Two months after her mother Suyuan passes away, Jing-mei “June” Woo is asked by her father Canning to take over her mother’s spot in the Joy Luck Club, a weekly mahjong game night that’s been held for nearly forty years, since 1949. Her mother died of a cerebral aneurysm, which her father blames on a very large idea that burst in her head. June hesitates, as Canning’s request stirs up the story of the Joy Luck Club’s formation in her memory.
Suyuan’s mahjong seat represents forty years’ worth of tradition stemming back to China, as well as a daughter’s inheritance of her mother’s legacy. June’s hesitation reveals the fear of being unable to interact comfortably with the previous generation, and that she’s incapable of replacing her mother’s large personality.
Suyuan concocted the Joy Luck Club to combat the sorrows of her experiences in China during the Sino-Japanese War in the 1940s. At that time, Suyuan’s husband was a soldier for the Kuomintang, the Chinese nationalist party that was fighting off Japanese aggression against China and the Chinese Communists’ attempted takeover of China. In August 1944, Suyuan’s husband takes her and their twin baby girls to the city of Kweilin for safety while he goes to fight in northwestern Chungking. In contrast to her expectations of a beautiful city, Kweilin is impoverished and overcrowded by refugees, leading to rampant hunger and disease.
The Joy Luck Club’s origin story not only gives June historical context to her mother’s eventual immigration to America, but introduces Suyuan’s twin baby girls, who are noticeably absent in the Woo family’s lives. The story also shows Suyuan’s personal sacrifices during the war in 1940s China. Maternal sacrifice is repeated throughout the novel, as is the daughter’s who benefited from those sacrifices being unable to appreciate the loss involved in those sacrifices.
Stuck in Kweilin with little optimism, Suyuan asks three other female refugees to pool their meager money with hers for a shared feast each week, with special dishes that promise prosperity and joy. After the feast, they play mahjong, a game where four players strategically trade domino-like tiles to make winning tile combinations. The club’s goal is to find a little joy and luck amid terrible circumstances. Suyuan first hosts the Joy Luck Club in Kweilin before she is forced to emigrate from China. Later, she revives the weekly game nights in America in 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, she senses unspeakable tragedies left behind in China, and instantly feels akin to them and their shared immigrant experiences.
Rather than resign herself to a miserable fate in Kweilin, Suyuan takes it upon herself to create a little happiness in weekly celebrations with other women. Her decision to continue the Joy Luck Club’s traditions in San Francisco further reveals her fortitude and autonomy in the face of severe circumstances. Note that Suyuan bonds with the other women in San Francisco through a sense of shared tragedy, of shared sacrifice – such tragedy and sacrifice, the novel suggests, was near universal among Chinese immigrants of this generation to the United States.
Suyuan tells June the origin story of the Joy Luck Club in a lighter tone when June is a child, always ending on her delight at having hope for the future through the weekly celebrations; June imagines the story as a “Chinese fairy tale” with a happy ending. But as June gets older, the story continually changes and becomes increasingly bleaker. Eventually, June learns the true story. As the Japanese come closer to Kweilin in 1944, her mother is warned to flee and find her husband, as the families of Kuomintang officers were sure to be killed first. She puts her twin baby girls and her last possessions into a stolen wheelbarrow and starts pushing to the faraway city of Chungking.
Suyuan holds back from telling young June about the sacrifice of her baby girls (whatever that turns out to be), partly to protect her from knowing sadness – as the prologue’s parable foreshadowed. Yet without hearing her mother’s full story, June falsely believes that her mother’s immigration story ended happily, and therefore lacks empathy for her mother while growing up. The real ending about fleeing Kweilin depicts Suyuan’s refusal to accept her babies’ doomed fates and the depths of her maternal love for them.
During Suyuan’s arduous journey, the wheelbarrow breaks and she abandons valuables along the road to carry her babies as far as possible, while getting sicker from dysentery. By the time she reaches Chungking, she only has three silk dresses left that she’s wearing on her body. When June asks about the babies’ fates, horrified, Suyuan only says that “your father is not my first husband. You are not those babies.”
Suyuan sacrifices everything to protect her daughters, even ignoring her own life-threatening illness to get them far away from enemy troops. She does not elaborate on what happened to the twins, showing the insufficiency of language to express grief, as well as the rift in her relationship with June (a rift founded on her attempt to protect her daughter from sadness by keeping it to herself).
Back in the present day, June arrives at An-mei’s house for the Joy Luck Club meeting. She immediately feels out of place, like she is a child again, even though the older generation of women stiffly attempt to treat her as an equal in conversation. As they play mahjong, the three older women – all mothers of daughters – start talking about their daughters’ successes and, in doing so, imply that June has failed because she did not finish college and was recently evicted from her apartment.
In addition to the relationship between Suyuan and June, the novel examines three other mother-daughter relationships. The mothers often boast about their daughters’ successes to others but scold their daughters in private for having weaknesses, creating an emotional disconnection between the mother-daughter pairs.
After the game, June tries to leave, but the three women stop her and reveal that Suyuan had finally found her lost twin daughters’ addresses in China after decades of searching; however, she 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 give June $1,200 of their money to fly to China. Though moved by the gesture, June expresses her fear that she doesn’t know enough about her mother’s life to properly manage the meeting.
Suyuan has secretly searched alone for her lost babies for forty years, revealing the extent of her maternal devotion (and the way she has sacrificed her ability to share the pain she must have felt). In contrast, and as a result of that combined act of sacrifice and protection by Suyuan, June guiltily feels like she didn’t value her mother enough during her life, nor try to learn her mother’s life story enough to pass on to others.
The three older women are outraged that June would think she didn’t know Suyuan after a 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 from their mothers’ lives and histories. June impulsively agrees to travel to China to meet her half-sisters, and pass on her mother’s story to them.
June’s ignorance represents the mothers’ greatest fear: their life stories won’t be passed on between generations, and eventually the cultural traditions and personal histories will be lost forever. Legacy is highly valued in Chinese culture, but their American daughters don’t try to maintain it, though perhaps it might also be said that the daughter were so protected that they didn’t know enough to be able to maintain it.