High-context Cultures and Low-context Cultures
The Joy Luck Club explores the clash between Chinese
American culture. One way of understanding the difference is to look at
communication in these cultures. Chinese culture can be classified as a
high-context culture and American culture as a low-context culture.
I will define these terms, then explain the significance of these two
and finally apply them to The Joy Luck Club.
- Culture is the way of living which a group of
people has developed
and transmits from one generation to the next. It includes concepts,
habits of thinking and acting, arts, institutions, ways of relating to
world, and agreement on what is significant and necessary to know.
ethnicity, class, and gender are cultural creations; they derive their
from the culture.
- Context is the whole situation, background, or
connected to an event, a situation, or an individual.
- A high-context culture is a culture in which the
has internalized meaning and information, so that little is explicitly
in written or spoken messages. In conversation, the listener knows what
is meant; because the speaker and listener share the same knowledge and
the listener can piece together the speaker's meaning. China is a
- A low-context culture is one in which information
meaning are explicitly stated in the message or communication.
in a low-context culture expect explanations when statements or
are unclear, as they often are. Information and meaning are not
by the individual but are derived from context, e.g., from the
or an event. The United States is a low-context culture.
In a high-context culture, the individual acquires cultural
and meaning from obedience to authority, through observation and by
To acquire knowledge in this way and to internalize it, children must
carefully trained. High-context cultures are highly stable and slow to
for they are rooted in the past; one example is the Chinese practice of
ancestor worship. They are also unified and cohesive cultures.
In such cultures, the individual must know what is meant at
covert or unexpressed level; the individual is supposed to know and to
appropriately. Others are expected to understand without explanation or
details. Explanations are insulting, as if the speaker regards the
as not knowledgeable or socialized enough to understand. To members of
low-context culture, speakers in a high-context culture seem to talk
a subject and never to get to the point.
The bonds among people are very strong in a high-context
People in authority are personally and literally responsible for the
of subordinates, whether in government, in business, or in the family.
the U.S., on the other hand, the general practice is to find a "fall
or scapegoat who takes the blame for those with more power and status.)
In a high-context culture, the forms (conventional ways of behaving)
the individual who does not observe the forms is perceived negatively;
negative judgments for an individual's bad behavior may extend to the
In embarrassing or awkward situations, people act as though
happened. Individuality, minor disagreements, and personality clashes
ignored, so that no action has to be taken. Taking action tends to be
seriously, because once started an action must generally be completed.
can't stop an action because they change their minds, because they
another interest, because unforeseen consequences arise, or because
better comes along. Consequently there is greater caution or even
to initiate an undertaking or to give a promise. Chinese parents may
a child's behavior, because they expect that the strong family
which is based on ancestors, will cause the child ultimately to behave
The Clash of Low-context and High-context Cultures in The
In a low-context culture, as Edward T. Hall explains, "Most
the information must be in the transmitted message in order to make up
what is missing in the context (both internal and external)." In a
low-context culture change is rapid and easy; bonds between people are
is undertaken easily and can be changed or stopped once initiated.
The mothers in The Joy Luck Club expect their
to obey their elders and so learn by obedience, by observation and by
as they did in China. Their elders did not explain. Because the mothers
values and knowledge, they seem to assume that knowledge is innate and
it is present in their daughters and only has to be brought out or
The internalization is so psychologically complete and so much a part
the mothers' identities that they speak of it as physical. Am-mei, for
sees in her mother "my own true nature. What was beneath my skin.
my bones" (p. 40); to her, connection to her mother or filial respect
"so deep it is in your bones" (p. 41).
But in this country, the mothers' warnings, instructions, and
example are not supported by the context of American culture, and so
daughters do not understand. They resent and misinterpret their
alien Chinese ways and beliefs. Similarly, the mothers do not
why they do not have the kind of relationships with their daughters
they had with their mothers in China. The Joy Luck mothers were so
to their own mothers that they saw themselves as continuations of their
The communication problems that arise when one speaker is
a high-context culture and the other is from a low-context culture can
seen in the conversations of June and Suyuen, "My mother and I never
really understood one another. We translated each other's meanings and
to hear less than what was said, while my mother heard more" (p. 27).
looks for meaning in what is stated and does not understand that her
mother omits important information because she assumes her daughter
knows it and
can infer it; her mother, on the other hand, looks for meaning in what
not been stated and so adds to what has been stated explicitly and
up with meanings that surprise her daughter.
The difficulties of growing up in a family from a
culture and living in a low-context culture appear in other
writers. The narrator of Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior
is unable to decide whether figures she sees are real persons or
whether stories she is told are true or fiction, what the meaning of
stories is, why she is told the stories, and whether an event really
or is imagined.
The Talk Story
One way of maintaining and instructing children in traditional ways
Chinese immigrants adopted is the traditional Chinese talk story.
to Linda Ching Sledge, the talk story "served to redefine an embattled
culture by providing its members immediate, ceremonial access to
lore"; it also "retained the structure of Chinese oral wisdom
proverbs, formulaic description, heroic biography, casuistical
In the talk-story the narrator expects the listener to grasp the point,
is often not stated (unlike the Western Aesop's Fables). Tan
the Chinese talk story in the mothers' warning stories to their
The talk story serves another function in this novel; E.D. Huntley
Talk story enables women who have been socialized
silence for most of their lives--the Joy Luck mothers, for
reconfigure the events of those lives into acceptable public
painful experiences are recast in the language of folk tale; cautionary
reminders become gnomic phrases; real life takes on the contours of
More significantly, the act of performing talk story allows the
to retain a comfortable distance between herself and her audience.
the storyteller manages in some fashion to maintain the silence to
she is accustomed, as well as to speak out and share with others the
stories that have shaped her into the person that she is.
An issue for both mothers and daughters is finding a voice, that is,
a way to express the essential self.
Amy Tan does not see herself as primarily a Chinese-American writer
on the immigrant experience. She objects to being limited because of
Placing on writers the responsibility to represent a
is an onerous burden. Someone who writes fiction is not necessarily
a depiction of any generalized group, they are writing a very specific
There's also a danger in balkanizing literature, as if it should be
as sociology, or politics, or that it should answer questions like
"What does The Hundred Secret Senses have to teach us about
As opposed to treating it as literature--as a story, language, memory.
Even though the main characters in all three of her novels are Chinese
or Chinese-American, she sees her writing as having larger concerns,
my books are about is relationships and family. I've had women come up
me and say they've felt the same way about their mothers, and they
immigrants." She sees the writer as "storyteller, teacher, and
enchanter." And she believes the reason we read and write is "to feel
more deeply, to
see more clearly, to know what questions to ask, and to formulate what
The Joy Luck Club
The Joy Luck Club was a critical and a popular success.
copies were sold, Tan received $1.23 million for the paperback rights,
it has been translated into seventeen languages--including Chinese.
It was originally intended as a collection of short stories,
origin which is still apparent. "The Red Candle" could stand alone,
though it is an integral part of the novel. The novel successfully
numerous kinds of writing; Tan draws on the biography, the
the memoir, history, mythology, the folk tale, and the talk story.
The novel has a balanced structure; this is appropriate
the Chinese value balance and harmony. There are four sections, and
are four tales within each section. Because Suyuen Woo died before the
opens, her daughter June speaks for both of them; this structural
expresses the harmony or understanding that the mothers and daughters
arrive at. Because June speaks for herself and her mother, her
bridges two cultures and the two lives of mother and daughter.
The four sections and tales parallel the four directions,
have symbolic value for the Chinese. It is not chance that in the
games, Suyuen's corner was east, for " The East is where everything
(p. 22). Suyuan founded the Joy Luck Club, and China (the East) is
the mothers begin and where the daughters' identities also begin. It is
the novel ends, with Jing-mei finding her full identity.
The short tales that precede each section introduce the theme
of that section.
- "Feathers from a thousand Li Away" has the feel of a fairy
is about the mothers' hopes for their daughters and about
"the swan that becomes more than was hoped for" (p. 3). Although
is impossible because of the language difference, the mother in the
waits patiently to communicate with her daughter. The feather is the
Chinese heritage, which they want to pass on to their daughters. This
gives us the mother's stories in China.
- "The Twenty-Six malignant Gates" introduces the mothers'
which is expressed in warnings. The daughters ignore the warnings, to
own harm. This section presents the daughters' childhood traumas and
and their lack of communication with their mothers.
- "American Translation" refers to the American daughters as
reflections or duplicates of their Chinese mothers; hence,they are
The daughters, now adults, discover that their mothers'warnings and
- "Queen Mother of the Western Skies" states the theme
"How to lose your innocence but not your hope" (p. 239) The mothers are
the Queen Mother, whose wisdom the daughters should listen to. The
who lose their innocence through their terrible sufferings, never lose
for their daughters. The living mothers and daughters come to an
and there is hope for the daughters and their relationship with their
June/Jing-mei completes her relationship with her dead mother and
her Chinese identity.
Themes in The Joy Luck Club
The stories tell of events which shape the identities of the mothers
daughters and give direction to their lives. Though David Denby is
of the movie, his description applies equally well to the novel, "each
centers on a moment of creation or self-destruction in a woman's life,
the moment when her identity becomes fixed forever." The mothers do not
their identities, having come from a stable culture into which their
were integrated. Their daughters, however, are confused about their
Communication between American daughters and Chinese
The mothers see their duty as encouraging and, if necessary, pushing
daughters to succeed; therefore, they feel they have a right to share
their success (the Chinese view). The daughters see the mothers as
to live through them and thereby preventing them from developing as
separate individuals and from leading independent lives (the American
The link of the Chinese mothers and Chinese daughters.
The Chinese mothers form a continuity with their mothers in China, a
which they want to establish with their American daughters.
Love, loss, and redemption.
Throughout there exists what David Gates calls a "ferocious love
between mother and daughter" both in China and in this country. But the
suffer loss, which ranges from separation to abandonment to rejection,
the mother-daughter relationship and in the male-female relationship.
the loss is overcome and the love re-established.
Connection of the past and the present.
The mothers' past lives in China affect their daughters' lives in this
just as the daughters' childhood experiences affect their identities
Power of language.
Without proficiency in a common language, the Chinese mothers and
daughters cannot communicate. St. Clair cannot communicate with his
and so he changes her name and her birth date, taking away her identity
as a tiger. Lena St. Clair mistranslates for her father and for her
Also, words have great power.
Expectation and reality.
The mothers have great hopes for their daughters; their expectations
their daughters include not just success but also freedom. They do not
their daughters' lives to be determined by a rigid society and
as in an arranged marriage, and made unhappy as theirs were. The
American reality fulfilled their expectations in unanticipated and
Another way of expressing this theme is The American Dream and its
Chinese culture versus American culture.
This conflict appears throughout the novel, from the struggles of the
and daughters to Lena St. Clair's Chinese eyes and American appearance
Lindo Jong's Chinese face and her American face.
Food expresses love. June cooks a dish her father likes after her
death to comfort him. It also shows relationships, like the competition
in cooking among the mothers. Waverly uses this competition to
her mother into inviting Rich to dinner; she arranges to eat at Auntie
house. Food also reveals character. Waverly selfishly takes the best
for her daughter, Rich, and herself; June considerately takes the worst
crab so her mother won't get it. Food makes cultural statements; the
meal Jing-mei has in China with her relatives is American fast food.
also affirms life, as the Joy Luck meals at Kweilin. And it marks
events--Lindo meets her husband at New Year when fish are being caught
cooked, and afterward she sees him at red egg ceremonies. When she
at her future husband's home, she is sent to the kitchen, a mark of her
another mark of her subordination is her cooking to please her husband
mother-in-law. An-mei almost dies after boiling soup spills on her
Clothing expresses cultural identity and clashes as well as hides
Suyuan brings expensive silk dresses from China, then has to wear
Western clothes which are too big. As an old lady, she dresses
and wears colors which clash. In a photograph taken when Ying-ying
in this country, she is wearing a Chinese dress with a Western jacket
is too big. On the boat to Tientsin, An-mei is surprised at her
sudden appearance in Western dress and is thrilled at her own new
the change to Western clothing represents both the start of a new life
estrangement from Chinese tradition.
Dreams allow us to move between the conscious level and the unconscious
level, to express hidden feelings. June dreams of telling her sisters
her mother's death and being rejected. A dream brings release in
sense; Lindo makes up a dream to escape her marriage without
Wind and directions.
Waverly thinks of wind in her relationship with her mother and in her
playing. Because "the north wind had blown luck and my husband my way,"
Ying-ying keeps the window open to blow "the spirit and heart" of her
husband back; instead the north wind blows him "past my bedroom and out
back door" (p. 281).
Websites on Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club
Suggestions for teaching The Joy Luck Club.
Amy Tan Page
Interviews with Amy Tan, biography.
Amy Tan Page
Stories of women in The Joy Luck Club and
Joy Luck Lady
Feature story from The Detroit News>
Voices from the
Women Writers of Color: Amy Tan
Biography, selected bibliography, related links.
Core Studies 6 Page ||