Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free
|
|

The Joy Luck Club

The Joy Luck Club

How well can a daughter know her mother? Can a mother ever really understand her daughter? These are difficult questions, made even more complex when mothers and daughters grow up in different cultures. Amy Tan addresses the complexities of multicultural mother-daughter relationships in her bestselling book The Joy Luck Club (1989).

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Amy Tan was born in 1952 in Oakland, California. Both of her parents were Chinese immigrants, which shaped her childhood and inspired her to write about her Asian American experience. Her struggles to understand her parents despite their cultural differences and to find her multicultural identity are reflected in her books, including The Joy Luck Club. In particular, Amy Tan had a very tense relationship with her mother; they disagreed on many of Tan's choices, and Daisy was, at times, violent and suicidal. This relationship heavily inspired Amy Tan to explore mother-daughter relationships in The Joy Luck Club.

As a teen, Tan discovered that her mother, Daisy Tan, had left an ex-husband and multiple children behind in China. In 1987, she took a trip to China to meet her half-siblings and learn more about her heritage. This directly inspired one of the major conflicts in The Joy Luck Club, in which Jing-Mei goes to China to meet her half-sisters, who her mother left behind during the war. The Joy Luck Club was Amy Tan's first novel. It was a surprise bestseller and has been highly praised for its exploration of Chinese American identity and female relationships.

There have also been criticisms of how Tan portrays Chinese culture and issues. These point out that many of the folk tales Tan includes in the novel are ones that she made up herself rather than authentic representations of Chinese culture. In addition, some critics claim that Tan casts Chinese culture in a negative light by portraying it as sexist and behind the times. What do you think?

The Joy Luck Club: Summary

In 1949, four Chinese immigrant mothers in San Francisco decide to continue meeting regularly to play mahjong. They call their mahjong group the Joy Luck Club. Each mother now has a daughter who was born in the US, and each mother-daughter pair struggles to understand one another.

The Joy Luck Club, a game of mahjong, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The members of the Joy Luck Club meet to play mahjong and talk.

The rest of the novel is broken up into four sections. These are titled “Feathers from a Thousand Li Away,” Twenty-Six Malignant Gates,” “American Translation,” and “ Queen Mother of the Western Skies.”

“Feathers from a Thousand Li Away”

In the book's first section, it is revealed that the founder of the Joy Luck Club, Suyuan Woo, has died. Her daughter, Jing-Mei Woo, takes her place in the Joy Luck Club. After playing mahjong, they reveal they want her to go to China to meet her half-sisters, who still live there. Suyuan abandoned the twin girls in hopes that someone would care for them because Suyuan fell ill and believed that she was dying. Her husband died in the war, and for many years Suyuan feared that her daughters had died as well. Suyuan eventually remarried, immigrated to the US, and had Jing-Mei—but kept searching for her abandoned daughters until just before her death, when she learned that they were alive and found their location.

The three mothers proceed to each tell Suyuan a story from their childhood in China. An-Mei Hsu tells about how her maternal grandmother mostly raised her because her mother had left to remarry as a concubine to a wealthy merchant. However, when An-Mei's grandmother falls seriously ill, her mother returns home and attempts to save the grandmother by cutting out a chunk of her flesh to make medicine. Though the sacrifice did not work, this experience changed how An-Mei understood a daughter's love for her mother.

Lindo Jong explains that a matchmaker had arranged a marriage for her when she was just two years old. At twelve, she moved into her future in-laws' home and worked as a servant to them; they are cruel to her, and Lindo isn’t excited about her arranged marriage. Though she eventually does marry into the family, Lindo cleverly devises a plan to get out of the marriage and immigrate to the US. She uses her mother-in-law's superstitious nature to convince her that if her son remains married to Lindo, he will die. In this way, Lindo escaped the marriage without compromising her family's honor.

Ying-Ying St. Clair recounts the day that, as a young child, she got lost at the Moon Festival. She fell off the boat her family was on, and though she was taken to shore by some fisherman, she couldn't find her parents. Ying-Ying noticed a performance by the Moon Lady, who she had been told was a goddess who granted wishes. She approached the Moon Lady to ask to be reunited with her family but was horrified to see that it was actually a man in a costume. Ying-Ying was traumatized by being lost and still feels the effects now.

A li is a traditional unit of measurement that used to be common in China. Why do you think Tan chose to use this word here?

“Twenty-Six Malignant Gates”

The second part of the book shares stories about the Joy Luck Club members' daughters. Waverly Jong loved to play chess as a child, and by the age of nine was a prodigy and the national chess champion. However, her mother, Lindo, constantly showed her off and took credit for her accomplishments. Embarrassed, Waverly yelled at her mother in a public marketplace. After that incident, Lindo told Waverly that if she didn’t care for her family, they also would not care for her. Hearing this from her mother had a big impact on her. Waverly says that even now, a single upset word from her mother can crumble her confidence.

Lena St. Clair talks about how her mother seems to know when something bad will happen Ying-Ying predicted that one of her own babies would be stillborn and went into a deep depression when the prediction came true.

Rose Hsu Jordan remembers the day that her youngest brother Bing drowned at the beach while under her care. She and her mother searched for him to no avail. An-Mei holds on to strong ideas of fate and destiny that eventually prompt Rose to think about her own beliefs deeply.

Jing-Mei recounts how Suyuan wanted her to be a famous prodigy like Waverly was. Jing-Mei took up piano, and though she did not practice much, she expected herself to be a great musician. When it became clear to her that her playing was not good, Jing-Mei decided to quit piano entirely. In an argument with Suyuan, Jing-Mei wished she were dead like she believed the daughters Suyuan left in China were.

“American Translation”

The book's third section is made of stories from the Joy Luck Club children's adult lives. Lena feels inferior to her husband but doesn’t want her mother to know that her marriage is failing. Ying-Ying, who has always been able to predict misfortune, already knows. Ying-Ying wants Lena to talk to her husband about their marital problems.

Waverly is worried about telling her mother that she is engaged after Lindo's first impression of Waverly's fiancé is not good. Waverly then thinks about the day she argued with her mother about chess. She feels she put up a wall between herself and her mother. She began to lose at chess and eventually quit. Now she worries that her new relationship will be similarly torn apart by her mother's words. But when she angrily confronts her mother, Lindo is kind and happy that Waverly is talking openly with her. Waverly decides that she has long been misconstruing her mother's intentions.

Rose Hsu receives divorce papers from her soon-to-be ex-husband. She knows that her mother disapproves of divorce, but An-Mei also shows that she wants her daughter to feel strong and stand up for herself. Taking her mother's advice to heart, Rose Hsu gets a lawyer and pushes back against her ex's conditions. She ends up winning their house.

At a New Year's meal, shortly before Suyuan dies, Jing-Mei and Waverly have an argument that ends with Jing-Mei feeling humiliated. Suyuan goes to her, giving her a jade necklace called “life's importance.” Jing-Mei confesses that she feels like a disappointment to her mother, especially compared to Waverly's accomplishments. Suyuan tells her that she is proud of Jing-Mei for her kind heart.

The Joy Luck Club, San Francisco Chinatown, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Joy Luck Club meets in San Francisco's Chinatown.

“Queen Mother of the Western Skies”

The novel's final section recounts stories of the Joy Luck Club mothers' adult lives. An-Mei explains that after her grandmother died, she went to live with her mother. She learns that her mother was mistreated as the merchant's concubine. An-Mei's mother poisons herself so that An-Mei can leverage her mother's death and the merchant's superstitious nature to secure a better future for herself. An-Mei wants Rose to stand up for herself, too.

Ying-Ying speaks about how her first husband abandoned her, and she eventually remarried a man she did not love. She feels that she let herself fade away and gave up control of her life to her husband. Ying-Ying talks to Lena about this, letting her daughter know that she should stand strong and leave her husband rather than lose her sense of self.

Lindo tells the story of how she came to California, worked at a Fortune Cookie factory, and fell in love. She reflects on the two faces she feels she has—a Chinese face and an American face. Looking in a hair-salon mirror, she thinks about how Waverly also wears the two faces and juggles two identities.

Finally, Suyuan's lifelong wish is fulfilled when Jing-Mei travels to China and meets her half-sisters. Despite her worries about not knowing her mother well enough, Jing-Mei instantly connects with her half-sisters, and the three of them feel closer to their late mother and their cultural heritage. Jing-Mei finally feels at peace with her understanding of Suyuan.

The Joy Luck Club: Characters

  • Suyuan Woo: The founder of the Joy Luck Club. As a young adult living in wartime China, she had to abandon her twin daughters in hopes that someone else would care for them. Though she eventually built a new life in California, her dream was to find her lost daughters again.

  • Jing-Mei Woo: Suyuan's third daughter from her second marriage. Born in the US, Jing-Mei has difficulty fully understanding her mother. When Suyuan dies, Jing-Mei takes her place in the Joy Luck Club and eventually goes to China to fulfill her mother's dream of finding her abandoned daughters.

  • An-Mei Hsu: As a child in China, her mother was an abused concubine to a rich merchant. An-Mei's mother eventually took control of her fate, committing suicide in a way that allowed An-Mei to live a better life. She wants to teach her daughter to stand up for herself.

  • Rose Hsu Jordan: An-Mei's daughter. As a child, Rose's little brother drowned at the beach while Rose was watching him. As an adult, she is reluctant to take on responsibility. Because of this, her marriage is falling apart.

  • Lindo Jong: As a young girl, she escaped from an unhappy arranged marriage in China. She wants to give Waverly every opportunity that she can, but she doesn't want either of them to lose too much of their Chinese identity along the way.

  • Waverly Jong: Lindo's daughter. Waverly is a highly successful woman but is afraid her mother will disapprove of the man she intends to marry.

  • Ying-Ying St. Clair: After being left by her first husband and marrying another man with whom she cannot communicate clearly, Yin-Ying feels that she has given herself up. She wants her daughter not to fall into the same fate.

  • Lena St. Clair: Ying-Ying's daughter. Lena’s marriage is failing, but she feels that she must hide it from her mother.

The Joy Luck Club: Novel Analysis

The Joy Luck Club is considered postmodern literature. It strongly focuses on the characters' internal struggles and has other features common in postmodern works, like cultural diversity and complex, fragmented identities.

Postmodern literature: a literary movement that gained momentum in the second half of the 20th century. Similar to modernism, it focuses on inner exploration more than outer reality.

Additionally, its focus on Chinese and Chinese-American culture makes The Joy Luck Club multicultural literature. Cultural identity is essential to the story, and questions of identity and cultural miscommunications are major themes throughout the novel.

Multicultural literature: literature that emphasizes the exploration of various cultural identities. Typically, culture will be an essential part of the story in these works.

Narrator

Amy Tan uses multiple narrators telling their stories from the first-person perspective to give the reader insight into each character’s inner thoughts and feelings. This helps to illustrate each character's struggles in their relationships. Additionally, some stories are told more than once—once from a daughter’s perspective and then from her mother’s. Doing so highlights for the reader what misunderstandings are complicating the mother-daughter communication.

Setting

The stories shared throughout The Joy Luck Club occur in different times and areas. Stories told by the Joy Luck Club mothers are their memories from one of two settings: their childhood in China between the 1920s and 1930s or their young adult lives in the 1930s and 1940s, either still in China or in California. Similarly, the daughters’ stories are split between childhood memories from the 1960s and young adult stories from the 1980s. However, all of their stories are in California except for Jing-Mei's eventual trip to China.

Structure

Amy Tan structured her novel The Joy Luck Club into four sets of four interwoven stories, each set beginning with a folktale that introduces a lesson related to the following section. The stories in the first section, “Feathers from a Thousand Li Away,” are told by the Joy Luck Club mothers about their childhoods in China and their relationships with their mothers. The second set of four stories, “Twenty-Six Malignant Gates,” is told by the Joy Luck Club daughters about their childhoods in California. “American Translation,” the third section, features stories from the daughters’ young adult lives. The final section, “Queen Mother of the Western Skies,” features stories from the mothers’ young adult lives, as well as Jing-Mei’s trip to China.

The Joy Luck Club, buildings and river in Guangzhou China, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Jing-Mei finally visits China and meets her half-sisters in Guangzhou.

A traditional mahjong table like the Joy Luck Club plays at has four seats. To tie in with this, Amy Tan structured the novel in four sets of four.

The Joy Luck Club: Themes

Amy Tan addresses several important themes in The Joy Luck Club. Three of the most significant themes throughout the novel are mother-daughter relationships, miscommunication, and cultural identities.

Mother-daughter Relationships

One of the biggest focuses throughout The Joy Luck Club is the relationship between a mother and her daughter. Often, a mother-daughter relationship is close; however, they are also commonly stressed by factors such as generational differences. In The Joy Luck Club, the mothers and daughters have not only generational differences to contend with but also cultural differences. While the mothers were raised in China, they raised their daughters in the US, with a mixture of Chinese and American cultures.

In her hands, I always became the pawn.” (Part 3, ch 2)

This quote from Waverly about her relationship with Lindo illustrates their gap in understanding one another. Waverly feels that she is being used to attain her mother's goals, while Lindo is trying in the best way she knows to support her daughter and lead her into a successful future. However, through the stories she includes in the novel, Amy Tan shows how the mothers and daughters can learn to better understand each other. Though they occasionally lash out and hurt one another's feelings, when they can communicate and put themselves in the other's shoes, they find that underneath everything else, they love one another. By the novel's end, Jing-Mei fulfills her mother's dream and reconnects with her family and heritage.

Miscommunication

Differences in cultural upbringing and communication styles cause conflict between the mothers and daughters in The Joy Luck Club. As Jing-Mei describes it,

My mother and I never really understood each other. We translated each other’s meaning and I seemed to hear less than what was said, while my mother heard more.” (Part 1, ch 1)

Amy Tan describes miscommunications like this lead the mothers and daughters to make incorrect assumptions about one another. For example, Waverly talks about how she assumed that her mother would disapprove of her engagement. She was surprised to find that when she spoke openly about it, her mother was supportive and happy to be included in the conversation.

I could understand the words perfectly but not the meanings. One thought led to another without connection.” (Part 2, ch 2)

This quote highlights how cultural differences deepen these mother-daughter pairs' communication difficulties. Though they can understand each other's words, the underlying meanings can be harder to grasp because each woman's upbringing and experiences inform them. As time passes, Tan shows how the mothers and daughters improve communication by learning more about one another's experiences and feelings.

Cultural Identities

Identity is a complex thing for many people. In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan explores this difficulty in the context of Chinese immigrants and their American-born daughters. Several characters feel they have two identities or faces—a Chinese face and an American face. They find that they can only show one side of themselves at a time, which is difficult and confusing.

I wanted my children to have the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character." (Part 4, ch 3)

The above quote shows how the Joy Luck Club mothers wish for their daughters to balance their lives in the US with their Chinese cultural background. As time goes on, the daughters begin carefully considering the balance between American and Chinese influence in their lives. Though they tended to value American options and opinions in their younger years, as they grow, they become more open to considering the pros and cons of both sides. This both helps them to understand their mothers better and to understand their own complex identities.

The Joy Luck Club: Quotes

The following quote illustrates the Joy Luck Club mothers' difficulty understanding their daughters, who have uniquely different cultural identities from their Chinese immigrant mothers.

“In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America.” (Part 1, ch 1)

The quote below is spoken by Jing-Mei to her mother Suyuan. Feeling pressured to achieve more success in her mother's eyes, Jing-Mei wishes that she were dead—like they fear that Suyuan's first daughters are, after having been abandoned in China years before. This is very hurtful to Suyuan, who spends the rest of her life hoping to locate her other daughters. This interaction adds to the wall between mother and daughter.

“You want me to be someone that I’m not!” I sobbed. “I’ll never be the kind of daughter you want me to be… I wish I wasn’t your daughter. I wish you weren’t my mother,” I shouted. As I said these things I got scared. It felt… as if this awful side of me had surfaced at last... And that’s when I remembered the babies she had lost in China, the ones we never talked about.

“I wish I’d never been born!” I shouted. “I wish I were dead! Like them.”

It was as if I had said the magic words Alakazam!—and her face went blank.” (Part 2, ch 4)

The following quote comes from the final chapter of The Joy Luck Club—Jing-Mei's story of visiting China to meet her half-sisters. The quote highlights how Jing-Mei's understanding of her mother and of her own cultural identity has changed throughout the novel. She has finally found a resolution to these complicated issues by meeting and speaking with her family in China.

I look at their faces again and 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, I can finally be let go.” (Part 4, ch 4)


The Joy Luck Club - Key takeaways

  • The Joy Luck Club was published by Amy Tan in 1989.
  • The Joy Luck Club is postmodern literature, as well as multicultural literature.
  • Amy Tan tells the stories of four Chinese immigrant mothers and their four American-born daughters, focusing on how cultural differences strain their mother-daughter relationships.
  • The Joy Luck Club has many narrators, and some stories take place in China while others take place in California.
  • Major themes of The Joy Luck Club include mother-daughter relationships, miscommunication, and cultural identities.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Joy Luck Club

The Joy Luck Club is made up of sixteen stories from the lives of four Chinese immigrant mothers and their four American-born daughters. The stories explore the complexities of multicultural mother-daughter relationships.

The Joy Luck Club addresses the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, miscommunication due to cultural differences, and cultural identity.

The Joy Luck Club tells the stories of four sets of mother and daughters. Jing-Mei can be considered the main character, though, as her story both opens and closes the book and brings a sense of closure to the overarching theme of mother-daughter relationships. 

At the end of The Joy Luck Club, Jing-Mei visits China to meet her half-sisters and to connect with her cultural heritage. 

Amy Tan wrote The Joy Luck Club.

Final The Joy Luck Club Quiz

Question

Who wrote The Joy Luck Club?

Show answer

Answer

Amy Tan

Show question

Question

In what year was The Joy Luck Club written?

Show answer

Answer

1989

Show question

Question

Which of the following is NOT a major theme in The Joy Luck Club?

Show answer

Answer

Good vs. evil

Show question

Question

True or false: The Joy Luck Club can be considered postmodern literature?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Who is the narrator in The Joy Luck Club?

Show answer

Answer

The Joy Luck Club has many different narrators; each Joy Luck Club mother and daughter narrates their own stories, with the exception of Suyuan who has died before the novel begins. 

Show question

Question

In what two countries do the stories of The Joy Luck Club take place?

Show answer

Answer

China

Show question

Question

True or false: Jing-Mei's half-sisters in China were inspired by author Amy Tan's own discovery of half-siblings her mother had left behind in China.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Why did Suyuan abandon her first daughters in China?

Show answer

Answer

She fell ill during wartime and believed that she was dying. She left them behind hoping someone would care for them, giving them a better chance to live.

Show question

Question

Why did Jing-Mei think she could not tell her half-sisters about Suyuan's life and death?

Show answer

Answer

Jing-Mei believed that she did not understand her mother well enough.

Show question

Question

What complicates the mother-daughter pairs' communication?

Show answer

Answer

They were raised in different cultures—the mothers in China and the daughters in the United States. 

Show question

Question

When does Jing-Mei finally feel that she understands her mother and her own identity?

Show answer

Answer

When she goes to China and meets her half-sisters and other family members.

Show question

Question

Who is the main character of The Joy Luck Club?

Show answer

Answer

While there is no true main character, Jing-Mei can be thought of as the protagonist. Her story both opens and closes the book, and brings a sense of closure to the theme of mother-daughter relationships. 

Show question

60%

of the users don't pass the The Joy Luck Club quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.