By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Feathers from a Thousand Li Away’ is a short one-page parable which acts as preface to Amy Tan’s 1989 novel The Joy Luck Club. The novel as a whole is a series of interlinked stories about the daughters of Chinese immigrants who came to America, hoping to give their daughters a better life.
A li, by the way, is also known as the Chinese mile: a traditional Chinese unit of distance. Before we analyse the meaning of Tan’s parable, it might be helpful to summarise its content first.
‘Feathers from a Thousand Li Away’: summary
An old woman remembers buying an expensive swan from a market vendor in Shanghai. The man who sold it to her told her it was once a duck that stretched its neck because it wanted to become a goose, but it actually succeeded in turning itself into a swan.
The woman sailed across the ocean from China to America, taking the swan with her. She told the swan of her desire to have a daughter who will have a better life than she has had. She intends to make sure her daughter will be able to speak good English and that she will never go hungry.
But although the woman dreams of giving her future daughter the swan she has taken with her – presenting it as a symbol of possibility and transformation – when she arrives in America, the immigration officials take the swan from her, so she is left holding just one of its feathers. The paperwork she has to fill out to become an American citizen causes her to forget her dream of a better life.
Without the swan or the memory of her hopes that she started out with, the woman had to make the best of it. She did indeed have a daughter, but has never given her the one remaining swan feather, even though she planned to present it to her a symbol of her good intentions for her daughter.
‘Feathers from a Thousand Li Away’: analysis
It is fitting that ‘Feathers from a Thousand Li Away’ prefaces the stories that follow in The Joy Luck Club, since it introduces a number of key themes that will return again and again in the novel: mothers and their relationships with their daughters, Chinese women emigrating to the United States in search of a better life for themselves and for their future children, and the possibility, or hope, of transformation.
The symbolism of the swan in ‘Feathers from a Thousand Li Away’ recalls Hans Christian Andersen’s famous nineteenth-century fairy tale, ‘The Ugly Duckling’, in which a young duck (which is different from the other ducks, and in fact turns out to be a cygnet) grows up to become a beautiful swan.
A similar metamorphosis or transformation has occurred in Tan’s parable, although, of course, we know that the market vendor’s story is just a clever bit of sales patter, a piece of nonsense, to give the swan a ‘back story’ which will make the woman in the parable pay an extortionate sum for it.
But if we know it’s nothing more than a piece of fiction, so too, perhaps, does the woman who purchased it. For many of the mothers in The Joy Luck Club appreciate the symbolism of a particular thing without necessarily believing it has a tangible reality.
For example, in ‘Half and Half’, the mother of Bing almost certainly knows her son is drowned, but she knows she has to have faith in the possibility that he has survived: it’s what being a mother is about. In other words, her attempts to rescue him matter less for their practical benefit than for what they represent, which is a mother’s devotion to her son.
So the woman who buys the swan in ‘Feathers from a Thousand Li Away’ is probably not some gullible and naïve woman who is tricked by a canny salesman, but someone who, in order to survive and make the transition from Chinese to American, must have hope ‘against hope’, as the phrase has it. The swan, and its far-fetched origin story, is a symbol of this.
And even though she loses the swan as soon as she arrives in America, she retains something of the idea that it embodies. She longs to tell her daughter about it, and about the sacrifices she has made to ensure her daughter – even before she was conceived – has a better life than she had.
But, of course, the parable ends with her merely hoping to do this one day, waiting for the right moment. And if the hope a mother has for her daughter is a recurring theme of the stories in The Joy Luck Club, another theme of the novel is also prefigured in ‘Feathers from a Thousand Li Away’, and that’s the mother’s inability to communicate well with her own daughter.
Tan mentions ‘American English’ several times in this short parable, but many of the mothers we encounter in The Joy Luck Club can speak only imperfect English, and often there is a linguistic barrier between them and their daughters.
And even if they can speak the same language, the mothers, having come from China to America as adults, are separated from their daughters by a cultural divide: the daughters are Americans, who grow up drinking Coca-Cola (that universal symbol of America) and speaking perfect English.
But their mothers remain Chinese immigrants to the United States, and so retain too much of their old lives and the culture and attitudes they have left behind to be fully naturalised Americans.