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The Joy Luck Club | Study Guide

Amy Tan

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The Joy Luck Club | Motifs


Chinese Astrology

Several of the characters in The Joy Luck Club describe themselves in terms of their birth animal according to the Chinese zodiac. The most notable is Ying-ying St. Clair, who was born in the Year of the Tiger, as was her daughter, Lena St. Clair. Each of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac—the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig—have particular personality traits that are said to extend to people born in years designated by that animal.

People who are born in the Year of the Tiger, for example, are fierce and unpredictable yet able to "[wait] between the trees" until the right moment presents itself to spring forth. People born in the year of the Rabbit, like Waverly Jong, are "supposedly sensitive ... thin-skinned and skittery at the first sign of criticism." Those born in the Year of the Horse, like Lindo Jong, "are obstinate and frank to the point of tactlessness." Ying-ying and Lena, both born in the Year of the Tiger, are very much alike, but when they fight it can be brutal. Lindo's constant criticisms irk Waverly, which creates a distance within their relationship. These astrological signs give the reader insight into each character's personality as well as how the characters interact with one another.

Chinese Folktales

Chinese folktales play a large role in The Joy Luck Club. They are used to introduce the four separate sections of the book, providing an overall theme for the stories that follow. Individual characters relate folktales to one another as a means of teaching lessons. When a folktale is introduced, such as the one An-mei Hsu tells about the magpies who were chased away by angry villagers, then a lesson is not far behind. These lessons always relate to the problem faced by the character in question. Folktales also occur within the stories, often as moral lessons that become commentaries on the lives of the characters.


Chinese culture is full of superstitions. Numbers, colors, elements, and the four directions all have special meanings, as do the traditions associated with Chinese holidays. The mothers in The Joy Luck Club all teach their daughters how to improve their luck as well as how to interpret signs of misfortune. Though the mothers wholeheartedly believe in their selected superstitions, the daughters don't necessarily follow suit. In this way the superstitions are symbolic of Chinese culture itself. The mothers are embedded in it while the daughters only have tangential connections. The more they begin to understand their mothers' points of view, however, the more the superstitions seem to make sense.

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