The Joy Luck Club | Study Guide

Amy Tan

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The Joy Luck Club | Part 1, Chapter 2 : Scar (An-mei Hsu) | Summary



Nine-year-old An-mei lives with her grandmother, Popo, and her brother at her aunt and uncle's house. She is told her mother is a "ghost," or a person of whom one should never speak. Her mother disgraced the family after her husband's death by moving north and marrying a man who already had a wife, two concubines, and several children. She becomes his third concubine and assumes the place of Fourth Wife.

An-mei remembers nothing about her mother, but she recognizes herself in the face of the woman who appears at the door after Popo falls ill. Upon hearing her mother's voice, An-mei remembers the last time she saw her mother. She was four. Her mother had come home to take An-mei away with her. All the other adults were angry, but An-mei was ecstatic to see her mother. In the excitement, a giant soup pot overturned. Scalding soup poured over An-mei's neck "as though everyone's anger were pouring all over [her]." On the verge of death An-mei rallied when she heard Popo say her mother "has used up her tears and left. If you do not get well soon, she will forget you." An-mei recovered but her mother was gone. All that remained was a smooth and shiny scar on her neck.

Now An-mei watches her mother care for a dying Popo. Her mother cuts a chunk of flesh from her own arm and puts it in a medicinal soup, "cook[ing] magic in the ancient tradition to try to cure her mother this one last time." This is the moment An-mei begins to love her mother again.


An-mei's mother brought great shame to her family for being a concubine, or a woman who lives with a man who is married to someone else. Concubinage was common in ancient China, often among emperors and other wealthy men, and it continued through the end of Republican China in 1949, when the practice was outlawed.

Concubines were viewed as "minor wives," which meant their place in the household hierarchy was below the real, or first, wife but above the household servants. Their role was one of procreation and recreation. Many concubines lived in luxurious households, but their lives were not the stuff of fantasy. Most had to cut ties with their own families. As a result, they lost the protection afforded by kin. Vicious rivalries also arose between concubines in the same household as they fought for power.

As the fourth wife in her husband's household, An-mei's mother has no power or status. As relayed later in the story, she was forced into her position against her will. But her family doesn't know that. They believe she chose to become a concubine. Her family reviles her for what they believe is a shameful lifestyle, particularly for a woman who was once married to a scholar. She is "not an honored widow. Just a number-three concubine" and a "traitor to [their] ancestors."

Mother-daughter relationships are at the root of The Joy Luck Club, and even the unhappy ones are a lesson in sacrificing oneself for the sake of another. Popo has all but disowned An-mei's mother, calling her a "ghost" and throwing her out of the house when An-mei was most in need of her. Nevertheless, An-mei's mother still leaves her home in the North to return to care for the dying woman. The physical sacrifice of her own flesh for the restorative soup is a representation of the deep and unwavering connection between mothers and daughters, even during the worst of times. An-mei's recognition of this bond of love and sacrifice marks the moment when she learns to love her mother again.

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