Illustration of the profiles of a young woman and an older woman facting away from each other

The Joy Luck Club

by Amy Tan

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Malini Johar Schueller (essay date Winter 1992)

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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 dramatized the fact that they had for too long been the objects of representation.1 The task of these women was twofold: that of deconstructing the male/female binary opposition of white feminism by interjecting concerns of race, colonialism, and imperialism; and that of constructing theories of “identity” (and I use the term deliberately with caution) for women of color. Understandably, it was the deconstructive project that was (and is being) first undertaken with great energy. To mention only a few critics, there were those like Gayatri Spivak who deconstructed liberal feminist literary criticism and revealed its investment in the emancipation of white women alone2 women like bell hooks revealed the concerns of Euro-American feminism to be restricted to those of middle-class white women;3 critics such as Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar questioned the politics of feminists who viewed imperialism as having been historically progressive for Third World women4 However, the task of construction has been much more complicated and fraught with ambivalences. On the one hand, women of color have had to emphasize their particular concerns, their differences from ideologies of universal womanhood—whether Anglo-American or French—while on the other hand they have been concerned about the problems of espousing a racial/ethnic essence. The concern with essentialism in feminist debates today, in other words, is also a major concern in theoretical discussions of ethnicity as well as in fictional works of women of color5 Here, I wish to examine the task of construction in discussions of ethnicity and show how a focus on representation and the discursivity of identity offers possible alternatives to the notion of a racial/ethnic essence.6 I argue that such a focus is not restricted to theory but is, in fact, a major concern in two recent texts by Chinese-American women writers: Tripmaster Monkey by Maxine Hong Kingston and The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.

Some of the difficulties associated with constructing ethnicity in the context of a posthumanistic consciousness are evident in Lisa Lowe's insightful essay on the Asian-American subject. Lowe stresses the heterogeneity of Asian-American culture in order ultimately to “disrupt the current hegemonic relationship between ‘dominant’ and ‘minority’ positions.”7 Yet it is necessary, Lowe further acknowledges, to keep the concept of ethnic identity “for the purpose of contesting and disrupting the discourses that exclude Asian American(s).”8 To completely give up the model of oppression in formulations of ethnicity is to give up too much. Indeed the most problematic use to which ethnicity has been put has been the one that depoliticizes the term, dissociates it from marginalization and oppression, and opposes it to a supposedly fixed concept of race. To this camp belong Anglo-American critics who invoke the ideology of the melting pot and, without any sensitivity to relations of power and dominance, see a similarity among all “ethnic” groups—Irish-American, Italian-American, African-American.9 Of course one only has to glance at the centuries of hysteria about racial miscegenation in the United States to see the problems in invoking such; similarities.10 Such a concept of ethnicity is of little use to women of color and must, indeed, be regarded with suspicion. The question seems to be the use to which ethnic definitions are put. There needs to be a healthy suspicion of definitions because it is precisely by using the strategy of restrictive definition and hierarchical binary opposition that the dominant culture has oppressed marginal groups. But this also does not mean that there is no political importance in appropriating the second term in the hierarchy and empowering it in slogans such as “black is beautiful.” However, such slogans are empowering precisely because they question the hierarchy; what is empowering is the act of appropriation “Black is beautiful” expresses a political solidarity but does not suggest that there is an essential “blackness” to be empowered. The difficult task for women of color, then, is to articulate a politics of resistance and difference without resorting to purely definitional conceptions of ethnic identity.

The first step toward such a construction is to think of ethnicity not simply as essence but as representation, as something linguistically constructed. (After all, it is representations such as the black rapist, the duplicitous Asian, or the passive Asian woman that are used to dominate and suppress minorities) While constructions of subjectivity by liberal white feminists have typically relied on notions of the singular, autonomous self, women of color have typically relied on collective and social subjectivities.11 Marxist theorists of language and subjectivity have similarly rejected the isolated, autonomous psyche of Freudian psychology for a conception of the psyche as a social and discursive entity. The psyche, according to Bakhtin, “enjoys extraterritorial status … [as] a social entity.”12 Experience is available to this psyche not in some immediate fashion but through a network of signs, most importantly, language. “Not only can experience be outwardly expressed through the agency of the sign … but also aside from this outward expression (for others), experience exists even for the person undergoing it only in the material of signs. Outside that material there is no experience as such.”13 The importance of a discursive notion of self in thinking about ethnicity is that it provides a powerful indictment of the idea of an essential, abstract biological self beyond language and society. It is a way of retaining the concept of identity, but as a social construct, constantly reformulated and reformulating itself through language. It is also a way of resisting essentialist definitions of ethnicity.

In Tripmaster Monkey and The Joy Luck Club, Kingston and Tan affirm a politics of resistance and difference and thematize the construction of a Chinese-American identity. Interestingly, representation plays a key role in the formation of ethnic identity in both works. Both works also emphasize the socially constructed, discursive nature of gender and ethnic identity. Kingston uses the discursivity of ethnic identity to completely subvert the idea of cultural origins while Tan uses discursivity to show how cultural origins are multiple and complex. In very different ways, the two works raise questions about ethnicity, identity, and difference which are crucial to the concerns of women of color.

Tripmaster Monkey is about the hopes, anxieties, fears, and angers of Wittman Ah Sing—first-generation Chinese-American, Berkeley graduate, fired retail employee, cynical lover, long-haired peacenik, passionate playwright—as he walks the streets of San Francisco reflecting on his place in American society and reading Rilke aloud to passengers on a Bay Area bus. It ends with Wittman staging a play for his Chinese-American audience and using the theater as a public forum to comment on the pathologizing of Chinese as exotic. In The Woman Warrior Kingston wrote polemically as a Chinese-American woman battling an oppressive white male culture and also deconstructed hierarchical oppositions between Chinese and American, male and female.14 In Tripmaster Monkey Kingston further problematizes and subverts restrictive ethnic definitions by emphasizing the complex processes of representation and interpretation involved in the formulation of any such definition.

In a sense, the entire novel is an extended meditation on representation. Kingston emphasizes the marginalization of people of color by rewriting the “classic” texts of white American writers. Her hero, named Wittman by his actor father, is the latter-day incarnation of the poet of democracy and diversity, the supremely American poet who embraces the high and the low, the bleeding slave and the Indian. But Kingston, by presenting her novel as a modern “Song of Myself,” compellingly confronts us with the fact that the prerogative to speak to and embody all America has always been a white male one: “‘Call me Ishmael.’ See? You pictured a white guy, didn't you? If Ishmael were described—ochery ecru amber umber skin—you picture a tan white guy. Wittman wanted to spoil all those stories coming out of and set in New England Back East—to blacken and to yellow Bill, Brooke, and Annie. A new rule for the imagination: The common man has Chinese looks. From now on, whenever you read about those people with no surnames, color them with black skin or yellow skin.”15

Kingston's appropriation of Moby Dick, the classic American epic, is an act of empowerment through which the Chinese Other can have a voice in America. And just as Kingston examines the hegemony of white American culture through its literary representation, thus emphasizing the discursivity of American identity, she similarly emphasizes the constructed nature of Chinese ethnic identity. Although Wittman despises the “Oriental Tea Garden” variety of exoticism, his own perceptions of Chinese people are influenced by the representations of Chinese in American popular culture. Walking the streets of San Francisco, Wittman sees “a Chinese dude from China, hands clasped behind, bow-legged, loose-seated, out on a stroll—that walk they do in kung fu movies when they are full of contentment on a sunny day” (TM 4–5). Interestingly, this is a description of a “Fresh Off the Boats” immigrant Chinese, one who should logically be the repository of an “original” culture. Kingston, however, suggests that the very idea of what an ethnic essence is comes out of popular representations. What Wittman is presented with, through the narrating voice, is both the nominal “original” and the second-hand represented simultaneously. Representation and reality, the socially constructed stereotypical and the experiential are inseparably mixed in Wittman's perceptions of ethnic difference.

It is, therefore, extremely significant that Kingston chooses the profession of playwright for her hero.16 Wittman is agonizingly conscious of the different social roles he plays and keeps a running narrative of the play he is currently writing. He constantly undermines and subverts the narrow roles assigned to Chinese people in American culture. Instead of conforming to the demure and decorous look of Ivy League Chinese, Wittman flaunts his long-haired hippie look. To the officer at the unemployment office who attempts to classify him as a potential retail manager, as his last job indicates, he insists he be listed as a playwright. As his friend Nanci, the aspiring actress, constantly finds, being accepted in America means playing certain ethnic roles. At her auditions, Nanci is told to “act more Oriental.” “You don't sound the way you look. You don't look the way you talk” (TM 24). Angered by the straitjacketing Chinese are faced with, Wittman vows to wrest the theater back for the Chinese.

Wittman's stage production literally becomes an arena for alternative enactments of ethnicity. The cast of characters, which includes nearly all the characters in the book, participate in Wittman's play based on the epic Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms. But these Chinese-Americans, despite the mediation of the play and Wittman's attempts to subvert narrow racial definitions, are still subject to essentialist racial interpretation. Reviews of the play praise it as “East meets West,” “sweet and sour,” and “singing rice,” much in the same manner as many of the reviews of Kingston's own works.17 Kingston does not suggest that the Chinese are simply the passive objects of Western definition. Like the natives who, in a colonial situation, internalize the norms and values of colonizers, the Chinese, too, see themselves through the eyes of their American viewers and enthusiastically applaud the reviews. Angered by the inability of the Chinese to perceive their own pathologizing, Wittman uses the stage to harangue his audience: “We're about as exotic as shit. Nobody so special here. No sweet-and-sour shit. No exotic chop suey shit. So this variety show had too much motley; they didn't have to call it ‘chop suey vaudeville’ … Do I have to explain why ‘exotic’ pisses me off, and ‘not exotic’ pisses me off? They've got us in a bag, which we aren't punching our way out of” (TM 308). Giving voice to the culturally marginalized is thus not a question of proclaiming the primacy of certain ethnic values over others—indeed. Kingston has her protagonist constantly scoff at what are perceived as particularly “Chinese” traits—but rather that of adopting a conscious political position of resistance to the oppressive definitions of the dominant culture. Indeed, Kingston makes her protagonist challenge these definitions by taking them seriously at the literal level and thus revealing the racial ideologies such definitions seek to hide. As Wittman shouts to his audience: “I'm common ordinary. Plain black sweater. Blue jeans. Tennis shoes ordinaire. Clean soo mun shaven. What's so exotic?” (TM 308).

It is also important to emphasize that this resistance to definition is part of a politics of difference and not a coded longing to be part of a common “American” humanity. Kingston's works have too often been misread as exactly that. The Woman Warrior, for example, has been read as an attempt of the narrator to escape from Chinese restriction to American freedom. Similarly Wittman's politics in Tripmaster Monkey have been seen as “his identification with the ideals of the melting pot.”18 But the ideology of the melting pot is a stance of pluralism and traditional liberal humanism. Humanism argues that at the end of all theorizing we are left with an essential humanity, a metaphysical identity which it is the purpose of activism to affirm and defend. The assumption is that although there are different social groups, these groups are positioned in relations of democratic equality and any consensual ideology emerges from an equal participation by all groups. Such an assumption denies the existence of class structure and the very real inequalities of power and position that all marginalized groups, particularly women of color, are subject to. Kingston, too, is conscious of the disempowerment of Chinese-Americans and is determined not to subsume their interests under the hegemony of a unified melting pot ideology. When Wittman rails about having “failed … to burst through their Kipling” and argues that in his play “there is no East. … West is meeting West,” he ruptures the hierarchical division which views the East as aberrance and challenges his American viewers to nurture a society of radical differences (TM 308). Instead of accepting the definitions of the dominant culture, Wittman argues for a strategic and political group identity. Knowing full well that the term “American” is used “interchangeably with ‘white,’” Wittman suggests that the Chinese politicize their identity. “It's our fault they call us gook and chinky chinaman,” says Wittman. “We've been here all this time, before Columbus, and haven't named ourselves. Look at the Blacks beautifully defining themselves” (TM 326).

Kingston's conception of social difference and her view of ethnicity as a represented, social construct are both intimately related to her rejection of the stable and unified subject on which both humanist and essentialist racial visions depend.19 The loquacious and energetic hero of Tripmaster Monkey, unlike the sage after whom he is named, is not the transcendent poet who can rise above the social-material world into visions of spiritual unity but the person of this world whose identity is constituted by Otherness and is always changing. Tripmaster Monkey begins with a vision of Wittman's body scattered into fragments as he laconically contemplates suicide much in the manner of Hart Crane's speaker in The Bridge. Throughout the novel, Wittman enacts changes of character and identity. Accosted on the bus by a Chinese woman who stereotypes him as the quiet Asian science whiz. Wittman plays the role to fit the part:

“I don't know what you say,” says Wittman. Know like no, like brain. “I major in engineer.”

“Where do you study engineering?”

“Ha-ah.” He made a noise like a samurai doing a me-ay, or an old Chinese guy who smokes too much.

(TM 75)

At other times, Wittman talks rap, wishes the Chinese had their own jazz and blues, and tries to appropriate the demeanor of the “heroic Black man” when he hears people at a restaurant cracking “chink joke[s]” (TM 214). Wittman thrives on being multifaceted, on driving his car like “an international student from a developing country” or like an “Oakie” (TM 208). At Coit Tower he plays at getting married to a white girl, Tana, by a man who is possibly a minister, while the production of his play turns into a marriage celebration as the Chinese actor-audience shower rice on the couple. Life and art, play and reality, Kingston suggests, are not easily demarcated.

Just as Kingston sees ethnicity and subjectivity as constituted by representation and social construction, she also views gender as a social construct and a site of difference. In The Woman Warrior Kingston had emphasized the variability of femininity and deconstructed oppositions between male and female, American and Chinese. Kingston “violate[d] the law of opposition making gender dichotomies proliferate into unresolved gender differences.”20 In Tripmaster Monkey she deliberately undermines any notion of an essential, singular female identity by making Wittman her central character and thus challenging easy experiential identification. At the same time, Kingston makes clear that gender boundaries are always constructed. It is significant that PoPo, the grandmother who has partly raised Wittman and to whom he is emotionally attached, calls him “honey girl” and “Wit Man.” And the guise in which Wittman most frequently appears subverts traditional gender and ethnic dichotomies. Wittman is the modern-day reincarnation of Monkey King, the mythological trickster figure from Wu Cheng-en's sixteenth-century novel The Pilgrimage to the West. As a figure of Chinese mythology the monkey is firmly anchored within the culture, yet subject to change. The monkey breaks taboos, is punished by the gods, but manages to escape difficult situations through trickery. He goes along with the monk on a pilgrimage to get Buddhist scriptures, but he demonstrates the real impracticality of Buddhist pacifism in fighting with devils. The monk is spiritual, devout, and unquestioning: the monkey is earthly, appetitive, sensual, and changing. Unlike the monk, the monkey can change into different forms and can see through the various guises taken on by devils.

Kingston's use of the monkey as the figure for the ethnic subject is an affirmation of difference and resistance. Like the Afro-American signifying monkey who dwells in the margins of discourse and who challenges the dominant culture by multiple voicings. Kingston's Chinese-American Monkey King speaks for the people of Chinatown but refuses a singular ethnic discourse.21 As a feminist of color it is important for Kingston to reject ethnic discourses which celebrate a singular Chinese identity. Such discourses belong to the language of patriarchal absolutism that women of color need to cast off. Kingston's decision to use a male protagonist instead of dealing directly with the experiences of women (as she did in The Woman Warrior) also suggests her determination to dissociate the concerns of women from simple biodeterminism alone. Kingston herself has suggested that the “omniscient narrator in Tripmaster Monkey is a Chinese American woman; she's Kwan Yin (the Goddess of Mercy) and she's me.”22 It is not as if Kingston associates her male protagonist with more “universal” values. Instead, she uses him to suggest the problems with gender dichotomies that equate maleness with singularity and universality and thus uses the occasion of the male protagonist to subvert gender oppositions much like she did in The Woman Warrior. The same is the case with ethnicity. If there is no “real” China or Chinese-American culture to valorize, there is no “real” Americanism that immigrants need espouse. Indeed, the striking feature of the book is that although it is so concerned with immigrant experience and the politics of assimilation, there is no Oedipal quest structure, the end of which is the attainment of a certain kind of ethnicity. There is, instead, a celebration of multiple enactments of ethnicity. Through Wittman, Kingston shows how ethnic identity as a shifting, constantly reformulated concept, related to an “origin” only through linguistic representations and fictions, is, in fact, empowering.

In contrast to Tripmaster Monkey, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club deals explicitly with the experiences of Chinese-American women and their acculturation in a new environment. The narrative centers around the lives of four Mandarin-speaking Chinese immigrant mothers in San Francisco who have formed a mahjongg group called the Joy Luck Club and the American-born daughters of these mothers. The narrative unfolds through the four different mother-daughter narrators telling the stories of their lives. Tan places a decided emphasis on mother-daughter relationships, and much of the work can be seen as a celebration of values such as nurturance and connectedness that have been seen by many feminists to characterize women as opposed to male values such as separation and autonomy.23 But Tan ensures that her work cannot simply be recuperated as an ahistorical feminism without attention to the particular status of women of color within universalist feminism. Like Kingston who presents ethnicity as a construct, Tan presents Chinese-American women's identity as resistance by appropriating (and thus questioning) the rhetoric of universalist feminism.

In order to appreciate Tan's appropriation, we need to consider the representations of women of color when they are the objects of feminist analysis. Aihwa Ong explains the dynamics of these representations as follows: “By portraying women in non-Western societies as identical and interchangeable, and more exploited than women in dominant capitalist societies, liberal and socialist feminists alike encode a belief in their own cultural superiority. … Studies on women in post-1949 China inevitably discuss how they are doubly exploited by the peasant family and by the socialist patriarchy.”24 Within white American culture the dichotomies between Western and Asian women are clearly seen as those between activity and passivity, freedom and restraint, independence and submission. Tan is aware of these dichotomies and attempts to undermine the imperialism within universalist feminism. In The Joy Luck Club Tan polemically records the marginalization and disempowerment of all women within patriarchal institutions—whether in China or America. While wives within the traditional Chinese family are taught to find satisfaction in waiting on their husbands and their families, in America the mass media insidiously reinforces the same subservience. As Lindo Jong, one of the Chinese mothers, reflects. “I hurt so much I didn't feel any difference. What was happier than seeing everybody gobble down the shiny mushrooms and bamboo shoots I had helped prepare that day? … How much happier could I be after seeing Tyan-yu eat a whole bowl of noodles without complaining about its taste or my looks? It's like those ladies you see on American TV these days, the ones who are so happy they have washed out a stain so the clothes look better than new.”25 Tan's subversion of the distinction between the progressive (Euro-American) woman and the traditional Asian woman is radical here. Lindo Jong, the woman who was married at the age of eight and sent to live with her husband's family at the age of twelve, is not only equated with the (ostensibly) free American woman but is also given the power to interpret her Western counterpart. Similarly, Tan uses another Chinese immigrant mother to voice the idea of the disempowerment of women across cultures and generations. Reflecting on the despair of her American-born daughter over an impending divorce, An-Mei Hsu concludes: “If she doesn't speak, she is making a choice. … I know this, because I was raised the Chinese way: I was taught to desire nothing. … And even though I taught my daughter the opposite, she still came out the same way! Maybe it was because she was born to me and she was born a girl. And I was born to my mother and I was born to be a girl. All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way” (JL 215). Tan's formulation of a common oppression shared by what is traditionally perceived as Chinese-raised and American-raised women again subverts East-West cultural dichotomies. Tan carefully relies upon and upsets these hierarchical cultural expectations. “Because I was raised the Chinese way” in the above passage, for example, strategically reveals the imperialist racial context within which such casual formulations are taken as completely explanatory. In another instance Tan deconstructs the myth of American freedom. Male polygamy in China sanctions the mistreatment of women and their relegation to concubine status, the humiliation of which An-Mei Hsu's mother escapes only through suicide. However, in America, the ethnic woman is subject to dual disempowerment of ethnicity and gender. The seemingly lovable Irish husband of Ying-Ying St. Clair proudly imagines himself having “saved” his Chinese wife from some hideous, unimaginable life and passes this myth on to his daughter. In reality, as Ying Ying reflects, she was “raised with riches he could not even imagine” and he had to wait for four years “like a dog in a butcher shop” before she consented to marry him (JL 250). Once in America, St. Clair, in a sense, enslaves Ying-Ying. He crosses out Ying-Ying's Chinese name on her passport papers, names her Betty St. Clair, gives her a new birthdate, and insists she speak English. “So with him, she spoke in moods and gestures, looks and silences. … Words cannot come out. So my father put words in her mouth” (JL 106). The result: madness.

Just as Tan depicts a common oppression of women, she also depicts a resistance through maternal bonding and nurturing. The novel begins with the death of Suyan Woo, mother of Jing-Mei Woo and founder of the Joy Luck Club. A woman of incredible strength and moral courage, Suyan Woo started the Joy Luck Club, a mah-jongg group, during the Japanese invasion of China. Amidst the destruction and poverty caused by the invasion, the women decided to create an oasis of good cheer in which they pretended to be rich and carefree. The novel ends with Jing-Mei Woo going to China to meet her half-sisters, the two daughters Suyan Woo was forced to abandon during the invasion but which she never gave up trying to locate. Jing-Mei Woo's journey to China is thus a journey back to her mother, a retrieval of her memory into the present. “Together we look like our mother. Her same eyes, her same mouth, open in surprise to see, at last, her long-cherished wish” (JL 288). Throughout the book we see the intensity and power of mother-daughter bonds. An-Mei Hsu's mother literally tears off her flesh and offers it in sacrifice in an attempt to revive her dying mother; Rose-Hsu Jordan is able to demand her divorce rights by imaginative identification with her mother; and Jing-Mei Woo looks for the memory of her mother to help her understand the present.

And this female identity as defined through the mother-daughter bond is integrally linked to ethnic identity. As Amy Ling suggests, the lost mother is a trope for lost motherland.26 The return to the mother is also the return to cultural roots; separation from the mother is a separation from one's own cultural origins. Ying-Ying St. Clair's determination to bridge the separation between her daughter and herself is a synecdoche of the narratives of separation and togetherness that inform the text. “There is a part of her mind that is part of mine. … 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” (JL 242).

But Tan builds up the romantic concept of cultural origins and lost ethnic essence only in order to radically undermine and reconfigure the notion of an ethnic essence. The narrative of separation and return—symbolized by Jing-Mei Woo's return to China/mother—on the plot level is questioned by the rhetorical structure of the text which undercuts any notions of simple identification of origins or of a cultural “reality” easily available for access. The experiences of Chinese immigrants in America and their past lives in China are not documented by a seemingly objective narrator but by a series of participants narrating their extremely subjective experiences. Tan's decision to have several mothers and daughters telling their different stories reflects her awareness of ethnicity as a constantly shifting social construct and her commitment to community. The mothers and daughters tell their stories within the framework of the Joy Luck Club, the purpose of which is to keep alive a memory of the past and create a community. Each section of the novel actually creates a different version of femininity and ethnicity. While the first section of the novel emphasizes the loss of separation from mothers, the second emphasizes the competitiveness of the relationship. Thus we have An-Mei Hsu's mother, who determinedly, despite the curses of her family, takes her daughter to live with her even though she only has the status of concubine; we also have Jing-Mei Woo, the Chinese-American daughter who wishes to understand and unite with the memories of her dead mother.27 On the other hand, we have immigrant Chinese mothers who project their cultural anxieties on their daughters. Waverly Jong's mother, for instance, parades her daughter's chess trophies and lectures to her about winning tournaments while Suyan Woo tries unsuccessfully to create a musical child prodigy out of her unmusical daughter Jing-Mei Woo.

Further, Tan's construction of ethnic identity is not based on a vision of a stable and unchanging China that can be recalled at will. Although the theme of estrangement from, and unification with, cultural origins is integral to the work, these origins are multiple and discursive. Part of Tan's purpose in having four different Chinese-born mothers is to introduce different versions of China, neither of which is prioritized over the other. At the most obvious level, there are clear class differences among the mothers' experiences of China. Auntie Lin's family in China revels in consumerism, surrounding itself with color TV sets and remote controls; An-Mei Hsu's family, on the other hand, is awed at having a relative in the land of consumer goods. More importantly, for the American-born daughters, the Chinese past exists discursively, in language, through the stories told about it by their mothers. Ethnic origins, in other words, are always already complicated by representation. For An-Mei Hsu, a Chinese mother, for example, “China” is a mixture of memories of her mother's suicide and of peasant uprisings that she reads of in magazines from China, all of which have to be sorted out by her psychiatrist (JL 241). The most interesting example of ethnic origins being based on multiple and changing representations is the history of the Joy Luck Club itself. Suyan Woo tells her daughter the history of the Joy Luck Club which she started in Kweilin, but the history changes with each retelling. Her daughter, who has heard the story many times, never thinks her mother's Kweilin story about the origins of the Joy Luck Club is “anything but a Chinese fairy tale. The endings always changed. Sometimes she said she used that worthless thousand-yuan note to buy a half-cup of rice. She turned that rice into a pot of porridge. … The story always grew and grew” (JL 25). In many ways, the club itself deconstructs traditionally perceived oppositions between history and fiction, the experiential and the discursive. The club is formed as a make-believe celebration of plenty during the devastation of Japanese occupation and thus has a fictive function. Yet the club survives as Suyan Woo's most “real” memory of the war period. The club is based on stories, “stories spilling out all over the place” (JL 24). The women tell each other stories about “good times in the past and good times yet to come,” pretending each week is a new year, and this self-consciously fictive club becomes the basis for creating an immigrant community in California.

Similarly, Tan's mode of narration questions the very idea of historical context as something that can be retrieved through a recording of facts. Tan uses a dialogic mixture of myth, fantasy, reverie, and historical facts without demarcating any as more true than the other and thus questions the truth status of a national history. Within “true” stories of the Chinese past of immigrant mothers, stories of arranged marriages and Japanese occupation, there are affective images of mythical women like the Moon Lady and grotesque images of destructive mothers dismembering their daughters. The concept of a Chinese woman's identity, Tan suggests, is a discursive one. Similarly, the last section of the book, which includes four narratives of mothers and daughters coming to an understanding, is titled “Queen Mother of the Western Skies” and obviously involves the figure of Queen Mother, the feminization of Buddha who appears (in White Lotus Buddhism) as the creator of mankind and the controller of time. The blend of myth and traditional historical storytelling that informs the narratives about China suggests that ethnic origins are always created and recreated in the complex process of social representation. To think of ethnicity as an essence is to fall prey to the fortune cookie syndrome, to create monologic definitions in order to manage differences. As An-Mei Hsu tells Lindo Jong about fortune cookies, “American people think Chinese people write these sayings.” “But we never say such things!” I said. “These things don't make sense” (JL 262).

Tan's simultaneous use of the motif of the return to origins and her complication of these origins raises a matter of unquestionable importance for women of color. Is it desirable for a radical feminist politics to view femininity and ethnicity as ever-changing social constructs? Is it possible to demand and affect social change without the construction of a whole and unified subject? The answer to both those questions has to be a yes if only because the alternatives are so dangerous. As an example of the problems inherent in momentarily positing a singular ethnicity and femininity we can look, for a moment, at Tan's text. The last chapter of The Joy Luck Club presents an idealized moment of ethnic identity, set deliberately against the multiplicities of the rest of the novel. The chapter concerns Jing-Mei Woo's trip to China to meet her two half-sisters whom her mother was forced to abandon and who have been miraculously located by the members of the Joy Luck Club. The trope of the lost motherland and the lost mother become one here. Jing-Mei Woo feels herself “becoming” Chinese as the train crosses the border from Hong Kong. “Once you are born Chinese, you cannot help but feel and think Chinese. … It is in your blood” (JL 267). The entire chapter enacts a rhapsody of ethnic identity as Jing-Mei and her father meet old relatives and finally the two lost sisters. Here Jing-Mei Woo understands an ethnic identity that is beyond language: “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” (JL 288). But while Tan celebrates this moment of ethnic wholeness, she is also aware of the problems that such essentialist concepts pose. Moments such as these deny the class differences between the tourist gazer and the ethnic subject and suggest an ethnic oneness that the text thus far has questioned. Tan therefore chooses to end her narrative not with this moment but with a commentary on it. The text ends with Jing-Mei and her sisters looking at a Polaroid photo of themselves that Jing-Mei's father has just taken, and with Jing-Mei recognizing her mother in the composite of the three sisters. Jing-Mei recognizes an ethnic identification but only through her active interpretation and by deliberately framing ethnic “subjects” in a momentary stasis beyond language.

Kingston and Tan succeed in creating a space for women of color to articulate themselves because they refuse to use definitional modes of locating gender and ethnic identity. Kingston presents a constructed and discursive ethnic identity by having her protagonist take on multiple roles and constantly enact versions of ethnicity, while Tan does so by presenting multiple representations of ethnic origins. The emphasis on the discursivity and contextuality of ethnic identity does not mean that Kingston and Tan are attempting to write from beyond ethnicity or that they are denying the importance of racial divisions in society. On the contrary, it attests to the determination of these women to use ethnicity as resistance, to articulate it in such a manner that it cannot be reduced to definitional criteria which have always been used to marginalize people of color.


  1. I use the term women of color deliberately in order to stress a political rather than biological category and also to maintain the insistence of many women of color (Alice Walker's use of “womanist” comes to mind) who have refused to use the label “feminist” because of its association with white feminism alone. See Chandra Talpade Mohanty's explanation of the term in the “Introduction” in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 7.

  2. Spivak's critique of feminists who touted Jane Eyre as a feminist text and ignored the relationship of dominance between Jane and the West Indian, Bertha, is exemplary here. See Spivak's “Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” Critical Inquiry 12 (1985): 243–261.

  3. bell hooks begins her discussion of the difference of women of color by pointing out how Betty Friedan's position in The Feminine Mystique assumed that all women were middle-class housewives with leisure. Constructions of womanhood under slavery, as hooks points out, clearly show the very different concerns of white versus African-American women. See bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1984).

  4. See Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar's questioning of Maxine Molyneux's endorsement of imperialism. Such thinking, Amos and Parmar write, implies that “it is only when Third World women enter into capitalistic relations will they have any hope of liberation.” Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar, “Challenging Imperial Feminism,” Feminist Review 17 (Autumn 1984): 6.

  5. The first issue of Differences (1989) was devoted to discussions of essentialism with feminist theory.

  6. The terms ethnicity and race have themselves been the objects of much discussion. Ethnicity has sometimes been seen as synonymous with culture, as opposed to the biological concept of race, or has been seen as a broader concept that, in fact, includes race. Some feminists have objected to the use of the term race because of its biological and definitional associations. Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis, for example, object to the essentialism they see inherent in the concept of race and favor using the concept of ethnicity instead. Ethnicity, they believe, can address the complex and historically specific conjunctures of ethnicity, gender, and class better than the concept of race. See Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis, “Contextualizing Feminism—Gender, Ethnic and Class Divisions,” Feminist Review 15 (1983): 63. Michelle Barrett and Mary McIntosh, on the other hand, argue in favor of retaining the concept of race because of its politically charged associations: “To reject the black/white distinction in favor of a concept of ethnic division is to reject the political, social and ideological force of racism in our society” (27). But while seeming to favor the concept of race in a somewhat purist manner, Barrett and McIntosh go on to use the term black in their analysis to “people of Asian, African and West Indian origin,” in other words, all marginalized people of color in England (28). We can clearly see that whether we use the category of ethnicity or race, the important point is to maintain the linkage of these terms to the politics of oppression and domination. See Michele Barrett and Mary McIntosh, “Ethnocentrism and Socialist Feminist Theory,” Feminist Review 20 (Summer 1985): 23–47.

  7. See Lisa Lowe, “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity: Marking Asian American Differences,” Diaspora (Spring 1991): 28.

  8. Ibid., 39.

  9. Werner Sollors' collection of essays, The Invention of Ethnicity, is designed to accomplish this purpose. Sollors rightly criticizes essentialist ethnic definitions but completely misrepresents the debates about ethnicity and race by insisting that critics who want to retain the concept of ethnicity want to do so in rigid, definitional form (xiii). According to Sollors' argument, the only alternative to essentialist ethnicity is a belief in the reality of the American melting pot (xiv). It is perhaps a revealing absence in Sollors' collection that there are no essays by the most well known but radical theorists of race who have never espoused racial essentialism—Gayatri Spivak, Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Barbara Johnson. Henry Louis Gates, etc. See Werner Sollors, ed., The Invention of Ethnicity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

  10. In the United States it is clear that ethnicity as a concept of marginalization and demarcation is used only with reference to people of color. Ishmael Reed cites the instructive example of a David Brinkley show in which three “ethnic” writers appeared: William Kennedy (Irish-American), E. L. Doctorow (Jewish-American), and Toni Morrison (African-American). Of the three, only Toni Morrison's ethnicity was cited. Thus, Ishmael Reed cynically concludes. “In the United States ethnicity is interchangeable with being black” (Ishmael Reed, in “Is Ethnicity Obsolete?” in The Invention of Ethnicity, 226).

  11. See Lourdes Torres, “The Construction of Self in U.S. Latina Autobiographies,” in Third World Women, pp. 274–275.

  12. M. M. Bakhtin and V. N. Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, trans. Ladislav Matejka and I. R. Titunik (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973), 39.

  13. Ibid., 28.

  14. I have made this argument in my essay “Questioning Race and Gender Definitions: Dialogic Subversions in The Woman Warrior,Criticism 31 (1989): 421–438.

  15. Maxine Hong Kingston, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (New York: Vintage International, 1989), 34. All subsequent references will be made parenthetically as TM.

  16. Based on a personal conversation with Kingston, Amy Ling has suggested that Wittman might be modeled after the playwright Frank Chin. However, Ling does not analyze the ramifications of Kingston choosing as a protagonist a playwright who has been extremely critical of her work. Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry (New York: Pergamon Press, 1990).

  17. Reviewers of The Woman Warrior praised the book for its “myths rich and varied as Chinese brocade” and prose that “achiev[ed] the delicacy and precision of porcelain” (Elaine H. Kim, Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context [Philadelphia: Temple Press, 1982], xvi).

  18. Tom Wilhelmus, “Various Pairs,” Hudson Review 43 (Spring 1990): 150.

  19. Some critics have seen Kingston's attempts as exactly the opposite. Linda Morante, for instance, reads The Woman Warrior as a text in which the act of writing “preserves the identity of the creator.” Linda Morante, “From Silence to Song: The Triumph of Maxine Hong Kingston,” Signs 12 (1987): 78.

  20. Leslie W. Rabine, “No Lost Paradise: Social and Symbolic Gender in the Writings of Maxine Hong Kingston,” Signs 12 (1987): 474.

  21. Henry Louis Gates uses the figure of the signifying monkey to explain the double voicing of African-American writing. See “‘The Blackness of Blackness’: A Critique of the Sign and Signifying Monkey,” Critical Inquiry (1983): 685–723.

  22. Ling, Between Worlds, 150.

  23. Feminist theorists have often identified maternal bonding as constitutive of the experience and morality of women. Nancy Chodorow, for example, identifies relationships among women as means that women evolve to maintain the feminine sense of self which, unlike the masculine, thrives on connectedness to others. See Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 169. Others see the productivity of thinking based on maternal practice or the importance of sustaining friendships between women. Sara Ruddick, for instance, finds in women a particular kind of maternal thinking that is holistic and open-ended (Sara Ruddick, “Maternal Thinking,” Feminist Studies 6, no. 2 [1980]: 342–367).

  24. Aihwa Ong, “Colonialism and Modernity: Feminist Re-presentations of Women in Non-Western Societies,” Inscriptions 3, no. 4 (1988): 85. Chandra Talpade Mohanty similarly writes how Third World women as a group are “automatically and necessarily defined as religious (read ‘not progressive’), family-oriented (read ‘traditional’), legal minors (read ‘they-are-still-not-conscious-of-their-rights’), illiterate (read ‘ignorant’), domestic (read ‘backward’)” (“Under Western Eyes,” in Third World Women, 72).

  25. Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club (New York: Putnam's, 1989), 56. All subsequent references will be cited parenthetically as JL.

  26. Ling, Between Worlds, 132.

  27. Lisa Lowe points out that “by contrasting different examples of mother-daughter discord and concord, Joy Luck allegorizes the heterogenous culture in which the desire for identity and sameness (represented by Jing-Mei's story) is inscribed within the context of Asian-American differences” (Lowe, “Heterogeneity,” 36).


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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.

Marina Heung (essay date Fall 1993)

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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 develop a distinct framework for understanding these works. For example, Dianne F. Sadoff has examined the literature by African American women to note that “race and class oppression intensify the black woman writer's need to discover an untroubled matrilineal heritage.” Referring to Alice Walker's adoption of Zora Neale Hurston as a literary foremother, Sadoff shows how “in celebrating her literary foremothers … the contemporary black woman writer covers over more profoundly than does the white writer her ambivalence about matrilineage, her own misreadings of precursors, and her link to an oral as well as written tradition.”2 Readers like Sadoff3 suggest that, although matrilineage remains a consistent and powerful concern in the female literary tradition, the recognition of culturally and historically specific conditions in women's lives requires that we appropriately contextualize, and thereby refine, our readings of individual texts.

In the realm of writings by Asian Americans, this work has begun. Although it does not focus explicitly on the idea of matrilineage, Amy Ling's Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry is the first book to outline the literary tradition of one group of Asian American women. Her effort, Ling says, is inspired by Walker's “search for our mothers' gardens.”4 Similarly, in a recent essay, Shirley Geok-lin Lim identifies Monica Sone's Nisei Daughter as a “mother text” for Joyce Kogawa's Obasan. In discussing these authors, Lim enumerates literary characteristics shared by Asian American and Asian Canadian women writers, such as “multiple presences, ambivalent stories, and circular and fluid narratives.”5 Lim's analysis points toward a commonality between Sone and Kogawa and two other writers, Maxine Hong Kingston and Chuang Hua.6 In Kingston's Woman Warrior and Hua's Crossings, antirealistic narrative strategies and a provisional authorial stance correlate with experiences of cultural dislocation and of destabilized and fluid identities.7 Thus, the works of Sone, Kogawa, Kingston, and Hua collectively define an emerging canon cohering around concerns with racial, gender, and familial identity and the concomitant rejection of monolithic literary techniques.

In Nisei Daughter, Obasan, The Woman Warrior, and Crossings, the theme of matrilineage revolves around the figure of the daughter. With the exception of Crossings (which focuses on a daughter-father relationship), each of these works depicts how a daughter struggles toward self-definition by working through the mother-daughter dyad. The daughter's centrality thus places these writings firmly in the tradition delineated by Marianne Hirsch in The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. Examining women's fiction from the eighteenth century through postmodernism, Hirsch notes the predominance of the daughter's voice and the silencing of the mother. This inscription of the “romance of the daughter” forms part of the feminist revision of the Freudian family plot.

It is the woman as daughter who occupies the center of the global reconstruction of subjectivity and subject-object relation. The woman as mother remains in the position of other, and the emergence of feminine-daughterly subjectivity rests and depends on that continued and repressed process of othering the mother. … Daughter and mother are separated and forever trapped by the institution, the function of motherhood. They are forever kept apart by the text's daughterly perspective and signature: the mother is excluded from the discourse by the daughter who owns it.

Interestingly, Hirsch's few examples of departures from this pattern are drawn only from the writings of African American women. As she suggests, the scantiness of this sampling of “corrective” family romances, incorporating rather than repressing maternal discourse, reinforces the argument that feminist writers need to construct a new family romance to move the mother “from object to subject.”8

Published in 1989, Amy Tan's novel, The Joy Luck Club, is about four Chinese American daughters and their mothers.9 Like The Woman Warrior and Crossings, the novel contains autobiographical elements. In an interview, Tan describes how she was moved to establish a dialogue with her mother: “When I was writing, it was so much for my mother and myself … I wanted her to know what I thought about China and what I thought about growing up in this country. And I wanted those words to almost fall off the page so that she could just see the story, that the language would be simple enough, almost like a little curtain that would fall away.”10 But despite Tan's explicit embrace of a daughter's perspective, The Joy Luck Club is remarkable for foregrounding the voices of mothers as well as of daughters. In the opening chapter of the novel, Jing-Mei Woo (also known as June) stands in for her recently deceased mother at an evening of mah-jong held by the Joy Luck Club, a group of elderly aunts and uncles. On this evening, three of her “Joy Luck aunties” give her money to fly to China to meet two half-sisters, twins who were abandoned by her mother during the war. In the last chapter of the novel, June makes this trip with her father. Her story (taking up four chapters) is told in her voice. The rest of the chapters are similarly narrated in the first person by three of June's coevals (Waverly Jong, Rose Jordan Hsu, and Lena St. Clair) and their mothers (Lindo Jong, An-Mei Hsu, and Ying-Ying St. Clair). Thus, totaling sixteen chapters in all, the novel interweaves seven voices, four of daughters, and three of mothers. In the way that it foregrounds maternal discourse, The Joy Luck Club materializes Marianne Hirsch's vision of a mother/daughter plot “written in the voice of mothers, as well as those of daughters … [and] in combining both voices [finds] a double voice that would yield a multiple female consciousness.11 But because the maternal voices in the novel bespeak differences derived from the mothers' unique positioning in culture and history, the subjectivities they inscribe, in counterpointing those of the daughters, also radically realign the mother/daughter plot itself.

In the chapter, “Double Face,” in The Joy Luck Club, a scene implicitly illustrates the incompleteness of a model of the mother/daughter dyad defined only from the daughter's perspective. Here, the central motif is a mirror reflecting a mother and a daughter. Interweaving the themes of vision, recognition, and reflection, this scene shows the limits of viewing identification as an issue problematic for the daughter alone. The scene is set after Waverly has persuaded her mother to get her hair cut. Lindo is seated before a mirror as Waverly and Mr. Rory (the hairdresser) scrutinize her hairstyle. Sitting silently, Lindo listens to the two discuss her “as if [she] were not there.” Her daughter translates Mr. Rory's questions for her, even though Lindo can understand English perfectly well. When Waverly speaks directly to her, she does so loudly, “as if [Lindo has] lost [her] hearing.” But because this scene is narrated from Lindo's perspective, her vision and subjectivity are in fact in control. Even as her daughter seems determined to nullify her presence, Lindo sees the superficial social ease between Waverly and Mr. Rory as typical of how “Americans don't really look at one another when talking.” Despite her silence and apparent acquiescence, she interposes herself nonverbally through her smiles and her alternation between her “Chinese face” and her “American face” (“the face Americans think is Chinese, the one they cannot understand”) (p. 255).

The scene turns on Mr. Rory's sudden exclamation at seeing the uncanny resemblance between mother and daughter reflected in the mirror. Lindo notes Waverly's discomfiture: “‘The same cheeks.’ [Waverly] says. She points to mine and then pokes her cheeks. She sucks them outside in to look like a starved person” (p. 256). Waverly's response exhibits her “matrophobia,” defined by Adrienne Rich as the daughter's fear of “becoming one's mother.”12 Feminists have analyzed the daughter's ambivalence toward identification with the mother,13 but Lindo's response in this scene allows us to consider identification from a maternal perspective. Much as Lindo possesses a “double face,” she also has access to a “double vision.” Seeing herself mirrored in her daughter, she recalls her own mother in China.

And now I have to fight back my feelings. These two faces, I think, so much the same! The same happiness, the same sadness, the same good fortune, the same faults.

I am seeing myself and my mother, back in China, when I was a young girl.

(P. 256)

With her “double vision,” Lindo is not threatened by her daughter's attempted erasure of her; in fact, she is moved by her daughter's resemblance to her, even as she registers Waverly's response. Lindo's perspective is informed by her personal history and by her ability to bridge time and cultures. At the same time, Lindo's knowledge of family history provides one key to her sense of ethnic identity. As critics have noted, in writings by Asian American women, issues of matrilineage are closely bound with those of acculturation and race. Thus, Shirley Lim writes: “The essential thematics of maternality is also the story of race … [The mother] is the figure not only of maternality but also of racial consciousness.”14 But in presenting the mother as the potent symbol of ethnic identity, Lim implicitly adopts the perspective of the daughter. In her scheme, the mother's primary role is to set into motion the daughter's working through toward a separate selfhood and a new racial identity. Yet this elevation of the daughter as the figure around whom the “dangers of rupture and displaced selves” converge15 marginalizes maternal subjectivity and voicing. But surely the issues of identification, differentiation, and ethnic identity have meaning for mothers as well, and this meaning must to a significant degree devolve from their relationships with their own mothers. As exemplified in this episode in “Double Face,” The Joy Luck Club moves maternality to the center. It locates subjectivity in the maternal and uses it as a pivot between the past and the present. In so doing, it reclaims maternal difference and reframes our understanding of daughterly difference as well.

Recent feminist revisions of the Freudian Oedipal family romance assume a culturally and historically specific model of the nuclear family. In her influential book, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender, Nancy Chodorow shows how the institution of motherhood based on childcare provided by women sustains the central problematics of separation and differentiation for daughters.16 Using a paradigm that is white, middle-class, and Western, Chodorow's analysis is not universally applicable. In this vein, Dianne E Sadoff and Ruth Perry and Martine Watson Brownley show how the Black family, distorted through the history of slavery in particular, needs to be understood through alternative models.17 Such a culturally specific critique needs to be applied to the traditional Chinese family as well. Because of their historical devaluation, women in the Chinese family are regarded as disposable property or detachable appendages despite their crucial role in maintaining the family line through childbearing. Regarded as expendable “objects to be invested in or bartered,” the marginal status of Chinese women shows itself in their forced transfer from natal families to other families through the practice of arranged marriage, concubinage, adoption, and pawning.18 The position of women—as daughters, wives, and mothers—in Chinese society is therefore markedly provisional, with their status and expendability fluctuating according to their families' economic circumstances, their ability to bear male heirs, and the proclivities of authority figures in their lives.

This pattern of radical rupture within families is illustrated by the family histories of An-Mei, Lindo, and Ying-Ying in The Joy Luck Club. As a child, An-Mei is raised by her grandmother; she has only confused memories of her mother. One day, when her grandmother is dying, her mother appears and removes her to Shanghai; An-Mei is then adopted into a new family where her mother is the fourth concubine of a wealthy merchant.

In contrast to An-Mei, Lindo is removed from her natal family through marriage, not adoption. At age two, Lindo is engaged to a young boy who is a stranger to her. A bride in an arranged marriage at sixteen, Lindo finally succeeds in freeing herself through a ruse by which she convinces her husband's family to find a concubine for him.

Like Lindo, Ying-Ying is chosen as a bride by a stranger, a man who associates deflowering her with the act of kai gwa (“open the watermelon”). A “wild and stubborn” girl in her youth, Ying-Ying's spirit is destroyed in this brutal marriage. Later, when she is pregnant, her husband leaves her for another woman; she decides to get an abortion.

In The Joy Luck Club, family allegiances are complicated and disrupted within a kinship system in which blood ties are replaced by a network of alternate affiliations. When Lindo is engaged to the son of the Huang family, for instance, her family relationships are immediately reconfigurated. Her mother starts treating her “as if [she] belonged to someone else,” and she begins to be referred to as her future mother-in-law's daughter.

For An-Mei, the breakage and realignment of relationships involving parents and siblings are even more radical and arbitrary. When her mother removes her from her grandmother's household, her brother—her mother's first son—is left behind because patrilineal claims on male children cannot be challenged. After her adoption into her new family, An-Mei is introduced to three other wives in the family—each a potential surrogate mother. For instance, her mother tells her to call the Second Wife “Big Mother.” She also acquires a new brother, Syaudi, who now becomes her “littlest brother” (p. 230). But An-Mei has to undergo one final upheaval when she finds out that Syaudi is truly her brother by blood and not adoption. This happens when her mother's attendant tells her how An-Mei's mother was forced into concubinage and bore a son; this son was then adopted by the Second Wife as her own. In this way, An-Mei makes a shocking discovery: “That was how I learned that the baby Syaudi was really my mother's son, my littlest brother” (p. 237).

Unlike Lindo and An-Mei, Suyuan Woo (June's mother) sees her family dispersed as a result of cataclysmic historical events. During the Japanese bombardment of Kweilin during the war, she is forced to flee south without her husband; discarding her possessions along the way and desperate for food, she finally abandons her twin daughters on the road. Later in America, her new daughter, June, grows up with the knowledge of a truncated family, haunted by her mother's words: “Your father is not my first husband. You are not those babies” (p. 26).

These stories of disrupted family connections, of divided, multiplied, and constantly realigned perceptions of kinship, constitute a pattern clearly diverging from the monolithic paradigm of the nuclear family. In The Joy Luck Club, their experiences of broken and fluctuating family bonds inspire Lindo, An-Mei, and Ying-Ying to construct stories of bonding with the mother precisely in answer to their memories of profound rupture and abandonment. Speaking from their experiences of mother loss, these immigrant mothers offer altered versions of the “romance of the daughter.” Whereas typical versions of this romance highlight generational conflict and the repression of the mother, An-Mei, Lindo, and Ying-Ying construct consoling tales enacting a fantasy of symbiosis with the maternal. Recalling her first sight of her mother after a long separation, An-Mei describes how their exchange of gazes locks them into instant identification: “[My mother] looked up. And when she did, I saw my own face looking back at me” (p. 45). An-Mei also privileges her mother's story about two turtles joined through suffering; from this parable of shared grief, An-Mei derives a message connecting her to her mother: “That was our fate, to live like two turtles seeing the watery world together from the bottom of the little pond” (p. 217). In this way, An-Mei transforms common experiences of pain and victimization into testimonials of mother/daughter bonding. Similarly, instead of feeling outrage at her mother's collaboration in her arranged betrothal and marriage, Lindo actually chooses collusion with her mother, behaving as the proper daughter-in-law so that her mother will not lose face (p. 55).

However, years later, in America, Lindo's assertion of instinctive bonding with her mother is contested by new realities. She comes to regret how her mother “did not see how [her] face changed over the years. How [her] mouth began to droop. How [she] began to worry but still did not lose [her] hair …” (p. 257). Acknowledging these inevitable changes in herself, Lindo implicitly admits the loss of symbiosis. Her transplantation into American culture and her advancing age have made her face no longer a perfect match of her mother's. Quite simply, her new “double face” reflects her changed cultural identity: “I think about our two faces. I think about my intentions. Which one is American? Which one is Chinese? Which one is better? If you show one, you must also sacrifice the other” (p. 266).

At the same time, Lindo's recognition of her own doubled identity has implications for how she understands her relationship with her daughter. Like her, Waverly is the product of two cultures, but Lindo sees that Waverly's experience of cultural mixing is different from her own: “Only her skin and hair are Chinese. Inside—she is all American-made” (p. 254). The otherness of her daughter's hybridized self for Lindo makes it unlikely that mother and daughter can achieve perfect identification: the burden of differences in personal history and cultural conditioning is too great. Yet, in The Joy Luck Club, the mothers' ability to accept their own loss of the maternal image also enables them to separate from their daughters. As Ying-Ying says: “I think this to myself even though I love my daughter. She and I have shared the same body. There is part of her mind that is part of mine. But when she was born, she sprang from me like a slippery fish, and has been swimming away from me since” (p. 242). Thus, in Tan's novel, the maternal experience of generational conflict and differentiation takes into account the realities of cultural difference; through this awareness, the Joy Luck mothers can negotiate their ambivalences about their daughters' desires for cultural assimilation and autonomous selfhood.

As the essential medium of subjectivity, language is the ground for playing out cultural differences. Gloria Anzaldúa has written about her language use as an insignia of her “borderlands” identity situated between Mexico and America: “Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language. Until I can accept as legitimate Chicano Texas Spanish, Tex Mex and all the other languages I speak, I cannot accept the legitimacy of myself.” The speaker of this “language of Borderlands,” Anzaldúa suggests, has the freedom to “switch codes” at will; it is a “bastard” language located at the “juncture of culture [where] languages cross-pollinate and are revitalized.”19 In The Joy Luck Club, the language of the mothers—their border language—marks their positioning between two cultures. However, in exposing linguistic limits, the novel also argues for reclaiming language as an instrument of intersubjectivity and dialogue, and as a medium of transmission from mothers to daughters.

In the novel, the daughters understand Chinese, but they speak English exclusively. The mothers, in contrast, speak a version of Anzaldúa's “language of the Borderlands,” a patois of Chinese and English that often confuses their daughters. Observing her aunties, June thinks: “The Joy Luck aunties begin to make small talk, not really listening to each other. They speak in their special language, half in broken English, half in their own Chinese dialect” (p. 34). Embarrassing at times to the daughters, this language is a form of self-inscription in an alien culture, a way of preserving significance in the new reality of America. For one, the nuggets of foreign words incorporated into this speech duplicate aspects of self-identity that have no equivalent in another language. Words like lihai, chuming and nengkan must remain in their original Chinese in order to retain their power and meaning. For Ying-Ying, the essence of her youthful character before she became a lost soul, a “ghost,” is contained in the word lihai: “When I was a young girl in Wushi, I was lihai. Wild and stubborn. I wore a smirk on my face. Too good to listen” (p. 243). Her confidence in her special knowledge is expressed by chuming, referring to her “inside knowledge of things” (p. 248). For Rose, nengkan expresses her mother's ability to act on pure will and determination, as shown in An-Mei's summoning of her son's spirit after he has drowned at the beach (pp. 121–31). On another occasion, An-Mei's command of this hybrid language enables her to articulate, on her daughter's behalf, Rose's disorientation during her divorce. When An-Mei complains that Rose's psychiatrist is making her hulihudu and heimongmong, Rose ponders: “It was true. And everything around me seemed to be heimongmong. These were words I have never thought about in English terms. I suppose the closest in meaning would be ‘confused’ and ‘dark fog’” (p. 188).

In discussing the use of “multilanguedness” in women's writings, Patricia Yaeger suggests that the “incorporation of a second language can function … as a subversive gesture representing an alternative form of speech which can both disrupt the repressions of authoritative discourse and still welcome or shelter themes that have not yet found a voice in the … primary language.”20 Although Yaeger is concerned with specific narrative strategies used in women's texts, her analysis has resonance for the significance of maternal speech in The Joy Luck Club. Without being overtly political or subversive, the mothers' bilingualism in the novel is nonetheless strategic. Switching from English to Chinese can express rejection and anger, as when June's mother berates her for not trying hard enough at her piano playing: “‘So ungrateful,’ I heard her mutter in Chinese. ‘If she had as much talent as she has temper, she would be famous now’” (p. 136). Or, the switching of codes may initiate a shift into a different register of intimacy, as when the same mother speaks in Chinese when making her daughter a gift of a jade pendant (p. 208). To express her resentment against an American husband who persistently puts English words in her mouth, Ying-Ying uses Chinese exclusively with her daughter (p. 106). Deliberate deformations of language, too, are used to convey veiled criticisms, as when Ying-Ying snidely refers to her daughter's profession as an architect as “arty-tecky” (p. 242), and An-Mei dismisses Rose's psychiatrist as “psyche-tricks” (p. 188). Finally, the use of Chinese is a form of resistance to a hegemonic culture. In the following exchange, initiated when Waverly slyly asks about the difference between Jewish and Chinese mah-jong, Lindo's use of Chinese is self-reflexive; her switch from English to Chinese in itself expresses her sense of cultural difference and superiority.

“Entirely different kind of playing,” she said in her English explanation voice. “Jewish mah jong, they watch only for their own tile, play only with their eyes.”

Then she switched to Chinese: “Chinese mah jong, you must play using your head, very tricky. You must watch what everybody else throws away and keep that in your head as well. And if nobody plays well, then the game becomes like Jewish mah jong. Why play? There's no strategy. You're just watching people make mistakes.”

(P. 33)

In The Joy Luck Club, “multilanguedness” bears the imprint of their speakers' unique cultural positioning, but this assertion of difference is also vexed by its potential to confuse and exclude. For the daughters, the special meaning of maternal language requires translation. After her mother's death, June thinks: “My mother and I never really understood each other. We translated each other's meanings and I seemed to hear less than what was said, while my mother heard more” (p. 37). Another question is how effectively maternal language functions as a medium of transmission between generations. The mothers in the novel worry that the family history and knowledge preserved in their hybrid language will be elided after their deaths. At one point, June comes to understand how important it is for her aunties to preserve the meaning of “joy luck”: “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 from generation to generation” (pp. 40–41).

Hybrid in its origins, maternal language in The Joy Luck Club possesses multiple, even contradictory, meanings. As an assertion of cultural identity, it both communicates and obfuscates. At the same time, it stands in counterpoint to maternal silence. To the daughters, maternal silence hints at “unspeakable tragedies” (p. 20), and the maternal injunction to “bite back your tongue” (p. 89) binds daughters and mothers in a cycle of self-perpetuating denial. Yet both daughters and mothers resist this bind. The Joy Luck aunties, after all, plead frantically with June to tell her mother's—and, by implication, their own—history (“Tell them, tell them”). Similarly, Lena is aware of the power of the unspoken: “I always thought it mattered, to know what is the worst possible thing that can happen to you, to know how you can avoid it, to not be drawn by the magic of the unspeakable” (p. 103). Finally, it is the incomprehension enforced by silence that keeps mothers “othered” in the eyes of their daughters. An-Mei, for instance, is dismissed by Suyuan as a woman with “no spine” who “never thought about what she was doing” (p. 30), and Ying-Ying is seen by June as the “weird aunt, someone lost in her own world” (p. 35). As for Lindo, her special insight allows her to understand why her daughter and her friends see her as a “backward Chinese woman” (p. 255).

In the tradition of breaking silence that has become one of the shaping myths in the writings of women of color,21 maternal silence in the novel is transformed from a medium of self-inscription and subjectivity into an instrument of intersubjectivity and dialogue. For the mothers, storytelling heals past experiences of loss and separation; it is also a medium for rewriting stories of oppression and victimization into parables of self-affirmation and individual empowerment. For the Joy Luck mothers, the construction of a self in identification with a maternal figure thus parallels, finally, a revisioning of the self through a reinterpretation of the past.

In Lindo's case, the brutality of a forced marriage is transformed, through its retelling, into a celebration of courage and resistance. She recalls looking into a mirror on the day of her wedding and being surprised at seeing her own purity and strength: “Underneath the scarf I still knew who I was. I made a promise to myself: I would always remember my parents' wishes, but I would never forget myself” (p. 58). Through a clever scheme, Lindo escapes from her marriage. After arriving in America, she chooses her second husband, getting him to propose by inserting a message inside a fortune cookie. Because all her jewelry was taken from her during her first marriage, she makes sure that she receives genuine gold jewelry from her husband and as gifts that she buys for herself: “And every few years, when I have a little extra money, I buy another bracelet. I know what I'm worth. They're always twenty-four carats, all genuine” (p. 66).

For An-Mei and Ying-Ying, self-articulation remedies early teachings in silence and self-denial. Both begin to recall painful memories when they see how their speech can save their daughters. Ying-Ying is stirred to speak directly to Lena when she sees her daughter's unhappy marriage. At one time a “tiger girl” who gave up her chi (“breath” or “lifeforce”) in an unhappy marriage, Ying-Ying now recognizes that her daughter has “become like a ghost, disappear” (p. 163). The emptiness of Lena's life—with her fancy swimming pool, her Sony Walkman, and cordless phone—is apparent to her. Watching Rose go through a difficult divorce, An-Mei recalls her own mother's dying words, that “she would rather kill her own weak spirit so she could give me a stronger one” (p. 240). In the end, An-Mei and Ying-Ying find their voices: Ying-Ying to “wake up” Rose (p. 240) and Lena to “penetrate her skin and pull her to where she can be saved” (p. 242).

The stories of their lives are the mothers' gifts to their daughters in the spirit with which the Joy Luck Club was originally founded. Years ago, June's mother formed the club in Kweilin in order to transmute the painful history of women like herself into a communal expression of defiance and hope, so that “each week [they] could forget past wrongs done to us … hope to be lucky” (p. 25). In breaking silence, these mothers reproduce the past as tales of “joy” and “luck.” Like the scar on An-Mei's neck that her mother rubs in order to bring back a painful memory (p. 48), these narrations effect a passage from pain to catharsis, moving their tellers from inward knowledge to intersubjective dialogue. Significantly, each of the mother's stories suspends its mode of address between “I” and “you.”22 Thus, the closing sentence in Lindo's story is: “I will ask my daughter what she thinks” (p. 266). In inviting the daughters' interjections, the shift from interior monologue to dialogue enables the mothers to discover how they will mediate between the past and the present for their daughters. Their choices take them on the path, described by Kim Chernin, by which mothers can become “co-conspirator[s]” with their daughters to stand “outside the oppressive system, united in some common effort.” Chernin suggests that a mother must ally herself with her daughter's struggle by first acknowledging that she too has passed “knowingly through a similar time of urgency and [has] been able to develop beyond it.” She concludes that a mother's entry into collaboration with her daughter involves a commitment to speech. She must be willing to “admit her conflict and ambivalence, acknowledge the nearness or actuality of breakdown, become fully conscious of her discontent, the hushed, unspoken sense of her life's failure.”23 After all, as Adrienne Rich proposes, “the quality of the mother's life—however embattled and unprotected—is her primary bequest to her daughter.” Thus, the determination to provide models of “courageous mothering,” as envisioned by Rich,24 is finally the subtext of the stories told by stories in The Joy Luck Club. Not the least of this maternal courage is the mothers' reclaiming of storytelling as an act of self-creation, one by which they enact, with a full complement of ambivalence and doubt, their passage from loss and dispossession to hope and affirmation.

In the opening story of the novel, June represents her recently deceased mother at a meeting of the Joy Luck Club. Feeling out of place, she imagines that the three Joy Luck aunties “must wonder now how someone like me can take my mother's place” (p. 27). The three aunties give her $1,200 to travel to China to meet her twin half-sisters, saying, “You must see your sisters and tell them about your mother's death. … But most important, you must tell them about her life” (p. 40). But until the moment of the meeting, June asks herself: “How can I describe to them in Chinese about our mother's life?” (p. 287).

The four stories told from June's point of view constitute pure family romance, in which family members are separated, lost, and reunited. The guiding spirit of this myth is June's mother, Suyuan. However, as told by June, the story is unmistakably the daughter's version of the family romance, in which a mother's death opens up the space for a daughter's recuperation of a lost maternal image.25 Even while protesting that she doesn't know enough to tell her mother's story, June nevertheless proves correct her aunties' insistence: “Your mother is in your bones! … her mind … has become your mind” (p. 40). She starts cooking the same dishes for her father as her mother did; one evening she finds herself standing at the kitchen window, in imitation of her mother, rapping at a neighborhood cat (p. 209). Arriving in Shenzhen, China, just over the border from Hong Kong, she starts to feel different: “I can feel the skin on my forehead tingling, my blood rushing through a new course, my bones aching with a familiar old pain. And I think, My mother was right. I am becoming Chinese” (p. 267). Earlier she imagines that by dying her mother has left her, “gone back to China to get these babies” (p. 39). But as it turns out, it is she who is returning to China as her mother's emissary. Arriving in China with her father, she hears the final episode of her mother's story: how her mother was forced to abandon her twin babies and continued her search for them through the years. Turning to her father for this history, June urges him to tell it in Chinese: “No, tell me in Chinese. … Really, I can understand” (p. 281).

During the scene of June's reunion with her sisters, the rebounding of mirror images enacts a climactic moment, binding mother to daughter and sister to sister.

Somebody shouts, “She's arrived!” And then I see her. Her short hair. Her small body. And that same look on her face. She has the back of her hand pressed hard against her mouth. She is crying as though she had gone through a terrible ordeal and were happy it is over.

And I know it's not my mother, yet it is the same look she had when I was five and had disappeared all afternoon, for such a long time, that she was convinced that I was dead. And when I miraculously appeared, sleepy-eyed, crawling from underneath my bed, she wept and laughed, biting the back of her hand to make sure it was true.

And now I see her again, two of her, waving, and in one hand is a photo, the Polaroid I sent them. As soon as I get beyond the gate, we run toward each other, all three of us embracing, all hesitations and expectations gone.

(P. 287)

In this encounter, sisterly and maternal identities are blurred, and through the recovery of lost sisters, the foundling myth is conflated with the romance of the daughter. Looking into her sisters' faces, June also sees mirrored in them part of her own ethnic identity: “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” (p. 288).

At the beginning of the novel, while representing her mother at the Joy Luck Club, June muses: “And I am sitting at my mother's place at the mah jong table, on the East, where things begin” (p. 41). June's story ends with her further east still in China, where there is yet another beginning. The meeting of the three sisters makes their generation whole again; resembling their mother as well as each other, the sisters' mutual identification recuperates maternal loss. Now June remembers her mother's remark to her: “Our whole family is gone. It is just you and I” (p. 272). With June's reunion with her sisters, however, the continuity of the family—but through the female line of descent—is reestablished. And finally, since the word the sisters speak upon recognizing each other—“Mama, Mama”—has common currency across cultures, matrilineage here signifies not only the possibility of a nurturing sisterhood but also the melding of cross-cultural linkages.

Although June's story matches the pattern of the idealized family romance, the overall structure of the novel offers such closure as a provisional possibility only. As we have seen, although maternal speech in the novel turns in the direction of intersubjectivity, this movement is tentative and incomplete. The narratives by Lindo, An-Mei, and Waverly shift from “I” to “you,” but the absence of a reciprocal progression in their daughters' stories (from a daughterly “I” to the maternal “you”) suggests the truncation of a truly dialogic process. Further, the novel's overall structure consciously resists any attempt to shape it definitively. As Valerie Miner has noted, the novel is “narrated horizontally as well as vertically”26 Thus, June's symbolically complete and symmetrical story is contained within an overarching framework wrapping around a grouping of other stories whose arrangement is neither causal nor linear. Thus, although June's story offers closure in its progression from loss to recuperation, the other narratives are grouped in loose juxtaposition with each other. The mothers' stories are included in the first and last of the four main units in the novel and recount incidents in China; the daughters' stories appear in the middle two sections and are set in the immediate past or proximate present.

On closer reading, even the autonomy of each story as a clear-cut unit begins to dissolve, giving way to a subterranean pattern of resonances and motifs erasing the definite boundaries between individual narratives. Under this scrutiny, actions and motifs mirror each other from story to story, undermining absolute distinctions of character and voice. Thus, the formative moment of Lindo's story, when she looks into the mirror on her wedding day and pledges “never to forget” herself, is duplicated by June's standing in front of a mirror as a teenager, contemplating her self-worth under the assault of her mother's expectations: “The girl staring back at me was angry, powerful. This girl and I were the same. I had new thoughts, willful thoughts, or rather thoughts filled with lots of won'ts. I won't let her change me, I promised myself. I won't be what I'm not” (p. 134). Similarly, Ying-Ying learns from the Moon Lady that the woman is “yin [from] the darkness within” and the man is “yang, bright with lighting our minds” (p. 81). Ying-Ying's lesson about the yin and the yang is echoed in Rose's description of her marriage: “We became inseparable, two halves creating the whole: yin and yang. I was victim to his hero. I was always in danger and he was always rescuing me.” Or, to cite a final example of how the novel converges particular motifs: just before Rose's divorce, An-Mei tells her daughter that her husband is probably “doing monkey business with someone else” (p. 188); Rose scoffs at her mother's intuition, but a later discovery proves her mother right. Elsewhere, Lena similarly remarks on her own mother's “mysterious ability to see things before they happen”; in her case, Ying-Ying's uncanny foresight, like An-Mei's, predicts the collapse of Lena's marriage.

Signaling the author's intent to undermine the independence of individual narrative units, even the chapter titles, by connecting motifs between disparate stories, seem interchangeable. The title of Rose's story, “Half and Half,” is echoed at the end of a story narrated by June when, turning to the piano she has abandoned for many years, she plays two old tunes and realizes that they are “two halves of the same song” (p. 144). The theme of “half and half” is continued in the story told by Waverly, in which her mother tells her that she has inherited half of her character traits from each parent: “half of everything inside you is from me, your mother's side, from the Sun clan in Taiyuan” (p. 182). In another illustration of how thematic echoes proliferate in the novel, this same story, entitled “Four Directions,” encourages us to trace its various motifs elsewhere. Waverly's “good stuff” that she has inherited from her mother reiterates the theme of “best quality” that is continued in another story told by June: in “Best Quality,” June's mother chides her for not wanting the best for herself. Meanwhile, the theme of “Four Directions” takes us back to the first story in the novel, where we find June and her aunties seated at the mah-jong table, each occupying one of its four directions.

Obviously, the notion of “four directions” is emblematic of the novel's centrifugal structure. At one point, Lena asks: “How can the world in all its chaos come up with so many coincidences, so many similarities and exact opposites?” (p. 154). Or, as June intones, in a more complaining mood, “It's the same old thing, everyone talking in circles” (p. 21). With its mirrored motifs and interchangeable characterizations, The Joy Luck Club demands a reading that is simultaneously diachronic and synchronic. Aligning itself with the modernist tradition of spatial form in narrative,27 the novel defeats any effort to read it according to linear chronology alone. Instead, the reader's construction of interconnections between motif, character, and incident finally dissolves individualized character and plot and instead collectivizes them into an aggregate meaning existing outside the individual stories themselves.

The multivalent structure of The Joy Luck Club resists reduction to simple geometric designs; nevertheless, two figures—the rectangle and the circle—help to chart Tan's play on the theme of maternality. As the novel begins, June takes her place with three Joy Luck aunties around the mahjong table. Her position at one of the table's cardinal points determines the direction of her journey east which ends in China. At the end point of June's story, the trope of the rectangle merges with that of the circle: June's arrival in China brings her full circle to the place where her mother's story began, and her meeting with her half-sisters sets into motion a circulation of mirrored relationships blurring identities, generations, and languages. Because it repudiates linearity and symmetry, the circle is a privileged motif in feminist writings, one that suggests the possibility of reconfiguring traditional familial dynamics and dismantling the hierarchical arrangements of the Oedipal triangle and the patriarchal family. For instance, in her book on the reclamation of the pre-Oedipal in women's novels, Jean Wyatt envisions “the possibility … of imagining alternative family relations based on preoedipal patterns—family circles whose fluidity of interchange challenges the rigid gender and generational hierarchies of the patriarchal family.” In Wyatt's analysis, there persists, in women's writings, the fantasy of a nurturant family where “family members come forward to share the work of fostering others' development [so that] the responsibility for nurturing [is extended] to a whole circle of ‘mothering’ people.”28

In The Joy Luck Club, the discrete identities of familial members are woven into a collectivized interchangeability through the novel's parataxis its use of contiguous juxtapositions of voices, narratives, and motifs.29 Through the novel's interweaving of time frames and voices, three generations of women are included within a relational network linking grandmothers, mothers, daughters, aunts, and sisters. For these women, however, mutual nurturance does not arise from biological or generational connections alone; rather, it is an act affirming consciously chosen allegiances. As Wyatt suggests, mothering as a “reciprocal activity” generally presupposes “a strong mother figure who has a central position in the family,” but even “when the mother is not there, the circle remains, its diffuse bonds extends to a circle of equals who take turns nurturing each other.”30 In The Joy Luck Club, the death of June's mother, Suyuan, invites the Joy Luck aunties to step into the circle of “mothering reciprocity”; indeed, it is Suyuan's absence that inaugurates the meeting between June and her half-sisters, when they confirm their mutual identification as each other's sisters and mothers.

As we have seen, the maternal voices in The Joy Luck Club begin to shift from “I” to “you” to engage the discrete subjectivities of mother and daughter in a tentative exchange of recognitions and identifications. In the same way, the novel's resonant structure and its use of parataxis effectively write the reader into the text as a crucial participant in the making of meaning.31 The reader of The Joy Luck Club is a weaver of intricate interconnections who must, like Suyuan's unraveling of an old sweater, randomly “pull out a kinky thread of yarn, anchoring it to a piece of cardboard, [roll] with a sweeping rhythm, [and] start [a] story” (p. 21). This way of engaging the reader as an active constructor of meaning allows the feminist novel to project a community of sisterly readers.32 In tracing a family history that blurs the demarcations between the roles of mothers, daughters, and sisters, The Joy Luck Club breaks down the boundary between text and reader in order to proffer the notions of sisterhood as a literary construction and as a community constituted through the act of reading. At once disintegrative and constructive in its operations, the novel holds its dual impulses in unresolved suspension and fulfills its fundamentally transformative project—a mutation from daughter-text to mother-text to sister-text.


  1. See Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, eds., The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English (New York: W. W. Norton, 1985). For a useful survey of the critical literature on this subject, see Marianne Hirsch, “Mothers and Daughters,” Signs 7 (Autumn 1981): 200–222.

  2. Dianne F. Sadoff, “Black Matrilineage: The Case of Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston,” in Black Women in America: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Micheline R. Malson, Elisabeth Mudimbe-Boyi, Jean O'Barr, and Mary Wyer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 198.

  3. Marianne Hirsch reminds us of the need for “Western” frameworks to be “modified, reconstructed, and transformed” in considering the works of African American women writers. See Marianne Hirsch, The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989). See also Ruth Perry and Martine Watson Brownley, Mothering the Mind: Twelve Studies of Writers and Their Silent Partners (New York: Holmes Meier, 1984), 144–63; Natalie M. Rosinsky, “Mothers and Daughters: Another Minority Group,” in The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature, ed. Cathy N. Davidson and E. M. Broner (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980), 280–90.

  4. Amy Ling, Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry (New York: Pergamon Press, 1990), xi. See also Elizabeth J. Ordoñez, “Narrative Texts by Ethnic Women: Rereading the Past, Reshaping the Future,” MELUS 9 (Winter 1982): 19–28.

  5. Shirley Geok-lin Lim, “Japanese American Women's Life Stories: Maternality in Monica Sone's Nisei Daughter and Joy Kogawa's Obasan,Feminist Studies 16 (Summer 1990): 290–91.

  6. Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977), originally published in 1975; Chuang Hua, Crossings (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986), originally published in 1968.

  7. See Malini Schueller, “Questioning Race and Gender Definitions: Dialogic Subversions in The Woman Warrior,Criticism 31 (Fall 1989): 421–37; Amy Ling, “A Rumble in the Silence: Crossings by Hua,” MELUS 9 (Winter 1982): 29–36.

  8. Hirsch, 136–37, 6–8, 11, 178–91 (Hirsch's examples are Sula and Beloved by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker's “Everyday Use”), 12. The emphasis on daughters' narratives in writings by Asian American women is reflected in Helen M. Bannan's essay, “Warrior Women: Immigrant Mothers in the Works of Their Daughters,” Women's Studies 6 (1979): 165–77.

  9. Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1989). All references are to this edition; subsequent citations appear in parentheses in the text.

  10. Amy Tan, “How Stories Written for Mother Became Amy Tan's Best Seller,” interview by Julie Lew, New York Times, 4 July 1989, 19(N).

  11. Hirsch, 161.

  12. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: Bantam Books, 1977), 237.

  13. See Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978); Jane Flax, “The Conflict between Nurturance and Autonomy in Mother-Daughter Relationships and within Feminism,” Feminist Studies 4 (June 1978): 171–89; Christine Olivier, Jocasta's Children: The Imprint of the Mother, trans. George Craig (New York: Routledge, 1989); Rich, 218–58.

  14. Lim, 293. Rosinsky (p. 280) writes: “Members of racial, ethnic, sexual, and economic minority groups, in particular, have delineated their apprehension of the social forces which intervene between mother and daughter. Perhaps because the added oppression of minority group membership exacerbates this often painful relationship, these writers seem particularly aware of its tragic destructiveness.” Mary Dearborn has also written about how generational conflict is felt by many historians of ethnicity to be the most striking feature of ethnic American identity. See Mary V. Dearborn, Pocahontas's Daughters: Gender and Ethnicity in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 72–73.

  15. Elise Miller, “Kingston's The Woman Warrior. The Object of Autobiographical Relations,” in Compromise Formations: Current Directions in Psychoanalytic Criticism, ed. Vera J. Camden (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1989), 148.

  16. See Chodorow.

  17. See Sadoff, 203; Perry and Brownley, 160. Hirsch similarly warns (p. 10) against the “androcentric and ethnocentric” biases inherent in the Freudian model of the family. For two critiques of Chodorow's analysis, see Elizabeth V. Spelman, Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), 83–113; Elizabeth Abel, “Race, Class, and Psychoanalysis? Opening Questions,” in Conflicts in Feminism, ed. Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller (New York: Routledge, 1990), 185–204.

  18. Sue Grunewold, Beautiful Merchandise: Prostitution in China, 1860–1936 (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1985), 38, 37–45. See also Maria Jaschok, Concubines and Bondservants: The Social History of a Chinese Custom (London: Zed Books, 1988); Julia Kristeva, About Chinese Women, trans. Anita Barrows (New York: Marion Boyars, 1986), 66–99.

  19. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/“La Frontera”: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute Book Co., 1987), 59; Preface, unpaginated.

  20. Patricia Yaeger, Honey-Mad Women: Emancipatory Strategies in Women's Writing (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 40, 44. For a discussion of a second language as an alternate form of self-inscription, see David Leiwei Li, “The Naming of a Chinese American To Cross-Cultural Sign/ifications in The Woman Warrior,Criticism 30 (Fall 1988): 515; Shirley K. Rose, “Metaphors and Myths of Cross-Cultural Literacy: Autobiographical Narratives by Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodriguez, and Malcolm X,” MELUS 14 (Spring 1987): 3–15. Michael M. J. Fischer has discussed the use of bilingualism and “interlinguistic play” in relation to ethnic autobiography; see “Ethnicity and the Arts of Memory,” Writing Culture: The Politics and Poetics of Ethnography,” ed. James Clifford and George E. Marcus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 218.

  21. Roberta Rubenstein states, “If women are typically muted within their own culture even when they constitute a demographic majority, then women of ethnic minority groups are doubly muted. Both gender and ethnic status render them ‘speechless’ in patriarchy.” See Roberta Rubenstein's Boundaries of the Self: Gender, Culture, Fiction (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 8. See also Lim, 302; King-Kok Cheung, “‘Don't Tell’: Imposed Silences in The Color Purple and The Woman Warrior,PMLA 103 (March 1988): 162–74; and the selected writings by women of color in Making Face, Making Soul/“Haciendo Caras”: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Women of Color, ed. Gloria Anzaldúa (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Foundation Books, 1990), 179–220.

  22. Lindo's narratives interweave first-person discourse with second-person address throughout. Her first story, “The Red Candle,” begins with her addressing Waverly directly, beginning: “I once sacrificed my life to keep my parents' promise. This means nothing to you, because to you promises mean nothing” (p. 49). In her second story, “Double Face,” she addresses Waverly by referring to “My mother—your grandmother …” (p. 256) and asking “Why do you always tell your friends that I arrived in the United States on a slow boat from China? … Why do you always tell people that I met your father in the Cathay House … This is not true! Your father was not a waiter, I never ate in that restaurant” (p. 259). Ying-Ying begins her story, “The Moon Lady,” in the third person; she ends her second story, “Waiting between the Trees,” with the declaration that “now I must tell my daughter everything” (p. 252). An-Mei's story, “Magpies,” is the most distinctive in its clear shift from first-person narration to second-person address. When the story begins, she describes her daughter Rose's psychiatric treatment: “She lies down on a psychiatrist couch, squeezing tears out about this shame” (p. 215). At the end of the same story, she addresses Rose directly: “You do not need a psychiatrist to do this. A psychiatrist does not want you to wake up” (p. 241).

  23. Kim Chernin, The Hungry Self: Women, Eating, and Identity (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 82, 51, 86.

  24. Rich, 250.

  25. The process by which a mother's death inspires women writers to begin to explore the meaning of the maternal has been written about by a number of scholars. In discussing women's writings in the 1920s, Hirsch has noted (p. 97) a pattern by which works by women artists “are not composed by the daughters until the mothers are dead. Only then can memory and desire play their roles as instruments of connection, reconstruction, and reparation.” Similarly, Bell Gale Chevigny has examines how Margaret Fuller imagined her mother's death in her fiction in order to be able to “contemplate her mother's life much more freely than before.” See her “Daughters Writing: Toward a Theory of Women's Biography,” Feminist Studies 9 (Spring 1983): 86. See also Judith Kegan Gardiner, “A Wake for Mother: The Maternal Deathbed in Women's Fiction,” Feminist Studies 4 (June 1978): 146–65.

  26. Valerie Miner, “The Daughters' Journeys,” The Nation, 24 Apr. 1989, 66.

  27. See Joseph Frank, “Spatial Form in Modern Literature,” in Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgment, ed. Mark Schorer, Josephine Miles, and Gordon McKenzie (New York: Harcourt, Brace, World, 1958), 379–92; and Jeffrey R. Smitten and Ann Daghistory, eds. Spatial Form in Narrative (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981).

  28. Jean Wyatt, Reconstructing Desire: The Role of the Unconscious in Women's Reading and Writing (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 3, 201 (I am indebted to an anonymous reader of the manuscript of this essay for referring me to this book).

  29. Eric S. Rabkin, “Spatial Form and Plot,” in Spatial Form in Narrative, 96–97.

  30. Wyatt, 201.

  31. As Eric S. Rabkin notes (p. 99), the “notion of spatial form directs our attention most specifically to works … in which the ultimate point of view must be foisted on the reader by the parataxis of the text.”

  32. This strategy has emerged as a signature of some recent fiction by women of color. See Deborah E. McDowell's discussion of Alice Walker's construction of a sisterhood of readers in The Color Purple in “‘The Changing Same’: Generational Connections and Black Women Novelists,” New Literary History 18 (Winter 1987): 297; Gayle Greene's analysis of the participatory reading elicited by Toni Morrison's Beloved in “Feminist Fiction and the Uses of Memory,” Signs 16 (1991): 318; and Wendy Ho's characterization of The Woman Warrior as a “self-talking story” that insists on writing as “something to be decoded and reconstructed through the reader's or listener's collaborative efforts” in her essay, “Mother/Daughter Writing and the Politics of Race and Sex in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior,” in Asian Americans: Comparative and Global Perspectives, ed. Shirley Hune, Hyung-chan Kim, Stephen S. Fugita, and Amy Ling (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1991), 236. See also Fischer, “Ethnicity and the Arts of Memory,” 232.

Principal Works

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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

Ben Xu (essay date Spring 1994)

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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 little English and remaining cultural aliens in their new world. The daughters are all born and educated in America, some even married to “foreigners.” Within the microcultural structure of family, the only means available for mothers to ensure ethnic continuity is to recollect the past and to tell tales of what is remembered. Lamenting the failing marriage of Lena, her daughter, and Lena's unfamiliarity with the “Chinese ways of thinking,” Ying-ying St. Clair voices the anxiety and helplessness shared by all the mothers in the book:

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.


In her mother's eyes, because Lena, without a memory of the past, allows herself to be borne by the bustle of life, she doesn't know who she is, and cannot hold herself together. It may be true that through her mother's memory, Lena will learn to share a belief in certain rules, roles, behaviors and values which provide, within the family and the overseas Chinese community, a functional ethos and a medium of communication. But will she, even if she unexpectedly finds herself confronted by an hour which has a special connection with her mother's past, have access to her mother's deeply buried anxiety, psychic need, specific mental habits, and life-world perception? Can she really share her mother's unrepeatable life-experience? Can she ever learn how to overstep her own existential limits through her mother's story? What if she has to take cognizance of a barrier in her present existence that will eternally be a barrier between her and her mother? These questions can be asked not only about Lena, but also about all the other daughters in The Joy Luck Club. I will take a close look here at the conflict between the two generations of the book and the existential unrepeatability that separates them. Through examining the complexity of the operations of memory, I will also explore how the recollection and narration of the past are related to a present sense of ethnic identity.

“Memory” is an intellectually seductive concept, capable of drawing on diverse literatures, from the cognitive concerns of speculative philosophy to experimental psychological probes of the processing-storage-retrieval function of mind.1 Yet because the intellectual roots are so diffuse, and the connotations quite varied, I should clarify the two basic assumptions that I make when I use this term in my discussion of ethnic identity in The Joy Luck Club: first, a premise of the narrative construction of memory, and second, an emphasis on its social-psychological mechanism.

Most of the philosophical thinking on memory lapses almost inadvertently into the idiom of the static picture by conceiving of memory as a particular content of the mind, as an “image,” a “presentation,” an “impression,” and so on.2 However, it is not just that we have “images,” “pictures,” and “views” of ourselves in memory, but that we also have “stories” and “narratives” to tell about the past which both shape and convey our sense of self. Our sense of what has happened to us is entailed not in actual happenings but in meaningful happenings, and the meanings of our past experience, as I will explore and defend in my reading of The Joy Luck Club, are constructs produced in much the same way that narrative is produced. Identity, as well as the implicated self-definition and self-narrative, almost certainly will be activated from memory. Recent social-psychological studies have shown that self-images bring forth a host of intricately related self-knowledge and self-identity, whose information, values, and related beliefs are socially situated as well as psychologically useful.3 Such understanding of the social-psychological mechanism of memory narrative is also implied in recent studies of narrative. Hayden White suggests that, in the narrative of individual life as well as in the narrative of history, the meaning of a given set of events, which he recognizes as taking the form of recurring tropical enfigurations, is not the same as the story they consist of (White 111). Using, as a guideline, his differentiation of two kinds of narrative meanings without committing to his tropological explanation of them, we may, in memory narrative, distinguish its life-story from the existential perception it entails. If the life-story is marked by a seeming actuality, the existential perception is what transforms the casual daily events into a functioning mentality or an existential concern that is not self evident.

This bifurcate view of memory narrative permits us to consider a specific life-story as imagery of existential themes or problems about which the story is told, and the existential perception as a comprehensive context in which meaningful questions can be asked about the factual events of that life-story (what, how, and especially why). A functioning mentality, such as the survival mentality which characterizes all the mother characters in The Joy Luck Club, hardly enters into view with factual occurrences. It manifests itself only in the distribution of existential themes of the memory narrative. Memory narrative does not represent a perfect equivalent of the events it purports to describe. It goes beyond the actuality of events to the determination of their coherency as an existential situation, and this general picture of life in turn assigns exemplary values to the events which are awakened in memory by a functioning mentality.4

This awakening of memory by a person's present mentality is illustrated by Ying-ying St. Clair's story of her childhood. When Ying-ying was four years old, she got separated from her parents on a Moon Festival trip to a scenic lake, and while watching a performance of Moon Lady, she made a wish which she could not remember for many decades. It is only after her first broken marriage, and a second one to a kind but alien Irishman, and many “years washing away my pain, the same way carvings on stone are worn down by water,” when she was “moving every year closer to the end of my life,” that she remembers that, on that night, as a child of four, she “wished to be found” (64, 83).

Of the four mother characters in The Joy Luck Club, Ying-ying had the happiest childhood. Her family was very wealthy and took good care of her. Her getting lost from her family on a festival trip was no more than a small accident with no harmful consequences. However, this insignificant incident in her early childhood is remembered as an emblem of her unfortunate life. This is the memory of a survivor of bad times, who has lost her capacity to remember a different life even though she did once experience it. The memory itself has become a psychic defense, which helps to justify her social disengagement, her fatalistic perception of the world as a system of total control, and her fascination with extreme situations and with the possibility of applying their lessons to everyday life.

Ying-ying's survival mentality is typical of all the woman characters who belong to the Joy Luck Club. All the Club Aunties have experienced two kinds of extreme situations: one kind is famine, war, forced marriage, and broken family in China, and the other is cultural alienation, disintegration of old family structure, and conflict between mother and daughter in America. In order to survive the drastic changes in their lives, these women need to maintain a psychological continuity, a coherent picture of life-world, and a continuity of self. Such a need requires the assuring structure of memory narrative: life-story narrative, with the genre's nominal continuity of aims and intentions, and hopes and fears. Memory is for them a socializing, ego-forming expression of anxieties, hopes, and survival instinct.

Indeed, the Joy Luck Club itself, with a magnificent mah jong table at its center, is an expression and embodiment of that survival mentality and its strategies of psychic defense. Suyuan Woo, mother of the book's first narrator, started the first Joy Luck Club in wartime Kweilin as a refugee running away from the triumphantly advancing Japanese troops. In times of trouble, everyday life became an exercise in survival, both physical and mental. If “hero” means someone who takes decisive action during a time of crisis, then for Suyuan Woo, whose life was in crisis, survival itself became a decisive action—a heroic action, albeit a pathetic and disenchanted one. In order to hang on to living, the club members in Kweilin tried to “feast,” to “celebrate [their] good fortune, and play with seriousness and think of nothing else but adding to [their] happiness through winning” (11). As Suyuan herself explains:

It's not that we had no heart or eyes for pain. We were all afraid. We all had our miseries. But to despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable.


Suyuan starts the second Joy Luck Club in San Francisco in 1949. This time she is a refugee fleeing from the triumphant Communists in China. This second club is both a memory of the first club and a renewed means of survival. For those new club members newly immigrated to America, “who had unspeakable tragedies they had left behind in China and hopes they couldn't begin to express in their fragile English,” the happy moments of playing mah jong are the only time they can “hope to be lucky”—“That hope was our only joy” (6, 12).

If the mah jong club reflects and is part of the Club Aunties's survival endeavor, it is not just a common sense survival that describes the difficulty of making ends meet or alludes to the fear of poverty. It expresses the perception that they are all survivors in the sense that they have lived through dark times and have emerged in the new world. It indicates the urgency to hold one's life together in the face of mounting pressures, which are seen in the dire light reflected from their memories of specific events that once victimized them in earlier times. Understanding is made necessary when one encounters the unfamiliar, the unknown, the uncanny. The process of understanding ordinarily begins with the displacement of the thing unknown toward something that is known, apprehended, and familiar. The process of understanding thus begins with an experiential shift. The domain of the unknown is shifted, by renewing the old strategy of survival, toward a domain or field presumably already mastered. All the stories included in the first section of the book are about mother-narrators's experiences of victimization. These old memories help shift the narrators, especially in an unfamiliar environment, to a growing belief that people are all victimized, in one way or another, by events beyond their control.

However, memories are not one-way tracks, as some early philosophers would like to suggest.5 If the past casts a shadow on the present through memory, the present also pre-imposes on the past by means of memory. It is worth noting that John Perry, a philosopher who has written widely on the relationship between memory and personal identity, believes that “a sufficient and necessary condition of my having participated in a past event is that I am able to remember it” (69). The one-way track memory is what Nietzsche calls the “inability to forget,” a symptom of a sick person who has given in to past failures and discomforts, making the present unbearable and the future hopeless. What we find with the Joy Luck Club mothers is what Nietzsche calls “memory of the will,” an active memory that is sustained by the will to survive (Nietzsche “Second Essay”). Suyuan told her refugee story in so many varied ways that her daughter does not know how to relate them to reality and can only take them as “a Chinese fairy tale” (12). These stories, in the form of memory, test Suyuan's ability to forget. These stories are her symptomatic records of a traumatized soul making a desperate effort to push back the memory of the tragic loss of a husband and two baby daughters during the war. The real memory was suppressed but did not go away; and Suyuan, as her second husband feels intuitively, “was killed by her own thoughts,” which she could not even articulate to her husband and daughter (5).

Not only does Suyuan's early experience of extreme situations result in a defensive contraction of self, but also it transforms her relationship with her daughter into one of survival: a fear that she will lose her connection with her daughter, and that her experiences, thoughts, beliefs, and desires will have no future successors. The daughter may look like the mother, or even identify with her; and yet, the two are still worlds apart from each other. Perry makes a very important differentiation between “identification” and “identity,” and points out, “Identity is not a necessary condition of identification. I can identify with the participant in events I did not do, and would not do, even if they were to be done” (76). Georges Rey, in his study of the existential unrepeatability of personal experience and identity, emphasizes the impossibility of passing on identity through the narrative of memory:

There are … an alarmingly diverse number of ways in which one person might come to share the seeming memories of another: vivid stories, hallucinations. … All my and my grandfather's hopes to the contrary, he does not survive as me, no matter how much I seem to recollect (and even take as my own) the experiences of his life from having heard of them at his knees. This is partly because we were both alive when I heard and identified with them; and, for all our not inconsiderable mutual concern, none of it was (strictly) personal. I didn't thereafter enjoy any privileged access to his feelings and thoughts.

(Rey 41)

Memory is not just a narrative, even though it does have to take a narrative form; it is more importantly an experiential relation between the past and the present, projecting a future as well. It is the difference of experiential networks between Suyuan Woo and her daughter that accounts for the daughter's resistance to the mother's nagging about hard work and persistence, as well as for her confusion about the mother's constant sense of crisis.

Hard work and persistence are with the mother—and most “diligent” Chinese immigrants—less self-sufficient virtues than means and conditions of survival. These qualities are desirable to her just because she learnt from her previous experiences that they are attributes of a “winner” in life, and she is going to treat them only as such. It is only on the usefulness of these qualities that she will base her self-approval for exercising them. Even though she knows pretty well that her daughter will never get a Ph.D., she keeps telling her friends and neighbors that Jing-mei Woo is working on it. This is less a lie or wishful thinking than an expression of her survival instinct: what the mother seeks from her friends and neighbors is not the kind of approval that applauds her daughter's personal qualities, but the conviction for herself that her daughter possesses the attributes of a survivor. It is too easy to advance diligence, frugality, or whatever as Chinese ethnic qualities. What is wrong in such a view is an essentialist interpretation of these qualities as inherent “Chinese” attributes, and a blindness to their special relations with a particular kind of ethnic memory.

The disposition for many first generation Chinese immigrants in America to see life as a constant test of survival, to the extent that it almost becomes ethnic symbolism, is a complex mentality. It is deeply rooted in China's past of hardship and numerous famines and wars. The word in Chinese that denotes “making a living in the world” is qiusheng—seeking survival, or mousheng—managing survival. The Chinese classics are full of wisdom on how to survive, whether it be Taoist escapism, Confucian doctrine of the mean, or Legalist political trickery. The lack of religion and of a systematic belief in an after-life in Chinese culture indicates the preoccupation with the urgency of surviving in the present world. The simultaneous contempt for business (and “the rich”)6 and love of money (in the form of thriftiness) support the view of money not as a measure of success but as a means of survival.

However, survival mentality in China has never become a symbol of nationality and ethnicity. It is part of the living conditions which have remained intact with little change throughout centuries; but it has never been mobilized and turned into what Werner Sollors, in his The Invention of Ethnicity, calls “kinship symbolism.” Only when a Chinese person is uprooted from his or her own culture and transplanted into an alien one does he or she become aware of the fluidity, proteanness, and insecurity of his or her self. It is not until then that he or she feels the need to define himself or herself by a reference group, or even deliberately manages a certain image or presentation of self using the symbolism of survival. “Ethnicity,” as Sollors aptly observes, “is not so much an ancient and deep-seated force surviving from the historical past. … It marks an acquired … sense of belonging that replaces visible, concrete communities whose kinship symbolism ethnicity may yet mobilize in order to appear more natural” (xiv). The newly acquired ethnic awareness of being Chinese in America and the sense of urgency about the individual's and the group's preservation and survival register the waning of the old sense of a durable public world, reassuring in its definiteness, continuity, and long-tested survival strategies.

Once the imagery of confinement, insecurity, alienation, and extreme situations takes hold of the imagination of an ethnic group, the temptation to extend this imagery to lesser forms of stress and hardship and to reinterpret every kind of adversity or difference in the light of survival proves almost irresistible. Things as trifling as the Chinese way of playing mah jong, which, according to the mothers in The Joy Luck Club, is different from and far superior to the Jewish mah jong, is jealously guarded as a matter of immense significance. The excessive concern with being “genuinely Chinese” announces the abandonment of efforts to adapt to a mixed and heterogeneous society in favor of mere ethnic survival.

Even at the mah jong table people have to face the agony of how to survive. “We used to play mah jong,” explains Auntie An-mei to Jing-mei, “winner take all. But the same people were always winning, the same people always losing.” This is what life has always been: there has to be someone who is a loser and a victim. But the San Francisco Joy Luck Club Aunties reformulate their mah jong game so that it becomes, symbolically at least, a game with no losers:

We got smart. Now we can all win and lose equally. We can have stock market luck. And we can play mah jong for fun, just for a few dollars, winner take all. Losers take home leftovers!


The change in the mah jong game may appear insignificant. But it reflects the Club Aunties's view of the loser as a victim who fails to survive, and their belief that one should make every effort to defend oneself against the bruising experience of being a loser, even at a mah jong table. Such a view can alter the way competition and rivalry are experienced. Competition, whether it be in a chess game, in a piano performance, or for a college degree, now centers not so much on the desire to excel as on the struggle to avoid a crushing defeat. A willingness to risk everything in the pursuit of victory gives way to a cautious hoarding of the reserves necessary to sustain life over the long haul. For Lindo Jong, her daughter's chess championship is not just proof of her talent. It is more essentially her attribute of being “lucky” and being a winner. Worldly success has always carried with it a certain poignancy, an awareness that “you can't take it with you”; but among the Chinese, glory is more fleeting than ever, and those who win a game worry incessantly about losing it.

Lindo Jong gives her daughter Waverly her own talisman of luck—“a small tablet of red jade which held the sun's fire” (98)—in order to add to the latter's “invisible strength.” Her daughter's chess battle becomes her own battle. But the worry and concern of her subtle survivalism is not appreciated by her daughter, who accuses her mother of using her to show off and trying to take all the credit. Lindo Jong's “all American made” daughter has a hard time understanding why her mother believes that “luck” and “tricks” are more valuable and more important than “skill” and “smartness.” “You don't have to be so smart to win chess,” Lindo Jong tells her daughter. “It is just tricks” (187).

Waverly Jong feels immobilized by her mother's “sneak attack” (191), and at first completely misses the disenchanted heroic style that underlies the “sneakiness” of her mother's attack. What she fails to see is that her mother's “sneakiness” is meant to prepare her for dealing with the unpredictable, in which she will constantly find herself faced with unstructured situations and the need to survive on her own. In contrast to the American strategies of survival that Waverly has been introduced to (such as upward mobility, security in legal protection, and active individual choice), Lindo Jong's survivalist strategy of “sneakiness” or “trickiness” is miserably nonheroic and shamefully “Chinese.” Waverly fears and despises her mother, and resists her mother's teaching. Puzzled by her daughter's reaction, Lindo Jong confesses:

I couldn't teach her about the Chinese character. How to obey parents and listen to your mother's mind. How not to show your own thoughts, to put your feelings behind your face so you can take advantage of hidden opportunities. Why easy things are not worth pursuing. How to know your own worth and polish it, never flashing it around like a cheap ring. Why Chinese thinking is best.


The wearing of a mask is to Lindo Jong an heroic act—an act necessary for the survival of poor immigrants like herself, who feel “it's hard to keep your Chinese face in America” (294). Wearing a mask means the ability to suppress one's true feelings and emotions—even to deceive—in order to be allowed to live. She is not unaware of the debt that the mask wearer has to pay to human guile; but in her understanding there is no rage that rips the heart, no passion of combat which stresses the heroic deeds of ethnic rebellion. With many Chinese-Americans like Lindo Jong, survivalism has led to a cynical devaluation of heroism, and to a resignation that is tinged with a bitter sense of humor.

When they first arrived in America, Lindo Jong and An-mei Hsu worked in a fortune cookie factory, making Chinese sayings of fortune for American consumption. Lindo Jong was wondering what all this nonsense of Chinese fortunes was about. An-mei explained to her.

“American people think Chinese people write these sayings.”

“But we never say such things!” [Lindo Jong] said. “These things don't make sense. These are not fortunes, they are bad instructions.”

“No, miss,” [An-mei] said, laughing, “it is our bad fortune to be here making these and somebody else's bad fortune to pay to get them.”


Lindo Jong knows that the Chinese wearing of the mask, just like those Chinese fortunes, can convince many Americans that they know and understand Chinese people. She also has an unusual insight into the risk that the mask wearer can become psychologically dependent upon the mask, even when the mask is not needed. Continued wearing of the mask makes it difficult for the wearer of the mask to be her real self. Maskedness has almost become the ethnic symbolism for Chinese-Americans like Lindo Jong, who thinks like a person of “two faces,” being neither American nor Chinese (304).

In a self-consciously two-faced person like Lindo Jong we find a detached, bemused, ironic observer, who is almost fascinated by the fact that she has not a self that she can claim as “me.” The sense of being an observer of one's own situation and that all things are not happening to “me” helps to protect “me” against pain and also to control expressions of outrage or rebellion.7 Survivors have to learn to see themselves not as free subjects, but rather as the victims of circumstances, be they the current situation or prefixed fate or disposition.

Chinese Taoist culture helps to maintain this kind of victim mentality because it reinforces a passive if not fatalist attitude toward life. The influence of Taoism, in its popularized form, is obvious in how ying-yang-wu-hsing is used by the mothers in The Joy Luck Club as a physiotherapy that helps explain why the life of the unlucky people is what it is. In this popularized form of Taoism, human life is a constant struggle for a precarious balance between ying and yang, affected even by the placing of your bedroom mirror or the location of your condominium apartment. Wu-hsing (the five elements: water, fire, wood, metal, and earth), which were conceived by the Taoist masters as five fundamental phases of any process in space-time, become the mystical ingredients that determine every person's character flaw according to one's birth hour. “Too much fire and you had a bad temper. … Too much water and you flowed in too many directions” (19).

Rose Hsu Jordan, like her mother, An-mei, has too little wood, and as a consequence, she bends to other people's ideas. Her marriage with Ted breaks down because he is annoyed by her lack of decision. Measured by the Wu-hsing system, none of us has all the five character elements perfectly balanced, and therefore, every one of us is by nature flawed. This view of human imperfection may appear like the Greek idea of tragic flaw. But the Chinese view of character flaw has no interest in any unyielding defiance to fate. The wily Chinese wisdom and belief that heroes do not survive informs the disenchantment with conventional codes of defiance and heroism. While the Greek tragic heroes face their inevitable destruction with dignity and grace, the believers in Wu-hsing want to survive by amending the flaw through non-heroic small acts such as taking special names—the “rose” in Rose Hsu Jordan's name, for example, is supposed to add wood to her character.

Both Rose Hsu Jordan and her mother regard themselves as victims of circumstances, but, belonging to two different generations, they resort to different strategies in order to alleviate their fear of disaster. An-mei Hsu copes with everyday mishaps by preparing for the worst and by keeping faith in hope. Her faith in God, which she held for many years before her youngest boy was drowned, was less a religious belief for which she was ready to sacrifice herself than a survival strategy of keeping herself in hope. Although An-mei keeps telling her daughter to make her choice, or even to indulge in a fantasy revenge for the wrongs suffered by women, she is prepared to accept the worst thing that can happen to a woman: the fate of being a woman, “to desire nothing, to swallow other people's misery, to eat my own bitterness” (241).

An-mei's faith in God, or, after the death of her boy, in hope, is to her American-made daughter only a fatalist's self-created illusion. “[My mother] said it was faith that kept all these good things coming our way,” Rose Hsu Jordan tells us with her tongue in cheek, “only I thought she said ‘fate,’ because she couldn't pronounce that ‘th’ sound in ‘faith.”’ Rose has to be tempered by her own suffering before she will discover that “maybe it was fate all along, that faith was just an illusion that somehow you're in control” (128).

Instead of relying completely on her mother's advice, Rose, devastated by her broken marriage, goes to her psychiatrist. Psychiatry, for Rose the young Chinese-American, has played the role of modern successor to religion. In psychiatry, the religious relief for souls has given way to “mental hygiene,” and the search for salvation to the search for peace of mind. Rose tells her psychiatrist about her fantasy revenge against Ted, and feels like having “raced to the top of a big turning point in my life, a new me after just two weeks of psychotherapy.” She expects an illuminating response from her psychiatrist. However, just like her mother was forsaken by God, Rose is let down by her mundane saver: “my psychiatrist just looked bored” (211). It is only after her frustrating experience with her psychiatrist that Rose feels an accidental connection of a shared fate between herself and her mother. The mother and daughter are co-victims of a common threatening force over which they have no control. It is when Rose, in her dream, sees her mother planting trees and bushes in the planter boxes, adding wood to both of them, that she lets us get a close view of a mother-daughter relation that is defined neither by blood tie nor by material service, a relation that is neither Chinese nor American, but Chinese-American.

This mother-daughter relationship with a unique ethnic character is what we discern not only in the Hsu family, but also in the families of Woos, Jongs, and St. Clairs. The family tie between the mother and daughter in each of these Chinese-American families is no longer what determines the Chinese daughter's obligation or the Chinese mother's authority. Family features shared by mother and daughter in those Chinese-American families are not something to be proud of, but rather something that causes embarrassment on one side or the other, and often on both sides. However, neither does this mother-daughter relationship rest, as is common in the American family, on material service. The cross-generation relationship rests on a special service the mother renders to the daughter: the mother prepares the daughter for the extreme situations of life, gives her psychic protection whenever possible, and introduces her to resources she needs to survive on her own. The mother does all this not in the capacity of a self-righteous mother, but as a co-victim who has managed to survive. The traditional role of a Chinese mother has been greatly curtailed in America. If formerly she represented an automatic authority, now she is unsure of herself, defensive, hesitant to impose her own standards on the young. With the mother's role changed, the daughter no longer identifies with her mother or internalizes her authority in the same way as in China, if indeed she recognizes her authority at all.

The loosened family tie and shaky continuity between the two generations represented in The Joy Luck Club account for the particular narrative form in which their life acts and events are told. These stories share no apparently recognizable pattern or fully integrated narrative structure. The character relations are suggested but never sufficiently interwoven or acted out as a coherent drama. Our attention is constantly called to the characteristics of fiction that are missing from the book. It is neither a novel nor a group of short stories. It consists of isolated acts and events, which remain scattered and disbanded. It has neither a major plot around which to drape the separate stories, nor a unitary exciting climax which guides the book to a final outcome.

Yet all these customary habitual ingredients have a place in The Joy Luck Club. The successions of events are fully timed and narrators of these events are carefully grouped in terms of theme as well as generation distribution (mothers and daughters). The book's sixteen stories are grouped into four sections: the two outer sections are stories by three mother-narrators, and Jing-mei Woo, who takes the place of her recently deceased mother; and the two inner sections are stories by four daughter-narrators. The stories in the first two sections are followed by successive denouements in the next two sections, leading to a series of revelations. All the energies set in motion in the first story of the book, which is told by the book's “framework” narrator, come to fruitful release in the book's last story told by the same narrator, Jing-mei Woo.

Just as the mah jong table is a linkage between the past and present for the Club Aunties, Jing-mei Woo, taking her mother's seat at the table, becomes the frame narrator linking the two generations of American Chinese, who are separated by age and cultural gaps and yet bound together by family ties and a continuity of ethnic heritage. It is Jing-mei Woo who tells the book's two frame stories, the first and the last. These two frame stories, ending with a family reunion in China, suggest strongly a journey of maturity, ethnic awakening, and return-to-home, not just for Jing-mei Woo, but metaphorically for all the daughters in the book. This experience is like a revelation—a sudden unveiling of the authentic meaning of being “Chinese.” The ecstatic character of this experience is well expressed by Jing-mei Woo:

The minute our train leaves the Hong Kong border and enters Shenzhen, China, I feel different. I can feel the skin on my forehead tingling, my blood rushing through a new course. My mother was right. I am becoming Chinese.


At this moment, she seems to come to a sudden realization that to be “Chinese” is a lofty realm of being that transcends all the experiential attributes she once associated with being a Chinese, when she was unable to understand why her mother said that a person born Chinese cannot help but feel and think Chinese.

And when she said this, I saw myself transforming 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.

But today I realize I've never really known what it means to be Chinese. I am thirty-six years old. My mother is dead and I am on a train, carrying with me her dreams of coming home. I am going to China.


The book has, for other daughters, other moments of revelation like this one experienced by Jing-mei Woo, though they are of a more subtle nature and of less intensity. It is at these moments of revelation, often after their own sufferings in life, that the daughters come to realize the value and reason of their mothers's survival mentality and the disenchanted heroism of mask and endurance, and begin to hear the rich and multiple meanings in their mothers's stories instead of mere dead echoes of past acts and events. They become less resistant to identifying with their mothers and more receptive to the humble wisdom of the previous generations. The change from resistance to acquiescence signifies simultaneously the growth of a mature self and the ethnicization of experience.

The need to ethnicize their experience and to establish an identity is more real and more perplexing to the daughters than to the mothers, who, after all, are intimate with and secure in their Chinese cultural identity in an experiential sense, in a way their American-born daughters can never be. The daughters, unlike their mothers, are American not by choice, but by birth. Neither the Chinese nor the American culture is equipped to define them except in rather superficial terms. They can identify themselves for sure neither as Chinese nor American. Even when they feel their identity of “Americanness” is an estrangement from their mothers's past, there is no means of recovering the Chinese innocence, of returning to a state which their experiential existence has never allowed them. They are Chinese-Americans whose Chineseness is more meaningful in their relationship to white Americans than in their relationship to the Chinese culture they know little about. The return to their ethnic identity on the part of the daughters is represented in The Joy Luck Club as realizable on a level where a real split between the existential self and the ethnic self is alluded to by a narrative rivalry between “tale of the past” and “tale of the present.” Not only are the contrast and discontinuity between the two types of tales metaphorical of the split of self, but also their organizing narrator, Jing-mei, is symbolic of the split self of the daughters's generation.

The ethnicization of experience does not automatically mean an ethnic identity. The ethnicized and mature self acquiesces to the ethnic affiliation that fixes its patterns and meanings, but at the very point of acquiescence, registers discomfort with such constraints. Indeed the strange blending of acquiescence and resistance accounts for the fact that the return to the motherland in The Joy Luck Club is temporary and disillusioning, no more than a “visit.” Such a visit is at once an assertion of “going home” and a painful realization of “going home as a stranger.”

Therefore, the significance of the book's frame device of return-to-home and its satisfaction of the reader's formal expectations should not disarm our critical query as to whether the ethnic self really represents a higher form of self or self-awareness. The book's frame device suggests the split between the true but unrecognized self and the false outer being whose sense of self and identity is determined by the need to adjust to the demands of a fundamentally alien society. Such a dualist view of self offers the reassuring but problematic concept of ethnic reality as that which is familiar and recuperated, and which, in the homeland, loyally awaits our return even though we turn from it. It assumes that the “inner” or “true” self is occupied in maintaining its identity by being transcendent, unembodied, and thus never to be discovered until the moment of epiphany. Not only does this cozy view of return to the authentic self suggest a split between the existential self and the ethnic self, but also a fixed hierarchy of them, with the changing and trapped existential self at the bottom, and the essential and free ethnic identity at the top. However, this hierarchy is unstable: the ethnic self, just like the existential self, is neither free nor self-sufficient, and therefore, never an authentic or genuine self. Our ethnic experience, no less than our existential experience, depends on the mediation of others. We become aware of our ethnicity only when we are placed in juxtaposition with others, and when the priority of our other identities, such as individual, class, gender, and religious, give place to that of ethnicity. Like other kinds of identities, ethnic identity is not a fixed nature, or an autonomous, unified, self-generating quality. It is a self-awareness based on differentiation and contextualization. The self is not a given, but a creation; there is no transcendent self, ethnic or whatever else. Ethnic awareness is not a mysteriously inherited quality; it is a measurable facet of our existence, whose conditions and correlates are the only context in which we can understand how we reconstitute feelings and inner knowledge of our own ethnic being.


  1. Philosophers dealing with memory are typically concerned with its representative function, as capable of bringing to our mind “images” (St. Augustine and others), “presentation” (Aristotle), “impressions” (Aristotle and others), “ideas” (Locke and Hume), and the “immediate” or “present” objects in memory (A. D. Woozley and others). See, for example, Aristotle, “On Memory and Reminiscence,” in R. McKeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York, 1941). Augustine, Confessions. Many translations and editions. Book X, 8–19; John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2 vols., ed. A. C. Fraser (Oxford, 1894), Book II, Ch. 10; David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford, 1888), Book I, Pt. I, Sec. 3 and Pt. III, Sec. 5; A. D. Woozley, Theory of Knowledge (London, 1949), Chs. 2–3. The psychological study of memory owes a substantial debt to Hermann Ebbinghaus, who singlehandedly moved memory from the domain of the speculative philosopher to the province of the experimental scientist. In the two-volume Practical Aspects of Memory: Current Research and Issues (Chichester, England: John Wiley and Sons, 1988), M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, and R. N. Sykes put together a whole variety of approaches and methods that are used today in experimental psychological studies of memory, such as eyewitnessing, autobiographical memory, maintenance of knowledge, etc.

  2. Aristotle, St. Augustine, John Locke, David Hume, etc., op. cit.

  3. See for example, H. Markus, “Self-schemata and Processing Information about the Self,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 35 (1977): 63–78; S. T. Fiske and S. E. Taylor, Social Cognition (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1984); B. R. Schlenker, “Self-Identification: Toward an Integration of the Private and Public Self,” in R. F. Baumeister, ed., Public Self and Private Self (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1986), 21–62.

  4. John Perry refers to this cognitive hermeneutic circle of memory, and the reciprocal reality between a person who remembers and the things that he remembers. He writes, “That my present apparent memory of a past event stands at the end of a causal chain of a certain kind leading from that event is not something I can directly perceive, but something believed because it fits into the simplest theory of the world as a whole which is available to me” (69).

  5. This view was most representatively voiced by the nineteenth-century British philosopher Sir William Hamilton, who regarded memory as one of the undeniable conditions of consciousness. See, for instance, Lectures on Metaphysics and Logic, ed. H. L. Mansel and John Weitch (Edinburgh: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1859–1860), “Lecture XI,” 205. Identity is explained as constituting in the assurance that our thinking ego, notwithstanding the ceaseless changes of state, is essentially the same thing. What such a view fails to see is that in remembering, a person not only records what has happened to him but also strives toward a restitution of his own ego—a construction of a continuous, integrated sense of his real existence in relation to time, nature and society, cause and effect.

  6. The Chinese proverb weifu buren suggests the incompatibility between “being rich” and “being benevolent.”

  7. In today's mainland China, the wearing of a political mask is still practiced as a gesture of self-preservation, and hopefully, of potential resistance.

Works Cited

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Walter Kaufman and R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage, 1967.

Perry, John. “The Importance of Being Identical,” in Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, ed., The Identities of Persons. Berkeley: U of California P, 1976. 67–90.

Rey, Georges Rey. “Survival,” in Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, ed., The Identities of Persons. Berkeley: U of California P, 1976.

Sollors, Werner, ed. The Invention of Ethnicity. New York: Oxford U P, 1989.

Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: Ivy, 1989.

White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 1978.

Esther Mikyung Ghymn (essay date 1995)

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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 dragons, tigers, swans, shadows, bones, and stairs are the newly created metaphors for Asian American mothers and daughters. As Tan remarks to Emory Davis, “It's the images that are so important to me. That's where the mystery of the writing and the beauty of the story is” (Davis, Vol 1. No. 1. p. 9). These new images define the Asian American woman as seen by the major Asian American women writers.

For Kingston and Tan the right image is not necessarily a realistic one, but one which fits into the moral of their stories and provides the right perspective. The right balance in form and message is achieved when the daughters realize that they are not alone in the universe; that the ties to their mothers and grandmothers will always keep them in balance; that life does not change from generation to generation despite shifts in space and time; that, in a sense, all characters are stereotypes in a universe where “each and all are the same.” As in the last line of Emerson's “Each and All” (“I yielded myself to the perfect whole”), the mothers and daughters in The Woman Warrior and The Joy Luck Club finally realize that they are all part of each other.


The Woman Warrior is a complex narrative of varied voices, songs, and images. It is a book about Anju's quest for self-identity. Born in Stockton, California, to an old Chinese couple, Anju finds it difficult to communicate at home and at school. Although born in the year of the dragon like her mother, she is at first characterized as quiet and fearful. These traits are not usually associated with those born with the most favorable zodiac sign. In China the dragon symbolizes strength and wisdom, and such traits are transformed into images and words such as “dragon,” “brave,” and “warrior” throughout the book. Thus, Anju's weaker qualities are inevitably replaced by images of inherent strength when she realizes true selfhood at the end of the novel.

Anju hates herself at school because she hates to talk. Her low self-image makes her hate the sound of her own voice: “It spoils my day with self-disgust when I hear my broken voice coming skittering out into the open. It makes people wince to hear it” (The Woman Warrior, p. 191). Her low self-esteem is heightened by her assumption that her mother thinks her ugly. Her mother does not give her the recognition that she craves. When Anju tells her mother, “I got straight A's, Mama,” her mother replies, “let me tell you a true story about a girl who saved her village” (The Woman Warrior, p. 54). Communication between mother and daughter is at best difficult. When Anju tries to tell her mother about “three hundred things,” her mother says, “Senseless babblings every night. I wish you would stop. Go away and work. Whispering, whispering, making no sense. Madness, I don't feel like hearing your craziness” (The Woman Warrior, p. 233). Her mother wants Anju to go to a typing school: “learn to type if you want to be an American girl.” Anju refuses because she wants to do something better. She shouts to her parents, “I'm smart. I can do all kinds of things. I know how to get A's, and they say I could be a scientist or a mathematician if I want. I can make a living and take care of myself” (The Woman Warrior, p. 234).

Anju retreats and fantasizes about becoming a woman warrior. She wants to know how she can storm across the States and fight her own battles. She wonders how she can use this ancient warrior example in her contemporary life. But Anju is afraid to act. Kingston characterizes this fear by using ghostly images. Anju and her family see real people as ghosts. To them there are white ghosts, black ghosts, and Mexican ghosts. Feelings of fear are conceptualized into images of ghosts and shadows. Kingston typically uses contrasting images as the images of fear balance images of strength mentioned earlier. These images are parallel and interrelated, creating contrasting rhythms in this surrealistic novel form.

All Anju knows about China is what she has seen in the movies and what she has heard from her mother. What she has heard from her mother is the tale of the legendary Fa Mu Lan and the tale of the forgotten No Name Woman. Fa Mu Lan is a woman warrior who takes the place of her father in battle. As such, she is the metaphorical center of this novel and an extended metaphor of a sense of continuity in Asian women's lives. On the other hand, the No Name Woman is a disgrace, for an unmarried pregnant woman is considered very shameful in China. She commits suicide by drowning herself in the family well when the villagers come to punish her. Kingston's strategy is to create such contrasting characters clothed in different images.

These tales, however, make it difficult for the confused daughter to find her own identity. In frustration, Anju addresses the reader: “Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?” (The Woman Warrior, p. 6). Anju analyzes herself as she compares herself to Fa Mu Lan and the No Name Aunt. The shifting back and forth from her imagination to reality enables the narrative to sublimate the distinction between them. In real life her mother, Brave Orchid, and Aunt Moon Orchid also serve as models. Brave Orchid is a strong woman who earned a medical degree in China but who struggles in the States with her husband at the steaming laundry day after day to feed their six children. Moon Orchid, on the other hand, is weak. She eventually ends up in a mental asylum as she is unable to cope with her disappointments in life which culminate in being rejected by her husband. Should Anju become strong like Fa Mu Lan and Brave Orchid, or should she become weak like the No Name Aunt and Moon Orchid? At the end Anju chooses the stronger models.

When mother and daughter cannot speak the same language to explain adequately the reasons and feelings behind the words, frustration is inevitable. The first words of the book are, “‘You must not tell anyone,’ my mother said, ‘what I am about to tell you’” (The Woman Warrior, p. 3). Anju thinks her mother wants to silence her so much that (in her fantasy) she cuts out her own tongue. The daughter, not understanding the real meaning behind her mother's broken English, screams, “And I don't want to listen to any more of your stories; they have no logic. They scramble me up … You can't stop me from talking. You tried to cut off my tongue, but it didn't work” (The Woman Warrior, p. 235). Here Anju does not understand her mother's desire or her reply when she says, “I cut it to make you talk more, not less, you dummy!” (The Woman Warrior, p. 235). Although this remark is confusing, it reveals that the mother has a plan to motivate her daughter. Anju, in the meantime, struggles toward self-understanding.

The use of words is a major unifying thread that sews the novel together. “You must not tell anyone … what I am about to tell you” (The Woman Warrior, p. 3). The mother's admonition reflects her determination to control Anju. Anju resents and resists such control. She blames her mother for her own quietness, saying that her mother cut out her tongue. Although she hates quietness, Anju is unable to break out of it. Thus, going to school becomes a dreadful burden. In the first years of school she colors everything black to symbolize her dread. She notices that other Chinese girls also do not talk very much at school, so she associates being Chinese with silence. In particular there is one girl whom she hates for her quietness. This hatred erupts into violence when Anju beats her up one day.

On the other hand, Kingston wants to make it clear to the reader that speaking is properly associated with strength. For example, when the woman warrior prepares for battle, her father carves words of revenge on her back. Such pain is endured because it is only through such carving that the warrior becomes empowered to act. Each Chinese character etched in blood is worthy of a fighting warrior. The warrior says, “When I could sit up again, my mother brought two mirrors, and I saw my back covered entirely with words in red and black files, like an army, like my army” (The Woman Warrior, p. 42). It is as if the words empower her to act. Thus, words signify empowerment.

The mother/daughter relationship evolves through various stages until it reaches a reconciliation. As a child Anju follows her mother around the house singing the song of the woman warrior. The chanting makes her believe that she will also grow up to be a warrior. It seems that the singing is a source of inspiration and communication. Night after night the mother tells stories of the woman warrior. Perhaps the reason for telling the stories is that they give the mother a feeling of hope and power. As Nancy Walker points out, “Fantasy of the ‘woman warrior’ in Kingston's book, are (sic) at least empowering because they allow the characters to escape imaginatively the boundaries of their lives as ‘young women’—they permit images of freedom and power denied by the characters' immediate social context” (Walker, p. 115). Perhaps as a mother working in a laundry after earning a medical degree she needs to have a dream to instill in her daughter. Thus Brave Orchid inspires her daughter through songs and words.

It is also through words and singing that mother and daughter reconcile. As a child, Anju remembers how she followed her mother around the house singing about Fa Mu Lan and her victories in battle. At the end she joins her mother in singing about Poetess T'sai. “She brought her songs back from the savage lands, and one of the three that has passed down to us is ‘Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,’ a song that Chinese sing to their own instruments. It translated well” (The Woman Warrior, p. 243). This episode parallels Brave Orchid's situation, for like the poetess, Brave Orchid is in a foreign land. Her story is translated by Anju who becomes the narrator of these stories.

Reconciliation occurs at the end when Anju and her mother tell a story together. “Here is a story my mother told me, not when I was young, but recently, when I told her I also talk story. The beginning is hers, the ending mine” (The Woman Warrior, p. 240). It seems that as the narrator grows older she also comes to “talk story.” The book begins with the mother talking and ends with the daughter speaking. Suzanne Juhasz points out that “at the core of the relationship between daughter and mother is identification” (Juhasz, p. 176). As Kingston says, “[critics] read the beginning and can't understand that things are resolved by the end. There is a lot of resolution—the mother and daughter come out okay, you know. But it's the price of a lifetime of struggle” (Yalom, Women Writers of the West Coast p. 14). Temporal displacement is replaced by generational continuity. By joining their voices they find their place in the community and continuity of women's spirits.

In Kingston's novel the cycle of mother and daughter conflict and recovery plays itself out poignantly. At the end Anju achieves a balanced and peaceful state of mind as she reconciles herself to her mother. For an Asian American girl who has grown up ashamed of herself and her Chinese heritage, this is a very positive conclusion, for many second generation Chinese Americans reject their parents and their culture for the white majority culture and values. By selecting old Chinese legendary heroines as her role models and joining her mother in the singing, Anju clearly values herself as a Chinese American woman. The Woman Warrior is therefore a triumph not only for the individual woman but also for the Chinese heritage. This line from grandmother to granddaughter can be linear but also circular. Understanding of self produces understanding of mother, family, and society. Layer after layer of confusion is peeled off to arrive at the core of understanding.

These layers of confusion are structurally and aesthetically powerful as they underscore the struggles between mother and daughter. Although the novel seems disjointed at first glance, as I mentioned earlier, there is a definite pattern to Kingston's artistry. Marilyn Yalom argues that The Woman Warrior is an example of “modern aesthetics” with its various stylistic techniques (Yalom, “Postmodern Autobiography” p. 112). Like music, variation upon variation makes the work more exquisite. Joan Lidoff also comments on the complexity of Kingston's work: “In Kingston we don't get a single account of an incident; we are given alternative conjectures about the same ‘fact.’ … Memory and conjecture bracket all tellings of the past: fantasy is as real as incident, and any event has multiple interpretations” (Lidoff, p. 119). Indeed, to peel the outer layers of meanings is like untying a very complicated knot. However, if one looks closely there is a definite pattern or backbone to the novel, as parallel characters contrast with or complement each other. As mentioned earlier, for example, Fa Mu Lan and Brave Orchid are both depicted as strong characters. On the other hand, the No Name Woman and Moon Orchid are portrayed as similarly weak. The parallels between warrior and mother and the two aunts especially unify the book.

There are also decisive chapter endings which often point to the theme of mothers and daughters. The last paragraph in each of the five chapters helps the reader to arrive at each chapter's meaning. For example, at the end of chapter one, “No Name Woman,” Anju writes, “My aunt haunts me—her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her, though not origamied into houses and clothes” (The Woman Warrior, p. 19). Again, at the end of chapter two, “White Tigers,” Anju remarks, “The reporting is the vengeance—not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words” (The Woman Warrior, p. 63). And again at the end of chapter three, “Shaman,” Anju reflects, “I am really a Dragon, as she is a Dragon. Both of us born in dragon years” (The Woman Warrior, p. 127). This identification with her mother moves the novel towards final reconciliation between mother and daughter.

Mother and daughter both battle with real and imagined ghosts. Ghosts exist in old China as they do in Stockton, California. The use of ghosts also helps to unify the novel, for ghostly images are embedded throughout. The No Name Woman has become a ghost who has to fight other ghosts for food. As the dead aunt has no one to remember her on her memorial day, she must steal from other ghosts' tables. This allusion refers to the Asian tradition of preparing a special meal for one's dead relatives. As everyone is ashamed of the No Name Woman, no one would honor her on her memorial day by serving a special meal. Ghosts also represent fear. Like background music, the use of ghosts makes the reader understand the sense of fear which drives Anju to quiet and drives her aunt to insanity. The subtitle of the book is “Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts.” Thus, images of ghosts—black ghosts, Mexican ghosts, and white ghosts—exist everywhere for Anju and her mother. The weaving of such images reinforces fear of the unknown throughout the novel.

For the Chinese American daughter, one must understand and accept one's own mother to find out about oneself. Barker Nunn points out that in China individuals are insignificant by themselves. Only in the context of their families do the women find significance. And it is not only the immediate family but the long line of women that goes back even to ancestors. To reinforce this point, Kingston repeats circular images. “The round moon cakes and round doorways, the round tables of graduated size that fit one roundness inside another, round windows and rice bowls—these talismans had lost their power to warn this family of the law: a family must be whole, faithfully keeping the descent line by having sons to feed the old and the dead, who in turn look after the family” (The Woman Warrior, p. 15). The repeated use of the word “round” and its synonyms underlines the concept of continuity. For the Chinese lineage triumphs over individualism, unity defeats isolation. Anju realizes this point at the end and stops struggling. As a Chinese American she finally accepts the harmonious Chinese view of the universe and joins her mother in singing ancient tales. The emphasis is on collectivity as the voices of mother and daughter form a duet echoing the multiple voices of mothers, aunts, and sisters in the past. Kingston's telling reasserts the spirit of the women and their need to be articulate and to be heard. Matrilineal ancestry becomes life giving.

The title The Woman Warrior is therefore the central image of the book, an image which represents strong women like Brave Orchid. Kingston's work is not only about Fa Mu Lan but the concept of the woman warrior. The archetype of the woman warrior is an extended metaphor of a cultural ancestor. Anju realizes that she herself can be a word warrior; indeed, it is only by speaking and writing that she can become such a warrior. Anju's singing is an affirmation of her understanding. As one unravels all the threads in this novel it is clear that the moral fable is a call to action. One should use the power of the spoken or written word to overcome her own weaknesses. As Kingston says to Yalom, “The daughter becomes the inheritor of the mother‘s oral tradition, which subsequently becomes a written tradition. … I went through a time when I did not talk to people. It‘s still happening to me but not so severely. I‘m all right now but I do know people who never came out of it” (Yalom, Women Writers of the West Coast, p. 17). As I note in The Shapes and Styles of Asian American Prose Fiction, “Kingston's moral fable is existentialist in the most basic sense. Her call is for the reader to pick up his or her sword of knowledge” (Ghymn, p. 113). By carrying on the oral tradition, one is linked to the community of women and ancestral spirits. Community triumphs over individuality. This is an appropriate conclusion as it fits the Chinese philosophy of life.1


In The Joy Luck Club, the relationship between mothers and daughters starts with imbalance and finally ends with a definite balance. In this book, as in The Woman Warrior, the structure is the key through which the messages are to be deciphered. The daughters searching for their mothers' real pasts finally arrive at their own identities. The confusion or anger that they feel towards their mothers while growing up is dissolved. Tan explains that the key to the structure of her novel is finding the right balance: “The basic one in the book is a question about balance. Where is the part of balance that we're searching for in our lives? What throws our lives off balance and how can one restore balance?” (Davis, Vol. 1 No. 2, p. 7). As with Anju, the daughters in The Joy Luck Club have to find their own understanding through all the conflicts they have with their mothers. Tan says in an interview, “Part of my writing the book was to help me discover what I knew about my mother and what I knew about myself” (Henderson, p. 22). This understanding is achieved when, like Anju, the daughters in The Joy Luck Club realize the sameness in themselves and their mothers. Together mothers and daughters create a satisfying wholeness from generation to generation.

The first page of The Joy Luck Club lists the characters. Interestingly, the names of the mothers and daughters are set opposite each other as if the book were a chess game. Indeed, chess is an appropriate analogy for Tan's strategy. In a chess game when a pawn reaches the other side of the board she becomes a queen; likewise, daughters have to travel through many conflicts to achieve independence and self-understanding. Like such canonical figures as Ishmael and Huckleberry Finn, daughters have to journey into the unknown to find their own identities. To these second generation Chinese American women Emerson's “Know Thyself” is the motivating energy.

Images of doubles, ghosts, and shadows misdirect the daughters' journeys. The use of the double is an especially prominent structural device. The word “two” and its synonyms are used several times in chapter titles: “Half and Half,” “Two Kinds,” “Double Face,” “A Pair of Tickets,” and “American Translations.” Like Humbert and Quilty in Lolita, the characters serve as doubles for other characters. Images of ghosts and shadows fit that purpose as well. The total image pattern is that of a fable, which is typically defined as “a brief tale, either in prose or verse, told to point a moral. The characters are most frequently animals, but people and inanimate objects are sometimes the central figures” (Holman and Harmon, p. 197). Tan admits that she wanted to write such a fable. “In fairy tales and fables there's often a moral attached. I didn't want to have something that was exactly the moral but I wanted to have something that was equivalent because I see an ending as a release of some type, and for me releases are always emotional” (Davis, Vol 1. No 1. p. 8). The “equivalent” in The Joy Luck Club is a growing up lesson and fairytale elements can be found throughout Kingston's and Tan's works.

In a comic book the violence seems amusing rather than frightening. Likewise the overall comic tone of The Joy Luck Club subdues the violent details of some of the scenes. Just as we can laugh rather than shudder when we watch Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck smash each other, so can we read Tan's novel. The flat characters are surrounded by mysterious forces, filled with fairytale elements of ghosts, animals, and magical objects. I believe that Tan deliberately used flat characters because she was writing a fable. Tan says, “When she [my mother] read the stories, the ones set in China, she laughed. She didn't see that they were anything like herself. There was one story in particular, ‘The Moon Lady’ that has nothing to do with her life. She did not live in that area, she never went out on a boat during the moon festival, she never fell into the water, and she never saw a shadow play” (Davis, Vol 1. No 2. p. 6). Thus we cannot really believe the stories that the mothers tell about themselves in The Joy Luck Club. Real people do not cut their mothers' flesh and cook it. Why then does Tan create such scenes? I think that she does so to make the stories more mysterious and entertaining. At one point Davis asks, “So the struggle in the writing process is to find the right image. The one that works for that story?” Tan replies, “The one that is the most mysterious” (Davis, Vol 1. No 1. p. 9). The mysterious images make Tan's story a modern fairytale. In the last section, the queen mother of “The Queen Mother of the Western Skies” is a fairy. Like Cinderella's fairy godmother, the queen mother provides essential wisdom. In the book's first section, “Feathers from a Thousand Li Away,” Tan presents the stories of Jing-mei Woo and three mothers, Anmei Hsu, Lindo Jong, and Ying Ying St. Clair. Jing-mei Woo's mother has already died, so Jing Mei speaks in her place. Jing Mei remembers that her mother's story is like that of a fairytale. “I never thought my mother's Kweilin story was anything but a Chinese fairytale” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 25). This statement seems to apply not only to Jing Mei's story but to all the mothers' stories.

The American-born daughter dismisses China as puzzling, Chinese customs and clothes as mysterious. Jing Mei Woo says, “These clothes were too fancy for real Chinese people, I thought, and too strange for American parties” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 28). To the daughters, the mothers are part of an unknown world, a world complicated by their own imaginations. “I imagined Joy Luck was a shameful Chinese custom, like the secret gathering of the Ku Klux Klan or the tom-tom dances of TV Indians preparing for war” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 28). Indeed, the mothers' worlds as seen by the daughters are unreal. “I used to dismiss her criticisms as just more of her Chinese superstitions, beliefs that conveniently fit the circumstances” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 31), Jing Mei reflects. “These kinds of explanations made me feel my mother and I spoke two different languages, which we did” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 33). Limited in American perception, language, and customs, the mothers can't understand that their daughters don't understand them. They say in unison, “Imagine, a daughter not knowing her own mother!” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 40). This is an ironical statement because it reveals the lack of understanding the mothers have towards their daughters in presuming that the daughters should understand them despite cultural and generational differences. Jing Mei starts to see things a little differently when she says, “And then it occurs to me. 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 explain things in fractured English” (The Joy Luck Club, pp. 40–41). Interestingly, the mothers see their daughters as “ignorant” and the daughters think their mothers are “stupid.” As Marie Wunsch points out, “When conflicts arise the mothers and daughters seem only players in a world so personal, so foreign to the other, that any understanding of the other is impossible” (Wunsch, p. 139). To the daughters, the mothers are embarrassing, confusing, and humiliating; to the mothers, the daughters are rebellious, unyielding, and stubborn.

The four short prologues that introduce the four main chapters advance Tan's moral intentions by clarifying this generational conflict. The prologues suggest that Tan was deeply influenced by her father, a Baptist minister. “He would tell these stories and I realize one of the things that was so amazing was that he could keep them simple so that they would reach everybody. He had an absolute belief in what these stories had to mean” (Davis, Vol 1. No 1. p. 6). Tan follows in her father's footsteps in using the form of the fable. The first prologue's fable is that of a mother bringing a swan to the States. Unlike Hans Christian Andersen's ugly duckling who becomes a beautiful swan, this Chinese swan is already grown. “She cooed to the swan: ‘In America I will have a daughter just like me … Over there nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English. And over there she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow!’” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 17). The swan is taken away by the customs' officials. In this section the irony of the mothers' lack of American customs is revealed in a humorous way as Tan sets out to convey in English Chinese rhythms and idiomatic intonations.

In the second prologue, “26 Maligant Gates,” the mother warns her daughter by quoting from an old Chinese book: “Do not ride your bicycle around the corner.” The daughter replies, “You can't tell me because you don't know! You don't know anything!” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 87). The girl runs outside, jumps on her bicycle, and falls before she reaches the corner. The message of this section is that the mother is always right. This juxtaposition of old Chinese proverbs with American reality, continued throughout the book, is without question purposeful. In this section the four daughters tell their own childhood stories. Waverly Jong becomes a national chess player by her ninth birthday, much to the delight of her proud mother. Waverly does not, however, feel equally proud of her mother. When Waverly talks back to her mother, her mother shouts, “‘Embarrass you be my daughter?’ Her voice was cracking with anger. ‘That's not what I meant. That's not what I said’” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 99). Waverly's conversation with her mother reveals her growing resentment and also demonstrates the crucial misunderstandings between mothers and daughters.

As portrayed in this prologue the other daughters are no less anxious. Lena St. Clair is confused by what is real and what is unreal. She fantasizes about her neighbors, a mother and daughter whose loud voices often come through the thin walls. She sees the girl pull out a sharp sword and tell her mother, “Then you must die the death of a thousand cuts. It is the only way to save you.” After this ordeal the mother says that she has “perfect understanding” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 115). The neighbor and her daughter act as doubles for Lena and her mother. Fighting voices, echoing through the walls, make Lena fantasize.

Rose Hsu Jordan's childhood is darkened by the death of her younger brother, Bing, for which she feels responsible: “I knew it was my fault. I hadn't watched him closely enough” (The Joy Luck Club, pp. 126–127). Jing Mei Woo also feels that she is to blame for her mother's disappointment. Her mother wants her to be a concert pianist, but Jing Mei feels that she will never make it: “It was not the only disappointment my mother felt in me. In the years that followed, I failed her so many times, each time asserting my own will, my right to fall short of expectations. I didn't get straight A's. I didn't become class president. I didn't get into Stanford. I dropped out of college” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 142). Her feelings of guilt, rejection, and doubt haunt Jing Mei.

In the third prologue, “The American Translation,” the daughters are all grown up. Two have married Caucasian husbands despite their mothers' protests. However, their marriages do not go well. Lena and Harold are constantly battling about different budgets and thinking of divorce. Rose Hsu and Ted are in the process of getting a divorce. Rose says, “Over the years, I learned to choose from the best opinions. Chinese people had Chinese opinions. American people had American opinions. And in almost every case, the American version was much better. It was only later that I discovered there was a serious flaw with the American version. There were too many choices, so it was easy to get confused and pick the wrong thing” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 191). Waverly Jong is not as unfortunate. She is dating Rich, a Caucasian, and although Rich and her mother have their misunderstandings, all three plan to visit China together. Jing Mei, still single, even achieves self-understanding. She thinks of her mother who has died: “And she's the only person I could have asked, to tell me about life's importance, to help me understand my grief” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 197).

How does the third prologue correlate with the stories in this section? In the prologue, a daughter asks, “What is peach blossom luck?” “The mother smiled, mischief in her eyes. ‘It is in here,’ she said, pointing to the mirror. ‘Look inside. Tell me, am I not right? In this mirror is my future grandchild, already sitting on my lap next spring.’ And the daughter looked and haule! There it was: her own reflection looking back at her” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 147). The use of the mirror is like that in “Cinderella” when the stepmother asks the mirror, “who is the fairest of them all?” The reflections of mother, daughter, and grandchild appear much the same and the daughters are revealed as the “American translations” of the mothers.

In the last prologue, “Queen Mother of the Western Skies,” the grandmother tells the baby, “Thank you, Little Queen. Then you must teach my daughter this same lesson. How to lose your innocence but not your hope. How to laugh forever” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 213). The word “lesson” reinforces the fable elements while the word “laugh” adds a comic touch. The mother talks to the baby who has lived forever. The grandmother and baby seem to be one, just as the mother and daughter seem to be identical. The idea of wholeness again reminds us of “Each and All,” in which Emerson writes about the transcendent unity of the many and the one.

In this section the mothers unveil their pasts in China, but they are unreliable narrators. Their stories are unrealistic and exaggerated, mixed with the supernatural. As Janet Burroway notes, the unreliable narrator has become one of the most popular characters in modern fiction but “is far from a newcomer to literature and in fact predates fiction. Every drama contains characters who speak for themselves and present their own cases and from whom we are partly or wholly distanced in one area of value or another” (Burroway, p. 274). Tan chooses to make this section the most unrealistic, perhaps because the material is the most unfamiliar to her. For example, An-Mei Hsu tells her daughter, “This is how a daughter honors her mother. It is shou so deep it is in your bones. The pain of the flesh is nothing. The pain you must forget. Because sometimes that is the only way to remember what is in your bones. You must peel off your skin, and that of your mother, and her mother before her. Until there is nothing. No scar, no skin, no flesh” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 48). The idea of peeling her mother's flesh and cooking it is unrealistic, of course. This violent scene is like Kingston's in The Woman Warrior when Fa Mu Lan's mother cuts the warrior's back with a knife engraving the list of wrongs to be avenged. Yet unlike apparently comparable scenes in The Silence of the Lambs, say, these scenes are not gruesome, but magical.

Limited by their cultural experiences, the mothers think and speak alike. One mother can easily substitute for another and seem to be characterized as mere Chinese-American abstractions. Ying Ying St. Clair says, “I think this to myself even though I love my daughter. She and I have shared the same body. There is a part of her mind that is part of mine. But when she was born, she sprang from me like a slippery fish” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 242). Lindo Jong says, “And now I have to fight back my feelings. These two faces, I think, so much the same! The same happiness, the same sadness, the same good fortune, the same faults” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 256). An-Mei Hsu says, “And even though I taught my daughter the opposite, still she came out the same way! Maybe it is because when 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” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 215). Likewise, Anju in The Woman Warrior describes her mother looking out of her Chinese medical school graduation photo: “She stares straight as if she could see me and past me to her grandchildren and grandchildren's grandchildren” (The Woman Warrior, p. 68). The identification that the mothers feel with their daughters is not based on common interests or thoughts but on biological factors. Jing Mei Woo, a seeming spokeswoman for the daughters' side, also admits, “And now I also see what part of me is Chinese. It is so obvious. It is my family. It is in our blood. … Together we look like our mother. Her same eyes, her same mouth, open in surprise to see, at last, her long-cherished wish” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 288). Reconciliation occurs when mothers and daughters realize the unbreakable bonds between them.

Indeed, the sameness of the daughters and mothers is the novel's central image. Thus the images of the mothers are conventionalized. The mothers do not appear as real women and some of their traits are especially exaggerated. It is true that there are moments of realistic portrayal, but these moments are intertwined with fantasies such as the women carrying swans and a woman cooking a mother's flesh. While the daughters are characterized realistically, the mothers are depicted as unreal. Despite this difference, the mothers and daughters are described as physically alike as the central image takes precedence over realistic portrayal.

Although the activities described are gruesome, the audience does not feel disgust but a mild, amused shudder, because the treatment of these scenes seems to be in the tradition of the comic novel. As Booth points out, “In much of the great comic fiction, for example, our amusement depends on the author's telling us in advance that the characters' troubles are temporary and their concern ridiculously exaggerated” (Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, p. 175). Tan herself notes, “So with the stories in The Joy Luck Club, I often began with a frame, which was ‘the reason’ for telling the story” (Davis, p. 10). Thus, it would be inaccurate for anyone to see these images as those of real mothers struggling in the United States, though we do get glimpses of reality. In a way there is an element of “faking,” as Frank Chin points out in The Big Aiiieeeee: “Kingston, Hwang, and Tan are the first writers of any race, and certainly the first writers of Asian ancestry, to so boldly fake the best-known works from the most universally known body of Asian literature and lore in history” (Chin, The Big Aiiieeee, p. 3). However, the fairytale elements in the stories make the serious and sad relationships interesting and light. Creating a light touch to handle heavy materials, the authors are able to amuse and entertain the reader even as they write about confusion and painful relationships.

In The Joy Luck Club four separate mother/daughter relationships are explored, but the struggles are really variations of each other. The mothers tell from their own points of view their stories in China while the daughters recount their stories of growing up. The four mothers seem to speak in similar voices, making it difficult for the reader to distinguish among them. Likewise, although the episodes are different, the daughters also seem to speak in similar tones. The daughters resist their mothers but somehow always seem vulnerable to their mothers' opinions. As Waverly says, “In her hands I always became the pawn. I could only run away. And she was the queen, able to move in all directions, relentless in her pursuit, always able to find my weakest spots” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 180). As in a chess game the daughter runs away until she reaches the far end of the board and then becomes a queen herself by being able to identify with her mother.

Realistically speaking, there is a wide gap between first generation mothers and second generation daughters. As Patrica Lin suggests, “The polarity between traditional Chinese and American values is felt with particular keenness by American-born Chinese women. Unlike their mothers, such women face conflicting demands from two opposing cultures. While American-born daughters are familiar with the cultural nuances of Chinese life, their dilemmas frequently stem from having to vacillate between ‘Chinese-ness’ and ‘American-ness.’ Their Chinese-born mothers, in contrast, are less plagued by the complexities of being Chinese, American, and woman” (Lin, p. 41). Jing Mei makes much the same point: “These kinds of explanations made me feel my mother and I spoke two different languages, which we did” (The Joy Luck Club, pp. 33–34). Despite their differences, however, the mothers and daughters are portrayed as equals. In fact, in The Woman Warrior both the mother and daughter are said to be dragons. In The Joy Luck Club Lena St. Clair as well as her mother, Ying Ying St. Clair, are born in the year of the tiger. Ying Ying St. Clair states, “I was born in the year of the Tiger. It was a very bad year to be born, a very good year to be a Tiger. … The bad spirit stayed in the world for four years. But I came from a spirit even stronger, and I lived. This is what my mother told me when I was old enough to know why I was so heartstrong in my ways. Then she told me why a tiger is gold and black. It has two ways. The gold side leaps with its fierce heart. The black side stands still with cunning, hiding its gold between trees, seeing and not being seen, waiting patiently for things to come” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 248). “Two ways” again underlines the idea of the double. The mother like a tiger is strong and shrewd. Her survival and character are attributed to being born in the year of a tiger. Literally, these animals are part of the Chinese zodiac; metaphorically, the image contributes to the work's fairytale atmosphere.

In China, women born in the year of the tiger or a dragon are considered too strong to be desirable mates. Women born in the year of the rabbit or pig are said to have gentler personalities, so they are selected before women born in the year of the tiger or dragon. It is interesting that Kingston and Tan have reversed the culture-bound stereotypes of femininity. But then they are looking through American eyes. To them, strength, fierceness, and power are positive signs.

As depicted by Tan, the battle between mother and daughter is especially fierce because both possess equal strength. Both mother and daughter are depicted as tigers. The mother uses her experience to control the daughter but the daughter resists such control even if it is from her own mother. The daughters continue to resist until they realize the truth about the universe. The universe is one and harmonious. Thus both mothers and daughters are winners and losers. The opposing sides of nature complement and balance each other. Both yin and yang enforce the recurring pattern of life. Their combat does not end in a victor or victim; the daughters are not better or worse than their mothers. Holbrook explains this relationship in psychological terms: “The problem of woman is thus the problem of life and its secret. Woman can create us—by reflecting us—and enable us to seek meaning in existence, or, she can leave us without a created identity and in a condition of meaninglessness. No wonder she is feared and hated, as well as respected and loved” (Holbrook, p. 62). This explanation clarifies Waverly's reaction when she sees her mother lying quietly on the sofa. “And then I was seized with a fear that she looked like this because she was dead. I had wished her out of my life, and she had acquiesced, floating out of her body to escape my terrible hatred” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 180). Waverly is relieved to find her mother just sleeping. When Lindo Jong awakens and calls her daughter by a childhood name, “Meimei-ah,” Waverly's anger dissolves and she feels “as if someone had unplugged me and the current running through me had stopped” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 181). Likewise, Anju feels as if a “weight lifted from me” when her mother calls her “Little Dog,” an endearing term from childhood (The Woman Warrior, p. 127). And as in all fairy tales the stories end on a positive note when the daughters realize the truth about their world.

Motivated by ambition and fear, the mothers try to control their daughters. As Helen Bannan says,

“immigrant women fought to survive, to preserve what they considered to be the essence of their cultural origins, and to pass on both survival skills and cultural traditions to their daughters. When the women of the second generation chose American survival over ethnic tradition, they sometimes brought the war home, but they were often following battle strategies for which their mothers had, perhaps unwillingly, performed the reconnaissance.”

(Bannan, p. 165)

Therefore, as Barker-Nunn notes,

These painful episodes are a result of the difficulty mother and daughter have separating from one another; this is the darker side of connection. The daughters' resentment springs from what they see as a lack of willingness on their mothers' part to see them as they are, to accept them as having lives both different and separate from those of their own.

(Barker-Nunn, p. 59)

The degree to which the daughters' growing identities depend upon their unquestioning acceptance of their mothers is central to the novel's conclusion.

Tan invokes truly widespread, if not universal, patterns. According to Simone de Beauvoir, “real conflicts arise when the girl grows older; as we have seen, she wishes to establish her independence from her mother. This seems to the mother a mark of hateful ingratitude; she tries obstinately to checkmate the girl's will to escape; she cannot bear to have her double become an other … Whether a loving or a hostile mother, the independence of her child dashes her hopes. She is doubly jealous: of the world, which takes her daughter from her, and of her daughter, who in conquering a part of the world robs her of it” (Beauvoir, pp. 489–490). Perhaps this is the reason why Tan's mothers attempt to control their daughters' lives.

Tan's mothers are very ambitious for their daughters. Jing Mei remembers her mother wanting her to be like Shirley Temple and starting her on a series of piano lessons despite Jing Mei's protests. At a talent show, she “played this strange jumble through two repeats, the sour notes staying with me all the way to the end” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 139). But it is the expression on her mother's face that truly affects her. “But my mother's expression was what devastated me: a quiet, blank look that said she had lost everything” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 140). Jing Mei does care deeply what her mother thinks of her. She feels that her mother has indeed lost everything and is haunted by a sense of failure. She explains, “And for all those years, we never talked about the disaster at the recital or my terrible accusations afterward at the piano bench. All that remained unchecked, like a betrayal that was now unspeakable. So I never found a way to ask her why she had hoped for something so large that failure was inevitable” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 142). In exasperation she shouts at her mother, “You want me to be someone that I'm not!. … I'll never be the kind of daughter you want me to be.” The insensitive mother retorts, “Only two kinds of daughters. … Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind!” “Then I wish I wasn't your daughter. I wish you weren't my mother,” Jing Mei replies (The Joy Luck Club, p. 142). Real communication is blocked by language problems. The mother's inability to speak English well denies her the opportunity to explain her true thoughts and feelings to her daughter. In broken English the mother tries to teach her daughter by using her knowledge of old Chinese proverbs and chants. Frustration breaks out on both sides and the scene ends with shouting and ultimatums.

The ambition of Waverly Jong's mother is to make her daughter a champion chess player. “And my mother loved to show me off, like one of my many trophies she polished. She used to discuss my games as if she had devised the strategies” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 170). However, one day Waverly must respond, “I hated the way she tried to take all the credit. And one day I told her so, shouting at her on Stockton Street, in the middle of a crowd of people. I told her she didn't know anything, so she shouldn't show off. She should shut up” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 170). Her mother's loud Chinese voice cracking with broken English words is embarrassing. The mother doesn't behave the way a white mother behaves, not knowing any better, so she is a source of humiliation for the daughter. Likewise, a daughter telling her mother “to shut up” is a disgrace for the mother. And yet the mothers have a strong hold over the daughters. Waverly feels that “in her hands, I always became the pawn. I could only run away. And she was the queen, able to move in all directions, relentless in her pursuit, always able to find my weakest spots” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 180). Entrapped in her sensitivities, the daughter struggles and rebels.

Despite the daughters' rebellions, their sense of guilt, need for approval, and desire for reassurance tie them to their mothers' judgments. Yet their fears of being rejected make them hesitate. An Hsu hesitates about explaining her divorce to her mother. Waverly Jong wants desperately for her mother to approve her white boyfriend, Rich. She tells him, however, that her mother doesn't think anyone is good enough for her. When Waverly shows her mother her present from Rich, a mink coat, her mother replies, “This is not so good.” “It is just leftover strips. And the fur is too short, no long hairs’” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 169). Waverly observes, “My mother knows how to hit a nerve. And the pain I feel is worse than any other kind of misery. Because what she does always comes as a shock, exactly like an electric jolt, that grounds itself permanently in my memory. I still remember the first time I felt it” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 170).

Just as the daughters hesitate, so too the mothers wait to reveal their pasts. Ying Ying St. Clair states, “My daughter does not know that I was married to this man so long ago, twenty years before she was even born” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 246). Jing Woo's mother dies before revealing her whole past to her. Jing Woo goes on a quest to find out more about her dead mother and to find her lost sisters. This lack of communication and honesty between daughter and mother is one of the major sources of conflict and misunderstanding. Only when the mothers start to reveal their true natures do the daughters begin to understand their mothers and themselves. Ying Ying St. Clair says, “All these years I kept my true nature hidden, running along like a small shadow so nobody could catch me. And because I moved so secretly now my daughter does not see me. She sees a list of things to buy, her checkbook out of balance, her ashtray sitting crooked on a straight table. And I want to tell her this: We are lost, she and I, unseen and not seeing, unheard and not hearing, unknown by others” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 67). The longer the mothers wait, the deeper become the misunderstandings.

Reconciliation occurs after a series of reversals and recognitions. The daughters realize that the mothers are just as sensitive as they are, that their mothers can be hurt just as they themselves are hurt. Waverly feels torn: “Oh, her strength! Her weakness!—both pulling me apart. My mind was flying one way, my heart another. I sat down on the sofa next to her, the two of us stricken by the other” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 181). At one point Lindo Jong says to her daughter, “Yes, but you said it just to be mean, to hurt me, to. …” And when her daughter responds with more abuse, she is horrified. “So you think your mother is this bad. You think I have a secret meaning. But it is you who has this meaning. Ai-ya! She thinks I am this bad!” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 181). And just as Waverly feels acutely her mother's remarks, so any rude remarks that Waverly makes give Lindo sharp pain. As Ling points out, “Tan's implication is clear: we all take our mothers (and motherlands) for granted. They are just there, like air or water, impossible really to know or understand because we are so intimate, and more often than not they have seemed a force to struggle against” (Ling, Between Worlds, p. 136).

Ying Ying believes that by revealing the secrets of her past she can help her daughter. “Now I must tell my daughter everything. … I will gather together my past and look. I will see a thing that has already happened. The pain that cut my spirit loose. I will hold that pain in my hand until it becomes hard and shiny, more clear. And then my fierceness can come back, my golden side, my black side. I will use this sharp pain to penetrate my daughter's tough skin and cut her tiger spirit loose. She will fight me, because this is the nature of two tigers. But I will win and give her my spirit because this is the way a mother loves her daughter” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 252). And when Lindo and Waverly Jong are at the beauty parlor, the mother thinks, “And now I have to fight back my feelings. These two faces, I think, so much the same! The same happiness, the same sadness, the same good fortune, the same faults” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 256). Likewise the daughter sees her mother as so weak and frail that she comes to a new understanding. “I saw what I had been fighting for: It was for me, a scared child, who had run away a long time ago to what I had imagined was a safer place. And hiding in this place, behind my invisible barriers, I knew what lay on the other side: Her side attacks. Her secret weapons. Her uncanny ability to find my weakest spots. But in the brief instant that I had peered over the barriers I could finally see what was really there: an old woman, a wok for her armor, a knitting needle for her sword, getting a little crabby as she waited patiently for her daughter to invite her in” (The Joy Luck Club, pp. 183–84). The clash of these wills is finally stilled in a moment's revelation.

At the end, when Jing Mei goes to China to find her two lost sisters, she is all but overcome: “And now I see [my mother] again, two of her, waving, and in one hand there is a photo, the Polaroid I sent them. As soon as I get beyond the gate, we run toward each other, all three of us embracing, all hesitations and expectations forgotten. ‘Mama, Mama,’ we all murmur, as if she is among us” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 287). Eager yet hesitant, happy but somewhat shy, Jing Mei embraces her lost sisters. When Jing Mei looks at the polaroid picture of herself and her two Chinese sisters, she realizes their perfect likeness: “The gray-green surface changes to the bright colors of our three images, sharpening and deepening all at one … Together we look like our mother. Her same eyes, her same mouth, open in surprise to see, at last, her long-cherished wish” (The Joy Luck Club, p. 288). The dim shadowy images give way to the sharply focused features underlined by the similar bone structures. These images of likeness break down the walls of resistance. As Holbrook notes, “The symbolic use of faces and eyes is found in fairy tales, as well as in the fantasies of C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Lewis Carroll, and others. Symbolism of the mother's body, of birth, and of play may also be found—associated with existence and development” (Holbrook, p. 64). This development is achieved when Jing Mei's search for the mother ends by finding her sisters.

Jing Mei's need to find her own identity is realized when she meets her sisters. Pearson notes that “women writers in particular emphasize the female hero's need, following her liberation from male definition, for reconciliation with the mother. They also emphasize how inextricably bound together are the search for the mother and the search for the self” (Pearson and Pope, p. 197). The image of the mother superimposed on the sisters' reflections brings about this revelation. As Lazarre says, “It is the process of quiet, loving, insistent identification, the repeated testifying of one to the other that says, I am the same as you, that unlocks the doors and unravels the tangles” (Pearson and Pope, p. 203). Mirror images reflect the unbreakable bonds between mother and daughter.

Jing Mei's journey correlates with Holbrook's explanation of how fantasies work in stories by writers like C. S. Lewis and George MacDonald. “There is a journey, and during the journey something crucial has to be sought in the bleak world and brought back to restore meaning. This often is something shiny, magical, fruitful or potent. This quest is symbolic of the need of the individual who cannot complete mourning to find the dead mother—in the world of death—and to obtain from her the completion of reflection, thus restoring meaning to life. The loss has left the individual aware of the lack of meaning in his existence, consequent upon the insufficiency of the mother's creative reflection. Therefore, the individual must find her … or her magic attributes … to complete the existential process” (Holbrook, p. 65). When Jing Mei sees herself in the photo which serves as a magical mirror, she is restored. And the restoration she achieves is mirrored in the fates of her sisters, both Chinese and American.

Kingston's and Tan's images are more figurative and original than those of other, more conventional writers who tend to offer traditional images of the loving mother and dutiful daughter. Kingston's and Tan's images are more memorable and revealing of the problems of first generation Asian American mothers and their daughters. In The Woman Warrior and The Joy Luck Club, however, real separation never occurs, although the mother-daughter bond is problematic. Although at various times there is a tug of war, the bond between mothers and daughters is never broken. This concept fits in perfectly with the Chinese view of the universe. In the end the American-born daughters accept and affirm their Chinese heritage. In both The Woman Warrior and The Joy Luck Club resolution occurs when the daughters accept their mothers. They realize that despite differences of environment and culture they share a deep and unchanging bond with their mothers. Kingston's and Tan's philosophies truly fit Emerson's in “Each and All.” Like the speaker in the last line of this poem, the mothers and daughters in The Woman Warrior and The Joy Luck Club finally yield themselves to the perfect whole.


  1. For a more detailed discussion of these unifying devices, see my book The Shapes and Styles of Asian American Prose Fiction, pp. 91–115.

Further Reading

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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 Tan seems to view the religion as being culturally destructive.

Houston, Marsha. “Women and the Language of Race and Ethnicity.” Women and Language XVII, No. 1 (Spring 1995): 1–7.

Houston traces the importance of multiple languages in The Joy Luck Club and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior.

Huntley, E. D. “The Joy Luck Club.” In Amy Tan: A Critical Companion, pp. 41–77. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Huntley examines the literary elements that compose The Joy Luck Club.

Souris, Stephen. “‘Only Two Kinds of Daughters’: Inter-monologue Dialogicity in The Joy Luck Club.MELUS 19, No. 2 (Summer 1994): 99–124.

Souris uses dynamic reader models to illustrate how readers are challenged to find the interconnections in The Joy Luck Club.

Additional coverage of Tan's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Asian American Literature; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 9; Bestsellers, Vol. 89:3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 136; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 54; Contemporary Novelists; Contemporary Popular Writers, Vol. 1; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 173; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural, Novelists, and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors Modules; Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Edition 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 9; Reference Guide to American Literature; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 9; Something About the Author, Vol. 75; and St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers.

Wendy Ho (essay date 1996)

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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 of critics and readers think that Amy Tan writes stories about a tantalizing, mysterious, and romanticized Old China or an exoticized Other. Some reviewers comment more about Tan than about the book, referring to her as “the flavor of the month, the hot young thing, the exotic new voice” (Streitfeld, F8); others invoke stereotypes in their review of the book: “Snappy as a fortune cookie and much more nutritious, The Joy Luck Club is a jolly treatment of familiar conflicts” (Koenig, 82). Another critic asserts that the Joy Luck mothers' memories of China are not anchored in “actual memory,” but overtaken by “revery” for the China of their childhood past. He disappoints in encouraging readers to “dream” through the Old China sequences in Tan's book (Schell, 28). In The Big Aiiieeeee!, a groundbreaking anthology of Asian American literature, the writer-editors are highly critical of what they perceive as Tan's exoticization of China and the Chinese for a white mainstream audience. For them, her book simply resurrects racist images of an inscrutably corrupt East; of heartless, sexist (if not invisible) Chinese men; and of fragile, lotus-blossom women who appear to be too good for the decadent, ignorant society and culture from which they come (Chan et al.). Such one-dimensional Western representations are indeed destructive to the Asian American community. They are derived from the Orientalist school that Edward Said has so eloquently critiqued in his two books Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism.

But contrary to what the above critics may say or think, Amy Tan is not out to resurrect shallow stereotypes or Chinese exotica in The Joy Luck Club. As teachers, we need to seek out new and empowering interpretive strategies for reading Tan's texts rather than appropriating to ourselves—consciously or unconsciously—ways of reading our emerging writers that are based on racist, sexist perspectives. In this regard, I think it is important for readers to do the hard work of carefully processing the new literary, talk-story texts as intimately anchored not only in the psychodynamic tensions between Chinese immigrant mothers and their Americanized daughters within different familial situations, but also in the concrete socioeconomic, cultural, and historical realities of a hybrid diaspora culture in the United States.

The Joy Luck mothers' imaginations are not so overtaken by “revery” that they cannot comprehend the intersecting struggles of their lives in China or America, or the sexism and racism that they and their families must deal with in their lives. Tan resurrects women's untold personal stories of daily survival and resistance as a form of countermemory: Their multiple stories counter, rather than support, the monolithic imperialist, patriarchal gaze and narratives that have denied them agency, complexity, and visibility in not only their own ethnic communities but also in the dominant Western culture in the U.S. Through her semiautobiographical fiction, Amy Tan advocates the value of reclaiming and understanding these Chinese women's neglected stories in China and America and of preserving and reimagining their Chinese heritage even as they tell of their bewildering new dilemmas as Chinese women in the United States. (For the semiautobiographical nature of her book, consult personal interviews by Seaman; Somogyi and Stanton; Tan, 1990.) Her book is dedicated to her mother, Daisy Tan: “To my mother and the memory of her mother. You asked me once what I would remember. This and much more.” From these mother roots, daughter-writers such as Tan draw strength to survive, adapt, and create new stories and myths, new definitions of self-in-community, new strategies for cultural/historical survival that will honor their mothers and communities as well as their Chinese pasts. (See Friedman on the importance of group identity in the discussion of self in the writings of women, minorities, and many non-Western peoples.) Such links of the self in new and old communities will sustain them in the dangerous minefields of Anglo American life and culture.

Tan's The Joy Luck Club is structured around four central mirroring pairs of mothers and daughters: Suyuan Woo and Jing-mei “June” Woo; An-mei Hsu and Rose Hsu Jordan; Lindo Jong and Waverly Jong; and Ying-ying St. Clair and Lena St. Clair.1 In The Joy Luck Club, the stories of these four pairs are interwoven in four major segments, with the mothers and daughters telling their stories of how it is they came to be where they are in life. Each of the four major segments of the book opens up with a vignette, which is followed by four chapters. The first and last segments involve the Joy Luck mothers' individual stories (“Feathers from a Thousand Li” and “Queen Mother of the Western Skies”). These two mother segments figuratively embrace the two middle segments (“The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates” and “American Translation”) in which their daughters speak as second-generation Chinese women in America. In an interesting twist, Jing-mei, the daughter who has reluctantly assumed the place of her deceased mother Suyuan at the mah jong table at the beginning of the book, tells her mother's story in the final chapter, “A Pair of Tickets.” She fulfills her mother's dream of returning to China to see her twin daughters—Jing-mei's lost sisters. She finally begins the process of re-identifying with a mother whom she had long neglected—whom she had often dismissed as an exotic Other. The daughter's recognition and reclamation of the intimate bonds with her mother is in counterpoint to the cultural and institutional images and definitions of women as mirrored in patriarchal/imperialist discourse. There is an impending change of guard at the end of the book which suggests the potential for continuity and transformation of mother-and-daughter bonding among a new generation of Chinese American women.

Tan's multiple pairings of mother-daughter stories mirror the strong links between the individual mothers and daughters as well as among all the women of the Joy Luck Club. Rather than focusing on a single primary mother-daughter relationship, Tan gives the reader a sense of the diversity of mother-daughter bonds within Chinese American families. As Tan says, “And when you talk to 100 different people to get their stories on a situation, that's what the truth is. So it's really a multiple story” (Seaman, 256). The links between these mothers and daughters in America are further complicated by the bonds between the Joy Luck mothers and their mothers (and foremothers) in China. Tan enriches the reader's understanding of a single woman's history and of these Chinese American mother-daughter pairs by extending the resonances to the past and to the spidery links to mother-daughter bonds embedded in Chinese culture and society. For example, we witness Lindo Jong's sad separation from her beloved mother and the development of her feisty and clever private self in an arranged marriage—a self that is reflected in a complicated relationship with her own strong-willed daughter. In An-mei Hsu's story, we explore the roots of her frustrations and anger as a woman in the telling of her mother's oppressive life and death as a concubine in feudal China. We begin to understand the links between her personal liberation and the revolutionary changes in China—of a woman and a nation finding a new voice. Tan links Hsu's personal-political struggles with a sociohistorical awareness and participation in her people's struggle for justice and equality. Through the book's intersecting storylines, the reader is exposed to the rich variations and interconnections in the relationships and communications between Chinese mothers and daughters in China and/or in America as they attempt to talk out the silences and distances and to process what is really being described and felt by each other as women.

In The Joy Luck Club, the mothers and daughters continually struggle not only to reclaim and speak their stories, but also to “talk back” as complex subjects. But in order to speak up in the larger community and to transform women's lives in a sexist, racist society, Tan's mothers and daughters have to learn to be friends and allies to each other. For women, one important place to begin this primary, necessary work is in the problematic relationships and communications between mothers and daughters. (For an introduction to mother-daughter writing, see, for example, Hirsch.) In The Joy Luck Club, mothers and daughters find a compelling need to set the record straight on the specific actualities of their lives in China and America; but they find it difficult to articulate their honest intentions, emotions, and experiences to each other. Jing-mei Woo's mother gives her an heirloom jade pendant—her life's importance—by which she will know her mother's meaning. But as Jing-mei notes, it seemed that she and other jade-pendant wearers were “all sworn to the same secret covenant, so secret we don't even know what we belong to” (198). Much miscommunication takes place between the mothers and daughters. It is a tricky and risky task for them to dredge up and decipher each other's personal stories—these palimpsests that are shrouded in layers of silence, secrecy, pain, ambiguity, collusion, and prohibition within the varied discourses, institutions, and power relations in a society.

However, this is precisely the work that Tan takes up. Each woman has her story of hopes and ambitions, of failure, of survival and resistance. The mothers, for example, must confront the personal archive of tragedy, alienation, suffering, and loss in their own lives; they must negotiate the shame and guilt of leaving country, family, home, and mother. Each woman must wrestle with what to tell the other amid the false images and narratives that obscure or silence their personal stories as Chinese American women. They must overcome the sense that their daughters often look upon them as outcasts, as Other, in America. Jing-mei thinks of her mother's mah jong gatherings as “a shameful Chinese custom, like the secret gathering of the Ku Klux Klan or the tom-tom dances of TV Indians preparing for war” (28). In this less than hospitable context, Suyuan Woo struggles continually to translate her tragic war stories to a resisting daughter. Tan does not neglect to portray the serious dilemmas and ironies that these mothers confront in creating and maintaining a protective environment, a material, cultural and psycho-political bastion, for themselves or their families in America.

Nevertheless, the Joy Luck mothers work painfully to decipher and speak the buried, bittersweet pain of their lives in order to reclaim their own stories and to protect their bewildered daughters from similar pain and oppression as women in America. Through their personal recall, they begin to recognize the insidious links between their pasts and present struggles in America and between their pasts and their daughters' present lives. It is important to read these women's stories as the complicated physical, psychological, cultural, and sociohistorical positionings for personal and communal survival and resistance in the Chinese diaspora communities of the United States. In this light, these stories record not detached reveries or myths about China but, rather, daily heroic actions of many of the Joy Luck mothers, who struggle to raise children under stressful political and sociohistorical conditions.

Like their mothers, daughters must overcome their personal anger, resentment, guilt, and fear toward their mothers. Tan demonstrates how the daughters tend to stereotype their mothers—to freeze them in time as old-fashioned ladies; they do not often give their mothers the space to particularize themselves or to cross over into their lives. They are second-generation, English-speaking Chinese American women, who are located or positioned in an Anglo American homeland that has a long history of oppressing Asian Americans. In living in America, the daughters assimilate certain stereo-typical and racist views of the Chinese that alienate them from their own mothers and heritage. They find it distasteful to be identified with their mothers or their stories; with speaking the Chinese language, or with keeping the old ways and customs. Joy Luck daughters often fail to recognize the difficult but vital work and nurture of their working-class, immigrant Chinese mothers. Yuppie Waverly Jong, for example, makes up jokes to tell her friends about her mother's arrival in America and about her parents meeting and marriage. She trivializes their stories of struggle and joy. Waverly does not know the true story about the difficulties of her feisty immigrant mother; the poignant story of how her parents courted by surmounting ethnic and linguistic difficulties; or the story of how her name was chosen to express her mother's love and hopes for her.

Within this problematic framework, the Joy Luck women struggle to maintain vital communication with each other and to piece together the fragmented memories and talk-story of their actual lives. In The Joy Luck Club, it is a struggle, with varying successes and failures, for the mother-daughter pairs to know and love each other for their own strengths, weaknesses, and contexts. As we see in the individual stories, it is easy for mothers and daughters to get lost in the intense psychodynamic love—hate struggles within themselves and with each other. Both can be nurturing and suffocating, protective and negligent, trusting and distrustful, arrogant and humble, powerful and weak, affiliative and competitive toward each other. Each Joy Luck mother-daughter pair attempts to articulate positions that are rooted in their intertwined needs for individuation, mutual respect, and attachment to each other and their communities.

In addition, these psychodynamic tensions are embedded in particular socioeconomic and historical circumstances in China and in America that further complicate their relationship and communications with each other; that is, internal tensions between mothers and daughters are exacerbated and even generated by external factors. In The Joy Luck Club, mothers and daughters often have a difficult times smoothly negotiating the great sociohistorical expanses of their specific weltanschaung. For example, mothers and daughters are separated by historical time, cataclysmic natural disasters and wars, generations, classes, sociocultural systems and values, and languages. The traumatic translation of devalued and ambitious Chinese-speaking immigrant mothers from their motherland to an unfriendly and alien country and the assimilation of their second-generation, English-speaking Chinese daughters into mainstream America cause serious fractures in their relationship and communication with each other.

For the Joy Luck women to communicate with each other and to speak up as women against the invisibility—the distorted images and stereotypes of women in China and America—is to begin to imagine the histories that have been left out. (For instance, see Kim, especially 3–22, on stereotypes of Asian American people in literature, media, and society.) As some of their own mothers struggled to teach them, Joy Luck mothers want to teach their daughters how to acknowledge and deal with pain; how to know true friends; how to trust that their mothers know them inside and out; how to be free of confusion; how to survive under tricky and marginal circumstances with grace and joy luck. Some of the mothers especially desire to pass on to their daughters a sense of shou, a respect and honor for their mothers; nengkan, an ability to accomplish anything they put their mind to; and chuming, an inner knowing of each other as women. Most desire to reclaim their daughters by fighting for their hearts and minds and by responsibly educating them to survive and to subvert the oppressive systems in which they live. Joy Luck mothers teach their daughters that personal and cultural identity need to be maintained not only through the preservation of Chinese heritage but also through a continually active, fluid, multidimensional agency that can negotiate the fluctuations of oppressive social, cultural, and historical processes.

On the one hand, Asian American women have suffered under imperialist and patriarchal power structures. To deny these oppressive factors in any culture—whether in China or America—is, as Frank Chin likes to say, to live in the “fake world,” not the “real world.” The Asian American mothers and daughters in The Joy Luck Club are struggling subjects and agents encountering a not very perfect world in China and in America. Sometimes they lose their battles in the oppressive systems in which they live and position themselves; they comply, negotiate, and/or betray themselves and others in their search for sheer survival or status within systems of power. Tan shows us the complicity and compromise that can mire her female characters as they struggle to come to consciousness and voice about their lives and circumstances. For example, women are complicit in destroying Anmei's mother through the patriarchal power arrangements of family and society. Wu Tsing's childless Second Wife arranges to entrap An-mei's mother as a concubine for her husband. As a rich woman, Second Wife uses the borrowed class, wealth, and power of her husband to oppress and manipulate other women. This oppression of the other wives is her attempt to guarantee her own tenuous position and status in Wu Tsing's competitive female household. Tan is not out to valorize or privilege all women's language and actions. She paints a painfully problematic picture of women's complicity not only in another woman's oppression, but in their own continuing oppression in and maintenance of male-dominated culture.

On the other hand, Asian women are not always or simply powerless, passive, exploited dupes and sexual objects, domestic drudges, illiterates, and/or traditional women in patriarchal or imperialist systems (see Mohanty). In teaching this book, one must not neglect to take into account that Tan shows us how ordinary women, located in the specific context of their own times and personal circumstances, have challenged and subverted the socioeconomic and political systems under which they have lived and are living in many different ways. At the same time that their lives bespeak oppression and tragedy, the Joy Luck mothers do not neglect to pass on empowering interventions to their daughters. These resistances counter the patriarchal and imperialist systems that they are exposed to in China and America, which have forced them to speak, see, think, and act often in disempowering terms.

Such communication provides vital entry into the past, present, and future. The mothers' life-stories are the valuable maps not only of the powerlessness, servility, frustration, defeat, and compromise, but also of the powerful strategies of intervention and subversion that help women survive with a certain amount of grace, anger, strength, connectedness, and love. Mothers and daughters come to realize their fierce love and respect for each other as friends and survivors. They come to realize that there are rich challenges and meanings embodied even in the silences, fragments, tensions, and differences.

Doing the work of talk-story as a way to resist oppressive, monolithic patriarchal and imperialist institutions and metanarratives can lead to the inscription of new and fluid woman-centered spaces for women. In The Joy Luck Club, we learn just how vital it is for mothers and daughters to continually talk-story—not to wait, for instance, to speak only until spoken to or given authority to do so or till one can speak perfect American English. It can be personally and politically empowering and heroic for women to tell their stories and attend to each other—not to be decentered objects whose stories are continually co-opted or translated for them or to them by those in power. In this way, women can be empowered to challenge society. During the Chinese Revolution, Chinese women learned to stand up and speak against not only their landlords but also their husbands and fathers. The slogan for this emancipation of people was fanshen, which meant “to stand up and overturn the oppressing classes.” Women learned to speak the bitterness in their daily lives. Within their consciousness-raising women's groups in the countryside and cities, women learned, first of all, to speak up about the poverty, the hunger, the physical and psychological abuse and fear, the socioeconomic and political inequities. (See description of suku, or the “indictments of bitterness,” in Ono, 170–75.) Women had access to each other's true feelings and contexts in an affiliative, nurturing environment. In this way, they learned they were not alone, separate from other women or other oppressed groups. Many Chinese women were empowered to speak and act together in transforming their lives and society. Likewise, Tan's mothers want to teach their daughters how to read situations clearly and how to stand up and fight for themselves. They want their daughters to be bolder, more self-assured women; to be independent from their husbands; to have status and voice on their own merit. As the critic bell hooks has powerfully stated, talking back is a way of speaking up for one-self as a woman, boldly and defiantly. It is “not solely an expression of creative power; it is an act of resistance, a political gesture that challenges politics of domination that would render us nameless and voiceless. As such it is a courageous act—as such, it represents a threat. To those who wield oppressive power, that which is threatening must necessarily be wiped out, annihilated, silenced” (8).

Like Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan is a daughter-writer, who has come to realize that locating, defining, and reporting women's stories and the crimes against women and community are part of the constructive, articulated anger and revenge against the narratives and institutions that oppress them. To recover multiple histories and to talk back as women united is to do real battle against oppression in their personal and communal lives. In reading Tan, one becomes acutely aware that this is serious, painful, complicated excavatory work; it is also subversive, creative, freeing, and responsible work for mothers and daughters who wish to connect as women-allies.


An understanding of the Joy Luck mothers' (and their foremothers') Chinese past can help make the problematic interactions with their second-generation Americanized daughters—how they perceive and treat them and why—more accessible to readers. Teachers can assign introductory background readings on women in Chinese and Chinese American history.2 The mother-and-daughter relationships cannot be fully understood as simply personal, internal problems to be worked out between Chinese mothers and their daughters. The bonds are problematized or complicated, in part, by their embeddedness in the particular psychological, socioeconomic, cultural, and historical realities of a traditional Confucian society that socialized and oppressed women in China.

As Julia Kristeva notes, Confucianists saw women as small human beings (hsiao ren) to be categorized with babies and slaves (Ling, 3). Women were not suited by nature for the intellectual life of a scholar or a statesman. Women's lives were to revolve around the Three Obediences and Four Virtues:

The Three Obediences enjoined a woman to obey her father before marriage, her husband after marriage, and her eldest son after her husband's death. The Four Virtues decreed that she be chaste; her conversation courteous and not gossipy; her deportment graceful but not extravagant; her leisure spent in perfecting needlework and tapestry for beautifying the home.

(Ling, 3)

These delimiting societal prescriptions for women's gender roles and for a “true” Chinese womanhood can permit the physical and psychological abuse of women. The Joy Luck mothers experience their mothers' as well as their own difficult compromises and failures in a restrictive patriarchal culture and society. For example, An-mei Hsu learns the lessons that attempt to strain and destroy her relationship with her mother. Both An-mei and her mother live in traditional familial and societal structures, which often deny their personal needs, sufferings, and struggles and ask them to conform to a male-dominated culture against their own individual and common interests as women. An-mei grows up with stories, which attempt to break the spirit of strong-willed girls, the disobedient types—like her hidden self. These patriarchal stories are powerful forms of socialization into her proper and public roles in traditional Chinese society as a daughter, wife, mother, woman. The film version of Tan's The Joy Luck Club (Wayne Wang) dramatically depicts the tragic experiences of the mothers in China and its parallels and consequences in the lives of their daughters in the United States. A viewing of the film—a real tearjerker—could provide another way to access the psychodynamic tensions between the mother-daughter pairs in the book. For a view of women's lives in prerevolutionary China, students can read the Chinese novel The Family by Pa Chin. The film Small Happiness (Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon) can provide a sense of women's lives in a specific Chinese context. In exploring the impact of a Chinese Confucian system on women's socialization into gender roles and identity, students can better understand the relationships of the Joy Luck mothers to their own mothers in China. In addition, this information can help students to understand the complex interactions between the Joy Luck mothers and their own daughters in America.

The historical events and natural disasters in China also play a role in shaping the Joy Luck mothers. They and their mothers before them, in one way or another, experience a range of horrific wars and chaos, evacuations, deaths, economic turmoil, revolutionary changes, poverty, floods, and famines that seriously impinge on their personal relationships and communications with their daughters. In the 1800s to middle 1900s, there were horrendous wars for colonial dominance over China waged by imperialist powers such as England, the United States, and Japan. There was bloody civil war between the Chinese Communist Party (Mao Zedong) and the Guomindang (Chiang Kai-shek) rumbling through China (see Ono). Chinese women suffered the terrible consequences of these chaotic events, especially the toll they took on the socioeconomic and political situations in their daily lives. For instance, Suyuan Woo's life, fears, and ambitions are clearly influenced by the chaos and brutalities of war, separation from family, death of a husband, and loss of her baby daughters. Suyuan's abandonment of her twin daughters during her escape from the invading Japanese is vividly portrayed in the film version of The Joy Luck Club. Young Lindo Jong remembers the painful, lonely separation from her beloved mother: she is sent to her boy-husband's household after disastrous floods, famine, and poverty make it difficult for the family to keep a “useless” daughter. Ying-ying St. Clair's concerns for her daughter's safety and her own fears at being sexually harassed on an Oakland street by a stranger could be rooted in her own bitter experiences as a lone married woman migrating from the poor countryside to Shanghai, a city notorious for its foreign decadence and the murder, rape, kidnapping, and prostitution of Chinese women in the early to middle 1900s. However, it was also a significant revolutionary period of change, not only in terms of women's rights but also for the Chinese nation. Students need to keep in mind that the Joy Luck mothers are the products of these revolutionary times. They are women of old and new China.

Besides an understanding of the Joy Luck mothers' Chinese roots, it is important to consider their traumatic translation to the United States. The mothers are excited by the potential opportunities in America for themselves and their families. But they are also socialized into silence by American racism and haunted by the history of immigration policies that have excluded Asians from entry into America. Before the arrival of the Joy Luck mothers in 1949, America already had a long and ugly record of discriminatory attitudes and policies aimed not only against successive groups of Asians, but also specifically against the Chinese (see S. Chan, Daniels, and Wong). Besides numerous Chinese immigration exclusionary laws enacted between 1882 and 1904, there were also a number of immigration policies that specifically deterred the immigration of Chinese women to America (such as the 1875 Page Law and the 1924 Immigration Act). These restrictive forms of social and legal legislation affected the numbers of Asian women entering the country and the subsequent formation of Asian families in America. Racist/sexist stereotypes portrayed Chinese women as lewd and immoral women, who were unfit to enter the country. Sensational news-media coverage on the evils of Chinese prostitution created the long-standing stereotype of Chinese women as prostitutes. As audiovisual resources, films such as Slaying the Dragon (Deborah Gee) and New Year (Valerie Soe) can provide a visual introduction to the many stereotypes of Asian American women/people. With this long history of racism and sexism in the United States, Tan shows us why it is not difficult to understand the Chinese immigrant mothers' fear of the police, deportation, and backlash from white Americans based on their race and gender.

Despite all her years in America, An-mei Hsu lives with fears of deportation. An-mei's fears are well grounded, especially if one remembers America's severe anti-communist paranoia of the 1950s. Likewise, Ying-ying St. Clair is forced to invent a fictive self that is oriented to her present and future life in America, but which does not account for her frightening past life. In this foreign and suffocating space, she feels numb, off balance, and lost, living in small houses, doing servant's work, wearing American clothes, learning Western ways and English, accepting American ways without care or comment, and raising a distant daughter. Upon her arrival in America, Ying-ying is processed at Angel Island Immigration Station, where agents try to figure out her classification: war bride, displaced person, student, or wife. She is renamed Betty St. Clair; she loses her Chinese name and identity as Gu Ying-ying and gains a new birthdate. In the Chinese lunar calendar, she is no longer a tiger but a dragon. It takes her a long time to recover and pass on her tiger spirit to her daughter Lena.

In contrast to the mothers, the daughters, born and raised in contemporary America, have assimilated more easily into the dominant society. But Tan portrays the great cost of assimilation in the miscommunications between the Joy Luck mothers and daughters. Under such circumstances, how can mothers tell their stories to their insider/outsider daughters? How can the Joy Luck mothers articulate their stories fully if they feel they must hide or deny their past? their language in America? How can Americanized Chinese daughters begin to understand the fractured narratives that surface, made up, as they are, of so many lies and truths, so many protective layers set up against the outsiders' chuming, an inner knowing, of them? What are the advantages and disadvantages of assimilation for these mothers and daughters? How can these women learn to be friends and allies to each other? How are language and strategies for survival and resistance passed from mothers to daughters? She demonstrates how many intertwined dilemmas can impede or frustrate clear access by daughters to their mothers and to the full stories of their mother's and family's life and history in China and America. Nevertheless, Tan's text emphasizes that this difficult work of recovery is vital to women's well-being and solidarity with each other.

Another way of accessing Tan's book is to analyze her use of traditional Chinese legends (for example, the Moon Lady story) and images to articulate the concerns of Chinese American women. For instance, the Joy Luck mothers want their daughters to turn into beautiful swans—perfect, happy, successful, and independent women. In traditional Chinese stories, swans symbolize married, heterosexual love. Tan subverts and re-interprets the traditional image of swans by applying it to the silenced and intimate pairings between women. In this case, a mother and her daughter. The traditional symbols and narratives are being appropriated, reconstructed, or ruptured by writers like Tan (and Maxine Hong Kingston) who do not wish to focus on the master narratives of patriarchy, but to focus instead on the powerful stories of love and struggle between mothers and daughters, between women in China and in America. The stories in The Joy Luck Club give voice to the desires and experiences of female characters who have not had the advantage to write or tell their stories as men have had. It is their neglected stories that they tell and attempt to transmit to their daughters in the oral traditions of talk-story. These hybrid talk-story narratives challenge those who would deny or lessen the power, beauty, value, and pain in these women's lives. This is what Maxine Hong Kingston spent a lot of time learning in her memoir The Woman Warrior: “The reporting is the vengeance—not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words” (63). The personal stories of the Joy Luck mothers do battle through gossip, circular talking, cryptic messages/caveats, dream images, bilingual language, and talk-story traditions—not in the linear, logical, or publicly authorized discourse in patriarchal or imperialist narratives. This is talk that challenges the denial of Asian American women's voices and identities—denials not only by a male-dominated Chinese society and a Eurocentric American society but also by their very own daughters who have become so Americanized that they can barely talk-story with their mothers. In many ways, Tan's book can be fruitfully compared with The Woman Warrior. As heroic paper daughters in quest of their mothers' stories, Tan and Kingston empower not only their mothers but also themselves and their racial/ethnic communities through a psychic and oral/literary birthing that keeps alive the intimate, ever-changing record of tragedies, resistances, and joy luck for all people.

In the following section, I have included a number of additional discussion and paper topic questions that would be useful in teaching Tan's The Joy Luck Club.

1. What are the experiences most remembered by the mothers? Where is “home” for them? How do the experiences of the mothers resonate in the lives of their daughters? Can one see parallels in the daughters' lives? What expectations do individual mothers have for their daughters? and vice versa? What are the obstacles—social, economic, psychological, cultural, historical—that impact on the communications between the mothers and daughters? How does assimilation into dominant Anglo American culture affect their relationship? Is it important for daughters and mothers to communicate with each other? Why? How do mothers and daughters specifically find ways to survive and resist their multiple oppressions as Chinese American women?

2. Discuss how Tan portrays the acquisition of gender identity and roles in the early childhood of the Joy Luck mothers in stories such as “The Moon Lady,” “The Scar,” or “The Red Candle.” How does Tan convey through the language and images the particular conflicts and tensions within the different women? Do they simply adjust to the repression of their own private desires and dreams? How do they negotiate or resist patriarchal/imperialist oppression? Do they succeed and/or fail in their attempts?

3. Discuss the style or structure of Tan's text—for example, her use of a first-person point of view in the text. Or why and how does Tan use and/or transform the Chinese talk-story tradition or the images and legends in her own Chinese American stories? In regard to these topics, students could expand the discussion by comparing and contrasting two other Chinese American mother-daughter literary texts—Jade Snow Wong's Fifth Chinese Daughter (1945) and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior (1977).

4. (a) For a broader analysis of Asian American mother-daughter interactions, compare/contrast The Joy Luck Club with Tan's second novel The Kitchen God's Wife, which focuses on the difficult relationship and revelations between the immigrant mother Jiang Weili and her Chinese American daughter Pearl. The Joy Luck Club can also be used with Faye Myenne Ng's first novel Bone, which reveals the trauma and grief of a San Francisco Chinatown family attempting to deal with the suicide of one of their three daughters. Tan's book also works well with Joy Kogawa's Obasan or Hisaye Yamamoto's Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories. Both writers deal with the multiple tensions between immigrant mothers and their second-generation daughters in the Japanese American community before, during, and after World War II. There are also a good selection of essays, short stories, and poems by other Asian American writers on this topic in Asian American anthologies listed in section C, “Related Works,” below.

(b) Other mother-daughter writing that can be used with Tan's book include Kim Chernin's In My Mother's House: A Daughter's Story, Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory, Audre Lorde's Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, and Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones. For example, Paule Marshall's novel, set in Brooklyn during the period of the Depression and World War II, depicts the struggles of a Barbadian immigrant family as it confronts poverty and racism in the United States. In the story, Selina Boyce, a young daughter searching for identity, must confront and resolve the contradictory feelings she has toward her hardworking, ambitious mother. Possible questions to help promote discussion around these novels include the following: What personal, cultural, and sociohistorical struggles do women encounter in their families and mixed cultures in the United States? In what ways do they attempt to construct multiple selves, subjectivities, or positionings that have value against the meaninglessness, oppression, and violence (psychic and physical) that they encounter in their lives? Do they succeed and/or fail in their attempts? How do women empower or destroy other women? How do these diverse writers find innovative ways to rupture racist/sexist language and institutions through their creative use of language and/or narrative strategies? Are there similarities and/or differences in their writing strategies/tactics, stories, experiences? What type of identification and valorization of a women's culture is portrayed in the texts?

5. To provide for more inclusive and personal participation in the discussion of the book, students can compare their own relationships with their mothers and families and how they are situated and constructed in specific and diverse racial/ethnic, social, cultural, and historical contexts. This can be done in small group discussions, journal entries, and/or an oral history project.

6. (a) Students might wish to see the film version of The Joy Luck Club and discuss how the film might significantly differ from the book. What stories were left out? which ones kept? and why? Were there any modifications in the stories portrayed in the film? Why? How are men depicted in the book and film? Are the issues of racism and sexism in the United States discussed or left invisible in the film? Why and/or why not?

(b) Compare/contrast the portrayals of the mother-daughter relationship in The Joy Luck Club with another film directed by Wayne Wang, entitled Dim Sum, which also portrays the daily interactions between an immigrant Chinese mother and her daughter. What are the similarities and/or differences in the representations of Chinese Americans and their experiences in these two films? What were the production contexts (such as funding, decision-making process, studio, writing, and directing) for these two films by Wayne Wang? How do these institutional contexts impact on the final aesthetic product that is produced? Who are the audiences for these two films?


  1. Note that mirror imagery is pervasive in Tan's book. For instance, Lindo Jong looks into the mirror and discovers a private self. Waverly also looks into the hairdresser's mirror. Jing-mei looks into the mirror to discover her secret “prodigy” self. There are many references to mothers as mirrors and to the placement of mirrors in rooms. Tan attempts to break down the binary polarizations that patriarchy demands and the separation between one woman and another. Before the freeing bonds between mother and daughters can be re-membered, the miming/doubling in the false mirror of patriarchy and imperialism must be ruptured.

  2. On the important roles played by Chinese women in peasant strikes, silk-factory communities, labor movements, and uprisings in pre-and post-revolutionary China, consult Ono and Wolf and Witke. For Chinese American women's history, consult S. Chan, Wong, and Yung.

C. Bibliographies

1. Related Works

Chernin, Kim. In My Mother's House: A Daughter's Story. New York: Harper and Row, 1983.

Danticat, Edwidge. Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York: Soho Press, 1994.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts. New York: Vintage, 1977.

Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. Boston: David Godine, 1981.

Lorde, Audre. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Freedom, Calif.: Crossing Press, 1982.

Marshall, Paule. Brown Girl, Brownstones. 1959. Reprint, New York: Feminist Press, 1981.

Moraga, Cherríe, and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. New York: Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, 1981. There are a number of excellent texts on how the issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality impact on the lives of immigrant mothers and second-generation daughters-writers: Cherríe Moraga's “La Güera,” Merle Woo's “Letter to Ma,” and Gloria Anzaldúa's “La Prieta.”

Ng, Fae Myenne. Bone. New York: Hyperion, 1993.

Tan, Amy. The Kitchen God's Wife. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1991.

Watanabe, Sylvia, and Carol Bruchac, eds. Home to Stay: Asian American Women's Fiction. New York: Greenfield Review Press, 1990. A diverse selection of writing that may be helpful in situating Tan's work with other contemporary Asian American women writers.

Wong, Jade Snow. Fifth Chinese Daughter. 1945. Reprint, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989.

Yamamoto, Hisaye. Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories. Latham, N.Y.: Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, 1988.

2. Best Criticism

Cheung, King-Kok. Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993. Though she does not discuss Tan's work, Cheung provides a useful study of the thematic and rhetorical uses of silences in the articulation of the unspeakable and in defiance of the hegemonic culture that denies the voices/experiences of Asian American women.

Ho, Wendy. “Mother-and-Daughter Writing and the Politics of Location in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club.” Ph.D.diss., University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1993. Reprint, Ann Arbor: UMI, 1993. I examine (1) the complex negotiations that Chinese American immigrant mothers and their second-generation daughters perform daily in dealing with diverse, and often conflicting, socioeconomic, cultural, historical, and political frameworks and (2) how Kingston and Tan invent alternative literary-political strategies and positionings to tell their mothers' stories and their own.

Kim, Elaine. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982. This early classic in the study of Asian American literature provides a sociohistorical introduction to the literary works by Americans of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino descent from the nineteenth century to the early 1980s.

Ling, Amy. “Focus on America: Seeking a Self and a Place.” Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry. The Athene Series. New York: Pergamon Press, 1990. Ling examines the mother-daughter theme and its links to the notions of the motherland and to the “between-worlds” tensions in the work of Chinese American women writers such as Kingston and Tan.

Lowe, Lisa. “Homogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity: Marking Asian American Differences.” Diaspora 1, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 24–44. By using The Joy Luck Club as one of her examples, Lowe explores the concept of hybridity and heterogeneity in Asian American experiences and the importance of considering the complex intersections of race, class, and gender in the mother-daughter trope.

Schueller, Malini Johar. “Theorizing Ethnicity and Subjectivity: Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club.Genders 15 (Winter 1992): 72–85. Using a poststructuralist framework, Schueller examines the socially constructed discursive nature of ethnic and gender identity in Kingston and Tan. She argues that these writers provide alternative ways of resisting authoritarian and essentialist definitions of ethnicity and gender identity that have been used to marginalize oppressed peoples.

Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia. Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. In a stimulating critical study, Wong argues for an intertextual framework for reading Asian American texts, which she demonstrates through the study of four motifs. In the food and eating motif, there are brief references to The Joy Luck Club.

3. Other Sources

Chan, Jeffrey Paul, Frank Chin, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong, eds. The Big Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese Literature. New York: Meridian, 1991.

Chan, Sucheng. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History. Twayne's Immigrant Heritage of America Series. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Women's Autobiographical Selves: Theory and Practice.” In The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings, ed. Shari Benstock, 34–62. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Hirsch, Marianne. “Mothers and Daughters.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 7, no. 1 (Fall 1981): 200–222.

hooks, bell. Talking Back. Boston: South End Press, 1989.

Koenig, Rhonda. “Heirloom China.” New York Magazine, March 20, 1989, 82–83.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Cartographies of Struggle: Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism.” In Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, ed. Chandra Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Ono, Kazuko. Chinese Women in a Century of Revolution: 1850–1950, ed. Joshua Fogel. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1989.

Schell, Orville. “‘Your Mother Is in Your Bones.’” Review of The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. New York Times Book Review, March 19, 1989, 3+.

Seaman, Donna. “The Booklist Interview: Amy Tan.” Booklist (Oct. 1, 1990): 256–57.

Somogyi, Barbara, and David Stanton. “Amy Tan: An Interview.” Poets and Writers 19, no. 5 (September/October 1991): 24–32.

Streitfeld, David. “The ‘Luck’ of Amy Tan.” Review of The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. Washington Post, Oct. 8, 1989, sec. F1+.

Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1989.

———. “Amy Tan on Amy Tan and The Joy Luck Club.California State Library Foundation Bulletin 31 (April 1990): 1–10.

Wolf, Margery, and Roxane Witke, eds. Women in Chinese Society. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1975.

Wong, Diane Yen-Mai, and Asian Women United of California, eds. Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings by and about Asian American Women. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.

Yung, Judy. Chinese Women of America: A Pictorial History. Seattle: University of Washington, 1986.

Michael Delucchi (essay date June 1998)

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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 Mead's theory is to extend social scientific analysis to novels on aging and ethnicity. By examining self-narratives in fictional representations of the aging immigrant experience, I assess how identity develops out of particular social conditions and is achieved through social, psychological processes. Despite some limitations, symbolic interaction offers insights into the process whereby the present brings reinterpretation of the past and individuals are compelled to assign meaning to their life histories.

This essay examines aging and identity in Amy Tan's novel The Joy Luck Club (1989) as it develops out of particular social conditions and is achieved through social psychological processes. Specifically, I explore the contribution of George Herbert Mead's symbolic interactionist perspective to the analysis of aging and self among older immigrants. I address how immigrant identity formation is socially negotiated and how the self extends to encompass events from the past. To accomplish this, I seek textual evidence of the sociological processes underlying the narrative of aging.


The autobiography and the novel are similar in that both invite the reader to experience vicariously the life and culture of the characters. Novels are different from autobiographies in that they attempt by definition, to present to the reader the connection between biography and history—that is, the link between the characters' lives and their historic times and places (Fitzgerald 1992). Although many autobiographies provide similar insight, they are not bound to do so. Therefore, the novel, in telling a story, presents the culture and the way its members define reality.

Although the idea of using literature in the social sciences is not new, researchers have largely resisted analysis of literary accounts of aging and ethnicity for two reasons. First, the use of novels is constrained by the relative absence of a theoretical framework that can be used for interpretation of fictionalized life histories. Second, novels are recognized as “metaphors of self” and this inhibits their use as objective sources of data. Nevertheless, recent scholarship has identified literary works on aging as an important component of gerontological research (Combe and Schmader 1996; Deats 1996; Holstein 1994). Moreover, social psychologists now recognize the value of autobiographical literature for purposes of analyzing self-narratives and identity formation (Bielby and Kully 1988). However, few studies combine social psychological research on identity with fictionalized accounts of the aging immigrant experience. By examining the process of self-narrative construction, the novel, can be explored for insights into how individuals are compelled to assign meaning to their lives in old age.


A central argument of George Herbert Mead's (1932) symbolic interactionist perspective is that although the present implies a past and a future, individuals always experience the past and future through the present. The process by which life material is reviewed by the individual is interpreted within a (present) social context. Consequently, the meanings attached to events, and thus the significance of events, is subject to much variation, depending upon the circumstances of the present. While Mead recognizes the existence of unalterable historical facts, he argues that their subjective interpretation may vary, depending upon the existing present.

This essay explores the utility of Mead's conceptual framework to an analysis of Amy Tan's (1989) The Joy Luck Club in particular and novels in general. Mead (1932) describes a process whereby the present is used to reconstruct the past, as one through which individuals assign meaning to their lives. Personal continuity is maintained through an interaction of present events with selected meaningful past events.

I employ two dimensions of Mead's theory of the past as identified by Maines, Sugrue, and Katovich (1983). The first, the social structural past, is that which objectively influences the past and “thus structures and conditions the experiences found in the present” (Maines et al. 1983, p. 163). The second, the symbolically reconstructed past, is central to Mead's analysis of the past. This dimension clarifies the process by which individuals in the present selectively draw from past events so the present may be understood and the future anticipated.


Amy Tan's novel, The Joy Luck Club, details the lives of four Chinese women immigrants in San Francisco. It chronicles their bewilderment at American culture and their struggles to instill in their daughters remnants of their Chinese heritage. The novel is presented as sixteen interlocking stories that form two generations of mothers and daughters. For purposes of illustration, I limit my analysis to a single character, Lindo Jong, mother of Waverly Jong. I examine her life by focusing upon two components of the social construction of self-narratives, i.e., the social structural past and the symbolically reconstructed past.

In the analysis presented below, I explore Lindo Jong's life for elements of discontinuity and analyze how she assigns meaning to these experiences. I examine several aspects of her self-narrative, including: 1) social origins; 2) personal tragedies and triumphs; 3) unfulfilled ideals or goals; and 4) unresolved conflict. While not inclusive of all sources of disruption in Lindo's life, they encompass both societal and individual level elements.


According to Maines et al. (1983), the social structural past establishes micro-level probabilities for experience in the present, which in turn affects perceptions about the past and expectations about the future. While influential, this past is not completely deterministic, but merely predisposing. Lindo Jong begins her narrative with this awareness as indicated by her vivid observations of the structural elements of her childhood. We see a childhood devoid of choices for women. Reflecting on her arranged marriage she notes, “But even if I had known I was getting such a bad husband, I had no choice, now or later. That was how backward families in the country were. We were always the last to give up stupid old-fashioned customs” (pp. 44–45).

After her family promises Lindo to the Huangs's son for marriage, she gives particular attention to family dynamics. “… my own family began treating me as if I belonged to somebody else. My mother would say to me when the rice bowl went up to my face too many times, ‘Look how much Huang Taitai's daughter can eat’” (p. 45). Separated from her family at the age of twelve to live with the Huangs, Lindo begins a self-directed quest for her freedom. “It was really quite simple. I made the Huangs think it was their idea to get rid of me, that they would be the ones to say the marriage contract was not valid” (p. 59).

Lindo's observations illustrate that many familial elements of her social structural past resonate throughout her perceptions of two fundamental issues in her life, worth and autonomy. “And every few years … I buy another bracelet. I know what I'm worth” (p. 63). “I remember the day when I finally knew a genuine thought and could follow it where it went. That was the day I was a young girl with my face under a red marriage scarf. I promised not to forget myself” (p. 63). Thus, her past was never fully resolved in the present, and as a result, the present was continuously resonating throughout the past, seeking resolution for the future.


Making the most of one's opportunities was a recurring passion in Lindo Jong's life. Indeed, she was drawn to the belief in unrestricted upward mobility in the United States. “If you are born poor here, it's no lasting shame. You are first in line for a scholarship. In America, nobody says you have to keep the circumstances somebody else gives you” (p. 289). She is disappointed, however, to discover that the values associated with upward mobility in the United States undermine her Chinese identity. “It's hard to keep your Chinese face in America. At the beginning, before I even arrived, I had to hide my true self” (p. 294).

While she does not reject the American Dream, Lindo does adjust her conviction in what it represents, based upon her present situation. Indeed, Lindo attributes her struggles with her daughter to the opportunities and sacrifices demanded by American culture. The impetus of this shift is that as a parent, her mission appeared to be unsuccessful. “It is my fault she is this way. I wanted my children to have the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character. How could I know these two things do not mix?” (p. 289).

Through Lindo's relationship with her daughter, we are able to uncover discontinuities that hasten Lindo's reassessment of American culture. She comments:

I taught her how American circumstances work. She learned these things, but I couldn't teach her about Chinese character. No, this kind of thinking didn't stick to her. She was too busy chewing gum, blowing bubbles … Only that kind of thinking stuck.

(pp. 289–90)

Clearly, Lindo sought from her daughter commitment to family, characteristic of Chinese culture, while simultaneously she encouraged Waverly to take advantage of America's opportunities for upward mobility. Due to family circumstances, in interacting with the demands of American culture, Lindo was unable to achieve an easy integration of the two. “So now I think, What did I lose? What did I get back in return? I will ask my daughter what she thinks” (p. 305).

Continuities are dependent upon tacit agreement with one's social interactants (Gergen and Gergen 1983). Situational meanings must be negotiated and accepted by significant others. Moreover, significant others must willingly participate in the social interaction; if withdrawn, there is nothing to negotiate. Lindo's realization that her daughter did not share her desire for Chinese character led Lindo to retreat into her Chinese beliefs:

I wanted you to have the best circumstances, the best character. I didn't want you to regret anything. And that's why I named you Waverly. It was the name of the street we lived on. And I wanted you to think, this is where I belong. But I also knew if I named you after this street, soon you would grow up, leave this place, and take a piece of me with you.

(p. 302)

Here, we clearly see the symbolic reconstruction of the past. Lindo does not go as far as to deny past faith in America, but she does announce and accept a shift in her belief in what she can accomplish as a parent based upon her present relationship with her daughter. Once discontinuity emerged, Lindo's quest for solutions came to rest on the ideology of her past—Chinese culture and beliefs. According to Mead (1932), when experience yields perceptible discontinuity in the chain of events, the past must be reinterpreted considering the present, so that progress to the present can be understood and intention for the future discerned.


I have sought evidence for the sociological processes underlying the social construction of identity among aging immigrants, with particular attention to its manifestation in fictional accounts of individual lives. My primary interest in employing Mead's theory of symbolic interaction is to extend social scientific thinking about narrative accounts (i.e., the effect of the present on the remembered past) to literature on aging and the immigrant experience. I explored the utility of two dimensions of Mead's theory through the fictionalized life narrative of Lindo Jong. By comparing her public behavior with her private thoughts, I have uncovered evidence in support of Mead's social structural past and the symbolically reconstructed past.

The theory of symbolic interaction illustrates how identity is socially negotiated and how identity extends to encompass events from the past. Since behavior in our culture is expected to be consistent across time, as well as purposive, we seek explanations of past behavior that in some cases involve reconstruction, and sometimes reinterpretation of the past (Bielby and Kully 1988). The more public our identity, the more consistency is expected from individuals we interact with, and in response, the more continuity we seek. Even individuals leading ordinary lives have audiences to whom they are accountable, even if it is only one's daughter. Whatever the size or importance of one's audience, the self-narrative still has to be negotiated. The challenge to social scientists is uncovering the event being reconstructed and the occasion that precipitated the renegotiation of the past (Bielby and Kully 1988).

Mead's theory also clarifies the origin and purpose of meaning to an individual's life account. All self-narratives, and especially protagonists in novels, seek links across previous events to establish continuity in lines of conduct. Meaning lies between what actually happened in the past and what continuity the author is compelled to assert, given that it is the protagonist's “present” that needs explanation (Bielby and Kully 1988). For example, Lindo's perception of her relative success as a parent required that she publicly portray faith in the American Dream, even when it was not so obvious to herself.

Mead provides an insightful explanation of the process whereby the present brings reinterpretation of the past, but under what conditions does this happen? Mead (1932) suggests that a break in continuity in the succession of events to the present precipitates reinterpretation or reconstruction of the past. Without novelty itself, continuity could not be discernable, particularly in establishing one's identity (Bielby and Kully 1988). Lindo's narrative portrays this juxtaposition. On several occasions, she realized that her expectations were going unfulfilled: her faith in America, her relationship with her daughter. “I think about our two faces. I think about my intentions. Which one is American? Which one is Chinese? Which one is better? If you show one, you must always sacrifice the other” (p. 304). In each situation, we see an emerging awareness, often in the form of dissatisfaction, with the trajectory of her life. The break in continuity brought with it the realization that the events she had experienced were not progressively moving her toward the goal to which she aspired.

Self-narratives that reconstruct the past in light of the present require acquiescence among interactants for them to be successful. Self-narratives are public accounts of identity, and their construction requires social negotiation. If interactants are unwilling participants, as is true of unresolved conflict where interactants are at an impasse, then one's identity is not accepted as established across time, at least with that individual. That is, in an ongoing relationship, significant others must agree to one's interpretation (Bielby and Kully 1988).


Mead (1932) offers a sophisticated elaboration of a process in which identity is achieved through use of the past in the present. Through my application of his theory, using Lindo Jong as a case study, I find limitations in its use that center around the social construction of self-narrative, notably of the aging immigrant experience. I offer the following suggestions to address these limitations.

First, there is need for systematic examination of the kinds of events around which the process of modification of the past occurs and an investigation as to whether there are distinct patterns for immigrants. I suggest that one should be able to observe integration and reinterpretation through scrutiny of the same life event reflected upon by the same individual at different times. I believe a comparative approach across personal documents will help account for intrapersonal distinctiveness. Second, there is need for systematic examination of how the process of integrating the past with the present varies depending upon the culture from which the individual has emigrated. While I believe that one ought to be able to observe degrees of candor over time regarding a specific event, interpretations also may vary as a function of culture.

Analyses such as the one presented here have implications for Mead's theory of symbolic interaction. While my analysis of Amy Tan's novel produces constructive results, I recognize the limitations of its use when evaluated against positivist concerns regarding evidence. In conclusion, however, by recognizing how meaning is achieved in self-narratives, I have begun a systematic search for the sociological processes underlying the construction of self-narratives of the aging immigrant experience.


Bielby, Denise D., & Kully, Hannah S. (1988). Social Construction of the Past: Autobiography and the Theory of G. H. Mead. Paper presented at the Annual Meetings of the Gerontological Society of America, San Francisco, California.

Combe, Kirk, & Schmader, Kenneth. (1996). Shakespeare Teaching Geriatrics: Case Studies in Aged Heterogeneity. Journal of Aging and Identity 1, 99–116.

Deats, Sara Munson. (1996). The Problem of Aging in King Lear and The Tempest. Journal of Aging and Identity 1, 87–98.

Fitzgerald, Charlotte D. (1992). Exploring Race in the Classroom: Guidelines for Selecting the ‘Right’ Novel. Teaching Sociology 20, 244–247.

Gergen, Kenneth J., & Gergen, Mary. (1983). Narratives of the Self. In T. Sarbin & K. Scheibe (Eds.), Studies in Social Identity (pp. 254–389). New York: Praeger.

Hegtvedt, Karen A. (1991). Teaching Sociology of Literature through Literature. Teaching Sociology 19, 1–12.

Hendershott, Anne, & Wright, Sheila. (1993). Bringing the Sociology Perspective into the Interdisciplinary Classroom Through Literature. Teaching Sociology 21, 325–331.

Holstein, Martha. (1994). Taking Next Steps: Gerontological Education, Research, and the Literary Imagination. The Gerontologist 34, 822–827.

Maines, David R., Sugrue, Noreen, & Katovich, Michael. (1983). The Sociological Import of G. H. Mead's Theory of the Past. American Sociological Review 48, 161–173.

Mead, George Herbert. (1932). The Philosophy of the Present. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company.

Sullivan, Teresa A. (1982). Introductory Sociology Through Literature. Teaching Sociology 10, 109–116.

Tan, Amy. (1989). The Joy Luck Club. New York: Ivy Books.

David Leiwei Li (essay date 1998)

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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 Woman Warrior and departs from Kingston and Mukherjee's preoccupation with Asian American integration. If her fellow writers choose to substantiate the individual in terms of the national, situating their protagonists in the reimagined community of the United States, Tan manages to limit the trials and tribulations of her characters to the genealogical family, apparently independent from the larger society.

The focus on the filiality of the “club” rather than the consent of the “country” is an amazing act of narrative “privatization.” In identifying family breakdown as the source of all forms of social disarray, and family unity as the floating signifier “for all manner of social ties,” The Joy Luck Club's treatment of female familial experiences exemplifies Tan's active participation in the dominant privatization of social problems (Stacey 1994: 67, 54). Once the biological family is privatized as the essential unit of social coherence and the exclusive locus of her narrative, Tan also finds a common affective denominator that can effectively appeal to her targeted audience of white female “baby boomers,” who may not otherwise identify with her Asian characters (Somogyi and Stanton 1991: 29). Although the privileging of the family serves to appropriate both the dominant neoconservative discourse and the white reading community, Amy Tan will have to address the questions that the specific ethnic content of her book raises: whether the Asian values of her book are exemplary of American values, and whether her Asian American families are a metaphor for the national community at large. In approaching these issues of cultural intelligibility and membership, The Joy Luck Club both implicitly engages Kingston and Mukherjee's nationalist claiming of America and anticipates Frank Chin and David Mura's diasporic revision in “Whither Asia.”


The structure of The Joy Luck Club reflects Amy Tan's conceptions of the family. The novel's sixteen chapters of first-person female narrative are divided into four sections with four stories each. Except for the first and last stories, in which Jing-mei Woo substitutes her own voice for her mother Suyuan Woo's, the American daughters' stories are neatly sandwiched by the autobiographical tales of the novel's Chinese mothers. This maternal enclosure of the daughters' stories is strengthened with local framing by a vignette at the beginning of each section. There, in a quasi-language of myth and fable, the mothers would impart their life lessons to the daughters, whose American ears, for the moment, seem deaf to Chinese accents. At a practical level, the symmetry of Tan's narrative scheme seems intended to fit a cluster of short stories into the novel form, but it also serves thematically to anchor the foundational categories of Tan's family. If its diachronic “mother-daughter plot” echoes The Woman Warrior and invokes the feminist fictional alternative to Freud's Oedipal “family romance” (Hirsch 1989), The Joy Luck Club's woman-centered family trope is also juxtaposed with the synchronic movements of the East and the West, China to America and vice versa. Gender, generation, and geography are thus interwoven and transcoded to exemplify Amy Tan's ideation of an Asian American family amid the familial relations of ethnicity and nation at large.

The novel's opening vignette, “Feathers from a Thousand Li Away” illustrates Tan's method. Elaborating on a classic Chinese idiom, which literally translates, “Sending a goose feather from a thousand li [about 0.5 km] afar, the gift is light while the affection is heavy,” Tan writes:

The woman and the swan sailed across an ocean many thousands of li wide, stretching their necks toward America. On her journey she cooed to the swan: “In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband's belch. Over there nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English. And over there she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow. … Now the woman was old. And she had a daughter who grew up speaking only English and swallowing more Coca-Cola than Sorrow. For a long time now the woman wanted to give her daughter the single swan feather and tell her, “This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions.” And she waited, year after year, for the day she could tell her daughter this in perfect American English.

(Tan 1989: 17)2

The vignette is both deeply moving and troubling. Tan speaks effectively of the pain of familial incomprehension, the loss of the “mother-tongue,” and the unarticulated desire for generational understanding. But the geocultural gap between China and America creates such a division of social spaces that it immediately revives the figment of orientalist imagination with an apparent Chinese authenticity. In an extraordinary demonstration of Tan's artistic ingenuity, the mother in the vignette concocts a “familiar” saying about the worth of a Chinese woman that is found nowhere in Chinese idiom.3 China, the readers are led to believe, is replete with male chauvinist pigs whose pot bellies rest on their wives' empty stomachs, while in bountiful America those who speak English are automatically well fed and respected. The invention of the authentic-seeming idiom not only effortlessly implies that the Chinese culture has consecrated its sexism in language, it has also erased, through the Coca-Cola and Sorrow contrast, gender inequality from the civilized liberties of America. It is small wonder that the barbarous and backward East should stretch its neck toward the progressive and blissful West.

Helena Michie has concisely argued that “dominant metaphors of feminist critiques of society are familial in origin; the word ‘patriarchy’ itself … locates power in literal and metaphorical fatherhood and defines the family as the scene, if not the source, of women's oppression. … The struggle of many sisters with a single father. … disrupt[s] the Oedipal triangle … by the introduction of politics and community as they enter onto the familial stage embodied severally as ‘sisters’” (1991: 58). Although Michie's analysis suffers from a universal conception of both patriarchy and its feminist alternative, it is precisely to this conception that The Joy Luck Club appeals. The narrative's explicit attempt at mother-daughter communication is an implicit attempt to enter the community of white women readers. To this end, the gallery of Asian and Asian American women in the novel must provide points of identification for white female generational anxieties, while the group of Asian and Asian American male characters must function as textual “pawns,” not only “for bringing up the conflicts between the mothers and daughters,” as Tan puts it, but to so particularize patriarchy as well (Somogyi and Stanton 1991: 29).4

Since the majority of the men in the novel are Chinese and its baby-boomer audience is largely white, the racial and geocultural specificity of Amy Tan's gender references are unambiguous. As the oppressor of women, the Asian male begins to epitomize the Eastern origin of patriarchy, which is of course genetically transmittable only to Asian American men. The move has both racialized gender oppression to read exclusively Asian and deflected attention from the practice of domestic sexism. It significantly downplays the important contribution of Asian American feminism, which recognizes the dominant cultural differentiation of Asian American gender roles within the racial hierarchies of the United States (E. Kim 1990: 68–75). What appears to be a frontal assault on the patriarchal system finds a figurehead father either in the remote Orient or the distant ethnic ghetto, leaving the white American patriarch unscratched and unscathed.

Tan's racialization of Asian sexism helps figuratively invoke white women's experience with patriarchy but ultimately precludes any geopolitical solution to it. Likewise, the novel's characterization of Asian American mother-daughter experience helps foster affective bonds among women of different backgrounds while deferring the question of transracial female solidarity. This effect is achieved through a double maneuver. As is evident in the novel's structural arrangement of mother-daughter conflict as a China-America split, generational difference is diagnosed first and foremost as a geocultural chasm. But just as sexism is biologized, both generation gap and geocultural fissure can be miraculously synchronized with genes. The novel masterfully executes this maneuver by elaborating the maternal fables of oriental wisdom and oriental suffering in the vignettes and extending these generational lessons into the main chapters.

Rose Hsu Jordan's doomed marriage, for example, is traced not just to her neglect of her brother but also to the fate and failure of her grandmother's widowhood and concubinage (130, 215). “Even though I taught my daughter the opposite,” An-mei Hsu reflects, “still she came out the same way! All of us [mothers and daughters] are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way” (215). Similarly, daughter Lena St. Clair's marital woes are attributed to her mother Ying-Ying's abuse in her first marriage and the loss of her tiger spirit in the second. Until Ying-Ying recovers her “fierceness,” Lena will “ha[ve] no chi,” the spirit to stand on her own. “I will gather together my past … and hold [my] pain … to penetrate my daughter's tough skin and cut her tiger spirit loose,” Ying-Ying decides; “I will win and give her my spirit, because this is the way a mother loves her daughter” (165, 252). As Lena becomes the beneficiary of Ying-Ying's spirit, daughter Waverly Jong absorbed her mother Lindo's “invisible strength” but rejected “[her] Chinese ways” when she started school (89, 253). It was in the mirror of a beauty parlor, right before Waverly's second marriage, that mother and daughter chanced to “look at each other,” both awed by the moment of mutual recognition. “These two faces,” Lindo Jong concludes, “[are] so much the same! The same happiness, the same sadness, the same good fortune, the same faults” (256).

Using the mixed language of blood and kinship, superstition and tradition, these chapters attractively express the pedagogical authority of the mother and transform the daughterly articulation of maternal silence into a powerful maternal determination of daughterly identity (Hirsch 1989: 15–16).5 But strikingly, the maternal lessons are all derived from a pre-immigration and pre-American era. As faithful daughters of China, the mothers may mature and age in America, but their minds and memories are forever mummified in their ancestral land. Unlike The Woman Warrior, which engages in an uneasy negotiation between a mother and daughter who share a U.S. history, The Joy Luck Club is the narrative of a one-way passage of irrefutable generational destiny. It is predictable that the artificial conflict between generations will find its natural resolution in the genetic fusion of geocultural gaps and historical discrepancies.

In the final chapter, Amy Tan indeed reverses the novel's opening image of the swan stretching its neck toward America by sending Jing-mei, its narrator, back to China. Although the body of The Joy Luck Club repeatedly emphasizes Jing-mei's ignorance about her mother's past, an entirely different scenario unfolds some two hundred pages later. The repressed maternal murmur surfaces to reclaim Jing-mei's body and soul: “The minute our train leaves the Hong Kong border and enters Shenzhen, China, I feel different. I can feel the skin on my forehead tingling, my blood rushing through a new course, my bones aching with a familiar old pain. … I am becoming Chinese” (267). What might be her mother's longing for her birthplace is now Jing-mei's natural emotional inheritance, and where this psychological transfer occurs is also of great importance. Jing-mei's becoming Chinese happens within minutes of departing Hong Kong for mainland China. Faithful to the geopolitical borders of the sovereign and colonial China, and more so to the conceptual and symbolic boundaries of East and West, Tan does not consider the then British colony of Hong Kong to be the true China. The miracle island of capitalistic and technological savvy is a principally Western conservatory of Chinese impurity, while the People's Republic is the real good earth of ancient tradition and magical wisdom. It is in the authentic China that Jing-mei is finally home: “‘Some day you will see,’ said my mother. ‘It [Chinese-ness] is in your blood, waiting to be let go.’ And when she said this, I saw myself transforming like a werewolf, a mutant tag of DNA suddenly triggered, replicating itself insidiously into a syndrome, a cluster of telltale Chinese behaviors” (267).

By the time Jing-mei reaches Shanghai and embraces her newfound half-sisters, her mother's prophecy has come true. “And now I also see what part of me is Chinese,” she enthuses, sounding like her mother (267). And later, “It is my family. It is in our blood. After all these years, it can finally be let go” (288). As the Polaroid picture of the three sisters develops, as their image sharpens and deepens, Jing-mei sums up the feeling for all: “Although we don't speak, I know we all see it. Together we look like our mother. Her same eyes, her same mouth, open in surprise to see, at last, her long-cherished wish” (288). With identical visage, identical feelings, and identical attachment to the land of origin, the mother-daughter discord eventually evaporates without a trace of historical justification. China is not only the origin of Suyuan's immigration; it is also, by Amy Tan's reckoning, both the genetic locus of Jing-mei's affective ease and the narrative climax of her symbolic repatriation. The return of the Asian American native to her Asian geopolitical origin is complete.6

This chromosomal cohesion of generations, though hinting at the repression of ethnicity, naturalizes both the voluntary removal of Asian Americans from the United States and the essential purity of its European American construction. The genetic integration of the mother and daughter promulgates the filiality of the family and the descent base of the nation, leaving troubling implications for both feminist and multiculturalist reconstructions. Since a plot based on genes is a plot of irreversible lineage, the native-born Asian American women cannot but inherit the inclinations of their immigrant progenitors. Since a plot based on genes is also about ancestral origin, it demands a geocultural allegiance unaffected by personal experience, political history, or place of residence. And since Asian American women are differentiated by both their genetic heritage and their geocultural immutability, the struggle of many sisters against a single father on the familial stage, to echo Michie, is not viable, as the Asian American place in the family of U.S. women itself becomes questionable. Although Asian American women exemplify the kind of mother-daughter tension all women share, Tan appears to say, they actually prefer a separate womanhood. The kind of Asian-American-turned-obedient-Asian-female subjectivity in the course of The Joy Luck Club thus proves felicitous in dissolving the contradiction between the universal and the particular. A transracial American gender solidarity is finally accomplished upon the withdrawal of Asian American women and their displacement onto an Other nation.

Such voluntary national leave-taking is, not paradoxically, Amy Tan's simultaneous partaking of historical Anglo-American nationalism and orientalism wherein the legitimacy of Asian American membership is always suspect. Her genealogical construction of kinship is also attuned to the 1980s discourse of family values, a neoconservative legacy that the center too has come to embrace (Stacey 1994: 55). In her reading of Eric Hobsbawm, Angelika Bammer has tried to convince us that in the era of the “‘post’ …, the nation … is no longer the guarantor of social coherence or cultural authority, [as] ethnicity steps into the breach to provide a new identificatory locus.” The “family, in the more literal (domestic) or community/clan sense,” should, in her view, become the nation's alternative (94). Amy Tan's affirmation of the private nature of Asian Americans as both filial and parochial is synchronous with this premature definition of a nation's obsolescence. By accentuating the natural and perpetual forms of allegiance and feelings of affinity, The Joy Luck Club miraculously merges the neoconservative rhetoric of “tribalism” (M. Baker 1981) with poststructural and multicultural celebrations of diasporic subjectivity that overlook the interconnection of race and nation. Moreover, it has revived the Asian American literary desire to return to Asia.


  1. The book's commercial and critical success—275,000 hardcover copies sold, $1.2 million paid for paperback rights, and finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle award (Holt 1989:2; Simpson 1991:66)—was unprecedented for a first-time author. The book is reported to have sold 4.5 million copies by 1996 (Nguyen 1997: 49).

  2. This and all further quotations from The Joy Luck Club are taken from the edition listed in the bibliography.

  3. Cultural invention or misrepresentation that passes for truth is central to Tan's narrative deployment (Sau-ling Wong 1995).

    Since much of The Joy Luck Club's aesthetic appeal lies in “the legendary quality” of “the stories from China” (Seaman 1990: 256), the “recherches to old China” that sweep the audience off its feet to be “borne along as if in a dream” (Schell 1989: 28), the relation between its representational mode and its intended audience must be duly noted. Tan's style of narration is akin to the whole genre of explorer accounts whose main motif, according to Marcus and Fischer, is “the romantic discovery by the writer of people and places unknown to the reader” (1986: 129). The concoction of the Chinese idiomatic milieu, the conflation of Chinese festivals, and the calculated use of a vacation topography roughly based on the “scenic wonders of China” all seem to satisfy the voyeuristic inclinations of the armchair reader/traveler. This becomes Tan's trademark, as her later books demonstrate.

  4. When the question of her relation to the Asian American community comes up, Tan repeatedly disavows any deliberate connection and emphasizes either the haphazard nature of her character choice (“happening to be Chinese”) or their universal significance (“human nature”) (see Morris 1994: 219). This universalizing impulse must be appreciated with two facts in mind, however. First, as a former business writer for AT&T, IBM, and other Fortune 500 companies, Tan prides herself on “a real strong batting average on proposals … geared to … CEOs of major corporations” (Somogyi and Stanton 1991: 27). Second, as Zill and Winglee point out, today's consumers of literature are overwhelmingly white and female.

  5. The mother-daughter plot as a model of feminist bonding tends to ignore lesbian desire and identification and accept heterosexual forms of family as the norm. See Eve Sedgwick's call for “disarticulating … the bonds of blood, of law, of habitation, of privacy, of companionship and succor—from the lockstep of their unanimity in the system called ‘family’” (1993: 6).

  6. The remarks of Tan's characters may reveal the relationship between the author's choice of geography and the configuration of her audience. As Lindo Jong comments in The Joy Luck Club, “But now she [Waverly] wants to be Chinese, it is so fashionable” (253), Helen of The Kitchen God's Wife, Tan's second novel, will point out, “Hard life in China, that's very popular now” (Tan 1991: 80). Given these self-referential statements, it is not difficult to see Tan's dual accommodation of orientalism, first in her affirmation of China as the natural homeland of Chinese Americans, and second in her inflation of the China stock on the orientalist marketplace.

Patricia L. Hamilton (essay date Summer 1999)

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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” that her early marriage into a family that did not want her shaped her character and caused her to vow never to forget who she was. Ying-ying St. Clair's story “Waiting between the Trees” chronicles how betrayal, loss, and displacement caused her to become a “ghost.” Rose Hsu Jordan recounts her effort to regain a sense of self and assert it against her philandering husband in “Without Wood.” Framing all the other stories are a pair of linked narratives by Jing-mei Woo that describe her trip to China at the behest of her Joy Luck Club “aunties.” The journey encompasses Jing-mei's attempts not only to understand her mother's tragic personal history but also to come to terms with her own familial and ethnic identity. In all the stories, whether narrated by the Chinese-born mothers or their American-born daughters, assertions of self are shaped by the cultural context surrounding them. However, there is a fundamental asymmetry in the mothers' and daughters' understanding of each other's native cultures. The mothers draw on a broad experiential base for their knowledge of American patterns of thought and behavior, but the daughters have only fragmentary, second-hand knowledge of China derived from their mothers' oral histories and from proverbs, traditions, and folktales.1 Incomplete cultural knowledge impedes understanding on both sides, but it particularly inhibits the daughters from appreciating the delicate negotiations their mothers have performed to sustain their identities across two cultures.

Language takes on a metonymic relation to culture in Tan's portrayal of the gap between the mothers and daughters in The Joy Luck Club. Jing-mei, recalling that she talked to her mother Suyuan in English and that her mother answered back in Chinese, concludes that they “never really understood one another”: “We translated each other's meanings and I seemed to hear less than what was said, while my mother heard more” (37). What is needed for any accurate translation of meanings is not only receptiveness and language proficiency but also the ability to supply implied or missing context. The daughters' inability to understand the cultural referents behind their mothers' words is nowhere more apparent than when the mothers are trying to inculcate traditional Chinese values and beliefs in their children. The mothers inherited from their families a centuries-old spiritual framework, which, combined with rigid social constraints regarding class and gender, made the world into an ordered place for them. Personal misfortune and the effects of war have tested the women's allegiance to traditional ideas, at times challenging them to violate convention in order to survive. But the very fact of their survival is in large measure attributable to their belief that people can affect their own destinies. In the face of crisis the mothers adhere to ancient Chinese practices by which they try to manipulate fate to their advantage. Their beliefs and values are unexpectedly reinforced by the democratic social fabric and capitalist economy they encounter in their adopted country. Having immigrated from a land where women were allowed almost no personal freedom, all the Joy Luck mothers share the belief along with Suyuan Woo that “you could be anything you wanted to be in America” (132).

Ironically, the same spirit of individualism that seems so liberating to the older women makes their daughters resistant to maternal advice and criticism. Born into a culture in which a multiplicity of religious beliefs flourishes and the individual is permitted, even encouraged, to challenge tradition and authority, the younger women are reluctant to accept their mothers' values without question. Jing-mei confesses that she used to dismiss her mother's criticisms as “just more of her Chinese superstitions, beliefs that conveniently fit the circumstances” (31). Furthermore, the daughters experience themselves socially as a recognizable ethnic minority and want to eradicate the sense of “difference” they feel among their peers. They endeavor to dissociate themselves from their mothers' broken English and Chinese mannerisms2 and they reject as nonsense the fragments of traditional lore their mothers try to pass along to them. However, cut adrift from any spiritual moorings, the younger women are overwhelmed by the number of choices that their materialistic culture offers and are insecure about their ability to perform satisfactorily in multiple roles ranging from dutiful Chinese daughter to successful American career woman. When it dawns on Jing-mei that the aunties 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,” she realizes that there is a profound difference in how the two generations understand fate, hope, and personal responsibility. Devoid of a worldview that endows reality with unified meaning, the daughters “will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation” (41).

Tan uses the contrast between the mothers' and daughters' beliefs and values to show the difficulties first-generation immigrants face in transmitting their native culture to their offspring. Ultimately, Tan endorses the mothers' traditional Chinese worldview because it offers the possibility of choice and action in a world where paralysis is frequently a threat. However, readers who are not specialists in Chinese cosmology share the same problematic relation to the text as the daughters do to their mothers' native culture: they cannot always accurately translate meanings where the context is implied but not stated. Bits of traditional lore crop up in nearly every story, but divorced from a broader cultural context, they are likely to be seen as mere brushstrokes of local color or authentic detail. Readers may be tempted to accept at face value the daughters' pronouncements that their mothers' beliefs are no more than superstitious nonsense. To ensure that readers do not hear less than what Tan is actually saying about the mothers' belief systems and their identities, references to Chinese cosmology in the text require explication and elaboration.

Astrology is probably the element of traditional Chinese belief that is most familiar to Westerners. According to the Chinese astrological system, a person's character is determined by the year of his or her birth. Personality traits are categorized according to a twelve-year calendrical cycle based on the Chinese zodiac. Each year of the cycle is associated with a different animal, as in “the year of the dog.” According to one legend, in the sixth century B.C. Buddha invited all the animals in creation to come to him, but only twelve showed up: the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Ram, Monkey, Cock, Dog, and Pig. Buddha rewarded each animal with a year bearing its personality traits (Scott). In addition to animals, years are associated with one of the Five Elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. Metal years end in zero or one on the lunar calendar; Water years end in two or three; Wood years end in four or five; Fire years end in six or seven; and Earth years end in eight or nine. Thus, depending on the year in which one is born, one might be a Fire Dragon, a Water Dragon, and so on. The entire animal-and-element cycle takes sixty years to complete.

Tan draws on astrology in The Joy Luck Club in order to shape character and conflict. Lindo Jong, born in 1918, is a Horse, “destined to be obstinate and frank to the point of tactlessness,” according to her daughter Waverly (167). Other adjectives that describe the Horse include diligent, poised, quick, eloquent, ambitious, powerful, and ruthless (Rossbach 168). At one point or another in the four Jong narratives, Lindo manifests all of these qualities, confirming her identity as a Horse. In accordance with tradition, Lindo's first husband is selected by his birth year as being a compatible partner for her. The matchmaker in “The Red Candle” tells Lindo's mother and mother-in-law: “An earth horse for an earth sheep. This is the best marriage combination” (50). At Lindo's wedding ceremony the matchmaker reinforces her point by speaking about “birthdates and harmony and fertility” (59). In addition to determining compatibility, birth years can be used to predict personality clashes. Waverly notes of her mother Lindo, “She and I make a bad combination, because I'm a Rabbit, born in 1951, supposedly sensitive, with tendencies toward being thin-skinned and skittery at the first sign of criticism” (167). Lindo's friend Suyuan Woo, born in 1915, is also a Rabbit. No doubt the Joy Luck aunties have this in mind when they note that Suyuan “died just like a rabbit: quickly and with unfinished business left behind” (19). The friction between Horse and Rabbit mentioned by Waverly suggests why Lindo and Suyuan were not only best friends but also “arch enemies who spent a lifetime comparing their children” (37)3

Adherents of Chinese astrology contend that auspicious dates for important events can be calculated according to predictable fluctuations of ch'i, the positive life force, which is believed to vary according to the time of day, the season, and the lunar calendar. Thus, the matchmaker chooses “a lucky day, the fifteenth day of the eighth moon,” for Lindo's wedding (57). Later, Lindo picks “an auspicious day, the third day of the third month,” to stage her scheme to free herself from her marriage. Unlucky dates can be calculated as well. Rose Hsu Jordan recalls that her mother An-mei had a “superstition” that “children were predisposed to certain dangers on certain days, all depending on their Chinese birthdate. It was explained in a little Chinese book called The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates” (124). The problem for An-mei is how to translate the Chinese dates into American ones. Since the lunar calendar traditionally used in China is based on moon cycles, the number of days in a year varies. Lindo similarly faces the problem of translating dates when she wants to immigrate to San Francisco, but her Peking friend assures her that May 11, 1918 is the equivalent of her birthdate, “three months after the Chinese lunar new year” (258). Accuracy on this point would allow Lindo to calculate auspicious dates according to the Gregorian calendar used in the West. In a broader sense, Lindo's desire for exactness is a strategy for preserving her identity in a new culture.

Tan uses astrology to greatest effect in the life history of Ying-ying St. Clair, who does not fare at all well in the matter of translated dates or preserved identity. Ying-ying is a Tiger, born in 1914, “a very bad year to be born, a very good year to be a Tiger” (248). Tigers are typically passionate, courageous, charismatic, independent, and active, but they can also be undisciplined, vain, rash, and disrespectful (Jackson; Rossbach 167). Tiger traits are central to Ying-ying's character. As a teenager she is wild, stubborn, and vain. As a four-year-old in “The Moon Lady,” she loves to run and shout, and she possesses a “restless nature” (72). According to Ruth Youngblood, “As youngsters [Tigers] are difficult to control, and if unchecked, can dominate their parents completely.” Ying-ying's Amah tries to tame her into conformity to traditional Chinese gender roles: “Haven't I taught you—that it is wrong to think of your own needs? A girl can never ask, only listen” (70). Ying-ying's mother, too, admonishes her to curb her natural tendencies: “A boy can run and chase dragonflies, because that is his nature. But a girl should stand still” (72). By yielding to the social constraints placed on her gender and “standing perfectly still,” Ying-ying discovers her shadow, the dark side of her nature that she learns to wield after her first husband leaves her.

Long before adulthood, however, Ying-ying experiences a trauma regarding her identity. Stripped of her bloodied Tiger outfit at the Moon Festival, she tumbles into Tai Lake and is separated from her family for several hours. Ying-ying's physical experience of being lost parallels her family's suppression of her active nature and curtailment of her freedom. Whenever she wears her hair loose, for example, her mother warns her that she will become like “the lady ghosts at the bottom of the lake” whose undone hair shows “their everlasting despair” (243). After Ying-ying falls into the lake, her braid becomes “unfurled,” and as she drifts along in the fishing boat that picks her up, she fears that she is “lost forever” (79). When one of the fishermen surmises that she is a beggar girl, she thinks: “Maybe this was true. I had turned into a beggar girl, lost without my family” (80). Later she watches the Moon Lady telling her tragic story in a shadow play staged for the festival: “I understood her grief. In one small moment, we had both lost the world, and there was no way to get it back” (81). Even though Ying-ying is eventually rescued, she is afraid that her being found by her family is an illusion, “a wish granted that could not be trusted” (82). The temporary loss of her sense of security and belonging is so disturbing that her perception of her identity is forever altered. She is never able to believe her family has found “the same girl” (82).

Ying-ying's traumatic childhood experience prefigures the profound emotional loss and identity confusion she experiences as an adult. Looking back on her experience at the Moon Festival, she reflects that “it has happened many times in my life. The same innocence, trust, and restlessness, the wonder, fear, and loneliness. How I lost myself” (83). As an adult she is stripped of her Tiger nature once again when she immigrates to America. Since there is no immigration category for “the Chinese wife of a Caucasian citizen,” Ying-ying is declared a “Displaced Person” (104). Then her husband proudly renames her “Betty St. Clair” without seeming to realize he is effacing her Chinese identity in doing so. The final stroke is his mistakenly writing the wrong year of birth on her immigration papers. As Ying-ying's daughter Lena puts it, “With the sweep of a pen, my mother lost her name and became a Dragon instead of a Tiger” (104). Unwittingly, Clifford St. Clair erases all signs of Ying-ying's former identity and, more importantly, symbolically denies her Tiger nature.

The belief that personality and character are determined by zodiacal influences imposes predictable and regular patterns onto what might otherwise seem random and arbitrary, thereby minimizing uncertainty and anxiety. In this light, the anchor for identity that astrology offers Ying-ying is beneficial. Over the years she comes to understand what her mother once explained about her Tiger nature: “She told me why a tiger is gold and black. It has two ways. The gold side leaps with its fierce heart. The black side stands still with cunning, hiding its gold between trees, seeing and not being seen, waiting patiently for things to come” (248). The certainty that these qualities are her birthright eventually guides Ying-ying into renouncing her habitual passivity. The catalyst for this decision is her perception that her daughter Lena needs to have her own “tiger spirit” cut loose. She wants Lena to develop fierceness and cunning so that she will not become a “ghost” like her mother or remain trapped in a marriage to a selfish man who undermines her worth. Ying-ying expects resistance from Lena, but because of the strength of her belief system, she is confident about the outcome: “She will fight me, because this is the nature of two tigers. But I will win and give her my spirit, because this the way a mother loves her daughter” (252). Tan uses the Chinese zodiacal Tiger as a potent emblem of the way culturally determined beliefs and expectations shape personal identity.

Another element of Chinese cosmology that Tan employs in The Joy Luck Club is wu-hsing, or the Five Elements, mentioned above in conjunction with astrology.4 The theory of the Five Elements was developed by Tsou Yen about 325 B.C. As Holmes Welch notes, Tsou Yen “believed that the physical processes of the universe were due to the interaction of the five elements of earth, wood, metal, fire, and water” (96). According to eminent French sinologist Henri Maspero, theories such as the Five Elements, the Three Powers, and yin and yang all sought to “explain how the world proceeded all by itself through the play of transcendental, impersonal forces alone, without any intervention by one or more conscious wills” (55). Derek Walters specifies how the Five Elements are considered to “stimulate and shape all natural and human activity”:

The Wood Element symbolizes all life, femininity, creativity, and organic material; Fire is the Element of energy and intelligence; Earth, the Element of stability, endurance and the earth itself; Metal, in addition to its material sense, also encompasses competitiveness, business acumen, and masculinity; while Water is the Element of all that flows—oil and alcohol as well as water itself, consequently also symbolizing transport and communication.


The Elements correspond to certain organs of the body and physical ailments as well as to particular geometric shapes. An extended array of correspondences includes seasons, directions, numbers, colors, tastes, and smells (Lam 32). In the physical landscape the Elements can be placed in a productive order, in which each Element will generate and stimulate the one succeeding it, or a destructive order, in which Elements in close proximity are considered harmful. To avoid negative effects, a “controlling” Element can mediate between two elements positioned in their destructive order.

Suyuan Woo subscribes to a traditional application of the theory of the Five Elements in what Jing-mei calls her mother's “own version of organic chemistry” (31). As Ben Xu has observed, the Five Elements are “the mystical ingredients that determine every person's character flaw according to one's birth hour.” Wu-hsing theory posits that “none of us has all the five character elements perfectly balanced, and therefore, every one of us is by nature flawed” (Xu 12). Accordingly; Suyuan believes that too much Fire causes a bad temper while too much Water makes someone flow in too many directions. Too little Wood results in one bending “too quickly to listen to other people's ideas, unable to stand on [one's] own” (31). Jing-mei, who does not understand how Suyuan's pronouncements tie to a larger belief system, associates her mother's theories with displeasure and criticism: “Something was always missing. Something always needed improving. Something was not in balance. This one or that had too much of one element, not enough of another.”

According to wu-hsing theory, flaws can be amended and balance attained by symbolically adding the element a person lacks. Xu points out that “the ‘rose’ in Rose Hsu Jordan's name, for example, is supposed to add wood to her character” (12). Conversely, elements can be removed to create an imbalance. When Lindo Jong does not become pregnant in her first marriage, the matchmaker tells her mother-in-law: “A woman can have sons only if she is deficient in one of the elements. Your daughter-in-law was born with enough wood, fire, water, and earth, and she was deficient in metal, which was a good sign. But when she was married, you loaded her down with gold bracelets and decorations and now she has all the elements, including metal. She's too balanced to have babies” (63). Although Lindo knows that the direct cause of her failure to become pregnant is not her having too much metal but rather her husband's refusal to sleep with her, she accepts the matchmaker's reasoning about the Five Elements. Years later Lindo comments: “See the gold metal I can now wear. I gave birth to your brothers and then your father gave me these two bracelets. Then I had you [Waverly]” (66). The implication here is that the gender of Lindo's male children corresponds to her natural deficiency in Metal. Adding Metal back into her composition through the bracelets causes her next child to be female.

More significantly, Lindo, like Suyuan, believes that the Elements affect character traits: “After the gold was removed from my body, I felt lighter, more free. They say this is what happens if you lack metal. You begin to think as an independent person” (63). Tan suggests that Lindo's natural “imbalance” is key to her true identity, the self that she promises never to forget. As a girl she had determined to honor the marriage contract made by her parents, even if it meant sacrificing her sense of identity. But on her wedding day she wonders “why [her] destiny had been decided, why [she] should have an unhappy life so someone else could have a happy one” (58). Once Lindo's gold and jewelry are repossessed by her mother-in-law to help her become fertile, Lindo begins to plot her escape from the marriage. Her feeling lighter and more free without Metal corresponds to her assertion of her true identity. Destiny is not so narrowly determined that she cannot use her natural qualities as a Horse—quickness, eloquence, ruthlessness—to free herself from her false position in the marriage. Because Lindo has secretly blown out the matchmaker's red candle on her wedding night, she has in effect rewritten her fate without breaking her parents' promise. Rather than restricting her identity, her belief in astrology and wu-hsing gives her a secure base from which to express it.

As with astrology, Tan uses the theory of the Five Elements not only for characterization but also for the development of conflict in The Joy Luck Club. “Without Wood” deals with the disastrous effects of Rose Hsu Jordan's not having enough Wood in her personality, at least according to her mother An-mei's diagnosis. An-mei herself has inspired “a lifelong stream of criticism” from Suyuan Woo, apparently for bending too easily to other's ideas, the flaw of those who lack Wood (30–31). An-mei admits to having listened to too many people when she was young. She almost succumbed to her family's urgings to forget her mother, and later she was nearly seduced by the pearl necklace offered to her by her mother's rival. Experience has shown An-mei that people try to influence others for selfish reasons. To protect her daughter from opportunists, An-mei tells Rose that she must listen to her mother if she wants to grow “strong and straight.” If she listens to others she will grow “crooked and weak.” But Rose comments, “By the time she told me this, it was too late. I had already begun to bend” (191).

Rose attributes her compliant nature to the strict disciplinary measures of an elementary school teacher and to the influences of American culture: “Chinese people had Chinese opinions. American people had American opinions. And in almost every case, the American version was much better” (191). Not until much later does she realize that in the “American version” there are “too many choices,” so that it is “easy to get confused and pick the wrong thing.” Rose, emotionally paralyzed at fourteen by a sense that she is responsible for the death of her four-year-old brother, grows into an adult who not only listens to others but lets them take responsibility for her so that she may avoid committing another fatal error. Her husband, Ted, makes all the decisions in their marriage until a mistake of his own brings on a malpractice suit and shakes his self-confidence. When Ted abruptly demands a divorce, Rose's lack of Wood manifests itself: “I had been talking to too many people, my friends, everybody it seems, except Ted” (188). She tells a “different story” about the situation to Waverly, Lena, and her psychiatrist, each of whom offers a different response. An-mei chides Rose for not wanting to discuss Ted with her, but Rose is reluctant to do so because she fears that An-mei will tell her she must preserve her marriage, even though there is “absolutely nothing left to save” (117).

Contrary to Rose's expectations, her mother is less concerned that she stay married than that she deal with her inability to make decisions. An-mei wants her daughter to address the personality deficiencies that are the cause of her circumstances. Believing that Rose needs to assert her identity by acting on her own behalf, An-mei admonishes: “You must think for yourself, what you must do. If someone tells you, then you are not trying” (130). An-mei's advice is embedded in the broader context of her Chinese world-view. When Rose complains that she has no hope, and thus no reason to keep trying to save her marriage, An-mei responds: “This is not hope. Not reason. This is your fate. This is your life, what you must do” (130). An-mei believes life is determined by fate, by immutable celestial forces. But like Lindo Jong, she sees fate as having a participatory element. Earthly matters admit the influence of human agency. Consequently, her admonition to Rose is focused on what Rose must “do.”

As a child Rose observes that both her parents believe in their nengkan, the ability to do anything they put their minds to. This belief has not only brought them to America but has “enabled them to have seven children and buy a house in the Sunset district with very little money” (121). Rose notes that by taking into account all the dangers described in The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates, An-mei has “absolute faith she could prevent every one of them” (124).

However, An-mei's optimism about her ability to manipulate fate is challenged when her youngest child, Bing, drowns. An-mei does everything she can to recover her son, but she realizes she cannot “use faith to change fate” (130). Tragedy teaches her that forethought is not the same thing as control. Still, she wedges a white Bible—one in which Bing's name is only lightly pencilled in under “Deaths”—beneath a short table leg as a symbolic act, “a way for her to correct the imbalances of life” (116). Although An-mei accepts that her power over fate is limited, she continues to believe that she can positively influence her circumstances. The idea of balance she is enacting is a fundamental element of yin-yang philosophy; according to which two complementary forces “govern the universe and make up all aspects of life and matter” (Rossbach 21). As Johndennis Govert notes, “to remove an obstruction to your happiness, regain a state of health, or create a more harmonious household, yin and yang must be in balance.” (7). An-mei may use a Bible to balance the kitchen table, but she rejects the Christian beliefs it represents. Rose notes that her mother loses “her faith in God” after Bing's death (116). The belief system that governs An-mei's actions is Chinese, an amalgam of luck, house gods, ancestors, and all the elements in balance, “the right amount of wind and water” (122).

In contrast to her mother, Rose lacks a means by which she can delineate or systematize her notions of causality and responsibility. Moreover, she eschews any real sense that people can have control over their circumstances. As a teenager Rose is appalled to discover she is powerless to prevent little Bing from falling into the ocean as she watches. Later Rose thinks “that maybe it was fate all along, that faith was just an illusion that somehow you're in control. I found out the most I could have was hope, and with that I was not denying any possibility, good or bad” (121). When her husband Ted wants a divorce, Rose compares the shock she receives to having the wind knocked out of her: “And after you pick yourself up, you realize you can't trust anybody to save you—not your husband, not your mother, not God. So what can you do to stop yourself from tilting and falling all over again?” (121). Added to her sense of helplessness is the suspicion that whenever she is forced into making a decision, she is walking through a minefield: “I never believed there was ever any one right answer, yet there were many wrong ones” (120). Rose's lack of any sort of a belief system fosters a crippling passivity characterized by a fear that whatever she chooses will turn out badly. Her inability to make even the smallest decisions becomes the equivalent, in Ted's mind at least, of her having no identity.

Ironically, once Rose realizes that Ted has taken away all her choices, she begins to fight back. She seizes on the metaphor An-mei has used to explain the lack of Wood in her personality: “If you bend to listen to other people, you will grow crooked and weak. You will fall to the ground with the first strong wind. And then you will be like a weed, growing wild in any direction, running along the ground until someone pulls you out and throws you away” (191). Inspired by the weeds in her own neglected garden that cannot be dislodged from the masonry without “pulling the whole building down” (195), Rose demands that Ted let her keep their house. She explains, “You can't just pull me out of your life and throw me away” (196). For the first time in her life she stands up for what she wants without soliciting the advice of others. After her assertion of selfhood, Rose dreams that her “beaming” mother has planted weeds that are “running wild in every direction” in her planter boxes (196). This image, which suggests that An-mei has finally accepted Rose's nature instead of trying to change her, is consistent with the desires the Joy Luck daughters share regarding their mothers. Each one struggles to feel loved for who she is. In part the younger women's insecurity stems from having a different set of cultural values than their mothers. The older women try to encourage their daughters but do not always know how to cope with the cultural gap that separates them. As Lindo states: “I wanted my children to have the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character. How could I know these two things do not mix?” (254). But Rose's dream-image submerges the fact that Rose has finally acted on her mother's admonition to speak up for herself. An-mei has guessed that Ted is engaged in “monkey business” with another woman, and it is at the moment when Rose realizes her mother is right that she begins to move intuitively toward standing up for her own needs and desires. As it turns out, An-mei is correct in wanting Rose to listen to her mother rather than to her bored and sleepy-eyed psychiatrist in order to be “strong and straight.” Ultimately, An-mei's belief that one's fate involves making choices instead of being paralyzed as a victim is validated by Rose's assertion of her identity.

A third element of traditional belief in The Joy Luck Club is feng shui, or geomancy. The most opaque yet potentially the most important aspect of Chinese cosmology to Tan's exploration of identity, feng shui plays a pivotal role in Lena St. Clair's story “The Voice from the Wall,” which chronicles her mother Ying-ying's gradual psychological breakdown and withdrawal from life. Ten-year-old Lena, having no knowledge of her mother's past, becomes convinced that her mother is crazy as she listens to Ying-ying rave after the death of her infant son. Even before Ying-ying loses her baby, however, her behavior appears to be erratic and compulsive. When the family moves to a new apartment, Ying-ying arranges and rearranges the furniture in an effort to put things in balance. Although Lena senses her mother is disturbed, she dismisses Ying-ying's explanations as “Chinese nonsense” (108). What Lena does not understand is that her mother is practicing the ancient Chinese art of feng shui (pronounced “fung shway”). Translated literally as “wind” and “water,” feng shui is alluded to only once in the book as An-mei Hsu's balance of “the right amount of wind and water” (122). Although the term “feng shui” is never used overtly in conjunction with Ying-ying St. Clair, its tenets are fundamental to her worldview.

Stephen Skinner defines feng shui as “the art of living in harmony with the land, and deriving the greatest benefit, peace and prosperity from being in the right place at the right time” (4). The precepts of feng shui were systematized by two different schools in China over a thousand years ago. The Form School, or intuitive approach, was developed by Yang Yun-Sung (c. 840–888 A.D.) and flourished in Kiangsi and Anhui provinces. Practitioners focus on the visible form of the landscape, especially the shapes of mountains and the direction of watercourses. The Compass School, or analytical approach, was developed by Wang Chih in the Sung dynasty (960 A.D.) and spread throughout Fukien and Chekiang provinces as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan (Skinner 26). The analytic approach is concerned with directional orientation in conjunction with Chinese astrology. As Walters notes, Compass School scholars have traditionally “placed greater emphasis on the importance of precise mathematical calculations, and compiled elaborate formulae and schematic diagrams” (10). Geomancers using this approach employ an elaborate compass called the lo p'an, astrological charts and horoscopes, numerological data, and special rulers.

According to Susan Hornik, the beliefs encompassed by feng shui date back 3,000 years to the first practice of selecting auspicious sites for burial tombs in order to “bring good fortune to heirs” (73). As Skinner explains, “Ancestors are linked with the site of their tombs. As they also have a direct effect on the lives of their descendants, it follows logically that if their tombs are located favourably on the site of a strong concentration of earth energy or ch'i, not only will they be happy but they will also derive the power to aid their descendants, from the accumulated ch'i of the site” (11). By the Han dynasty (206 B.C.), the use of feng shui was extended to the selection of dwellings for the living (Hornik 73). The basic idea is to attract and channel ch'i, or beneficial energy, and “accumulate it without allowing it to go stagnant” (Skinner 21). Since ch'i encourages growth and prosperity, a wise person will consider how to manipulate it to best effect through feng shui, the study of placement with respect to both natural and man-made environments. As a form of geomancy feng shui is “the exact complement of astrology, which is divination by signs in the Heavens” (Walters 12), but it is based on a different presupposition. Whereas the course of the stars and planets is fixed, the earthly environment can be altered by human intervention through feng shui. The practice of feng shui offers yet another variation of the belief that people have the power to affect their destiny.

Thus Ying-ying St. Clair's seemingly idiosyncratic actions and their nonsensical explanations in “The Voice from the Wall” are grounded in a coherent system of beliefs and practices concerned with balancing the environment. Since Ying-ying feels her surroundings are out of balance, she does everything she can to correct them. For instance, she moves “a large round mirror from the wall facing the front door to a wall by the sofa” (108). Ch'i is believed to enter a dwelling through the front door, but a mirror hung opposite the entrance may deflect it back outside again. Mirrors require careful placement so as to encourage the flow of ch'i around a room. Furniture, too, must be positioned according to guidelines that allow beneficial currents of ch'i to circulate without stagnating. Through properly placed furniture “every opportunity can be taken to correct whatever defects may exist, and to enhance whatever positive qualities there are” (Walters 46). Hence, Ying-ying rearranges the sofa, chairs, and end tables, seeking the best possible grouping. Even a “Chinese scroll of goldfish” is moved. When large-scale changes are impossible, feng shui practitioners frequently turn to symbolic solutions. Strategically placed aquariums containing goldfish are often prescribed for structural problems that cannot be altered, in part because aquariums symbolically bring all Five Elements together into balance (Collins 21). In Ying-ying's case, a picture is substituted for live goldfish, which represent life and growth.

Ying-ying's attempt to balance the living room follows a feng shui tradition: “If beneficial ch'i are lacking from the heart of the house, the family will soon drift apart” (Walters 42). But Ying-ying is also compensating for negative environmental and structural features that she cannot modify. The apartment in the new neighborhood is built on a steep hill, a poor site, she explains, because “a bad wind from the top blows all your strength back down the hill. So you can never get ahead. You are always rolling backward” (109). In ancient China the ideal location for a building was in the shelter of hills that would protect it from bitter northerly winds. However, a house at the very base of a sloping road would be vulnerable to torrential rains, mudslides, and crashes caused by runaway carts. Ying-ying's concern with psychic rather than physical danger is consistent with modern applications of feng shui, but her notion of an ill wind sweeping downhill is based on traditional lore. In addition to the unfortunate location of the apartment building, its lobby is musty, a sign that it does not favor the circulation of ch'i. The door to the St. Clairs' apartment is narrow, “like a neck that has been strangled” (109), further restricting the entrance of beneficial energy. Moreover, as Ying-ying tells Lena, the kitchen faces the toilet room, “so all your worth is flushed away.” According to the Bagua map derived from the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of divination, every building and every room has eight positions that correspond to various aspects of life: wealth and prosperity; fame and reputation; love and marriage; creativity and children; helpful people and travel; career; knowledge and self-cultivation; and health and family (Collins 61–62). Heidi Swillinger explains the problem of a dwelling where the bathroom is located in the wealth area: “Because the bathroom is a place where water enters and leaves, and because water is a symbol of wealth, residents in such a home might find that money tends to symbolically go down the drain or be flushed away.”5 Even if the St. Clairs' bathroom is not actually in the wealth area, feng shui guidelines dictate that it should not be placed next to the kitchen in order to avoid a clash between two of the symbolic Elements, Fire and Water.

In light of the bad feng shui of the apartment, Ying-ying's unhappiness with it is logical. Once she finishes altering the living room, she rearranges Lena's bedroom. The immediate effect of the new configuration is that “the nighttime life” of Lena's imagination changes (109). With her bed against the wall, she begins to listen to the private world of the family next door and to use what she hears as a basis for comparison with her own family. It is not clear whether Lena's bed has been moved to the “children” area of the room, which would enhance her ch'i, but certainly the new position is more in keeping with the principles of good feng shui, which indicate a bed should be placed against a wall, not a window (Walters 53). From this standpoint, Ying-ying's inauspicious positioning of the crib against the window appears to be inconsistent with her other efforts. Lena notes, “My mother began to bump into things, into table edges as if she forgot her stomach contained a baby, as if she were headed for trouble instead” (109). Since according to feng shui theory protruding corners are threatening (Collins 47), Ying-ying's peculiar neglect toward sharp table edges along with her placement of the crib suggest that her efforts at generating good feng shui are suspended with regard to her unborn baby.

When the baby dies at birth, apparently from a severe case of hydrocephalus and spina bifida, Ying-ying blames herself: “My fault, my fault. I knew this before it happened. I did nothing to prevent it” (111). To Western ears her self-accusation sounds odd, for birth defects such as spina bifida are congenital, and nothing Ying-ying could have done would have prevented the inevitable. However, her Eastern world-view dictates that fate can be manipulated in order to bring about good effects and to ward off bad ones. Ying-ying believes that her violation of good feng shui principles constitutes negligence, causing the baby to die. She is accusing herself not merely of passivity but of deliberate complicity with a malignant fate.

The burden of guilt Ying-ying carries over an abortion from her first marriage is the root of her disturbed mental state during her pregnancy. Her bumping into table edges may even be a form of self-punishment. In any case, whether she has subconsciously tried to harm the fetus or has merely failed to fend off disaster through the use of feng shui, in blaming herself for the baby's death Ying-ying is clearly wrestling with her responsibility for the death of her first son. In her mind the two events are connected: “I knew he [the baby] could see everything inside me. How I had given no thought to killing my other son! How I had given no thought to having this baby” (112). Instead of finding any resolution after the baby dies, Ying-ying becomes increasingly withdrawn. She cries unaccountably in the middle of cooking dinner and frequently retreats to her bed to “rest.”

The presence of feng shui in the story suggests that however displaced, demoralized, and severely depressed Ying-ying may be, she is not “crazy,” as Lena fears. Ying-ying's compulsion to rearrange furniture does not presage a psychotic break with reality but rather signals that, transplanted to a foreign country where she must function according to new rules and expectations, Ying-ying relies on familiar practices such as feng shui and astrology to interpret and order the world around her, especially when that world is in crisis. Lena, of course, is locked into a ten-year-old's perspective and an American frame of reference. She shares Jing-mei Woo's problem of being able to understand her mother's Chinese words but not their meanings. Whereas Clifford St. Clair's usual practice of “putting words” in his wife's mouth stems from his knowing “only a few canned Chinese expressions” (106), Lena's faulty translation of her mother's distracted speech after the baby dies reflects a lack of sufficient personal and cultural knowledge to make sense of Ying-ying's references to guilt.

Ying-ying's story, “Waiting between the Trees,” traces the origins of her decline to a much earlier time. At sixteen Ying-ying is married to a man who impregnates her, then abandons her for an opera singer. Out of grief and anger, she induces an abortion. However, after this defiant act she loses her strength, becoming “like the ladies of the lake” her mother had warned her about, floating like “a dead leaf on the water” (248–49). Unfortunately, Ying-ying's Tiger characteristic of “waiting patiently for things to come” (248) turns from easy acceptance of whatever is offered into listlessness and acquiescence over a period of fourteen years: “I became pale, ill, and more thin. I let myself become a wounded animal” (251). She confesses, “I willingly gave up my chi, the spirit that caused me so much pain” (251). Giving up her vital energy is tantamount to giving up her identity. By the time Clifford St. Clair takes her to America, she has already become “an unseen spirit,” with no trace of her former passion and energy. Nevertheless, she retains her ability to see things before they happen. Her prescience stems from her trust in portents, which constitutes another facet of her belief system. When she is young, a flower that falls from its stalk tells her she will marry her first husband. Later on, Clifford St. Clair's appearance in her life is a sign that her “black side” will soon go away. Her husband's death signals that she can marry St. Clair.

Years later, Ying-ying can still see portents of the future. She knows Lena's is “a house that will break into pieces” (243). Ying-ying also continues to think in terms of feng shui. She complains that the guest room in Lena's house has sloping walls, a fact which implies the presence of sharp angles that can harbor sha, malignant energy signifying death and decay. With walls that close in like a coffin, the room is no place to put a baby, Ying-ying observes. But it is not until Ying-ying sees her daughter's unhappy marriage that she accepts responsibility for the fact that Lena has no ch'i and determines to regain her own fierce spirit in order to pass it on to her daughter. Ying-ying knows she must face the pain of her past and communicate it to her daughter so as to supply Lena with the personal and cultural knowledge of her mother's life that she has always lacked. By recounting her life's pain, Ying-ying will in essence reconstruct her lost identity. To set things in motion, she decides to topple the spindly-legged marble table in the guest room so that Lena will come to see what is wrong. In this instance Ying-ying manipulates her environment in a literal as well as a symbolic sense, drawing on her traditional Chinese worldview once more in order to effect the best outcome for her daughter's life.

Unlike her mother, Lena has no consistent belief system of her own. She inherits Ying-ying's ability to see bad things before they happen but does not possess the power to anticipate good things, which suggests that Lena has merely internalized “the unspoken terrors” that plague Ying-ying (103). According to Philip Langdon, “second-or third-generation Chinese-Americans are much less likely to embrace feng shui than are those who were born in Asia” (148). Not only is Lena a second-generation Chinese-American, she is half Caucasian, which makes her Chinese heritage even more remote. Nonetheless, Lena is profoundly affected by Ying-ying's way of perceiving the world. As a child Lena is obsessed with knowing the worst possible thing that can happen, but unlike her mother, she has no sense of being able to manipulate fate. Thus, she is terrified when she cannot stop what she supposes to be the nightly “killing” of the girl next door, which she hears through her bedroom wall. Only after Lena realizes that she has been wrong about the neighbor family does she find ways to change the “bad things” in her mind.

Lena's muddled notions of causality and responsibility persist into adulthood. In “Rice Husband,” she still views herself as guilty for the death of Arnold Reisman, a former neighbor boy, because she “let one thing result from another” (152). She believes there is a relation between her not having cleaned her plate at meals when she was young and Arnold's development of a rare and fatal complication of measles. She wants to dismiss the link as ridiculous, but she is plagued by doubt because she has no philosophical or religious scheme by which to interpret events and establish parameters for her personal responsibility: “The thought that I could have caused Arnold's death is not so ridiculous. Perhaps he was destined to be my husband. Because I think to myself, even today, how can the world in all its chaos come up with so many coincidences, so many similarities and exact opposites?” (154). Whereas Ying-ying's belief system affords her a sense of certainty about how the world operates, Lena's lack of such a system leaves her in confusion.

It is Lena's uncertainty about causality together with her failure to take purposive action that leads Ying-ying to believe her daughter has no ch'i. Lena tells herself, “When I want something to happen—or not happen—I begin to look at all events and all things as relevant, an opportunity to take or avoid” (152). But Ying-ying challenges her, asking why, if Lena knew the marble table was going to fall down, she did not stop it. By analogy she is asking Lena why she does not resolve to save her marriage. Lena muses, “And it's such a simple question” (165). It is unclear whether Lena has already decided not to rescue the marriage or whether she is simply confused about her capacity to act on her own behalf. But the fact that Lena cannot answer her mother's question quietly privileges Ying-ying's perspective on the situation, much as An-mei's viewpoint of Rose's predicament is validated in “Without Wood.”

Marina Heung has pointed out that among works which focus on mother-daughter relations, The Joy Luck Club is “remarkable for foregrounding the voices of mothers as well as of daughters” (599). However, Tan goes further than “foregrounding” the mothers; she subtly endorses their world-view at strategic points in the text. Whereas Rose, Lena, and Jing-mei are paralyzed and unable to move forward in their relationships and careers and Waverly is haunted by a lingering fear of her mother's disapproval, Suyuan, Lindo, An-mei, and even Ying-ying demonstrate a resilient belief in their power to act despite having suffered the ravages of war and the painful loss of parents, spouses, and children. Out of the vast range of Chinese religious, philosophical, and folkloric beliefs, many of which stress self-effacement and passivity, Tan focuses on practices that allow her characters to make adjustments to their destinies and thereby preserve and perpetuate their identities. Suyuan Woo is most striking in this regard. She goes outside of conventional Chinese beliefs to make up her own means of dealing with fate. Suyuan invents “Joy Luck,” whereby she and her friends in Kweilin “choose [their] own happiness” at their weekly mah jong parties instead of passively waiting for their own deaths (25). Joy Luck for them consists of forgetting past wrongs, avoiding bad thoughts, feasting, laughing, playing games, telling stories, and most importantly, hoping to be lucky. The ritualistic set of attitudes and actions that Suyuan and her friends observe keep them from succumbing to despair. When the war is over, Suyuan holds on to the main tenet of her belief system—that “hope was our only joy”—by refusing to assume a passive role in the aftermath of tragedy. She never gives up hope that by persistence she may be able to locate the infant daughters she left in China. When Suyuan says to Jing-mei, “You don't even know little percent of me!” (27), she is referring to the complex interplay among the events of her life, her native culture and language, and her exercise of her mind and will. These things constitute an identity that Jing-mei has only an elusive and fragmentary knowledge of.

The references in The Joy Luck Club to traditional beliefs and practices such as astrology, wu-hsing, and feng shui emphasize the distance between the Chinese mothers and their American-born daughters. Tan hints through the stories of Lindo and Waverly Jong that a degree of reconciliation and understanding is attainable between mothers and daughters, and she indicates through Jing-mei Woo's journey that cultural gaps can be narrowed. In fact, Jing-mei Woo starts “becoming Chinese” as soon as she crosses the border into China (267). But overall, Tan's portrayal of first-generation immigrants attempting to transmit their native culture to their offspring is full of situations where “meanings” are untranslatable. The breakdown in communication between mothers and daughters is poignantly encapsulated in “American Translation,” the vignette that introduces the third group of stories in the book. A mother tells her daughter not to put a mirror at the foot of her bed: “‘All your marriage happiness will bounce back and turn the opposite way’” (147). Walters notes that mirrors are “regarded as symbols of a long and happy marriage” but also that “care has to be taken that they are not so placed that they are likely to alarm the soul of a sleeper when it rises for nocturnal wanderings” (55). According to feng shui principles, a mirror “acts as a constant energy reflector and will be sending [a] stream of intensified power into the space over and around [the] bed, day and night. It will be a perpetual cause of disturbance” during sleep (Lam 105). The daughter in the vignette is “irritated that her mother s[ees] bad omens in everything. She had heard these warnings all her life.” Lacking an understanding of the cosmological system to which her mother's omens belong, the daughter simply views them as evidence that her mother has a negative outlook on life.

When the woman offers a second mirror to hang above the headboard of the bed in order to remedy the problem, she is seeking to properly channel the flow of ch'i around the room. The mother comments, “this mirror see that mirror—haule!—multiply your peach-blossom luck.” The daughter, however, does not understand her mother's allusion to peach-blossom luck, which “refers to those who are particularly attractive to the opposite sex” (Rossbach 48). By way of explanation, the mother, “mischief in her eyes,” has her daughter look in the mirror to see her future grandchild. She is acting in accordance to the ancient Chinese belief that the “mysterious power of reflection” of mirrors, which reveal “a parallel world beyond the surface,” is magical (Walters 55). The daughter, unfortunately, can only grasp literal meanings: “The daughter looked—and haule! There it was: her own reflection looking back at her.” The mother is incapable of translating her worldview into “perfect American English,” so the daughter's comprehension remains flawed, partial, incomplete. Whether or not she apprehends, from her literal reflection, that she herself is the symbol of her mother's own peach-blossom luck is ambiguous. In the same way, the uneasy relations between the older and younger women in The Joy Luck Club suggest that the daughters understand only dimly, if at all, that they are the long-cherished expression of their mothers' Joy Luck.


  1. For a discussion of existential unrepeatability and the role of memory in The Joy Luck Club, see Ben Xu, “Memory and the Ethnic Self: Reading Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club,MELUS 19.1 (1994): 3–18. An interesting treatment of language, storytelling, and maternal subjectivity in Tan's novel can be found in Marina Heung, “Daughter-Text/Mother-Text: Matrilineage in Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club,Feminist Studies 19.3 (1993): 597–616.

  2. Jing-mei Woo thinks her mother's “telltale Chinese behaviors” are expressly intended to embarrass her, including Suyuan's predilection for yellow, pink, and bright orange (143, 267). When Jing-mei arrives in China, she notices “little children wearing pink and yellow, red and peach,” the only spots of bright color amidst drab grays and olive greens (271). Tan seems to suggest through this detail that Suyuan's color preferences reflect not only her personal taste but Chinese patterns and traditions. According to Sarah Rossbach, yellow stands for power, pink represents “love and pure feelings,” and orange suggests “happiness and power” (46–47). In this light, Lindo Jong's criticism of Suyuan's red sweater in “Best Quality” is ironic since it is Lindo who provides evidence that red is regarded by the Chinese as an auspicious color connoting “happiness, warmth or fire, strength, and fame” (Rossbach 45). In “The Red Candle” Lindo mentions not only her mother's jade necklace and her mother-in-law's pillars, tables, and chairs but also her own wedding banners, palanquin, dress, scarf, special eggs, and marriage candle as being red.

  3. Jing-mei Woo, born in the same year as Waverly (37), is a Metal Rabbit, and like Waverly, she exhibits a “Rabbit-like” sensitivity to criticism, especially when it comes from her mother.

  4. The Chinese system of astrology has Buddhist origins, while the theory of the Five Elements derives from Taoist thought. Holmes Welch observes that “there was little distinction—and the most intimate connections—between early Buddhism and Taoism” (119).

  5. Similar reasoning obtains in “Rice Husband” when Ying-ying tells Lena that a bank will have all its money drained away after a plumbing and bathroom fixtures store opens across the street from it (149). Lena comments that “one month later, an officer of the bank was arrested for embezzlement.”

Works Cited

Collins, Terah Kathryn. The Western Guide to Feng Shui. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 1996.

Govert, Johndennis. Feng Shui: Art and Harmony of Place. Phoenix: Daikakuji, 1993.

Heung, Marina. “Daughter-Text/Mother-Text: Matrilineage in Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club.Feminist Studies 19.3 (1993): 597–616.

Hornik, Susan. “How to Get that Extra Edge on Health and Wealth.” Smithsonian Aug. 1993: 70–75.

Jackson, Dallas. “Chinese Astrology.” Los Angeles Times 20 Feb. 1991, Orange County ed.: E2. News. Online. Lexis-Nexis. 15 Mar. 1997.

Lam, Kam Chuen. Feng Shui Handbook. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.

Langdon, Philip. “Lucky Houses.” Atlantic Nov. 1991: 146+.

Maspero, Henri. Taoism and Chinese Religion. Trans. Frank A. Kierman, Jr. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1981.

Rossbach, Sarah. Living Color: Master Lin Yun's Guide to Feng Shui and the Art of Color. New York: Kodansha, 1994.

Scott, Ann. “Chinese New Year: The Year of the Tiger.” United Press International 5 Feb. 1986, International sec. News. Online. Lexis-Nexis. 15 Mar. 1997.

Skinner, Stephen. The Living Earth Manual of Feng-Shui. London: Routledge, 1982.

Swillinger, Heidi. “Feng Shui: A Blueprint for Balance.” San Francisco Chronicle 8 Sept. 1993: Z1. News. Online. Lexis-Nexis. 15 Mar. 1997.

Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1989.

Walters, Derek. Feng Shui: The Chinese Art of Designing a Harmonious Environment. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Welch, Holmes. Taoism: The Parting of the Way. Revised ed. Boston: Beacon, 1966.

Xu, Ben. “Memory and the Ethnic Self: Reading Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club.MELUS 19.1 (1994): 3–18.

Youngblood, Ruth. “Baby-Poor Singapore Looks to Dragon for Help.” Los Angeles Times 29 Nov. 1987, sec. 1: 41. News. Online. Lexis-Nexis. 15 Mar. 1997.

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