NEA Big Read
The Joy Luck Club

The Joy Luck Club

by Amy Tan

To me, imagination is the closest thing we have to compassion. To have compassion you have to be able to imagine the lives of others, including people who are suffering, and people whose lives are affected by us.

The Life and Times of Amy Tan

  1. 1920s
    • 1921: The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) forms.
    • 1928: Chiang Kai-shek unites the Nationalists.
  2. 1930s
    • 1934-35: The Long March helps Mao Zedong consolidate power.
    • 1937: Japan launches a full-scale war with China.
    • 1937: Nanking, the newly established capital of China, falls to Japan on December 13.
  3. 1940s
    • 1941: Japan bombs Pearl Harbor. China and America form an alliance.
    • 1949: The People's Republic of China is established. Daisy Tan boards the last boat out of Shanghai safely.
  4. 1950s
    • Socialist realism becomes the popular artistic form, deemed most appropriate for the new republic in China.
    • 1952: Amy Tan is born in Oakland, California.
  5. 1960s
    • Chairman Mao Zedong launches the Cultural Revolution. Bourgeoisie values and an older generation of artists and intellectuals are attacked and killed.
    • 1960: Amy Tan wins her first writing contest.
    • 1968: Tan family moves to Montreux, Switzerland.
  6. 1970s
    • 1972: Nixon is the first U.S. president to visit China.
    • 1975: Maxine Hong Kingston publishes The Woman Warrior.
    • 1977: Mao Zedong's death ends the Cultural Revolution; the "Gang of Four" take the fall for its chaos.
    • 1979: Diplomatic ties established between China and America.
  7. 1980s
    • 1981: Maya Lin's design for Vietnam Veterans Memorial is chosen by an NEA-funded design competition.
    • 1987: Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, the first feature film to show the Forbidden City, wins nine Oscars.
    • 1989: The Joy Luck Club is published.
  8. 1990s
    • Breakthrough decade for Chinese-American fiction and movies. Tan publishes four more books.
    • 1991: Amy Tan's essay "Mother Tongue" is chosen for Best American Essays.
    • 1993: The Joy Luck Club, cowritten by Amy Tan and Ronald Bass, is released as a feature film.
  9. 2000s
    • 2000: Sagwa becomes a PBS cartoon series for children, based on Tan's book, Sagwa, The Chinese Siamese Cat.
    • 2005: Tan's fifth novel, Saving Fish from Drowning, is published.

World War II and San Francisco's Chinatown

The War

The Joy Luck Club is set in two places: China in the 1930s and 1940s and San Francisco's Chinatown from the 1960s through the 1980s. Since Chinatown was a haven within an isolated country, the experiences of Tan's fictionalized daughters differ sharply from their mothers' generation, which was displaced by war.

The turn of the twentieth century hailed massive upheavals for China, with the end of the Imperial dynastic system and the opening of China to global influences. These changes led to civil wars between the Nationalists and the Communists. The leader of the Nationalist Party, or the Kuomintang, was Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao Tse-tung led the Communist Party. The Long March, a 6,000-mile-long retreat of the Red Army in 1934-35, enabled Mao to consolidate his power. (Survivors of the march are heroes to this day.)

The Chinese peasantry was lifted by Mao's doctrine, which encouraged his soldiers to "not take a single needle or a piece of thread from the masses"—masses often terrorized by the nationalist Kuomintang. The Nationalists, who were armed with the need to combat Western hegemony, clashed with the Communists, who were strengthened by their appeal for the many rural poor.

These two groups formed fragile alliances to fight a guerilla war against waves of Japanese invaders in the 1930s. Although few in number, the Japanese gained control of major Chinese cities and coasts.

As the United States entered World War II in 1941, the marriage of convenience between the Kuomintang and Communists against Japan was falling apart. The U.S. backed the Nationalists, although corruption among Kuomintang generals diverted supplies and information to the Japanese. This corruption and political instability, coupled with the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, drove many Chinese to emigrate.

The Neighborhood

These Chinese took the already well-worn route to California, which to this day retains the largest Chinese population in the United States. The Chinese still refer to San Francisco as "Old Gold Mountain," because the first wave of émigrés had come through the Port of San Francisco at the start of the Gold Rush. They had formed tight networks and built "Little Shanghai," because exclusionary laws made it difficult for Asian immigrants to assimilate or gain citizenship.

For decades the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had limited imported labor. The World War II alliance between China and the United States became instrumental in repealing this and other exclusionary laws. The immigrant population slowly shifted from male sojourners to permanent citizens.

Even though racial bias persisted in immigration law until at least 1965, families thrived in Chinatown, with its familiar Chinese customs, food, and merchandise. By the 1960s Chinatown's seedy intrigue existed only in movies, and it became an alluring tourist destination—an exotic island of a different culture in the middle of a major American city, complete with temples, fortune cookie factories, and, of course, Chinese restaurants. The famous Chinatown gate went up in 1970. Nine years later, diplomatic ties were reestablished between the two countries, making it easier for Chinese-American families to reunite.

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