The first section of the book is called "Feathers from a Thousand Li Away."
A Chinese immigrant, when she lived in China, had bought a swan from a vendor who told her it was a duck who "stretched its neck in hopes of becoming a goose." The woman dreamed of having a daughter who, like the swan, "became more than what was hoped for." But when she arrived in America, the officials took the swan away from her. All she could save of it was a feather. She had a daughter, just as she hoped, who spoke only American English and lived a comfortable life. She wanted to give her daughter the swan feather, but only when she could explain its meaning "in perfect American English."
Chapter 1: Jing Mei "June" Woo--The Joy Luck Club
June's mother, Suyuan Woo, has died recently. Her father has asked her to take over her mother's corner of the Mah Jong table in the Joy Luck Club. June's mother started the first Joy Luck Club in China during the Second World War. When she moved to San Francisco with June's father in 1949, she started the second Joy Luck Club. June's mother picked An-mei, Lindo, and Ying-ying for the second Joy Luck Club, because she could tell that they too had endured horrible things in China.
June explains that her mother would repeatedly tell her the story of the origins of the Joy Luck Club. When Suyuan was a young woman, her first husband moved her and their two babies to the city of Kweilin to keep them safe from the encroaching Japanese. Then he left to fight, because he was a member of the Kuomintang. Every week, Suyuan and three other women took turns hosting meetings of the Joy Luck Club. They would play Mah Jong, eat special good-luck foods, and tell funny stories. They called it the Joy Luck Club because their only joy was to wish for luck. Eventually, Suyuan was forced to flee Kweilin on foot and abandon her babies.
June goes to the Hsus' house, where she takes her mother's place in the Joy Luck Club. She feels out of place; she not only is one generation younger than everyone else, but she realizes that her mother has made excuses for her to the other members. For example, although June dropped out of college, her mother told them that she might go back for a degree. The men talk about stocks while the women play Mah Jong and gossip. The women tell June that her mother finally made contact with her lost daughters in China after trying for years to find them. They give June enough money to fly to China and meet them. They make her promise to tell her sisters about their mother's life, because she is responsible for her mother's legacy. Her mother's corner at the Mah Jong table is East, and Jing-mei puts forth that East is also "where things begin."
Chapter 2: An-Mei Hsu--Scar
An-Mei remembers growing up with her grandmother Popo in China. Her father is dead, and her mother disgraced the family by leaving after her husband's death to become the third concubine to a rich man. When Popo is dying, An-mei's mother returns. An-mei meets her as though for the first time; she rubs the scar on An-mei's neck and begins to cry. We learn why the scar upsets An-mei's mother so much. An-mei got the scar when she was four years old, just before her mother left. Her mother tried to take An-mei with her, but Popo would not let her. In the midst of the chaos, hot soup fell on An-mei's neck and burned her very badly. Now, with Popo on her deathbed, An-mei watches her mother make a sacrifice. She cuts a piece of flesh from her own arm to make Popo a curative soup. Popo dies anyway. Even as a young child, An-mei understands the principle this act embodies regarding physical pain: losing some of one's flesh is a small sacrifice to make for one's mother. It is also sometimes the only way to understand her.
The prologue to each section lays out an underlying theme for the four essays that follow. This first prologue also introduces us to Tan's rich and slightly fantastical style of storytelling. The main theme of these opening chapters is sacrifice. Jing-mei's and An-mei's stories show how part of the burden of being a woman is enduring pain for the sake of others, especially one's mother and daughters. The mother is like the duck, but with the help of guidance and privilege, the daughter could become the swan that she could not. In having such high hopes for her daughter, the mother unknowingly places a heavy burden on her. Now the daughter must become "more than was hoped for" or have failed her mother. But she cannot understand the fervency of her mother's hope, having not experienced the same hardships and pain. All she has to guide her are her mother's memories. They are only small parts of her mother's experience, just as the swan feather is a small part of the swan. The feather represents the swan, but one cannot possibly understand a swan by examining a single feather. This pattern creates tension between the generations, because neither can understand the other fully.
As soon as Jing-mei is thrust into her mother's place at the Joy Luck Club, she realizes how little she knows about her mother, being American and a generation younger. She is skeptical that she will be able to fulfill her mother's legacy and honor her spirit. The other mothers sense this issue, and it frightens them, because they worry about how much their own daughters know about them. Jing-mei must sacrifice her pride and sense of control in order to pay her debt to her mother. Her mother sacrificed everything in order to create a new life in America, including her baby daughters. Therefore, the burden now falls on Jing-mei to reclaim what her mother lost, to put her neck out and become the swan.
An-mei's story focuses on both physical and emotional sacrifice. Even though An-mei's mother betrayed Popo, she still came back to care for her. This meant enduring terrible humiliation, but she understood that she owed this to Popo. Her physical sacrifice of her own flesh symbolizes how visceral is any sacrifice made for one's mother, because if one were to try to excise one's mother from oneself, one might as well cut off one's flesh. To understand one's mother, one must take the biggest risk of all--looking deep within. As An-mei says, "You must peel off your skin, and that of your mother, and her mother before her. Until there is nothing. No scar, no skin, no flesh." The situation also calls upon us to question what sacrifice is really about. An-mei's mother sacrifices her very flesh, but her sacrifice can revive neither Popo nor their mother-daughter relationship. In the same vein, no matter how deeply she scars her own arm, An-mei's mother can heal neither An-mei's physical scar nor her emotional scars. Perhaps then, Tan suggests, the sacrifice is more for the person who sacrifices (in this case, An-mei's mother) than she for whom it is made (Popo and An-mei), since it allows her to resolve her own guilt over two acts she cannot take back: disgracing her mother and abandoning her daughter.
The first section introduces the novel's main theme: daughters and mothers are inextricably connected in spirit. Suyuan is the only main character who never tells a story (she is already dead); therefore, from the very beginning of the novel, Jing-mei is responsible for fulfilling her mother's wish not only by going to China, but by telling her mother's story. Just as Jing-mei takes over Suyuan's corner of the Mah Jong table, she takes on full responsibility for being her mother's daughter. The novel, then, chronicles each daughter's process of piecing together an understanding of her mother--a swan herself--from the feathered fragments of her stories and her spirit. It is not only the daughter who figures as the swan, the realization of all her mother's hopes, but the mother too--for she holds the key to her daughter's triumph in life.