The Joy Luck Club

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The Joy Luck Club

Amy Tan
Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study

Amy Tan


The Joy Luck Club, published by G. P. Putnam's Sons in 1989, presents the stories of four Chinese-immigrant women and their American-born daughters. Each of the four Chinese women has her own view of the world based on her experiences in China and wants to share that vision with her daughter. The daughters try to understand and appreciate their mothers' pasts, adapt to the American way of life, and win their mothers' acceptance. The book's name comes from the club formed in China by one of the mothers, Suyuan Woo, in order to lift her friends' spirits and distract them from their problems during the Japanese invasion. Suyuan continued the club when she came to the United States—hoping to bring luck to her family and friends and finding joy in that hope.

Amy Tan wrote the Joy Luck Club to try to understand her own relationship with her mother. Tan's Chinese parents wanted Americanized children but expected them to think like Chinese. Tan found this particularly difficult as an adolescent. While the generational differences were like those experienced by other mothers and daughters, the cultural distinctions added another dimension. Thus, Tan wrote not only to sort out her cultural heritage but to learn how she and her mother could get along better.

Critics appreciate Tan's straightforward manner as well as the skill with which she talks about Chinese culture and mother/daughter relationships. Readers also love The Joy Luck Club: women of all ages identify with Tan's characters and their conflicts with their families, while men have an opportunity through this novel to better understand their own behaviors towards women. Any reader can appreciate Tan's humor, fairness, and objectivity.

Author Biography

Amy Tan began writing fiction as a distraction from her work as a technical writer. A self-proclaimed workaholic, Tan wanted to find a way to relax. She soon discovered that not only did she enjoy writing fiction as a hobby, she liked that it provided a way for her to think about and understand her life.

Tan was born in Oakland, California, in 1952. Her first-generation, Chinese-American parents, John and Daisy Tan, settled in Santa Clara, California. As an adolescent, Tan had difficulty accepting her Chinese heritage. She wanted to look like an American—to be an American. At one point, she even slept with a clothespin on her nose, hoping to change its shape. She deliberately chose American over Chinese whenever she had the opportunity and asserted her independence in any way that she could. She dreamed of being a writer, while her parents saw her as a neurosurgeon and concert pianist.

The Tans lived in Santa Clara until first her father, then her brother, died of brain tumors. Mrs. Tan took Amy and her other brother to live in Switzerland. Amy became even more rebellious, dating a German who was associated with drug dealers and had serious mental problems. Her mother then took the children back to the United States, where Amy enrolled in a Baptist College in Oregon, majoring in pre-med. After just two semesters there, Amy went with her boyfriend back to California. There she attended San Jose City College as an English and linguistics major. Amy's mother did not speak to her for six months after this final act of rebellion.

The Joy Luck Club contains many autobiographical elements from Tan's life. Tan did not learn until she was fourteen that she has half-sisters from her mother's previous marriage. This sense of loss and her father's and brother's deaths are reflected in The Joy Luck Club in Suyuan Woo's loss of her twin daughters and her death. In addition, Tan has always felt that she disappointed her mother by not becoming a doctor. Like Tan, the novel's Jing-mei can not compare to Waverly Jong, the highly successful daughter of a friend of Jing-mei's mother. These and other examples from Tan's personal life lend a sensibility and sensitivity to her novel that allow the reader to experience vicariously,death and solace, loss and reconciliation, disillusionment and hope.

Plot Summary

The Joy Luck Club consists of sixteen inter-locking stories about the lives of four Chinese immigrant women and their four American-born daughters. In 1949, the four immigrants meet at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco and agree to continue to meet to play mah jong. They call their mah jong group the Joy Luck Club. The stories told in this novel revolve around the Joy Luck Club women and their daughters.

Feathers from a Thousand Li Away

In "The Joy Luck Club," Jing-Mei Woo remembers her recently deceased mother, Suyuan Woo, who founded the Joy Luck Club. During World War II, Suyuan Woo escapes from Kweilin on foot before the Japanese invade the city. The difficulty of the escape forces Suyuan to abandon her two twin baby girls. At the first mah jong meeting after Suyuan Woo's funeral, the Joy Luck Club "aunts" inform Jing-Mei that the twin girls are alive in China and suggest that she visit her half-sisters to bring them the news of the death of Suyuan.

The childhood of An-Mei Hsu, one of the older women, is related in "Scar." In the story, An-Mei Hsu's mother leaves her family to become a concubine of Wu Tsing, a rich merchant. An-Mei is brought up by her grandmother, Popo. In an attempt to heal Popo on her deathbed, An-Mei's mother returns to cut off a piece of flesh from her own arm to make soup for Popo, but Popo still dies.

Lindo Jong, another of the mothers, explains her own childhood in "The Red Candle," recounting her escape from an unfortunate marriage. Promised in marriage at two and delivered at twelve, Lindo Jong finds herself living with a husband who doesn't love her and a mother-in-law whose only interest is for Lindo to produce grandchildren. Finally, Lindo fabricates a dream vision which predicts the destruction of the family if the family does not annul her marriage. In the end, the family gives her enough money to fly to the United States.

In "The Moon Lady," Ying-Ying St. Clair, the third surviving mother, remembers falling into the Tai Lake, one of the largest lakes in China, during a Moon Festival boating event. The four-year-old Ying-Ying is rescued from the water by strangers and left on the shore. She wanders into an outdoor opera which stages the story of the wish-granting Moon Lady. After the opera, Ying-Ying approaches the Moon Lady to make a wish to be found by her family, only to discover that the Moon Lady is played by a man.

The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates

This section relates important childhood stories of the Joy Luck Club's American-born daughters. In "Rules of the Game," Waverly Jong recalls being a national chess champion. When she is nine, Waverly's relationship with her mother becomes tense after she tells her mother not to brag about her in the marketplace. Another difficult relationship is portrayed by Lena St. Clair in "The Voice from the Wall," as Lena remembers her mother's nervous breakdown and the noise of fights between a neighbor girl and her Italian family. At first Lena is full of pity for the Italian girl, thinking the girl has an unhappy life. Later, Lena learns that the neighbors' fighting and shouting are ways of expressing their love. However, in Lena's home, her mother lies quietly in bed or babbles to herself on the sofa.

In "Half and Half," Rose Hsu Jordan is about to be divorced from her American husband. She recounts how her mother lost faith in God after a failed attempt to revive her youngest son, who drowned during a family beach outing. Despite her loss of religious faith, Rose's mother insists that Rose try to have faith in her marriage. Finally, in "Two Kinds," Jing-Mei Woo remembers her mother's high expectations for her to become a prodigy. But the question plaguing her is what kind of prodigy? Her agonizing quest to meet her mother's expectations ends up in an embarrassing piano recital failure.

American Translation

This section follows the Joy Luck children as adult women, all facing various conflicts. In "Rice Husband," Lena St. Clair narrates her marital problems. She has often feared that she is inferior to her husband, who is also her boss at work and who makes seven times more than she does. Lena's husband takes advantage of her by making her pay half of all household expenses. Waverly Jong is concemed about her mother's opinion of her white fiance in "Four Directions." Waverly recalls quitting chess after becoming angry at her mother in the marketplace. Believing that her mother still has absolute power over her and will object to her forthcoming marriage with Rich, Waverly confronts her mother after a dinner party and realizes that her mother has known all along about her relationship with Rich and has accepted him.

In "Without Wood," Rose Hsu Jordan tries to sort out her own marital problems. After her husband reveals that he will be marrying someone else, Rose finally realizes she will have to fight for her rights. In the end, she refuses to sign the conditions set forth by her husband's divorce papers. Jing-Mei Woo's problems are still related to her mother. In "Best Quality," she remembers the Chinese New Year's dinner of the previous year. During the dinner Jing-Mei has an argument with Waverly over an advertisement Jing-Mei has written for Waverly's company. Realizing that Jing-Mei has been humiliated, Suyuan Woo, Jing-Mei's mother, gives her a necklace with a special jade pendant called "life's importance." After her mother dies, Jing-Mei wishes she had found out what "life's importance" meant.

Queen Mother of the Western Skies

This section of the novel returns to the viewpoints of the mothers as adults dealing with difficult choices. In "Magpies," An-Mei Hsu recalls moving to Tientsin with her mother, the third concubine of Wu Tsing, a rich merchant. In Wu Tsing's mansion, An-Mei witnesses her mother's awkward and lowly position. Finally, An-Mei's mother, fed up with her shameful life and abuse from the merchant's powerful second wife, poisons herself two days before Chinese New Year, so her "vengeful spirit" can return to haunt the family.

In "Waiting Between the Trees," Ying-Ying St. Clair remembers being abandoned by her first husband, who was a womanizer. Later, Ying-Ying marries an American whom she does not love. Marriage also figures in "Double Face," in which Lindo Jong recalls arriving in San Francisco and later working in a fortune cookie factory. In the factory, together with An-Mei Hsu, Lindo finds a fortune cookie slip which she uses to put the idea of marriage into her boyfriend's head.

The final story is a pivotal episode which brings together the experiences of mothers and daughters. In "A Pair of Tickets," Jing-Mei Woo flies to China with her father to visit the twin babies that her mother had been forced to abandon while fleeing the Japanese. Finally, after years of refusing to embrace her heritage, Jing-Mei accepts the Chinese blood in her when she meets her half sisters:

I look at their faces again and I see no trace of my mother in them. Yet they still look familiar. 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.


An-Mei Hsu

An-Mei empowers her daughter, Rose, to stand up for her rights. Having grown up fearful of the people around her and being accustomed to self-denial, An-Mei refuses to see her own daughter endure the same unhappiness. She turns her back on her own pain and experiences, and vows to raise her daughter differently than she was raised.

An-Mei's grandparents cared for her after banning her mother for becoming another man's concubine following the death of her husband. The grandparents warned An-Mei never to speak of her mother. To them, An-Mei's mother was a ghost— someone to be forgotten entirely. An-Mei obeyed and never asked about her. An-Mei came to know her mother, however, when she returned to be with An-Mei's grandmother as she was dying. An-Mei learned from her that honor for one's mother goes much deeper than the flesh and that when you lose something you love, faith takes over.

An-Mei teaches her daughter the lessons she has learned from her own mother and from the loss of her son, Rose's brother. Rather than ignore loss, one must pay attention to it and undo the expectation. When Rose complains to An-Mei that her marriage is falling apart and she can't do anything about it, An-Mei reminds Rose of her upbringing and tells her to speak up for her rights. Rose passes An-Mei's test by advising her husband that she will not sign the divorce papers and that her lawyer will contact him about her keeping the house.

Lindo Jong

Lindo Jong tries to instill in her daughter, Waverly, a sense of both obedience and self-worth. She wants her daughter to have "American circumstances and Chinese character."

Lindo's parents promise her to her future husband, Tyan-Hu, when she is only two years old. While she sees him at various functions over the years, she does not actually go to live with him and his family until she is twelve. Always the obedient daughter, she does not question this arrangement. She recognizes immediately, however, the kind of husband Tyan-Hu will be and feels discouraged.

Lindo and Tyan-Hu marry when she turns sixteen. While they are unhappy with each other, they do not let his family know. In the meantime, Lindo devises a plan that will allow Tyan-Hu's family to release her without their losing face. Lindo pretends that she has a dream in which Tyan-Hu's ancestors tell her that their marriage is doomed; she uses existing facts to back up her story.

When she is free of the marriage, Lindo leaves for America, where she remarries and has three children. She decides that her children should live like Americans and should not have to keep the circumstances someone else gives them. While she believes that she has succeeded in teaching this idea to her daughter, Lindo thinks she has failed to teach her Chinese character. She is surprised and satisfied, however, when Waverly demonstrates Chinese character that Lindo did not know she possessed.

Waverly Jong

Waverly Jong is the figure to whom Jing-Mei is always compared by her mother, Suyuan Woo. Waverly's mother, Lindo, and Suyuan were best friends when the girls were growing up but also tried to outdo each other when comparing their children's accomplishments. Waverly continually gave her mother something to brag about. As a child, she was a national chess champion; as an adult, she is a successful tax attorney.

When Waverly was very young, her brother received a chess set as a Christmas gift. She quickly caught on to the game and was soon winning matches against everyone she played. Her mother taught her how to "bite back her tongue," a strategy for winning arguments that also helped her win chess games. By the time she was nine, Waverly was a national chess champion. Her mother was so proud of her that she constantly boasted of her daughter's abilities, wanting people to know that she was Waverly's mother. Waverly hated her mother's bragging, and it soon became a point of contention between them.

Not only did Waverly despise her mother's bragging, she also hated that her mother tried to take credit for Waverly's talent. Lindo would tell people that she advised Waverly on the moves she made and that Waverly wasn't really smart, she just knew the tricks of the game. Finally, Waverly told her off—in public—saying that she knew nothing, that she should shut up. After that, it was a long time before Lindo spoke to Waverly, and she no longer encouraged her to play chess. When she and her mother did start talking, Waverly found that she could no longer play chess.

Media Adaptations

  • 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 book is read by its author, Amy Tan.
  • The movie version of The Joy Luck Club was released by Hollywood Pictures in 1993. While it does not include all the novel's stories, the film does a good job of presenting the most important scenes. The adaptation was written by Amy Tan and Ronald Bass and directed by Wayne Wang. Produced by noted filmmaker Oliver Stone, the film starred such actresses as Frances Nuyen, Rosalind Chao, Ming-Na Wen, and Lauren Tom. It is rated R, available from Buena Vista Home Video.

Remembering her mother's reaction to her public embarrassment, Waverly was afraid to let her meet her Caucasian fiance, Rich. She did not want Rich to have to suffer the criticism she knew her mother was capable of giving without thought to his feelings. She knew the silent attacks her mother would make on Rich's character; she knew that her mother could put on a front while hiding her true emotions. She knew too well how her mother could hurt her by stabbing her in her weakest parts.

Waverly finally allows her mother to meet Rich and is not surprised by her reactions. What does surprise Waverly is that when she confronts her mother about the meeting, she learns something about herself. Not only has Waverly learned the art of invisible strength from her mother, but also she has inherited her "double-faced" approach to meeting new challenges, probably the secret to her success as an adult.

Rose Hsu Jordan

Rose Hsu Jordan, the daughter of An-Mei Hsu, marries Ted Jordan in defiance of their parents. Typically passive by nature, Rose takes charge by choosing to marry Ted, a non-Chinese. It is probably the most decisive action she has ever taken.

Ted balances her personality. Where she is weak, he bears the burden; where she is indecisive, he takes charge. Ted makes all the decisions in their married life until a professional mistake changes him. He then expects Rose to help him make the choices in their life together. When she can't change, he wants a divorce.

Rose begins to think about her mother's beliefs. Her mother had always had a firm belief in God until a family tragedy made her question God's wisdom. Her mother continues to believe, though, that a voice from above guides all people and that Rose needs to listen to that voice. When Rose had nightmares as a child, with an angry Mr. Chou telling her bad things, Rose's mother told her not to listen to him, to listen only to that voice above. She told Rose that listening to too many voices would cause her to bend when she should stand strong.

Rose remembers her mother's past advice and continues to listen to her now. Her mother tells her that she must speak up for her own rights when Ted asks for the divorce. Rose finally makes a decision on her own. When she does, she dreams of her mother and Mr. Chou smiling at her.

Lena St. Clair

Lena St. Clair grew up worrying about the mental health of her mother, Ying-Ying, who constantly battles paranoia and depression. While her father is English-Irish, Lena is more Chinese, having inherited many of her mother's Chinese traits— particularly her ability to see "with Chinese eyes." Lena could "see" the things her mother feared, but she kept them from her father by changing her mother's meanings in their translation to English.

Lena continually hoped that her mother would someday be well and that she and her mother could have the close relationship she saw in her dreams. Lena felt invisible and alone.

As an adult, Lena believes that her mother has always been able to see the terrible things that were going to happen to their family. Lena remembers that when she was eight, her mother had told her that she would marry a bad man. Now, she sees that her husband, Harold, might be the bad man her mother had envisioned.

While Lena and Harold had started out as equals in their relationship, Lena has discovered that their life together has become unbalanced. Harold has taken her business ideas and her money, yet has given little in return. He keeps a detailed accounting sheet and claims that they share everything equally. Lena, however, detects an unfairness. Where is Harold's love? Why must their relationship be reduced to columns on a ledger? Feeling invisible again, Lena yearns for something that she cannot put into words.

Ying-Ying St. Clair

Ying-Ying, mother of Lena, experiences periods of depression and paranoia. She considers herself "lost" and attributes the cause of her mental illness to a ceremony she remembers attending as a four-year-old.

The Moon Festival ceremony gives people the opportunity to see the Moon Lady and secretly ask for a wish to be granted. Four-year-old Ying-Ying is being allowed to attend the event for the first time. She is warned, however, to behave and not to speak of her wish or it will be considered a selfish desire and will not be granted.

In the excitement of the celebration, Ying-Ying falls off the boat unnoticed and is lost. She encounters a dramatic production of the Moon Lady's arrival and believes the Moon Lady can grant her wish. When she hears the Moon Lady's sad story, she loses hope. Her despair deepens when she asks the Moon Lady that she be found, then sees that the Moon Lady is really only a man in disguise. Ying-Ying's parents find her, but she feels such a sense of loss, she never believes that she is really their daughter. This sense of loss, loneliness, and despair stay with her for the rest of her life.

Ying-Ying marries a man whom she loves very much but who turns out to be abusive. In her pain, she aborts the son she is carrying. Ying-Ying later remarries but is never able to recover from the losses she has endured. She feels she has lost her chi, or spirit.

Only when Ying-Ying sees the pain in Lena's marriage does she decide to face her past and try to recover her chi. She symbolically breaks a table in her daughter's house to summon her spirit so that she can give it to her daughter.

Jing-Mei Woo

Jing-Mei, daughter of Suyuan Woo, takes her mother's place in the Joy Luck Club when her mother dies. Jing-Mei searches for her own identity, lacks confidence, and wonders how she will fill her mother's shoes.

From the time she was a child, Jing-Mei has always lived in someone else's shadow. Her mother continually compared her to other people's children, particularly Lindo Jong's daughter, Waverly. Suyuan felt that Jing-Mei could do anything that she wanted to. She gave Jing-Mei intelligence tests and piano lessons, but Jing-Mei never measured up to her mother's expectations. Jing-Mei always felt that she was disappointing her mother.

As she got older, Jing-Mei still failed to succeed at the things her mother wanted her to do. She was less than a straight-A student. She was accepted at only an average college, from which she dropped out. Jing-Mei eventually became a freelance writer, even though her mother wanted her to earn a doctorate. Jing-Mei suffers one final insult when Waverly informs her that the freelance work Jing-Mei submitted to Waverly's tax firm was not accepted.

Jing-Mei had always felt uncomfortable with her mother's Chinese ways. When Suyuan attended the Joy Luck Club in her Chinese dresses, Jing-Mei was embarrassed. She viewed the Joy Luck Club itself as a "shameful Chinese custom." Jing-Mei's view changes, however, when she joins the Joy Luck Club. The realization that these Chinese women are depending on their daughters to keep their customs alive motivates her to reawaken her sleeping Chinese heritage. At last she has a purpose. She finds a new self-respect, confidence, and peace when she returns to China to meet with her half-sisters.

June Woo

See Jing-Mei Woo

Suyuan Woo

Suyuan Woo does not tell her own story in The Joy Luck Club. Recently deceased when the story begins, Suyuan speaks through her daughter, Jing-Mei. Because Suyuan started the Joy Luck Club, her story provides the foundation for the novel.

Suyuan started the original Joy Luck Club in Kweilin, China, during the second Japanese invasion (the Second Sino-Japanese War) right before World War II. She and other refugees had come to Kweilin seeking safety from the Japanese troops. The crowding, constant bombing, and fear immobilized everyone. Suyuan needed something to help her keep her faith. She decided to invite a group of women to play mah jong. They met weekly to play, raise money, and eat special foods. While other people criticized their extravagance, the women forgot their troubles for a short time and enjoyed one another's company. They met to share their desire to be lucky in life. Their hope for luck was their joy. Thus, the weekly meetings became known as the Joy Luck Club.

Suyuan, however, experienced great tragedy when news of the approaching troops forced her to leave for Chungking. Having no other way to travel, she fled on foot, pushing a wheelbarrow and carrying her infant twin daughters in slings on her shoulders. Suyuan grew more weary the farther she traveled. She had to start leaving her possessions along the way. Finally, when she could go no further, she left the babies along the road, too, with a note telling their names and asking that they be cared for. When she arrived in Chungking, delirious with dysentery and grief, she found that her husband had died two weeks before.

The San Francisco version of the Joy Luck Club originated in 1949, when Suyuan and her second husband arrived from China. The couple met other Chinese couples at church functions they attended to help get acclimated to their new culture. Knowing the situations from which they had all come, Suyuan felt she and her recent acquaintances needed each others' understanding and companionship. She started the Joy Luck Club so that the new friends could have joy in their hope to be lucky in this unfamiliar land.

Suyuan's friends in the Joy Luck Club honor her by telling her daughter the complete story. They offer Jing-Mei money to travel to China to meet her half-sisters, who were located just after Suyuan's death. Suyuan's life, therefore, comes full circle.


Choices and Consequences

The Joy Luck Club presents the stories of four Chinese immigrant women and their American-born daughters. All of their lives, the Chinese mothers in The Joy Luck Club have struggled to make their own decisions and establish their own identities in a culture where obedience and conformity are expected. For example, when Suyuan Woo is a refugee during the Japanese invasion, she decides that she will not be a passive victim and will choose her own happiness. She forms the Joy Luck Club to provide a distraction for herself and her friends. Thus, in a situation where there appears to be no room for disobedience, Suyuan creates an identity that she and her friends assume in order to survive. The continuation of the club in the United States helps Suyuan and her friends redefine themselves in a new culture.

The mothers want their daughters to take charge of their own lives, too. Yet the mothers find it difficult to voice their concerns and be open enough about their personal experiences to make their advice valid with their daughters. Ying-Ying St. Clair, however, sees her daughter Lena's unhappiness in her marriage and courageously faces her own bad memories to help Lena make the decisions she needs to make to be free.


The American-born daughters have their own choices to make and their own identities to establish. While their mothers want Chinese obedience from their daughters, they do not want their daughters to be too passive. The Chinese mothers want their daughters to have American-like strength. The daughters work to find compromises their mothers can accept. Rose Hsu Jordan, for example, overcomes her passivity with the help of her grandmother's story and stands up to a husband who is trying to take everything from her.

Topics For Further Study

  • In an interview with Elaine Woo for the Los Angeles Times (March 12, 1989), Amy Tan said that her parents wanted their children "to have American circumstances and Chinese character." Write an essay that explains what her parents may have meant. Give specific examples to illustrate the "circumstances" and "character."
  • Trace the history of Chinese immigration into our country. When did the Chinese begin arriving in our country? For what reasons do the Chinese come here? Where do they choose to settle? Why do they settle there?
  • The Joy Luck Club was published in 1989. That same year saw a major uprising by Chinese university students in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Investigate these 1989 demonstrations. Why were these students demonstrating? How did their country react? How did our country react? What were the effects on the Chinese who were studying in the United States at the time?
  • What was the history of the "Joy Luck Club?" How did it get its name? What was its significance? Why did the Chinese-American women feel the need to have a Joy Luck Club in America?
  • Compare and contrast pre-World War II China with China today. Discuss such aspects as living conditions, government, cultural aspects, education, etc.
  • Investigate the psychological aspects of either generational conflict or mother/daughter relationships. Write an essay that describes your own experiences in relation to what you've learned from your research.

Throughout the stories presented in The Joy Luck Club runs the common thread of mother-daughter connectedness and its influence on a daughter's identity formation. Tan's portrayal of the intense relationships between and among her characters shows the strength of the ties that bind culture and generation. These firmly undergird the choices the characters make and the identities they shape as a result of their decisions.

Culture Clash

The American-born daughters are ambivalent about their Chinese background. While they eat Chinese foods and celebrate Chinese traditions, they want their Chinese heritage to remain at home. They make American choices when they are in public and cringe in embarrassment when their mothers speak in their broken English. Worst of all, the American daughters do not see the importance of "joy luck"; to them, it is not even a word. They regard the Joy Luck Club as a "shameful Chinese custom."

The Chinese mothers fear the end of Chinese tradition in their families. Their American-born daughters hide their Chinese heritage and think like Americans. While the Chinese mothers want their daughters to enjoy the benefits of being Americans, they do not want them to forget their roots. They hope that their daughters will develop strong American characters yet keep positive Chinese beliefs alive. The mothers need the daughters to understand the significance of the Joy Luck Club and all that it represents.

The clash of adolescence with the American and Chinese cultures leaves the Chinese mothers without hope for their daughters' Chinese futures. Yet, time works its magic; the daughters grow up, and the mothers' dreams prevail. The Joy Luck Club survives with a daughter, Jing-Mei, continuing the tradition in place of her deceased mother, Suyuan Woo. Broken ties mend, and hope for happiness despite misfortune (what the Chinese call "joy luck") lives.



In presenting the stories of four Chinese immigrant women and their American-born daughters in The Joy Luck Club, Tan uses "cradling," a formal literary device that can be thought of as telling a story within a story, or nesting. In other words, Tan embeds the daughters' stories within the mothers' narratives. The Joy Luck Club is divided into four main segments that contain sixteen stories. The first and last sections tell eight stories—two for each mother—while the middle two sections each tell a story for each of the four daughters. The entire novel revolves primarily around the stories of Suyuan Woo and her daughter, Jing-Mei ("June"). Jing-Mei takes her mother's place in the Joy Luck Club, a club her mother created when she was in China and that she continued for her Chinese friends in America. Jing-Mei learns from her "aunties," the women who are members of the club, that they will fund her trip to China to meet with her "lost" sisters.


The Joy Luck Club is set in two places. The mothers' stories take place mostly in pre-World War II China, just before and during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). The daughters' stories occur primarily in contemporary San Francisco, although June does visit contemporary China in the final section. These differing settings help emphasize the culture clash experienced by many of the novel's characters.

Point of View and Narration

Tan uses several first-person narrators in the novel, narrators who directly speak to the reader by using "I said"'"I did" to express events. Because three of the mothers and all of the daughters tell their own stories, the narrative shifts from a mother's point of view to a daughter's point of view. Except for Suyuan Woo, each mother speaks for herself in the first and final sections of the book; the daughters each speak for themselves in the second and third sections of the book. Since Suyuan has already died when the story opens, Jing-Mei speaks for her.


Conflicts arise between each mother and her daughter as the result of generational and cultural differences. The mothers and daughters experience the typical difficulties in understanding each others' viewpoints. Daughters try to establish their personal identities by being like their mothers, yet different in response to contemporary pressures. These generational differences are compounded by the mothers' culture-driven views of tradition. The mothers want their daughters to be Americanized, yet they also want their daughters to honor the Chinese way of life. In Asian culture, women's identities are more often defined by their relationships to others than by their occupational success, as scholar Tracy Robinson has observed. For example, while Waverly Jong is different enough from her mother to have established herself as a successful tax attorney, she is enough like her mother that she worries that her mother will not accept her Caucasian fiance. The mothers' basic concern is that their daughters will turn their backs on their culture and their Chinese heritage will be forgotten.


Suyuan Woo's stories tell about a woman whose allegiances were divided between her American daughter and the Chinese daughters she had lost. Suyuan's Chinese and American souls are resurrected and reunited when the daughters meet at the end of the novel. The daughters' names symbolize this rebirth and reunion. Chwun Yu (Spring Rain), Chwun Hwa (Spring Flower), and Jing-Mei (June) represent the renewing force that is connected to the seasons of spring and summer. Even Suyuan's name, meaning Long-Cherished Wish, alludes to the resolution of the conflicts she and Jing-Mei shared. Finally, the Chinese interpretation of Jing-Mei's name, "pure essence and best quality," represents Jing-Mei's learning to appreciate and coming to terms with her Chinese heritage.

Historical Context

Historical China

While The Joy Luck Club was published in 1989, it is set in pre-World War II China and contemporary San Francisco. The two settings strengthen the contrast between the cultures that Tan depicts through her characters and their relationships. Pre-World War II China was a country heavily embroiled in conflict. San Francisco, however, offered freedom and peace. In writing the novel, Tan wanted to portray not only the importance of mother/daughter relationships but also the dignity of the Chinese people.

China's history covers years of tradition, yet also decades of change. While the Chinese people consistently honor the personal qualities of dignity, respect, self-control, and obedience, they have not so continually pledged allegiance to their leaders. The first documented Chinese civilization was the Shang dynasty (c. 1523-c. 1027 BC). Various dynasties ruled over the years, ending with the Manchu dynasty in 1912. The dynasties saw peace, expansion, and technological and artistic achievement as well as warfare and chaos. Foreign intervention, particularly by Japan, created instability in the country, and internal struggles often prevented the Chinese from uniting. The area of Manchuria in northeast China, while legally belonging to China, had many Japanese investments such as railways and as such was under the control of the Japanese. This led to anti-Manchu sentiment and an eventual revolution. After civil war and additional strife, the Nationalists and Communists fought the Japanese in the second Sino-Japanese War and won when Japan was defeated by the Allies of World War II in 1945.

It is just before this victory that the mothers' stories start. Japanese aggression led to a foreign military presence on Chinese soil, and Suyuan's story in particular details the flight from the invading Japanese that was made by many Chinese. After World War II, with Japan preoccupied in recovering from their defeat, China once again became embroiled in a civil war between the Nationalists, who had been in power for several years, and the Communists, who wished to establish a new form of government. The civil war ended in 1949 with the formation of the People's Republic of China, and the Communists have held power in China since then.

Chinese Immigration to America

After the United States abolished slavery after the Civil War, freeing many of the African Americans who had worked in fields and farms, there arose a great need for manual laborers. Migrants from China filled a large part of this need, especially in the West, where rapid expansion required people to build railroads and towns. Although greatly outnumbered by white immigrants from European nations, the number of Chinese arriving in America alarmed white settlers in the West. In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States. Although there were less than 300,000 total Asian immigrants to the U.S. in the years between 1880 and 1909, immigration restrictions on Chinese and other Asians were tightened in 1902 and again in 1917. These laws were repealed in 1943, and in 1965 Congress passed a law which abolished immigration quotas based on national origin. In the 1980s and 1990s, China has placed in the top ten countries sending legal immigrants to the U.S. (illegal immigration is a growing problem), with almost 39,000 immigrants admitted in 1992.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1930s and 1940s: The Japanese occupied China. Full war erupted in 1945 in Beijing between the Chinese and Japanese. After the war, civil war breaks out and Communists take over the government in 1949, led by Mao Zedong.

    Today: In 1989, a pro-democracy demonstration by Chinese university students in Beijing's Tiananmen Square is put down by the Communist government. While a 1993 constitutional revision does not reform the political system, it does call for the development of a socialist market economy.

  • 1930s and 1940s: Various religions thrived in China, particularly Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.

    Today: Once discouraged by Mao Zedong, religious practice has been revived to some degree. In addition to the traditional religions— Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism—there are also smaller groups of Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants.

  • 1930s and 1940s: After a period from 1882 to 1943 that restricted Chinese immigration to the U.S., a new 1943 law extends citizenship rights and permits an annual immigration of 105 Chinese. Many refugees from the Sino-Japanese war flee to the United States.

    Today: National origin quotas were abolished in 1965, and the 1990 Immigration Act raised the immigrant quota and reorganized the preference system for entrance. Nearly 39,000 Chinese immigrants enter the U.S. in 1992, while almost 30,000 obtain visas to study at American universities.

Chinese immigrants often faced considerable prejudice in their new country. In the early part of the century, Chinese immigrant children attended segregated schools in the "Chinatowns" where they lived. During World War II, when Japanese Americans faced hostility and internment because of Japan's involvement in the war, Chinese Americans also encountered prejudice from people who mistook them for Japanese, although they were not deprived of property by the government. This struggle for acceptance is reflected in the novel as both mothers and daughters wish to excel in "American" society. Just as the United States has learned to value contributions of Americans of various backgrounds, the daughters in The Joy Luck Club learn to value their own Chinese heritage.

Critical Overview

Both critics and the reading public loved The Joy Luck Club from the minute it came off the press in 1989. The book successfully crosses cultures and joins separate generations. An indication of the book's appeal is its translation into seventeen languages and its place on the New York Times best-seller list for nine months.

Literary experts appreciate Tan's skill in storytelling. They feel that she knows what makes a good story and that she handles dialogue well. In addition, they have commented that she aptly portrays the universal life cycles of life and death, separation and reunion, uncertainty and assurance. Her ability to empathize with her characters and her subject matter, observers note, makes her stories real. Readers of all ages, genders, and cultures can appreciate her insight and honesty.

Reviewers have referred to the common sense with which Tan writes about Chinese culture. Tan explores areas of Chinese life that most other writers have not attempted. Many critics note that this novel, as well as others Tan has written, stimulates cross-culture appreciation. Readers of all cultures are able to be objective about their own predicaments while at the same time making connections between themselves and Tan's Chinese characters.

In general, Tan's treatment of the mother/daughter relationship and her understanding of her characters' ambivalence about their Chinese backgrounds provide an "intricate tapestry" that "alters the way we understand the world and ourselves, that transcends topicality," according to Michael Dorris in the Detroit News. Experts recognized Tan's talent, selecting her as a finalist in 1989 for the National Book Award for Fiction and nominating her for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She received not only the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award and the Commonwealth Club Gold Award, but also $1.23 million from Vintage for paperback rights; the book was also made into a popular film in 1993.

It is no wonder that Tan has sold over three million copies of The Joy Luck Club. As Dorris concluded, it is "the real thing."


Shu-Huei Henrickson

Henrickson is an instructor of English at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Illinois. In the following essay, the critic examines the popularity of The Joy Luck Club and explores how Tan uses various narrative techniques to demonstrate the mother-daughter differences and tensions in the novel.

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

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

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

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

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

What Do I Read Next?

  • 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 able to achieve the success of her first novel, this work received many accolades. It, too, deals with mother/daughter themes but also hints that male-centered social traditions hinder women's relationships with each other. Set in pre- and post-World War II China, the story portrays a woman's struggles in an abusive relationship. In writing this book, Tan tells a story that is very similar to her mother's.
  • In a children's picture book entitled The Moon Lady, Amy Tan extends the story from the chapter of the same title in her first novel. Published in 1992 by Macmillan, The Moon Lady appeals to preteens as an introduction to Tan's themes and style. The Moon Lady is about a seven-year-old girl who attends the autumn moon festival and encounters the lady who lives on the moon and grants secret wishes.
  • Published in 1995, The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan is a story about American-born Olivia and her Chinese half-sister, Kwan. When she comes to America to live with three-year-old Olivia, Kwan is eighteen and full of stories about having "yin eyes." She convinces Olivia that she can see and communicate with the dead. The story follows the girls through adulthood and tells of the strong bond that forms between them.
  • In her 1976 memoir The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts, Maxine Hong Kingston, an American writer born of Chinese immigrant parents, blends myth and legend with history and autobiography. Growing out of stories that Kingston's mother told her as "lessons to grow up on," the book has several parallels with Tan's most famous novel, such as profiling Kingston's mother Brave Orchid and the author's description of the difficulties she encountered as a second-generaration Chinese American.
  • The Intersections of Gender, Class, Race, and Culture: On Seeing Clients Whole is an article that discusses identity formation in terms of race, culture, and class. The article can be found in the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, Vol. 21, No. 1, January, 1993, pp. 50-58.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Shu-Huei Henrickson, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997.

Carolyn See

In her assessment ofThe Joy Luck Club, which she calls a "stunningly devotional tour de force," American fiction and nonfiction writer Carolyn See determines that the novel "is about the way the past distances itself away from the present." Its protagonists, See notes, are looking for their paststhe older women for the pasts they have lost, the younger starving "for a past they can never fully understand."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Carolyn See, "Drowning in America, Starving for China," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 12,1989, pp. 1, I1.

Orville Schell

Critic Orville Schell is recognized as an authority on China. In his review ofThe Joy Luck Club, he provides some background on both the Chinese emigrants who came to America in what he calls the "great Chinese diaspora" and their children who were raised in the United States. In addition, he notes that "it is out of [the] experience of being caught between countries and cultures that writers such as … Amy Tan have begun to create what is, in effect, a new genre of American fiction."

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Source: Orville Schell, "'Your Mother Is in Your Bones'," in The New York Times Book Review, March 19, 1989, pp. 3,28.


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

Tracy Robinson, "The Intersections of Gender, Class, Race, and Culture: On Seeing Clients Whole," in Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, Vol. 21, No. 1, January, 1993, pp. 50-8.

For Further Study

Victoria Chen, "Chinese American Women, Language, and Moving Subjectivity," in Women and Language, Vol. 18, no. 1, 1995, pp. 3-7.

Chen argues that Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston use language differences between Chinese immigrants and their daughters to suggest "multiplicity and instability of cultural identity for Chinese American women."

Marina Heung, "Daughter-Text/Mother-Text: Matrilineage in Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club," in Feminist Studies, Vol. 19, no. 3, 1993, pp. 597-616.

Marina Heung argues that Tan's mother-daughter text is unique in its foregrounding of the mothers' voices.

A review of The Hundred Secret Senses in Kirkus Reviews, Volume 63, September 1, 1995, p. 1217.

The author again relies on female relationships in this story of a Chinese-American, her Chinese half-sister, and the girls' belief in ghosts and communication with the dead. The reviewer feels that Tan spends too much time telling the story of Miss Banner but has positive words for the depiction of the Chinese sister's eccentricities and the bond between the two girls.

Gloria Shen, "Born of a Stranger: Mother-Daughter Relationships and Storytelling in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club," in International Women's Writing: New Landscapes of Identity, edited by Anne E. Brown and Marijanne E. Gooze, Greenwood, 1995, pp. 233-44.

Gloria Shen explores "the narrative strategy employed in The Joy Luck Club and the relationships between the Chinese mothers and their American-born daughters."

Amy Tan, "The Language of Discretion," in The State of the Language, edited by Christopher Ricks and Leonard Michaels, University of California Press, 1990, pp. 25-32.

Amy Tan argues that the Chinese are not as "discreet and modest" as most people believe and that the Chinese use their language emphatically and assertively.

Sao-Ling Cynthia Wong, " 'Sugar Sisterhood': Situating the Amy Tan Phenomenon," in The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions, edited by David Liu Palumbo, University of Minnesota Press, 1995, pp. 174-210.

Sao-Ling Cynthia Wong puts The Joy Luck Club in its "sociohistorical" context to explain the novel's success in the book market.

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