club. All of the women (both mothers and daughters) wrestle with their past, their present, their ethnicity, their gender, and how they view themselves, as they struggle to construct their own life story and find a place for themselves in the world.

Critical Reception

Many critics have asserted that although the characters in The Joy Luck Club are Chinese-American, their struggles have a strong resonance for all people, especially women raised in America. Reviewers have studied the novel from a variety of angles and have generally agreed that the book presents a poignant, insightful examination of not only the generation gap between mothers and daughters, but of the gaps between different cultures as well. Critics have argued that the book works as an exploration of the issues that are vital to all immigrants in America—including ethnicity, gender, and personal identity. Some reviewers have identified the mother-daughter relationships in the book as part of a growing tradition of matrilineal discourse that is becoming ever more popular in America. Others have lauded the multiple perspectives presented in the novel, citing the work's multiple viewpoints as a unique strength that invites analysis on several levels. One critic has even analyzed the fable-like qualities of The Joy Luck Club, interpreting it as a modern-day fairy tale. Although several reviewers have argued that the novel presents stereotypical portrayals of China and of Chinese people, many critics feel that it addresses important universal issues and themes—common to all, despite their age, race, or nationality.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

The Chinese Siamese Cat (juvenilia) 1994

The Hundred Secret Senses (novel) 1995

The Bonesetter's Daughter (novel) 2001

Malini Johar Schueller (essay date Winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Theorizing Ethnicity and Subjectivity: Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club,” in Genders, No. 15, Winter, 1992, pp. 72–85.

[In the following comparative essay on Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey and Tan's The Joy Luck Club, Schueller writes that Kingston uses a subversive male protagonist to illustrate how ethnicity is socially constructed, while Tan uses four separate mother-daughter relationships to simultaneously embrace and thwart conceptions of ethnicity and gender.]

When women of color began to voice their estrangement from the theories and concerns of white feminists, they...

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Marina Heung (essay date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Daughter-Text/Mother Text: Matrilineage in Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club,” in Feminist Studies, Vol. 19, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 597–616.

[In the following essay, Heung addresses how The Joy Luck Club portrays mothers and daughters struggling to maintain female-centered relationships—through language and storytelling—in the face of cultural and social pressures.]

The critical literature on matrilineage in women's writings has already achieved the status of a rich and evolving canon.1 At the same time, in recognizing race, class, and gender as crucial determinants in writings by women of color, some critics have indicated the need to...

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Ben Xu (essay date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Memory and the Ethnic Self: Reading Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club,” in MELUS, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 3–18.

[In the following essay, Xu argues that the way that Tan constructed the story of The Joy Luck Club is similar to how an individual pieces together his or her past through memory.]

The Chinese-American milieu in a San Francisco neighborhood furnishes the main contingent of characters in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. What the four families in that book, the Woos, Jongs, Hsus, and St. Clairs, have in common is mother-daughter relations. The mothers are all first generation immigrants from mainland China, speaking very...

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Esther Mikyung Ghymn (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mothers and Daughters,” in Images of Asian American Women by Asian American Women Writers, Peter Lang, 1995, pp. 11–36.

[In the following comparative essay on Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior and Tan's The Joy Luck Club, Ghymn discusses the fable-like quality of The Joy Luck Club and studies how cultural expectations affect the mother-daughter relationships portrayed in the novel.]

The images of Asian American mothers and daughters as drawn by Kingston and Tan are so similar that it seems they have created a new set of stereotypes. Strikingly different from the familiar Madame Butterflies and Suzy Wongs, the new images of...

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Wendy Ho (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Swan-Feather Mothers and Coca-Cola Daughters: Teaching Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club,” in Teaching American Ethnic Literatures, University of New Mexico Press, 1996, pp. 327–45.

[In the following essay, Ho argues that Tan accurately and realistically portrays the complicated lives of immigrant Chinese mothers and their American-born daughters and that these fictional portrayals are instructive, especially when placed in the context of the oppression of women in China.]


Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club is not a book in praise of “Oriental exotics” or passive victims. Nonetheless a number...

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Michael Delucchi (essay date June 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Self and Identity among Aging Immigrants in The Joy Luck Club,” in Journal of Aging and Identity, Vol. 3, No. 2, June, 1998, pp. 59–66.

[In the following essay, Delucchi seeks to demonstrate how literature's “fictionalized life histories” contribute to social science by reading The Joy Luck Club as an account of aging and identity formation.]

This article uses George Herbert Mead's theory of symbolic interaction to examine self and identity among aging immigrants in Amy Tan's novel The Joy Luck Club (1989). Social scientists have largely bypassed analysis of fictional accounts of the Asian diaspora. My motivation for employing...

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David Leiwei Li (essay date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Genes, Generation, and Geospiritual (Be)longings,” in Imagining the Nation: Asian American Literature and Cultural Consent, Stanford University Press, 1998, pp. 111–17.

[In the following essay, Li discusses the emphasis in Tan's works, including The Joy Luck Club, on female familial relationships.]

Tripmaster Monkey and Jasmine's narrative claiming of America is almost entirely overshadowed by the meteoric success of Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club (1989).1 A book about mother-daughter relationships and cultural displacement and recuperation, The Joy Luck Club harks back to the familial rifts and reconciliations of...

(The entire section is 3200 words.)

Patricia L. Hamilton (essay date Summer 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Feng Shui, Astrology, and the Five Elements: Traditional Chinese Belief in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club,” in MELUS, Summer, 1999, pp. 125–45.

[In the following essay, Hamilton demonstrates how Tan uses the concepts of feng shui, astrology, and the Five Elements to enhance the characters in The Joy Luck Club.]

A persistent thematic concern in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club is the quest for identity. Tan represents the discovery process as arduous and fraught with peril. Each of the eight main characters faces the task of defining herself in the midst of great personal loss or interpersonal conflict. Lindo Jong recalls in “The Red Candle”...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Feldman, Gayle. “The Joy Luck Club: Chinese Magic, American Blessings and a Publishing Fairy Tale.” Publishers Weekly (7 July 1989): 24–27.

Feldman discusses the methods Tan used to write and publish The Joy Luck Club.

Harrison, Patricia Marby. “Genocide or Redemption? Asian American autobiography and the portrayal of Christianity in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club and Joy Kogawa's Obasan.Christianity and Literature 46, No. 2 (Winter 1997): 145–69.

Harrison explores the differing portrayals of Christianity in The Joy Luck Club and Joy Kogawa's Obasan, noting that...

(The entire section is 298 words.)