Historical Perspective

A Historical China

While The Joy Luck Club was published in 1989, it is set in pre-World War II China and contemporary San Francisco. The two Settings strengthen the contrast between the cultures that Tan depicts through her Characters and their relationships. Pre-World War II China was a country heavily embroiled in conflict. San Francisco, however, offered freedom and peace. In writing the novel, Tan wanted to portray not only the importance of mother/daughter relationships but also the dignity of the Chinese people.

China’s history covers years of tradition, yet also decades of change. While the Chinese people consistently honor the personal qualities of dignity, respect, self-control, and obedience, they have not so continually pledged allegiance to their leaders. The first documented Chinese civilization was the Shang dynasty (1570?-1045? bc). Various dynasties ruled over the years, ending with the Qing (Manchu) dynasty in 1911. The dynasties saw peace, expansion, and technological and artistic achievement as well as warfare and chaos. Foreign intervention, particularly by Japan, created instability in the country, and internal struggles often prevented the Chinese from uniting. The area of Manchuria in northeast China, while legally belonging to China, had many Japanese investments such as railways and as such was under the control of the Japanese. This led to anti-Manchu sentiment and an eventual revolution. After civil war and additional strife, the Nationalists and Communists fought the Japanese in the second Sino-Japanese War and won when Japan was defeated by the Allies in 1945.

It is just before this victory that the mothers’ stories start. Japanese aggression led to a foreign military presence on Chinese soil, and Suyuan’s story in particular details the flight from the invading Japanese that was made by many Chinese. After World War II, with Japan preoccupied in recovering from their defeat, China once again became embroiled in a civil war between the Nationalists, who had been in power for several years, and the Communists, who wished to establish a new form of government. The civil war ended in 1949 with the formation of the People’s Republic of China, and the Communists have held power in China since then.

B Chinese Immigration to America

After the United States abolished slavery after the Civil War, freeing many of the African Americans who had worked in fields and farms, there arose a great need for manual laborers. Migrants from China filled a large part of this need, especially in the West, where rapid expansion required people to build railroads and towns. Although greatly outnumbered by white immigrants from European nations, the number of Chinese arriving in America alarmed white settlers in the West. In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States. Although there were less than 300,000 total Asian immigrants to the U.S. in the years between 1880 and 1909, immigration restrictions on Chinese and other Asians were tightened in 1902 and again in 1917. These laws were repealed in 1943, and in 1965 Congress passed a law which abolished immigration quotas based on national origin. In the 1980s and 1990s, China has placed in the top ten countries sending legal immigrants to the U.S. (illegal immigration is a growing problem), with almost 39,000 immigrants admitted in 1992.

Chinese immigrants often faced considerable prejudice in their new country. In the early part of the century, Chinese immigrant children attended segregated schools in the “Chinatowns” where they lived. During World War II, when Japanese Americans faced hostility and internment because of Japan’s involvement in the war, Chinese Americans also encountered prejudice from people who mistook them as Japanese, although they were not deprived of property by the government. This struggle for acceptance is reflected in the novel as both mothers and daughters wish to excel in “American” society. Just as the United States has learned to value to contributions of Americans of various backgrounds, however, the daughters in The Joy Luck Club learn to value their own Chinese heritage.

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