By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Rules of the Game’ is one of the most popular stories which form part of Amy Tan’s 1989 book The Joy Luck Club. The story is about an eight-year-old Chinese American girl who teaches herself chess and becomes a child prodigy, winning many national tournaments. But ‘Rules of the Game’ is also, like many stories in The Joy Luck Club, about a daughter’s fraught relationship with her mother.
‘Rules of the Game’ was the germ of what became The Joy Luck Club. It began life as ‘Endgame’, a short story Tan wrote in response to an article she read in Life magazine about young Chinese Americans playing chess. Tan attended a workshop for new writers, and Molly Giles helped her to rework the story into what became ‘Rules of the Game’, the story that would become a whole series of related stories, The Joy Luck Club.
Before we offer an analysis of the story, here’s a brief summary of its plot.
‘Rules of the Game’: plot summary
The story is narrated by Waverly Place Jong, a Chinese American woman who recounts her childhood as a young Chinese daughter of immigrants growing up in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. Jong is named after the street where she lived in a flat above a Chinese bakery, but she is known as Meimei, meaning ‘Little Sister’.
One Christmas, the children are given some presents, and Meimei’s brother Vincent is given a chess set with a couple of pieces missing. He and their brother Winston start learning the game. Initially, Vincent refuses to let his sister join them, but when she gives him some of her sweets (which were her Christmas present) to use as the missing chess pieces, he allows her, and the sweets (called Life Savers) are allowed to be kept and eaten by the player who wins or captures them.
When he explains the rules of a chess game to her, she asks questions about it. She goes away and researches how the game works. She learns that one must always have a sense of the endgame when one begins playing a game, and that chess is a ‘game of secrets’ in which one must ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’.
Her brothers quickly lose interest in the game, but Meimei remains fascinated by it. She plays an old Chinese man in the neighbourhood, and loses many times. This man, Lau Po, teaches Meimei some of the secrets of the game, and she improves. She enters chess tournaments and wins many games, bringing home many trophies. By the time she turns nine years old, she’s a national chess champion and a child prodigy.
However, Meimei dislikes the way her mother parades her around in town and shows off her famous daughter. Meimei confronts her about this, telling her mother that if she wants to show off, she should learn to play chess herself. When her mother grows angry at this, Meimei runs away through the streets. When she returns home, her mother blanks her and turns the whole family against her. The story ends with Meimei viewing her mother as her adversary, as though they are playing a vast game of chess against each other, and Meimei dreams of floating out of the window and escaping.
‘Rules of the Game’: analysis
Tan’s title, ‘Rules of the Game’, is cleverly double-edged, ostensibly referring to the ‘game’ of chess and its rules (which are explained by Vincent when Meimei first begins playing it), but also suggesting the ‘game of life’. By the end of the story, with Meimei plotting her next ‘move’ against her mother, the extended metaphor which runs through the story – chess as a metaphor for life itself – reaches a crescendo.
Yet it is clear that Meimei possesses a certain naivety regarding the game of life: she may have a much clearer understanding of chess than her mother, but her mother has considerably more experience of the other ‘game’. Look at how Meimei, at the end of the story, casts her mother as the player with the black chess pieces: she is white (goodness, purity) while her mother is black (evil).
But although Meimei doesn’t realise it, her mother has taught her, yet again, the importance of ‘invisible strength’ – a lesson which, the opening lines of the story tell us, she had first learned from her mother when she was six years old.
Yet this lesson is not one that is taught once and then done with. When Meimei becomes a national sensation, her mother wishes to parade her celebrated daughter around and show her off. That’s the very opposite of ‘invisible’ strength. There’s a sense that she wants her children not to have to be invisible in the first place, but to be visible, successful, and integrated into American society through their successful pursuit of ‘the American dream’.
But through doing insisting on showing off her daughter, she inadvertently ends up imparting another valuable lesson to Meimei. And of course, the ‘game of life’ played by both Meimei and her mother is a race game, of sorts: as Chinese Americans, they can blend in and be ignored or overlooked by others (much as the white American whom Meimei faces, and beats, in her first tournament underestimates his younger, female, Chinese opponent), and with this ‘invisibility’ comes a certain power.
Tan weaves examples of this power of invisibility through ‘Rules of the Game’. Meimei recounts the time when a white tourist persuaded her and other Chinese children to pose outside a Chinese restaurant with a roast duck in shot in the window behind them. Resenting this act of cultural stereotyping, Meimei spins the tourist a horror story about the kind of ghastly food the restaurant serves up (which includes octopus gizzards) in order to shock and appal him. The tourist, who clearly wasn’t expecting such a response from a little Chinese girl, is suitably horrified.
And although ‘Rules of the Game’ is about the conflict between two different generations of Chinese women from the same family – much as another of the stories from The Joy Luck Club, ‘Two Kinds’, is – it is also about the clash between Chinese and American, and the hybrid identity which Homi K. Bhabha and other theorists have drawn attention to among immigrant peoples.
Meimei’s mother tells her daughter that the ‘American rules’ which govern the children’s chess set require her daughter to find out how to master those rules herself: going to a new country requires learning a whole new set of rules, laws, and codes.
It is significant that when Meimei goes to visit the ‘Santa man’ who gives the children their Christmas presents, she is aware of her two different ages: she is seven years old according to the ‘American formula’ but eight years old in the Chinese calendar. Even the ‘rules’ governing her age are different.