The Joy Luck Club

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Ying-ying St. Clair Character Analysis

Ying-ying is the narrator of “The Moon Lady” and “Waiting Between the Trees.” Though outwardly appearing as the quietest and most meek of the Joy Luck Club members, Ying-ying identifies as a Tiger in the Chinese Zodiac, meaning she has a fierce and cunning nature. She loses her Tiger spirit following the end of her first marriage and a vengeful abortion; by the time she meets and marries Clifford St. Clair, she is barely a shadow of her former spirited self. As an adult, Ying-ying is a distant mother to Lena, until she sees her daughter approaching a divorce and believes she can help her.

Ying-ying St. Clair Quotes in The Joy Luck Club

The The Joy Luck Club quotes below are all either spoken by Ying-ying St. Clair or refer to Ying-ying St. Clair. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Mother-Daughter Relationships Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Books edition of The Joy Luck Club published in 2006.
Part 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

All these years I kept my true nature hidden, running along like a small shadow so nobody could catch me. And because I moved so secretly now my daughter does not see me. She sees a list of things to buy, her checkbook out of balance, her ashtray sitting crooked on a straight table. And I want to tell her this: we are lost, she and I, unseen and not seeing, unheard and not hearing, unknown by others

Related Characters: Ying-ying St. Clair (speaker), Lena St. Clair
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

In this strange story, we learn that Ying-ying has acted meek, quiet, and lost for most of her life. Furthermore, for many years, Ying-ying didn't even remember why she felt so lost. As a result, Ying-ying never really connected with her daughter, Lena. Instead of feeling a deep connection with her mother, Lena acted aloof and distant, and focused on material things like shopping lists instead of her almost-invisible mother.

The passage conveys the tragedy of broken down communication: Ying-ying loves her daughter, and yet she can't fully express her feelings, for reasons she can barely recall. The divide between Ying-ying and Lena is cultural as well as psychological: it's her past experiences in China, experiences that Lena knows nothing about, that have kept Ying-ying feeling so lost and secretive.

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“What is a secret wish?”
“It is what you want but cannot ask,” said Amah.
"Why can’t I ask?"
"This is because…because if you ask it…it is no longer a wish but a selfish desire," said Amah. "Haven’t I taught you – that it is wrong to think of your own needs? A girl can never ask, only listen."

Related Characters: Ying-ying St. Clair (speaker), Amah (speaker)
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Ying-ying remembers an episode from her childhood in which her nurse, Amah, told her not to openly ask for anything in life. Ying-ying was a young, impressionable child, and Amah told her that she shouldn't "disgrace" herself by voicing her own desires. Instead, Amah explained, Ying-ying should limit herself to secret wishes; i.e., wishes that she never actually expressed.

The passage shows the way that Chinese culture sometimes encourages people, especially women, to be meek and submissive instead of expressing their true feelings. Authority figures like Amah mean well, and yet they perpetuate sexism by ordering children to swallow their desires--a surefire recipe for unhappiness later on in life.

Part 3, Chapter 1 Quotes

To this day, I believe my mother has the mysterious ability to see things before they happen. She has a Chinese saying for what she knows. Chunwang chihan: if the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold. Which means, I suppose, one thing is always the result of another.

Related Characters: Lena St. Clair (speaker), Ying-ying St. Clair
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Lena discusses her mother's apparent ability to predict the future. Over the years, Lena has noticed that her mother can predict when something bad is going to happen to a family member. Notice that the events Ying-ying can predict are almost always bad--a fact reflected in the wording of the proverb she quotes here. If the "lips are gone," we're told, "the teeth will be cold"; suggesting, perhaps, that tragedies are always tied to one another.

The notion that one tragedy breeds another is important to the plot of the book. Many of the events in the novel are cyclical: characters who were wronged later cause similar wrongs for other people, whether they're trying to do so or not. Thus, the passage could be interpreted as an observation not just about tragedies predicted by Ying-ying, but about the interconnectedness of all tragedy and suffering.

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Ying-ying St. Clair Character Timeline in The Joy Luck Club

The timeline below shows where the character Ying-ying St. Clair appears in The Joy Luck Club. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 1: The Joy Luck Club
Storytelling and Tradition Theme Icon
Fate and Autonomy Theme Icon
...1949 with new participants, after immigrating to California and meeting An-mei Hsu, Lindo Jong, and Ying-ying St. Clair at the San Francisco Refugee Welcome Center. In the eyes of these women,... (full context)
Mother-Daughter Relationships Theme Icon
...died before having the chance to contact them. The three women – An-mei, Lindo, and Ying-ying – ask June to fulfill her mother’s greatest wish of reconnecting with her daughters, and... (full context)
Mother-Daughter Relationships Theme Icon
Storytelling and Tradition Theme Icon
...lifetime of being raised by her. June recognizes that behind the anger, An-mei, Lindo, and Ying-ying are actually afraid that their own daughters would have the same reaction as June, disconnected... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 4: The Moon Lady
Mother-Daughter Relationships Theme Icon
Storytelling and Tradition Theme Icon
Immigration, Language, and Mistranslation Theme Icon
Ying-ying regrets that she kept her true nature hidden while raising her daughter, Lena, and instead... (full context)
Storytelling and Tradition Theme Icon
Sexism and Power Theme Icon
On that festival day in China many years ago, Ying-ying remembers how hot it was. Despite the heat, her nanny Amah dresses her in heavy... (full context)
Sexism and Power Theme Icon
Ying-ying’s extended family boards a lavish boat on a nearby lake to celebrate the Moon festival,... (full context)
Mother-Daughter Relationships Theme Icon
Sacrifice Theme Icon
Hours pass, and Ying-ying hopes Amah will come retrieve her as night falls. Instead, fireworks launch off the other... (full context)
Mother-Daughter Relationships Theme Icon
Storytelling and Tradition Theme Icon
Sexism and Power Theme Icon
Rather than wait on shore, Ying-ying follows the sound of music to a stage, where a play retelling the Moon Lady... (full context)
Mother-Daughter Relationships Theme Icon
After the performance, Ying-ying eagerly seeks out the Moon Lady backstage, thinking the goddess will answer her wish and... (full context)
Mother-Daughter Relationships Theme Icon
Storytelling and Tradition Theme Icon
Ying-ying as an adult has pushed this memory away until she sees Lena suffering in a... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 2: The Voice from the Wall
Mother-Daughter Relationships Theme Icon
Immigration, Language, and Mistranslation Theme Icon
Sexism and Power Theme Icon
...from a biracial family: her father Clifford is American of English/Irish descent, and her mother Ying-ying is Chinese. Her parents met while Clifford was working in China, and when they relocated... (full context)
Mother-Daughter Relationships Theme Icon
Immigration, Language, and Mistranslation Theme Icon
Sexism and Power Theme Icon
Clifford receives a promotion that affords them a bigger place, and he claims Ying-ying “is thrilled.” The family moves to a nicer apartment complex in San Francisco, surrounded by... (full context)
Immigration, Language, and Mistranslation Theme Icon
...that they’re expecting another baby. Though her father is overjoyed at the news, Lena hears Ying-ying predict that the apartment’s bad omens, felt around her as “a heaviness,” will negatively affect... (full context)
Mother-Daughter Relationships Theme Icon
Immigration, Language, and Mistranslation Theme Icon
Sexism and Power Theme Icon
Ying-ying’s premonition comes true, and the baby boy is stillborn, missing part of his brain. After... (full context)
Mother-Daughter Relationships Theme Icon
Immigration, Language, and Mistranslation Theme Icon
Ying-ying is not the same after coming home from the hospital without her baby. She wanders... (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 1: Rice Husband
Fate and Autonomy Theme Icon
Lena believes that her mother Ying-ying has a mysterious ability to see things before they happen; however, her premonitions only predict... (full context)
Sexism and Power Theme Icon
Driving back to their new house, Lena’s husband Harold gets annoyed by Ying-ying’s constant criticism of his driving. Lena is secretly glad that her mother reprimands his aggressive... (full context)
Mother-Daughter Relationships Theme Icon
Sexism and Power Theme Icon
Lena shows Ying-ying around the new house, pointing out the architectural highlights, but her mother can “only see... (full context)
Fate and Autonomy Theme Icon
...that Arnold had died from an unusually severe measles. Lena is terrified, and thinks that Ying-ying can see through her and tell that she caused Arnold’s death. That night, Lena steals... (full context)
Mother-Daughter Relationships Theme Icon
Sacrifice Theme Icon
Sexism and Power Theme Icon
Back in the present day, Ying-ying finds a running total of domestic expenses that Lena and Harold will evenly split at... (full context)
Mother-Daughter Relationships Theme Icon
Sacrifice Theme Icon
Sexism and Power Theme Icon
...whether their marriage exists around a balance sheet, Lena and Harold hear a crash from Ying-ying’s guest room. Lena goes to find her mother standing by a broken end-table. The end-table... (full context)
Part 4, Chapter 2: Waiting Between the Trees
Fate and Autonomy Theme Icon
As Ying-ying visits Lena’s new home, all she can see are bad omens, including the rickety end-table... (full context)
Mother-Daughter Relationships Theme Icon
Storytelling and Tradition Theme Icon
Ying-ying bitterly notes that Lena has no idea about Ying-ying’s first marriage, or how beautiful Ying-ying... (full context)
Fate and Autonomy Theme Icon
Ying-ying then explains that she was born in the year of the Tiger, and thus has... (full context)
Fate and Autonomy Theme Icon
Sexism and Power Theme Icon
Lena thinks that her father saved her mother from China, but Ying-ying actually made Clifford wait for four years “like a dog in front of a butcher... (full context)
Mother-Daughter Relationships Theme Icon
Sacrifice Theme Icon
Sexism and Power Theme Icon
Ying-ying says her greatest shame is raising her daughter, also born in a Tiger year, without... (full context)