One of the reasons why Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club is being commonly referred to as such that represents a high literary value, is that it contains a number of insights into what can be referred to as the Oriental mode of one’s thinking, which shows itself in the way of how the affiliated individuals address life-challenges. In its turn, this can be seen resulting from the fact that, even though in the novel the Oriental and Western motifs are being interwoven rather seamlessly, it is named, the former that defines the overall significance of The Joy Luck Club.
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Upon being closely examined, most of these motifs can be categorized as such that relate to the Confucian concept of Wu Xing (the cycle of five elements/phases), on the one hand, and to the Confucianism-based practice of venerating ancestors, on the other. In my paper, I will aim to substantiate the validity of this suggestion at length, while elaborating on what can be considered the main aspects of one’s association with the Chinese (Oriental) ethnocultural identity.
The cycle of five elements/phases (Wu Xing) can be defined as the conceptual basis of Confucianism as a philosophy that promotes the idea that the integral components of the surrounding reality are organically interrelated with each other. According to the concept of Wu Xing (schematized below), just about everything around us can be discussed in the allegorical terms of water, wood, fire, earth, and metal.
The concept’s cyclical essence is concerned with the actual nature of the relationship between the elements in question – wood gives life to fire, fire fertilizes (with ashes) earth, earth ‘conceives’ metal, metal makes possible the existence of water, water feeds wood (trees). At the same time, however, these elements relate to each other in an incompatible manner – wood destroys the earth (with roots), the earth absorbs water, water extinguishes a fire, fire melts metal, metal cuts wood.
Thus, Wu Xing implies that the universe’s building blocks exist in the state of circumstantial uncertainty – depending on what happened to be the qualitative features of how one of the elements relates to the other, the resulting effect would equally be capable of invoking both: the state of harmony and the state of disharmony.
The close analysis of how some of the novel’s characters went about tackling the problems of life, suggests that while in the process, these individuals never ceased being either intuitively or consciously aware of the discursive implications of Wu Xing. The validity of this statement can be explored, in regards to the scene, in which, after having contemplated the idea of committing suicide (by the mean of drowning herself in the river), Lindo nevertheless decides to go on living.
As it appears from the novel, Lindo’s change of heart, in this respect, came because of her realization of the sheer power of the wind: “I saw the curtains blowing wildly… I realized it was the first time I could see the power of the wind. I couldn’t see the wind itself, but I could see it carried the water that filled the rivers and shaped the countryside. It caused men to yelp and dance” (Tan, 28). The quoted admission correlates well with the philosophical repercussions of Wu Xing.
Apparently, Lindo came to realize that there is the quality of uncertainty to the element of water – just as it is being capable of acting as the agent of destruction and chaos, it can also act as the agent that opposes these forces. Consequently, it dawned upon Lindo that her initial decision to drown herself was not the smartest one – why use water for death if it can be used for life? Hence, the allegorical significance of wind in the mentioned scene – while referring to this particular force of nature, Lindo, in fact, refers to the hidden potency of her own willpower, capable of affecting the course of events.
It is understood, of course, that the above-stated correlates perfectly well with the concept of Wu Xing, as such that presupposes that there is no end to the process of water, wood, earth, metal, and fire being continually transformed into each other and that each of these elements is simultaneously the opposite of its own.
Another novel’s scene, which appears to be related to the concept of Wu Xing, is the one in which An-mei strives to appease the ‘Coiling Dragon’ of the sea, so that he would return her son Bing to be back among the living: “We must sweeten the temper of the Coiling Dragon who lives in the sea. And then we must make him loosen his coils from Bing by giving him another treasure he can hide” (Tan 69).
Even though An-mei’s intention may seem to have been rather childish, it is nevertheless best described being fully consistent with the mentioned earlier philosophical conventions of Wu Xing. The line of argumentation, behind this suggestion, can be formulated as follows.
Despite the fact that in this particular scene, An-mei refers to the ‘Coiling Dragon’ in terms of a deity, her prayer can be best discussed as the proof of An-mei’s understanding that the flow of time is associated with the reoccurrence of a particular line of events over and over – hence, the allegory of the Dragon’s coils. Apparently, they symbolize the cyclical essence of the physical processes in the universe, which in turn means that, contrary to what many people assume happened to be the case, causes and effects define each other in a mutually interdependent manner.
Moreover, there is a possibility for the effects of preceding their own causes. In its turn, this idea can be deemed as the foremost conceptual premise, upon which Confucianism is based – in this world, everything has to do with everything. Consequently, this suggests that, instead of trying to oppose themselves against the surrounding reality, people would be much better off becoming thoroughly ‘blended’ with it.
Therefore, An-mei’s plea to the ‘Coiling Dragon’ was reflective of her deep-seated conviction that, in full accordance with the conceptual provisions of Wu Xing, death should not be seen as the actual end of everything, but rather as something that makes possible the emergence of new life.
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The fact that the flow of events in the universe has a strongly defined deterministic quality to it (just as the cycle of Wu Xing implies) can also be illustrated, in regards to the ‘parable of a bicycle,’ mentioned in the novel’s sub-chapter Half and Half.
The reason for this is that, as the mentioned parable implies, regardless of how one decides to deal with a particular problem, the would-be adopted decision’s ultimate outcome is ‘preprogrammed’ to be what it will eventually prove to be. The parable in question exemplifies this perfectly well – a bicycle-riding young girl would still be doomed to fall, regardless of whether she was warned by her mother of the dangers of riding a bicycle, or not.
As it was mentioned earlier, each of the Wu Xing cycle’s elements is best described as being ‘double-faced’. This partially explains why, unlike what happened to be the case within the methodological framework of Western astrology, each of the Chinese zodiac’s astrological signs has more than one quality to it. Tan’s novel contains a number of references to the fact that it is not only that many people of Asian descent are fully aware of what happened to be their own zodiacal sign, but that they also know what may account for the real-life effects of the concerned affiliation, on their part.
To exemplify the soundness of this suggestion, we can refer to the novel’s scene, where Ying-Ying establishes a link between the manner in which she used to address the challenges of life and her zodiacal sign – the Tiger: “It (Tiger) has two ways. The gold side leaps with its fierce heart. The black side stands still with cunning, hiding its gold between trees, seeing and not being seen, waiting patiently for things to come” (Tan 141). The way in which Ying-Ying tended to act, throughout the novel, does imply that her zodiacal sign did have a great influence on how she used to position herself, as an individual.
After all, it is specifically her ability to endure hardships, which, more than anything else, makes Ying-Ying distinguishable from the rest of the featured female-characters. At the same time, however, Ying-Ying proved herself capable of applying a strong effort into trying to reach a particular goal. Thus, Ying-Ying’s reference to the sign of the Tiger was meant to emphasize once again that there is the quality of ‘duality’ to what happened to be the self-adopted public image of just about anybody.
Nevertheless, nothing in the novel explains the actual significance of Wu Xing better than Jing-mei’s trip to China (in the final sub-chapter Double Face), in search of her estranged half-sisters, and the character’s consequential encounter with them. The reason for this is that the culmination of this trip was the character’s realization of the fact that, despite having been brought up in different countries, she and her Chinese-born half-sisters were made out of the same ‘substance.’
There is a memorable scene in this sub-chapter, where Jing-mei observes the image of herself together with her half-sisters on Polaroid photo: “The gray-green surface changes to the bright colors of our three images… I know we all see it: Together, we look like our mother. Her same eyes, her same mouth, open in surprise to see, at last, her long-cherished wish” (Tan 166).
It is understood, of course, that the significance of this scene can be interpreted within the context of what Wu Xing insists is the main principle of the universe’s functioning – the surrounding physical matter happened to be in the state of never-ending change. One of the possible effects of this is that those people who happened to have children never die, in the sense of becoming nothingness. Rather, they continue to exist in their children. This, of course, suggests that the idea of one’s immortality is not quite as irrational, as it may seem to be.
Another clearly Confucian motif, explored throughout The Joy Luck Club, refers to the practice of ancestral veneration. The motif’s presence in the novel is quite explainable – Asians have traditionally been known for their tendency to put the interests of the community above those of their own, which naturally prompts these people to assign much importance to the issue of family relations. As the ultimate consequence, many of the concerned individuals grow to believe in the beyond-grave existence of their deceased relatives, which sub-sequentially contributes to the acuteness of these people’s desire to remain on good terms with the ‘dead.’
As Oldstone-Moore noted: “The rites of ancestor veneration, which are a significant reflection of attitudes toward death and the afterlife, have been a defining feature of East Asian civilizations for millennia” (__). What also contributes to the continuance of this situation is that, as opposed to what happened to be the case with the majority of Westerners, most Asians tend to perceive the notion of family as such that is being synonymous with the term ‘community.’
Given the fact that just about any well-established community has its own historical legacy, it is indeed thoroughly natural for the affiliates of Chinese culture/Confucianism, to venerate their dead ancestors and to presume that ‘ghosts’ are being capable of affecting the course of events in the world of the living.
In Tan’s novel, there are indeed many scenes that justify this suggestion. The most notable of them is the one, in which Lena elaborates on what should be considered the actual meaning of her mother’s (Ying-Ying) preoccupation with retelling the story about the death of her father, who used to be a judge in China: “When I was little, my mother told me my great-grandfather had sentenced a beggar to die in the worst possible way, and that later the dead man came back and killed my great-grandfather” (Tan 53).
What is particularly notable, in this respect, is that Ying-Ying did not simply believe that someone from beyond the grave was able to kill her father, but that she continued to refer to the mentioned turn of events as having been the only plausible one. One of the reasons for this is that, throughout her entire life, Ying-Ying never ceased experiencing the sensation of guilt, due to the mentioned event.
This, of course, can be interpreted as the indication that deep on an unconscious level, the concerned character used to sense her departed father’s presence, which in turn had a powerful effect on the behavioral pattern of Ying-Ying, as a woman and a mother.
Moreover, Ying-Ying’s daughter Lena appears to have been affected by her great-grandfather’s sin, as well – something that can be shown in regards to the fact that, despite having been a good-looking and intelligent woman, Lena could not help repeating the same mistakes again and again. Readers interpret this as the indication that, despite having been dead, Lena’s great-grandfather nevertheless continued to project much influence on both: Ying-Ying and Lena.
This provides us with the insight into why the motif of ancestral veneration continues to re-emerge, throughout the novel’s entirety – because of their ethnocultural affiliation; most of the featured characters could not help sincerely believing that the manner, in which they regard their ancestors, has a strong real-life effect on the surrounding reality. In this respect, Oldstone-Moore came up with a perfectly good observation: “Ancestors are propitiated by family spirits.
Those who are not properly cared for after death-through neglect or a lack of descendants-and those who die prematurely or by violence become ghosts; they… are considered to be dangerous, malevolent forces” (_). The reason for this is that, as opposed to what it is the case with the Western concept of family, the Oriental one celebrates the values of a socially integrated living. That is, in the eyes of a person who was brought up in China, the notion of the family refers to the extended community of the dead, living and yet unborn people of the same family-stock.
In its turn, this implies that one’s children are, in fact, the physically embodied reflections of his or her spirit. This is exactly the reason why the Chinese-born members of The Joy Luck Club are being represented intuitively aware of the invisible but nevertheless strong spiritual connection between themselves, on the one hand, and their daughters, on the other.
For example, in one of her monologues, Ying-Ying states: “I will… penetrate my daughter’ s tough skin and cut her tiger spirit loose. She will fight me because this is the nature of two tigers. But I will win and give her my spirit because this is the way a mother loves her daughter” (144). Apparently, Ying-Ying did not have any doubts as to the fact that she will be able to attain the ‘afterlife’ in the body of her daughter.
The references to the cycle of Wu Xing will also prove thoroughly appropriate when it comes to defining the significance of many other scenes in the novel, which feature the strongly defined overtone of ancestral veneration. The most emotionally charged of them is undeniably the one, in which An-mei’s mother decides to feed her own mother Popo with the pieces of flesh from its body so that Popo would be able to recover from her illness: “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” (Tan, 21). The actual symbolism of this deed, on the part of An-mei’s mother, is quite apparent – by feeding Popo with its flesh, she was trying to channel some of her life-energy back to where it originally came from.
This helps us to define yet another purpose of the practice of ancestral veneration, as seen in the novel – this practice serves as the main instrument of maintaining the structural integrity of Oriental families. The logic behind this suggestion is that, contrary to how Westerners tend to perceive the notion of family-relationship, people of Oriental descent believe that it refers to the flow of invisible energies between close relatives.
What is particularly interesting, in this respect, is that in the novel, the practice of ancestral veneration does, in fact, define many developments of the plot – even when there are seemingly no good reasons for this to be the case. For example, the character of Second Wife was able to take advantage of Wu Tsing’s fear of ghosts, while trying to convince him to assign her with a monetary allowance: “From the start, Second Wife knew how to control Wu Tsing’s money.
She knew… that he was fearful of ghosts. And everybody knows that suicide is the only way a woman can escape marriage and gain revenge, to come back as a ghost and scatter tea leaves and good fortune” (Tan 132). This, of course, cannot be interpreted in any other way, but as the indication that the dynamics of how Oriental societies operate are indeed reflective of the earlier mentioned practice of ancestral veneration.
Nevertheless, even though in many instances Tan does mock this type of prejudices, the novel’s sub-plots leave only a few doubts as to the appropriateness of some of the featured characters’ tendency to be preoccupied with trying to remain in favor with their ancestors. The reason for this is that, as The Joy Club implies, by maintaining the emotional relationship with their deceased relatives, people are able to benefit in a variety of different ways. The fact that Jing-mei was able to locate her half-sisters in China exemplifies the validity of this idea.
After all, while on the quest of trying to find her relatives in this country, Jing-mei never ceased being helped by the spirit of her mother Suyuan, which explains why the mentioned turn of the plot did take place – despite the impossible odds. In the novel, there are many explicit references to the fact that this indeed must have been the case: “Maybe it was your (Jing-Mei’s) mother’ s dead spirit who guided her Shanghai schoolmate to find her daughters… There was something about their facial expressions that reminded the schoolmate of your mother” (Tan 165).
Thus, we can confirm once again that the idea of ancestral veneration is actually embedded into the novel’s themes and motifs. Partially, in turn, explains why The Joy Luck Club is commonly praised as the expressively sound reflection of the author’s own (Oriental) anxieties, in regard to what she believes contributed towards constructing her sense of identity. Therefore, it will not be much of an exaggeration to suggest that, in the aftermath of people’s exposure to this novel, they will be able to gain a number of psychological insights into the essence of Confucianism, in general, and Chinese culture, in particular.
I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, in regards to how the discussed motifs manifest themselves in Tan’s novel, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, there are indeed a number of good reasons to believe that the manner in which people of Chinese descent go about trying to achieve self-actualization, is observant of the foremost principles of Confucian philosophy.
Even though the provided analysis tackles only two Confucianism-related themes in Tan’s novel, it does help to highlight what can be considered the most valuable feature of The Joy Luck Club, as a work of literature – the fact that, along with radiating the spirit of humanism and tolerance, it helps readers to broaden their intellectual horizons. Therefore, there can be only a few doubts that the discussed novel did, in fact, deserve to attain the status of a bestseller.
Oldstone-Moore, Jennifer. Confucianism: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.
Tan, Amy 1989, The Joy Luck Club. 2014. Web.