National Endowment for the Arts
•••>;: ..INSTITUTE of , .,
".*.$• Museum^ Library
* .•*.•• SERVICES
FOR THE ARTS
FOR THE ARTS
A great nation
deserves great art.
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.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support
for the nation's 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's mission is to create
strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute
works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to
sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support
Arts Midwest connects people throughout the Midwest and the world to meaningful arts
opportunities, sharing creativity, knowledge, and understanding across boundaries. Based
in Minneapolis, Arts Midwest connects the arts to audiences throughout the nine-state
region of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South
Dakota, and Wisconsin. One of six non-profit regional arts organizations in the United
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
National Endowment for the Arts
1 100 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20506-0001
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
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
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
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.
Chairman. National Endowment for the Arts
National Endowment tor the \rts
THE BIG READ ' I
■ ■ ■ ■
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
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"
FOCUS: Narrative and Point of View
Activities: Explore Tan's use of interlocking
narration. Describe and evaluate one
Homework: Read next two chapters
Activities: Explain protagonist and antagonist.
Introduce foil. Write a story that captures a
Homework: Finish section "The Twenty-Six
Malignant Gates" (pp. 116-144).
FOCUS: Figurative Language
Activities: Document figurative language in
assigned chapters. Create metaphors and
Homework: Read next two chapters
Page numbers refer to the 2006 Penguin edition of The Joy Luck Club.
2 • THE BIG READ
National Endowment for the Arts
Activities: Explore symbols of book, section,
and chapter titles. Explore Chinese concept
Homework: Finish section "American
Translation" (pp. 185-209).
FOCUS: Character Development
Activities: Role-play mothers and daughters.
Explore cultural values through profession
Homework: Read next two chapters
FOCUS: The Plot Unfolds
Activities: Chart a timeline of the novel.
Explore plot through Tan's choice of self-
Homework: Finish the novel.
FOCUS: Themes of the Novel
Activities: Develop an interpretation based
on a theme: fate, memory, or transformation.
Homework: Write outlines and begin essays.
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 inon.il 1 ndowmeni tor the Vrts the big read • 3
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.
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.
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.
Read the first two chapters (pp. 17-48). Using the writing exercise, have students
collect stories from their mothers, grandmothers, and/or aunts.
J • THE BIG READ
National Endowment for the Arts
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.
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?
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
THE BIG READ " 5
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.
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?
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?
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
6 * THE BIG READ
National Endowment for the Arts
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.
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?
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
National I nilownu-nt tor the \tts
THE BIG READ ■ 7
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.
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.
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).
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?
8 " THE BIG READ
National Endowment for the Arts
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.
"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'
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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'
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>
THE BIG READ ■ I I
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?
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
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.
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."
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
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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
THE BIG READ ■ 17
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
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
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).
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
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
www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/historyonline/china I .cfm
This page on the Digital History Web site tells the story
of building the transcontinental railroad.
National I ndow merit tor the
THE BIG READ • 19
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
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
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."
FOR THE ARTS
'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.