Rules of the Game by Amy Tan

Published 20 Feb 2017

Amy Tan, author of the international best-seller novel, “Joy Luck Club”, continued to explore the relationships of Chinese women and their Chinese-American daughters through her various published books such as “The Kitchen God’s Wife”, “The Hundred Secret Senses”, “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” and her latest book titled, “Rules of the Game”.

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The Rules of the Game book took off from Tan’s “Joy Luck Club” novel portrayed by one of the primary character, Waverly Jong. Nicknamed MeiMei by her family, Waverly narrated her childhood experiences and perspectives as she is time and again influenced by her Chinese and American upbringing, providing conflict to the story as she try to navigate both traditional Chinese culture and the divergent melding culture of Chinese Americans.
When she was still young, Waverly was raised in a Chinese culture, surrounded by Chinese traditions and environment as her family live in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Her mother, Mrs. Jong, prepared her in her journey towards adulthood through a valuable Chinese teaching called “the art of invisible strength”. This strategy can be used for winning arguments, gaining the respect of other people, and winning – at a later date, which Waverly found out – chess games.

At age six, Waverly learned to play chess by initially learning the rules by her own and by continuously playing with an old man named Lau Po who taught her complex chess strategies with Chinese names like “The Double Attack from the East and West Shores”, “Throwing Stones on a Drowning Man”, “The Sudden Meeting of the Clan”, “A Double Killing Without Blood”, and many others. The girl continued to study and join chess tournaments such that at age nine, she is already considered a national chess champion. Waverly is just 429 points away from attaining the grand master status.

As the story revolved around Waverly’s chess games, the teachings of her mother continued to guide her in her path. Through the “art of invisible strength”, Waverly slowly found and developed her own inner strength and self-control. She was also taught that “invisible strength” may also represent female power and the power of foreigners – as opposed to the local Americans where foreigners like the Chinese would have to learn the culture and live with it.

The power of women as an invisible strength is depicted in this story through the girl’s journey towards unconventional paths of using her ability to persuade, to shape, control events and to win against male-dominated arenas such as chess games. This symbolism is shown through a magazine message by Bobby Fischer, a chess grandmaster, that there will never be a woman grandmaster.

The power of foreigners were also shown here as the power to succeed in a land that is strangely different from what the girl and her family knew of. The conflict between two different cultures – Chinese and American – and the merging of the two for second-generation settlers (like Waverly) are narrated as little tidbits that add up as the girl grew up. Example of this is the picture-taking scene in front of Hong Sing’s restaurant where it is known that the live fish and turtles are doomed for cooking. Waverly and some of her friends were taken pictures by a Caucasian man as if they are strange people living in an exotic land. In Waverly’s first chess tournament, she played against a fifteen-year old boy who wrinkled his nose at her to show that he was not impressed. Another is the definition of “torture” of Mrs. Jong as opposed to its American meaning. She doesn’t really know what a “Chinese torture” is, but she knows that Chinese work hard, do business, medicine and paintings. She believes that Chinese people are not lazy as compared with Americans – such that “Chinese torture” is the best torture indeed.

The main conflict in the story revolved around Waverly’s chess winnings and her mother’s pride in her. She is slowly feeling embarrassed and a little angry with her mother for always telling people that she is her daughter who always won chess games. It came to a point when Waverly intentionally informed her mother not to use her so that she can show off to other people. This made her mother very angry with her that she was later ignored in the dinner table.

Waverly did not understand her mother’s pride of her achievements – which also extends to her family. Her mother’s influence and teachings to her is slowly readying the girl into a path that is full of rules and would need great strength from within. The girl is embarrassed by her mother’s pride, which made her hurt her mother. On the other hand, her mother might have other motives for teaching Waverly nuggets of wisdom based on Chinese culture. Definitely, she would not want to lose her little girl to the American way of thinking; influences that are not fully encouraged in a Chinese traditional culture.

The narration of the story was from the girl’s childhood perspective and did not refer to anything that would have happened when she is already an adult. It portrayed the various stages that the girl went through as she narrated that in the beginning, she was more influenced by her Chinese heritage. Later on, as she begun to play chess, she begun to change such that the merging of Chinese-American culture is slowly developing and gaining strength inside her; appreciating what both can do for her to be successful in life.

The conflict in identity is one of the main themes of the story. The teaching of the “art of invisible strength” and the various scenes narrated along the way all gave insights into the complexities of being a hyphenated American and yet, connected by blood and bonds to another culture and country.

Another major theme is the conflict between mothers and daughters, creating a powerful and moving story about irony, pain and sorrow, and the imperfect and many ways in which mothers and daughters love each other. Each of the primary characters tried to show their love for each other in their own ways and yet, surrounded by two cultures that sometimes bind and sometimes break, they each have to learn the ways on how to join each other’s aspirations and dreams and show true love against all odds.

The title, “Rules of the Game” is aptly given when the themes and central ideas are assessed. The story forces Waverly to discover what game she is playing, how to play it masterfully, what are the rules that she must follow in order to succeed and achieve in her goals. This chess game is a metaphor for her struggle with her Chinese mother. Waverly is the primary actor winning chess games but her mother is also playing her greatest game, which is to win against Americans and to prove the superiority of Chinese people against them.

In the final scene, Waverly was left alone to learn and discover what she should do next as she plotted her moves against her mother. The invisible strength that her mother taught her is already at play as she silently contemplated her next moves.

Another concept that can be seen in the story is the concept of feminism. Just like the story of Mulan, the “Rules of the Game” showed that adolescents learn to deal with crises by experience and as a result, they grow and mature. Girls like Waverly and Mulan also learned their place as women in addition to dealing with male resentment that arises when they succeed in their chosen paths. Both characters have inner strengths that were slowly developed and nurtured by their surroundings and experiences. These strengths were harnessed and learned so as to be utilized fully when needed.

Both girls were taught “the art of invisible strength” such that even when they are forced to conform to the society’s expectations of them, there is self-control and inner strength that guides them to be non-conformists, enabling them to find their own paths towards self-attainment. Mulan fought like a man for her country and Waverly played chess and won numerous games in a male-dominated arena. Both acted outside of the box and both succeeded and learned.

Waverly used her own strength, her mother’s teachings, and her own ability to think quickly to defeat her opponents time and again. She has to learn to win against her chess opponents and against her mother who is slowly pressuring her to “win more, lose less”. The story somehow represented the confusion and bewilderment that first generation Americans felt; how they are finally forced to turn away from their parents’ customs and traditions, heritage and culture, and try to find their own paths and succeed amidst numerous challenges and battles.

Amy Tan once again provided readers with a story that reaches across cultures and generation. Just like her “Joy Luck Club” novel, the “Rules of the Game” is clearly written and the lucidity of vision were presented in such a way that you appreciate each characters’ portrayal, understanding their motives and somehow emphatizing with them. The story inspires us to also have that “art of invisible strength” as each one of us plot our lives and strive to attain our visions and goals in life.


  • Amy Tan: Best Selling Author of the Joy Luck Club – A New York Times Bestseller.
  • English 111: Amy Tan, Rules of the Game.
  • Hooks, Amy. “How to be a Girl: Problems with Feminism in “Rules of the Game” and “Mulan”. (2002).
  • Summaries and Commentaries: Waverly Jong – Rules of the Game.
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