Volume XIV, Number 1, Spring 2018

"Chinese Mothers as Allies of Patriarchy in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club" by Benarioua Amira

Benarioua Amira is a PhD student in the doctoral program of English Literature and Culture at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged. She is the recipient of a Stipendium Hungaricum grant of the Ministry of National Human Resources. In her doctoral research, she focuses on the political, social and cultural status of women in third world countries and on how patriarchy and sexism influence women’s lives and future. Her research interests include postmodernism, feminism, cultural studies, gender studies, sociology, and psychology. She also investigates the theme of female body, sexuality, and violence in minority women’s fiction by exploring different US minority cultures, including African and Caribbean. Email:

Abstract: In the present paper, I aim to investigate the concept of motherhood and its role in reinforcing male sexist stereotypes in the Chinese-American novel The Joy Luck Club (1989). The paper explores the controversial nature of motherhood and its implications on the psychological well-being of both the mother and daughter. Moreover, the paper displays the ambivalent role Chinese mothers play in the lives of their American born daughters and demonstrates the different factors and circumstances that affect the mothers’ behavior with their daughters. In China, the mother proves to be an oppressive force, an agent that along with the man works to enforce women’s inferiority and subordination.

Keywords: motherhood, mother-daughter conflict, female identity construction, cultural and patriarchal stereotypes

1. Introduction

Within the realm of minority literature, female minority writings have gained great attention over the last decades. Among the major themes that female writers attempt to tackle is motherhood. The role the mother plays in the life of various minorities, and more precisely in the life of the daughters, brings the theme of motherhood too into a rather controversial debate. Taking into consideration the patriarchal nature of those communities, critics argue in various ways on the role of the mother in the daughter’s life. Many consider the mother as a sole patriarchal agent, who along with men, encourages male domination and, as such, women’s submissiveness. Others hold the idea that the mother can be an empowering figure, even a domestic institution that ambitiously aims at liberating her daughter(s) from the gender inequalities of the culture in which they live.

Minority female writings tend to emphasize experiences of immigrant women and their culturally hybrid daughters, focusing more and more on the mother-daughter bond as an ambivalent relationship. Chinese-American women writers focus on the influence of cultural issues on this link, suggesting that Chinese mothers’ relationships with their daughters is always affected by the impact of both the Chinese culture and the American one. This article looks into the implications of the concept of motherhood and aspects of mother-daughter relationships in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club in order to find out about the role of Asian American mothers in maintaining patriarchal power relations in their daughters’ American lives.

Tan’s departure as a young female writer was surrounded by a sexist, Chinese mentality and a racist, American environment, yet it was very successful and influential. The Joy Luck Club was the first literary experience that translated Tan’s gift and talent, which were apparently clear for the Western readers, who considered the work as one of the notable books that enriched American literature (Dong 95).The novel received positive feedbacks from distinct reviewers who appreciated the narrative structure and the complex themes of the novel which made an excellent combination of sociology and literature. While commenting on the novel, Merle Rubin praised Tan’s storytelling abilities and her creative narrative structure: “each story is a gem, complete in itself. Yet each is further enhanced by its relationship (direct or indirect) with the others” (13). Far from plot development and narrative strategy, Rubin explains how each chapter in the novel can be a short story in itself. What is really fascinating about Tan’s style is the authenticity she uses while depicting aspects of her Chinese culture, I think this is what makes her works particular and unique. Helen Yglesias is one of the critics who saw the particularization of Chinese culture as one of Tan’s greatest talents:

It is through vivid minutiae that Amy Tan more often exercises her particular charm….Once again I found myself reading Amy Tan all night, unable to put the story down until I knew what happened in the end, sniffling when I got to the sad bits . . . and finally going to sleep at dawn with the conviction that Amy Tan had provided an education for the heart. (99)

The Joy Luck Club is a journey of self-discovery that draws upon the stories of four Chinese women who experienced poverty, fear and loss in pre-revolutionary China, and of their four American daughters who enjoyed their lives in San Francesco Bay, ostensibly the land of unlimited opportunities (Rosales 4). Throughout the novel, Tan focuses on the intergenerational and intercultural connection between the mothers and daughters by explaining the relationship between the difficulties and hardships that Chinese mothers encountered in their traditional culture, and the hopeful future in the modern and civilized society which is granted to their American-born daughters.

The novel is divided into four sections, each of which is divided into four chapters, with sixteen narratives telling the stories of four sets of mothers and daughters. The four sections of the book recount fascinating stories about interesting female characters. The first section entitled “Feather from Thousand Li Away” opens with death of Suyuan Woo and her daughter’s consequent decision to visit China to meet her Chinese twin half -sisters whom she has never met before as they were abandoned by their mother due to war atrocities. The first section comprises different stories based on the mothers’ childhoods and past lives in China (Rosales 5). The second section, “The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates,” consists of several episodes from the daughters’ childhoods in San Francesco China Town. In the third section, “American Translation,” the American born daughters talk about the important and awkward incidents they experienced with their Chinese mothers. The fourth and final section, “Queen Mothers of the Western Skies,” opens with the arrival of Jing-mei in China to meet her twin sisters.

The nature of mother-daughter relationships in the US context remains the most central theme in diverse discussions of the novel. On the one hand, the novel shows how motherhood can be one of the oppressing tools of patriarchy. On the other hand, it has also been argued that the novel presents a solution to the conflicting mother-daughter relationships eventually; in this paper I wish to focus on this ambiguity of the mother-daughter relation. I will investigate the nature of these relationships in order to find out if mothers maintain patriarchal gender roles in their own marriages and families, as well as in those of their daughters. I wish to show the mother’s complicity in maintaining patriarchal values and discuss their roles in their daughters’ lack of confidence and happiness. In order to do this, I have divided my essay into three sections. The first section will examine the restrains on women exerted by patriarchal societies through probing into Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club with a focus on ancient and modern Chinese gender roles. The second section will revolve around forms of the mothers’ submission to patriarchal orders in the US context and on how Chinese mothers are poorly treated both in their native patriarchal Chinese society and in their new, American social context. Finally, the third section will investigate how the conflict between immigrant mothers and their westernized daughters is an immediate result of the cultural clash that both mother and daughters figures experience in a foreign society. The reason behind the choice of the work is the strong desire to explore the magical tie that links mothers and daughters. Motherhood is considered to be one of the most fascinating female experiences. This experience is subject to debate and controversy. As a result this article seeks to answer many questions related to one of the most crucial women’s roles, for example how does motherhood not reflect a sense of love, protection and security or in what way can it embody confinement, oppression and subjugation? Going as far as to question why hybridity is not as positive as it is generally thought to be.

The relationship between the mother and child has gained recognition in the world of representation mainly because of the role the mother plays in the child’s social and psychological development. More precisely, the relationship between a mother and her daughter has inspired many feminist and psychoanalytic studies about the concept of motherhood. To prove whether the mother-daughter relationship is a tool for hindering patriarchy or reinforcing it, first I examined it from the point of view of feminist theory. Feminists view motherhood as an important factor in the construction of the female identity. The role that the mother performs, determines her daughters’ identity. Feminists differ in interpreting the relation that links mothers with patriarchy. Shulamith Firestone, Betty Friedan and Kate Millet perceive motherhood as one of the most oppressive roles of women. Once the woman accepts to be a mother, she will automatically renounce her ambition. Other feminists, like, Mary O’Brien, Adrienne Rich and Marianne Hirsch view motherhood from a different angle. For them, motherhood stands as one of the most empowering institutions. Secondly, I used the psychoanalytic approach to delve into the psyche of mothers and understand the mechanisms that mold their relationship with their daughters. The psychoanalytic theory explains why daughters are so attached and connected to their mothers, and why exactly mothers have such great impact on their daughter’s life, arguing that the mother is the primary object of love and admiration for the daughter.

2. Female Roles and Ancient China

Chinese expectations of regular gender behavior reflect strong patriarchal power relations among the characters of the novel. Various stories and scenes of the novel show women’s acceptance of being treated as subhuman beings and giving in to the forces of patriarchy. Women’s adherence to patriarchy, for instance, is demonstrated through the way Lindo Jong describes her experience with her first husband, Tyan-yu, and her mother-in-law, Huang Taitai. She says that

I learned to be an obedient wife. I learned to cook so well…I could sew such small stitches…Can you see how the Huangs almost washed their thinking into my skin? I came to think of Tyan-yu as a god, someone whose opinions were worth much more than my own life. I came to think of Huang Taitai as my real mother, someone I wanted to please, someone I should follow and obey without question. (Tan 50-51)

Despite the offensive treatment that Lindo Jong receives from her husband and her mother-in-law, she does not complain. On the contrary, she praises and glorifies her husband’s family.

Even after their immigration experience, the mothers come to America with the belief that women should obey their husbands and should never question their decisions or actions. In opposition to this, the Americanized daughters hold on to ideas of self-fulfillment and independence, therefore, they are unable to swallow their mothers’ patriarchal ideologies (Bouallegue, 72). Among the persistent images in the novel that illustrate the mothers’ constant support of patriarchy is when Suyuan Woo tells her daughter, Jing-mei: “Only two kind of daughters. Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient daughter!” (Tan, 142).

Patriarchy in China dates back centuries. Confucianism, which governed imperial China, was primarily characterized by an absolute inequality between men and women and this was greatly translated through the relationship between Qian and Kun; where Qian means heaven and Kun means Earth (Peng 149). Under the so called “Men must act and women must follow” the Qian and Kun metaphor was created to restrict women’s freedom and oblige them to be men’s subordinates. In other words, it transformed the relationship between men and women from an intimate bond to a servant and master relationship where men are always depicted as the first superior and women as last inferior. This comparison reflects the way Chinese people in ancient times used to look at both men and women. They used to attribute symbols of superiority, and things which are out of reach to men, and associate what is unworthy with women and link women with images of inferiority.

In the same way, Confucianists then insisted on the belief that women are inferior to the point that they should be classified with slaves and babies. They confine women to the attitudes of “Three Obedience” and “Four Virtues” by explaining that

[T]he Three Obedience enjoined a woman to obey her father before marriage, her husband after marriage, and her eldest son after her husband’s death. The Four Virtues decreed that she be chaste; her conversation courteous and not gossipy; her department graceful but not extravagant; her leisure spent in perfecting needlework and tapestry for beautifying the home. (qtd.in Peng 149)

This quotation also shows ancient Chinese views about a woman’s role in the home. According to which the woman should be pure, and must find pleasure only in doing the house work. This perception of women is indeed a humiliating one, with these beliefs leading the woman to deny her individuality and to devote her entire lifetime to serving and satisfying men. Another instance of female subordination and lack of authority concerning their own destiny is being forced into loveless marriages and producing children. In the context of the novel, Lindo Jong is forced to marry a young spoiled boy called Tyan-yu, while her mother does not attempt to aid her or save her from this troublesome marriage. On the contrary, her mother tries to instill in her patriarchal ideas and principles; and orders her to be obedient to her husband and to do whatever his mother, Huang Taitai, asks her to do (Peng 149). Furthermore, Lindo’s mother starts to make Lindo believe that she is no longer a part of this family, and that now she is Taitai’s daughter when she says: “Look how much Taitai’s daughter can eat” (Tan 45). The mother here is referring to her daughter as another’s daughter. In addition, Lindo is chosen as a future wife because of her physical capacities: the matchmaker, who has organized Lindo’s marriage, speaks to Huang Taitai about Lindo Jong telling her that “She is a strong horse. She will grow up to be a hard worker who serves you well in your old age.” (Tan 50) Thus, Huang Taitai decides to choose Lindo as the future wife for her spoiled son mainly because she can exploit her.

In patriarchal societies, women are considered sexual objects and tools for reproduction. The women in those societies are forced into marry at a very young age and are not allowed to choose their husbands. After getting married, the women find themselves obliged to embrace the traditional gender role – that of being a good wife, who should have no desire or ambition other than serving her family in law and bearing children for her husband, and making the family’s name survive forever by producing a son. By performing this task women will earn respect and ensure the continuity of past generations and traditions. Surprisingly, forcing women to marry and to give birth to children is not an action exercised by men only. A girl’s mother and her mother-in-law put much pressure on young women so much so that they can be more aggressive with the girls than their fathers or even husbands (Tan 62). This is also shown in the novel, when Huang Taitai wants to celebrate her son’s manhood and hence puts too much pressure on Lindo Jong who is required to produce children. Huang Taitai blames Lindo for not birthing children and accuses her of doing something that prevents her from conceiving a baby, saying, “My son says he’s planted enough seeds for thousands of grandchildren. Where are they? It must be you are doing something wrong” (62). Lindo considers such act as an oppressive one. She says, “And after that she confined me to the bed so that her grandchildren’s seeds wouldn’t spill out so easily. Oh, you think it is so much fun to lie in bed all day, never getting up. But I tell you it was worse than a prison” (62). The fear of losing family hierarchy and heritage was the major cause behind Hung Taitai’s insistence on the speedy delivery of a grandson. It was a matter of honor and pride for her; this is why she didn’t even think that the problem may be with her son — this is of course impossible in China where any problem is attributed to female malfunctioning, as especially when it comes to fertility a man’s status is never questioned.

In a similar vein to Lindo’s example, An-mei’s mother is hated by other women for not performing her gender roles properly. She is a widow who is hated and constantly humiliated for not having killed herself after her husband’s death and for remarrying. After being the concubine of the wealthy Wu Tsing, An-mei’s mother’s name is banned in the house, no one dares to pronounce her name and even An-mei is asked never to utter her mother’s name (Peng 150). Popo tells An-mei “To say her name is to spit on your father’s grave” (Tan 43). Surprisingly, it is An-mei’s grandmother, Popo, who insisted on making her daughter out to be a sinner. Thus, it was not only her patriarchal society that condemned An-mei’s mother, but also her own mother. Popo always refers to her daughter as an abhorrent woman who brought shame to the family (Peng 150). An-Mei starts her narrative by saying: “When I was a young girl in China, my grandmother told me my mother was a ghost. This did not mean my mother was dead. In those days, a ghost was anything we were forbidden to talk about. So I knew Popo wanted me to forget my mother on purpose, and this is how I came to remember nothing of her” (Tan 42). Popo does not cherish her daughter and does not stand by her side; she rather condemns her and wants her to be forgotten.

In the same way, Ying-ying’s mother and her governess repeatedly teach Ying-ying to be silent. They want her to be obedient and silent like her mother and all the Chinese women. Also, they aim to make Ying-ying grow up with the belief that boys can do whatever they want – unlike girls (Peng 151). Already in their early childhood, girls are instructed to be different from boys; they are warned that they cannot do what boys are doing. Ying-ying’s mother cautions her that “A boy can run and chase dragonflies, because that is his nature," she said. "But a girl should stand still. If you are still for a very long time, a dragonfly will no longer see you. Then it will come to you and hide in the comfort of your shadow” (Tan 72).

An-mei’s mother, who is hated in her family and forbidden to come into her parents’ house, advises her own daughter to conceal her sorrow and to act happy all the time. She tells her “tears do not wash away your sorrows. They feed someone else’s joy” (Tan 217). Although An-mei’s mother has suffered from the unbearable gender convictions of patriarchal Chinese society, she still believes in patriarchal ideas. Instead of hoping to make her daughter a strong independent woman, she is encouraging her to be silent like herself. She wants her to be a submissive, and thus successful girl. Mothers, therefore, tend to reinforce patriarchal stereotypes when they communicate with their daughters. For instance, the mothers tend to teach their daughters the unerring nature of man and that any mistake should be blamed on women. Lindo is taught that her husband is always right and that she must never contradict him, she even says “I came to think of Tyan-yu as a god, someone whose opinions were worth much more than my own life. I came to think of Huang Taitai as my real mother, someone I want to please, someone I should follow and obey without question” (Tan 56).

This evokes the practice of Chinese foot binding. Chinese mothers consistently remind their daughters of the importance of foot binding in securing a respectful family-in-law and a good husband. According to this tradition, the daughters are taught that small feet are more valuable for their mother-in-laws than the beauty of their face or bodies; which is given to them by nature (Blake 680). In China, attracting the mother-in-law is more decisive than pleasing the future husband, since she is responsible for arranging the marriage. Therefore, the mothers tend to bind their daughters’ feet in order to make them seem smaller and more attractive for the future mother-in-law. Notably, the mothers do not show sympathy for their daughters’ suffering, as they claim that a “mother could not love both her daughter and her daughter’s feet at the same time” (Blake 682). Instead of trying to put an end to this humiliating and painful lifelong ritual, the mother upholds this practice and binds her daughter’s feet herself.

It has often been suggested that foot binding is a tool for restricting women both physically and mentally. Men opt for a wife with bound feet in order to control her and to tie her down. Having her feet bound, the woman cannot move freely and cannot run out of the house to ask for help if the husband offends her or hurts her (Melo 10-11). This shows that what interests a man is not a beautiful woman but rather a manipulable one. He cherishes a woman who has bound feet in order to be able to manipulate her and to confine her movements.

3. Mother Identity Positions

From the perspective of American individualism, qualities of Chinese women that had been considered valuable in Old China, such as self-subordination, obedience, silence and so on, now appear as negative attitudes which help not only in creating American stereotypes of Asian femininity, but also act as an accomplice in the tragedies that befall the Asian mothers. The Joy Luck Club mothers decided to move to the United States in search of better conditions for themselves and for their daughters. However, their plans did not work, so the decision to relocate was not the best choice that they ever made (Peng, 7). Once forced to endure silence, mistreatment and marginalization under the patriarchal structure of their native ethnic culture, they now found themselves faced with racial discrimination and prejudices in the US. American racism saw those qualities that the women had acquired in China not as positive female features, but as negative values. Silence, submissiveness, obedience, dutifulness, domesticity all served to justify the Euro-American negative stereotypes about the Chinese minority. The mothers fled to the New Land with great expectations and hopes especially for their children, who they didn’t want to experience the feeling of fear and loss that they has. The nameless woman’s tale in the beginning of the novel summarizes the feelings and ambitions of all Chinese mothers, explaining that

[T]hen the woman and the swan sailed across an ocean many thousands of li wide, stretching their necks toward America. On her journey she cooed to the swan: In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch. Over there nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English. (Tan 17)

This story shows how Chinese women imagined the life and future of their daughters in America, they wanted a secure environment where their daughters would have a fresh start far from taboos and male domination. They wanted them to be judged by their personal achievements and potentials, not by the wealth or reputation of their husbands and families. One of the major reasons that the mothers chose the US in the first place is the strong belief in the power of the American Dream. The following quote explains how the mothers thought of the US as the land of opportunities, as while talking about her mother Jing-Mei said: “My mother believed you could be anything you wanted in America. You could open a restaurant. You could work for the government and get good retirement. You could buy a house with almost no money down. You could become rich. You could become instantly famous” (Tan 132). Basically this is the common idea that all immigrants share of the American Dream, they believe that any person despite ethnicity, gender and class can have access to the American lifestyle which includes a good education, a brilliant career, a decent house and a fancy car.

Arriving in the US, the mothers discovered the ugly truth of the American Dream, all the plans and hopes they had reached for were transformed into a mirage. Instead of freedom and happiness, the Chinese mothers found themselves faced with the racist mentality of American society which undermined the favorable qualities of the mothers and put much emphasis on their negative values to justify Euro-American stereotypes of Chinese minorities (Peng 5). The prologue in the first section describes the hostile treatment and disappointment that the Chinese mothers experienced as they stepped on the new land.

The old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum. This bird, boasted the market vendor, was once a duck that stretched its neck in hope of becoming a goose, and now look!—it is too beautiful to eat…. But when she arrived in the new country, the immigration officials pulled the swan away from her, leaving the woman fluttering her arms and with only one swan feather for a memory. (Tan 3-4)

The duck in the story symbolizes the mothers, who tried their best to escape silence and alienation because they believed they deserved more than the way they had lived in China. They had big dreams and intentions about a better future that awaited them and their daughters in America, but upon arrival they were soon disappointed and found themselves pulled forcefully into a tragic experience that was just as painful as patriarchy, if not worse. Chinese mothers were forced to deny their ethnic identity and cultural heritage in order to be accepted in American society. To do so they adopted the double-face strategy to comply with the rules of the game, just as Lindo Jong did.

It’s hard to keep your Chinese face in America. At the beginning, before I even arrived, I had to hide my true self. I paid an American-raised Chinese girl in Peking to show me how. "In America," she said, "you cannot say you want to live there forever. If you are Chinese, you must say you admire their schools, their way of thinking. You must say you want to be a scholar and come back to teach Chinese people what you have learned …. Be careful, though, she said: “The authorities there will ask you if you have children now or if you are thinking of having some. You must say no. You should look sincere and say you are not married. (Tan 258)

Lindo explains how she was obliged to say things that she did not mean, such as the fact that she admired life in the United States and that she had no plans to have children, to ensure her assimilation into the new society (Peng, 8). As part of the American rule, double-facedness was no longer an option for the Chinese mothers, instead becoming a necessity since they were not allowed to express their true selves and could not be who they were – the only way to argue their existence was by pretending. Another example is Ying-ying, who lost her Chinese identity and name, because she married an Irish man who changed her name to Betty St. Clair, arguing that this was the best way to be accepted in his society. However, Ying-ying realized that even that marriage could not save her from white racial discrimination. Lina describes her mother’s scene in the immigration department in the following:

She stayed there for three weeks, until they could process her papers and determine whether she was a War Bride, a Displaced Person, a Student, or the wife of a Chinese-American citizen. My father said they didn’t have rules for dealing with the Chinese wife of a Caucasian citizen. Somehow, in the end, they declared her a Displaced Person, lost in a sea of immigration categories. (Tan 104)

The way Lena describes the scene of her mother in the immigration office really translates the difficulties and problems that immigrants and minorities encounter within the immigration system. Even after spending hours on paperwork, Ying-Ying couldn’t be properly recognized or classified by the immigration officer. The Chinese mothers realize that all their attempts to please their environment were unsuccessful because of institutional racism and not because of their personal failure.

Unfortunately, the Chinese mothers who have long suffered from male authoritative attitudes in China find themselves living in an oppressive racist society. This society is uninterested in their origins and culture, and considers them personally as passive, ignorant and uncivilized beings (Peng 5). Instead of fulfilling their dream to obtain autonomy, the mothers are faced with the reality of a racist American society which perceives them as the Other. The racial hostility of American society is thereby focused on through descriptions of how female characters, either as mothers or daughters, are hardly surviving the pressure from a white society which deprives them of the basic right to enjoy their lives and womanhood. While describing the interaction between the American world and the Chinese one, Tan wanted to show how the American born daughters, just like their mothers, were perceived as foreigners in many cases. The scene between Rose and her mother-in-law is one of the most overt images of racism in the book. Rose said:

And then she spoke quietly about Ted’s future, his need to concentrate on his medical studies, why it would be years before he could even think about marriage. She assured me she had nothing whatsoever against minorities; she and her husband, who owned a chain of office-supply stores, personally knew many fine people who were Oriental, Spanish, and even black. But Ted was going to be in one of those professions where he would be judged by a different standard, by patients and other doctors who might not be as understanding as the Jordans were. She said it was so unfortunate the way the rest of the world was, how unpopular the Vietnam War was. (Tan 118)

At a family picnic, Mrs. Jordan made it clear to Rose that she is displeased by her son’s relationship with her. Being a member of a minority race was not something acceptable in Ted’s family, simply because Rose would be a source of embarrassment and shame, and that she would definitely harm Ted’s career and reputation.

Living in such a racially hostile environment where the majority is white, the mothers felt the absence of security and stability, especially when they realized that all their attempts to gain recognition would fail because western thinking will always perceive them as exotic (Peng 5). As a consequence, the mothers were determined to live as if they were in China by celebrating their customs and cultural heritage as a manner of challenging the negative stereotypes imposed on them. The Chinese mothers were willing to raise and cultivate their American born daughters by instilling in them all the old Chinese values such as obedience, self-sacrifice and respect for the family (Hast 18), as a resistance to racial hostility in the US. Despite all of the suffering and obstacles that all of the Chinese mothers had faced in China and America, Suyuan explains the motif behind creating the Joy Luck Club:

It’s not that we had no heart or eyes for pain. We were all afraid. We all had our miseries. But to despair was to wish for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable…What was worse, to sit and wait for our own deaths with proper somber faces? Or to choose our own happiness? So we decided to hold parties and pretend each week had become the New Year. Each week we could forget past wrongs done to us. We weren’t allowed to think a bad thought. We feasted, we laughed, we played games, lost and won, we told the best stories. And each week we could hope to be lucky. That hope was our only joy. And that’s how we came to call our little parties Joy Luck. (Tan 25)

The foundation of the Joy Luck Club was Suyuan’s idea to preserve a Chinese tradition she used to have back in the 1940s when she was married to a Chinese soldier during the Sino-Japanese War. It was a kind of family reunion where a community of women met to talk, laugh and share ideas (Borhan and Anushiravani 114). Women who were strong enough to challenge the intricacies of the new culture and prove that neither patriarchy nor racism was going to get in the way of their happiness and luck. They were determined to live and enjoy their cultural heritage to the fullest, and no matter what would happen they would always be proud of their ethnic identity. The Chinese mothers were willing to raise and cultivate their American-born daughters by instilling in them all the old Chinese values such as obedience, self-sacrifice and respect for the family. If we talk about sacrifice and family value, Lindo Jong is the best example since she accepted becoming part of an arranged loveless marriage just to preserve her parents’ honor and prevent them from shame and disgrace. She said that she

once sacrificed my life to keep my parents’ promise. This means nothing to you, because to you promises mean nothing. A daughter can promise to come to dinner, but if she has a headache, if she has a traffic jam, if she wants to watch a favorite movie on TV, then she no longer has a promise. (Tan 49)

Lindo believes that her daughter and the younger generation in the Joy Luck Club do not understand the real value of a promise. While comparing herself to her daughter, she discovers that she has a stronger sense of responsibility and familial commitment than her daughter Waverly. Observing her daughters’ attitudes and indifference toward her family, especially her mother, Lindo starts to blame herself for raising Waverly to become this kind of woman:

It’s my fault she is this way. I wanted my children to have the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character. How could I know these two things do not mix? I taught my daughter how American circumstances work. If you are born poor here, it’s no lasting shame. . . . In America, nobody says you have to keep the circumstances somebody else gives you. She learned these things, but I couldn’t teach her about Chinese character . . . How not to show your own thoughts, to put your feelings behind your face so you can take advantage of hidden opportunities. . . . Why Chinese thinking is best. (Tan 289)

Lindo thought she could teach her children how to create a balance between the Chinese self and the American self. This mixed cultural identity was something that Lindo had always dreamt of for her children, ignoring the consequences of the combination of Chinese and American cultures. When Waverly grew up Lindo discovered that American and Chinese cultures could not be mixed as they are two different extremes which cannot be transformed into something unified, simply because no culture is perfect (Ying, 160). In other words, the American culture is not the ideal culture that it appears to be on the surface – it is not always characterized by autonomy and liberty – and the Chinese culture is not always related to taboos, submission and obedience either.

4. Daughters’ Clash with Mothers

Observing their daughters only take interest in American consumerist dreams added to the mothers’ suffering. They felt the threat of losing everything they had once sacrificed their happiness and lives for: not only their husbands, their marriages, their happiness, but their daughters as well (Peng 5). Meanwhile, their daughters were admirers of American culture, ready to take any risk in order to be accepted by society, even if this meant rebelling against the Chinese values of respect and obedience to parents. The novel portrays the conflicts and tensions between Western and Eastern cultures through the stories of mothers and daughters who are struggling to claim their existence as independent persons and to fulfill their desire to possess stable autonomous identities as women (Wang 85). Chinese mothers are presented as advocates of Chinese cultural heritage incorporating all the traditions and values that they wished to instill in their American daughters (Peng, Zhao, and Liu 2). The daughters, however, become fascinated with the values of American consumer society. Thus, they favored individualism and materialism over family connections and obeying their mothers’ instructions – the values of Chinese patriarchal society. The Chinese mothers sacrificed their own lives and happiness in order to make their daughters happy. The mothers teach their daughters the real essence of family, and secure a better environment for them to be able to achieve all that the mothers had failed to reach in terms of education, career, and love. However, the daughters are careless regarding the mothers’ Chinese past, because they consider it as a threat to their own reception and acceptance in America.

The daughters were always expected to behave the way their mothers wanted them to. Jing-mei described the pressure that her mother Suyuan used to put on her by comparing her poor achievements to Waverly, who was a source of pride and glory to her mother Lindo. Jing-mei realized that all her mother’s attempts to make her a genius by playing the piano or by learning the names of capitals by heart were not beneficial at all. Her mother, Suyuan, must accept her just the way she is to avoid all the disappointment and pain that both female figures endured. Jing-mei says: “Why don’t you like me the way I am! I’m not a genius! I can’t play the piano. And even if I could, I wouldn’t go on TV if you paid me a million dollars!” (Tan 136). In turn, Waverly Jong remembered the happiness and pride she brought to her family as a junior chess champion, but also remembers that she was embarrassed and annoyed by her mother because she hated the way that Lindo used her success to show off. One day Waverly, fed up with Lindo’s behavior, decided to confront her: “Why do you have to use me to show off? If you want to show off, then why don’t you learn to play chess” (Tan 99). Waverly wanted people to know her own person, to respect her for her personality and spirit, rather than because she was a child prodigy or a chess champion.

The Joy Luck Club mothers and daughters feel that the cultural gap and tension between them grows larger every day. On the one hand, the daughters refuse to listen to their mothers’ advice and stories, considering them as old-fashioned ideas that are distant from the American modern life-style, which requires reasonable and pragmatic thinking (Hast, 46). On the other hand, the mothers who were raised to sallow pain and misery without any complaint have great expectations for their daughters’ future, ignoring the results of combining old Chinese values with dominant American ones. Thus, the mothers are often disappointed by seeing their daughters, who represent all their hopes and dreams, transformed into identical American dolls, who succeed in gaining prestigious positions in society but somehow fail to be successful as daughters, mothers and partners.

Throughout the novel, Amy Tan discusses the daughters’ attitudes toward Chinese culture, which seems to be way too traditional for them. For them, all the memories and the stories told by the mothers were just fairy tales, which existed only in their mothers’ minds. The daughters became obsessed with the American female model in terms of perfect physical appearance, affluence, and also that of the successful professional career. A prominent example of the daughters’ fascination with American culture is their perfect use of American English in contrast to their mothers’ poor English. The generational gap between mothers and daughters is deepened further by cultural and linguistic differences (Samir 1). At diverse instances, the lack of communication lead the American-born daughters to treat their mothers as strangers. The lack of communication is shown as the major obstacle that prevented the Chinese mothers and their American daughters from reconciliation and mutual understanding of their hybrid identity (Bouallegue 71). Though they have lived in the United States for a long time, the Chinese mothers failed to learn English well. Meanwhile, the daughters refused to speak Chinese, because they were afraid that this would hinder their assimilation to American society. Jing-mei was the first daughter to voice the problem of communication: “My mother and I spoke two different languages, which we did. I talked to her in English, she answered back in Chinese … We translated each other’s meaning and I seemed to hear less than what was said, while my mother heard more” (Tan 34-37). The daughters’ lack of any knowledge or contact with their ancestral language enlarged the cultural gap between them and their mothers. The American daughters’ primary interest was to gain fluency in English, even if this meant denying and rejecting Chinese culture which they perceived as exotic and primitive. June was not the only figure who showed discomfort with her mother speaking Chinese and possessing Chinese attitudes – Lena St. Clair also shared the same attitude (Wong 19). Lena describes her mother’s speech as ‘Chinese nonsense’: “why are you doing these I asked her? I asked, afraid she would give me a true answer " But she whispered some Chinese non sense instead” (Tan 108). The daughter’s state of mind toward her mother remains ambivalent. Ying-Ying also considered her mothers’ sayings as illogical and nonsensical. The reason that the daughters see their mother’s speech as nonsense is because this speech is purely Chinese, which is totally obscure to them, as they rather considered speaking perfect American English as their ticket to middle class America.

Chinese values and norms seem to be totally distinct from American or Western ones for the daughters. Thus, even though the daughters have a Chinese appearance and have been raised by Chinese mothers who often celebrate and glorify Chinese customs and traditions, it is difficult for the daughters to relate and adapt to their ancestral heritage because they are living in a larger context which is so demanding of them in terms of American materialism and consumerism (Wong 26). These contradictions in terms of communication, culture and perception ended up in conflicts that turn the relationship between the mothers and daughters into a troublesome and ambivalent one.

As culture is presented as a key component in the novel it is important to comprehend the factors behind the cultural clash between the mothers and daughters and to grasp the differences between both cultures in terms of concepts and values. (Golchin 9). While Chinese culture favors submission and respect, American culture puts much more emphasis on freedom, individualism and material comfort. As the cultural concepts and priorities differ from one context to another, this leads into conflicts and tensions between the female figures in the novel. One story told by Jing-mei reflects the cultural clash between the mothers and daughters perfectly, as Jing-mei was the victim of Suyuan’s dreams and ambitions. Suyuan lost her twin daughters in China and came to America with great expectations: that her third daughter Jing-mei would be a successful woman. Thus, the mother refused to accept her daughter the way she was, and she tried to transform her daughter into a genius of a girl by all means. This enraged Jing-mei, who decided to stick to her own choice and rebel against her mother’s pressure: “I had new thoughts, willful thoughts, or rather thoughts filled with lots of won’ts. I won’t let her change me, I promised myself. I won’t be what I’m not” I was determined to put a stop to her foolish pride” (Tan 134). The daughter explains how she decided to stand up to her mother, who wanted to transform her into a Chinese doll that could be controlled, wishing only to fulfill the desires of the mother. Jing-mei symbolizes all of the values of American individualism, and this is why she wants her mother to accept her own choices and decisions.

Another important reason that often leads to cultural conflict between mothers and daughters is class difference. The mothers came from rural China and can neither grasp nor appreciate the luxurious life of their daughters, who built successful professional careers and enjoyed the material comfort that American culture offered them. Thus, the daughters were transformed into model American middle-class women but with Chinese features (Bouallegue 73). The scene in the beauty salon gives a good understanding of the class difference between Lindo Jong and her daughter, Waverly. The mother expresses her disappointment while her daughter is trying to speak for her as if she had no voice:

And now she says to me in a loud voice, as if I had lost my hearing" Isn’t that right, Ma? No too tight?" I smile. I use my American face. That’s the face Americans think is Chinese. The one they cannot understand. But inside I am becoming ashamed. I am ashamed she is ashamed. Because she is my daughter and I am proud of her, and I her mother but she is not proud of me. (Tan, 255)

After their visit to the beauty parlor Lindo Jong becomes more aware of the differences between her and Waverly. The daughter’s irresponsible behavior was clear evidence that she was ashamed of her mother’s Chinese appearance. Although, Waverly decided instead of her mother, ignoring her opinion, Lindo tries to keep her American face as if her daughter’s manipulative manner didn’t pain her. While the daughter was embarrassed by her Chinese mother, Lindo assured her that she would always be proud of her whatever happened.

To sum up, the mothers wish their daughters to be successful in American society without losing their Chinese characteristics. (Wang and Lui 144). The daughters feel that their mothers are a source of embarrassment with their fractured English and their fancy-colored dresses. This is why the daughters decide to leave all the Chinese manners behind and break free from the gravity of the Chinese traditions


Amy Tan is one of the leading writers to defy patriarchal attitudes and rebel against negative images of Chinese women, and her novel, The Joy Luck Club, is a celebration of motherhood. However, Tan transcends the traditional meaning of motherhood, choosing not to portray it as an ideal, perfect experience. Motherhood, in this instance, is characterized instead as a condition with great confusion and uncertainty.

In this article, I depicted mothers as agents of patriarchy through the analysis of Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. The book emphasizes the main reasons that lead women to adopt misogynist attitudes towards other women. The first factor is women’s fear of marginalization and alienation. Because of the strong impact that Confucian ideas possess in Chinese society, women tend to confirm male centered norms of society, and this eagerness for conformity is strengthened by their great apprehension of being rejected by their loved ones. The second part of the article shows another reason behind the mothers’ repression of their daughters’ freedom – the racist reality of America has a powerful impact on mother-daughter relationships. Mothers who suffer from marginalization in American society come to hate all that is American, and in the process of detaching themselves from American influence, they come to view even their daughters’ Western manners as intimidating. Violence against their daughters can be considered as an outlet for the anger and frustration these mothers feel. The last reason lies mainly in the differences of cultural values. Chinese culture lays a great importance on communal life and the daughters’ obedience, whereas the American culture values individualism and self-fulfillment. The mothers expect their daughters to show respect, obedience and sacrifice for the family. However, the American-born daughters perceive their mothers’ interference as a threat to their freedom.

The novel also shows the strong influence mothers can have in their daughters’ lives. The mothers’ unconditional love for the daughters leads them to transgress all the misogynist barriers that hamper their daughters’ ambition and emancipation. One of the most essential ways adopted by the mothers to overcome patriarchy is immigration. Influenced by the idea of the American dream, these mothers are determined to leave patriarchal China and flee to America where they would enjoy freedom, joy and luck. It is worth mentioning that the negative role that the mothers may play in the daughters’ lives stems from the great love that they feel for the daughters. Out of love and fear of the dangers that can threaten their daughters, The Joy Luck Club’s mothers tend to adopt patriarchal dictates.


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