8 Things You Might Not Know About 'The Joy Luck Club'

Penguin Random House (book cover), James Mato (background)

Author Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, published in 1989, was much different from other novels that were occupying the bestseller lists at the time. In describing the emotional connection between Chinese Americans and their immigrant mothers who gather for games of mah-jongg at a social club, Tan was shining a light on an under-represented culture. The book became a sensation, inspiring a 1993 movie and helping open doors for other depictions of Asian life in media. Here are some other facts about Tan’s influential book.

1. Amy Tan didn’t originally aspire to be a novelist.

Amy Tan
The Academy Presents "The Joy Luck Club" (1993) 25th Anniversary / Alberto E. Rodriguez/GettyImages

If lived experiences inform a writer’s best work, then Amy Tan has a deep reservoir to draw from. Before the age of 18, Tan had lived in 12 homes around the San Francisco area. At 15, her father John and brother Peter both succumbed to brain tumors, prompting her mother to take Tan and her younger brother John Jr. to travel Europe before Tan graduated from high school in Switzerland.

After stints at five different colleges, Tan emerged with degrees in English and linguistics and became a language development specialist before turning to freelance business writing. Becoming a novelist was the furthest thing from her mind, but Tan did have an interest in short fiction and attended a writer’s group led by Molly Giles, setting her on the path to becoming a full-time fiction writer.

2. The Joy Luck Club was inspired in part by a trip to China.

Tan, the daughter of immigrants, had never been to China prior to 1987. That year, the then-35-year-old traveled with her mother Daisy to visit the three daughters Daisy had been forced to leave behind after fleeing the communist country in 1949. The experience pushed Tan to complete a book of short stories about Chinese mothers and their Chinese American daughters.

3. The Joy Luck Club wasn’t originally written as a novel.

Tan originally conceived The Joy Luck Club as a series of 16 vignettes about four pairs of mothers and daughters, effectively making it a short story collection. Tan said she was inspired by Love Medicine by Louise Erdich, which used a similar structure. But when one early review for the book referred to it as a novel, the publisher decided that was better from a marketing perspective and took “stories” off the title page. Tan still considers it a collection of short stories.

4. Most of The Joy Luck Club was written in just four months.

After receiving positive feedback on three of the stories that would eventually be included in The Joy Luck Club, Tan decided to quit her job as a freelance business writer and devote all her time to completing the book. The remaining 13 stories were written in just four months.

5. The Joy Luck Club is—and isn’t—autobiographical.

Because Tan has been so outspoken about her mother’s influence on The Joy Luck Club, many readers have come to assume it was autobiographical. This isn’t accurate, as the scenarios in the book aren’t based on Tan’s life. The author has instead described it as being emotionally accurate, with the themes and conflicts rooted in Tan’s real relationship with her mother—who wound up loving the book. “She loved that the feelings in [it] were absolutely true, and she believed that I had listened to her and that I appreciated what she was trying to teach me,” Tan told Entertainment Weekly. “And that was the best review I could have gotten for that book. It was the best, the absolute best that I got.”

6. The Joy Luck Club is taught in high schools.

Owing to its rich depiction of Chinese culture, Chinese history, and familial bonds, The Joy Luck Club is a popular title to read and review in classrooms. It’s sometimes used in tandem with the 1993 movie adaptation of the same name. “In the past, The Joy Luck Club was included on required reading lists because the stories were different from the mainstream and thus would give young readers exposure to another culture,” Tan has said. “Those were in the days when communities were not that diverse. The irony today is that educators select my book so that young readers can identify with the story. The student population is multicultural and the same books once selected to understand others are now chosen to understand ourselves.”

7. The movie adaptation of The Joy Luck Club required careful planning.

Hollywood expressed an interest in adapting The Joy Luck Club early on, and director Wayne Wang eventually assembled one of the few all-Asian American casts of the era. (It wouldn’t be until 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians that such a degree of representation appeared again in a major Hollywood release.) To tell the sprawling story of four mother-daughter pairings, the production had to cast 15 people in total—usually two and sometimes three actors needed to portray each character at different parts in their lives. (Ming-Na Wen, Tamlyn Tomita, Rosalind Chao, Lisa Lu, Lauren Tom, and Tsai Chin were among the principals.)

More than 2000 actors attended an open casting call in New York, a testament to how powerful the story’s themes spoke to an under-represented community. “There were a lot of real mothers and daughters who had read the book and felt it reflected their own experience,” Wang told The New York Times in 1993. “They came in to audition together … I felt there were at least 400 Joy Luck Club stories in that room.”

8. Tan appeared on The Simpsons.

With the success of The Joy Luck Club, Tan became that rare novelist who has a high name recognition factor. In 2000, she appeared on The Simpsons in the episode “Insane Clown Poppy” alongside authors Stephen King, Tom Wolfe, and John Updike. In the scene, a cheerful Lisa Simpson addresses Tan at a personal appearance at a book fair by telling her she loved The Joy Luck Club and its mother-daughter lessons. “No, that’s not what I meant at all,” Tan responds. “You couldn’t have gotten it more wrong. Just sit down. I’m embarrassed for both of us.” Tan was, of course, parodying herself—the generational message of The Joy Luck Club is one Lisa and millions of readers understood immediately.

A version of this story ran in 2022; it has been updated for 2023.