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Understanding Context in the Joy Luck Club: Magpies
This chapter of the novel is narrated by An-mei Hsu. She tells the story of her life in the Wu-Tsing
household with her mother and the other concubines. She tells the reader about the days leading
up to her mother's suicide, but the main purpose of this story was to teach Rose, who is getting a
divorce, a lesson.
Tan's use of a triad which reveals An-mei's struggle as a child.
`I was taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people's misery, to eat my own bitterness'
This triad may emphasize An-mei's inability to express her feelings as a child, possibly due to
her age and gender. It also highlights how An-mei is expected to care for others but not be
cared for by others. Perhaps, the use of `I was taught', suggests An-mei's unwillingness to
be obedient and to care for others, but that this behaviour was forced upon her.
Alternatively, this behaviour may shock a modern, western reader as this may seem
abnormal due to the fact that children are most likely to voice their opinions and thoughts
without caring for others nowadays.
The notion of obedience is an important aspect of Chinese culture. Children were expected
to show unquestioning obedience: it was legal in China for a father to kill his children due to
disobedience. Women must also obey men due to the patriarchal society. In ancient China
women were to be obedient in three situations: to obey their father before marriage, their
husband during married life, and their sons in when they were a widow. This is also in tune
with the Asian female stereotype of a `China Doll' who is weak and soft-spoken, however
the use of `I was taught', suggests that An-mei's true-self is not weak or soft-spoken.
Tan cleverly refers to the Chinese language to present An-mei's mother's low status.
`Your mother was not always Fourth Wife, Sz Tai... it sounded like the sz that means "die". '
One can note that this link is in no way, coincidental on Tan's part. This may adumbrate
An-mei's mother's disgrace at being a concubine, but also may be a cataphoric reference to
her suicide at the end of this story. As An-mei's mother is speaking in the first line, the use
of the third person: `Your mother', may emphasize her wish to warn An-mei not to be like
her and disgrace her family.
In China, it was common for successful men to have several concubines. The concubines
were inferior to the wife and so were heavily dependent on the nature of the wife, and the
favour of her `husband'. A concubine could improve her position in the family by producing a
male heir, which may be why Second Wife proclaimed that An-mei's brother, who was born
to Wu Tsing and An-mei's mother, was her own son. When a woman became a concubine,
although she would live in luxury, she would still have a very low social status.
Tan is able to present Second Wife as a dictator by using the tradition of story telling.
`I saw how fearful Third Wife became when Second Wife told her stories of old concubines
who were kicked out into the streets'.
This may suggest that tradition of storytelling is being abused by Second Wife who uses it
to victimise other concubines so that they do as she says. Perhaps, it also stresses Second
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Wife's authority in this family as Third Wife listens and obeys Second Wife. However, the use
of: `I saw', may emphasize the fact that this event happened in the past and so may be a
cataphoric reference to the end of this story when Second Wife's dictatorship is
Storytelling is common in Chinese culture. It is used as a way of offering moral guidance to
people of all ages. The content of storytelling reflects the thought, ideals and moral
aspirations of Chinese people.…read more