Feng Shui, Astrology, and the Five Elements: Traditional Chinese Belief in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club

Feng Shui, Astrology, and the Five Elements: Traditional Chinese Belief in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club – Critical Essay

Patricia L. Hamilton

A persistent thematic concern in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club is the quest for identity. Tan represents the discovery process as arduous and fraught with peril. Each of the eight main characters faces the task of defining herself in the midst of great personal loss or interpersonal conflict. Lindo Jong recalls in “The Red Candle” that her early marriage into a family that did not want her shaped her character and caused her to vow never to forget who she was. Ying-ying St. Clair’s story “Waiting Between the Trees” chronicles how betrayal, loss, and displacement caused her to become a “ghost.” Rose Hsu Jordan recounts her effort to regain a sense of self and assert it against her philandering husband in “Without Wood.” Framing all the other stories are a pair of linked narratives by Jing-mei Woo that describe her trip to China at the behest of her Joy Luck Club “aunties.” The journey encompasses Jing-mei’s attempts not only to understand her mother’s tragic personal history but also to come to terms with her own familial and ethnic identity. In all the stories, whether narrated by the Chinese-born mothers or their American-born daughters, assertions of self are shaped by the cultural context surrounding them. However, there is a fundamental asymmetry in the mothers’ and daughters’ understanding of each other’s native cultures. The mothers draw on a broad experiential base for their knowledge of American patterns of thought and behavior, but the daughters have only fragmentary, second-hand knowledge of China derived from their mothers’ oral histories and from proverbs, traditions, and folktales.(1) Incomplete cultural knowledge impedes understanding on both sides, but it particularly inhibits the daughters from appreciating the delicate negotiations their mothers have performed to sustain their identities across two cultures.

Language takes on a metonymic relation to culture in Tan’s portrayal of the gap between the mothers and daughters in The Joy Luck Club. Jing-mei, recalling that she talked to her mother Suyuan in English and that her mother answered back in Chinese, concludes that they “never really understood one another”: “We translated each other’s meanings and I seemed to hear less than what was said, while my mother heard more” (37). What is needed for any accurate translation of meanings is not only receptiveness and language proficiency but also the ability to supply implied or missing context. The daughters’ inability to understand the cultural referents behind their mothers’ words is nowhere more apparent than when the mothers are trying to inculcate traditional Chinese values and beliefs in their children. The mothers inherited from their families a centuries-old spiritual framework, which, combined with rigid social constraints regarding class and gender, made the world into an ordered place for them. Personal misfortune and the effects of war have tested the women’s allegiance to traditional ideas, at times challenging them to violate convention in order to survive. But the very fact of their survival is in large measure attributable to their belief that people can affect their own destinies. In the face of crisis the mothers adhere to ancient Chinese practices by which they try to manipulate fate to their advantage. Their beliefs and values are unexpectedly reinforced by the democratic social fabric and capitalist economy they encounter in their adopted country. Having immigrated from a land where women were allowed almost no personal freedom, all the Joy Luck mothers share the belief along with Suyuan Woo that “you could be anything you wanted to be in America” (132).

Ironically, the same spirit of individualism that seems so liberating to the older women makes their daughters resistant to maternal advice and criticism. Born into a culture in which a multiplicity of religious beliefs flourishes and the individual is permitted, even encouraged, to challenge tradition and authority, the younger women are reluctant to accept their mothers’ values without question. Jing-mei confesses that she used to dismiss her mother’s criticisms as “just more of her Chinese superstitions, beliefs that conveniently fit the circumstances” (31). Furthermore, the daughters experience themselves socially as a recognizable ethnic minority and want to eradicate the sense of “difference” they feel among their peers. They endeavor to dissociate themselves from their mothers’ broken English and Chinese mannerisms,(2) and they reject as nonsense the fragments of traditional lore their mothers try to pass along to them. However, cut adrift from any spiritual moorings, the younger women are overwhelmed by the number of choices that their materialistic culture offers and are insecure about their ability to perform satisfactorily in multiple roles ranging from dutiful Chinese daughter to successful American career woman. When it dawns on Jing-mei that the aunties see that “joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these closed American-born minds `joy luck’ is not a word, it does not exist,” she realizes that there is a profound difference in how the two generations understand fate, hope, and personal responsibility. Devoid of a worldview that endows reality with unified meaning, the daughters “will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation” (41).

Tan uses the contrast between the mothers’ and daughters’ beliefs and values to show the difficulties first-generation immigrants face in transmitting their native culture to their offspring. Ultimately, Tan endorses the mothers’ traditional Chinese worldview because it offers the possibility of choice and action in a world where paralysis is frequently a threat. However, readers who are not specialists in Chinese cosmology share the same problematic relation to the text as the daughters do to their mothers’ native culture: they cannot always accurately translate meanings where the context is implied but not stated. Bits of traditional lore crop up in nearly every story, but divorced from a broader cultural context, they are likely to be seen as mere brushstrokes of local color or authentic detail. Readers may be tempted to accept at face value the daughters’ pronouncements that their mothers’ beliefs are no more than superstitious nonsense. To ensure that readers do not hear less than what Tan is actually saying about the mothers’ belief systems and their identities, references to Chinese cosmology in the text require explication and elaboration.

Astrology is probably the element of traditional Chinese belief that is most familiar to Westerners. According to the Chinese astrological system, a person’s character is determined by the year of his or her birth. Personality traits are categorized according to a twelve-year calendrical cycle based on the Chinese zodiac. Each year of the cycle is associated with a different animal, as in “the year of the dog.” According to one legend, in the sixth century B.C. Buddha invited all the animals in creation to come to him, but only twelve showed up: the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Ram, Monkey, Cock, Dog, and Pig. Buddha rewarded each animal with a year bearing its personality traits (Scott). In addition to animals, years are associated with one of the Five Elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. Metal years end in zero or one on the lunar calendar; Water years end in two or three; Wood years end in four or five; Fire years end in six or seven; and Earth years end in eight or nine. Thus, depending on the year in which one is born, one might be a Fire Dragon, a Water Dragon, and so on. The entire animal-and-element cycle takes sixty years to complete.

Tan draws on astrology in The Joy Luck Club in order to shape character and conflict. Lindo Jong, born in 1918, is a Horse, “destined to be obstinate and frank to the point of tactlessness,” according to her daughter Waverly (167). Other adjectives that describe the Horse include diligent, poised, quick, eloquent, ambitious, powerful, and ruthless (Rossbach 168). At one point or another in the four Jong narratives, Lindo manifests all of these qualities, confirming her identity as a Horse. In accordance with tradition, Lindo’s first husband is selected by his birth year as being a compatible partner for her. The matchmaker in “The Red Candle” tells Lindo’s mother and mother-in-law: “An earth horse for an earth sheep. This is the best marriage combination” (50). At Lindo’s wedding ceremony the matchmaker reinforces her point by speaking about “birthdates and harmony and fertility” (59). In addition to determining compatibility, birth years can be used to predict personality clashes. Waverly notes of her mother Lindo, “She and I make a bad combination, because I’m a Rabbit, born in 1951, supposedly sensitive, with tendencies toward being thin-skinned and skittery at the first sign of criticism” (167). Lindo’s friend Suyuan Woo, born in 1915, is also a Rabbit. No doubt the Joy Luck aunties have this in mind when they note that Suyuan “died just like a rabbit: quickly and with unfinished business left behind” (19). The friction between Horse and Rabbit mentioned by Waverly suggests why Lindo and Suyuan were not only best friends but also “arch enemies who spent a lifetime comparing their children” (37).(3)

Adherents of Chinese astrology contend that auspicious dates for important events can be calculated according to predictable fluctuations of ch’i, the positive life force, which is believed to vary according to the time of day, the season, and the lunar calendar. Thus, the matchmaker chooses “a lucky day, the fifteenth day of the eighth moon,” for Lindo’s wedding (57). Later, Lindo picks “an auspicious day, the third day of the third month,” to stage her scheme to free herself from her marriage. Unlucky dates can be calculated as well. Rose Hsu Jordan recalls that her mother An-mei had a “superstition” that “children were predisposed to certain dangers on certain days, all depending on their Chinese birthdate. It was explained in a little Chinese book called The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates” (124). The problem for An-mei is how to translate the Chinese dates into American ones. Since the lunar calendar traditionally used in China is based on moon cycles, the number of days in a year varies. Lindo similarly faces the problem of translating dates when she wants to immigrate to San Francisco, but her Peking friend assures her that May 11, 1918 is the equivalent of her birthdate, “three months after the Chinese lunar new year” (258). Accuracy on this point would allow Lindo to calculate auspicious dates according to the Gregorian calendar used in the West. In a broader sense, Lindo’s desire for exactness is a strategy for preserving her identity in a new culture.

Tan uses astrology to greatest effect in the life history of Ying-ying St. Clair, who does not fare at all well in the matter of translated dates or preserved identity. Ying-ying is a Tiger, born in 1914, “a very bad year to be born, a very good year to be a Tiger” (248). Tigers are typically passionate, courageous, charismatic, independent, and active, but they can also be undisciplined, vain, rash, and disrespectful (Jackson; Rossbach 167). Tiger traits are central to Ying-ying’s character. As a teenager she is wild, stubborn, and vain. As a four-year-old in “The Moon Lady,” she loves to run and shout, and she possesses a “restless nature” (72). According to Ruth Youngblood, “As youngsters [Tigers] are difficult to control, and if unchecked, can dominate their parents completely.” Ying-ying’s Amah tries to tame her into conformity to traditional Chinese gender roles: “Haven’t I taught you–that it is wrong to think of your own needs? A girl can never ask, only listen” (70). Ying-ying’s mother, too, admonishes her to curb her natural tendencies: “A boy can run and chase dragonflies, because that is his nature. But a girl should stand still” (72). By yielding to the social constraints placed on her gender and “standing perfectly still,” Ying-ying discovers her shadow, the dark side of her nature that she learns to wield after her first husband leaves her.

Long before adulthood, however, Ying-ying experiences a trauma regarding her identity. Stripped of her bloodied Tiger outfit at the Moon Festival, she tumbles into Tai Lake and is separated from her family for several hours. Ying-ying’s physical experience of being lost parallels her family’s suppression of her active nature and curtailment of her freedom. Whenever she wears her hair loose, for example, her mother warns her that she will become like “the lady ghosts at the bottom of the lake” whose undone hair shows “their everlasting despair” (243). After Ying-ying falls into the lake, her braid becomes “unfurled,” and as she drifts along in the fishing boat that picks her up, she fears that she is “lost forever” (79). When one of the fishermen surmises that she is a beggar girl, she thinks: “Maybe this was true. I had turned into a beggar girl, lost without my family” (80). Later she watches the Moon Lady telling her tragic story in a shadow play staged for the festival: “I understood her grief. In one small moment, we had both lost the world, and there was no way to get it back” (81). Even though Ying-ying is eventually rescued, she is afraid that her being found by her family is an illusion, “a wish granted that Could not be trusted” (82). The temporary loss of her sense of security and belonging is so disturbing that her perception of her identity is forever altered. She is never able to believe her family has found “the same girl” (82).

Ying-ying’s traumatic childhood experience prefigures the profound emotional loss and identity confusion she experiences as an adult. Looking back on her experience at the Moon Festival, she reflects that “it has happened many times in my life. The same innocence, trust, and restlessness, the wonder, fear, and loneliness. How I lost myself” (83). As an adult she is stripped of her Tiger nature once again when she immigrates to America. Since there is no immigration category for “the Chinese wife of a Caucasian citizen,” Ying-ying is declared a “Displaced Person” (104). Then her husband proudly renames her “Betty St. Clair” without seeming to realize he is effacing her Chinese identity in doing so. The final stroke is his mistakenly writing the wrong year of birth on her immigration papers. As Ying-ying’s daughter Lena puts it, “With the sweep of a pen, my mother lost her name and became a Dragon instead of a Tiger” (104). Unwittingly, Clifford St. Clair erases all signs of Ying-ying’s former identity and, more importantly, symbolically denies her Tiger nature.

The belief that personality and character are determined by zodiacal influences imposes predictable and regular patterns onto what might otherwise seem random and arbitrary, thereby minimizing uncertainty and anxiety. In this light, the anchor for identity that astrology offers Ying-ying is beneficial. Over the years she comes to understand what her mother once explained about her Tiger nature: “She told me why a tiger is gold and black. It has two ways. The gold side leaps with its fierce heart. The black side stands still with cunning, hiding its gold between trees, seeing and not being seen, waiting patiently for things to come” (248). The certainty that these qualities are her birthright eventually guides Ying-ying into renouncing her habitual passivity. The catalyst for this decision is her perception that her daughter Lena needs to have her own “tiger spirit” cut loose. She wants Lena to develop fierceness and cunning so that she will not become a “ghost” like her mother or remain trapped in a marriage to a selfish man who undermines her worth. Ying-ying expects resistance from Lena, but because of the strength of her belief system, she is confident about the outcome: “She will fight me, because this is the nature of two tigers. But I will win and give her my spirit, because this the way a mother loves her daughter” (252). Tan uses the Chinese zodiacal Tiger as a potent emblem of the way culturally determined beliefs and expectations shape personal identity.

Another element of Chinese cosmology that Tan employs in The Joy Luck Club is wu-hsing, or the Five Elements, mentioned above in conjunction with astrology.(4) The theory of the Five Elements was developed by Tsou Yen about 325 B.C. As Holmes Welch notes, Tsou Yen “believed that the physical processes of the universe were due to the interaction of the five elements of earth, wood, metal, fire, and water” (96). According to eminent French sinologist Henri Maspero, theories such as the Five Elements, the Three Powers, and yin and yang all sought to “explain how the world proceeded all by itself through the play of transcendental, impersonal forces alone, without any intervention by one or more conscious wills” (55). Derek Walters specifies how the Five Elements are considered to “stimulate and shape all natural and human activity”:

The Wood Element symbolizes all life, femininity, creativity, and organic

material; Fire is the Element of energy and intelligence; Earth, the

Element of stability, endurance and the earth itself; Metal, in addition to

its material sense, also encompasses competitiveness, business acumen, and

masculinity; while Water is the Element of all that flows–oil and alcohol

as well as water itself, consequently also symbolizing transport and

communication. (29)

The Elements correspond to certain organs of the body and physical ailments as well as to particular geometric shapes. An extended array of correspondences includes seasons, directions, numbers, colors, tastes, and smells (Lam 32). In the physical landscape the Elements can be placed in a productive order, in which each Element will generate and stimulate the one succeeding it, or a destructive order, in which Elements in close proximity are considered harmful. To avoid negative effects, a “controlling” Element can mediate between two elements positioned in their destructive order.

Suyuan Woo subscribes to a traditional application of the theory of the Five Elements in what Jing-mei calls her mother’s “own version of organic chemistry” (31). As Ben Xu has observed, the Five Elements are “the mystical ingredients that determine every person’s character flaw according to one’s birth hour.” Wu-hsing theory posits that “none of us has all the five character elements perfectly balanced, and therefore, every one of us is by nature flawed” (Xu 12). Accordingly; Suyuan believes that too much Fire causes a bad temper while too much Water makes someone flow in too many directions. Too little Wood results in one bending “too quickly to listen to other people’s ideas, unable to stand on [one’s] own” (31). Jing-mei, who does not understand how Suyuan’s pronouncements tie to a larger belief system, associates her mother’s theories with displeasure and criticism: “Something was always missing. Something always needed improving. Something was not in balance. This one or that had too much of one element, not enough of another.”

According to wu-hsing theory, flaws can be amended and balance attained by symbolically adding the element a person lacks. Xu points out that “the `rose’ in Rose Hsu Jordan’s name, for example, is supposed to add wood to her character” (12). Conversely, elements can be removed to create an imbalance. When Lindo Jong does not become pregnant in her first marriage, the matchmaker tells her mother-in-law: “A woman can have sons only if she is deficient in one of the elements. Your daughter-in-law was born with enough wood, fire, water, and earth, and she was deficient in metal, which was a good sign. But when she was married, you loaded her down with gold bracelets and decorations and now she has all the elements, including metal. She’s too balanced to have babies” (63). Although Lindo knows that the direct cause of her failure to become pregnant is not her having too much metal but rather her husband’s refusal to sleep with her, she accepts the matchmaker’s reasoning about the Five Elements. Years later Lindo comments: “See the gold metal I can now wear. I gave birth to your brothers and then your father gave me these two bracelets. Then I had you [Waverly]” (66). The implication here is that the gender of Lindo’s male children corresponds to her natural deficiency in Metal. Adding Metal back into her composition through the bracelets causes her next child to be female.

More significantly; Lindo, like Suyuan, believes that the Elements affect character traits: “After the gold was removed from my body, ! felt lighter, more free. They say this is what happens if you lack metal. You begin to think as an independent person” (63). Tan suggests that Lindo’s natural “imbalance” is key to her true identity, the self that she promises never to forget. As a girl she had determined to honor the marriage contract made by her parents, even if it meant sacrificing her sense of identity. But on her wedding day she wonders “why [her] destiny had been decided, why [she] should have an unhappy life so someone else could have a happy one” (58). Once Lindo’s gold and jewelry are repossessed by her mother-in-law to help her become fertile, Lindo begins to plot her escape from the marriage. Her feeling lighter and more free without Metal corresponds to her assertion of her true identity. Destiny is not so narrowly determined that she cannot use her natural qualities as a Horse–quickness, eloquence, ruthlessness–to free herself from her false position in the marriage. Because Lindo has secretly blown out the matchmaker’s red candle on her wedding night, she has in effect rewritten her fate without breaking her parents’ promise. Rather than restricting her identity, her belief in astrology and wu-hsing gives her a secure base from which to express it.

As with astrology, Tan uses the theory of the Five Elements not only for characterization but also for the development of conflict in The Joy Luck Club. “Without Wood” deals with the disastrous effects of Rose Hsu Jordan’s not having enough Wood in her personality, at least according to her mother An-mei’s diagnosis. An-mei herself has inspired “a lifelong stream of criticism” from Suyuan Woo, apparently for bending too easily to other’s ideas, the flaw of those who lack Wood (30-31). An-mei admits to having listened to too many people when she was young. She almost succumbed to her family’s urgings to forget her mother, and later she was nearly seduced by the pearl necklace offered to her by her mother’s rival. Experience has shown An-mei that people try to influence others for selfish reasons. To protect her daughter from opportunists, An-mei tells Rose that she must listen to her mother if she wants to grow “strong and straight.” If she listens to others she will grow “crooked and weak.” But Rose comments, “By the time she told me this, it was too late. I had already begun to bend” (191).

Rose attributes her compliant nature to the strict disciplinary measures of an elementary school teacher and to the influences of American culture: “Chinese people had Chinese opinions. American people had American opinions. And in almost every case, the American version was much better” (191). Not until much later does she realize that in the “American version” there are “too many choices,” so that it is “easy to get confused and pick the wrong thing.” Rose, emotionally paralyzed at fourteen by a sense that she is responsible for the death of her four-year-old brother, grows into an adult who not only listens to others but lets them take responsibility for her so that she may avoid committing another fatal error. Her husband, Ted, makes all the decisions in their marriage until a mistake of his own brings on a malpractice suit and shakes his self-confidence. When Ted abruptly demands a divorce, Rose’s lack of Wood manifests itself: “I had been talking to too many people, my friends, everybody it seems, except Ted” (188). She tells a “different story” about the situation to Waverly, Lena, and her psychiatrist, each of whom offers a different response. An-mei chides Rose for not wanting to discuss Ted with her, but Rose is reluctant to do so because she fears that An-mei will tell her she must preserve her marriage, even though there is “absolutely nothing left to save” (117).

Contrary to Rose’s expectations, her mother is less concerned that she stay married than that she deal with her inability to make decisions. An-mei wants her daughter to address the personality deficiencies that are the cause of her circumstances. Believing that Rose needs to assert her identity by acting on her own behalf, An-mei admonishes: “You must think for yourself, what you must do. If someone tells you, then you are not trying” (130). An-mei’s advice is embedded in the broader context of her Chinese world-view. When Rose complains that she has no hope, and thus no reason to keep trying to save her marriage, An-mei responds: “This is not hope. Not reason. This is your fate. This is your life, what you must do” (130). An-mei believes life is determined by fate, by immutable celestial forces. But like Lindo Jong, she sees fate as having a participatory element. Earthly matters admit the influence of human agency. Consequently, her admonition to Rose is focused on what Rose must “do.”

As a child Rose observes that both her parents believe in their nengkan, the ability to do anything they put their minds to. This belief has not only brought them to America but has “enabled them to have seven children and buy a house in the Sunset district with very little money” (121). Rose notes that by taking into account all the dangers described in The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates, An-mei has “absolute faith she could prevent every one of them” (124).

However, An-mei’s optimism about her ability to manipulate fate is challenged when her youngest child, Bing, drowns. An-mei does everything she can to recover her son, but she realizes she cannot “use faith to change fate” (130). Tragedy teaches her that forethought is not the same thing as control. Still, she wedges a white Bible–one in which Bing’s name is only lightly pencilled in under “Deaths”–beneath a short table leg as a symbolic act, “a way for her to correct the imbalances of life” (116). Although An-mei accepts that her power over fate is limited, she continues to believe that she can positively influence her circumstances. The idea of balance she is enacting is a fundamental element of yin-yang philosophy; according to which two complementary forces “govern the universe and make up all aspects of life and matter” (Rossbach 21). As Johndennis Govert notes, “to remove an obstruction to your happiness, regain a state of health, or create a more harmonious household, yin and yang must be in balance” (7). An-mei may use a Bible to balance the kitchen table, but she rejects the Christian beliefs it represents. Rose notes that her mother loses “her faith in God” after Bing’s death (116). The belief system that governs An-mei’s actions is Chinese, an amalgam of luck, house gods, ancestors, and all the elements in balance, “the right amount of wind and water” (122).

In contrast to her mother, Rose lacks a means by which she can delineate or systematize her notions of causality and responsibility. Moreover, she eschews any real sense that people can have control over their circumstances. As a teenager Rose is appalled to discover she is powerless to prevent little Bing from falling into the ocean as she watches. Later Rose thinks “that maybe it was fate all along, that faith was just an illusion that somehow you’re in control. I found out the most I could have was hope, and with that I was not denying any possibility, good or bad” (121). When her husband Ted wants a divorce, Rose compares the shock she receives to having the wind knocked out of her: “And after you pick yourself up, you realize you can’t trust anybody to save you–not your husband, not your mother, not God. So what can you do to stop yourself from tilting and falling all over again?” (121). Added to her sense of helplessness is the suspicion that whenever she is forced into making a decision, she is walking through a minefield: “I never believed there was ever any one right answer, yet there were many wrong ones” (120). Rose’s lack of any sort of a belief system fosters a crippling passivity characterized by a fear that whatever she chooses will turn out badly. Her inability to make even the smallest decisions becomes the equivalent, in Ted’s mind at least, of her having no identity.

Ironically, once Rose realizes that Ted has taken away all her choices, she begins to fight back. She seizes on the metaphor An-mei has used to explain the lack of Wood in her personality: “If you bend to listen to other people, you will grow crooked and weak. You will fall to the ground with the first strong wind. And then you will be like a weed, growing wild in any direction, running along the ground until someone pulls you out and throws you away” (191). Inspired by the weeds in her own neglected garden that cannot be dislodged from the masonry without “pulling the whole building down” (195), Rose demands that Ted let her keep their house. She explains, “You can’t just pull me out of your life and throw me away” (196). For the first time in her life she stands up for what she wants without soliciting the advice of others. After her assertion of selfhood, Rose dreams that hey “beaming” mother has planted weeds that are “running wild in every direction” in her planter boxes (196). This image, which suggests that An-mei has finally accepted Rose’s nature instead of trying to change her, is consistent with the desires the Joy Luck daughters share regarding their mothers. Each one struggles to feel loved for who she is. In part the younger women’s insecurity stems from having a different set of cultural values than their mothers. The older women try to encourage their daughters but do not always know how to cope with the cultural gap that separates them. As Lindo states: “I wanted my children to have the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character. How could I know these two things do not mix?” (254). But Rose’s dream-image submerges the fact that Rose has finally acted on her mother’s admonition to speak up for herself. An-mei has guessed that Ted is engaged in “monkey business” with another woman, and it is at the moment when Rose realizes her mother is right that she begins to move intuitively toward standing up for her own needs and desires. As it turns out, An-mei is correct in wanting Rose to listen to her mother rather than to her bored and sleepy-eyed psychiatrist in order to be “strong and straight.” Ultimately, An-mei’s belief that one’s fate involves making choices instead of being paralyzed as a victim is validated by Rose’s assertion of her identity.

A third element of traditional belief in The Joy Luck Club is feng shui, or geomancy. The most opaque yet potentially the most important aspect of Chinese cosmology to Tan’s exploration of identity, feng shui plays a pivotal role in Lena St. Clair’s story “The Voice from the Wall,” which chronicles her mother Ying-ying’s gradual psychological breakdown and withdrawal from life. Ten-year-old Lena, having no knowledge of her mother’s past, becomes convinced that her mother is crazy as she listens to Ying-ying rave after the death of

her infant son. Even before Ying-ying loses her baby, however, her behavior appears to be erratic and compulsive. When the family moves to a new apartment, Ying-ying arranges and rearranges the furniture in an effort to put things in balance. Although Lena senses her mother is disturbed, she dismisses Ying-ying’s explanations as “Chinese nonsense” (108). What Lena does not understand is that her mother is practicing the ancient Chinese art of feng shui (pronounced “fung shway”). Translated literally as “wind” and “water,” feng shui is alluded to only once in the book as An-mei Hsu’s balance of “the right amount of wind and water” (122). Although the term “feng shui” is never used overtly in conjunction with Ying-ying St. Clair, its tenets are fundamental to her worldview.

Stephen Skinner defines feng shui as “the art of living in harmony with the land, and deriving the greatest benefit, peace and prosperity from being in the right place at the right time” (4). The precepts of feng shui were systematized by two different schools in China over a thousand years ago. The Form School, or intuitive approach, was developed by Yang Yun-Sung (c. 840-888 A.D.) and flourished in Kiangsi and Anhui provinces. Practitioners focus on the visible form of the landscape, especially the shapes of mountains and the direction of watercourses. The Compass School, or analytical approach, was developed by Wang Chih in the Sung dynasty (960 A.D.) and spread throughout Fukien and Chekiang provinces as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan (Skinner 26). The analytic approach is concerned with directional orientation in conjunction with Chinese astrology. As Walters notes, Compass School scholars have traditionally “placed greater emphasis on the importance of precise mathematical calculations, and compiled elaborate formulae and schematic diagrams” (10). Geomancers using this approach employ an elaborate compass called the lo p’an, astrological charts and horoscopes, numerological data, and special rulers.

According to Susan Hornik, the beliefs encompassed by feng shui date back 3,000 years to the first practice of selecting auspicious sites for burial tombs in order to “bring good fortune to heirs” (73). As Skinner explains, “Ancestors are linked with the site of their tombs. As they also have a direct effect on the lives of their descendants, it follows logically that if their tombs are located favourably on the site of a strong concentration of earth energy or ch’i, not only will they be happy but they will also derive the power to aid their descendants, from the accumulated ch’i of the site” (11). By the Han dynasty (206 B.C.), the use of feng shui was extended to the selection of dwellings for the living (Hornik 73). The basic idea is to attract and channel ch’i, or beneficial energy, and “accumulate it without allowing it to go stagnant” (Skinner 21). Since ch’i encourages growth and prosperity, a wise person will consider how to manipulate it to best effect through feng shui, the study of placement with respect to both natural and man-made environments. As a form of geomancy feng shui is “the exact complement of astrology, which is divination by signs in the Heavens” (Walters 12), but it is based on a different presupposition. Whereas the course of the stars and planets is fixed, the earthly environment can be altered by human intervention through feng shui. The practice of feng shui offers yet another variation of the belief that people have the power to affect their destiny.

Thus Ying-ying St. Clair’s seemingly idiosyncratic actions and their nonsensical explanations in “The Voice from the Wall” are grounded in a coherent system of beliefs and practices concerned with balancing the environment. Since Ying-ying feels her surroundings are out of balance, she does everything she can to correct them. For instance, she moves “a large round mirror from the wall facing the front door to a wall by the sofa” (108). Ch’i is believed to enter a dwelling through the front door, but a mirror hung opposite the entrance may deflect it back outside again. Mirrors require careful placement so as to encourage the flow of ch’i around a room. Furniture, too, must be positioned according to guidelines that allow beneficial currents of ch’i to circulate without stagnating. Through properly placed furniture “every opportunity can be taken to correct whatever defects may exist, and to enhance whatever positive qualities there are” (Walters 46). Hence, Ying-ying rearranges the sofa, chairs, and end tables, seeking the best possible grouping. Even a “Chinese scroll of goldfish” is moved. When large-scale changes are impossible, feng shui practitioners frequently turn to symbolic solutions. Strategically placed aquariums containing goldfish are often prescribed for structural problems that cannot be altered, in part because aquariums symbolically bring all Five Elements together into balance (Collins 21). In Ying-ying’s case, a picture is substituted for live goldfish, which represent life and growth.

Ying-ying’s attempt to balance the living room follows a feng shui tradition: “If beneficial ch’i are lacking from the heart of the house, the family will soon drift apart” (Walters 42). But Ying-ying is also compensating for negative environmental and structural features that she cannot modify. The apartment in the new neighborhood is built on a steep hill, a poor site, she explains, because “a bad wind from the top blows all your strength back down the hill. So you can never get ahead. You are always rolling backward” (109). In ancient China the ideal location for a building was in the shelter of hills that would protect it from bitter northerly winds. However, a house at the very base of a sloping road would be vulnerable to torrential rains, mudslides, and crashes caused by runaway carts. Ying-ying’s concern with psychic rather than physical danger is consistent with modern applications of feng shui, but her notion of an ill wind sweeping downhill is based on traditional lore. In addition to the unfortunate location of the apartment building, its lobby is musty, a sign that it does not favor the circulation of ch’i. The door to the St. Clairs’ apartment is narrow, “like a neck that has been strangled” (109), further restricting the entrance of beneficial energy. Moreover, as Ying-ying tells Lena, the kitchen faces the toilet room, “so all your worth is flushed away.” According to the Bagua map derived from the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of divination, every building and every room has eight positions that correspond to various aspects of life: wealth and prosperity; fame and reputation; love and marriage; creativity and children; helpful people and travel; career; knowledge and self-cultivation; and health and family (Collins 61-62). Heidi Swillinger explains the problem of a dwelling where the bathroom is located in the wealth area: “Because the bathroom is a place where water enters and leaves, and because water is a symbol of wealth, residents in such a home might find that money tends to symbolically go down the drain or be flushed away.”(5) Even if the St. Clairs’ bathroom is not actually in the wealth area, feng shui guidelines dictate that it should not be placed next to the kitchen in order to avoid a clash between two of the symbolic Elements, Fire and Water.

In light of the bad feng shui of the apartment, Ying-ying’s unhappiness with it is logical. Once she finishes altering the living room, she rearranges Lena’s bedroom. The immediate effect of the new configuration is that “the nighttime life” of Lena’s imagination changes (109). With her bed against the wall, she begins to listen to the private world of the family next door and to use what she hears as a basis for comparison with her own family. It is not clear whether Lena’s bed has been moved to the “children” area of the room, which would enhance her ch’i, but certainly the new position is more in keeping with the principles of good feng shui, which indicate a bed should be placed against a wall, not a window (Walters 53). From this standpoint, Ying-ying’s inauspicious positioning of the crib against the window appears to be inconsistent with her other efforts. Lena notes, “My mother began to bump into things, into table edges as if she forgot her stomach contained a baby, as if she were headed for trouble instead” (109). Since according to feng shui theory protruding corners are threatening (Collins 47), Ying-ying’s peculiar neglect toward sharp table edges along with her placement of the crib suggest that her efforts at generating good feng shui are suspended with regard to her unborn baby.

When the baby dies at birth, apparently from a severe case of hydrocephalus and spina bifida, Ying-ying blames herself: “My fault, my fault. I knew this before it happened. I did nothing to prevent it” (111). To Western ears her self-accusation sounds odd, for birth defects such as spina bifida are congenital, and nothing Ying-ying could have done would have prevented the inevitable. However, her Eastern world-view dictates that fate can be manipulated in order to bring about good effects and to ward off bad ones. Ying-ying believes that her violation of good feng shui principles constitutes negligence, causing the baby to die. She is accusing herself not merely of passivity but of deliberate complicity with a malignant fate.

The burden of guilt Ying-ying carries over an abortion from her first marriage is the root of her disturbed mental state during her pregnancy. Her bumping into table edges may even be a form of self-punishment. In any case, whether she has subconsciously tried to harm the fetus or has merely failed to fend off disaster through the use of feng shui, in blaming herself for the baby’s death Ying-ying is clearly wrestling with her responsibility for the death of her first son. In her mind the two events are connected: “I knew he [the baby] could see everything inside me. How I had given no thought to killing my other son! How I had given no thought to having this baby” (112). Instead of finding any resolution after the baby dies, Ying-ying becomes increasingly withdrawn. She cries unaccountably in the middle of cooking dinner and frequently retreats to her bed to “rest.”

The presence of feng shui in the story suggests that however displaced, demoralized, and severely depressed Ying-ying may be, she is not “crazy,” as Lena fears. Ying-ying’s compulsion to rearrange furniture does not presage a psychotic break with reality but rather signals that, transplanted to a foreign country where she must function according to new rules and expectations, Ying-ying relies on familiar practices such as feng shui and astrology to interpret and order the world around her, especially when that world is in crisis. Lena, of course, is locked into a ten-year-old’s perspective and an American frame of reference. She shares Jing-mei Woo’s problem of being able to understand her mother’s Chinese words but not their meanings. Whereas Clifford St. Clair’s usual practice of “putting words” in his wife’s mouth stems from his knowing “only a few canned Chinese expressions” (106), Lena’s faulty translation of her mother’s distracted speech after the baby dies reflects a lack of sufficient personal and cultural knowledge to make sense of Ying-ying’s references to guilt.

Ying-ying’s story, “Waiting Between the Trees,” traces the origins of her decline to a much earlier time. At sixteen Ying-ying is married to a man who impregnates her, then abandons her for an opera singer. Out of grief and anger, she induces an abortion. However, after this defiant act she loses her strength, becoming “like the ladies of the lake” her mother had warned her about, floating like “a dead leaf on the water” (248-49). Unfortunately, Ying-ying’s Tiger characteristic of “waiting patiently for things to come” (248) turns from easy acceptance of whatever is offered into listlessness and acquiescence over a period of fourteen years: “I became pale, ill, and more thin. I let myself become a wounded animal” (251). She confesses, “I willingly gave up my chi, the spirit that caused me so much pain” (251). Giving up her vital energy is tantamount to giving up her identity. By the time Clifford St. Clair takes her to America, she has already become “an unseen spirit,” with no trace of her former passion and energy. Nevertheless, she retains her ability to see things before they happen. Her prescience stems from her trust in portents, which constitutes another facet of her belief system. When she is young, a flower that falls from its stalk tells her she will marry her first husband. Later on, Clifford St. Clair’s appearance in her life is a sign that her “black side” will soon go away. Her husband’s death signals that she can marry St. Clair.

Years later, Ying-ying can still see portents of the future. She knows Lena’s is “a house that will break into pieces” (243). Ying-ying also continues to think in terms of feng shui. She complains that the guest room in Lena’s house has sloping walls, a fact which implies the presence of sharp angles that can harbor sha, malignant energy signifying death and decay. With walls that close in like a coffin, the room is no place to put a baby, Ying-ying observes. But it is not until Ying-ying sees her daughter’s unhappy marriage that she accepts responsibility for the fact that Lena has no ch’i and determines to regain her own fierce spirit in order to pass it on to her daughter. Ying-ying knows she must face the pain of her past and communicate it to her daughter so as to supply Lena with the personal and cultural knowledge of her mother’s life that she has always lacked. By recounting her life’s pain, Ying-ying will in essence reconstruct her lost identity. To set things in motion, she decides to topple the spindly-legged marble table in the guest room so that Lena will come to see what is wrong. In this instance Ying-ying manipulates her environment in a literal as well as a symbolic sense, drawing on her traditional Chinese worldview once more in order to effect the best outcome for her daughter’s life.

Unlike her mother, Lena has no consistent belief system of her own. She inherits Ying-ying’s ability to see bad things before they happen but does not possess the power to anticipate good things, which suggests that Lena has merely internalized “the unspoken terrors” that plague Ying-ying (103). According to Philip Langdon, “second- or third-generation Chinese-Americans are much less likely to embrace feng shui than are those who were born in Asia” (148). Not only is Lena a second-generation Chinese-American, she is half Caucasian, which makes her Chinese heritage even more remote. Nonetheless, Lena is profoundly affected by Ying-ying’s way of perceiving the world. As a child Lena is obsessed with knowing the worst possible thing that can happen, but unlike her mother, she has no sense of being able to manipulate fate. Thus, she is terrified when she cannot stop what she supposes to be the nightly “killing” of the girl next door, which she hears through her bedroom wall. Only after Lena realizes that she has been wrong about the neighbor family does she find ways to change the “bad things” in her mind.

Lena’s muddled notions of causality and responsibility persist into adulthood. In “Rice Husband,” she still views herself as guilty for the death of Arnold Reisman, a former neighbor boy, because she “let one thing result from another” (152). She believes there is a relation between her not having cleaned her plate at meals when she was young and Arnold’s development of a rare and fatal complication of measles. She wants to dismiss the link as ridiculous, but she is plagued by doubt because she has no philosophical or religious scheme by which to interpret events and establish parameters for her personal responsibility: “The thought that I could have caused Arnold’s death is not so ridiculous. Perhaps he was destined to be my husband. Because I think to myself, even today, how can the world in all its chaos come up with so many coincidences, so many similarities and exact opposites?” (154). Whereas Ying-ying’s belief system affords her a sense of certainty about how the world operates, Lena’s lack of such a system leaves her in confusion.

It is Lena’s uncertainty about causality together with her failure to take purposive action that leads Ying-ying to believe her daughter has no ch’i. Lena tells herself, “When I want something to happen–or not happen–I begin to look at all events and all things as relevant, an opportunity to take or avoid” (152). But Ying-ying challenges her, asking why, if Lena knew the marble table was going to fall down, she did not stop it. By analogy she is asking Lena why she does not resolve to save her marriage. Lena muses, “And it’s such a simple question” (165). It is unclear whether Lena has already decided not to rescue the marriage or whether she is simply confused about her capacity to act on her own behalf. But the fact that Lena cannot answer her mother’s question quietly privileges Ying-ying’s perspective on the situation, much as An-mei’s viewpoint of Rose’s predicament is validated in “Without Wood.”

Marina Heung has pointed out that among works which focus on mother-daughter relations, The Joy Luck Club is “remarkable for foregrounding the voices of mothers as well as of daughters” (599). However, Tan goes further than “foregrounding” the mothers; she subtly endorses their world-view at strategic points in the text. Whereas Rose, Lena, and Jing-mei are paralyzed and unable to move forward in their relationships and careers and Waverly is haunted by a lingering fear of her mother’s disapproval, Suyuan, Lindo, An-mei, and even Ying-ying demonstrate a resilient belief in their power to act despite having suffered the ravages of war and the painful loss of parents, spouses, and children. Out of the vast range of Chinese religious, philosophical, and folkloric beliefs, many of which stress self-effacement and passivity, Tan focuses on practices that allow her characters to make adjustments to their destinies and thereby preserve and perpetuate their identities. Suyuan Woo is most striking in this regard. She goes outside of conventional Chinese beliefs to make up her own means of dealing with fate. Suyuan invents “Joy Luck,” whereby she and her friends in Kweilin “choose [their] own happiness” at their weekly mah jong parties instead of passively waiting for their own deaths (25). Joy Luck for them consists of forgetting past wrongs, avoiding bad thoughts, feasting, laughing, playing games, telling stories, and most importantly, hoping to be lucky. The ritualistic set of attitudes and actions that Suyuan and her friends observe keep them from succumbing to despair. When the war is over, Suyuan holds on to the main tenet of her belief system–that “hope was our only joy”–by refusing to assume a passive role in the aftermath of tragedy. She never gives up hope that by persistence she may be able to locate the infant daughters she left in China. When Suyuan says to Jing-mei, “You don’t even know little percent of me!” (27), she is referring to the complex interplay among the events of her life, her native culture and language, and her exercise of her mind and will. These things constitute an identity that Jing-mei has only an elusive and fragmentary knowledge of.

The references in The Joy Luck Club to traditional beliefs and practices such as astrology, wu-hsing, and feng shui emphasize the distance between the Chinese mothers and their American-born daughters. Tan hints through the stories of Lindo and Waverly Jong that a degree of reconciliation and understanding is attainable between mothers and daughters, and she indicates through Jing-mei Woo’s journey that cultural gaps can be narrowed. In fact, Jing-mei Woo starts “becoming Chinese” as soon as she crosses the border into China (267). But overall, Tan’s portrayal of first-generation immigrants attempting to transmit their native culture to their offspring is full of situations where “meanings” are untranslatable. The breakdown in communication between mothers and daughters is poignantly encapsulated in “American Translation,” the vignette that introduces the third group of stories in the book. A mother tells her daughter not to put a mirror at the foot of her bed: “`All your marriage happiness will bounce back and turn the opposite way'” (147). Walters notes that mirrors are “regarded as symbols of a long and happy marriage” but also that “care has to be taken that they are not so placed that they are likely to alarm the soul of a sleeper when it rises for nocturnal wanderings” (55). According to feng shui principles, a mirror “act’s as a constant energy reflector and will be sending [a] stream of intensified power into the space over and around [the] bed, day and night. It will be a perpetual cause of disturbance” during sleep (Lam 105). The daughter in the vignette is “irritated that her mother s[ees] bad omens in everything. She had heard these warnings all her life.” Lacking an understanding of the cosmological system to which her mother’s omens belong, the daughter simply views them as evidence that her mother has a negative outlook on life.

When the woman offers a second mirror to hang above the headboard of the bed in order to remedy the problem, she is seeking to properly channel the flow of ch’i around the room. The mother comments, “this mirror see that mirror–haule!–multiply your peach-blossom luck.” The daughter, however, does not understand her mother’s allusion to peach-blossom luck, which “refers to those who are particularly attractive to the opposite sex” (Rossbach 48). By way of explanation, the mother, “mischief in her eyes,” has her daughter look in the mirror to see her future grandchild. She is acting in accordance to the ancient Chinese belief that the “mysterious power of reflection” of mirrors, which reveal “a parallel world beyond the surface,” is magical (Walters 55). The daughter, unfortunately, can only grasp literal meanings: “The daughter looked–and haule! There it was: her own reflection looking back at her.” The mother is incapable of translating her worldview into “perfect American English,” so the daughter’s comprehension remains flawed, partial, incomplete. Whether or not she apprehends, from her literal reflection, that she herself is the symbol of her mother’s own peach-blossom luck is ambiguous. In the same way, the uneasy relations between the older and younger women in The Joy Luck Club suggest that the daughters understand only dimly, if at all, that they are the long-cherished expression of their mothers’ Joy Luck.


(1.) For a discussion of existential unrepeatability and the role of memory in The Joy Luck Club, see Ben Xu, “Memory and the Ethnic Self: Reading Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club,” MELUS 19.1 (1994): 3-18. An interesting treatment of language, storytelling, and maternal subjectivity in Tan’s novel can be found in Marina Heung, “Daughter-Text/Mother-Text: Matrilineage in Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club,” Feminist Studies 19.3 (1993): 597-616.

(2.) Jing-mei Woo thinks her mother’s “telltale Chinese behaviors” are expressly intended to embarrass her, including Suyuan’s predilection for yellow, pink, and bright orange (143, 267). When Jing-mei arrives in China, she notices “little children wearing pink and yellow, red and peach,” the only spots of bright color amidst drab grays and olive greens (271). Tan seems to suggest through this detail that Suyuan’s color preferences reflect not only her personal taste but Chinese patterns and traditions. According to Sarah Rossbach, yellow stands for power, pink represents “love and pure feelings,” and orange suggests “happiness and power” (46-47). In this light, Lindo Jong’s criticism of Suyuan’s red sweater in “Best Quality” is ironic since it is Lindo who provides evidence that red is regarded by the Chinese as an auspicious color connoting “happiness, warmth or fire, strength, and fame” (Rossbach 45). In “The Red Candle” Lindo mentions not only her mother’s jade necklace and her mother-in-law’s pillars, tables, and chairs but also her own wedding banners, palanquin, dress, scarf, special eggs, and marriage candle as being red.

(3.) Jing-mei Woo, born in the same year as Waverly (37), is a Metal Rabbit, and like Waverly, she exhibits a “Rabbit-like” sensitivity to criticism, especially when it comes from her mother.

(4.) The Chinese system of astrology has Buddhist origins, while the theory of the Five Elements derives from Taoist thought. Holmes Welch observes that “there was little distinction–and the most intimate connections–between early Buddhism and Taoism” (119).

(5.) Similar reasoning obtains in “Rice Husband” when Ying-ying tells Lena that a bank will have all its money drained away after a plumbing and bathroom fixtures store opens across the street from it (149). Lena comments that “one month later, an officer of the bank was arrested for embezzlement.”

Works Cited

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Govert, Johndennis. Feng Shui: Art and Harmony of Place. Phoenix: Daikakuji, 1993.

Heung, Marina. “Daughter-Text/Mother-Text: Matrilineage in Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club.” Feminist Studies 19.3 (1993): 597-616.

Hornik, Susan. “How to Get that Extra Edge on Health and Wealth.” Smithsonian Aug. 1993: 70-75.

Jackson, Dallas. “Chinese Astrology.” Los Angeles Times 20 Feb. 1991, Orange County ed.: E2. News. Online. Lexis-Nexis. 15 Mar. 1997.

Lam, Kam Chuen. Feng Shui Handbook. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.

Langdon, Philip. “Lucky Houses.” Atlantic Nov. 1991: 146+.

Maspero, Henri. Taoism and Chinese Religion. Trans. Frank A. Kierman, Jr. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1981.

Rossbach, Sarah. Living Color: Master Lin Yun’s Guide to Feng Shui and the Art of Color. New York: Kodansha, 1994.

Scott, Ann. “Chinese New Year: The Year of the Tiger.” United Press International 5 Feb. 1986, International sec. News. Online. Lexis-Nexis. 15 Mar. 1997.

Skinner, Stephen. The Living Earth Manual of Feng-Shui. London: Routledge, 1982.

Swillinger, Heidi. “Feng Shui: A Blueprint for Balance.” San Francisco Chronicle 8 Sept. 1993: Z1. News. Online. Lexis-Nexis. 15 Mar. 1997.

Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: G.P. Putnam, 1989.

Walters, Derek. Feng Shui: The Chinese Art of Designing a Harmonious Environment. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Welch, Holmes. Taoism: The Parting of the Way. Revised ed. Boston: Beacon, 1966.

Xu, Ben. “Memory and the Ethnic Self: Reading Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.” MELUS 19.1 (1994): 3-18.

Youngblood, Ruth. “Baby-Poor Singapore Looks to Dragon for Help.” Los Angeles Times 29 Nov. 1987, sec. 1: 41. News. Online. Lexis-Nexis. 15 Mar. 1997.

Patricia L. Hamilton is currently an instructor in the English Department at the University of Georgia. Although her primary area of interest is eighteenth century English women novelists, she has published articles on Amy Tan and Wendy Law-Yone and enjoys teaching multi-cultural literature, especially work that deals with the Asian immigrant experience.

COPYRIGHT 1999 The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnics Literature of the United States

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