Essay, Research Paper
Confucianism and Taoism
The constant struggle between women and the Confucian system and the use of Taoism to manipulate it and their tension with American values, exemplified in Rose’s broken marriage and her mother’s opinion of it, is the cause of the tension between the American born daughters and their immigrant parents in the Joy Luck Club. Confucianism is a rigid set of social guidelines and rituals based on one’s place in a mainly patriarchal society. Taoism is based on the harmony of the universe and the union of polar opposites-Yin and Yang; a philosophy that one lives their life by. In times of war, Confucianism is prevalent while Taoism is usually practiced during peace. The Joy Luck Club, the game the book is named after and center of their lives, was formed during war but continued well after in times of peace.
Confucius was a failed politician, great teacher, and Eastern democrat. It is said that culture provides a set of rituals to fall back upon in an unknown situation, like shaking hands with someone when meeting them for the first time. Living during a time of constant war, when morals and ethics were at an all-time low, he drew up a set of strict guidelines for the immoral man to follow. He loved tradition, for he felt that it was, “a potential conduit- one that could funnel into the present behavior patterns that could have been perfected during a golden age in China’s past,” (Smith 168). For Confucius, there was no self without relationships, “the human self as a node, not an entity; it is a meeting place where lives converge,” (Smith 180). The five basic principles of Confucianism are Jen, Chun tzu, Li, Te, and Wen. Jen is the perfect human relationship that we should all strive for by having respect, charity, empathy, faith, and diligence.
Chun tzu is the real person, one who obtains Jen, “is never at a loss of how to behave,” (Smith 173). Li deals with moderation, the five types of human relationships, language, and respect for one’s family and elders. Te is the ruling power or ruling by good example. Wen is the arts and culture, for one is only half human without them. These five characteristics form an intense form of guidelines, which are the structure for this religion.
Taoism and the Tao Te Ching was written by Lao Tzu who, when disgusted with society, and moved away. At the gate, he was asked by a gatekeeper to write down his teachings. It is the way of the universe, reality, and human life. Taoism is meant to extract ch’i (energy) from life through herbs, movement, and meditation. Popular Taoism is spiritualism and magic, akin to “New Age” religions. By living a life of wu wei, ultimately active and relaxed, one can appreciate the greatness of life. One must work without working, be effective without looking strained, soft and yielding yet rigid and conforming. Most significantly, it is in direct opposition with Western values-meekness over pride, harmony with nature over domination, passive over aggressive, and simple over complex. This last one separates Taoists from Confuciusts; Taoist felt it silly to follow guidelines, too artificial, too constrictive. Polar opposites are not seen as directly opposite from each other (for life is a cycle), “no more than phases in an endless cycling process, for each turns incessantly into its opposite, exchanging places with it,” (Smith 215). Perhaps, the opposite quality of Taoism is best expressed in its deals with grave issues in a refreshing, lightening, hopeful tone.
Ying-Ying St. Claire is the only character that isn’t shown with her mother. Instead, her nursemaid, Amah, functions in the motherly role. She is first introduced as a child at the time of the Moon Lady ceremony. She questions the point of the ceremony and Amah tells her, “You do this and that, so the gods do not punish you Light the incense, make an offering to the moon, bow your head, do not shame me,” (Tan 66). The concept of being punished for bad acts is not Confucian, this is a theme of pop-religion in China. While the ceremony is neither Confucian nor Taoist, it serves as the cause of Ying-Ying’s controlling fear of life being out balance, losing herself, and getting lost, a Taoist concept. The Moon Lady Play she watches soon after getting lost warps the principle of Yin and Yang as it applies to women and men being equals. “For woman is yin the darkness within, where untempered passions lie. And man is yang, bright truth lightening our minds,” (Tan 82). This begins Ying-Ying’s estrangement from true Taoism, weakening her Taoist perspective that would help her to deal with the grief in her life. It is said that Lao Tzu was found happily banging on a drum after his wife died. When asked why he was so happy, he said that death was a normal reaction to life, as sleeping would be when you’re tired. This upbeat look at morbid events characterizes the Taoist Spirit that could have helped her throughout the trials in her life. Confucian is more dominant in her life as displayed in her intense feeling of responsibility, not to be mistaken for guilt, for getting lost. The weakening coupled with her intense fear of being lost, warped her perspective for life.
In Lena St. Claire’s discussion of her mother, we find the mother-daughter transference that occurs in each girl’s story. Lena has the same fear of unforeseen consequences that Ying-Ying’s nursemaid had put in her by warning her of the five evils and getting her dress dirty. “You must not walk home in any direction but to school and back home,” Ying-Ying warns (Tan 109). When Lena asks why, Ying-Ying replies, “You can’t understand these things Because I haven’t put it in your mind yet,” (Tan 109). The Taoist art of Geomancy, the art of finding balance through the placement of things in the house, was ruined when they bought a house on a hill. Ying-Ying was terrified of things being out of balance and spent her days rearranging the furniture. “When something goes against your nature, you are not in balance. This house was built too steep, and a bad wind from the top blows all your strength back down the hill. So you can never get ahead. You are always rolling backward,” (Tan 112). The Confucian concept of Li and Rectification of Names, “the creation of a language in which key nouns they should carry if life is to be well ordered,” (Smith 175) comes up. Lena mentions that she can understand her mother’s words but not their meaning. The Confucian aspect of her life is starting to dissipate. In the end, Lena shows her mother that the worst has already happened and restore the balance.
Once again, Ying-Ying instills in her daughter the fear of the unseen in “Rice Husband”, warning her that she will marry a bad man if she didn’t eat all her rice. The balance sheet of her marriage shows the artificial economic balance merely masks the true nature of their marriage. She blames Confucianism, saying being raised with it caused her to live with the circumstances she was given instead of working to change it, and is told to use Taoism. “At first I thought it was because I was raised with Chinese humility. Or that maybe it was because when you’re Chinese you’re supposed to accept everything, flow with the Tao, and not make waves,” (Tan 170).
Later, the parallel between Lena’s marriage and Ying-Ying’s become apparent. Both do not know their husband, and find they are living a lie, unable to confront them. Ying-Ying was married to a philandering husband who had no respect for her, the Yin and Yang out of balance, man and woman. The metaphor of the vase on the table, Lena’s husband made, symbolized their marriage. It was showy but without function, too much of the focus was placed on looks, shifting the balance, and causing it to be unsteady. Ying-Ying was the one that caused it to fall and break, just as she was the one to give her daughter her Tiger strength to end her marriage. “The pain that cut my spirit loose. I will hold that pain in my hand until it becomes hard and shiny, more clear. And then my fierceness can come back, my golden side, my black side. I will use the pain to penetrate my daughter’s tough skin and cut her tiger spirit loose I will win and give her my spirit, because this is the way a mother loves her daughter,” (Tan 286). Ying-Ying and Lena use the Taoist concept of chi, inner strength, to overcome the restrictive Confucian system.
An-mei’s mother was considered useless in the Confucian system. After her husband died, she was not supposed to remarry, but to live a poor, unhappy life. When, she was raped she was forced to become a third-wife to Wu Tsing so her child would have a father. In this, she lost shou, social standing that is the basis of one’s obligations in the Confucian system, and her family considered her to be dead. This dealt with a girl’s obligation to her family and elders and her abandonment for not fulfilling it. “You are the son of a mother who has so little respect she has become ni, a traitor to our ancestors. She is so beneath others that even the devil must look down to see her,” (Tan 36). There is a blending of faiths I this chapter, from the Devil in Christianity, to the Popular Taoist magic of the healing potion from her skin, to the Confucian system.
In the next chapter, Rose, her daughter, narrates a story with the same themes. Rose is forced to watch over her brothers during a trip to the beach because of familial obligation. She fails to fulfill this and her little brother, Bing, drowns. There is a straight admission of responsibility but no guilt, a Confucian concept. You have the mixture of faiths, the mother’s Christian faith, the Confucian concepts, and the religious practices of pouring out sweetened tea to the sea. In her marriage, we find Rose torn between the Confucian ideal of a good wife and the American. She decided to play her role as a woman in the Confucian system she was raised with. This leaves her open to manipulation, without the freedom of choice, in America where independence is emphasized. Her American husband gets fed up with what initially attracted him to her. Ted liked her because she’d agree with what he said, because she always did things for him as he asked. He grew tired of this and decided he wanted her input, but she was used to being submissive, and cannot give him that.
In “Without Wood” Rose gained back her strength. According to Taoism, there are five elements-wood, metal, fire, water, and earth-all canceling out the one before them. Together, they make a well-balanced person. Rose is told she lacks wood, “born without wood, so that I listened to too many people you must stand tall and listen to your mother standing next to you if you bend to listen to other people, you grow crooked and weak,” (Tan 213). She is forced to pick between American choices and Chinese. While she openly states that she prefers the American, she says that she still identifies with the Chinese, saying she feels sensations that only the Chinese feel and her transportation begins. She gets the strength to tell her husband she wanted a divorce and to keep the house she has one of her reoccurring dreams. In the past all was orderly in the dreams and bad things were threatened if she didn’t listen to her mother. Her mother pushes her to speak up and she gets her wood back. In her last dream, “all along the ground were weeds already spilling out over the edges, running wild in every direction,” (Tan 220). Taoism stresses harmony over nature rather than domination, just as she left the weeds to run their own course. She used Taoism to end the conformity of Confucian that left her helpless in the face of her husband, confused among all the choices, and in ignorance of her own mother’s useful words.
An-mei’s life with her own mother parallels hers to her daughter’s. An-mei didn’t hesitate to make a decision to stay with her mother instead of letting her walk away forever. An-mei’s mother was trapped in the Confucian system, blackmailed all her life then force into death by it. This lifestyle set An-mei’s life out of balance, “too many good things all seem the same after awhile. I tired of anything that wasn’t a novelty,” (Tan 254). In Confucianism, social standing determines ones position and their obligations. “I was taught to desire nothing, to desire nothing, to swallow other people’s misery, to eat my own bitterness,” (Tan 241). After being raped, she was all alone; so she turns to her family for help. “So when Wu Tsing asked your mother to be his third concubine, to bear him a son, what choice did she have? She was already as low as a prostitute. And when she returned to her brother’s house and kowtowed three times to say good-bye, her brother kicked her, and her own mother banned her from the house forever,” (Tan 267). Her low position in her husband’s home left her with no alternative but to kill herself to bring up her daughter’s position. This is the most clear-cut example of Taoist transference in the story. She gave her daughter her strength, the wood, through mother-daughter transference by killing herself, just as An-mei gave her daughter the strength to stand up to her husband.
Lindo was the proper Confucian woman. Women were chosen as wives based on, “who would raise proper sons, care for the old people, and faithfully sweep the burial grounds long after the old ladies had gone to their graves,” (Tan 45). She was of poor standing but lucky enough to be betrothed to a rich boy young enough to be her baby brother. When their land flooded, her family moved on. She stayed behind in reverence to them and to not lose face (social standing). Her mother’s words of wisdom, “Obey your family. Do no disgrace us,” (Tan 48). She came to see her husband as a god as her culture taught her, unlike the Taoist equal. Lindo’s character lacks metal, a part that determines personality and the ability to be an independent thinker. The Jong’s stories are based around the concept of accepting different ideas than they were used to; as in accepting Taoism over restrictive Confucianism or the tension between American values and Chinese. Lindo did not value herself above the community. She couldn’t think outside of the Confucian rules, and therefore was unable to see that her situation was unhealthy and that it is possible to leave it. In Taoist terms, she had no te, meaning doesn’t fulfill her purpose and do what was best for her, despite the short-term sacrifices. Her mother also gave her a luck-pendent on her wedding day, and through mother-daughter transference, gives her the key to manipulating the Confucian system. She got out of her marriage by tricking her mother-in-law into believing the ancestors had sent her a dream, by knowing more about her husband than his mother did, and using them as signs she saw in the dream, predicting his death. Lindo used the religion and the theme of knowing more than your opponent.
Lindo continued to operate by the same rules that got her out of her horrible marriage but left her integrity intact. Her daughter, Waverly, believed her mother operated by secret rules. She did not know the rules, but soon learned how to act to get what she wanted. On the other hand, she knew the rules of chess and could easily manipulate them. The game is a metaphor for mastering the ability to manipulate the rules and not lose face. “This is the power of chess. It is a game of secrets in which one must show and never tell,” (Tan 96). Waverly had to be open to learning as in the teachings she got from the men playing chess in the park. The more Waverly won, the more she believed she can anticipate her mother’s moves. Her moves are discussed in the context of Taoist winds, continuing the metaphor that when she is successful at chess she is able to use Taoism to manipulate the Confucian system. When she runs away and is unable to predict that her mother would let her, she also lost confidence in her ability to predict her chess opponent’s moves.
Waverly’s first marriage had been to impress her parents. Once again, the Confucian duty to one’s parents played a major role. Her first husband was, in Taoist terms, a bad man. Her shirked from family responsibility, made a big deal out when he did something charitable, and was full of pride. She divorced him and decided to date a man she liked. Waverly dated an American and when she introduced him to her mother, the culture clash was obvious. He did not know basic table manners, not to eat or drink too much, not to criticize, nor even how to pronounce her parent’s first names. The chapter ends with Waverly realizing that her mother never had any secret meanings behind her actions. “So you think your mother is this bad. You think I have a secret meaning. But it is you who has this meaning,” (Tan 201). Lindo introduces the Taoist principle of inner strength, knowing more about a situation than an opponent, and using that against them. Through mother-daughter transference she teaches her daughter how to change the circumstances with her integrity intact. Waverly ends by saying, “I did understand finally. Not what she had said. But what had been true all along,” (Tan 203).
Lindo understood that Chinese culture could have limitations that America didn’t have, but she also saw the necessity for her daughter to understand her roots. America is not Confucian, one never has to live with what they’re dealt with, they can always change their social standing. “I wanted my children to have the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character In America, nobody says you have to keep the circumstances other people give you She learned these things, but I couldn’t teach her about the Chinese character. How to obey your parent’s and listen to your mother’s mind. How not to show your own thoughts, to put you feelings behind your own face so you can take advantage of your hidden opportunities,” (Tan 289). In the first chapter, Lindo mentioned how American words and promises are meaningless, “A daughter can promise to come to dinner, but if she has a headache, if she has a traffic jam, if she wants to watch her favorite movie on TV, she no longer has a promise,” (Tan 42). She discussed how American rules are merely set up to manipulate those who don’t know them. “Americans don’t really look at one another when talking. They talk to their reflections,” (Tan 296). Ironically enough, we see Confucianism reduced to fortune-cookie-sayings in America; Americans disagree with it so much they mock it by placing it as a joke in a silly little cookie. Lindo just wanted better things for her daughter, a very Western concept of progress. She was torn between the Chinese character and American, but she saw that they couldn’t mix, and quite well, enough that they formed the basis for the mother-daughter bonds explored throughout this book. This is validated when Lindo says, “I will ask my daughter what she thinks,” (Tan 305), acknowledging that her daughter has absorbed enough Chinese culture to mix with her American perspective to be credible.
Tan is criticized for her disconnection with the actual Asian culture. Peter Tavernise of Duke University’s Ethnic Literature Department said that the China shown is one that is seen through western eyes. Tan cannot speak or write Chinese and has only been there a couple of times. Some say the China is the stereotyped exotic, old China that is romanticized around the world-no better than the Asian grocery store or Laundromat owner that we’re exposed to. Her only link comes from relatives and elders in the states and the western view. The point of the novel is exactly that- American born daughters interpreting their mother’s stories of their lives in China despite their Western biases. The only way to accurately depict these perspectives is to live them firsthand. Just as the daughters knew little of their cultural heritage, except the few learned from their parents, Tan can only relate her family’s views. If anything, her position only brings authenticity to the viewpoints displayed. This is her way of honoring her mother-daughter tradition that has produced her unique story, and the stories displayed in this study of culture.
An American would scoff at the idea of a woman in a Confucian system, helpless and unable to change her own circumstances. A Taoist might be subtler, thinking it silly to place rigid restrictions on oneself, that might impede finding their purpose in life. The mother’s recognized this contradiction and transferred to their daughters the knowledge they needed to manipulate the system. Ying-Ying’s fear of life being out of balance predicted her daughter’s artificial marriage. An-mei’s mother’s suicide and abusive husband provided her with the ability to see the wrong in her daughter’s marriage and push her to correct it. Lindo’s dissatisfaction from her place in a Confucian society taught her the way to manipulate it, which she passed on to her own daughter. Each daughter was estranged from their own parent, misreading all their actions. In the end, they embrace their Chinese roots and find the best place for themselves in this world. “To love someone deeply gives you strength. Being loved by someone deeply gives you courage,” Lao Tzu.