Each of the four sections of The Joy Luck Club is preceded by a short parable that introduces the major themes of that section’s four stories. The parable that begins “Feathers from a Thousand Li Away” tells the tale of a Chinese woman who decides to emigrate to America. Before she leaves Shanghai, the woman buys a swan from a vendor, who tells her that the bird was once a duck. In an attempt to become a goose, the duck stretched its neck so far that it became a swan, exceeding its own hopes for itself. As the woman sails to America, she dreams of raising a daughter amid the plentiful opportunities of the new country. She imagines that her American-born daughter will resemble her in every way, except that, unlike her mother, she will be judged according to her own worth, not by that of a husband. Like the swan, the daughter will exceed all hopes, so the woman plans to give her daughter the swan as a gift. Yet, when the woman arrives in America, the immigration officials seize the swan and leave the woman with nothing but a feather. The daughter is born and grows up to be the strong, happy woman her mother had imagined. The woman still wishes to present the feather to her daughter and to explain its symbolic meaning, but for many years she holds back. She is still waiting “for the day she could [explain it] in perfect American English.”
“What will I say? What can I tell them about my mother? I don’t know anything. . . .”
Jing-mei opens her narrative by explaining that after her mother, Suyuan, died two months ago, her father, Canning, asked her to take her mother’s place at the Joy Luck Club, a weekly mahjong party. (Mahjong is a game for four players involving dice and domino-like tiles.) Suyuan and Canning Woo have been attending the meetings of the Joy Luck Club since 1949, shortly after they emigrated from China to San Francisco. In fact, the San Francisco version of the club is a revival of the club Suyuan founded earlier, while she was still in China. Jing-mei tells her mother’s story about the club’s beginning.
Suyuan’s first husband, Fuchi Wang, had been an officer in the Kuomintang, a militaristic, nationalist political party that ran China from 1928 through the 1940s. During the 1940s, the party’s power was threatened by Japanese invasions and by the rising force of the Communists. Fuchi took Suyuan and their twin daughters, Chwun Yu and Chwun Hwa, to the town of Kweilin, leaving them there while he traveled to a city called Chungking. Kweilin was full of refugees at the time, and cultural, ethnic, and class tensions added to the hardships resulting from lack of food and money. During her stay in Kweilin, Suyuan created the Joy Luck Club with three other women in order to escape the fear and uncertainty of the war. They cooked “feasts,” played mahjong, and traded stories into the night. “And [at each meeting], we could hope to be lucky,” Suyuan told Jing- mei. “That hope was our only joy. And that’s [why we called] . . . our little parties Joy Luck.”
Jing-mei explains that usually her mother’s story would stop at this point, and that her mother would tag on some fantastic ending that made the story seem like a “Chinese fairy tale.” But one evening, her mother told her the story’s real ending—the story about how she came to leave the original Joy Luck Club in Kweilin.
One day, an army officer suggested to Suyuan that she travel to Chungking to be with her husband. Suyuan knew the officer’s message meant that the Japanese would soon arrive in Kweilin, and she knew that the families of officers would be the first to die. She packed her children and some belongings into a wheelbarrow and began to walk to Chungking. The journey was long, and Suyuan’s hands began to bleed from carrying her bags. Finally she, like others before her, was forced to begin lightening her load by leaving items behind. By the time Suyuan arrived in Chungking, she had only three silk dresses. She made no mention of the babies. For years, she never told Jing-mei what happened to Jing-mei’s older half-sisters.
At the Joy Luck Club meeting, Jing-mei cannot believe that she could ever really replace her mother. She remembers her mother’s critical attitude toward everyone. Suyuan had always compared Jing-mei with her friend Lindo’s daughter, Waverly. Jing-mei feels inadequate because she never succeeded in becoming the prize daughter that Waverly is, and she never finished college.