Novel Study Essay


Do not walk under a ladder. Avoid black cats. Knock on wood. All these are common examples of American superstitions. Yet in The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan chooses to write about not American, but Chinese superstitions and beliefs. When our group began to read the novel, these superstitions and beliefs seemed a bit awkward to us, but over time, we learned to understand and accept it as part of the Chinese culture.


Suyuan Woo states the basis of one’s personality in the first chapter: “Each person is made of five elements.” (19) I wondered, ‘What are these elements Amy Tan wrote about?’ Angela researched this and reported that the elements are water, fire, wood, gold, and earth. Water represents the way you flow, or your direction in life. Too much of it and you flow in too many directions, like Jing-Mei Woo who started half a degree in biology, then half a degree in art, then finishing off as a secretary of a small ad agency and later a copywriter. Fire represents temper. Too much of that and you have a bad temper. Wood represents the confidence you hold in yourself. Too little wood and you bend “too quickly to listen to other people’s ideas, unable to stand on your own.” (19) Gold, formerly known as the element of metal, represents perseverance in life. Too much gold and you end up chasing an unreachable dream forever. Lastly, earth represents the caution and conservative aspects in a person. The novel points out that each person has a little of each element in them, even though their balance in the mixture is different. Group members nodded in silent agreement, being new to the old Chinese culture in the book and to each other. In the stillness, my thoughts raced, and I wondered, ‘Of which element did I have most?’ I faded back into reality after deciding that I had more fire, since I lose my temper more easily. Perhaps other group members were thinking about the same thing, but they did not voice their opinions. Over the week, we became closer to each other and learned to share our opinions more openly, but on this first day, we were just shy.


In addition to the five elements, a common belief similar to the zodiac of astrology is the Chinese zodiac. Each is represented by an animal, and throughout The Joy Luck Club, the Chinese zodiacs of characters are mentioned. Angela, being a discussion director, brought up the quote, “An earth horse for an earth sheep.” (Tan 44) This was used to describe Lindo Jong who was to marry Tyan-yu in an arranged marriage, as was custom with Chinese families in the past. When this quote was mentioned, no one, not even Angela, understood it, except for Inez who brought up a point after a long silence. Actually, the point was very obvious, and we were all surprised we did not recognize it. “Horse” and “sheep” were the zodiac symbols of Lindo and her husband, with a dominant element. This described Lindo as strong-willed and bad-tempered and her husband as gullible, spoiled, and weak, always in need of his wife to support him. The discussion opened up to which zodiac sign we were, and as everyone was born in the same year, 1984, we were all rats! Although we not so much matured in our understanding of the novel, we grew in our self-confidence to voice our thoughts through this common trait.


Another Chinese belief mentioned in the book is the traditional saying of mother to child at bedtime, “go meet Mr. Chou.” An-Mei Hsu claimed him to be, “the guardian of a door that opened into dreams.” (207) When I read through the chapter, I just thought that this Old Mr. Chou was just part of a bad dream, because Rose Hsu would often relate him to her nightmares. Interestingly enough, Karen, who had actually done research on this Old Mr. Chou, brought this up in the next group meeting. It turned out that this Old Mr. Chou was an ancient myth based on an emperor of the Chou dynasty in China. This Chou dynasty defeated and adopted the lifestyle of the previous Shang