Essay

Finding the Yin/Yang: Constructing a Circle of Balance
Through Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club

1997 Shawn Vidmar

    John Suler defines the Easter concept of yin and yang as "constituting the two fundamentally opposing yet balancing principles of nature. It is the equilibrium and creative tension between these two forces that gives shape and direction to all processes of change" (210). It is as this point of alteration which "inquires into the vibrant polarity of yin and yang that underlies all processes of change reflecting the psychoanalytic exploration of the dynamic polarities in personality" (Suler 9). However, "as the Taoist philosophy of yin and yang suggests, polarities are never distinct ad separate entities. They give rise to and sustain each other" (Suler 188). In achieving all of this, the idea of yin and yang inherently commands balance. Whereas traditionally "Yang is associated with positive, masculine, strong, firm, light, heaven, rising, and father. Yin is associated with negative, feminine, weak, receptive, yielding, darkness, earth, falling, and mother" (Suler 210). It takes a more holistic view of Eastern thought and a less didactic idea of Western tradition, to understand the implications of yin/yang within Amy Tan's novel The Joy Luck Club.

    Overtly the novel examines the diverse and intricate relationships involved in four mother/daughter pairs; however, the sense of harmony, balance and acceptance saturate the tale as well. Each mother and daughter speaks, with the exception of the deceased, Suyuan Woo (June's mother), to shed light on decisions made in the past, as well as instruct the future generations. "By having the immigrant mothers tell their own stories," Shelley Reid writes, "Tan allows us to explore at length the Chinese half of the balanced yin-yang circle" (22). Embedded within these tales remains the notion of integration and assimilation into the American culture from that of a Chinese perspective. This act of integration without culture annihilation is parallel to the principles of yin/yang. Tan cleverly uses the well-known symbol to shape her novel into a circle of tales spoken by women who are desperately trying to achieve balance during a time of duality. They all seek balance spiritually, personally, historically and culturally.

    While investigating Tan's use of language within her work, one is struck by many similarities between the cyclic nature of the mother/daughter tales and that of the ideas surrounding yin/yang. First of all, the resemblance contained in the mere cyclical nature of the work, also known as a pure family romance, "in which family members are separated, lost, and reunited" (Heung 609). The novel literally begins and ends with June.  

    June's position in the narrative remains integral because despite being the only daughter in the dyad without a mother's voice, she must achieve harmony in successfully integrating her Chinese American heritage. Although her coevals (Waverly Jong, Rose Jordan Hsu, and Lena St. Clair) all face the same assimilation, June must forge on without the wisdom and language from her mother. June shows her willingness to begin her journey toward balance (although inadvertently) by taking her mother's place at the mah jong table, "Without having anyone tell me, I know her corner on the table was the East. The East is where things begin" (Tan33). June begins her literal and figurative expedition with this action of sitting in her mother's place, and ends her journey even farther east--China--reunited with a family spoken simply by her mother as "'your father was not my first husband. You are not those babies'" (Tan 26).

    By finding her sisters, Jun completes her mother's story--which began in China--and she also integrates her own. June takes a symbolic step toward cultural assimilation by first recognizing her name as her possession. When addressed by Auntie Lin as "Jing-mei," Auntie Ying corrects Lindo, but June absolves her, realizing just then that "it's even becoming fashionable for American-born Chinese to use their Chinese names" (Tan 37). When she meets her half-sisters in China, a circle of mirrored relationships, blurred identities, generations, and languages is drawn. That circle contains beliefs, cultures, tragedies, histories, myths and stories extremely complex and undoubtedly at the heart of yin/yang philosophy. For only together, as a triad, can the women in this story complete the true vision of their mother (Heung 599). 

    Strangely, the leitmotif of the circle in female writing is not a new manifestation. As if to disrupt the patrilineage of language and history, many women writers assert the cyclical nature of their lives. Marina Heung remarks on circulation as positive because it "repudiates linearity and symmetry, the circle is a privileged motif in feminist writings, one that suggests the possibility of reconfiguring traditional familial dynamics and dismantling the hierarchical arrangements of the Oedipal triangle and the patriarchal family" (612). In using this narrative, Tan not only remains a feminist writer, but also embeds the uniquely Taoist notion of yin/yang.

    Within the cyclical nature of June's experience, there is also the notion of change. In studying the notion of yin/yang Suler writes that "...the Eastern notion of the unity and interpenetrating connectedness of self and world, the blending representations of self-in-the-world and world-in-the-self. But not all apparently synchronous events are strictly acausal. The paralleling of the external and internal worlds often is a complex casual interweaving of these two realms" (249). In other words, June's metaphysical journey is one of balance and acceptance of her Chinese American self.

     In youth, June wishes only to be American. Her version of an American is clouded by her mother's insistence that "you could be anything you wanted to be in America" (Tan 133). In searching for the talent Suyuan knew her daughter harbored, June became obscured and invisible. June fantasized that she would, one day, become her mother's perfect image. That her parents would adore her and she would be beyond reproach (Tan 133). In short she was seeking a balance, a harmony, a place where her parents' expectations and her own ability was to meet. Unfortunately this did not overtly occur, yet within the perceived failure was the possibility of success.

    The idea encompassing change as accommodating the past and the present is a facet of yin/yang philosophy. John Suler writes:

The extinction and revival of old ideas often is driven by the dynamic polarity of yin and yang. According to Taoist philosophy, opposites blend into and counterbalance each other; they give rise to each other and are inseparable. An idea is challenged by an opposing idea, which gradually gains strength, replaces the old idea, and then is itself challenged by a revival of the old idea (which is now "new"). They cycling as opposites, Watts pointed out, would become repetitious and boring if not for the fact that remembering also cycles with forgetting. (30)

Throughout the novel, the mother exemplify this idea of remembering and forgetting. Through the investigation of memory, one understands that Tan's characters often use the storytelling to heal "past experiences of loss and separation; it is also a medium for rewriting stories of oppression and victimization into parables of self-affirmation and individual empowerment" (Heung 607). These parables are important to note because the mothers use them to emphasize strength in a China where they are rendered invisible, powerless and voiceless. They emotionally pack these stories for their daughters to illustrate their history, but also to emphasize the differences in America. However, because the mothers find the English language problematic, their voices are again silenced in America. Therefore integration and balance remains allusive to the mothers. Yet their daughters' perfect English enables them to achieve assimilation into the American culture the mothers' desire to be within, but must remain excluded. Unfortunately the bridging of two cultures is not accomplished by grammar alone.

    Suyuan Woo, June's mother, on her journey across the Atlantic, wishes only to have a daughter and to break the role of patriarchy which previously silenced her. Yet she builds into this vision a silencing mechanism of her own, for she dreams that

In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband's belch. Over there nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English. And over there she will always be too full to swallow and sorrow!...And she had a daughter who grew up speaking only English and swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow...And she waited, year after year, for the day she could tell her daughter this in perfect American English. (Tan 1)

Suyuan cannot tell her daughter anything in "perfect American English" because she never achieves this grammatical goal. Yet through her observations and failed goals, all she does impress upon her American daughter is duality. The duality of wishes achieved and failed. And June is aware that most of the wishes failed involve her not becoming the perfect American daughter.  She cannot swallow her mother's sorrow, nor achieve her mother's dreams. She also cannot navigate the mothers' struggle to retain the good of Chinese customs and cleave to the advantages of American life. Unfortunately, as in yin/yang, one is inexorably intertwined and a part of the other.

    It is impossible to piece together an identity only choosing the best qualities. The daughter's struggle as do the mother's for they "stand not only for the pre-feminist past that the daughters must abjure in their quest for independence, but also for the Chinese cultural heritage they feel they must, but cannot entirely, repudiate in their quest to become 'really American'" (Reid 21). Therefore, the daughters must embrace the yin and yang of the Chinese and American cultural history and discover a balance.

    The daughters, especially June, do appear to achieve balance by the conclusion of this work. While the strings of the narrative draw to a close, the women--both mothers and daughters--have realized and accepted their resemblance to, and place in, their matriarchal past. One must trace "Tan's careful descriptions of the separate components of a multifaceted identity through a reading of the mothers' stories, and then work with the daughters' stories to find the links that bind opposing forces into a balanced whole" (Reid 22). And "together, these mother characters provide an opportunity to view the important elements of Chinese American identity one or two at a time, to investigate the implications of the 'ancestral culture' and to see the first reactions to the new American culture" (Reid 23). In the telling of their stories, the mothers are able to impose Chinese mythology and Taoist thinking upon their daughters. In turn the daughters must sort out what they will retain to strike a balance and achieve the wholeness and independence their mothers wish for them. They must incorporate the idea of yin/yang: they just become complete in the circle.

    One must remember that the duality of yin/yang is not a binary. Although the Mother, Yin Yin's, story "The Moon Lady" concludes with the Moon Lady crying, "For woman is yin, the darkness within, where untempered passions lie. And man is yang, bright truth lighting our minds" (Tan 81). Thus attempting to align yin to the female and, consequently, darkness while yang is aligned to the male and, interestingly, truth and light. Negative as this appears, it becomes nullified because the "Moon Lady looked at me and became a man" (Tan 82) giving Yin Yin enlightenment into her own yang within. However this is not the only occurrence where yin is negatively associated to the female and yang is positively aligned with all things male. In fact, this overt binary of yin/yang actually mirrors Western breakdown of yin/yang philosophy.

   Many scholars associate what is good in the world, therefore masculine and strong with yang, and what is wrong, untamable and wild in the world with the feminine yin. Jordan Paper writes, "In the standard Chinese religious cosmology, humans receive their material form (xing) from the conjunction of Heaven and Earth and their life-force (qi) form the conjunction of yang and yin...yin and yang have stood for all complementary oppositional forces, including, respectively, female and male" (22). Through this school of thought, Tan is able to play upon the philosophy and complete her women characters.

   The women all learn to speak out, be strong and to find power. They are not only released from their sorrow, but are able to change their lives as a result, especially June. Each daughter, through listening to their mothers' tales are able to expand their yin and embrace their yang. Therefore this metaphor of yin/yang permeates every level of the novel. The women achieve acceptance and balance in their lives: spiritually, personally, historically and culturally.

   Amy Tan brilliantly constructs a story that has many different paths falling into a cyclical pattern which, myopically, may only look like mother/daughter stories; but when viewed from a hyperopic stance, it clearly assembles the symbol yin/yang. Yin and yang constitute the balance which must be achieved in order to live. All of the characters within this novel take steps toward that balance and exemplify the difficulty in assimilating to the American culture.

Works Cited

  1. Heung, Mrina. "Daughter-Text/Mother-Text: Matrilineage in Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club." Feminist Studies. 19:3 (1993):597-616.
  2. Paper, Jordan. The Spirits are Drunk: Comparative Approaches to Chinese Religion. Albany: The State U of NY P., 1995.
  3. Reid, E. Shelley. "'Our Two Faces': Balancing Mothers and Daughters in The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife." Paintbrush. 22:42 (1995): 20-38.
  4. Suler, John R. Contemporary Psychoanalysis and Eastern Thought. Albany: State U of NY P., 1993.
  5. Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: Vintage, 1991.
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