Volume VII, Number 1, Spring 2011

"Re-Naturalizing the Tamed Garden: Nature's Power in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club" by Ildikó Limpár

Ildikó Limpár, Assistant Professor of English, Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Piliscsaba (Hungary) has a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature and an MA in Egyptology. Her publications include The American Dream Reconsidered: New World Motifs in Shakespeare´s The Tempest and Their Transformations in American Literature (2008) and several articles on Shakespeare, and American literature. Her most recent articles focus on contemporary American authors, such as Marilynne Robinson, Linda Hogan, and Diana Abu-Jaber, but she has also written on Emily Dickinson’s poetry, William Faulkner´s concept of time, J. D. Salinger’s philosophy of art, and the questions of myth in Robert Holdstock’s fantasy novels. Email: limparildiko@gmail.com

Amy Tan has often been criticized for the self-colonizing aspect that her works, most notably The Joy Luck Club (1994), reveal. One of the motifs whose misinterpretation may be responsible for such accusations is the representation of the binary opposition between the Old World and the New, which several critics now feel “tiresome.”1 Ruth Maxey, for instance, argues that Tan’s use of motifs that are connected to her representation of the ancestral homeland, especially the “haunting memories” and “remarkable experiences,”2 “serves to re-inscribe negative Chinese stereotypes” (2). More specifically speaking, Tan’s

[self-colonizing] tendency emerges with the unalterably Other, historically vague China of each text: a country of dragons, deities, and other mythical forms; extraordinary, vast landscapes; and extreme, often cataclysmic, events. Above all, China is depicted as a realm of magic and the supernatural, where incredible transformations can take place. The Chinese past of these texts is almost always a pre-communist one and this allows … Tan to recycle ‘oriental,’ in this case old Chinese, stereotypes and clichés. (Maxey 4)

While looking at these motifs independently may indeed lead one to drawing Maxey’s conclusion, I will argue in the present paper that considering the larger context—the complete novel and not the isolated representations of the ancestral homeland—throws a different light on Tan’s texts. Focusing on Tan’s first novel, The Joy Luck Club, I will demonstrate that the use of clichés is inevitable for the author in order to subvert them; therefore, it is a mistake not to realize that the traditional representations of the ancestral homeland’s culture are reshaped by Tan when she places this old culture into a new context, that is, into America. This act of hers not only reinforces the binary opposition between the West and the East, but also empowers her Chinese and Chinese-American characters in their American environment. As a result, instead of self-colonizing tendencies, we may actually speak of de-colonizing tendencies in her work beyond the author’s attempt to reconstruct subjectivity, an attempt that McAlister judges only half successful (14). In order to show the de-colonizing aspect of The Joy Luck Club, I will focus on motifs that most clearly indicate the dividing line between Oriental and Western culture—motifs that are connected to nature and are in opposition with American culture in the specific contexts. Special attention will be paid to the story “Without Wood,” in which Tan successfully subverts the American Dream, reinterpreting, what is more, re-naturalizing even the concept of the American Nightmare.

Originally, the New World was associated with an uncivilized state, carrying values of innocence and naturalness, which could be seen both as positive and as negative concepts already in the Renaissance; the Old World was viewed as the representative of civilization and culture, denoting cultural and technical superiority. By now we have come to associate just the opposite values with the two worlds. Thus while the original idea has been completely subverted, the existing opposition between the two worlds may still be defined by the binary opposition between the natural and the technical, the uncivilized and the civilized. America appears, from this respect, as the culture of technology, and since immigrant people to the United States, including the Chinese, define themselves by comparing their culture to the dominant one, it is just “natural” that they come to emphasize their naturalness, their closeness to nature in clarifying their ethnic selves.

Finding one’s self, especially in terms of ethnicity, is one of the most focused themes in The Joy Luck Club. The novel consists of sixteen stories, narrated by mothers and daughters, who strive to (re)gain their identities., The younger generation receives considerable help from the older one: the daughters become stronger individuals once they start coming to terms with their cultural heritage, represented by their own mothers, and in this process of culture acquisition, getting closer to nature plays an important role.

One of the first examples of how the Oriental way of thinking may help in overcoming the dominant culture’s achievements is to be found in the chapter entitled “Rules of the Game.” The story is from one of the daughter’s, Waverly’s childhood, and the use of Chinese strategy does not at all indicate reconciliation with what the mother represents for the daughter. However, Waverly is taught by her mother to use the “art of invisible strength” (Tan 89), which allows her to get first the plums she desires, then to win chess games against those whose strategies mirror a Western, that is, more easily decipherable, way of thinking. When the girl learns chess from the Chinese Lau Po, the art of invisible strength appears in the form of chess movements with long, metaphorical names. The metaphors are meaningful only to those who know the oriental rules, while they hide the truth of the tactical move from those who are not initiated. The chapter gives a detailed account of Waverly’s thoughts that allowed her to gain her first victory at a championship, showing how she made use of the metaphorically implied natural forces, imitating, in fact, nature’s work over the chess table:

A light wind began blowing past my ears. It whispered secrets only I could hear.
“Blow from the South,” it murmured. “The wind leaves no trail.” I saw a clear path, the traps to avoid. The crowd rustled. “Shhh! Shhh!” said the corners of the room. The wind blew stronger. “Throw sand from the East to distract him.” The knight came forward ready for the sacrifice. The wind hissed, louder and louder. “Blow, blow, blow. He cannot see. He is blind now. Make him lean away from the wind so he is easier to knock down.”
“Check,” I said, as the wind roared with laughter. The wind died down to little puffs, my own breath. (Tan 96-7)

The last sentence explicitly unites Waverly’s breath with the “wind” that helped her win the game over the older boy from Oakland. The girl becomes that wind during the game, enacting nature’s power over the chessboard. Yet, just as quickly as she learns how to be successful with her Chinese wisdom, she loses this power when she has a row with her mother, who is the real master of the invisible powers. Ashamed of her mother’s showing off with her, she despises the woman’s behavior, and thus her cultural heritage, which, in the long run, disempowers Waverly, preventing her to achieve further victories in the game that she loved so much.

This childhood story reveals how powerful the Oriental heritage could be, and how essential it is for the younger generation to establish harmony with the older generation and the culture they represent. The stories of the second section, where “Rules of the Game” also belongs, however, uncover just how impossible it is for the daughters to understand their mothers, and how their failure to appreciate their Chinese selves turn them into weak personalities, lacking the necessary balance in their characters that the Chinese yin-yang symbolizes.

The adulthood stories of the daughters show more clearly that not until the daughters and mothers find a way to understand each other may the daughters become complete and strong individuals who are able to take control of their lives. As the daughters go through a process of understanding, they become more appreciative of their mother’s beliefs. Waverly, for instance, is ready to postpone her marriage with Rich to find a date that is luckier according to Chinese astrology—clearly a nature-related science—and June cooks spicy food for her father, thinking how her mother used to insist that it restores good health and mood. Although June says her choice is primarily the spicy food because that is what she can prepare well enough, her intention to cheer up her father and cook something that he is finally happy to eat is clear.

Food, in The Joy Luck Club, is a component of life that is in close relation to character. As Sihem Arfaui notes, “Tan’s texts associate the culinary discourse with issues of subversion and empowerment, thus, overemphasizing food for reasons that transcend catering to readers who crave for exotic clichés” (39). Cooking delicious, special dishes during wartime is both an act of rebellion, proving strength of character, and an act of showing off one’s skill, thereby affirming self-evaluation. The basis of cooking good food lies in the ability to choose ingredients properly—a skill valuable in other fields of life, too, as the story of the crab dinner teaches June. Yet, most importantly, food is the basis of life, something that connects us to the world that surrounds us, and something we can gain life from. When in “Scar” An-mei’s mother cuts a piece of flesh from her arm and cooks it into the soup to magically restore her mother’s health, this connection between food and person is emphasized, since the daughter sacrifices a part of her own life and energy.

In this sense as well may we consider the Chinese women’s Joy Luck Clubs in China and America. When Xiaomei Chen examines the function of the Joy Luck Club in China, he focuses on the women’s subversive activities connected to the gatherings:

[The] oral tradition of subversive stories shared by the women rendered pale and pathetic the male-dominated culture, perfectly preserved in privileged written form. [… The women] constructed their own form of knowledge and power by remapping a gender history in an unofficial language set against the official language, the one characterized by foregrounding national events such as war, starvation, class suppression, and the liberation of the subalterns. (115-16)

Cooking the best food the women could, in this context, is part of their subversive attempts, and becomes an effort to celebrate life even in times of hunger and suffering. Food, therefore, serves not only to sustain the body, but also to nourish the soul. What Ben Xu observes about the mah jong, is also true of the food that accompanies the game. Emphasizing the competition in the game, and interpreting it, therefore, as life itself (Xu 9), cooking food is also a means to compete for beauty and appreciation, something that these women would lack otherwise in life and something that makes their lives endurable. The significance of food, for the novel’s Chinese characters, therefore, indeed goes beyond the Western concept of foods, which does not seem to recognize the symbolic significance of the nourishments, as Rich’s ignorant behavior at the first dinner given to him by Lindo demonstrates.

The attraction to quality is in tight connection with the women’s principles of the mah jong game they play. Choosing the best crab for someone else is a sign of love and respect, while choosing the best crab for one’s self is an act of “winning,” if you like, reminiscent of winning in the mah jong, which imitates life. Choosing quality reminds one of his or her own worth: this is why Lindo Jong wears the 24 carat bracelets, and this is why she chooses the best crab possible for herself. Being worthy and knowing one’s worthiness in life is the way to become a winner, and this is what the jade June gets from her mother at least in part stands for.

The chess game and the food–partially connected to the mah jong game–all teach something to the younger generation. Waverly benefits from the art of invisible strength, and June gets to understand something about the importance of self-assurance and self-evaluation. The “Rice Husband” is a story which shows how feng shui, “the art of living in harmony with the land, and deriving the greatest benefit, peace and prosperity from being in the right place at the right time” (Skinner 4) is something that Lena may greatly profit from. Her mother immediately knows from the furnishing of her guest room that her daughter’s marriage will soon fall apart. She blames herself for Lena’s weakness, and decides to gain back her lost power so that she may empower her daughter, too. As Patricia L. Hamilton explains, “[t]o set things in motion, […the mother] decides to topple the spindly-legged marble in the guest room so that Lena will come to see what is wrong” (141).

In all the above examples, we see how closeness to nature as part of their Chinese heritage may help the daughters set their lives right–even though we also see that it is neither an easy nor a self-explanatory process. Taking into consideration the novel’s tendency towards a reconciliation between the generations, and thus between American and Chinese culture, we assume that the daughters sooner or later will indeed benefit from the knowledge they may gain from their Oriental roots. There is, nevertheless, one example, that of Rose’s, where we do see the immediate effect of the daughter’s revelation about herself in relation to her mother and her husband. “Without Wood” turns the theme of nature into the central motif of the text, showing how the American husband’s concept of the garden makes Ruth understand her real place in that garden and the world, and how a different notion of nature helps her claim a new, more satisfying position for herself.

“Without Wood” is a story about Rose’s divorce. The topic itself suggests commonplaces of the American Nightmare: Rose is about to lose the life she has had. She comes to the realization that her husband, Ted, has never treated her as an equal partner, and that her marriage has come to an end. She also must face the possibility of losing not only her past life but also the future that she would like to have when she is told that Ted wants the house they bought together and in which she presently lives.

The readers learn the details of Rose’s relationship with Ted from the chapter ironically entitled “Half and Half,” a term that suggests equality but is revealed in the text as a term masking what should be and signaling the reality that Rose was tricked into believing that she constitutes one half in a relationship where what “half” means is determined arbitrarily by the dominant half, the white male Ted, whose attitude to the Chinese-American Rose is that of the colonizer to the colonized minority. In the first phase of their relationship, this connection is welcomed by both parties. Rose gains emotional safety from the idea that she is being saved by a hero, who makes all the decisions for her. As a result, Rose gets so much used to the practice of not making decisions that Ted does not even assume that she is capable of speaking up for herself. He tells her what he wants her to do in order to get the divorce, that is, just sign the papers. That is, sign his papers, thus approving of everything that the man wants from the divorce.

The story of a divorce is, by definition, a story of separation. “Without Wood,” however, is dominantly a story of reunion. Rose’s separation from Ted, who has taken the role of the Western colonizer, starts as a story of humiliation for Rose, whom Ted cheated on, but becomes a story of pride in the end, when she finds her own voice and becomes able to speak up for herself. This development of character is made possible by understanding her position in the American garden, in Ted’s garden, and recognizing where her real roots are. At the core of this process lies a symbolical reunion between Rose and her Chinese mother.

Tan uses the means of symbolic dreams in order to present the mother-daughter relationship that strongly determines Rose’s life. As a child, Rose suffers from bad dreams. Her mother tells her of Old Mr. Chou, who is the guardian of a door that opens into dreams. Thus Rose’s explanation about her dreams is that “eventually Old Mr. Chou would get tired and leave the door unwatched. … And [… she] would slide headfirst, in through Old Mr. Chou’s door, and land in a house without doors or windows” (Tan 186). In her dream, the American Rose, who, in theory, was born in the country of dreams, slides headfirst onto a Chinese land again and again, as if her Chinese identity needed a labor that lasts for years, and the process never finished. Rose unconsciously knows that she does not belong to the Chinese land. It is a nightmare for Rose, as one of the dreams she remembers explicitly reveals:

I found myself in a nighttime garden and Old Mr. Chou was shouting, ‘Who’s in my backyard?’ I ran away. Soon I found myself stomping on plants with veins of blood, running through fields of snapdragons that changed colors like stoplights, until I came to a giant playground filled with row after row of square boxes. In each sandbox there was a new doll. And my mother, who was not there but could see me inside out, told Old Mr. Chou she knew which doll I would pick. So I decided to pick one that was entirely different.
‘Stop her! Stop her!’ cried my mother. As I tried to run away, Old Mr. Chou chased me, shouting, ‘See what happens when you don’t listen to your mother! And I became paralyzed, too scared to move in any direction.

While the dream is very much about Rose’s relationship to her mother, we should never forget that this relationship is suggestive of Rose’s attitude to her roots, to her Chinese background, which is identified with her mother. As Bhattacharya notes, “The ‘mother’ image in Tan … is synecdochical–connoting of Chinese spirit and culture” (50). Rose’s act of refusing her original choice just to contradict her mother reveals her refusal of her Chinese background that she could never identify with.

In this context, it is no wonder that the land of her dream is a land of transgression. Rose feels that she should not be there: this is a land which is guarded by Old Mr. Chou, who, as a Chinese character, is in alliance with her mother, whose dominance there is evident even when she is physically not present. In the dream the guard chases Rose away from his garden because the girl, just as if she were some weed, does not belong there. The environment is hostile: the house, contrary to the house that has become a symbol of the American Dream for many, has no door or window, turning the building into an image of confinement, whereas the house in the American dreamland is a symbol of freedom, signifying financial and existential freedom. The garden, with its plants having veins of blood is a space of terror, while the snapdragons that change colors like stoplights reinforce the idea of transgression. The final image of the girl paralyzed because of not listening to her mother, is an image that explains Rose’s character, but it is also an image that only the adult Rose may understand.

The ability to choose correctly, that is, to make right decisions, seems to be missing from Rose’s personality, and her mother explains Rose’s confusion in the Chinese way, saying that the girl is “without wood”–a characteristic that the mother tries to balance by giving her child the right name, that is, Rose, which “is supposed to add wood to her character” as Xu argues (12). The mother sees the dangers in Rose’s lacking wood, and warns her daughter against what awaits her:

A girl is like a young tree. … You must stand tall and listen to your mother standing next to you. That is the only way to grow strong and straight. But if you bend to listen to other people, grow crooked and weak. You will fall to the ground with the first strong wind. And then you will be like weed, growing wild in any direction, running along the ground until someone pulls you out and throws you away. (Tan 191)

As the mother suggests, Rose is unable to make her own decisions because she does not know her true self–the self that feeds on the mother’s guidance. By rejecting her mother’s support, she is incapable of exploring and finding in herself the part that strongly connects her to her mother and her mother’s heritage. This makes her as weak as weed, and Rose perceives her condition when her husband is about to pull her out of his garden and throw her away. However, at this moment the flower-named Rose finds the wood component in her character and realizes that she does belong to the garden.

The American-born Rose always considered herself American and could not relate to her Chinese cultural heritage embodied by her mother. Her American education and her American way of life seemed to guarantee her the right place in the American garden, especially if she was ready to ignore the Chinese part in her identity.. However, her desire to belong to the dominant culture results in her playing a suppressed role in her marriage. She marries her colonizer, and this way she fixes her role as the colonized one. She becomes the oriental woman who does not have a say in the relationship dominated by the western male, who knows how to cultivate garden and people alike. He pays special attention to his garden, “kneeling on a green rubber pad, obsessively inspecting every leaf as if he were manicuring fingernails” and assigning “plants to certain cutter boxes,” never mixing tulips with perennials (Tan 192). Ted is the over-civilized white Adam in his American microcosm, the garden, where he subdues nature and forces it into a human-designed order which is based on categorization that results in separation (of the various species) and driving away (the weed). And this is the practice he follows with people, too: he categorizes Rose, separates from her, as if she were a type of flower not to mix with him, a more noble species, and finally he treats her like a weed, deciding to throw her away from his garden.

The above described relation does indeed result in stereotyping, and exposes the text to charges of orientalizing, especially when we look at how Rose comments on her own role in this marriage, saying “I was victim to his hero” (Tan 118). And while some critics, such as Bella Adams, do acknowledge Tan’s attempt at reversing the stereotypes in the novel, they see her efforts in her characterization strategy. “[I]t is hardly surprising,” Adams argues, “that narrators in The Joy Luck Club utilize a violent rhetoric of fighting tigers and women armed with kitchen utensils… as a way of reversing this stereotype [of the agreeable Chinese]” (86). However, Tan’s success in subversion lies not only in her characterization, but also–to a larger extent, I believe–in her powerful subversive strategy that attacks one of the basic myths of American culture, that of the American Adam in the New World garden, which is expressed in “Without Wood.”

Since Ted lives elsewhere until the divorce procedure is over, the formerly neatly cultivated plants begin to die, while the weed becomes stronger and stronger, and it becomes the dominant plant in the garden, attacking even the planter boxes. As Rose becomes temporal lady of the garden, she gives way to re-naturalization and she understands that the weed may be stronger than the gardener. Rose’s own choice of word creates a connection between herself and the garden: she notes that the garden has grown “wild,” and wild is the adjective she uses to describe her feelings when she learns that Ted cheated on her: “I had an empty feeling–and I felt free, wild,” she says (Tan 194), admitting this way that her mother was right when she warned her not to become weed.

Until this point the story builds on the traditional bipolarity between East and West, the dominant and the suppressed, elaborating the colonizer-colonized discourse, something that is often criticized in Tan’s works. However, Tan uses the subversion of the original discourse so that her Chinese and Chinese-American characters–and thus she herself–may speak up for themselves.

Tan, in this story, gives power to the weed, which, as a result, overcomes the civilized garden. As rose is a flower that is not mentioned to be given place in Ted’s garden, and thus, by way of association, Rose the character is categorized as a type of “plant” that should not be mixed with the flowers planted by the man. The woman, symbolically, falls in the same category thus as weed. Yet she gains power from the sight of the weeded garden, realizing that she has always had a place in the garden–except that it was not the place Ted wanted her to have. She makes her choice of not giving up the house and the garden for Ted, and finally she speaks up for herself by not signing Ted’s paper and giving voice to what she wants from the divorce.

Subverting the well-known discourse of the colonizer and the colonized, largely overlapping with the discourse on the contrast between civilization and nature, Tan expels the gardener of the garden, and lets nature, embodied by the flower-named Rose, re-gain dominance in the subdued territory. The image of the weed, just as Rose’s character, transforms during the process of Rose’s awakening of her true self. The useless, what’s more, harmful weed becomes a desirable plant in the re-naturalized garden, and the qualities associated with it are now strength and freedom, transforming the discourse on the colonized and the colonizer into a discourse on the de-colonized and the ex-colonizer.

This subversion effects the discourse of the American Dream, too. The garden, which used to be a forbidden place for the child Rose, with the house of confinement, is a different garden now. The change could be explained with the outcome of a process of assimilation, taken that Rose’s garden was emphatically a Chinese garden, Old Mr. Chou’s garden, where Rose’s mother was also a dominant voice, and this garden is a typical American garden which Rose, so to say, adopted instead of leaving. The case, however, is not so simple, as Rose’s dream reveals after she has spoken with Ted about her claim on the house.

Having listened to her mother’s advice, Rose speaks up for herself, and thus she refuses to be a weed that can be just thrown away. She might be weed for Ted, but now she listens to her mother’s voice instead of the many people around her, which fortifies, or rather completes her character, making her as strong as a tree. This way “Without Wood” subverts the self-orientalizing touches, and instead of presenting a story of assimilation, it offers a story of claiming proper place in the dominant myth. This is a claim of equal rights and a claim of honesty, where half means fifty percent, unlike in Rose’s marriage of unequal partners, where Western and male half weighed more than the Oriental and female half.

Thus when Rose dreams again, she can freely walk in the garden she belongs to, and she is happily welcomed by Old Mr. Chou and her mother. The garden is, then, a place which she has attained in the Dreamland, the place where she will live, an American garden; but this is a garden where neither she, nor her Oriental past is a transgressor, and where she is supported by her mother, who has planted some weeds for her.3 Rose’s nightmare of her Chinese cultural background dominating her is transformed into a dream where her roots help her find her proper place in the American garden. The transformation is thus not that of assimilation but differentiation, where this differentiation aims at representing the “equal though different” as opposed to the “other as different.” While the latter notion leads to prejudice and suppression, the former initiates a dialog that acknowledges the difference and similarity as equally important components, encouraging new readings of the old myths and discourses.

“Without Wood” is a story that adds wood to the Chinese character. We may read it as Rose’s story of character development, as well as an almost allegorical fable of turning the stereotypical Chinese character into a character that has an audible voice now, one that claims his/her proper place in the New World garden, claiming even the old myths as his/her. This character has a critical voice, and is able to point out what is wrong with the garden and is ready to re-naturalize it so as to give back the potentials it once had. Tan’s various uses of nature’s power do not simply reflect a conscious employment of Chinese beliefs but they form a significant part of her strategy in subverting the American myths about the Americans and the Chinese alike.



1 See, for instance, Elaine Kim’s phrasing: “the tiresome East-West binarisms of the colonial imagination” (82).

2 Edwar Said’s terms.

3 My interpretation of this scene largely differs from Hamilton’s, who claims that “’[t]his image … suggests that An-mei has finally accepted Rose’s nature instead of trying to change her” (135). In my reading, Rose has actually changed just the way her mother wanted her to change. The image of the mother planting weed rather shows a new harmony between mother and daughter, also expressed by an image of nature, weed, which is given by the mother as further help, symbolizing what she has done already for her daughter. Weed, in this new sense, is not a deconstructive element in the garden but the wood element that Rose needed in her character.


Works Cited

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