Plot Summary

The Joy Luck Club consists of sixteen interlocking stories about the lives of four Chinese immigrant women and their four American-born daughters. In 1949, the four immigrants meet at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco and agree to continue to meet to play mah jong. They call their mah jong group the Joy Luck Club. The stories told in this novel revolve around the Joy Luck Club women and their daughters.

A Feathers from a Thousand Li Away

In “The Joy Luck Club,” Jing-Mei Woo remembers her recently deceased mother, Suyuan Woo, who founded the Joy Luck Club. During World War II, Suyuan Woo escapes from Kweilin on foot before the Japanese invade the city. The difficulty of the escape forces Suyuan to abandon her two twin baby girls. At the first mah-jongg meeting after Suyuan Woo’s funeral, the Joy Luck Club “aunts” inform Jing-Mei that the twin girls are alive in China and suggest that she visit her half sisters to bring them the news of the death of Suyuan.

The childhood of An-Mei Hsu, one of the older women, is related in “Scar.” In the story, An-Mei Hsu’s mother leaves her family to become a concubine of Wu Tsing, a rich merchant. An-Mei is brought up by her grandmother, Popo. In an attempt to heal Popo on her deathbed, An-Mei’s mother returns to cut off a piece of flesh from her own arm to make soup for Popo, but Popo still dies.

Lindo Jong, another of the mothers, explains her own childhood in “The Red Candle,” recounting her escape from an unfortunate marriage. Promised in marriage at two and delivered at twelve, Lindo Jong finds herself living with a husband who doesn’t love her and a mother-in-law whose only interest is for Lindo to produce grandchildren. Finally, Lindo fabricates a dream vision which predicts the destruction of the family if the family does not annul her marriage. In the end, the family gives her enough money to fly to the United States.

In “The Moon Lady,” Ying-Ying St. Clair, the third surviving mother, remembers falling into the Tai Lake, one of the largest lakes in China, during a Moon Festival boating event. The four-year-old Ying-Ying is rescued from the water by strangers and left on the shore. She wanders into an outdoor opera which stages the story of the wish-granting Moon Lady. After the opera, Ying-Ying approaches the Moon Lady to make a wish to be found by her family, only to discover that the Moon Lady is played by a man.

B The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates

This section relates important childhood stories of the Joy Luck Club’s American-born daughters. In “Rules of the Game,” Waverly Jong recalls being a national chess champion. When she is nine, Waverly’s relationship with her mother becomes tense after she tells her mother not to brag about her in the marketplace. Another difficult relationship is portrayed by Lena St. Clair in “The Voice from the Wall,” as Lena remembers her mother’s nervous breakdown and the noise of fights between a neighbor girl and her Italian family. At first Lena is full of pity for the Italian girl, thinking the girl has an unhappy life. Later, Lena learns that the neighbors’ fighting and shouting are ways of expressing their love. However, in Lena’s home, her mother lies quietly in bed or babbles to herself on the sofa.

In “Half and Half,” Rose Hsu Jordan, about to be divorced from her American husband, recounts how her mother lost faith in God after a failed attempt to revive her youngest son, who drowned during a family beach outing. Despite her loss of religious faith, Rose’s mother insists that Rose try to have faith in her marriage. Finally, in “Two Kinds,” Jing-Mei Woo remembers her mother’s high expectations for her to become a prodigy. But the question plaguing her is what kind of prodigy? Her agonizing quest to meet her mother’s expectations ends up in an embarrassing piano recital failure.

C American Translation

This section follows the Joy Luck children as adult women, all facing various conflicts. In “Rice Husband,” Lena St. Clair narrates her marital problems. She has often feared that she is inferior to her husband, who is also her boss at work and who makes seven times more than she does. Lena’s husband takes advantage of her by making her pay half of all household expenses. Waverly Jong is concerned about her mother’s opinion of her white fiance in “Four Directions.” Waverly recalls quitting chess after becoming angry at her mother in the marketplace. Believing that her mother still has absolute power over her and will object to her forthcoming marriage to Rich, Waverly confronts her mother after a dinner party and realizes that her mother has known all along about her relationship with Rich and has accepted him.

In “Without Wood,” Rose Hsu Jordan tries to sort out her own marital problems. After her husband reveals that he will be marrying someone else, Rose finally realizes she will have to fight for her rights. In the end, she refuses to sign the conditions set forth by her husband’s divorce papers. Jing-Mei Woo’s problems are still related to her mother. In “Best Quality,” she remembers the Chinese New Year’s dinner of the previous year. During the dinner Jing-Mei has an argument with Waverly over an advertisement Jing-Mei has written for Waverly’s company. Realizing that Jing-Mei has been humiliated, Suyuan Woo, Jing-Mei’s mother, gives her a necklace with a special jade pendant called “life’s importance.” After her mother dies, Jing-Mei wishes she had found out what “life’s importance” meant.

D Queen Mother of the Western Skies

This section of the novel returns to the viewpoints of the mothers as adults dealing with difficult choices. In “Magpies,” An-Mei Hsu recalls moving to Tientsin with her mother, the third concubine of Wu Tsing, a rich merchant. In Wu Tsing’s mansion, An-Mei witnesses her mother’s awkward and lowly position. Finally, An-Mei’s mother, fed up with her shameful life and abuse from the merchant’s powerful second wife, poisons herself two days before Chinese New Year, so her “vengeful spirit” can return to haunt the family.

In “Waiting Between the Trees,” Ying-Ying St. Clair remembers being abandoned by her first husband, who was a womanizer. Later, Ying-Ying marries an American whom she does not love. Marriage also figures in “Double Face,” in which Lindo Jong recalls arriving in San Francisco and later working in a fortune cookie factory. In the factory, together with An-Mei Hsu, Lindo finds a fortune cookie slip which she uses to put the idea of marriage into her boyfriend’s head.

The final story is a pivotal episode which brings together the experiences of mothers and daughters. In “A Pair of Tickets,” Jing-Mei Woo flies to China with her father to visit the twin babies that her mother had been forced to abandon while fleeing the Japanese. Finally, after years of refusing to embrace her heritage, Jing-Mei accepts the Chinese blood in her when she meets her half sisters: I look at their faces again and I see no trace of my mother in them. Yet they still look familiar. And now I also see what part of me is Chinese. It is so obvious. It is my family. It is in our blood. After all these years, it can finally be let go.

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