Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club, 1989

Tale Structure, Mah Jong Rules, and History

Talk-Story, Framing Tales and Nested Tales:

        Amy Tan's novel develops from the intersection of two traditions, Chinese (mainly oral storytelling) and Euro-American (canonical literature like that you've read for this course).  One of the remarkable things about her book is that it bridges the gap between a nearly medieval, nearly pre-industrial culture, like Marie's or Julian's, to the American world in which we now live.  On the Chinese side, she shares with Maxine Hong Kingston (Woman Warrior, 1977) the tradition of "talk-story" by which elders in the family communicate to their children a fusion of history, wisdom, religious values, and cultural identity in narrative form.  Kingston's novel recounts her own frustration as the American-born daughter of a Chinese immigrant mother because her mother's stories couldn't exactly be labeled fact of fiction.  Worse still, as the young Kingston saw it, the stories would change with each retelling as her mother altered the content to teach her maturing daughter new lessons, and to allow Kingston to realize things she might not have been capable of understanding intellectually or enduring emotionally at an earlier age.  Tan's characters enact a similar pattern of tale-telling and struggle over the meanings of the tales told, but she takes the dyad of Kingston and her mother and muiltiplies it by four.   This presents her with an exciting artistic challenge--how to arrange the narrative pieces so as to create a simultaneously beautiful and meaningful whole?

        On the "Western" side of her inheritance, she follows in a long tradition of narratives composed of "nested tales" within a frame narrative.  Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, Marguerite de Navarre's Heptameron, Giovanni Sercambi's Nouvelle, and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales all are constructed as tales told by characters who are themselves set within a narrative locale in which their telling becomes a dramatic event.  For instance, Bocaccio's five noblemen and five noblewomen have fled the bubonic plague which struck Florence in 1348 for the relative safety of one of their country estates and they spend one hundred days telling tales, each character getting to tell ten tales in a rotating pattern of succession that makes their tales a collective argument about  men and women and love.  Chaucer's tale tellers are riding to Canterbury one spring to pay their respects to the tomb of St. Thomas a Becket, and the host of the Tabard Inn, where they spent their last night in London, has persuaded them to enter a tale telling contest in which the tale judged wisest and most entertaining will win a free dinner at the end.  Chaucer increases the complexity of the situation by drawing his tellers from many walks of life, from a drunken cook to a knight on the male side, and from the prioress of a nunnery to the bawdy Wife of Bath on the female side.   Between tales, pilgrims quarrel, crack jokes at each others' expense, flee pursuers angered by their fraudulent behavior, etc. 

        The tales told by Tan's mothers and daughters are coordinated by the fictional frame narrative of the "Joy Luck Club," the mothers' weekly game of mah jong at which they told stories to pass the time while they played.  Jing-mei "June" Woo has been called to take the place of her mother, Suyuan Woo, who has died.  June Woo's stories form a set of links in the pattern because she is the only daughter who speaks in the tale groups of the mothers ("Feathers" and "Queen Mother"), and she also speaks on her own behalf in the tale groups of the daughters ("Twenty-Six" and "American").   Otherwise, the tales are organized as variations on the patterns of play in the game of mah jong.

Mah Jong Rules (by a non-player--corrections and improvements solicited!):

        Many local variations exist in mah jong play, and two major ethnic emigre communities in America, the Jews and the Chinese, each believe their versions of the rules to be the best (see Lindo Jong's comments 22-23).  Some common features are true of all, however.  Four players begin with a pile of decorated tiles from which they each choose a starting set, much like dominoes.   Chinese mah jong is organized by a seasonal motif in which the players represent the four winds which blow from the four cardinal directions, and in the Joy Luck Club, each woman played the position she won by a roll of the dice.  According to the first game in which June Woo plays, Lindo Jong is East and plays first, then Ying-Ying St. Clair is South, An-Mei Hsu is West, and June is North, which plays last.  Play ordinarily proceeds by the East player picking up fourteen tiles (because that's where the sun rises), followed clockwise around the table by the South, West, and North players picking up thirteen tiles each.  East's advantage in tiles is balanced by two other customs: if she loses, she pays double, but if she wins, she wins double.  You'll see the significance of this "double return" in the last story.

        Since Tan is writing out of two traditions, she uses "American rules" to tell her story.  In "Feathers", she begins with one order of tellers, with June Woo taking her mother's place and starting as East.  The next tales are told by An-Mei Hsu (South), Lindo Jong (West), and Ying-Ying St. Clair (North).  When the mothers' rebellious daughters tell their own side of the story in "26 Malignant Gates," the starting place is repositioned (by fate?) and the tales told by the daughters breaks up the previous tale-group's family order, from Lena Jong, to Waverly St. Clair, to Rose Hsu Jordan, to Jing-Mei ("June") Woo.  Then, as "American Translation" continues to document the daughters' rebellions and their results, she reverses the first group's order completely to counterclockwise--St. Clair, Jong, Jordan, Woo.  Finally, in "Queen Mother," she rotates her "story planet" in a split swing that moves from Hsu, to St. Clair, to Jong, to June Woo's tale of a return home to a land she never knew except in stories.

History (an inadequate attempt to give you the minimum necessary):

        Both Kingston and Tan write as American born daughters who were raised during the Cold War.  During the period from 1949-89 (and to some extent still today for some Conservatives), mainland China was usually described by American media as "Red" or "Communist" and understood as a sort of impossibly alien civilization run by a political system that was even more antagonistic to American capitalism than that of the Soviet Union.  Chinese-American children's parents had an ambiguous relationship with the land they had left behind, whether to flee war or the political system, or to seek the riches of the place they called "Gold Mountain."  The lost relatives in the East were a perpetual agony to most of the parents, who owed their relations important duties of respect and support.  Their ancestors' spirits also were understood to be left comfortless without the careful remembrance of their sons and daughters.  For the parents, holding on to Chinese identity in America usually was extremely important, whereas their children often rebelled by refusing to maintain social traditions or learn the language.

        Before the revolution ended in the victory of the Communist party (and the flight of the Nationalist forces to Taiwan, formerly the Chinese island of Formosa), China had suffered through a disastrous invasion and occupation by the Japanese army during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), one of the "local" wars which combined to create World War II.  Ethnic animosities and imperial ambitions combined to make this period an extremely unfortunate period for all involved, and the struggle between Chinese Communist and Nationalist forces for control of the territory not controlled by Japan produced even more refugees and casualties.   From the first tale, we've been aware that, in the catastrophes which drove the refugees from one city to another, June's mother was forced to abandon her first two children on the road between Kweilin to Chunking.  For June Woo, these lost children play a crucial role in her life even though they disappeared before she was born.