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Literature / The Joy Luck Club

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The Joy Luck Club is a 1989 novel by Amy Tan.

The book centers around four mother-daughter pairs living in San Francisco. The mothers are Suyuan Woo, An-Mei Hsu, Lindo Jong, and Ying-ying St. Clair. The daughters are, respectively, Jing-Mei (June) Woo, Rose Hsu Jordan, Waverly Jong, and Lena St. Clair. All of the mothers immigrated from China during their lives, and much of the book talks about their relationships with their mothers, with the exception of Suyuan Woo. The book is structured in sixteen chapters, each narrated in first person by one of the characters; the first four are told by the mothers, the next eight are told by the daughters, and the last four are told by the mothers, all with the exception of Suyuan Woo, who is dead at the beginning of the novel, so Jing-Mei takes her chapters. Most of each chapter is dedicated to a flashback of the narrator's childhood, usually regarding a particular incident or series of events involving that character's mother.


The novel was adapted into a 1993 film, executive produced by Oliver Stone and directed by Wayne Wang. It starred Ming-Na Wen, Tamlyn Tomita, Lauren Tom, and Rosalind Chao as the daughters, and Lisa Lu, Tsai Chin, Kieu Chinh, and France Nguyen as the mothers.

In 2020, the 1993 film adaptation got inducted into National Film Registry preservation list by the Library of Congress.

Film and book The Joy Luck Club provide examples of:

  • Abusive Parents:
    • Abusive aunt and uncle in young An-Mei's case.
    • Lena thinks she encounters one in the apartment next to her as a child, but it turns out the mother and daughter are only playing.
    • In Lindo's case, a forceful abusive mother-in-law puts a lot of pressure on her son and Lindo to conceive a child.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The film kept most of the stories (with some changes), but trimmed some parts.
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  • Adaptation Expansion: Some parts were added to the film.
  • Adaptation Personality Change: Ted in the film is depicted as redeemable, thus being attentive enough to save his marriage with Rose. Harold is a more blatant emotional abuser in the film, whereas the book counterpart is just casually selfish and unintentionally condescending.
  • All for Nothing: Suyuan is forced to abandon her twin baby girls by the side of the road so she could keep fleeing the Japanese. She wound up collapsing from exhaustion less than a mile down the road, and was rescued by a truck picking up refugees while passed out. For the rest of her life, she lamented that if she had just held onto them a little longer, they all could have been saved without being separated.
  • Ambiguous Situation: In the book, the state of Lena's relationship with Harold is up in the air. Also, while it hints that Rose will get the upper-hand in her divorce with Ted, Rose's arc ends abstractly enough. The film avoids these by showing in the present day Lena is with a new man she’s visibly happier with and Ted, who was written as less of a jerk, was able to reconcile with Rose.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Lena goes through the motions of her marriage, splitting all the costs with her husband "equally" despite him making seven times what she does. When her mother asks why they do this, she tries to think of a way to explain it in a way for her mother to understand, only to give up and realize she doesn't know.
  • Arranged Marriage: Lindo's first marriage, to a Spoiled Brat.
  • Artistic License – Biology: (In-Universe) Lindo's mother-in-law cannot understand why her son hasn't sired any children yet. It's because he hasn't hit puberty; in other words, he's physically too young to be a father.
  • Artistic License – Music: At the end of the section Two Kinds, she mentions playing two songs from Robert Schumann's Scenes from Childhood, Pleading Child and Perfectly Contented, thereafter realizing that the two songs are actually two halves of the same song. The two songs, actually known as Bittendes Kind and Glückes genug, are actually separate songs from the same book, Kinderszenen, only that they are beside each other. At least the German names were translated into the English names properly.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Rose in the movie admits she got pregnant "for the worst reason" in order to keep Ted from straying. It doesn't work, though they both do love their daughter.
  • Baby Factory: An-Mei's mother fills this role in her loveless marriage. It's revealed that Second Wife arranged her rape so she could pass off the ensuing son as her own.
  • Bait-and-Switch: Ying-Ying's first adult book entry hints that she was kidnapped and forcibly impregnated as a young girl, since Lena's father claims that he saved her from "a fate too horrible to talk about" in China, and Ying-Ying absent-mindedly babbles to her young daughter that she fears she might get kidnapped and forced to have a baby by strange men. Her second entry disproves this: She willingly married a friend of her rich father's, but he turned out to be a crass philanderer who abandoned her a few months after their marriage, and she hated him so much that she aborted his child out of spite.
  • Bald of Evil: Lena's boyfriend Harold's baldness is a visual cue to his cold soullessness, along with the grey clothing and furniture. His replacement in the film version is notable for having thick, luxurious hair, symbolic of his warmth and goodness.
  • Batman Gambit: Lindo's plan of getting out of her first marriage. Having spent a long time observing her in-laws and watching over a maid that had become pregnant, she tells her mother-in-law about a dream that a man with a mole (one of their ancestors) touched both her and her husband to cause their bodies to rot if they continued with their marriage as well as plant the seeds of a child into a maid who was actually of royal blood. Lindo manages to not only successfully get out of her marriage with money to go to America but she helped the maid be able to go on to a better life for both her and her child.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Rose's husband Ted gets this twofold.
    • It's implied he was drawn to her due to her submissiveness, and his ability to push her around. After his first malpractice lawsuit, he got fed up with her inability to make any decisions, without acknowledging that part of the reason she's such an Extreme Doormat is because of him.
    • After endlessly browbeating her to make a decision while married, this comes back to bite him when she decides to reject his pitiful divorce terms and fight to keep the house.
  • Break the Cutie: Varying cases between this and Break the Haughty through all of the characters.
  • Breather Episode: After the heartbreaking story of An-Mei's new family in "Magpies" and Ying-Ying's rather troubling young adulthood in "Waiting Between The Trees" and before Jing-mei's trip to China in "A Pair of Tickets," "Double Face" is a lighthearted and rather humorous tale detailing how Lindo and Tin met and overcame a language barrier to fall in love and get married so they could have a child and become citizens.
  • Broken Bird: Young An-Mei, and Lena's mother Ying-ying.
  • Cheerful Child: 4-year-old Ying-Ying in "The Moon Lady."
  • Child by Rape: The film adaptation directly indicates An-Mei's half-brother is a product of this.
  • Culture Clash: When Waverly brings her American fiance over for dinner, he horrifies her parents by unknowingly committing every Chinese culture faux pas during the meal. Protip: When a Chinese cook says the food they've made probably isn't very good, that means they actually think it's awesome.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Most of the mothers.
  • Darker and Edgier: Arguably, the fate of Ying-Ying's first baby in the movie. In the book, Ying-Ying gets an abortion. In the movie, Ying-Ying carries it to term but later drowns it, acting listless the whole time.
  • Death of a Child: Four-year-old Bing Hsu (drowned) and Ying-Ying's sons (the first one was aborted because it belonged to her awful first husband and the second one was born with a hole in its head and no brain).
  • Defiled Forever: An-mei's widowed mother is raped by a strange man, and is then forced to marry him because she is considered defiled. Even worse, the Second Wife spreads a rumor that the intercourse was consensual.
  • Destructive Romance: Rose comes to realize that she's living in one.
  • Domestic Abuse: Lena's husband is of the financial abuse variety. Ted grows into an emotional abuser to Rose.
  • Dull Eyes of Unhappiness: Poor Ying-ying.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Second Wife fakes these constantly to gain the favor of her superstitious husband.
    • An-Mei's mother. Well... it's a long story.
  • The '80s: The novel's set time.
  • Establishing Character Moment: In the book, the first sign that Ted is a terrible person is when Rose tells him about his mother's racist statements and he's angrier at Rose for not standing up for herself than at his mother's racism. Notably, due to his nicer and redeemable portrayal in the movie, he is present when said racism is directed at Rose, and he rightfully calls his mother out and he and Rose are eventually able to reconcile their marriage.
  • Evil Matriarch: Huang Taitai in "The Red Candle" is pushy and demanding toward not only a young Lindo but her own son in an effort to gain a coveted grandson despite them being too young to have children, especially Tyan-yu. Second Wife in "Magpies" makes her look like a saint in comparison with her manipulative behavior and bouts of pretend suicide to get what she wants and making sure no one else can get the benefits that she does. Both of them do get humbled in their own ways by the end of each story.
  • Extreme Doormat: Tan makes it pretty clear just how terrible the consequences can be if a woman acts as such and the book is quite critical of a culture that encourages such.
  • Financial Abuse: Lena's husband Harold does this to her. Despite making seven times her salary, he makes her split all the costs "fifty-fifty" and acts as if it's fair. He also gets rich off her ideas for his company without giving her payment or credit. It takes her mother questioning why she has to pay for ice cream that she doesn't eat for her to realize this.
  • Flashback: All the mother and daughter stories up to the present.
  • Happily Adopted: Suyuan's twin daughters. The book even states the girls' adoptive mother tried to reunite them with Suyuan after the war.
  • Jade-Colored Glasses: As an adult, Waverly blames her mother Lindo for making her view her life this way. She laments that she realized her first husband's faults after her mother met him, and always views her house, clothes, and life in a more negative light after her mother comments on them. It takes her finally confronting her mother to learn that Lindo never intended to make her feel bad about herself or her life — that it was Waverly projecting her insecurities onto her mother.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Rose's husband Ted is a bullying jerk in the book, though he does have a point that Rose is too much of an Extreme Doormat who should learn to make decisions for herself.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: This is more emphasized in the film version with Waverly. In the book, although she outgrows her petty rivalry with June in adulthood, she does compliment June for her writing work but tries to explain to her what didn't work out about it and unintentionally opens June's emotional wounds (due to this scene being told in June's point-of-view, Waverly is never aware of this). In the film version, the same scene happens, but the framing device shows that June and Waverly are on better terms and Waverly sincerely wishes June well in meeting her long-lost family.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Jerk: Rose grows to realize that Ted is self-centered, often blames the brunt of his issues on her, and ultimately tries to kick her out of her house, expecting her to react well to the news of his cheating and asking for divorce. In the film, they communicate and reconcile; in the book, they don't.
  • Like Brother and Sister: Literally, verbatim, Lindo describes her relationship with her first husband as this.
  • Love Martyr: Rose believes that her submissiveness respects her husband Ted. Of course, she outgrows this mindset.
  • Manipulative Bitch:
    • Waverly spends most of her life thinking of her mother Lindo as this, due to the latter telling her the story of how she tricked her way out of her awful first marriage in "Red Candle," and teaching her how to play chess. Waverly imagines her mother as this cunning, manipulative woman who deliberately makes passive-aggressive comments to try to shatter her confidence and ruin her life. It takes until near the end of the book for Waverly to realize that her mom never had any of the sinister motivations she imposed on her — she just has no filter.
    • Second Wife in An-Mei's mother's story, in spades. She got First Wife addicted to opium to keep her docile and compliant, and arranged his marriage to Third Wife in the hopes of passing off their eventual son as her own, knowing the girl's poverty ensured she'd be too grateful to cross Second Wife and homeliness ensured Wu-Tsing would never favor her. When Third Wife also only had daughters, Second Wife befriended An-Mei's widowed mother to arrange her violent rape and marriage to Wu-Tsing to pass off the ensuing son as her own. On top of this, Second Wife constantly fakes being Driven to Suicide in order to scare Wu-Tsing into giving her her way all the time. Harsher in Hindsight when you read Amy Tan's autobiographies and realize that this stuff all actually happened.
  • Meaningful Name: Loads. "Rose," in reference to her demureness in her marriage. And Lindo's intentionally invokes this with "Waverly."
    • Lindo does it with all three of her children. Her first child, a son, is named Winston because it sounds like "wins ton" and he helped get Lindo and Tin their citizenship (though he dies at sixteen in a car accident). Her second son is named Vincent because it sounds like "win cent" and sons were considered quite prosperous. Waverly's full name is Waverly Place Jong after the street they were living on at the time to give her a sense of belonging so she would never regret anything.
    • Jing-Mei's name also has a deep meaning to it that her father explains to her the night before they're expected to meet her older sisters. "Jing" refers to something of good quality after washing away imperfections and "Mei" is short for "meimei," a term for "little sister" as a shout-out to her older sisters.
    • Suyuan's name can translate to "long-cherished wish" which, in her case, was to see her daughters again and though she wasn't able to do so, Jing-Mei is able to fulfill that wish for her and see her sisters.
  • Memento MacGuffin: The jade necklaces.
  • My Death Is Just the Beginning: An-mei's mother, trapped into a horrific marriage to her rapist, commits suicide by poison, but does so two days before the new year. Folklore states that the third day after death is when a spirit returns to settle old scores — and you do not want a spirit angry with you on New Year's Day. An-mei's mother ensures her daughter and son will be cared for.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: In the film, Ying's reaction after she kills her child.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Rose might have eventually gotten around to cashing Ted's $10k check and divorce papers had he asked nicely, rather than show up in person to berate her for making him wait, angrily declaring that he's been cheating on her and wants her to move out so he and his new wife can move into the house. This pushes Rose to finally grow a spine (like he wanted) and declare that she will fight him to keep the house and get a better divorce settlement.
  • Odd Name Out: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Bing.
  • Parental Abandonment:
    • Entirely unwillingly, on Suyuan's part.
    • An-Mei's mother, due to her circumstances. She takes An-Mei so she could live a better life in a wealthier household, ironically committing this again by abandoning An-Mei's younger brother. It's explained in the book that taking her son to a house where she serves as a concubine would rob him of a future, since it would cut him off from his father's family yet never belong or be treated well in the new one.
  • Pet the Dog: The introduction of Second Wife seems to be this. She gives An-Mei a "genuine" pearl necklace as a welcoming offer. Then An-Mei's mother exposes the necklace as fake to An-Mei, hinting at Second Wife's conniving and manipulative nature...
  • Poor Communication Kills: Mr. St. Clair could never understand his wife fully because of this, resulting in a marriage run mostly by tolerance than true love. Even Lena realizes that her father can merely "put words in her mother's mouth." Also a common case between the mothers and daughters.
    • This is played tragically in the case of Canning and Suyuan Woo just before her death. Suyuan discovered that her abandoned daughters were still alive and a friend found them shopping together and wrote her a letter about this which reignites the hope that had faded away over decades. She tries to encourage Canning to go to China but neglects to mention the reason why she wants to go and he refuses because he thought she just wanted to go on a vacation at the time and they were getting too old to be tourists in their seventies. Not long after this, she dies from an aneurysm and only too late does Canning realize the meaning of the words when he receives a letter from his wife's daughters. He confesses to his aunt and Jing-Mei that it's one of the biggest regrets of his life.
  • Precision F-Strike: In the film adaptation, Ted gives this to his own mother after she makes remarks towards Rose. Likewise, Rose later gives Ted this when calling out on his emotional neglect of her.
  • Pretty in Mink: Waverly's fiancé giving her a mink coat.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: While the novel mentions Robert Schumann and his Kindersczenen as the piano piece that June was playing badly as a child, the film adaptation replaces it with "Humoresque Opus 101 No. 7" by Antonín Dvořák, which the child June messes up on at the piano.
  • Rape as Backstory: An-Mei's mother in "Magpies."
  • Rape as Drama:
    • Tyan-yu and Lindo in "The Red Candle." Huang Taitai enables and condones this because she wants an heir. However, nothing happens anyway. In the film, Tyan-yu thrusts something at Lindo and makes her scream — but it's only his pet lizard! His mom is in Selective Obliviousness.
    • Poor An-Mei's mother gets this in spades. Second Wife arranged her violent rape in order to trap her into concubinage. Being the degraded Fourth Wife of her rapist is one of many things that drives her to suicide.
  • "Rediscovering Roots" Trip: Jing-Mei/June goes to China after her mother's death. In experiencing life in China and telling her two half-sisters about their mother, she is finally able to make peace with her Chinese heritage and her tumultuous relationship with her mom.
  • Rich Bitch: Ying-ying in her youth before she was broken by her terrible first marriage. The Second Wife in An-mei's story is this to a T.
  • The Roaring '20s: In the sequences with the mothers' childhoods. More evident in An-mei and Ying-ying's stories, given how they were raised in wealthy families with some Western influence.
  • Rounded Character: A specifically-praised aspect of the novel is that it was among the most prominent to portray Chinese-American women as such.
  • Rule of Symbolism:
    • Linda and Harold's marriage is not-so-subtly symbolized by the bedside table he made in college: a huge slab of granite on spindly little legs that'll collapse under the slightest pressure. She finds it ugly and useless yet keeps it around because he likes it (much like the terms of their marriage), and often has to tiptoe around it. Around the same time that her mother's Armor-Piercing Question makes Linda aware of how dysfunctional their marriage is, his pitiful table collapses in the guest bedroom her mother is staying in.
    • Rose and Ted's garden. Her inability to make any choices means he decides everything, including the house's carefully trimmed yard. After they separate, she lets the garden become overrun with weeds due to her indecision. When he comes over to browbeat her into signing the divorce papers so he can remarry and move his new wife in, he declares his intention to rip up the yard to put in something new. This helps Rose find the strength to tell him "no." She declares that she likes the wild look of the yard and will fight him to keep the house, since she refuses to be a weed that he can just pluck up and throw out of his life.
  • Sexless Marriage: Lindo's and Tyan-yu's marriage, being he has no interest in her and is downright terrified at the idea of consummating the marriage. Also, there's the fact they're children when they're married.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: An-Mei's mother, whose beauty attracted Wu-Tsing enough that Second Wife was able to convince him to rape and marry her against her will.
  • Stage Mom: Suyuan and Lindo in regards to their daughters' piano playing and chess playing. Suyuan especially counts since the only reason Jing-Mei picked up the piano in the first place was that Suyuan was trying to force her into being a child star.
  • Strong Family Resemblance: "Together we look like our mother." Jing-Mei, finding her lost sisters.
  • There Are Two Kinds of People in the World: When Suyuan scolds little June for playing the piano badly, she tries telling the little girl that there are “Only two kinds of daughter: obedient or follow-own-mind. Only one kind of daughter could live in this house: obedient kind."
  • Trophy Wife: Wu-Tsing engages in concubinage to attain a few of them.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Waverly and Jing-Mei feel this about their mothers, who constantly compared each of their daughters to the other's.
  • You Are a Credit to Your Race: Implied by Ted's mother Mrs. Jordan when she speaks to Rose at an outdoor barbecue.
  • You Know What They Say About X...: Again implied by Mrs. Jordan to Rose.