Queen Mother of the Western Skies

An-mei Hsu, "Magpies," pp. 241- 273

An-mei's life and character are transformed--and determined--by her mother. At first, An-mei and her mother identify themselves as passive sufferers, but the mother's suicide is an act of assertiveness and of love for An-mei that changes An-mei's character and future.

The story which the mother tells of the turtle living at the bottom of the pond expresses their suffering passivity. Her mother compares the two of them to the turtle; because its tears feed the joy of the magpies, she warns, "And that is why you must learn to swallow your own tears" (p. 244). Despite her warning, An-mei's mother is crying and An-mei, also crying, realizes, "this was our fate, to live like two turtles seeing the watery world together from the bottom of the little pond" (p. 244). Although she has not seen her mother for years, An-mei sees her nature and fate as the same as her mother's; their connection makes her recognize her mother immediately, "I could feel her pain" (p. 242). Because of their connection, An-mei chooses to leave with her mother. The high premium placed on boys and her mother's loss of face or status make it impossible for An-mei's mother to reclaim her son. In China, a woman married not for love, but for position. As a concubine, her mother has "the worst" position (p. 256). Particularly unfortunate is her being the fourth "wife"; sz, the word for fourth in Chinese, sounds like to die if it is pronounced angrily.

An-mei sees the connection between mother and daughter and their natures as inevitable and unbreakable. She regrets the effect of this connection on her daughter, who is another turtle, suffering passively,

          And even though I taught my daughter the opposite, still she came out the same way! Maybe it is because she was born to me and she was born a girl. And I was born to my mother and I was born a girl. All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way (p. 241).

The life of An-mei's mother illustrates women's lack of choice. An-mei several times refers to the fact that her mother had no choice, thereby stressing this point. Raped by a wealthy merchant, her mother is powerless against him and the malicious lies his second wife spreads about her. She is forced by circumstances to become his mistress or fourth wife; this causes her to be rejected by her family and to lose all status in society.

An-mei learns to distinguish the true from the false, the appearance from the reality, after Second Wife gives her a fake pearl necklace . Her mother crushes a glass bead underfoot and makes An-mei wear the restrung necklace for a week, to learn the lesson of "how easy it is to lose myself to something false" (p. 261) (the lesson rubs into her skin or is internalized). Then her mother gives her a ring with a real sapphire, to recognize the true nature of things.

Humiliated by her position and losing all hope of release, the mother commits suicide as a weapon against the merchant and as an expression of love for her daughter. Through her suicide, she insures An-mei a secure future. The Chinese believe that a wife who commits suicide can gain revenge by coming back as a ghost and destroying the husband's fortune; to avoid her ghost's wrath, the merchant agrees to raise An-mei as his own legitimate child. Also, the mother whispers to An-mei, "she would rather kill her own weak spirit so she could give me a stronger one" (p. 271). She wants her spirit to pass to An-mei and combine with hers to make her strong. And it does. While her mother is dying, An-mei cries like the turtle, her tears filling the joy of Second wife. On the day her mother dies, she is transformed. She defiantly crushes the fake pearl necklace in front of second wife. "And on that day, I learned to shout" (p. 272). She has become strong, able to assert herself. (A historical note: Tan, who researches her novels, uncovered the statistic that 25% of concubines committed suicide.)

An-mei believes China has also changed. When she was growing up, the Chinese way was "to desire nothing, to swallow other people's misery, to eat my own bitterness" (p. 241). But now, the Chinese people have learned assertiveness and act against misfortune, as the story about the peasant rebellion against the magpies illustrates. Like An-mei, the peasants have learned to shout. An-mei wants her daughter to assert herself, to act rather than to cry and suffer passively. Her daughter believes she has no choice. An-mei thinks, "She doesn't know. If she doesn't speak, she is making a choice. If she doesn't try, she can lose her chance forever" (p. 241).

Ying-ying St. Clair, "Waiting between the Trees," pp. 274-287

Ying-ying is the only Joy Luck mother who loses her sense of identity for a time, and Rose is the only daughter who, as a child, sees her mother's weakness and wants to save her.

Sitting in the guest room of her daughter's house, Ying-ying reflects on her love for her daughter and their relationship,

She and I have shared the same body. There is a part of her mind that is part of mine. But when she was born, she sprang from me like a slippery fish, and has been swimming away ever since. 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 (p. 275).
By telling her daughter about herself, Ying-ying expects to activate the (tiger) nature and the thoughts she inherited from her mother. She believes, "thoughts are of two kinds. Some are seeds that are planted when you are born, placed there by your father and mother and their ancestors before them. And some thoughts are planted by others" (p. 279). American thoughts have separated Lena from her mother; American thoughts and Ying-ying's withdrawal into herself have separated Lena from her tiger nature. Ying-ying plans to tell her daughter "That she is the daughter of a ghost. She has no chi [spirit]. This is my greatest shame. How can I leave this world without leaving her my spirit?" (p. 286). She foresees a struggle but expects to win and to "give her my spirit, because this is the way a mother loves her daughter" (p. 286).

Following the pattern that was established when she fell in the lake, Ying-ying loses her identity in her first marriage, "I became a stranger to myself" (p. 280). All her efforts and desires are directed to pleasing her husband. When he leaves her, she withdraws into herself and cuts herself off from her family, by living with poor distant relatives and later by working as a sales clerk. Her second marriage erodes her identity in a different way; she reacts similarly to the loss of her baby--she withdraws from her family into herself.

Ying-ying sees her alternating between having a headstrong spirit and losing her spirit as an expression of her having a tiger nature. The tiger is black and gold because

It has two ways. The gold side leaps with its fierce heart. The black side stands still with cunning, hiding its gold between trees, seeing and not being seen, waiting patiently for things to come. I did not learn to use my black side until after the bad man left me (p. 282).
The "bad man" is her philandering first husband. To encourage St. Clair's courtship, she deliberately weakens herself,
I let myself become a wounded animal. I let the hunter come to me and turn me into a tiger ghost. I willingly gave up my chi, the spirit that caused me so much pain.
          Now I was a tiger that neither pounced nor lay waiting between the trees. I became an unseen spirit (p. 285).
In other words, she chooses to give up or lose her identity in her marriage to St. Clair.

But she has regained her tiger spirit and sits waiting for her daughter to come after the vase and table fall, a tiger-mother "waiting between the trees" (p. 287) to save her daughter.

Lindo Jong, "Double Face," pp. 288- 305

Lindo's narrative focuses on the theme of Chinese versus American. Lindo thinks about American circumstances and Chinese character (p. 289). At the beauty salon, Lindo is humiliated because Waverly seems ashamed of her. To hide her feelings, she assumes her "American face. That's the face Americans think is Chinese, the one they cannot understand" (291). Lindo's American face represents the lack of understanding between Chinese immigrants and Americans. But when the hair stylist Mr. Rory comments on how much alike Lindo and Waverly look, Lindo smiles with her Chinese face; she is expressing her true feelings and so assumes her true identity. The clash between the cultures makes it "hard to keep your Chinese face in America" (p. 294). Lindo's statement makes the reader aware of an implication for the Chinese daughters: if it is hard for an adult steeped in Chinese culture to maintain her Chinese identity, how difficult must it be for the daughters to develop a Chinese identity in this country?

Noticing in the mirror Waverly's displeasure at Mr. Rory's remark, Lindo reflects on her relationship with her mother in China. Then Lindo was delighted when her mother inventoried the features they had in common,

And even though she said we looked the same, I wanted to look more the same. If her eye went up and looked surprised, I wanted my eye to do the same. If her mouth fell down and was unhappy, I too wanted to feel unhappy (p. 293).
Lindo wants to be so identified with her mother, so like her mother, that she feels exactly what her mother feels.

It is ironic and indicates the distance between them that she does not recognize Waverly's crooked nose as the same as her nose when they look in the mirror together. Their conversation shows that the two women have established a rapport; they are genuinely communicating with each other. Waverly acknowledges the similarity in their characters; they are both devious. Waverly sees deviousness as "good if you get what you want" (p. 304). She defines deviousness for her mother as two-faced.

And of course two-faced is what all the mothers and daughters are, in the sense of being both Chinese and American. Waverly's remark causes Lindo to think about the conflicts between the two, "I think about our 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" (p. 304). And she knows she has lost something essential which made her Chinese; when she returned to China, the natives treated her as a tourist, "They knew my face was not one hundred percent Chinese. They still charged me high foreign prices" (p. 305).

Lindo's experience in China causes her to laugh at Waverly's concern that she won't be allowed to leave China because she'll be seen as Chinese. No, she mother replies, they'll know you're an outsider, "They know just watching the way you walk, the way you carry your face" (p. 288). Displeasure makes Waverly get "a sour American look on her face"(p. 288) since it is currently fashionable to be Chinese. Lindo thinks, "Only her skin and her hair are Chinese. Inside--she is all American-made" (p. 289).

Reflecting on her Chinese trip and no longer being all Chinese, Lindo wonders,"What did I lose? What I get back in return? I will ask my daughter what she thinks" (p. 305). This is a novel about losses and gains, which is one aspect of the immigrant experience. Her decision to ask Waverly shows the closeness they have developed; they are now capable of true communication with each other, at least occasionally.

One advantage of American culture which Lindo acknowledges is the freedom to make choices. As a recent immigrant, she has a choice to marry or to go back to China. She deliberately gives up Chinese attitudes when she accepts a Cantonese man as a marriage prospect, and she actively solicits his proposal with the fortune cookie.

Jing-mei Woo, "A Pair of Tickets," pages 306- 332

Jing-mei is the one dauaghter who is identified both by an American name (June) and by a Chinese name. She also is the only daughter who speaks both for herself and for her mother. These details show the doubleness (Chinese versus American, mother versus daughter) as well as reconciliation of the opposites. With the trip to China, Jing-mei experiences herself as Chinese and accepts her Chinese identity and heritage. She also fulfills her mother's dream and expectation of being united with her lost daughters. This is a significant change from her childhood, when she disappointed her mother's expectations. Jing-mei finds and is integrated into her family in China.

Jing-mei discovers the truth of Suyuan's belief that "Once you are born Chinese, you cannot help but feel and think Chinese" (p. 306). It's a matter of genetics; being Chinese is in the genes. In China, Jing-mei knows she could not pass for true Chinese; this is exemplified in her height. She is not Chinese only; she is Chinese-American, as are all the daughters. (Have the mothers changed into Americanized Chinese?) When she meets her sisters, she sees no trace of their mother in her sisters' faces, "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" (p. 331). Again the Chinese mother has been proven right; Suyuan told Jing-mei that being Chinese "is in your blood, waiting to be let go" (p. 306).

The novel ends on a note of hopeful acceptance. On a literal level, the last line refers to a Polaroid snapshot Jing-mei's father takes, "My sisters and I watch quietly together, eager to see what develops" (p. 331). The line has much more meaning, however; it refers to the relationship of the sisters and to the Chinese identity of Jing-mei/June.

Tan Syllabus

Introduction Tan, Online overview
Part I The Joy Luck Club, pp. 3-121
Part II Tan, pp. 122-238
Part III
Tan, pp. 239-332
**Supplemental Reading**
      The Other in The Joy Luck Club

Core Studies 6 Page || Syllabus