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The Joy Luck Club | Study Guide

Amy Tan

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The Joy Luck Club | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


What is the significance of including the story of the "death of a thousand cuts" as described in Part 2, Chapter 2 of The Joy Luck Club?

The death of a thousand cuts, or lingchi, was an actual practice in China until 1905, when it was outlawed. It was used as capital punishment, and many in the Western world believed it was especially horrible due to its excruciating length. The point of the death of a thousand cuts wasn't so much pain—the victim was usually sedated and died early on in the process—but rather the systematic destruction of a person's corporeal self. As a child Lena St. Clair is obsessed with the story of a beggar whom her grandfather had sentenced to die in such a manner. Lena says she wants to know the details because it's important "to know what is the worst possible thing that can happen to you" so you can avoid it. To her the death of a thousand cuts is the very worst way to end a life. This story also had a deeper, more symbolic meaning. The death of a thousand cuts is not a quick and easy way to end a life because it takes time. Though Ying-ying St. Clair's loss of self is internal, not external, it is reminiscent of the death of a thousand cuts. She, too, is slowly whittled away until nothing of her true self remains. Lena sees this for herself as Ying-ying's "unspoken terrors ... devoured her, piece by piece, until she disappeared and became a ghost."

What are the similarities and differences between Teresa Sorci's and Lena St. Clair's relationships with their mothers as depicted in Part 2, Chapter 2 of The Joy Luck Club?

The relationship Lena has with her mother is both similar to and vastly different from the one Teresa has with hers. Lena's house is tense and silent while Teresa's is full of shouting and laughter. Teresa talks back to her mother while Lena would never dream of disobeying her mother's commands. Yet their relationships with their mothers both break down at the same place: communication. Lena can understand the Chinese words Ying-ying says, but she can't grasp their overall meanings. It's the same for Teresa, who is a typical American teenager in that she questions everything her mother tells her to do. Neither girl understands the root of their mother's fears nor the importance of the advice they are being given. In Lena's case it is because Ying-ying is trying to teach her unfamiliar "Chinese" thinking. Teresa's disconnect with her mother stems from a generational, rather than cultural, divide.

How does the concept of nengkan positively and negatively affect the Hsus' lives in Part 2, Chapter 3 of The Joy Luck Club?

Rose Hsu Jordan describes nengkan as one's ability to do anything one puts his or her mind to. Her father had never fished in the ocean but thought he could do it if he tried, just as her mother believed she could cook anything her husband caught. The Hsus' belief in nengkan gave them "the confidence to believe their luck would never run out" and things would always turn out in their favor. On the one hand this is a good thing, because part of achieving one's goals is believing one can do it in the first place. The Hsus wanted to come to the United States to give themselves and their children a better life, and nengkan gave them the confidence to do it. Yet there is also a dark side to the Hsus' belief in nengkan. It makes them feel overly secure. Because of their faith in their ability to shape their destiny, they feel failure and tragedy are unlikely to happen to them. So when disaster does strike, it runs against their entire system of belief. When Bing disappears into the ocean, it is unfathomable to them that something so horrible could happen to their youngest son. They thought God was protecting them. This prolongs An-mei's belief that God will return Bing if she prays enough and makes sacrifices to the ocean's spirits. By not realizing the dangers of blind faith, she loses what is most precious to her, her son.

What is the significance of An-mei Hsu's white leatherette Bible in Part 2, Chapter 3 of The Joy Luck Club?

An-mei Hsu used to be very religious. She believed God had provided her family with an endless bounty of fortune, and as "proof of her faith," she brought a small white leatherette Bible to church every Sunday. When Bing drowns in the ocean, she brings the Bible to the shore's edge so she can pray for his return. But Bing doesn't return. An-mei's faith crumbles, and the white leatherette Bible spends the next 20 years propping up a shaky kitchen table. An-mei's white leatherette Bible is a physical representation of her belief in God. After Bing's death it becomes nothing more than a literal prop. Though she pretends it isn't there, Rose Hsu Jordan knows her mother sees it. An-mei "is not the best housekeeper in the world," but after 20 years "that Bible is still clean white." Had An-mei completely lost her faith she would have thrown away the Bible, or at the very least given it to someone else. Instead she keeps it in one of the most heavily used rooms in her house. Somewhere inside of her there is still a small spark of faith, but she keeps it at a careful distance. She does not want to make the same mistakes again.

How does pride affect Jing-mei and Suyuan Woo's relationship in Part 2, Chapter 4 of The Joy Luck Club?

Part 2, Chapter 4 of The Joy Luck Club is about Jing-mei's failed attempt to become a great piano player. Suyuan thinks "you [can] be anything you [want] to be in America," including a prodigy like Waverly Jong, who is dominating the local chess scene at the age of nine. Suyuan has a lifelong rivalry with Waverly's mother, Lindo, and she wants to prove her daughter is just as good as Waverly, who Suyuan thinks is "only best tricky." Even though Jing-mei shows no interest or aptitude in the piano, Suyuan meets Lindo's boasts about Waverly with bragging of her own. She has too much pride to let Lindo insinuate that Jing-mei isn't as good as Waverly. Jing-mei, however, likes herself the way she is. She doesn't want to be a genius like Waverly, whom she doesn't like much to begin with, and Suyuan's insistence she play the piano makes Jing-mei feel as if her mother is completely ignoring her wishes. In an effort to "put a stop to her [mother's] foolish pride," Jing-mei refuses to practice her concert piece. The recital is a disaster and Jing-mei is humiliated. Her mother's pride is damaged, but not enough to keep her from pushing Jing-mei back toward the piano. Jing-mei can't handle this and yells "I wish I were dead! Like them," meaning her two half-sisters in China. Jing-mei is too proud to apologize for her outburst, and the rift between mother and daughter deepens.

What are some of the significant events that occur when Ying-ying visits Lena in Part 3, Chapter 1 of The Joy Luck Club?

Ying-ying St. Clair "has the mysterious ability to see things before they happen." She finds signs in everything—the position of a building on a hillside, a dying plant, a rickety table. According to Lena, Ying-ying "sees only bad things that affect [their] family," as well as what causes them. When she visits Lena she senses that her daughter's marriage is in trouble. Ying-ying intuitively hones in on the list of expenses on Harold and Lena's refrigerator door, with their expenses split down the middle to the last penny. She does not like what she sees, quickly spotting that Lena is forced to split the cost of the ice cream when Harold is the only one who eats it. Ying-ying knows her daughter's tastes better than Harold does. Lena notes how her mother must remember her hatred of ice cream from an incident years before when Lena ate huge amounts of ice cream to punish herself because she felt responsible for Arnold Reisman's death. Harold never even notices Lena's aversion for the frozen treat, but Ying-ying points it out to him and the injustice of making her daughter pay for it. This highlights Harold's lack of awareness or fairness to her daughter, both of which become factors in the way he treats her during their divorce later in the novel. Most importantly, Ying-ying, who later in the novel describes how her marriages made her feel like a "ghost," recognizes that something similar is happening to her daughter, who is not treated as a full equal in her marriage and is struggling to assert herself. When Ying-ying knocks over the rickety table and breaks the black vase, she is trying to help Lena see that her marriage is broken, too.

How are An-mei and Lindo taught to repress their true selves in Chapters 2 and 3 of Part 1 of The Joy Luck Club?

An-mei and Lindo are both dominated by older women who teach them to be obedient and avoid expressing their feelings or desires. An-mei's grandmother, Popo, tells her stories about the terrible punishments children who are disobedient receive. The stories focus specifically on female children: "I often heard stories of a ghost who tried to take children away, especially strong-willed little girls who were disobedient." Another story is about "a greedy girl" whose belly grows "fatter and fatter" because "if you are greedy, what is inside you is what makes you always hungry." In another, a girl's brains pour out of her head because she refuses to listen to her elders. Lindo is sent at the age of 12 to live with the Huangs, whose son she is engaged to marry. The method used to repress her personality is based on breaking her spirit by treating her as inferior. Her future mother-in-law, Huang Taitai, treats her as a lowly servant, making her cook, sew embroidery, and clean everything from shirts to chamber pots. Gradually this treatment causes Lindo to go numb, then to become brainwashed into thinking of her future husband, who is actually selfish and domineering, "as a god" and Huang Taitai as her "real mother ... someone [she] should follow and obey without question."

Why is Lindo Jong worried about the gift Rich Schields gives to Waverly Jong in Part 3, Chapter 2 of The Joy Luck Club?

Waverly hasn't yet told Lindo she is engaged to Rich, a younger Caucasian man, because Lindo changes the subject every time Waverly mentions him. Waverly tries to break the ice by bringing her mother to her apartment, where she shows off the mink jacket Rich gave her for Christmas. It is the "most extravagant" gift Waverly has ever received, but Lindo has nothing nice to say about it. "This is not so good," she tells her daughter before pointing out that it's made of remnants with too-short fur. Waverly is wounded and protests, "He gave me this from his heart." Her mother drily responds, "That is why I worry." But it's not the coat itself that worries Lindo, but rather the idea that Rich's intentions are only as good as the gifts he gives. Lindo believes in omens and other superstitions, which helped her escape her first marriage. So she sees the fur coat as a sign that Waverly's relationship with Rich is not of the best quality. Quality is very important to Lindo. In Part 1, Chapter 3 she says she wears only 24-karat gold, not the cheaper 14-karat gold Waverly wears. "I know what I'm worth," she tells Waverly. She knows what Waverly is worth, too, and she thinks she deserves better than Rich gave her.

What is the meaning of Rose Hsu Jordan's dream at the end of Part 3, Chapter 3 of The Joy Luck Club?

When Rose was small, her mother told her a man named Old Mr. Chou guided the doorway to her dreams. Rose was terrified of Mr. Chou and had terrible trouble falling asleep. "Old Mr. Chou takes me to bad places," she would cry. He was the sum total of all her fears. Once she dreamed she was in Old Mr. Chou's garden and he yelled at her and chased her out after she disobeyed her mother, An-mei. As an adult Rose doesn't think much about Old Mr. Chou until after she decides how to proceed with her divorce. She is going to assert herself by demanding the house she and her husband shared as part of her divorce settlement. This time, she dreams Old Mr. Chou and her mother are in her garden. They are both happy to see her, and An-mei points out the plants she just put in the ground, which are surrounded by weeds "running wild in every direction." This dream is a representation of Rose's state of mind after she finally stands up for herself. She no longer has anything to fear, which is why Old Mr. Chou, once her enemy, welcomes her into the garden with a smile. She has done what he yelled at her for not doing so many years ago—listened to her mother—and she is finally happy. The weeds covering the garden symbolize Rose herself, who listens to so many different opinions she "grows wild" in every direction. Their presence in the dream affirms Rose made the right decision to fight for the house. This is where she belongs.

How does Rose Hsu Jordan's garden represent her relationship with her husband in Part 3, Chapter 3 of The Joy Luck Club?

The garden at the Jordan's house has always been Ted's domain. He tended it obsessively, keeping everything neatly manicured and in the right place. When Rose goes into the garden after he leaves, she notices "[t]he whole thing had grown wild from months of neglect." It reminds her of a fortune cookie fortune that said "When a husband stops paying attention to the garden, he's thinking of pulling up roots." Ted obviously hadn't paid any attention to the garden in a long time, just as he hadn't paid attention to his marriage to Rose. He had already entered another relationship and didn't have time for the constant care and attention a garden or a marriage need. Rose herself never took much interest in the garden, just as she never played a major role in her own marriage. She let Ted make decisions about everything. When she wanted to bring something to the garden, such as an aloe plant from Lena, he would tell her there was no place for it. Likewise, any inclination she had to suddenly become involved in the daily decisions regarding their life together would be met with resistance.

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