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The Joy Luck Club | Study Guide

Amy Tan

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The Joy Luck Club | Part 1, Chapter 4 : The Moon Lady (Ying-ying St. Clair) | Summary



Ying-ying St. Clair remembers herself as a boisterous child. As she became a grown woman, however, she learned to keep "[her] true nature hidden, running along like a small shadow so nobody could catch [her]." Yet the older she gets, the more she remembers about her childhood. Of particular importance is the Moon Festival Ying-ying attended when she was four.

It's a swelteringly hot day. Ying-ying's family has rented an enormous boat so they can enjoy the Moon Festival on Tai Lake. Servants bring baskets of provisions and sleeping mats for the multigenerational party. The family naps during the hottest part of the afternoon. Ying-ying wakes before everyone else and wanders to the back of the boat, where two boys are using a bird to catch fish for Ying-ying's family. Ying-ying watches in fascination, then turns her attention to a woman butchering the fish, two chickens, and a snapping turtle.

When the show is over, Ying-ying looks down. The brand-new outfit her mother made Ying-ying for the festival is splattered with blood, guts, and feathers. Ying-ying panics and decides to cover the damage by dipping her hands in a bowl of turtle blood and smearing it all over her bright yellow silk jacket and skirt. Amah, Ying-ying's nanny, becomes hysterical when she eventually finds the blood-soaked Ying-ying, convinced she's been mortally wounded. Amah's fear changes to fury when she realizes Ying-ying isn't hurt, and she tells her to stay at the back of the boat.

Day turns into night, and nobody comes for Ying-ying. The fireworks startle her and she falls into the lake. Unable to swim she chokes on water until she is rescued by the passengers of a passing fishing boat. They try to help her find her family, but the lake is crowded with boats that all look alike. Ying-ying is finally deposited on shore, where she watches a play about the Moon Lady. The Moon Lady betrays her husband and is sentenced to living the rest of her life alone. After the play the actors tell the audience the Moon Lady will grant their wishes for a small donation. Ying-ying runs up to the Moon Lady to share her wish. As she speaks the Moon Lady takes off her costume and reveals herself as a male actor. In the present Ying-ying says she doesn't remember how her family found her, but she remembers everything else, particularly her wish. She asked the Moon Lady "to be found."


The Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival, takes place on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. Next to the New Year celebrations in the spring, the Moon Festival is the second-most important festival on the Chinese lunar calendar. On the day of the festival families gather to offer sacrifices to the moon and to celebrate the Moon Lady, Chang-o. Chang-o's story changes depending on who is telling it, but in nearly all versions she is the wife of Hou Yi, a magnificent archer who shot down nine extra moons that were scorching the earth and killing crops. Regarded as a hero, he is given an elixir that would make him a deity and give him eternal life. Chang-o secretly drinks the magical tonic and is transported to the moon, where she will be stranded for eternity.

The details of this folk tale cast Chang-o in two different lights. In one version she is a hero for drinking the elixir to prevent a villain from stealing it. In another it is she who is the villain, greedily stealing what rightfully belongs to her husband. The latter version is the one Ying-ying sees in the play at the Moon Festival, and it appears to have changed her life. "For woman is yin ... the darkness within, where untempered passions lie," says the actor playing the Moon Lady. In contrast men are "yang, bright truth lighting our minds." The message that women are the dark, unpredictable, and untrustworthy half of humanity strikes a chord with little Ying-ying. Even though she's only four, she sees her own actions, which led to the ruin of her beautiful outfit and separation from her family, mirrored in the Moon Lady's selfishness.

This pivotal event in Ying-ying's childhood sparks a change in her personality. It happens slowly but surely—as she describes it she "rubbed out [her] face over the years washing away [her] pain," just as stone carvings are worn away by water. The lively, rebellious personality of her childhood morphs to conform to the feminine ideals of Chinese culture in the early 20th century—being seen and not heard, keeping her "selfish desires" to herself.

Ying-ying blames her outwardly reserved nature for the distance between herself and her daughter. Yet she also sees similarities in their personalities. By keeping to themselves, they both remain "unknown by others." Ying-ying's observations are a commentary on how cultural ideals of the past shape relationships in the present. Women who have been taught curiosity is a sin learn not to ask questions, and those who have grown up thinking their inner lives are not important are reluctant to share their own opinions and past experiences.

This causes a disconnect between generations, particularly in the mother-daughter relationships at the root of the novel. Ying-ying is ready to move past that. Her childhood wish "to be found" is just as applicable in her advanced age as when she was a small child. She is ready to reconnect with the fire and spirit of her youth, not only for the sake of her own happiness but also to strengthen her relationship with her daughter and to help her daughter strengthen herself.

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