|There are numerous conditions in human life that mold people into who they presently are. A person's identity and way of thinking are influenced greatly due to their family's surroundings, and relationships they are involved in. In the novel, The Joy Luck Club, the characters are generic, in the sense that, although they are from different families, the problems and emotions experienced are similar. The daughters are in an on-going search to discover themselves, who they are and what they represent. With their precious mother-daughter bonds, four immigrants are bewildered at American culture as they
struggle to instill in their daughters remnants of their Chinese heritage.
Throughout the course of the novel, the mystery of the mother-daughter
relationship is revealed to the reader by various means. First, such a strong connection can only be the product of an essential, timeless, emotion called love: "She loved you very much, more than her own life" (Tan 29). Unfortunately, in Chinese culture, mothers rarely say "I love you" and find little to no time at all to provide for their daughter's emotional needs. Such attitudes occasionally lead the children to sense that "My mother did not treat
me this way because she didn't love me. She just had a hard time showing her love for me" (Tan 45). As well, the link is also nourished in other ways, such as the swift protection of a mother's young: "She grabbed my hand back so fast that I knew at that instant how sorry she was that she had not protected me better" (Tan 111).
There are other ways in which the mystery of the mother-daughter relationship isuncovered. Because of a mother's enduring love, they often put up high expectations that are often hard to meet. As well, in the case of Waverly and June, a mother's love is expressed in the novel by proudly showing off: "From the time we were babies, our mothers compared the creases in our belly buttons, how shapely our earlobes were, how fast we healed when we scraped our knees..." (Tan 64). In any case, every small act or gesture done out of deep love for one another, strengthens the bond, that is enkindled at
They are frightened. In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant,just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America. They see daughters who grow up impatient when their mothers talk inChinese, who think they are stupid when they explain things in fractured
English. They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation. (Tan 31) Culture gratly influences the youth of today as American circumstances considerably
influenced the daughters of the novel. In some instances, the Western culture dominates as the mothers strive on, in its shadow: "...and because I remained quiet for so long now my daughter does not hear me. She sits by her fancy swimming pool and hears her Sony Walkman, her cordless phone..." (Tan 64). Ying-Ying ponders upon the fact that, "She follows my Chinese ways until she learned how to walk out the door by herself and go to school" (Tan 289). Because of heavy resentment on the mother's part, in some instances,
the American culture is frowned upon and is stereotyped as having "morbid thoughts"(Tan 105).
Many problems, especially embarrassment, surface when the younger generation attempts to become absorbed into a new culture, while the parents insist on clinging to their old ways. The daughters experience troubles while trying to cope with their immigrant parents. There is an obvious language barrier that may result in feelings, such as that of Jing-mei: "These kinds of explanations made me feel my mother and I spoke two different languages, which we did. I talked to her in English, she answered back in Chinese" (Tan 23). Often, the daughters feel ashamed. The people who embarrass them and whom they resent are their parents: "I wish you wouldn't do that, telling everybody I'm your daughter" (Tan 101). The young ladies later realize that it is childish to think that way, and they focus on the future, rather then on past mistakes.
The children feel that their mothers nag constantly when moral issues are concerned, for example, in the case of a divorce. An-mei prefers that her daughter talks and works out her personal problems with her husband. If Rose's husband leaves her, then ultimately she must resort to a divorce. Regardless of what the circumstances are, mothers are diligently looking out for the well being of their daughters: "...she'd do anything to warn me, to help me avoid some unknown danger" (Tan 108). The mothers of the novel try their best to provide for their daughters, but this is taken for granted at times. Lindo explains at one point that "inside I am ashamed. I am ashamed she is
ashamed. Because she is my daughter and I am proud of her, and I am her mother but she is not proud of me" (Tan 291).
...but I couldn't teach her about Chinese character. How to obey parentsand listen to your mother's mind... Why easy things are not worth
pursuing. why Chinese thinking is best. No, this kind of thinking didn't
tick to her. She was too busy chewing gum, blowing bubbles bigger thanher cheeks. Only that kind of thinking stuck. (Tan 290) A mother's hunger is to inject what is left of her way of life. Obedience is first and foremost amongst the mothers: "Only two kinds of daughters, those who are obedient and
those who follow their own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient Daughter!" (Tan 153). Materialistic needs are not worth pursuing but finding yourself is: "With all these things, I did not care. I had no spirit" (Tan 286). Other times, in trying to instill what is left of the Chinese heritage, the American way of life is blended in, but alas, "I wanted my children to have the best combination: American circumstances
and Chinese character. How could I know these two do not mix?" (Tan 289).
The characters of the novel, The Joy Luck Club, unravel the intricacies of combining a Chinese heritage with American circumstances and tell of the relationships between mothers and daughters. The strong bond, that is present amongst the characters, will infinitely outlast all obstacles. From each generation, all of the women "are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way" (Tan 241). There are advantages and disadvantages to growing up with American circumstances, as well as learning and obtaining Chinese character, but one must be chosen over the other to
be free. "I think about two faces. I think about my intentions. Which one is American? Which one is Chinese? Which one is better? If you show one, you must always sacrifice the other" (Tan 304).Bottom of Form
Amy Tan weaves many elements of Taoism and Confucianism into the subtle fabric of The Joy Luck Club. A reading of the text with attention to the way these two sacred systems interact between each mother and daughter offers a unique way to make sense of her group of loosely linked stories and ambiguous resolutions. Taoism as a tradition is concerned with conflicts and ambiguities, asserting that ambiguities themselves are significant and may point to the invisible core of life. Tan may weave elements of Taoism into the narrative to locate the "invisible core" of Chinese women's culture, of the immigrant family--and of the novel itself--within apparent conflicts or ambiguities. Tan's use of Confucianism may reveal her hypothesis of how a women's version of that patriarchal ethico-moral-ritual tradition might be passed down from mother to daughter and carried to America. Just as in the Confucian ritual system, very little of the mother-tradition in the text is told explicitly from mother to daughter: ritual actions are supposed to be observed, absorbed, read, and understood in order to be transformed, preserved and handed down in turn.
From a Taoist perspective, the fact that The Joy Luck Club is divided into four sections of four stories each, about four mothers and four daughters, carries symbolic weight. In Taoism (see Appendices I & II), there are not four directions, but five, the fifth being the dynamic center (Corless, 2/13/92). The dynamic center of the novel is contained within the four sets of four stories. For example, the four places at the Mah Jong table are thrown out of balance by the death of Jing-Mei Woo's mother, and Jing-Mei must replace her at the table to restore the balance and support the dynamic center which is the ritual of the game itself (Tan, 19, 22). In this same way, the structure of the first section is unstable (due to her mother's death), and Jing-Mei must narrate all four Woo stories in her mother's absence.
Confucianism and Taoism were both responses to times of conflict. Confucianism is usually dominant in times of peace, while Taoism is dominant in times of war or strife. Jing-Mei's mother created the Joy-Luck Club during a war, and although the Joy Luck Club is a ritual (Tan, 21), its relativism is essentially Taoist:
People thought we were wrong to serve banquets
every week while many people in the city were
starving . . . to celebrate when even within our
own families we had lost generations . . .
The Taoist, Chuangtze, was known to have sung songs and beat on a pot when his wife died, to the horror of his neighbors. "If I should break down and cry aloud, I should be like one who does not understand destiny [Tao; the relativity of life and death]. Therefore I stopped" (Yutang, 180). A healthy sense of relativity is useful to the Taoist for dealing with life's extremes.
Jing-Mei completes the fourth corner of the Club after her mother's death, only to find that the Aunts wish her to correct a greater imbalance: to meet her two sisters in China, and fulfill her filial obligation to tell her sisters about their mother. The entire novel pivots around the Aunt's tension ("Tell them!") about the transference of the mother-tradition (Tan, 31).
The second tale, "Scar," introduces what Tan may be producing as women's version of Confucian Analects: the Moral Tale. An-Mei Hsu absorbs these stories from Popo, the grandmother, who bewilders the girl with stories of little girls with melons in their stomachs or brains leaking out of their head (Tan, 34). These are Popo's attempts to instill concepts of shou, or filial respect, in An-Mei and her little brother (Tan, 35). An-Mei only begins to understand the stories when she realizes that her mother had no shou and that she therefore lost "face" (Tan, 36). Loss of face, in Confucian terms, means a loss of social standing. Since one's social standing defines the self in the Confucian context, the mother is, for all intents and purposes, "dead" to her family (Fingarette, 30; Tan 33).
When Popo is sick and dying, the mother returns. An-Mei watches her slice a piece of skin off her own arm to try and make a (Taoist magic) potion to heal the grandmother. This is a radical demonstration of shou that goes deep into An-Mei's consciousness:
Even though I was young, I could see the pain of
the flesh and the worth of the pain. This is how
a daughter honors her mother. It is shou so deep
it is in the bones . . . You must peel off your
skin, and that of your mother, and her mother
before her. (Tan, 41)
This is the first of a series of images in the book which portray woman-tradition as stretching backward in time.
"Red Candle," the next story, revolves around another Confucian principle, that of hsin, trustworthiness, or "person who is reliable-in-word" (Lau, 25). Confucius wrote:"Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, the father a father. the son a son" (Lau, 114). This means, one's function or role defines the self in the Confucian context or the whole system breaks down. "To be hsin in word applies to all of one's words . . . promises, resolutions concerning future conduct, or even plain statements of fact" (Lau, 25). As with shou, if one is not hsin, one loses social standing.
Lindo Jong's story is an illustration of the importance of hsin and the way she circumvents it with her integrity intact. She laments that in America promises are virtually meaningless, or at least work by a different system than she is used to (Tan 42). In her backwater province of China, duty meant "stupid, old-fashioned customs" such as matchmaking of wives who would "raise proper sons, care for the old people, and sweep the family burial grounds" (Tan, 45). This is the sum and total of what most women in Confucian society could expect--unless they learned to manipulate the system, which is exactly what Lindo Jong does, and does honorably.
Lindo's conflict is between her individual wishes and the expectations of her immediate community. She knows her "standing," which is in the kitchen, and she must endure it in order that her mother not lose face. At the wedding, her mother gives her a luck-pendent, a chang, with an admonition to be obedient in the new family. But Lindo "lacks metal," one of the Taoist elements said to determine one's personality--a determination that is outside Confucian parameters--and this allows her to "think as an independent person" (Tan, 59). Because she is able to think in an alternative system, she can value her self-identity above the communal identity. The pendant her mother gives her directly opposes her mother's words: the pendant is the point of transference of the mother-tradition, and with its "luck" comes the key to unlocking or adapting the Confucian women's role without losing face.