The Joy Luck Club
Queen Mother of the Western Skies: Introduction, “Magpies,” & “Waiting Between the Trees”
The opening parable of the fourth section depicts the woman of the first three parables as she plays with a baby granddaughter. She laments that she does not know whether to teach her granddaughter to shed her innocence in order to protect herself from emotional injury or to preserve her granddaughter’s optimism and faith in human goodness. The woman regrets having taught her daughter (the baby’s mother) to recognize the evil in people, because she suspects that to recognize evil in others is to yield to the evil in oneself. The baby begins to laugh, and the woman takes her laugh as a sign of wisdom. The baby, the woman says, is really the “Queen Mother of the Western Skies,” who has lived many times and has come back to answer the woman’s questions about evil. The woman tells her granddaughter that she has learned her lesson: one must lose one’s innocence but not one’s hope; one must never stop laughing. The woman tells the baby to teach her mother the same lesson.
Summary—An-mei Hsu: “Magpies”
In this final section of the novel, the mothers again resume their narratives. An-mei Hsu tells the first story. She begins by brooding on her daughter Rose’s decaying marriage. She remarks that although Rose believes she has run out of choices, Rose is in fact making a distinct choice in refusing to speak up for herself. An-mei knows this, she says, because she was taught to desire nothing, to absorb other people’s misery, to suppress her own pain. She received her first lesson in such passive stoicism when she was a young girl living at her uncle’s house in Ningpo. An-mei’s mother came and cut her own flesh for her mother, Popo, who was dying (see the story “Scar”).
After Popo’s death, An-mei’s mother prepared to leave, and An-mei began to cry. Her mother told her that once, when she was a girl, she had sat crying by the pond when a turtle surfaced, swallowing her teardrops as they touched the water. The turtle then said that he had eaten her tears and therefore knew her misery. He warned her that if she continued to cry, her life would always be sad. He spat out the tears in the form of tiny eggs, which cracked open to reveal seven fluttering magpies, birds of joy. The turtle said that whenever one cries, one is not washing away one’s sorrows but feeding another’s joy. For this reason, one must learn to swallow one’s own tears.
An-mei’s mother wanted to take An-mei with her. An-mei’s uncle told her she would ruin her daughter’s life as she had ruined her own. An-mei, defying the angry exhortations of her aunt and uncle, decided to leave with her mother. They allowed her to go, but her uncle deemed her “finished.” An-mei’s one deep regret was that her brother could not come along. Mother and daughter traveled to Tientsin, where An-mei’s mother had lived for the past five years in the household of a rich merchant named Wu Tsing. She lived with him as his third concubine, or “fourth wife.” The house was a huge Western-style mansion, full of luxuries and amusements, including a European cuckoo clock. An-mei lived in glorious happiness for a few weeks, until Wu Tsing returned home from his travels accompanied by a young and beautiful fifth wife, who replaced An-mei’s mother as the latest concubine. An-mei’s mother became depressed at her sudden decline in status and dignity.
Soon the winter came, and Wu Tsing’s second and third wives returned to Tientsin from their summer homes. Second Wife, an expensively dressed, older woman of forty-five, appeared especially intimidating to An-mei. Although she seemed a bit too old to still have young children, she carried in her arms a two-year-old son, Syaudi. Upon first meeting An-mei, Second Wife gave her a pearl necklace. An-mei felt honored by the attention, but her mother warned her not to be manipulated by Second Wife. Later, An-mei’s mother crushed one “pearl” of the necklace under her shoe, proving to An-mei that it was made of mere glass. Afterward, An-mei’s mother gave her a sapphire ring.
Yan Chang, the servant of An-mei’s mother, explained to An-mei that Wu Tsing’s original wife, known as First Wife, bore children with physical deformities or large birthmarks, thus failing to produce a suitable heir. She took many pilgrimages to honor Buddha, hoping to rectify her misfortune with a perfect child. Yet she had no more children. Wu Tsing gave her money for her own household. Twice a year, she visited his house, but she remained in her bedroom smoking opium. One day An-mei’s mother informed her that Wu Tsing had arranged for them soon to have their own household as well.
Yan Chang also told An-mei the story behind Second Wife. She had been a famous singer, and Wu Tsing had married her for the prestige of having a wife everyone else desired. Second Wife soon discovered how to control Wu Tsing’s money: knowing his fear of ghosts, she would stage fake suicides by eating raw opium, thus making herself sick. Wu Tsing, afraid that she would come back as a ghost and reap revenge on him, would raise her allowance each time in an attempt to make her spirit less vengeful in case she should indeed die. Yet there was one thing Second Wife could not control: she could not have children, and she knew that Wu Tsing wanted an heir. She thus found a woman to become his third wife, but she made sure that the woman was quite ugly and would thus not replace Second Wife in Wu Tsing’s heart. Later, when Third Wife bore only daughters, Second Wife arranged for Wu Tsing to marry An-mei’s mother.
Yan Chang claims that An-mei’s mother is too good for the family. Five years earlier, she had been tricked into marriage with Wu Tsing when she and Yan Chang were visiting a Buddhist pagoda to “kowtow,” or worship. The pagoda was on a lake, and on the way back, Yan Chang and An-mei’s mother shared a boat with Wu Tsing and Second Wife. Second Wife had been searching for a third concubine for Wu Tsing who would keep him from wasting his money in the teahouses and give him a son. She could tell that An-mei’s mother was in mourning (her husband, a Buddhist scholar, had died one year earlier) from her white clothes, but she devised a scheme. She invited her for dinner and an evening of mahjong. After it became too late for An-mei’s mother to travel home, Second Wife had her sleep in her bed with her. In the middle of the night, Second Wife and Wu Tsing switched places, and Wu Tsing raped An-mei’s mother. Second Wife then announced to everyone that An-mei’s mother had seduced Wu Tsing. Entirely disgraced, An-mei’s mother had no choice but to marry Wu Tsing. She gave birth to a son, Syaudi, whom Second Wife took as her own. A few days after Yan Chang revealed this story to An-mei, Second Wife staged another fake suicide and prevented An-mei and her mother from getting the second household they had been promised.
Two days before the lunar new year, An-mei’s mother committed suicide. Although Yan Chang suspected that hers was a fake suicide gone wrong, An-mei realized that the act was quite deliberate. Before dying, her mother told An-mei that she was killing her weak spirit to make An-mei’s spirit stronger. Chinese folklore states that the soul returns on the third day after death to “settle scores.” Wu Tsing, wanting to avoid a vengeful spirit, promised her spirit that he would raise An-mei and Syaudi as his “honored children” in addition to honoring her as he would a First Wife. Afterward, An-mei confronted Second Wife with the fake pearl necklace, crushing it underfoot. She says it was on that day that she learned to shout.
Summary—Ying-ying St. Clair: “Waiting Between the Trees”
[W]hen [my daughter] was born, she sprang from me like a slippery fish, and has been swimming away ever since. All her life, I have watched her as though from another shore.
Ying-ying St. Clair notes her daughter Lena’s marital situation with great sadness. She says that she has always known a thing before it happens, and that the signs of her daughter’s broken marriage are clear to her, although Lena cannot see them.
Ying-ying remembers her first marriage, about which she has never told Lena. She was raised in a very wealthy household. When she was sixteen, a vulgar older man who was a friend of the family began to show interest in her. Although he repulsed Ying-ying, she instantly felt that she was destined to marry him. The marriage was arranged, and Ying-ying soon came to love the man, as if against her own will. She tried to please him in every way, and she conceived a child that she knew, in her almost telepathic manner, would be a son. Several months into the pregnancy, her husband left her for an opera singer, and Ying-ying learned that he had committed infidelities throughout their marriage. In her rage and sorrow, she aborted her unborn son.
Ying-ying explains that she was born in the year of the Tiger. The Tiger spirit has two natures: the golden nature is fierce, and the black nature is cunning and crafty, waiting between the trees. Ying-ying explains that only after her husband left her did she learn to use the black side of her spirit. She lived for ten years with relatives before she decided to get a job in a clothing shop, where, one day, she met an American merchant named Clifford St. Clair. “Saint,” as Ying-ying calls him, courted Ying-ying for four years, but she waited for news of her renegade husband’s death before marrying Clifford. Clifford believed she was a poor village girl and had no idea that Ying-ying had grown up amidst an opulence greater than any he could provide. She did not tell him of her former life until many years after they were married. The first marriage had already drained her spirit to such an extent that as soon as she stopped having to struggle to live, she became the ghost of the tiger she had once been. Ying-ying has decided to make a change, because she is ashamed that Lena, her daughter who was also born under the sign of the Tiger, also lacks the spirit that should be hers by right of her birth year. She resolves to share her painful, secret past with Lena in order to cut her Tiger spirit loose.
The parable that introduces the last section of The Joy Luck Club centers on the cyclical nature of inheritance. As the grandmother broods, she hears a wisdom in the baby’s laughter and decides that the baby is Syi Wang Mu, Queen Mother of the Western Skies, already reborn infinite times, come to counsel her grandmother and mother. Thus, the grandmother notes that wisdom can be passed both ways—from old to young, but also young to old. Each generation can offer valuable lessons to the others.
The woman in the parable also realizes that many lessons will not come naturally and must be taught to her granddaughter. In the stories that follow the parable, the three mothers recognize their own flaws and virtues manifested in their daughters, and they worry about how to keep their daughters from suffering the same pains they suffered. An-mei’s mother teaches her two different lessons. The first, which she teaches through the story of the turtle, is to swallow her tears and suppress her bitterness. The second, which she teaches by crushing a pearl from Second Wife’s necklace, is to see beyond appearances. This second lesson proves useful to An-mei, as it teaches her to be on guard against deceit. An-mei in turn passes this lesson on to her daughter Rose, so that Rose sees through Ted’s manipulative ways: she realizes that he wants to get out of his marriage with the house and most of the money, so he can quickly move a new wife into Rose’s place.
However, An-mei’s mother’s first lesson—that one should swallow one’s own tears—proves harmful, first to An-mei’s mother herself, then to An-mei, and then to Rose, to whom An-mei passes it on unwittingly. An-mei reflects on this phenomenon, saying that even though she tried to teach her daughter to speak up for herself, Rose followed in her mother’s footsteps. An-mei remarks that only after her own mother’s suicide did she learn “to shout”—to assert herself—when she confronted Second Wife. An-mei recognizes that while passivity and reticence may once have been the only option for women, women no longer need live this way. She wonders now how to rectify the seemingly irrepressible force of inheritance, how to extricate her mother’s passivity from her daughter. The text implies that the answer may lie in the power of storytelling.
An-mei’s mother sacrifices herself for the sake of her child. When she sees that her declining status in Wu Tsing’s household would mean a lower status for An-mei as an adult, she commits suicide, forcing Wu Tsing to promise to give An-mei a respected rank in his household and removing her from Second Wife’s clutches. An-mei comes to manifest the same maternal devotion later in her life. In “Half and Half,” Rose tells the story of An-mei’s incessant search for her son Bing. An-mei throws the sapphire ring her mother gave her into the ocean to appease the evil spirits keeping Bing’s body, even though the ring, which we learn in this story was given to An-mei when she was a child, seems to have been An-mei’s only memento of her mother. Yet, An-mei’s sacrifice of the ring commemorates her mother’s own act of devotion by repeating it in a new form.
Like An-mei, Ying-ying worries that she has unintentionally handed down her passivity to her daughter Lena. As their earlier stories have demonstrated, for Ying-ying and Lena, passivity interweaves itself with fatalism and prevents them from taking initiative. In “Waiting Between the Trees” Ying-ying believed that she was “destined” to marry her husband, despite her dislike of him, so she made no real effort to resist, and the tragic course of events that followed destroyed her spirit. After she aborted her child, Ying-ying thought she would take advantage of the cunning, “black,” side of her Tiger spirit and wait for a ripe opportunity to reenter life in full force. However, when she meets Clifford St. Clair, Ying-ying displays the same fatalism that led her to her first marriage disaster. Although she neither likes nor dislikes the foreign merchant, she “knows” that he embodies a message: that the black side of her would soon fade away. Later, in America, Ying-ying passively watches Lena grow up as if they stand on separate shores. Nonetheless, she has realized that her inaction has been a bad example for her daughter. She resolves to share the story of her past mistakes with Lena so that Lena’s own Tiger spirit will waken to action.
An-mei and Ying-ying both suffer traumatic experiences that destroy their innocence. An-mei recovers from her grief, taking with her important knowledge about trust and faith, but Ying-ying has only begun to recover from her painful first marriage. She is roused to confront her past because Lena’s marriage is in trouble—Ying-ying’s story demonstrates, like the parable that precedes it, that the older generation can and does learn from the younger one.
by MiracleeCream, September 10, 2012
Is there any symbolism in this short story? I was assigned to analyze it like a "professor" and I am not sure if there is any symbolism. All I know is that when Jing-mei's mother offered her to keep to piano it was like a peace offering or forgiveness.
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