The Joy Luck Club, written by Amy Tan, is a book that gives readers insight into the values and principles of Chinese. Family duty is a fundamental feature of Chinese culture and a central theme in the Joy Luck Club. Chinese culture upholds family duty as one of the most important values a person can have. The idea of family duty includes sacrificing your own desires for the family’s sake, making the family proud, and maintaining the family’s honor and reputation.
Family duty includes sacrificing one’s own desires for the sake of their family. Ying-Ying was born with a wild Tiger spirit, but in her older age she finds herself biting back her words more often than not. As a child, Ying-Ying liked to run around, let her hair out, and get her clothes messy. One day, during a family picnic, her mom scolds her for being too adventurous. “A boy can run and chase dragonflies because that is his nature, but a girl should stand still” (Tan 70). For a girl, this was inappropriate behavior, and she was taught to bite her tongue and keep her desires to herself. Amah, Ying-Ying’s nursemaid, tried to snuff out her free spirit and make her more docile. Like Ying-Ying, An-Mei’s mother made many sacrifices, from marrying Wu Tsing to taking her own life for the sake of her daughter. One sacrifice that particularly stands out is when she cuts flesh off her arm and cooks it into a soup to heal her dying mother, as indicated by tradition. “This is how a daughter honors her mother. It is shou so deep it is in your bones. The pain of the flesh is nothing. The pain you must forget” (Tan 41). The pain did not even affect her mother, as her mother’s health was much more important to her than a small bit of flesh. So many times in the book, characters sacrifice personal desires and comfort for the collective needs of the family.
Another aspect of family duty is making one’s family proud. Waverly was a child chess prodigy. She beat opponents much older and more experienced than her, and won tournament after tournament. She even made the cover of Life magazine. This gave her mother bragging rights, which Waverly became embarrassed by. Waverly starts to resist the pressure, and even runs away from home for a few hours in protest. When she returns, Lindo says: “We not concerning this girl. This girl not have concerning for us” (Tan 103) In saying this, Lindo expresses how a crucial part of being in a family is making that family proud. If you want to be recognized and accepted as a member of the family, you must do something the family can take pride in. When June was a child, her mother wanted her to be a prodigy like Waverly. She tried to get June to be a child actress like Shirley Temple, a memory prodigy, and a piano prodigy, among other things. After a few different attempts to become a prodigy, June stopped believing in herself, and fought back against her piano lessons. The result was a botched piano recital where she embarrassed her mother and was left feeling like she would never make her proud. “It was not the only disappointment my mother felt in me. In the years that followed, I failed her so many times . . . I didn’t get straight As. I didn’t become class president. I didn’t get into Stanford. I dropped out of college” (Tan 154). June constantly feels the pressure to make her mother proud and live up to her expectations. The fact that she feels she has fallen short of those expectations haunts June throughout her life, and becomes a central conflict between her and her mother in the novel. This theme of making your parents proud as a way of repaying them for everything they have done for you is a prevalent aspect of Chinese culture.
Along with making the family proud, family duty also includes preserving the family honor and reputation. An-Mei’s mother was being disrespected by Second Wife, which diminished An-Mei’s standing in the family as well. Eventually, An-Mei’s mother ended her own life to grant her daughter respect and honor in Wu Tsing’s family. “When the poison broke into her body, she whispered to me that she would rather kill her own weak spirit so she could give me a stronger one” (Tan 271). She wanted An-Mei to be able to stand up for herself like she never could, and she sacrificed her life for An-Mei to get that power. While An-Mei’s mother sacrificed her life in the more final sense, Lindo sacrificed her life too, in terms of her own free will and desire. Lindo was betrothed to Tyan-Yu, son of the Huangs. At 12 years old, Lindo went to live with her betrothed’s family. Though she was miserable, lonely, and treated like a lowly servant, Lindo stayed strong. Her parents had made a promise to the Huangs that Lindo would make a good wife. Therefore, Lindo wanted to honor her family’s promise by fulfilling her duty, no matter how unfulfilling it was for her. “I missed my family and my stomach felt bad, knowing I had finally arrived where my life said I belonged. But I was also determined to honor my parents’ words, so Huang Taitai could never accuse my mother of losing face. She would not win that from our family” (Tan 49) To break that promise would bring dishonor on her family, and damage their reputation as an honorable family who keeps their promises. Preserving the family’s honor is one of the most important things a member of the family can do.
Family duty is a prevalent theme of both Chinese culture and the Joy Luck Club. It features sacrifice, making the family proud, and upholding honor. Many women in the book, especially the mothers, sacrificed their own comforts and desires to conform to their families’ wishes. June and Waverly struggled in their childhoods and even in their adult lives to make their families proud. Finally, the importance of preserving the family’s honor is prominent throughout the book. Family duty ties together these values of sacrifice, making the family proud, and preserving the family’s honor and reputation. It is a defining feature of Chinese culture.
Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. Penguin Press, 2019