The Joy Luck Club (1993) was based on Amy Tan’s 1989 novel and deals with issues of culture, assimilation and generation conflicts between a group of four Chinese mothers and their Americanized daughters. All four women in the club had emigrated from China to the U.S. after World War II, and met after church to play Chinese mahjong every week. In reality, they had little joy or luck, and no expectations, only the hope that their children would have better lives than theirs. By the Confucian standards which the mothers learned from childhood, there were very definite differences in gender roles, and the highest values in society are order, discipline, hierarchy, and duty rather than individual freedom and democracy. Children have a duty to obey their parents, including when marriages were arranged by their elders, and until fairly recent times the concepts of romantic love and individual free choice were unknown. Indeed, individualism is considered synonymous with egotism and selfishness, and if left uncontrolled would lead to chaos. Therefore it goes without saying that the mothers simply do not understand their daughters and the choices they make in their lives, which simply never would have been permitted in China.
The four daughters are completely American by Asian standards, speak perfect English and have assimilated into Western culture. None of them have even been to China, although June flies there to meet the twin daughters who had become separated from her during the war. All the parents in this film operate according to Confucian values, which are authoritarian, hierarchical and paternalistic, although the Americanized children often find them incomprehensible. China has never been a democracy in the Western sense, and women there were definitely not equal to men while children were required to honor, respect and obey their parents. Women’s function in life was domestic, to take care of the cooking, cleaning, child care and domestic tasks while men worked outside. Individualism and independence were not prized as in the U.S. but regarded as selfishness and purely negative qualities. In the U.S., however, most “believe that they must be self-reliant in order to keep their freedom”, while in China no one had any freedom to lose.1 An-mei Hsu and her daughter Rose were often in conflict over her American husband Ted Jordan, who was wealthy, and the fact that she regarded Rose as too weak and passive. Lindo Jong has a daughter named Waverly, who was a childhood chess prodigy until she and her mother had an argument, and then she lost the power to play. Lindo also dislikes her American boyfriend Rich, but regards Waverly as superficially successful. Suyuan Woo, the mother of June, was the founder of the club and after her daughter’s death she took her place, playing with her three older ‘aunties’. Ying-ying St. Clair, married to an American named Clifford, is also very passive and inert, as is her daughter Lena.
Chinese culture and philosophy put the highest value on harmony (bo) between all elements and components. Unlike Christianity or the Greek Platonists, it started with the assumption “there is only one continuous concrete world that is the source and locus of all our experience.”2 No causes or ordering principles exited outside this known world, which was itself a living, organic and self-sustaining whole, which could be mastered and organized with the proper skill and knowledge. No isolated or independent individuals existed outside of their proper and harmonious roles and relationships, such as fathers and sons or older brothers and younger brothers. None of these were equal to each other but existed as part of a hierarchy, and even in nature and the material world “one thing is associated with another by virtue of contrastive and hierarchical relations that sets it off from other things.”3 Thus the overall context of the philosophy of Confucius differed greatly from the Western philosophical tradition and cannot be simply or easily separated from its cultural and historical context.
Confucius and the other classical Chinese thinkers, human beings were communal, collective and tied to various roles, including generals, scholars and kings. Within this philosophical and cultural system, “disorder is born from order; cowardice from courage; weakness from strength”, as much as the whole required the forces on yin and yang.”4 The best rulers and citizens should have all the Confucian virtues of patience, wisdom, loyalty, integrity, courage and discipline. As an ideal, Confucianism also became the main military and governmental philosophy of Japan, Korea and Indochina, and indeed the central organizing principle of society and the extended family as a hole. It was authoritarian, disciplined and hierarchical, and had no concept of the equality of rights and duties or of individualism. Indeed, the latter concept was considered synonymous with egotism, greed and selfishness, rather than the positive good that it became in Western philosophy. A Confucian ruler was selfless and self-sacrificing rather than greedy, selfish or corrupt, harmonizing himself with his duty to the family and the state.
Confucian values are in direct contrast with those of America and the West, and this comes out in virtually every scene. Even though the older women are Christians and had been subject to some Western influences in China, their core values are not individualism, personal success, pluralism and equality of opportunity, as in the United States. For example, when Rose married Ted Jordan, over the objections of his racist parents, she found herself slipping into the role of a dutiful Confucian wife, concentrating only on cooking, cleaning and obeying her husband in all matters, until he finally became bored with her and started having an affair. Individualism and freedom have been core American values since 1776 at least, but this has never been the case in China.5 Even though Rose was Americanized, she knew no other way to be a wife than her mother’s example. “I like being tragic”, she says to her mother after their divorce, “I learned it from you’, while her mother accused her of acting no better than a beggar with Ted. Waverly lives with a white boyfriend who her mother Lindo despises and distrusts, and subtly mocks. If America today is a country that values diversity and pluralism, these have never been present in China, which places more emphasis on uniformity.6 Even when Rich tries to show good manners at dinner, he never quite gets it right.
In Confucian culture, humility is highly valued, not boasting, so he should have learned to praise her cooking when she always insisted that it was of poor quality. Yet when Waverly was a young girl and got her picture in a magazine as a child genius chess player, her mother showed to everyone in the street and mentioned that she had taught her the strategy of the game—and strategy is very highly valued in Confucian culture. Little Waverly became angry and shouted “if you want to show off, why don’t you learn to play chess?” This was a grave insult, humiliation and loss of public face for her mother, who never mentioned chess again. Even when Waverly attempted to play the game later, she found that she had lost all her talent and “could feel myself becoming so ordinary.” At the Joy Luck Club, Lindo comments disparagingly one day that “American girls have no strategy.”
America has the self-mage of being an open, tolerant, democratic society what promises equal opportunity for all and welcomes immigrants. It also values self-reliance, individualism and hard work, and the American Dream idea of being about to move into the middle class. Of course, the historical reality has been very different since blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans hardly had equal rights or opportunities for most of American history. Indeed, Asians and other ‘non-Nordic’ immigrants were excluded from, the country by laws like the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1883 and the National Origins Act of 1924. All the mothers and daughters in the film have certainly experienced racism and discrimination, even though it is usually downplayed in mass market movies like these. Unlike China, though, the U.S. is a society of immigrants and only 11% of Americans could even imagine living elsewhere. Americans do tend to believe that with hard work they can enter the middle class, and the Asian women portrayed in this film have indeed worked hard all their lives, and at least have hopes that their daughters will end up doing even better. Hard work, duty and diligence are also a very important part of the Confucian culture that produced them, even though it most definitely does not value individualism, equal opportunity or self-reliance like American culture. According to public opinion polls, most Americans still believe that “each individual should have an equal chance for success”, although obviously they realize that some are born with inherited wealth and power, or that others are held back by color, age or ethnicity.7
Confucian culture in East Asia and is very different it is from the individualism and pluralism of the West, so the behavior of the Chinese mothers is not particularly mysterious once this is understood. Their core values are collectivist and group-oriented rather than individualistic, and they value honor, duty, diligence, obedience and hierarchy rather than personal freedom, success or happiness. Nor do they assume that women are equal to men, but rather that they are subordinate to fathers and husbands and have certain duties in the family. Their daughters are Americanized and Westernized, and sometimes even have white boyfriends or husbands, as does Ying-ying, the weakest and most passive of the older generation characters. Their children do place far more value on freedom, independence, self-reliance and individual happiness, and often have great difficulty comprehending the culture of their mothers, such as their Confucian discipline and self-control or the concealment of emotions and personal desires.
Carr, C. The Book of War. Modern Library Paperback, 2000.
Datesman, M.K. et al (2005). American Ways: An Introduction to American Culture, 3rd Edition. Pearson Longman, 2005.
The Joy Luck Club. Dir: W. Wang. Prod: Hollywood Pictures, 1993.