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The Joy Luck Club | Study Guide

Amy Tan

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The Joy Luck Club | Part 4, Chapter 1 : Magpies (An-Mei Hsu) | Summary



Nine-year-old An-mei leaves her aunt and uncle's house with her mother to live with her in Tientsin, where she is the third concubine of a wealthy man named Wu Tsing. An-mei's little brother remains behind. Before they leave her mother tells her a story about an old turtle. The lesson of the story is that it is "useless to cry" because, if An-Mei does, her "life will always be sad." Nonetheless, mother and daughter cry at the end of the story.

They travel for seven days. At first An-mei's mother is happy and talkative, but she becomes more irritable and somber as they get closer to their destination. She puts on fancy Western clothes, then produces a box that holds a lovely dress for An-mei to wear in her "new life." No one from the household meets them at the harbor, and they take a rickshaw to a vast, Western-style house. Yan Chang, An-mei's mother's servant, tells them the Second Wife, who made a mistake about when An-mei's mother would be arriving, is traveling, as is everyone else. An-mei's mother finally relaxes, and An-mei spends the next two weeks exploring the luxurious house.

Things change when Wu Tsing and Second Wife, Third Wife, and the newly acquired Fifth Wife return from their travels. An-mei senses her mothers' fear and unhappiness. An-mei's mother warns An-mei not to trust the conniving Second Wife, who gives An-mei a fake pearl necklace. This caution is echoed several weeks later by Yan Chang, who tells An-mei how Wu Tsing and Second Wife tricked, raped, and shamed An-mei's mother into becoming a concubine five years earlier. An-mei's mother's family exiled her. Two years later An-mei's mother gave birth to Wu Tsing's only son, Syaudi, who was immediately claimed by Second Wife as her own. An-mei wishes she didn't know any of this. She can see Second Wife's dark intentions, and she is more aware than ever of her mother's despair. Her mother has a small glimmer of hope: Wu Tsing has promised her a small house of her own where she and her daughter may live, but because of the Second Wife's manipulations, Wu Tsing changes his mind and the promise disappears.

Two days before the lunar new year, An-mei wakes in the middle of the night to find her mother convulsing on the bed. Everyone thinks she has eaten opium, as Second Wife does when she fakes suicide attempts. An-mei knows this isn't a plea for attention but a carefully devised plan to ensure she has a better life than her mother could give her were her mother to remain alive.

The key is the date. An-mei's mother purposely poisoned herself three days before the lunar new year so she would die the next day. The first day of the lunar new year is known as the day when all outstanding debts must be paid or else disaster will strike. This happens to be the third day after An-mei's mother's death, which is when spirits return to "settle scores" with the living. Fearing retribution from An-mei's mother's spirit, Wu Tsing vows to raise An-mei and Syaudi as his "honored children" and promises to "revere [An-mei's mother] as if she had been First Wife, his only wife." That is the day An-mei crushed the fake pearl necklace under her foot and "learned to shout."


An-mei's mother's tragic story seems particularly relevant to An-mei as she watches her daughter suffer through an unwanted divorce. She sees shades of her mother in Rose, most notably the inability to speak up as a means of protecting oneself. The difference is An-mei's mother was forbidden to protect herself with her words. Concubines were members of the family, slated somewhere between first wives and servants, but they were also considered to be property. Rose, on the other hand, belongs entirely to herself. She can say what she wants whenever she wants yet chooses to remain quiet. An-mei wants Rose to understand how fortunate she is to have a voice that can alter her circumstances if she will only speak her mind.

An-mei was once in the same position as Rose, but for different reasons. Right before she and her mother left Ningpo, her mother told her she must always swallow her tears because "[t]hey feed someone else's joy." Pain and sorrow were to be internalized. When An-mei's mother died and An-mei was elevated to the position of an "honored" daughter in Wu Tsing's household, she no longer had to hide her unhappiness. That's why she says the first day of the lunar new year was the day she learned to shout. Despite An-mei's efforts to teach her daughter the importance of speaking up for herself, Rose ended up more like An-mei's mother. This speaks to a deeply rooted familial, and perhaps even cultural, instinct to keep one's feelings and desires to oneself. This is similar to the "two faces" Lindo and Waverly Jong talk about in Part 4, Chapter 3, in which the self one presents to the world is different from the inner self.

Part 4, Chapter 1 is also an explanation of the theme of sacrifice, which pops up a lot in The Joy Luck Club. An-mei's mother's death is both the greatest and the harshest sacrifice undertaken by any of the mothers in the book. She doesn't kill herself to get out of her poor circumstances but rather to improve the circumstances of her children. If she had chosen to run away with the children instead of killing herself, they would have lived with poverty, shame, and fear hanging over their heads. An-mei's mother technically belonged to Wu Tsing, and he wouldn't take kindly to her disappearing with his only son. She knew Wu Tsing wasn't going to give her the house he once promised, and even if he had she wouldn't have been allowed to bring Syaudi with her, as Second Wife claimed him for her own.

Killing herself made the most sense because it at once freed her from the shame of her position and granted her children, particularly An-mei, the financial means to have the best possible lives. As she told An-mei, "she would rather kill her own weak spirit so she could give [An-mei] a stronger one." Sixty years later An-mei honors her mother's sacrifice by not letting her own child suffer the same forced silence.

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