The Joy Luck Club | Study Guide

Amy Tan

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The Joy Luck Club | Context


The timeline of The Joy Luck Club bounces all over the 20th century, with stories taking place anywhere from 1920 to the late 1980s. Much of the novel is set in China prior to 1944, so it helps to know a little about Chinese political history during that time period, as well as factors influencing Chinese immigration to the United States.

Political Upheaval and the Rise of Communism

For more than 2,000 years, China adhered to a dynastic political system in which the position of ruler was passed down a family line until an opponent stepped in and wrested control away from the family in charge. That pattern changed in 1911 when revolutionaries began violently protesting in favor of a constitutional government that would end the tradition of Chinese dynastic rule.

The Republican government, which controlled China from 1912–49, was never entirely stable. In the midst of World War I, during which China sided with Great Britain, France, and Ireland, Japan began making demands in regard to Chinese territory. Japan wanted access to China's ports and railroads, as well as influence over political matters. China ceded territory in the north to the Japanese, but Japan then secretly funded a Chinese rebellion against the Chinese government in several provinces. Meanwhile, a separate political party was forming, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), officially formed in 1921. In 1923 they joined with the ruling Nationalist Party to keep the Japanese out of China. By 1928 the parties were at odds again, and Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek rooted out the communists within his party's ranks.

Japan continued to be a threat as it extended its power into Manchuria, the far northeastern region of China, and other areas bordering the country between 1921 and 1935. By 1937 the Nationalists and the CCP were working together once more to rid China of Japanese influence once and for all in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45). (A first Sino-Japanese War between China and Japan took place in 1894–95 over control of Korea.) It wasn't easy. Japan had a strong army and an even better air force. They didn't falter until World War II, when their resources were spread too thin. After the war's end in 1945, Japan transferred all the Chinese territory it had previously claimed back to China.

The Second Sino-Japanese War, and to some extent World War II, left the Nationalist Party in tatters. The CCP, on the other hand, made great strides in recruitment due to the number of people left disillusioned and destitute from the two wars. Food was scarce, inflation was high, and Chinese currency was almost completely without value. The proletariat, or common workers, needed a champion and found it in the communists. Civil war between the two parties raged between 1945 and 1949. Finally on December 1, 1949, communism became the law of the land with the establishment of the People's Republic of China.

Chinese Immigration to the United States

Chinese citizens have been making their homes in the United States since the 1850s, when men from all over the world went to California to try to make it rich during the gold rush. More arrived in the 1860s to earn money as laborers during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. After the railroad was finished, government officials became concerned that Chinese laborers were taking jobs from Americans, especially if they were willing to take lower salaries.

In 1882 the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned all Chinese immigrants except for tourists, students, and merchants from entering the United States. It also stipulated those who did visit could not become naturalized citizens. This policy remained in effect until 1943, when it was repealed. This repeal wasn't done out of generosity or as a sign of racial tolerance but rather to save face. In the heat of World War II, Japanese officials were known to bring up the policy as a means of weakening relations between China and the United States, who were allies.

Quotas for Chinese immigrants remained restrictive: they were limited to 105 visas per year and applied only to men. Since the Chinese men who came could not bring their families, they settled in cultural enclaves together, creating what came to be known as "bachelor communities." In these areas men outnumbered women in high ratios.

In 1946, following the end of World War II, droves of women began arriving in San Francisco via the Angel Island Immigration Station off the coast of California. The repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the ability to travel internationally again after the war made it possible for women to be reunited with their spouses or fiancés or to make new lives for themselves far away from the troubles of home. The bachelor communities slowly transformed to become known as good places to raise families. By 1950 the Chinese American population in the United States was 150,005, less than one percent of the total U.S. population.

The flow of immigrants lasted only a few years. The Communist Party cut off all diplomatic ties with capitalist countries, including the United States, after taking power at the end of 1949 so nobody could enter or exit the country. This policy effectively made immigration to the United States directly from China almost impossible until the late 1970s when the Chinese government relaxed its policies.

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