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The Joy 
Luck Club 







The Joy 
Luck Club 



A great nation 
deserves great art. 


S. MuseurrUndLibrary 




The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting 
excellence in the arts — both new and established — bringing the arts to all Americans, 
and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an 
independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the nation's largest 
annual funder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner 
cities, and military bases. 

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for the nation's 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's mission is to create 
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States, Arts Midwest's history spans more than 25 years. 

Additional support for The Big Read has also been provided by the W.K. Kellogg 

Published by 

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1 100 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. 
Washington, DC 20506-0001 
(202) 682-5400 


Excerpts from THE JOY LUCK CLUB by Amy Tan, copyright ©1989 by Amy Tan. Used by 
permission of G.P. Putnam's Sons, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 


David Kipen, NEA Director of Literature, National Reading Initiatives 

Sarah Bainter Cunningham, PhD, NEA Director of Arts Education 

Writers: Philip Burnham and Sarah Bainter Cunningham, for the National Endowment for the 
Arts, with a preface by Dana Gioia 

Series Editor: Molly Thomas-Hicks for the National Endowment for the Arts 

Graphic Design: Fletcher Design/Washington, DC 

Image Credits 

Cover Portrait: John Sherffius for The Big Read. Page iv: Book cover used by permission of 
G.P. Putnam's Sons, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Swan feather, Geoff Brightling/ 
Getty Images. Page 1: Caricature of Dana Gioia by John Sherffius. Inside back cover: © Robert 

Table of Contents 





Introduction 1 

Suggested Teaching Schedule 2 

Lesson One: Biography 4 

Lesson Two: Culture and History 5 

Lesson Three: Narrative and Point of View 6 

Lesson Four: Characters 7 

Lesson Five: Figurative Language 8 

Lesson Six: Symbols 9 

Lesson Seven: Character Development 10 

Lesson Eight: The Plot Unfolds 11 

Lesson Nine: Themes of the Novel 1 2 

Lesson Ten: What Makes a Book Great? 13 

1 ss.iv Topics 14 

Capstone Projects 1> 

Handout ( )ne: From China to ( .old Mountain Id 

1 [andout I\\<>: \ ( Chinese ( ilossary 17 

Handout Three: C .hosts IS 

leaching Resources N 

NCTT Standaids 20 


ow cne woman w 
she had a daughter who grew 
up speaking only English and 
swallowing more Coca-Cola than 
sorrow. For a long time now the 
woman had wanted to give her 
daughter the single swan feather 
and tell her, This feather may look 
worthless, but it comes from afar and 
carries with it all my good intentions.' 
And she waited, year after year, until 
she could tell her daughter this in 
perfect American English." 

—from The Joy Luck Club 

tl «* 8 

"HE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


Welcome to The Big Read, a major initiative from the National 
Endowment for the Arts designed to revitalize the role of literary reading 
in American culture. The Big Read hopes to unite communities through 
great literature, as well as inspire students to become life-long readers. 

This Big Read Teacher's Guide contains ten lessons to lead you through 
Amy Tan's classic novel, The Joy Luck Club. Each lesson has four sections: 
focus topic, discussion activities, writing exercises, and homework 
assignments. In addition, we have provided capstone projects and 
suggested essay topics, as well as handouts with more background 
information about the novel, the historical period, and the author. All 
lessons dovetail with the state language arts standards required in the 
fiction genre. 

The Big Read teaching materials also include a CD. Packed with interviews, 
commentaries, and excerpts from the novel. The Big Read CD presents 
first-hand accounts of why Tan's novel remains so compelling two decades 
after its initial publication. Some of America's most celebrated writers, 
scholars, and actors have volunteered their time to make Big Read CDs 
exciting additions to the classroom. 

Finally, The Big Read Reader's Guide deepens your exploration with 
interviews, booklists, time lines, and historical information. We hope 
this guide and syllabus allow you to have fun with your students while 
introducing them to the work of a great American author. 

From the NEA. we wish you an exciting and productive school year. 

^£uau t~\l 



Dana Gioia 

Chairman. National Endowment for the Arts 

National Endowment tor the \rts 
















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Day One 

FOCUS: Biography 

Activities: Listen to The Big Read CD. Read 
Reader's Guide essays "Introduction," "Amy 
Tan," and "World War II and San Francisco's 
Chinatown," and Handouts One and Two. 
Write a short story. 

Homework: Read first two chapters 
(pp. 17-48).* 


Day Two 

FOCUS: Culture and History 

Activities: Create a virtual tour of San 
Francisco. Analyze "Swan Story." 

Homework: Read "Amy Tan's Style and Her 
Other Works" in Reader's Guide. Finish 
section "Feathers from a Thousand Li Away" 
(pp. 49-83). 


Day Three 

FOCUS: Narrative and Point of View 

Activities: Explore Tan's use of interlocking 
narration. Describe and evaluate one 
character's perspective. 

Homework: Read next two chapters 
(pp. 87-115). 


Day Four 

FOCUS: Characters 

Activities: Explain protagonist and antagonist. 
Introduce foil. Write a story that captures a 
family member. 

Homework: Finish section "The Twenty-Six 
Malignant Gates" (pp. 116-144). 


Day Five 

FOCUS: Figurative Language 

Activities: Document figurative language in 
assigned chapters. Create metaphors and 

Homework: Read next two chapters 
(pp. 147-184). 

Page numbers refer to the 2006 Penguin edition of The Joy Luck Club. 


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Day Six 

FOCUS: Symbols 

Activities: Explore symbols of book, section, 
and chapter titles. Explore Chinese concept 
of "ghost." 

Homework: Finish section "American 
Translation" (pp. 185-209). 


Day Seven 

FOCUS: Character Development 

Activities: Role-play mothers and daughters. 
Explore cultural values through profession 
and marriage. 

Homework: Read next two chapters 
(pp. 213-252). 


Day Eight 

FOCUS: The Plot Unfolds 

Activities: Chart a timeline of the novel. 
Explore plot through Tan's choice of self- 
contained stories. 

Homework: Finish the novel. 


Day Nine 

FOCUS: Themes of the Novel 

Activities: Develop an interpretation based 
on a theme: fate, memory, or transformation. 

Homework: Write outlines and begin essays. 


Day Ten 

FOCUS: What Makes a Book Great 7 

Activities: Explore the qualities of a great 
novel and the voice of a generation. Examine 
qualities that make Tan's novel successful. 
Have students review each other's paper 
outlines or drafts. 

Homework: Essay due next class period. 

N 1 ndowmeni tor the Vrts the big read • 3 

Lesson One 



Examining an authors life can inform and expand the readers 
understanding of a novel. Biographical criticism is the practice of analyzing 
a literary work through the lens of an authors experience. In this lesson, 
explore the author's life to understand the novel more fully. 

Amy Tan is the daughter of immigrants who fled to America during the 
Chinese civil war of the 1940s. She grew up negotiating the difference 
between the world her parents knew in China — hierarchical, fatalistic — 
and the brash, opportunistic ways of their adopted land. 

Discussion Activities 

Listen to The Big Read CD. Have students take notes as they listen. Ask them to 
present the three most important points they learned from the CD. To go more 
in depth, you might focus on the reflections of one of the commentators. 

Copy the following: "Introduction," 'Amy Tan," and "World War II and San 
Francisco's Chinatown" from the Reader's Guide; and Handouts One and 
Two from this guide. Divide the class into groups. Assign one essay to each 
group. After reading and discussing the essays, each group will present what 
they learned. Ask students to add creative twists to make their presentations 
memorable. Also, ask them to develop one question about the topic not covered 
in the essay and a suggestion of where a reader might go to find an answer. 

Writing Exercise 

Have students write a short story that includes factual details from their parents' 
or their own lives, as well as elements from their own imaginations. Have 
students share their writing with a classmate. 

\Z] Homework 

Read the first two chapters (pp. 17-48). Using the writing exercise, have students 
collect stories from their mothers, grandmothers, and/or aunts. 


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Culture and 

Cultural and historical contexts give birth to the dilemmas and themes at 
the center of the novel. Studying these contexts and appreciating intricate 
details of the time and place help readers understand the motivations of the 

The novel spans from the 1920s through the 1980s, following two 
generations of women. Mothers, born and raised in China, find themselves 
in San Francisco raising their own daughters. Both must navigate two 
worlds, with different languages, cultures, and habits. Through the mothers, 
members of the Joy Luck Club, we view Chinese coming-of-age stories. 
Through the daughters, we follow a struggle to understand ones Chinese 
heritage while coming-of-age in the United States as Asian Americans. 
Jing-Mei "June" Woo explains at the end of the novel, "I am becoming 

While significant historical events would mark the lives of these women, 
nothing permeated their lives as deeply as their role in family and marriage. 
In China, strength of character was built through respect for elders: "How 
to obey parents and listen to your mothers mind. How not to show your 
own thoughts, to put your feelings behind your face . . . Why easy things 
are not worth pursuing. In America, young women can become a force 
of change within their own lives, "learning to shout. Ying-ying St. ( lair 
declares at the end of the novel, " low could I know these two things do 
not mix?" (p. 254). San Francisco provides the setting in which this conflict 
unfolds in the lives of eight women. 

Discussion Activities 

Using Internet research, have students create a virtual tour of San Francisco's 
Chinatown to present to the class. What kind of food is available? What sorts of 
cultural events are taking place? What are the contemporary social issues of this 
Asian and Asian American community' 

Using a map of San Francisco, map some of the locations that will be encountered 
in the novel: Golden Gate Park. Angel Island. Chinatown. Oakland Chinatown. 
Stockton Street, North Beach, and University of California. Berkeley. 

%A Writing Exercise 

In the first chapter, analyze the prologue "swan story" How might this story set 
the stage for the entire novel? 

P] Homework 

Have students read "Amy Tan's Style and Her Other Works" in the Reader's 
Guide. Have them finish the section "Feathers from a Thousand Li Away" 
(pp. 49-83). Ask them to think about who is telling the story so far. and 
whether the voices seem in any way connected. 

National 1 ndowmeni tot tlu 



and Point of 

The narrator tells the story with a specific perspective informed by his or 
her beliefs and experiences. Narrators can be major or minor characters, 
or exist outside the story altogether. The narrator weaves her or his point 
of view, including ignorance and bias, into telling the tale. A first-person 
narrator participates in the events of the novel, using "I." A distanced 
narrator, often not a character, is removed from the action of the story 
and uses the third-person (he, she, and they). The distanced narrator may 
be omniscient, able to read the minds of all the characters, or limited, 
describing only certain characters' thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, the 
type of narrator determines the point of view from which the story is told. 

Amy Tan achieves a studied portrait of Chinese American life through 
interlocking points of view. The Joy Luck Club is a serial first-person 
narration, recounted by eight narrators rather than one. Each narrator 
provides her own point of view, as she recounts her experiences. Tan designs 
this serial narration like a hand of mahjong, as it moves from player to 
player according to the "Prevailing Wind." Further, each narrator sheds 
light on the life of another narrator, as the narrators are friends and family 
members. Suyuan Woo's death precipitates this storytelling, as the daughter 
inherits her seat at the mahjong table. As June Woo begins and closes the 
novel, her point of view dominates the text. 

Discussion Activities 

Why does Tan title the first section "Feathers from a Thousand Li Away?" 
Look at the first paragraph from each of the first four stories. How do these 
introductions depict the point of view of the narrator? 

Writing Exercise 

Ask students to choose one character that has appeared so far: June Woo, 
An-mei Hsu, Undo Jong, or Ying-ying St. Clair. Have them imagine that the novel 
is going to be told entirely from the perspective of this character. Ask them to 
write a paragraph describing the virtues of the character and another describing 
her weaknesses. What qualities should the author focus on to make this version 
of the novel work? What advantages does Tan gain by creating a series of 
narrators rather than a single one? 

El Homework 

Have students read the next two chapters (pp. 87-1 15). Several characters have 
been introduced so far: Lena and Ying-ying St. Clair, Waverly and Lindo Jong, 
An-mei Hsu, and June Woo. What are the primary motivations of each of these 


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The central character in a work of literature is called the protagonist. 
The protagonist usually initiates the main action of the story and often 
overcomes a flaw, such as weakness or ignorance, to achieve a new 
understanding by the works end. A protagonist who acts with great honor 
or courage may be called a hero. An antihero is a protagonist lacking 
these qualities. Instead of being dignified, brave, idealistic, or purposeful, 
the antihero may be cowardly, self-interested, or weak. The protagonists 
journey is enriched by encounters with characters who hold differing 
beliefs. One such character type, a foil, has traits that contrast with the 
protagonist's and highlight important features of the main characters 
personality. The most important foil, the antagonist, opposes 
the protagonist, barring or complicating his or her success. 

The narrative structure of the novel unfolds, as the daughters' voices 
follow the mothers' China stories. Mothers and daughters, thousih often 
in conflict, remain the protagonists in their own stories. June Woo is 
present in each of the four sections, and joins the mothers as a peer at the 
game table. In the first book, antagonists vary from mothers to ( Chinese 
conventions. In the second book, the mothers provide the antagonist for 
the daughters, guiding and shaping their actions. 

Discussion Activities 

The Joy Luck Club has many villains or antagonists, but they are not obvious. 
Rather, all the narrators are faced with obstacles. What kinds of antagonistic 
forces do they encounter? Cultural traditions? Social prejudice? War? Racial or 
gender discrimination? As the stories progress, is there any sense that the various 
characters are fighting against the same thing? 

Wa Writing Exercise 

Have each student choose a member of his or her family. Using the vignettes 
of "Swan Story" and the "Twenty-Six Malignant Gates" as your model, write a 
brief story to capture the character of this family member. How does one best 
capture another's character through storytelling? 

C3 Homework 

Have students finish the section "The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates" (pp. 1 16- 1 44 1 
What does June learn about the musical compositions "Perfectly Contented" and 
"Pleading Child?" 

National I nilownu-nt tor the \tts 


Lesson Five 



Writers use figurative language such as imagery, similes, and metaphors 
to help the reader visualize and experience events and emotions in a story. 
Imagery — a word or phrase that refers to sensory experience (sight, sound, 
smell, touch, or taste) — helps create a physical experience for the reader and 
adds immediacy to literary language. 

Some figurative language asks us to stretch our imaginations, finding 
the likeness in seemingly unrelated things. Simile is a comparison of two 
things that initially seem quite different but are shown to have significant 
resemblance. Similes employ connective words, usually "like," "as," "than," 
or a verb such as "resembles." A metaphor is a statement that one thing is 
something else that, in a literal sense, it is not. By asserting that a thing is 
something else, a metaphor creates a close association that underscores an 
important similarity between these two things. 

Tan utilizes images frequently, as she draws us into a Chinese American 
life: images of birds, water, imbalance/balance, winds, and colors to 
gesture beyond literal descriptions. The story of the Moon Lady, "new 
tiger clothes," a turtle, blood, and a servant bird, provide rich examples of 
figurative language. In this story, the Moon Lady provides an imaginative 
figure for a young child. 

Discussion Activities 

Return to the eight tales you have read thus far. Divide the class and have groups 
examine figurative language in each story. Ask students to identify similes and 
metaphors. In each story, how does figurative language assist in telling the story? 
Have groups present their findings to the class. 

Writing Exercise 

Tan has an uncommon gift for figurative language. Here she describes a storm 
with a striking metaphor: "I saw that lightning had eyes and searched to strike 
down little children" (p. 103). Here she uses a simile to describe the emotions of 
a young child: "My heart felt like crickets scratching to get out of a cage" (p. 45). 
Here she describes Old Lady Jong: 'And her fingers felt like a dead person's, like 
an old peach I once found in the back of a refrigerator" (p. 137). Have students 
write a metaphor or simile for three different things: an aspect of nature (like a 
storm), a familiar emotion (like love or jealousy), and the description of a person 
(a friend or family member). 

H Homework 

Have students read the next two chapters (pp. 147-184). Lena's mother 
describes her daughter: "she like a ghost, disappear." Are ghosts symbols of a 
more complex image? 


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Lesson Six 



Symbols are persons, places, or things in a narrative that have significance 
beyond a literal understanding. The craft of storytelling depends on 
symbols to present ideas and point toward new meanings. Most frequently, 
a specific object will be used to refer to (or symbolize) a more abstract 
concept. The repeated appearance of an object suggests a non-literal, or 
figurative, meaning attached to the object. Symbols are often found in 
the books title, at the beginning and end of the story, within a profound 
action, or in the name or personality of a character. The life of a novel is 
perpetuated by generations of readers interpreting and reinterpreting the 
main symbols. By identifying and understanding symbols, readers can 
reveal new interpretations of the novel. 

The study of a symbol can shed light on an entire story. "Feathers from a 
Thousand Li Away," for example, refers to a fable at the novels beginning 
where a beautiful swan is confiscated from a woman when she comes to 
America. With only one feather remaining, she is forced to remember all 
those she has left behind. u The Red Candle" of the third chapter refers to a 
custom whereby a candle is burned at both ends the night of a wedding — a 
symbol of the permanence of the marriage vow. The book s title. The Joy 
Luck Club, is a complex symbol: The group of women is linked by rate, 
but the phrase is also a common Chinese expression that translation into 
English alters in meaning. 

Discussion Activities 

"The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates" — the title of section two — is the name 
of a Chinese children's book. The book warns of different dangers awaiting 
unsuspecting children according to their birth dates. The gates do not literally 
exist. They express the possibility of danger or bad luck in everyday life. Why 
does Tan use this symbol as the title of a section? Why is the number of gates so 
precise? Why should we see them as gates rather than, say. pitfalls or traps' 

^ Writing Exercise 

Copy Handout Three, "Ghosts." and have students read it. An-mei Hsu says. 
"My grandmother told me my mother was a ghost. This did not mean my 
mother was dead" (p. 42). Later. Lena St. Clair says of the tenors that frightened 
her mother. "I watched, over the years, as they devoured her. piece by piece, 
until she disappeared and became a ghost" (p. 103) A ghost, in Chinese culture, 
is a rich symbol, suggestive of multiple meanings. Returning to the text, write a 
short essay about Tan's use of ghosts in the story. Does her definition shift from 
the Chinese mothers to the Asian American daughters' 

Q Homework 

Have students read pp. 185 209. What lessons do we learn about translation in 
the stories that constitute "American Translation"' 

National 1 ndowment fof the \rt«> the big REAr • 9 



Lesson Seven 



Novels trace the development of characters who encounter a series of 
challenges. Most characters contain a complex balance of virtues and vices. 
Internal and external forces require characters to question themselves, 
overcome fears, or reconsider dreams. The protagonist may undergo 
profound change. A close study of character development maps, in each 
character, the evolution of motivation, personality, and belief. The tension 
between a characters strengths and weaknesses keeps the reader guessing 
about what might happen next and the protagonist's eventual success or 

Much of the older generation in The Joy Luck Club has undergone a 
transformation before they even come to America. Suyuan Woo has had to 
abandon two daughters during the war with Japan, a loss she never stops 
mourning. Lindo Jong concocts a clever story to extricate herself from an 
arranged and unhappy marriage. An-mei Hsu's mother has committed 
suicide, thereby allowing her daughter to learn how to speak for herself. 
They all attempt to redeem their lives through their daughters in America. 
We see most of the characters advance from childhood to adulthood, 
each trying to incorporate the wisdom and experience of her mother. No 
character is more thoroughly changed than June Woo, who learns a lesson 
in Chinese humility — accepting the gift of her mother's jade necklace — 
and, by novel's end, undertakes a journey to China to find the missing part 
of her mother's story. 

Discussion Activities 

Ask students to work with a partner. Assign a mother-daughter duo to each pair. 
One student will role-play the mother and the other student will role-play the 
daughter. For discussion, students should review the stories that "they" have told 
in the novel. Pairs should discuss their characters primary motivations, strengths, 
and weaknesses. Have they undergone change? In what way? Do they have 
characteristics they are unable to change? What are they and why? Have each 
pair report its findings to the class. 

Writing Exercise 

In 'American Translation," we encounter the daughters as adults. Write an 
argument, supported by quotations from the novel, to defend the following 
statement: Each daughter struggles to find balance between Chinese heritage and 
American values through marriage and professional careers. 

E3 Homework 

Have students read the next two chapters (pp. 213-252). Students should come 
to class with what they perceive to be the two most important turning points 
thus far in the novel. 

I * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


The Plot 

The author crafts a plot structure to create expectations, increase suspense, 
and develop characters. The pacing of events can make a novel either 
predictable or riveting. Foreshadowing and flashbacks allow the author to 
defy the constraints of time. Sometimes an author can confound a simple 
plot by telling stories within stories. In a conventional work of fiction, the 
peak of the story's conflict — the climax — is followed by the resolution, or 
denouement, in which the effects of that climactic action are presented. 

In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan makes deliberate choices about how to 
structure and pace events while exploring how tradition, fate, memory, and 
change define the human condition. In this lesson, map the events of the 
narrative to assess the artistry of the storytelling. 

There are many turning points in The Joy Luck Club, but they do not 
always happen in the order we read them. Suyuan Woo leaves her babies on 
the road to Chungking. Lindo Jong escapes a dubious marriage. Rose 1 Isu 
Jordan learns to stand up to her husband. Ying-ying St. ( -lair aborts a child 
out of vengeance. And June Woo will go back to China to meet her sisters 
and discover the part of her that is truly Chinese. 

Discussion Activities 

Use the homework assignment from the last lesson to have students present 
the most important turning points in the novel. Ask them to refer to key 
passages from the story, explaining why these events are the most significant. Use 
this information for the next activity. 

In small groups, have students map a timeline that depicts the development of the 
story and the building of drama. This timeline should include the most significant 
turning points, but also examine lesser events that build tension. As students 
develop their timelines, they should define what they perceive to be 
the beginning, middle, and the end of the novel. Groups should present their 
timelines to the class. 

Ei Writing Exercise 

The novel is comprised of a series of self-contained stories. How does Tan 
integrate these varied stones? What devices does she use' Does the use of 
multiple narrators fail in any way? If so. how? If not. why not' 

C Homework 

Have students finish the novel. Ask them to consider what arc the most 
important forces guiding the lives of the characters 

National I ndowmeni tot tin \n> 



Lesson Nine 


Themes of 
the Novel 

Themes are the central, recurring subjects of a novel. As characters grapple 
with circumstances such as racism, class, or unrequited love, profound 
questions will arise in the reader's mind about human life, social pressures, 
and societal expectations. Classic themes include intellectual freedom versus 
censorship, the relationship between one's personal moral code and larger 
political justice, and spiritual faith versus rational considerations. A novel 
often reconsiders these age-old debates by presenting them in new contexts 
or from new points of view. 

Discussion Activities and Writing Exercises 

Use the following questions to stimulate discussion or provide writing exercises 
in order to interpret the novel in specific ways. Using historical references 
to support ideas, explore the statements The Joy Luck Club makes about the 

Fate and Memory: While fate looks forward toward our future or destiny, 
memory looks back to the past. Lena St. Clair's mother looks forward: "I believe 
my mother has the mysterious ability to see things before they happen" (p. 149). 
June speculates on her mother's past: "Together we look like our mother." "Her 
same eyes, her same mouth, open in surprise to see, at last, her long-cherished 
wish" (p. 288). Are the daughters "fated" to face the same struggles as their 
mothers? Does this fate hinge on their ability to remember their mothers' pasts? 
Is the novel a memorial to June's mother to allow June to "become Chinese"? 

Transformation: In Chinese, nengkan means the ability to do anything one 
seriously undertakes. "It was this belief in their nengkan that had brought my 
parents to America," says Rose Hsu Jordan (p. 121). Do the mothers of the Joy 
Luck Club transform themselves in America — or only before they arrive? In what 
ways are the women changed by America? In what ways are they shaped by their 
own daughters? Do the adult daughters come to understand "joy luck," or does 
it not exist? 

H Homework 

Ask students to begin their essays, using the essay topics found in this guide. 
Outlines are due for the next class. 

I 2 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 

Lesson Ten 


What Makes 
a Book Great? 

Novels illustrate the connections between individuals and questions of 
humanity. Great stories articulate and explore the mysteries of our daily 
lives, while painting those conflicts in the larger picture of human struggle. 
Readers forge bonds with the story as the writers voice, style, and sense of 
poetry inform the plot, characters, and themes. By creating opportunities 
for learning, imagining, and reflecting, a great novel is a work of art 
that affects many generations of readers, changing lives, challenging 
assumptions, and breaking new ground. 

Discussion Activities 

Ask students to make a list of the characteristics of a great book. Put these on 
the board. What elevates a novel to greatness? Then ask them to discuss, within 
groups, other books they know that include some of the same characteristics. 
Do any of these books remind them of The Joy Luck Club 7 . How is it different? 

A great writer can be the voice of a generation. How does Tan's novel provide 
a voice of a generation? How does the structure of the narrative, including eight 
voices with multiple stories, reflect an innovative approach to the novel? How 
might this lead the way for the next generation? 

Divide students into groups and have each one choose the single most important 
theme of the novel. Have a spokesperson from each group explain the group's 
decision. Write these themes on the board. Do all the groups agree? 

B Writing Exercise 

Have students re-read the vignettes that introduce each of the four books. Write 
two pages explaining how these vignettes inform the structure of the novel. Do 
they assist in teaching the daughters (and us) "how to lose your innocence but 
not your hope. How to laugh forever." 

C3 Homework 

Students should work on their essays. See "Essay Topics" in the next section. For 
additional questions, see the Reader's Guide "Discussion Questions." Students 
will turn in outlines and/or rough drafts during the next class. 

National I ndowmeni tor the \rts 


The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, 
as do the Discussion Questions in the Readers Guide. Advanced students can come up with their 
own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided 

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the novel. This statement or 
thesis should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting 
reasons should be backed by references to the text. 

1. June Woo begins the novel by explaining the 
"Joy Luck Club." She watches the mothers 
and explains, "They see that joy and luck do 
not mean the same to their daughters, that to 
these closed American-born minds 'joy luck' 
is not a word, it does not exist." Does the 
novel argue that certain cultural concepts, like 
"joy luck," cannot be translated? If so, why? If 
not, why not? Or, could the failure to translate 
provide the momentum of the novel? Explain 
the role of language and/or translation in the 

2. Research the details and circumstances of 
women's life in China in the 1930s, examining 
both poor and wealthy families. Bring this 
research to your reading of the novel. How 
do the stories of the mothers relate to the 
actual historical realities? Use your research 
to explain why Tan chose to portray 

the mothers and whether this portrayal 
(historically accurate or fictionalized) enhances 
the power of the novel. 

Using the very brief stories that introduce 
each section of the novel, explain why Tan 
has chosen each of these tales to characterize 
the four sections. Do they serve as signposts 
to foreshadow the plot? Do they capture an 
Asian aesthetic, where figures like the Moon 
Lady play an indispensable role in charting 
human experience? How might mythic 
stories provide more accurate renderings of 
the women's experience? Is this a point of 
contention between the Asian and American 
cultures depicted in the novel? 

Waverly Jong and June Woo become 
competitive when Waverly becomes a child 
chess prodigy and June struggles to master 
the piano. How might this rivalry reflect values 
of success and worth depicted in the novel? 
How do both cultures navigate the concept 
of "happiness?" First, define the concept of 
happiness that you believe dominates the 
novel, then demonstrate whether it is Asian, 
American, or both. Should this concept be 
adjusted or amended? Expand this question 
by exploring the roles of food, body image, 
professional life, and marriage. 

14 ' THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 

Teachers may consider the ways in which these activities may be linked to other Big Read 
community events. Most of these projects could be shared at a local Library, a student assembly, 
or a bookstore. 

1. Ask students to find a tale, a legend, or a myth 
of Chinese origin. They should learn the story 
well enough to be able to tell it from memory. 
They should be prepared, before they begin, 
to explain any words or cultural ideas their 
audience may not understand. After they finish 
the story, they should suggest any others it 
resembles in other traditions. Have students 
do the storytelling at a local library. 

2. Have students find something in their homes 
or neighborhoods that somehow bears the 
influence of China. This could be a restaurant 
menu, a photograph, an imported piece 

of clothing, a game, or a toy. Ask them to 
introduce the item, explain what is Chinese 
about it, and try to guess something about 
the lives of the people who made it or are 
associated with it. Then have a group leader 
summarize what the collection of objects says 
as a whole. 

3. Invite an immigrant family to come and talk 
about the experiences of family members in 
America. (They may or may not be Chinese.) 
Include members of at least two generations, 
three if possible. Prepare a collective series of 
questions in advance and use these as a way 
to get the discussion started. Have the family 
talk about its journey, the use of language, 
expectations vs. realities, and generational 
changes. This discussion can take place in the 
library, a student assembly, or a bookstore. 

Ask students to imagine they are immigrants 
who have just come to America. They should 
write a letter home to someone in their family, 
describing how different they find the United 
States. The letter should emphasize something 
about their past life and their hopes for a new 
one. The letter should also give a sense of 
some of the difficulties and dangers that await 
them. Have students do their presentations at 
a local library or bookstore. 

Ask students to perform a scene from the 
novel, either from China in the 1930s or from 
America in the 1960s. They should write the 
dialogue and take the parts of all characters. 
The characters may be from the book or 
imagined. The scene can be produced at a 
student assembly and include a discussion 

Host a screening of the movie adaptation 
of The Joy Luck Club at a local theater. Invite 
a scholar to come to the screening and 
lead a discussion afterward about the films 
interpretation of the novel. 

National 1 ndowmeni Rm the \tta the big read • I 5 


From China to Gold Mountain 

From the U.S. Civil War through the mid- 
twentieth century, Chinese immigrants in America 
helped mine the gold fields, lay track for the 
transcontinental railroad, reclaim swamp land, and 
perform farm labor — all for meager wages. Early 
immigrants from China, most of them single men 
from the rural south, were drawn by the promise 
of Gam Sann, or "Gold Mountain," as America 
was called. The California Gold Rush attracted 
thousands of Chinese between 1848 and 1860. 
In the late 1860s, when legislation forced them 
out of mining, they laid track for the Central 
Pacific Railroad on the transcontinental line. 
Their willingness to work — and the low wages 
they received — made them targets of anger and 
discrimination. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion 
Act severely limited immigration from China. 
This was the first U.S. immigration law aimed at a 
particular ethnic group. 

This policy encouraged suffering, bureaucratic 
delay, and fraud. With immigration of Chinese 
nationals curtailed, only a small number were 
allowed in legally each year. Children of fathers 
from the "exempt" class — such as merchants 
and clergy who had already obtained U.S. 
citizenship — were spared these policies. Some 
who entered with papers were known as "paper 
sons" and "paper daughters." They purchased 
documentation identifying themselves as children 
of U.S. citizens, when in fact they were not. 

Beginning in 1910, would-be Pacific immigrants, 
over 70% of them Chinese, were screened at Angel 
Island in San Francisco Bay (like Ying-ying St. 
Clair was in The Joy Luck Club). Known as "the 
Ellis Island of the West," Angel Island functioned 
as an interrogation center and detention facility 
for the federal immigration service. Over the 
course of 30 years, Angel Island processed 175,000 
immigrants. Many were turned back. Unlike at 
Ellis Island, however, many Chinese were detained 
for weeks and months, and in several cases up 
to two years, before being permitted to join the 
American melting pot. 

The Angel Island facility was closed in 1940; 
three years later the Chinese Exclusion Act 
and its corollaries were repealed. By this time, 
China was an ally in the war against Japan, and 
legal discrimination was not tolerated. After 
immigration quotas were abandoned in 1965, the 
Chinese American population in America nearly 
doubled over the next decade. The immigrant 
Chinese, who began as a cloistered community 
denied basic citizenship rights, had become, within 
a century, a largely urbanized and professionalized 
American success story. 

I 6 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


A Chinese Glossary 

The Joy Luck Club can be read as a primer on 
Chinese culture. The narrative is hill of references 
to ghosts, fengshui, dumplings, tea, and luck. The 
very idea of the Joy Luck Club melds Chinese and 
American ideas — the characters are ruled by luck, 
but they may also invent their own luck. 

Confucius: a Chinese philosopher of the sixth 
century B.C. His teachings, broadly known as 
Confucianism, emphasized ancestor worship, 
respect for elders and husbands, loyalty, harmony, 
and order. Though barely mentioned in The Joy 
Luck Club, his precepts color the traditional beliefs 
often reflected in the behavior of Tans characters. 

Fengshui (pronounced fung shway): the Chinese 
art of unblocking energy flow in a room or a house 
by careful arrangement of its contents. Placement 
of buildings is also considered important. Ying-ying 
St. Clair tells her daughter Lena that a plumbing 
store opening next to a bank portends ill, and the 
bank manager is later arrested for embezzlement. 
Lena herself becomes a designer, but her mother 
finds her deficient at basic concepts of fengshui. 

Mahjong: a traditional Chinese game of skill 
and luck that features four corners, one for each 
direction of the wind. Using 144 painted tiles with 
such pictograms as dragons and flowers, the object 
is to build as mam - suites as possible in groups of 
three. Mahjong remains popular — the most recent 
incarnation is mahjong solitaire software. 

Mandarin: collectively, a set of related dialects 
spoken in northern and southwestern China. 
Standard Mandarin is the official Language of 
the Peoples Republic of China and has close CO a 
billion speakers. Other major Chinese languages 
include Cantonese and Wu. 

Yin/yang: a duality from ancient Chinese 
philosophy that divides the universe into two 
opposing forces. I he female principle, vin. is 
associated with darkness and passivity, represented 
by moon, winter, and earth. I he male, vang. is 
luminous and active, and symbolized by sun, 
summer, and heaven. 

National I ndowment tor tin 




Chinese scholar, sociologist, and anthropologist 
Xiaotong Fei referred to America as the "land 
without ghosts." For immigrants, the American 
landscape lacked the layers of past ancestors, 
households, and journeys woven throughout the 
Chinese homeland. A sense of the difference 
between a Chinese ghost and an American ghost 
can inform how we read The Joy Luck Club. 

Viewed from a Chinese perspective, American 
ghosts were shallow, lacked depth, and served 
primarily as the matter for children's tales. Chinese 
ghosts and the spirits in Tan's novel are far more 
than the supernatural presence of the undead. 

One of the greatest novels of Chinese literature, 
Dream of the Red Chamber, depicts the story of 
two Chinese families living in Beijing during the 
eighteenth century. The hero has been reincarnated 
from a living stone left behind by a goddess. Other 
characters are reincarnations from the hero's former 
life as the stone. The story is framed by the hero's 
"dream of a red chamber." The dream sheds 
more light on the tribulations of human life than 
the hero might surmise on his own. In keeping 
with Buddhist beliefs, the daily, tangible life of 
the body is a dream life. As we come closer to 
enlightenment, we "awaken" from this dream life 
to see the true world. 

Ghosts can bring information from true reality 
into this world. Further, ghosts can provide us 
with hints as to our former lives and our future 
fates. In the present, we are often reflecting back 
on our former lives and contemplating our future 
reincarnations. As a result, past, present, and future 
weave tightly together, only artificially separated 
to make our analysis easier. Fei explains, "Life in 

its creativity changes the absolute nature of time: 
it makes past into present — no, it melds past, 
present, and future into one inextinguishable, 
multilayered scene, a three-dimensional body. 
This is what ghosts are." One writer on migration, 
Adam MacKeown, notes that ghosts represent "an 
intangible specter of the past that inhabited and 
affected the present." 

While Tan explicitly refers to ghosts numerous 
times, we might also hear the echo of ghosts in 
repeated symbols. For example, the novel begins as 
a swan is torn from a woman during immigration 
processing. She is left with one feather. Birds 
appear and re-appear throughout the novel. Are 
they the reincarnation of the former, true bird? Are 
they ghosts of a true bird? An-mei's mother tells 
of a turtle that hatches seven magpie birds of joy. 
Ying-ying St. Clair tells of a bird domesticated to 
catch fish. When Chinese peasants refuse to suffer, 
the birds die, falling from the sky. Somehow, Tan's 
birds are the ghostly indicator of suffering or joy 
throughout generations. 

Ying-ying St. Clair remains most connected with 
the world of ghosts. Her second self enters this 
realm to meet the Moon Lady. Her musings 
demonstrate that she has "lost herself to the other 
world. She worries that she has no spirit to pass 
on to her daughter and that Lena has also become 
a ghost. It is Tan's stories, however, that let loose 
the spirit, a "hard, shiny and clear" link to past, 
memorialized for the next generation. 

18 ' THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


Web sites 

Arkush, R. David, ed. and Leo O. Lee, ed. Land Without 
Ghosts: Chinese Impression of American Mid-Nineteenth 
Century to the Present. Berkeley: University of California, 

Bennani, Ben. ed. "The World of Amy Tan." Paintbrush: 
A Journal of Poetry and Translation 22 (Autumn, 1995). 
Special Edition. 
The Library of Congress Web site holds information on 
the Chinese in America from 1850-1925. 
The Web site of the PBS documentary on "Becoming 
American" includes a timeline and a comprehensive 
list of Web links. 

Bloom, Harold, ed. Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club (Bloom's 
Modern Critical Interpretations). New York: Chelsea 
House Publications, 2002. 

Shea, Renee Hausmann and Deborah Wilchek. -Amy Tan in 
the Classroom: The Art of Invisible Strength (The NCTE High 
School Literature Series). National Council of Teachers of 
English, 2005. 

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Amy Tan: A Literary Companion 
(McFarland Literary Companions). Jefferson, NC: 
McFarland and Company, 2004. 

The Chinese Historical Society of America Museum 
and Learning Center's Web site strives to promote the 
contributions that Chinese Americans have made to the 
United States of America. 

The Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco Web site 

includes helpful information on the Chinese calendar and 

zodiac. I .cfm 
This page on the Digital History Web site tells the story 
of building the transcontinental railroad. 

National I ndow merit tor the 



National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standards" 

1. Students read a wide range of print and 
non-print texts to build an understanding of 
texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of 
the United States and the world; to acquire 
new information; to respond to the needs 
and demands of society and the workplace; 
and for personal fulfillment. Among these 
texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and 
contemporary works. 

2. Students read a wide range of literature from 
many periods in many genres to build an 
understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., 
philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human 

3. Students apply a wide range of strategies 
to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and 
appreciate texts. They draw on their prior 
experience, their interactions with other 
readers and writers, their knowledge of 
word meaning and of other texts, their 
word identification strategies, and their 
understanding of textual features (e.g., 
sound-letter correspondence, sentence 
structure, context, graphics). 

4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, 
and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, 
vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a 
variety of audiences and for different purposes. 

5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as 
they write and use different writing process 
elements appropriately to communicate with 
different audiences for a variety of purposes. 


Students apply knowledge of language 
structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling 
and punctuation), media techniques, figurative 
language, and genre to create, critique, and 
discuss print and non-print texts. 

Students conduct research on issues and 
interests by generating ideas and questions, and 
by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and 
synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., 
print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to 
communicate their discoveries in ways that suit 
their purpose and audience. 

Students use a variety of technological and 
information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, 
computer networks, video) to gather and 
synthesize information and to create and 
communicate knowledge. 


Students develop an understanding of and 
respect for diversity in language use, patterns, 
and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, 
geographic regions, and social roles. 

10. Students whose first language is not English 
make use of their first language to develop 
competency in the English language arts and to 
develop understanding of content across the 

1 1 . Students participate as knowledgeable, 
reflective, creative, and critical members of a 
variety of literary communities. 

12. Students use spoken, written, and visual 
language to accomplish their own purposes 
(e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and 
the exchange of information). 

This guide was developed with NCTE Standards and State Language Arts Standards in mind. Use these standards to guide and 
develop your application of the curriculum. 

20 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 

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." 



'When you read about the life of 
another person, you are part of 
their lives for that moment. This is 
so vital, especially today, when we 
have so much misunderstanding 
across cultures and even within 
our own communities. 1 ' 


The Big Read is an initiative of the National 
Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading 
to the center of American culture. The NEA presents 
The Big Read in partnership with the Institute of 
Museum and Library Services and in cooperation 
with Arts Midwest. 

••>;! ..INSTITUTED _ 

y.v Museum Library 


A great nation deserves great art.