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:
Without having anyone tell me, I know her corner on the table was 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:
And then he [Yin-ying’s American husband/Lena St.Clair’s father] put down the wrong birth year, 1916 instead of 1914. So, with the sweep of a pen, my mother lost her name and became a Dragon instead of a Tiger... My mother often looked this way, waiting for something to happen, wearing this scared look. Only later she lost the struggle to keep her eyes open.
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’:
“Bite back your tongue,” scolded my mother when I cried loudly, yanking her hand toward the store that sold bags of salted plums. At home, she said, “Wise guy, he not against wind. In Chinese we say, Come from South, blow with wind — poom! — North will follow. Strongest wind cannot be seen.”
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.
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QLRS Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002