Rules of the Game Style and Technique

Amy Tan

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Tan employs an intricate and piquant irony to develop these themes. Irony especially surrounds Lindo. An immigrant, Lindo is a proud repository of traditional Chinese values, which she nostalgically proclaims as superior to the values of the United States. One of her tenets is that strong people should remain silent, a behavioral strategy she inherits from Sunzi’s classic Sunzi Bingfa (probably 475-221 b.c.e.; Sun Tzu: On the Art of War, 1910); as Lindo indicates in another tale in The Joy Luck Club, her maiden name is Sun. Ironically, however, when Waverly is featured on the cover of Life magazine, Lindo cannot keep silent about her daughter’s prowess and pridefully trumpets Waverly’s fame all over Chinatown. By breaking her Chinese reserve of silent strength and betraying her weakness for her daughter, Lindo has ironically made herself vulnerable and also has become just another ostentatious American mother. This is but one of several delightful ironies informing “Rules of the Game.”

An equally intricate stylistic device is Tan’s use of the wind as a metaphor. The wind, symbolizing an invisible power that becomes perceptible only through its effects, fuses Asian and Western traditions of imagery. In Chinese tradition, for example, the wind is a powerful component of geomancy, the art or science of positioning oneself advantageously. (The Chinese term for geomancy is feng shui, which means “wind and water.”) Similarly, in the rules of mah-jongg, the Chinese game that metaphorically structures The Joy Luck Club, each hand is begun by rolling dice to determine the wind’s direction (the source of bonus points). In Western tradition, too, the wind is an archetypal image for power. Thus the Bible likens the Holy Spirit (the active principle of divinity) to the wind (John 3:8), while the atheist poet Percy Shelley uses wind as a metaphor for physical, political, and ideological power in his “Ode to the West Wind” (1820).

Tan’s narrative prose and dialogue also deserve attention. Tan’s narrative delights by its sparkling vivacity, its many-faceted turns of phrasing, and its wry wit that continually surprises. For example, the bathetic movement of the story’s opening paragraph juxtaposes a mysterious invisible strength with the apparently mundane child’s play of a board game. Tan’s authentic depiction of immigrant Chinese speech is another of her stylistic accomplishments, which she has analyzed in her award-winning essay “Mother Tongue” (1990). For Lindo’s dialogue, Tan captures the colorful patois of immigrant Chinese speech, resourceful and vivid; thus does Lindo announce a change in rules regarding dish-drying chores: “Is new American rules. . . . Meimei play, squeeze all her brains out for win chess. You [Victor and Winston] play, worth squeeze towel.”