The popular novel The Joy Luck Club examines mother-daughter relationships within four Chinese-American families. Not surprisingly, the book draws heavily from Chinese culture and history. Students do not need an extensive background on these subjects, but teaching them a brief history of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the story of the Lady of the Moon, and the basics of mah jong will help students better understand the novel.

The book is divided into four parts, and each part is divided into four sections for a total of sixteen interconnected vignettes. This structure prompts class discussion on why Tan decided to format the novel this way, how the vignettes interlock, and how the structure relates to the mah jong game. Each section also has a significant title and parable that relates to the themes of the novel. After reading each section, students can elucidate the meaning of these titles and parables, which will allow students to have a more in-depth view of this novel.

Summary

The Joy Luck Club explores the lives of several Chinese women, who have immigrated to the United States, and their relationships with their Americanized daughters. These four Chinese-American families form the Joy Luck Club, in which they play mah jong for money and feast. In sixteen interconnected stories, Tan depicts the mothers' lives in China, their daughters' childhoods in America, the children as grown women, and the daughters' efforts to reconnect to their Chinese roots.

Content Warning

The Joy Luck Club contains references to rape, abortion, forced marriage, and abuse.

Objectives for Teaching
The Joy Luck Club

  • Discuss the Chinese beliefs and culture presented in the story.
  • Point out the significance of the titles, including the title of the book, the titles of the four parts, and the titles of each of the sixteen vignettes.
  • Trace how, as the daughters mature, they appreciate and identify with their mothers.
  • Discuss the parables at the beginning of each of the four sections of the novel.
  • Comment on the recurring images of wind and ghosts.
  • Define myth and discuss whether the story of the Moon Lady is a myth.
  • Discuss the ways the mah jong table relates to the overall structure of the novel.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Allusion
  • Anecdote
  • Diction
  • Flashback
  • Foreshadowing
  • Imagery
  • Myth
  • Parable
  • Point of View
  • Simile
  • Vignette

Themes and Motifs

  • Identity — The major characters have to reconcile their identities as Chinese immigrants with their connection to modern America and find a balance of cultural identity.
  • Gender — Most of the female characters face sexism and gender discrimination. Tan explores how gendered expectations affect girls and women.
  • The Power of Storytelling —  The Chinese mothers have difficulty communicating with their Americanized daughters, so they use stories to convey lessons and historic legacies. Storytelling also enables transformation and gives characters control over their fates.

Related Works

Theme of Identity

 

Theme of Gender

 

Theme of the Power of Storytelling

Key Facts

  • Length: 288 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 930
  • Publication Date: 1989
  • Recommended Grade Band: 10 – 11

Awards

  • Bay Area Book Reviewers Award
  • Commonwealth Gold Award
  • American Library Association's Notable Books
  • American Library Association's Best Book for Young Adults
  • Selected for the National Endowment for the Art's Big Read

Movies

A film version of The Joy Luck Club was released in 1993 and is available on DVD and streaming. While there are some changes to the source material, Amy Tan was involved in the screenwriting, and the movie stays true to the story.

Your students will love:

  • The interconnected storylines and character relationships
  • Learning about Chinese culture and history
  • The mother-daughter relationships

Students may have problems with:

  • Keeping track of characters
  • The slower pacing

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