The Ink of Diverse Gods (Part I)
The presence of religion in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club and The Hundred Secret Senses
By Alice Mendoza
In Amy Tan's novel, the character who expresses this thought lives in the mid 19th century, but this particular thought seems typical of our postmodern milieu. It seems as though religion is 'unfashionable' or treated gingerly by academics who are not from religious studies or philosophy departments. Yet, to quote Peter Kerry Powers:
Nevertheless, in literature especially, religion appears to have put on a disappearing act. I use the word ' appears' because there are certain genres of American literature especially, that have distinct religious undertones or specific religious references, and one of these is the Southern literary genre. However the overwhelming religious presence in the Southern literary genre is ubiquitously Christian in nature. What about other kinds of religious presence or influence in modern American literature whose canonical delineations have to be redrawn constantly to include American writers of other ethnicities besides those of Euro-American or African American descent?
All Asian Americans are technically 'absent' from the 'Asian' of their ethnicity in terms of spatiality or geography, and for most of them, the absence is also in terms of culture. The term 'culture' would encompass their lifestyles, philosophies, arts and of course, religion(s).
This first of two essays will focus on the works of the Chinese-American women writer – Amy Tan. As a woman, she faces 'double marginalization' in the previously white and male-dominated American literary scene. This essay will explore the presence of religion in two of Tan's works - The Joy Luck Club and The Hundred Secret Senses.
There are certain other definitions of religion besides the 'traditional' descriptions of a 'religion' that we are familiar with which is, "The spiritual or emotional attitude of one who recognizes the existence of a superhuman power or powers." This 'traditional' description of religion is found in the author's works in the forms of explicit religious presence. In this essay, however, I want to show examples of both explicit and implicit religious presence in these two books.
The implicit presence of religion is only detected if we subscribe to other definitions of religion. This implicit presence is especially pertinent when the focus is on the relationship between religion and literature. 'Religion' is, therefore, not confined to worshipping a 'superhuman power' or other such deities, or in performing certain rituals or adhering to certain philosophies or in living a moral and proper life according to one's religious beliefs.
An atypical definition of religion is the existentialist definition of religion. According to Mircea Eliade, "Religion is the paradigmatic solution for every existential crisis." Therefore, literature is 'religious' in nature because through the writing of stories, writers are involved in the process of trying to discover "ordered existence or of dealing with the frustration of the inability to order existence". This characteristic is especially perceived in both of Tan's works.
One distinctly Chinese religious aspect of this search for order present in Tan's work is the focus on balance. In Daoism, the underlying principle of all existence is the Dao, and one has to be in balance with the Dao. The Dao is made up of the two complementary principles of Yin and Yang, and these have to be kept in balance too. There are also other aspects which are present to define existence, for instance the concept of the Five Elements and feng shui. The Chinese religious worldview consider these aspects aids to creating a certain kind of 'order' to the chaos of existence, and this particular worldview is shown in Amy Tan's works.
The instances of explicit religion present in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club and The Hundred Secret Senses serve not just to make the characters extremely vivid, but to explain the complexities of their relationships. In Joy Luck Club, especially, there is constant reference to the Five Elements, Chinese Astrology and Feng Shui. According to Patricia L. Hamilton, "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."
The theory of the Five Elements stems from the branch of Daoism that seeks immortality through inner cultivation. The concept of the Five Elements is also part of Han cosmological belief. The ancient Chinese (the Han people), explained how the world functions through the workings of the Five Elements, the Yin and Yang energies of the Dao and Feng Shui.
The Five Elements are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. To determine which element you belong to, you have to look at your lunar year of birth – 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. In conjunction with the belief in the Five Elements, traditional Chinese belief also emphasizes Chinese astrology. According to Chinese astrology, a person's character is determined by the year of his or her birth. The Chinese zodiac is organized in a twelve- year cycle, with each year of the cycle represented by a particular animal. A Buddhist legend has it that when the Buddha was on his deathbed, only twelve animals came to see him. These twelve were the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Ram, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. Therefore, the Buddha rewarded each animal with a year bearing the animal's personality traits.
The Joy Luck Club is so suffused with these aspects of Chinese traditional beliefs that on one level, it seems like psychoanalysis, Chinese style. For instance, the conflict between Waverly Jong and her mother, Lindo Jong, is explained through Chinese astrology:
According to the Five Elements Theory, any flaws or imbalances in character can be amended by adding or subtracting symbolically, any element that is lacking or that is too abundant. For instance, Rose Hsu Jordan's character, according to her mother, does not have enough Wood in her personality, causing her to 'bend' easily by listening to others instead of learning to listen to herself, leading to the trauma of her failed marriage. The metaphorical adding of more Wood element into her is illustrated by her dream. After Rose listened to her mother's warning about becoming like "a weed, growing wild in all directions, running along the ground until someone pulls you out and throws you away", she ironically decides to be like the weeds in her neglected garden, which have grown wild and firmly lodged into the masonry that they cannot be uprooted without pulling the whole house down. So, Rose demands the house from Ted and that night, Rose dreams of her mother happily planting weeds in Rose's garden. Therefore, the 'negative' weeds have transformed into a positive symbol of the Wood element.
There are many other examples of references to Chinese astrology and the Five Elements in The Joy Luck Club. Besides providing the author with a psychoanalytical narrative tool, such explicit religious presence is the author's way of "[endorsing] the mothers' traditional Chinese worldview because it offers the possibility of choice and action in a world where paralysis is frequently a threat." The Americanized daughters are constantly 'paralyzed' because they are trying to deal with the inner conflict of whether to listen to their mothers or their own American/Western rationality that permits no such 'unscientific' Chinese religious beliefs.
The Feng Shui aspect of Chinese belief is brought forth in Ying-ying St. Clair's action of rearranging her furniture to balance out the apartment's 'bad' feng shui. Her daughter, Lena, could not understand her mother's actions, fearing that her mother has gone "crazy". However, to quote Hamilton:
Later, Ying-ying is able to see that Lena's marriage was heading towards disaster because, according to Ying-ying's worldview, the feng shui in Lena's house is totally wrong, and therefore, an indicator that there is much unhappiness in Lena's marriage. In order to shock Lena into awareness, Ying-ying literally breaks the fragile, useless table in the guest-room:
Another explicit presence of religion in The Joy Luck Club combines aspects of Christianity and Chinese religious mythology. Before the drowning of her youngest brother, Rose observes that her mother, An-Mei Hsu carried a Bible all the time as proof of her Christian faith. However, being a Christian does not stop An-Mei Hsu from holding on to a Chinese superstition – "that children were predisposed to certain dangers on certain days, all depending on their birthdates". These dangers, together with the corresponding dates were described in a little Chinese book, The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates. Since An-Mei cannot figure out what these lunar dates would be, according to the Western calendar, she worries over all of them, "taking them all into account, (so) she had absolute faith that she could prevent every one of them."
An-Mei refuses to acknowledge the reality of her son's drowning at first – she decides that her faith in the Christian God would bring little Bing back. When her 'Christian' prayers are unanswered, she resorts to Chinese mythological beliefs – to "sweeten the temper of the Coiling Dragon who lives in the sea", she threw in her sapphire ring from her mother. The explicit religious presence in this case, takes on a negative hue, as An-Mei Hsu realizes the futility of having faith. However, this does not mean that religion is marginalized and dismissed – An-Mei Hsu has now subsumed faith to fate; her faith has been replaced with a surrender to fate, a central Chinese religious idea. Therefore, religion is not 'lost' but re-envisioned in another manner.
In The Hundred Secret Senses, the most obvious explicit presence of religion is in its central theme – reincarnation. The protagonist/narrator, Libby (Olivia), has a half-sister from China, Kwan. Kwan can communicate with the World of Yin People, i.e., dead people, and Kwan also remembers her past lives and Libby's immediate past life. The settings of the novel shift intriguingly from modern-day America, to a turbulent 19th century Chinese village torn apart by the Taiping Rebellion and Western Imperialism (where Kwan and Libby lived in their previous incarnations), and back to the same Chinese village in the present. Again, Amy Tan uses the theme of reincarnation to explain the conflicts and relationships in the novel, but in the process, she also sheds light on the misunderstandings that occur in a multiethnic milieu.
Besides the central theme of reincarnation, there are other explicit religious references that the author also uses to aid the plot of the story. For instance, the use of the Taiping Rebellion as a setting has religious overtones because the Rebellion was led by a Southern Chinese (a Hakka) who claimed to be chosen by the Christian God to be the Heavenly King. This Heavenly King also claimed to be the brother of Jesus Christ. Being Hakka, Nunumu, alias Miss Moo, who is Kwan's previous incarnation, supports this Heavenly King and the struggle for Great Peace. The Rebellion was essentially a peasant uprising against the tyranny and corruption of the Manchu court. Hong Hsiu Chuan (the Heavenly King) became the leader of the Hakkas, who were mostly poor peasants, and perpetrated the Rebellion after coming up with his own version of Christianity.
Against this chaotic backdrop, Nunumu meets Miss Banner (Libby's previous incarnation). Miss Banner is not exactly a missionary; she just tags along with the missionaries who came to the village and she earns her keep by acting as a translator for the missionaries, especially after she learns to speak more Chinese from Nunumu. The explicit presence of religion is subverted to a degree, as the missionaries' attempt to spread Christianity is satirized. The church which the missionaries set up attracts beggars who are more interested in the food that is served after the service, and who are not actually listening to the Pastor's sermon:
The same kind of nonchalant attitude towards the Christian religion is displayed by Miss Banner's future incarnation, Libby and Libby's family who are Catholics. Libby dismisses Kwan's ability to talk to Yin People, thinking that Kwan is just "wacky". When Libby was younger, her mother told her that heaven was like a permanent vacation spot where one can get to meet all kinds of people including movie stars, and Libby looked forward to meeting certain people. However, by the time Libby goes to college, she loses her Christian beliefs or any other beliefs for that matter. So, Libby continues to ignore Kwan's stories about their previous lives and Kwan's friendly and useful encounters with Yin People, attributing Kwan's "illusions" to Kwan suffering a multiple-personality disorder.
Another explicit religious presence is illustrated through the surrender to fate. Although, for Libby, this is rather negative and frightening at first, as she struggles to understand why she has agreed to go to China with her estranged husband and Kwan:
The instances of explicit presence of religion in The Hundred Secret Senses are all spoofs of traditional religious beliefs because the protagonist, Libby, is a typical modern-day, religion-less skeptic who dismisses her sister's seemingly illogical take on existence and reality until the 'revelation' at the end of the novel, when Libby remembers her past life and when she realizes that Simon is her lover from her past life. However, there is an over-riding 'religious' question of what to believe, throughout the novel; the confusion summed up by Du Lili, Kwan's childhood friend:
According to Mark Ledbetter, "narrative fiction is motivated by a desire for an ordered coherent world-view... by a desire for meaning, not truth.". This desire is 'religious' in nature because it is a wish for something "other than" what exists at the beginning moment of the fictive account. This "otherness' could be manifest as a 'religious moment' in the text. Such 'religious moments', when encountered, are moments of epiphany that turn a character into a different person. A religious moment can be both positive and negative in nature. The presence of implicit religion in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club is manifested in the numerous religious moments experienced by the mothers and daughters. For the mothers, these moments come about when they realize that they cannot remain Chinese-feminine-passive or adhere strictly to traditional Chinese expectations of women.
There is also the implicit presence of the wish for 'order' or meaning. The tensions that arose between the mothers and daughters come about because both parties disree on what should constitute this 'order'. For the mothers who are deeply influenced by their memories of China, their worldviews are obviously colored by Chinese traditional beliefs. The Americanized daughters refused to believe in their mothers' perceptions of existence or their ideas of 'order' at first. But when the daughters come to realize the validity of their mothers' worldviews, they in turn, experience religious moments.
For instance, I consider June Jingmei Woo's character to be a metaphor for a religious moment or a symbol of 'otherness'. The entire narrative of The Joy Luck Club begins and ends with June. It takes a tragedy like her mother, Sooyuan Woo's death for June to experience the religious moments which follow. Since Sooyuan Woo, who started the Joy Luck Club is now absent, June has to take her mother's place at the mah jong table. Through taking her mother's place, June realizes that to 'atone' for her failure in never being able to be the very best daughter whom her departed mother wished to have, she has to achieve her mother's unfulfilled wish of seeing her twin daughters whom her mother has left behind in war-torn China. Thus, Tan starts the narrative with June who has taken her mother's place – the East:
The narrative also ends with June in China, meeting her twin sisters, therefore, literally ending the story in the literal 'East' which is China and also symbolizing a new beginning with the 'completion' of the family (the reunification of June with her lost sisters). There is then, implicit in the narrative, a kind of cyclical view of 'order' that the Daoist pictorial symbol of the intertwined Yin and Yang suggests.
Another instance of religious moment is experienced by Lindo Jong's character. When she has to leave her family to marry her boy bridegroom, she is afraid at first, but she decides to take responsibility for implementing 'order' in her life by stressing that "I would never forget myself." It is her courage that enabled her to "see what was inside [her]" and to plot out how she is going to leave her husband and yet not disgracing her own family.
Lindo's character is interesting because she subverts the traditional beliefs in the Five Elements to gain freedom from her sham marriage. When her mother in-law took back the wedding gift of gold jewelry because Lindo is diagnosed as having too much 'metal' to have babies, Lindo begins to feel lighter and more free, enabling her to think more independently. Lindo again, takes advantage of the traditional Chinese beliefs in appeasing ancestors by pretending that her husband's ancestors have cursed the marriage. However, she has already put in certain observations about her situation, so she is able to carry out her scheme smoothly. In this case, the implicit presence of religion is a narrative tool used by the author to achieve 'the desire for meaning' or 'otherness'.
A religious moment that is negative in The Joy Luck Club is when Yin-ying St. Clair's character loses her Tiger nature, thereby providing the explanation for the sense of lostness Yin-ying exudes when she begins her American life:
In The Hundred Secret Senses, the implicit presence of religion is related to Eliade's existentialist definition of religion, i.e. religion is a means to help us make sense of existence. To superimpose Tillich's take, religion, as expressed in an 'ultimate concern' helps us make sense of existence. The entire narrative of The Hundred Secret Senses hinges on reincarnation and there is tension between Libby and Kwan's ultimate concerns because they belong to two diverse worldviews.
Libby's ultimate concern is to live the 'good life' the American way – logical and containing none of her sister's Chinese hocus-pocus. Yet, Libby has been so 'infected' by Kwan that Libby is ironically affected all the time by her husband's late girlfriend. However, Kwan 'orders' and explains her life and indirectly, Libby's life through her worldview which includes the Yin people and her past life with Libby as Miss Banner. Throughout the entire story, Libby struggles against Kwan's worldview endlessly because it is not in line with her American sensibilities. In the end, however, Libby has to subscribe to Kwan's worldview because she remembers her past life and how she and her estranged husband were connected in her past life.
In both The Joy Luck Club and The Hundred Secret Senses, there are tensions between two paradigms – the traditional Eastern/Asian/Chinese worldviews and the 'rational' American perceptions of existence. I am of the opinion that Amy Tan's portrayal of the women who symbolize the Chinese worldviews, women like the mothers in The Joy Luck Club and Kwan in The Hundred Secret Senses, shows Tan's ultimate concern. Tan's ultimate concern as expressed through these two works, is to reclaim the absent 'Chinese' in her ethnic definition of Chinese American, and to show that there is a certain 'order' with extremely rich meanings, in the Chinese worldview that should not be dismissed or marginalized. However, because the Chinese worldview appears so different from the American worldview in Tan's works, they are in danger of being seen as 'exoticizing' Chinese-ness. Nevertheless, the Americanized daughters and Libby's character are more 'whole' when they accept the Chinese worldview, thus implying that to be Chinese American means accepting the combination of both 'Chinese' and 'America' and never negating one or the other.
On the cover of Ivy Books edition of The Joy Luck Club, there is a caption quoted from the Washington Post Book World, in a one-liner description of the book – "Powerful as Myth." It is an ironically apt description, as on the surface, the religion present in The Joy Luck Club seems mythical. There are many instances, especially in the portrayal of explicit religion, that show how Tan's portrayal could be misunderstood as 'exoticizing Chinese-ness'. In these instances, religion is like a 'myth' – something that is surreal and illogical. This 'mythic' perception of religion also connotes that if one adheres to the Chinese worldview, one is subscribing to such 'myths'. Such perceptions of religion are partly due to the language gap between the mothers and daughters. The mothers can only express themselves fully in Chinese, a language their Americanized daughters has limited grasp of.
For instance, when Waverly Jong gives an account of how her mother, Lindo Jong taught her "the art of invisible strength", the language employed smacks of the kind of fortune cookie aphorisms that begin with 'Confucius says':
Then, when Lena St. Clair tries to explain her mother, Yin-ying St. Clair's efforts at counteracting the bad feng shui of their apartment, Lena states that her mother "whispered some Chinese nonsense" about keeping things in balance. Also religion is portrayed as a misperception; almost as though it is a 'mistake' or an unintentional slip of logic, when Rose Hsu Jordan misunderstood her mother's 'religion' – "She said it was faith that kept all these good things coming our way, only I thought she said "fate," because she couldn't pronounce that "th" sound in "faith"."
Religion, especially the explicit religious instances in both books are undermining in nature. The Americanized daughters in Joy Luck Club view their mothers' religious worldviews as a kind of psychoanalytic tool used by their mothers to make sense of their existence in America. Explicit religion is used by Amy Tan as a narrative tool to explainthe motivations and personalities of the characters. This portrayal of religion is as though religion is 'made light of', i.e., religion is not central to the theme of the story; it is just a tool to aid the plot.
This narrative technique is present in The Hundred Secret Senses too, with the theme of reincarnation used to move the plot along and also the use of the seemingly foolish Kwan to introduce a 'religious' theme of reincarnation. Religion, then becomes an amusing and quaint sideline in the narrative of existence.
However, the implicit religion present in both books is not that nonchalant. The 'order' being sought in Joy Luck Club, is part of a deep and existentialist question that arises out of the struggles of being Chinese American; of being caught in two diverse worlds. The Americanized daughters' efforts to take possession of a new kind of 'order' – a kind that combines their mothers' love and wisdom and their logical, individualistic American sensibilities – is a serious and at times, painful journey with implicit religious overtones. In The Hundred Secret Senses, the overwhelming implicit religious questions center on the definitions of reality and appearance, with undercurrents like the reality of one's 'Chinese-ness' in one's description of being 'Chinese-American. For instance, Kwan's character can be read as a metaphor for the Chinese American angst of wanting to be acknowledged as part of the American mainstream, yet wanting to preserve their cultural uniqueness.
Therefore, in preserving their cultural uniqueness, their 'Chinese' aspect has to hearken back to thousands of years of ancient Chinese history and tradition. However, this could put Chinese America in a bind because there is a risk of exoticization. At the same time, America has to learn to accept the cultural differences of the various 'types' of Americans and Chinese Americans have to accept that in order to be 'whole' and 'complete', they have to include their geographically alienated, and at times, 'lost' aspect – the 'Chinese' part of Chinese-American.