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Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002

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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

“Religion teaches you that faith takes care of hope. All my hopes are gone, so why do I need faith anymore?”
- Miss Banner in The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan.

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:

On the one hand the modern social sciences have long eschewed “Religion” as an unscientific means of explaining human behavior. On the other hand, Religion seems, annoyingly, to hang around at modernity’s party, a ghost unwilling to fade quietly into the long night of the past. One does not get very far into the study of culture before religion rattles its chains, whether in popular fascination with angels and appearances of the Virgin Mary or in more abstruse and mind-bending links between deconstruction and mysticism.

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:

...the doctors have proclaimed that my mother, at age sixty-nine, has the blood pressure of a sixteen-year old and the strength of a horse. And that’s what she is. A Horse, born in the year 1918, destined to be obstinate and frank to the point of tactlessness. She and I make a bad combination, because I’m a Rabbit, born in 1951, supposedly sensitive, with tendencies toward being thin-skinned and skittery at the first sign of criticism.

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:

Ying-ying’s compulsion to rearrange furniture does not presage a psychotic break with reality but rather signals that, transplanted to a foreign country where she must function according to new rules and expectations, Ying-ying relies on familiar practices such as feng shui and astrology to interpret and order the world around her, especially when the world is in crisis.

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:

“Fallen down,” she says simply. She doesn’t apologize.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say, and I start to pick up the broken glass shards. “I knew it would happen.”
“Then why you don’t stop it?” asks my mother.
And it’s such a simple question.

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 Northern 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:

Again, Pastor spoke for five minutes, Miss Banner the same amount. But now she didn’t talk about rules for going to heaven. She was saying, “Once upon a time, in a kingdom far away, there lived a giant and the filial daughter of a poor carpenter who was really a king...” At the end of each five minutes, she would stop at a very exciting part and say something like: “Now I must let Pastor speak for five minutes. But while you wait, ask yourself, Did the tiny princess die, or did she save the giant?” After the sermon and story were over, she told people to shout “Amen” if they were ready to eat their free bowls of rice. Ah, big shouts!

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:

Of course, I have pragmatic reasons for going – the magazine article... Perhaps Kwan is right. Fate is the reason I’m going. Fate has no logic, you can’t argue with it any more than you can argue with a tornado, an earthquake, a terrorist. Fate is another name for 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:

For so many years, others have been telling us what to believe. Believe in gods! Believe in ancestors! Believe in Mao Tse-tung, our party leaders, dead heroes! As for me, I believe in whatever is practical, the least trouble. Most people here are the same way.

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QLRS Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002


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  Other Essay in this Issue

Gopal Baratham: A Retrospective
By Teng Qian Xi.

Related Links

Amy Tan bio with links
External link.

Amy Tan profile
External link to University of Minnesota.

Amy Tan profile
External link to The Steven Barclay Agency.

Interview with Amy Tan
External link to Salon.com.

Amy Tan audio interview
External link.


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