Tan, Amy (An-mei Tan, Amy Ruth Tan)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Tan, Amy (An-mei Tan, Amy Ruth Tan)

Tan, Amy (An-mei Tan, Amy Ruth Tan) (1952- ) Chinese-American writer

By voicing her mother's eyewitness account of Japanese conquests in China, Amy Tan recorded the postimperial collapse of Nationalist China and the liberation of many women from male oppression in the diaspora preceding Mao Zedong's communist takeover. She was born in Oakland, California, to Chinese parents who were part of that diaspora. Of the flight to America of her parents, Daisy Du Ching and John Tan, Tan explained, “Immigrant parents come to America with the idea that they're going to lose ground, economically and socially, but that their children will eventually benefit from what they've done” (quoted in Chatfield-Taylor 1989, 178). To express hope for propitious times, her parents gave her a Chinese name, An-mai, meaning “blessing from America” and expounded Chinese WISDOM for her edification from traditional sources. Bringing up a bicultural family taxed the parents, especially as their daughter preferred independence over obedience. Amy struggled against the claustrophobic mother-daughter bond that generated constant and deep-seated antipathies. She absorbed Western culture through reading AESOP'S FABLES, Bible stories, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and the prairie memories of Laura Ingalls Wilder. With degrees from San Jose State University and the University of California at Santa Cruz, Tan epitomized the postimperial liberalization of Chinese women.

After working several years as a technical writer, Tan began to explore the feminist aspects of prewar China, a culture that had vicariously influenced her life and language. She examined ethnic clashes between Chinese mothers and first-generation American daughters in The Joy Luck Club (1989), her popular first novel. Tan's account of the erosion of traditional social mores begins with the fall of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), China's last feudal royal house, when Marxist and Christian perspectives began to question feudal marriage and female depersonalization. The first women seeking independence suffered many hardships. During a flight west to Chungking from Japanese invaders of Kweilin, the most tragic character, the war widow Suyuan Woo, survives starvation and dysentery by abandoning twin infant girls, Chwun Hwa and Chwun Yu Wang. Suyuan's contemporary, Gu Ying-ying, endures statelessness in the hands of a California office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service: “She stayed there for three weeks, until they could process her papers and determine whether she was a War Bride, a Displaced Person, a Student, or the wife of a Chinese-American citizen” (Tan 1989, 107). The journey ends with an expatriate life in San Francisco's Chinese-American enclave, where cultural elements like American given names, social games of mah jong, the formation of an investment club, and the reunion of Suyuan's first and second families illustrate their adaptation to the West. In 1991, the novelist coauthored the screen version filmed in part in Guilin, China; a stage adaptation debuted at Theatre Works in San Francisco in 1998.

Generational Stories and Sisterhood

In the female - driven The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991), an intimate talk-story and winner of a Choice best book citation, Amy Tan exonerates her mother's hasty choices. Like PEARL BUCK'S The Good Earth (1932), the narrative depicts female lives from a noncombatant female's point of view against a backdrop of refugee displacement and economic uncertainty. For material, Tan drew on long conversations with her mother that revealed a series of long-kept secrets. In their talks, Daisy Tan spoke of the unhappiness of a seven-year marriage to the villainous Wang Zo and the relief of escaping from the constraints of unfeeling male domination. According to Winnie Louie, the fictional version of Daisy Tan, traditional Chinese courtship “was like buying real estate” (Tan 1991, 164), a father- to-groom negotiation conducted by a marriage broker to settle dowry and bride price. Seeking freedom from such patriarchal matrimony, in the 1930s, Winnie and others of Nationalist China's New Women abandoned the old-rituals of Chinese customs to embrace egalitarianism.

Amy Tan established a bicultural rapport with her mother that produced accounts of the anger and outrage of a wife-prisoner in a feudal marriage and domestic abuse resulting in the deaths of two infants. To characterize the dismal captivity of concubines in polygynous marriages, the author sympathizes with the paramours of a womanizer who chooses to abort fetuses rather than raise unwanted children. Through the book, she lionizes her widowed maternal grandmother, Gu Jingmei, forced to marry a wealthy industrialist, the sexual and financial dominator of five women, seven children, and their individual servants. Her character opts for a suicidal meal of rice cakes laced with bitter opium rather than struggle for domestic dignity as a replacement wife. Such use of food contradicts the typical womanly offering of sweets as a love token; instead food becomes a release from unbearable servitude.

Contemporary with husband's bullying and marital rape was the Nanjing Massacre, a series of appalling atrocities committed by Japanese forces from November 1937 to early February 1938. In their advance south from Manchuria to Shanghai and after occupying Beijing and Tianjin, the invaders raped and murdered some 260,000 Chinese peasants, who cowered in a state of taonan, a nearly untranslatable term roughly equivalent to “scared to death.”

The next generation of Chinese, epitomized by the author's mother, Daisy Tan, moved further away from domination by establishing careers and stable marriages. Daisy's counterpart, Winnie Louie, works as a vocational nurse and hospital technician in Shanghai. To circumvent Wen Fu, an abusive philandering husband and a pilot for the Kuomintang air force during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), she aborts three pregnancies to spare future children the menace of a psychopathic father “hungry to feed his own power” (325). Essential to her blossoming, a period of fifteen months in a women's prison for adultery and a divorce and remarriage redirect her life from Tientsin to American justice in California. Heightening the suspense, a period of civil war ending in the Communist takeover compels the fictional Winnie Louie to rely on a female rescuer, Auntie Du, enabling her to escape during the last five days that the Chinese borders remain open.

Tan depicted sisterhood as a major factor in her subsequent works. In the two-part plot of The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), she describes the initial gap in understanding between half sisters as the older one, Kwan Li, tells ghost stories and FABLES in pidgin English to her sibling, the Amerasian protagonist (and the book's narrator) Olivia Yee Laguni. In a past life that Kwan recalls, Olivia was interpreter Nelly Banner and Kwan was Nunumu, the laundress for an English mission compound in Changmian, China. The climax occurs during the Taiping Rebellion of 1864, when Manchu soldiers patrol rural villages to exterminate God worshippers, roast a human leg over a fire, and torch the caves of Thistle Mountain to suffocate or burn alive villagers who take refuge in subterranean passages. Tan depicts the real American mercenary leader Frederick Townsend Ward of Massachusetts as General Warren, but she omits Charles George Gordon, a British Army major general who completed the mission to quell the rebellion after Ward's death in battle in 1862.

The lack of communication between a female ghostwriter and her mother, the attempted suicide of a nanny, and a woman's punishment of her illegitimate daughter are the main elements of The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001). Set in Hakka hamlet near Thistle Mountain outside Guilin. The narrative equates 21st-century bad blood with spiritual unrest from previous centuries, particularly the slaughter of 30 million Chinese in 17 provinces during the emperor's war against anti-Confucian Christian revivalism, which lasted from 1850 to 1864. The concurrent accounts of past lives and recovered memories incorporate situational irony alongside GOTHIC elements—brigandage; bride capture; and a stalker, the drug-addicted Chang Fu Nan. Crucial to a tale of communication between generations is the brush-and-paper script writing method passed patrilineally through apprenticeships limited to the family's sons. Thanks to an illicit matrilineal heritage, the character LuLing at last communicates with her daughter using calligraphy, a symbolic representation of truth.


Chatfield-Taylor, Joan, “Cosmo Talks to Amy Tan: Dazzling New Literary Light.” Cosmopolitan 207 (November 1989): 178-180.

Ma, Sheng-mei. The Deathly Embrace: Orientalism and Asian American Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Palumbo-Liu, David, ed. The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: Penguin, 1989. . The Kitchen God’s Wife. New York: Penguin, 1991.