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The Joy Luck Club

Amy Tan

Queen Mother of the Western Skies: Introduction, “Magpies,” & “Waiting Between the Trees”

Summary Queen Mother of the Western Skies: Introduction, “Magpies,” & “Waiting Between the Trees”

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.

(See Important Quotations Explained)

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.