Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club, 1989

Part 4: "Queen Mother of the Western Skies"

        The opening vignette returns to the theme of generations of women trying to understand how to teach each other the way to survive with happiness. The "Queen Mother" was a character in the "Moon Lady" play, and bore the peach of everlasting life (81). Here, she’s a metaphor for wisdom which solves the problem of how to grow wiser without losing one’s capacity to laugh, to be joyful. The knowledge involved clearly requires awareness of evil, which might overwhelm all a child’s powers of innocence.

An-Mei Hsu: "Magpies"

        The birds of the title are those people who grow stronger from others’ grief. An-Mei’s memory of her mother’s futile struggle against Wu Tsing, and his dangerously manipulative Second Wife, scars her memory and gives her a lasting reference point for the moment when her own power manifested itself. She remembers all this in response to her daughter’s acceptance of her marriage’s failure. The tale reveals, finally, how her mother was deceived into being Wu Tsing’s concubine, and how the convoluted household politics finally drove her to suicide. It also reveals the origins of the sapphire ring which An-Mei later sacrificed to the sea for Bing’s sake. Once again, the keys to life seem to turn upon knowing true value from false, knowing how to "shout" when necessary, and having the power to contain one’s emotions. The overall consequence of the story is ambiguous—is this something she can teach Rose, and could she save her life with its lessons?

Ying-Ying St. Clair: "Waiting Between the Trees"

        Ying-Ying’s story, like An-Mei’s mother’s, involves an unwanted wedding to a gross and hurtful man, but Ying-Ying survives to escape and to build another life. However, she believes she as lost her chi or spirit in doing so. Unlike An-Mei’s story, we are told this one will be told to Lena specifically to alter her unbalanced, yielding personality and to save her from the marriage which is devouring her. It involves the capacity to manifest a "tiger spirit," gold and black, the power to be violently dangerous but also silent and seemingly innocent. The second, dark self is what she currently inhabits, "waiting between the trees" (287). Her violent powers involve her reproductive capacity in a way that somewhat resembles Suyuan Woo’s decision to abandon the "Kweilin babies," but with a crucial difference.

Lindo Jong: "Double Face"

        This tale contains perhaps the most open speculation about the child rearing problems faced by these immigrant mothers in a nation notorious for its cultural assumptions of excellence (and which so perfectly parallel and oppose those of Chinese cultural nationalism). She says "I wanted my children to hvae the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character. How could I know these two things do not mix?" (289). Her conclusion might be premature, though (see her reaction to June Woo on 311). Her uses of an "American face" and a "Chinese face" in the beauty shop mirror later parallel the uses of American English and Chinese in communication with Americans, and the gap between her Mandarin Chinese and Tin Jong’s Cantonese dialect. After all the comic misunderstandings of English and Chinese, she still uses English to court Tin Jong, and her quarrel with Waverly ends only when she understands her in English. Could Tan be telling us more here than Lindo Jong understands?

Jing-Mei Woo: "Two Tickets"

        This final tale involves rewriting much of what we think we know about Suyuan Woo’s past, and about what this means for Jing-Mei/June. In part, the "rewriting" happens when, in Lindo Jong’s letter, the Joy Luck Club "Aunties" finally tell the Kweilin relatives Suyuan is dead. The "translation" of June to Jing-Mei to China/Chinese is both a journey to that country and the revelation of what her name and her mother’s name mean (322-3). Translation, from Latin "translatio," originally meant a moving of something from one place to another—how is a language a "place," and what is being moved in translation?

        Finally, we get perhaps the most recent retelling of Marie de France’s "Le Fresne," this time with both babies exposed with tokens of their identities. We also get our third view of the caves at Kweilin, which Suyuan first described as beautiful in imagination or appalling under the bombing in the first tale (8-9, 327). Marie’s tales were based on folk stories which might be thousands of years old, perhaps reaching all the way back to the Indo-European migration, so they might derive from a common ancestor which found its way to China over the same period. The American-educated Tan also might have read Marie’s lais in college. However, the lais might be an independent invention of a tale also told in Chinese because it captures something fundamental about mothers’ relationships with their daughters, threatened and threatening, hopeful and hopeless, bound together by fateful decisions and abandoned to chance and the care of strangers over the years. Which version of the tales’ similarity most pleases you, and why?