The Joy Luck Club

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Themes and Colors
Mother-Daughter Relationships Theme Icon
Storytelling and Tradition Theme Icon
Immigration, Language, and Mistranslation Theme Icon
Fate and Autonomy Theme Icon
Sacrifice Theme Icon
Sexism and Power Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Joy Luck Club, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Storytelling and Tradition Theme Icon

The novel has four sections of four stories each, narrated in turn by one of the novel’s seven main characters. At the start of each section, a one-page Chinese parable (a short story with a moral) introduces the theme that connects the four stories that follow. The brief parables reflect the mothers’ own parenting styles throughout the book, as they teach their daughters lessons through stories that can be internalized, rather than direct opinions or warnings. As a child, Waverly learns not to whine for attention, because her mother tells her that the “wise guy, he not go against wind… strongest wind cannot be seen.” This lesson of stoicism drives Waverly’s eventual success, both as a child chess champion and as a strong-willed professional. The style mimics the Chinese tradition of oral storytelling, where family history is passed along and immortalized through generations. More than just communicating advice, storytelling allows historical context and a stronger connection to Chinese heritage to be passed on, which fades as children become more Americanized and less interested in inheriting ancient proverbs. Tradition is vital to the development of personal values in The Joy Luck Club, and slowly becomes important to the daughters as they get older and realize the relevance, and strength, of all the stories and inherited customs within their own lives.

The mothers’ longer narratives in each chapter often address their daughters, and storytelling acts as a way to transfer wisdom through personal experience. Suyuan repeats a story to June about escaping Kweilin, changing the ending each time as June grows older. When she’s finally mature enough to comprehend the gravity of Suyuan’s loss, June is told the whole story about the twins’ abandonment and her mother’s first husband’s death. The story makes June confront the meanings of sacrifice, love, and despair more viscerally than simply being instructed to not take things for granted.

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Storytelling and Tradition Quotes in The Joy Luck Club

Below you will find the important quotes in The Joy Luck Club related to the theme of Storytelling and Tradition.
Part 1, Prologue Quotes

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.

Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

In the prologue to part one of the novel, Tan sets up one of the book's key themes: the importance of family. The unnamed woman in the parable told here could stand for any one of the novel's main characters: she wants to move to the United States in the hopes of building a new life for her child. Furthermore, the woman's decision to travel to America reflects her exasperation with Chinese culture: she doesn't like that in China, women are measured by their husbands, not their own personalities. The woman in the story wants the best for her child, even if achieving "the best" involves schooling the child harshly and giving up parts of her own culture--forcing her to speak only American English, for example. The women in the novel, as we'll see, sometimes treat their children severely, but only because they want their children to be successful and happy as they can never be.


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“This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions." And she waited, year after year, for the day she could tell her daughter this in perfect American English.

Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

When the unnamed woman comes to America, her prized swan is confiscated by the Americans who let her into the country: a metaphor for the way that immigration procedures and American society neuters immigrants of their native culture and forces them to "assimilate." The woman wanted to come to America to build a better life for her child, but she didn't count on having to surrender her dreams and ambitions as well. Here, the woman hangs onto a single feather from the swan, which she plans to present to her child one day, when she can express her feelings in American English. The woman's dilemma is that she wants the best for her child, and yet fails to communicate her message, due to cultural barriers. The woman makes a difficult decision: she raises her child to be an Asian-American, and yet the woman herself is still very much Asian, meaning that she'll never be able to understand her child completely.

Part 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

My mother took her flesh and put it in the soup. She cooked magic in the ancient tradition to try to cure her mother this one last time. She opened Popo’s mouth, already too tight from trying to keep her spirit in. She fed her this soup, but that night Popo flew away with her illness. Even though I was young, I could see the pain of the flesh and the worth of the pain.

Related Characters: An-mei Hsu (speaker), Popo, An-mei’s mother
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, An-Mei Hsu, one of the old members of the Joy Luck Club, tells a story about her grandmother, or Popo. When An-Mei was a child, she remembers her mother trying to cure Popo of her illness by cutting off a piece of her own body and putting it in a soup. Her mother fed the soup to Popo, but to no avail.

The passage symbolizes the direct, even physical bond between a mother and a child. Throughout the novel, we'll see how mothers owe a certain debt to their children, and vice versa. Here, An-Mei's mother honors her "debt" to her own mother by giving back a part of herself, in soup-form. The bond between generations can be painful, certainly, but it's also a mark of love--albeit a more complex love than June is inclined to respect.

Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

I had no choice, now or later. That was how backward families in the country were. We were always the last to give up stupid old-fashioned customs. In other cities already, a man could choose his own wife, with his parents’ permission of course. But we were cut off from this new type of thought. You never heard if ideas were better in another city, only if they were worse.

Related Characters: Lindo Jong (speaker)
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

In this story, Lindo tells us about her betrothal. It may be surprising for some readers to hear that Lindo was betrothed to another man, Tyan-Yu, when she was only two years old. In her part of China at the time, Lindo explains, betrothals and marriages were usually determined by Zodiac signs, rather than love between two adults. Lindo acknowledges that there were many more forward-thinking communities in China where adults could choose their partners (but only men, never women). However, in Lindo's community, the old-fashioned Zodiac method was still popular.

Lindo's comments are important because they clarify the fact that Chinese culture isn't one monolithic object: China encompasses an incredible variety of traditions and cultures, and it's wrong to lump them all together, as so many Americans do.

Part 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

“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 2, Chapter 1 Quotes

I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength. It was a strategy for winning arguments, respect from others, and eventually, though neither of us knew it at the time, chess games.

Related Characters: Waverly Jong (speaker), Lindo Jong
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

The chapter begins on a relatively optimistic note: Waverly, a young girl, learns from her mother, Lindo, how to be strong and determined at all times. Lindo recognizes that Waverly is a loud child, and she tries to teach her daughter how to be quiet. And yet Lindo isn't teaching Waverly to be meek or submissive: rather, Lindo teaches Waverly how to take care of herself and project inner confidence, without ever saying a word. Waverly's "invisible strength" later helps her succeed in the game of chess.

The passage is a good example of how a mother can pass on lessons to her child without limiting the child's freedom or angering the child. Lindo doesn't want her daughter to be passive or weak; she teaches Waverly strength. In general, then, the passage shows--at least for now--a supportive relationship between mother and daughter. 

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.

Part 4, Chapter 4 Quotes

The minute our train leaves the Hong Kong border and enters Shenzhen, China, I feel different. I can feel the skin on my forehead tingling, my blood rushing through a new course, my bones aching with a familiar old pain. And I think, My mother was right. I am becoming Chinese.

Related Characters: Jing-mei “June” Woo (speaker), Suyuan Woo
Page Number: 267
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, June is coming back to her mother's home in China. June was always opposed to returning to China--she thought of herself as an American, without any particular connection to Chinese culture, in spite of her heritage. But after Suyuan's death, June decides to return to China to learn about her mother's life and find out about her long-lost daughters.

The passage depicts an almost supernatural connection, not just between mother and daughter but between person and country. As June passes into China, she feels herself becoming Chinese. In spite of her American citizenship, June intuitively senses that she knows China--something in the environment triggers her. Here, as in other parts of the book, Tan conveys the extent of the relationship between a person and her background--try as she might, June can't escape her Chinese heritage.

I look at their faces again and 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, I can finally be let go.

Related Characters: Jing-mei “June” Woo (speaker), Suyuan Woo, Wang Chwun Yu, Wang Chwun Hwa
Page Number: 288
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the novel, June finally reunites with her long-lost siblings. As she does so, she feels that she's also accomplished a task she's been attempting for many years. June has been interested in tracking down her siblings, and yet she's always felt a sense of incompleteness, both because of her strained relationship with her mother and because of her ignorance of and disconnection from her own culture. By traveling to China and finding her half-sisters, June honors her mother's memory, both respecting her mother's heritage and completing the task that Suyuan herself was never able to do.

The passage is both the culmination of the entire book and the beginning of the rest of June's life. June has always felt that her Chinese heritage is a millstone around her neck--she wishes she could break free of it. Here, in the instant that June is finally most in touch with her Chinese "roots," she can finally move on with her life. And yet at the same time, she seems to have no desire to abandon her Chinese heritage anymore: she's just getting to know her sisters. In all, the passage sums up one of the key themes of the novel: heritage, like a mother or daughter, can be freeing and imprisoning, often at the same time.