The Joy Luck Club

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

In a brief story that opens The Joy Luck Club, a woman leaves Shanghai for America, carrying with her a beautiful swan which she is determined to give one day to her yet unborn daughter, as a symbol of her high aspirations for her in the new land. At the immigrations office amid a confusion of forms and foreign sounds, the swan is confiscated, leaving the woman with only one loose feather and a now dazed conviction about why she had even wanted to come to America. Nevertheless, she saves the worthless-looking feather, still planning to hand it someday to her daughter, in hopes that it will carry some of the good intentions for her offspring that had originally launched her on her way. The Joy Luck Club is about those things handed down from Chinese-born mothers to their American-born daughters; like the swan’s feather, this legacy carries with it a mixture of both hope and disappointment, pain and love. More than only a record of the cultural transition from the old world to the new, The Joy Luck Club asks a universal and penetrating question: What exactly is it that daughters, in any culture, inherit from their mothers?

Eight women, each of four mother-daughter pairs, narrate the novel. Their common link is the Joy Luck Club, a weekly mah-jongg party, formed in San Francisco in the 1940’s by four Chinese emigrants as a way to erase the tragedies left behind in war-torn China and to foster new hopes for their futures. As the novel begins, in the 1980’s, one of the members of the club, Suyuan Woo, has just died; her Americanized daughter June is expected to take her mother’s place at the mah-jongg table. The rituals of the evening’s game are at once familiar and mystifying to June, calling into relief the powerful cultural dissonance between the two generations and reminding June of all those qualities in her mother which she had intimately known yet never fully understood. Toward the end of the evening the aunties spring a surprise on June: The two daughters her mother had borne from a previous marriage and that she tragically had to abandon have, after a years-long search by her mother, finally been located, sadly, within weeks of her mother’s death. The aunties have arranged for June to go to China and meet these women, so she can tell them all she can about the mother they never knew. “What will I say?” June wonders, “What can I tell them about my mother? I don’t know anything.” Dismayed but not surprised at June’s response, the aunties see in her their own Americanized 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. They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these closed American-born minds “joy luck” is not a word, it does not exist. They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation.

Semi-autobiographical, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club becomes itself the means by which this connecting hope can be passed on to future generations. Tan, an American-born daughter of a Chinese-born mother, was moved to write the book after her mother’s heart attack. Even when Tan was a child her mother complained how little her daughter knew and understood of her. In the dedication Tan replies, “You asked me once what I would remember. This, and much more.”

In the novel, June resolves to go to China and tell her half-sisters all she knows of her mother; the aunties eye her warily. So the text begins, a shared text, with each mother and each daughter weaving her own interior meditation on this generational gulf and the struggle toward connection. The book is divided into four sections, comprising four chapters each. June is the only narrator appearing in all four sections; the mothers speak in the first and fourth sections, while the daughters narrate the second and third. The device of eight narrators works somewhat like a liquid house of mirrors, a series of reflecting pools simultaneously reflecting and not so much distorting as remaking images and events. What is seen through one pair of eyes is played back through another’s; each time more is learned. Sometimes it is the same incident that is seen from different sides, other times it is an oblique reverberation, as when June receives a jade pendant from Suyuan, echoing the gift of the feather described on the opening page.

The story of the swan’s feather sounds out the hopes and intentions of the giver of the gift, while the account of the necklace amplifies the bewilderment, even ingratitude, of its recipient. Says June,The pendant was not a piece of jewelry I would have chosen for myself. It was almost the size of my little finger, a mottled green and white color, intricately carved. To me, the whole effect looked wrong: too large, too green, too garishly ornate. I stuffed the necklace in my lacquer box and forgot about it.

The necklace is emblematic of the broken communication between mother and daughter—and the sharp pain that tears beneath the surface of this relationship. What one values, the other derides. The daughters sneer at their mothers’ stinginess, their haggling with shopkeepers, their foolish superstitions, their belief that danger lurks around every corner, their broken English, their garish clothes. The mothers sit in judgment on their daughters’ foolish choices, their wasted opportunities, their love affairs with useless modern objects, and their incomprehensible alliances with Caucasian men.

Though their cultural differences make this rift particularly acute, the gulf that Tan describes is fairly universal. It is not only among Chinese-American mothers and daughters that there is so much mutual disappointment, so many hidden resentments, as well as such a profound yearning for a greater love that can transcend the pain. June still feels the sharp pangs of her mother’s disappointment in her as a child, when she never quite materialized into the child prodigy that her mother hoped would bring June an appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” as well as all the boasting rights Suyuan could have then enjoyed among her friends. Yet a few months before her death, after a dinner party where June is sorely one-upped by her rival Waverly, Suyuan takes June aside and bestows the gift of the jade pendant, calling it her “life’s importance.” June accepts this as a deep expression of her mother’s love, despite the fact the intricate carvings are opaque to her, carrying secrets she supposes she will never understand. After her mother’s death she wears the necklace all the time, in hopes that she might absorb her mother’s meaning through her skin.

The mothers’ hope is that their daughters will grow to combine all the best of Chinese character with all the best of American circumstances and opportunities. Their pain is that much of the Chinese character seems to have gotten lost in the translation. It is a Chinese custom for daughters to honor and listen obediently to their mothers, but American freedom infiltrates and distorts this tradition. As a child, Waverly Jong exhibits a remarkable skill at chess. Disturbed at the way her mother swells up with pride and takes credit for her own tournament victories, Waverly publicly humiliates her. Years later, Lindo Jong still burns under her daughter’s disregard when at the hairdresser’s, Waverly discusses Lindo with the stylist as though she were not even there. Nevertheless, Waverly’s narrative reveals how much power her mother still holds over her. For weeks she tries to confide in her mother that the man she is currently seeing will soon become her husband; she lives in terror of her mother’s response. Inside she acknowledges that Lindo has the power to ruin completely her love affair, by pointing out some flaw in her fiancé that, once seen, will make him seem irretrievably small in her eyes. The American-born daughters may seem to speak a new language of disrespect, but the psychic hold their Chinese mothers wield is unquestionably strong.

To the degree that the daughters fear their mothers’ disapproval, the mothers fear they will slip from their daughters’ lives unseen, unremembered, the precious thread of connection severed by their sour-faced daughters’ cool American disregard. It is difficult, however, to hold the daughters accountable for those secrets which their mothers have never shared. In the narratives of An-mei, Lindo, and Ying-ying lie the keys which would unlock the grim-faced behaviors that have hurt and mystified their daughters Rose, Waverly, and Lena. The mothers’ narratives reveal a legacy of pain, abandonment, humiliation, and loss that somehow clarifies those tendencies which their daughters have grown to hate and fear. It also becomes clear that each mother in her own way has had a troubled relationship with her mother, dating the legacy of hurt and misunderstanding farther back than this one generation. What emerges from the mothers’ narratives is a portrait of remarkable survivors; their daughters do not fully understand, but for that they can hardly be blamed.

Given that so much has gone unexpressed, what then does get passed on from mother to daughter? “You can see your character in your face,” Lindo tells her daughter. In the hairdresser’s mirror Waverly studies her cheeks, her nose; they are the same as her mother’s, and, Lindo notes, they are the same as her own mother’s before her. The flesh carries the memory, and if the nose gets passed on, something of the spirit does too. What clearly emerges from the narratives are the intangible, unspoken legacies each girl has received. Waverly has Lindo’s cunning, her gift of strategy, her competitiveness, and her sharp tongue. Rose, like An-mei, has “too little wood”; each bends too easily to others’ opinions and must learn to speak her own mind. Lena, like Ying-ying, must find her tiger spirit and fight her tendency to slip invisibly into the background. June finds herself growing territorial, hissing at the neighbors’ cat just as her mother had done. The similarities between mother and daughter gradually take shape, much like the slowly developing Polaroid photo of June and her two half-sisters taken at the Shanghai airport. They watch as their images become clear; not one of them is exactly like their mother, but taken together their likenesses conjure up Suyuan’s as well. As An-mei tells June, “Your mother is in your bones.”

The Joy Luck Club is Amy Tan’s first novel. Though it is common for first novels to exhibit some unevenness, particularly in characterization, Tan’s characters are fully and beautifully drawn. Her language is graceful, her eye for detail is strong. If there is a flaw in the novel, it is that the eight different narrators and their filial connections are sometimes difficult to keep straight, but the richness of the book makes it well worth the effort to do so.

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

The Joy Luck Club is a story cycle told by seven voices. It consists of four sections, each divided into four separate stories. The first and last sections present four mothers’ stories, and the middle sections are devoted to the stories of their daughters. In each section, however, one story is narrated by June Woo, who, now that her mother is dead, must sit at her mother’s place at the mah-jongg table—“on the East, where things begin”—and relate not only her own stories but also those of her mother.

Suyuan Woo, June’s mother, started the San Francisco version of the Joy Luck Club, a regular social affair organized around a game of chance, in 1949, after she and the other Chinese “aunties”—the mothers of the book—had immigrated to the United States. The club originated, as they did, in China, as a means of raising the spirits of four women (Suyuan and three other nonrecurring characters) during the Japanese assault on Kweilin. Decades later and in another country, the aunties continue their social gatherings as a means of hanging onto their identities under the assault of yet another foreign culture.

It is through their American-born daughters that these women most experience this sense of loss—either because the daughters are too much like them, too “Chinese,” or because the daughters have become so assimilated as to forget their origins. For all the young women but June, who remains single, the primary source of conflict with their mothers seems to arise from their marriages. Waverly Jong, whose first marriage to her childhood sweetheart was ruined in part by her mother’s criticisms of her Chinese American husband, is fearful now of what Lindo will say about her daughter’s engagement to the all-American Rich Shields. Lena St. Clair finds herself at odds with her mother because of the alienation wrought by her marriage, now breaking apart, to a selfish American. When Rose Hsu Jordan informs her mother that her marriage to yet another selfish American man has already broken down, An-Mei muses:. . . I was raised the Chinese way: I was taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people’s misery, to eat my own bitterness. And even though I thought my daughter the opposite, still she come out the same way! Maybe it is because she was born to me and she was born a girl. And I was born to my mother and I was born a girl. All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way.

The Joy Luck Club, continuity between generations is at once a blessing and a burden.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*San Francisco

*San Francisco. Northern California city that is home to most of the novel’s characters. Three of the four families of the Joy Luck Club settled in Chinatown on their arrival in America, seeking the comforts of a place with an established Chinese community, one filled with the fragrances of familiar foods, such as fried sesame balls; familiar landmarks, such as herb shops and fish markets; and people like them. Indicative of their mothers’ drive to assimilate, Waverly Jong is even named after her parents’ home on Waverly Place.

As these immigrant families became successful, they moved into upper-middle-class neighborhoods, such as Ashbury Heights. However, for Ying-Ying St. Clair, the move from Oakland, across the Bay, to San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood remains unsettling. Her attempt to use feng shui to create a harmonious spiritual balance fails when the child she conceives in the new home miscarries.

San Francisco mirrors the emotional conflicts of the characters. It is a place where a Bank of America building and a McDonald’s restaurant rise up next to the shops and apartment buildings of Chinatown, threatening to tower over them, just as the mothers worry about the impact of American culture on their daughters’ Chinese heritage.


*Kweilin (KWAY-lin; Guilin in Pinyin). City in China to which Suyuan Woo was evacuated after the Japanese invasion in 1937. She had no eyes for the beauty of the city; to her its fabled mountains merely looked like fish heads, behind which lurked an advancing enemy. Its caves provided shelter from air raids pounding the beleaguered town. The city teemed with refugees from all corners of China, and misery abounded. To preserve hope, Suyuan formed her first Joy Luck Club there.

*Kweilin-Chungking road

*Kweilin-Chungking road. While fleeing Kweilin for Chungking as the Japanese were invading, Suyuan had to abandon her twin baby daughters along the road, which was choked with refugees. The despair of the refugees was echoed by the overcrowded road, the sides of which were littered with discarded possessions. Most refugees trekked through this bleak apocalyptic landscape on foot, while a fortunate few escaped in trucks.

The road holds the mystery of Suyuan’s babies, which is the novel’s framing device. When her American-born daughter, Jing-mei, first learns what her mother had done, she seems callous to her. However, after Jing-mei reaches China and learns the full story of her half-sisters’ abandonment, she can forgive her mother.


*Wushi (wew-shee; Wuxi). Chinese city one hundred miles northeast of Shanghai at the shores of large and beautiful Tai Lake that was the site of Ying-Ying St. Clair’s privileged youth. While living in San Francisco, she nostalgically remembers the splendor of the Moon Festival on the lake. Yet the lake also represents danger, for she nearly drowned there. Later, she fell in love with her husband on the lake.


*Shanghai. Great Chinese port city to which Ying-Ying went after learning of her husband’s infidelity in Wushi. Taking advantage of the city’s opportunities, Ying-Ying worked in a clothing store, where she met and married Clifford St. Clair. Like the friends she later finds in San Francisco, she leaves behind a China that holds bitter memories.


*Tientsin (TEEN-tseen; Tianjin). Bustling Chinese port city south of Beijing. One of China’s “treaty ports,” where foreigners had their own enclaves exempt from Chinese law. An-mei Hsu was amazed by the city’s colorful life when she arrived there with her mother from their hometown of Ningpo, near Shanghai. Yet the city’s sparkle and the splendors of their palatial, Western-style home quickly wore off when An-mei learned that her mother was forced to be a concubine.


*Taiyuan (TAY-ywan). Capital of China’s Shanxi province that contains major parts of the Great Wall. Surrounded by rough mountains, the Fen River runs through it. Lindo Jong grew up there in a low-lying peasant house, which was inundated by a flood, while the house of her future husband was built on richer, higher ground and remained intact. After getting out of her arranged marriage, Lindo left Taiyuan for Beijing and later America.

Jordan house

Jordan house. San Francisco home of Rose Hsu and her husband, Ted Jordan. After her husband announces that he wants a divorce, Rose refuses to let him have the house; her refusal signifies her newly discovered sense of self-worth.

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club is a narrative mosaic made up of the lives of four Chinese women and their Chinese American daughters. Because of its structure, the book can only loosely be called a novel. It is composed of sixteen stories and four vignettes, but like many novels, it has central characters who develop through the course of the plot. The daughters struggle with the complexities of modern life, including identity crises and troubled relationships, while the mothers reflect on past actions that were dictated by culture and circumstance. The lives of the older women are bound together through their similar situations as immigrants and their monthly mah-jongg games at Joy Luck Club meetings.

Each of the stories is a first-person narration by one of the Joy Luck Club’s three mothers or four daughters. Each narrator tells two stories about her own life, except for Jing-mei (June) Woo, who stands in for her deceased mother, telling a total of four stories. The tales are arranged in four groups, with a vignette preceding each group. The first group is told by mothers (plus June), the second and third groups by daughters, and the fourth by mothers. Jing-mei’s final story, in which she learns her mother’s history, concludes the book.

Since The Joy Luck Club is concerned with the relation of the present to the past, many stories take place in more than one time period. For example, in the last group of stories, the mothers begin their narration in the present time of the 1980’s but then recall incidents that occurred when they were girls or young women: An-mei’s mother’s death, Ying-ying’s first marriage, and Lindo’s immigration to the United States. The narratives of the daughters are set in the 1960’s, the time of their youth, or in the 1980’s, with flashbacks to various earlier times. The first group of daughters’ stories focuses on significant childhood experiences, while their second stories explore issues that they are experiencing as adults.

The daughters’ tales are all set in the San Francisco Bay area, whereas the mothers’ stories span two countries, China and the United States. Both rural and urban scenes in prewar China are depicted, and details related to festivals, customs, dress, housing, and food provide a rich backdrop to the central events in the narratives. June’s final story, “A Pair of Tickets,” takes her to a more modern China, where she finds Western capitalistic influences making inroads after nearly forty years of Communist Party rule.

The book examines a number of sociological issues from a woman’s perspective: the death of parents, husbands, and children; marriage, adultery, and divorce; childbirth and abortion; and aging. The exploration, however, is often indirect. Situations are presented and later their consequences are shown. For example, Ying-ying’s guilt over aborting her first child haunts a later pregnancy, and her daughter Lena’s bulimic episode as an adolescent affects her eating habits as an adult. Exotic touches are added to the book’s realistic rendering of emotions and incidents by means of references to Chinese folklore and superstition. Tan balances Eastern and Western points of view in her portrayal of the significant events of life.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Joy Luck Club highlights the influence of culture on gender roles. The Chinese mothers in the book, all born in the 1910’s, grew up in a hierarchical society in which a woman’s worth was measured by her husband’s status and his family’s wealth. When they were young, the women were taught to repress their own desires so that they would learn to preserve the family honor and obey their husbands. The difficulties in marriage encountered by Lindo and Ying-ying as well as by An-mei’s mother emphasize how few options were open to women in a tightly structured society in which their economic security and social standing were completely dependent on men.

Consequently, when the mothers immigrate to the United States, they want their daughters to retain their Chinese character but take advantage of the more flexible roles offered to women by American culture. The postwar baby-boomer daughters, however, are overwhelmed by having too many choices available. They struggle to balance multiple roles as career women, wives or girlfriends, and daughters. The materialistic focus of American culture makes it difficult for the daughters to internalize their mothers’ values, particularly the self-sacrifice, determination, and family integrity that traditional Chinese culture stresses.

In addition to gender roles, mother-daughter relationships are an important focus of the book. Mothers are shown to have profound influence over their daughters’ development, yet their influence is constrained by the surrounding culture. As girls, the Chinese women wanted to be like their mothers, whereas the American-born daughters are estranged from their mothers. This contrast is consistent with a difference between cultures: Americans expect their children to rebel against parental authority, while the Chinese promote obedience and conformity. The daughters in The Joy Luck Club think that their mothers are odd because they speak broken English and miss the subtleties of American culture pertaining to dress and social behavior. They also tend to see their mothers as pushy. Waverly and June rebel against their mothers’ expectations without understanding that Lindo and Suyuan are trying to give their daughters the opportunities that they never had themselves. As adults, Waverly and June struggle with the conflicting desires of pleasing their mothers and developing their own individuality. Because they perceive their mothers’ guidance as criticism, they are slow to understand the depth of their mothers’ love and sacrifice for them.

Despite such generational and cultural gaps, the author suggests that daughters resemble their mothers in character as well as in appearance. Waverly possesses Lindo’s shrewdness, and Rose shares An-mei’s passivity in the face of suffering. By developing four central mother-daughter relationships rather than only one, Tan reveals that the factors which shape family resemblance, both negative and positive, are varied and complex.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Historical China
While The Joy Luck Club was published in 1989, it is set in pre-World War II China and contemporary San...

(The entire section is 652 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Like the four sides of the mah-jong table, the book is structured with an almost classical balance: four mothers' stories, four daughters'...

(The entire section is 99 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Joy Luck Club achieves much of its power by tapping into aspects of myth. It deals with things lost and things found, with masks...

(The entire section is 377 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1930s and 1940s: The Japanese occupied China. Full war erupted in 1945 in Beijing between the Chinese and Japanese. After the war,...

(The entire section is 203 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

In an interview with Elaine Woo for the Los Angeles Times (March 12, 1989), Amy Tan said that her parents wanted their children "to...

(The entire section is 227 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Tan credits Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine (1984), a set of interwoven tales about Indian life, as a formative influence on her...

(The entire section is 116 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Kitchen God's Wife (1991) relates the story of Jiang Weili from the time she was six years old in the China of 1925 through the...

(The entire section is 167 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Tan reads from The Joy Luck Club on audio tape by Dove.

In 1993, the motion picture version of The Joy Luck Club...

(The entire section is 98 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

An abridged sound recording of The Joy Luck Club is three hours long, available on 2 cassette tapes. Published in 1989 by Dove Audio,...

(The entire section is 112 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Michael Dorns, "'Joy Luck Club' Hits the Literary Jackpot," in the Detroit News, March 26, 1989, p. 2D.


(The entire section is 433 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Chan, Jeffery Paul, Frank Chin, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn H. Wong. “An Introduction to Chinese-American and Japanese-American Literatures.” In Three American Literatures, edited by Houston A. Baker, Jr. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1982. Arguing from the viewpoint that white supremacist thinking controls American culture, the authors detail the origins of a distinctly Asian American literature, a category not readily recognized by critics. The stereotype of the Asian American “dual personality” is rejected.

Chin, Frank. “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake.” In The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature, edited by Jeffery Paul Chan et al. New York: Meridian, 1991. The article discusses Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and David Henry Hwang’s use of ancient Chinese myths and legends in their works.

Fong, S. L. M. “Assimilation and Changing Social Roles of Chinese Americans.” Journal of Social Issues 29, no. 2 (1973): 115-127. Examines the influence of acculturation and assimilation on traditional Chinese family structure and Chinese social hierarchy. Conflicts over parental authority and changes in sex roles and attitudes toward dating are discussed.

Kim, Elaine H. “Asian American Writers: A Bibliographical Review.” American Studies International 22, no. 2 (1984): 41-78. Provides a useful overview of various types of Asian American writing and its special concerns, such as the Vietnam War and gender issues, and discusses problems in the criticism of Asian American literature. A bibliography of primary works is included.

Kim, Elaine H. “ ‘Such Opposite Creatures’: Men and Women in Asian-American Literature.” Michigan Quarterly Review 29, no. 1 (Winter, 1990): 68-93. The author briefly discusses mother-daughter relations in The Joy Luck Club in her examination of the different ways in which Asian American men and women portray gender and ethnicity in their writing.

Kim, Elaine H. With Silk Wings. San Francisco: Asian Women United of California, 1983. Following twelve profiles and forty short autobiographical sketches of Asian American women, this well-illustrated book provides the social and historical background of various groups of Asian women immigrants to the United States.

Ling, Amy. Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry. New York: Pergamon Press, 1990. The book takes a feminist look at Asian American women writers’ contribution to the development of Asian American literature. Includes a section on The Joy Luck Club.

Souris, Stephen. “ ‘Only Two Kinds of Daughters’: Inter-Monologue Dialogicity in The Joy Luck Club.” Melus 19, no. 2 (1994): 99-123. Souris uses Wolfgang Iser’s reader-response theory in discussing how the novel requires the reader’s active involvement to create the meaning.

Tan, Amy. Interview by Angels Carabi. Belles Lettres (Summer, 1991): 16-19. Tan discusses her thoughts on being a creative writer and the popular success she achieved with The Joy Luck Club.

Tan, Amy. Interview by Barbara Somogyi and David Stanton. Poets & Writers 19, no. 5 (September 1, 1991): 24-32. In an informative interview, Tan talks about the origins of The Joy Luck Club, its autobiographical elements, and its portrayal of mother-daughter issues.

Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia. Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. The book takes a thematic approach to the study of contemporary Asian American literature. There are several places where the writer discusses Amy Tan and The Joy Luck Club’s significance in the history of Asian American literature.

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

The Kitchen God's Wife, published in 1991 by Putnam of New York, was Tan's second novel. While many predicted that Tan would not be...

(The entire section is 351 words.)