To begin, I would like to say that I was very impressed and taken aback by this graphic novel. Being the first full graphic novel I have read, it was a very pleasant experience. I am choosing not to summarize the whole book in this blog, because (most) everyone reading this blog is assumed to have read the novel.
To be honest, I struggled with “American Born Chinese” at first. I am not Chinese (as made apparent by my pasty-white skin), and although I was born in America, I do not really have a strong sense of nationality. I basically have the feeling that wherever I would have been born, I would have become who I am. My country bears no weight in my identity. This made it difficult for me to relate in the beginning, as, on the surface, this was the whole premise for the book- “I am Chinese by heritage, but I was born in America; therefore, who am I really?” This question is not mine. It is the character Jin’s. The further into the graphic novel I got, though, I realized that it was about much more, and I began to get excited about finding out the ending of these intricately weaved stories.
When I came across dialogue between the Monkey King and a character that seemingly resembled the Christian God, my interest hit an absolute peak. I was thrilled. It is not often enough that I get to see other Christians become so well-liked for their inclusion of their beliefs in their secular positions. The way Gene Luen Yang seamlessly combines Christianity and the Buddhist/Hindu tale of the Monkey King is beautiful. It reads like its own separate religion, instead of a collision of the two. This is what I would like to discuss.
The Monkey King’s story.
The first known time in history that the Monkey King appears is in a classical Chinese novel Journey to the West. He causes all kinds of trouble in Heaven, and the gods try to help each other to control him. They chase him out, but he comes back. They try to catch him and beat him up, but he escapes. He comes back and beats them up instead! They continue this wild-goose-chase until the Buddha finally steps in. He challenges the Monkey King (who boasts about his shape-shifting abilities) to simply somersault off of the Buddha’s hand, and he will gain the Jade Emperor’s job. If he fails, however, he will be banished for a long period of time to “learn some humility.” Monkey King agrees to this deal, and confidently attempts the somersault. When he becomes upright again, he sees five pillars and believes he has reached the end of the earth. As we all saw in the graphic novel, he urinates on one of the pillars, and carves his name into another. When he returns to brag about what he has accomplished, the Buddha informs him that he, in fact, never left his hand, and shows him the urine and carving to prove it. He then banishes the Monkey King for 500 years, trapping him under a mountain. (Source for original summary here.)
I knew that the story in our graphic novel must have been similar to an actual Chinese tale, but there were some stark differences that I noticed, and I did a lot of research to make sure I understood what the original story was about. Seeing this helped me appreciate Yang’s modern and personal take on the tale, and even on the Monkey King himself.
The differences between the original and Yang’s version are glaringly obvious: the Buddha being replaced by the Christian God (pg. 68); the somersault being changed into a flight “through the boundaries of reality itself” (pg. 72); and the almost direct quotes from the Bible that Tze-Yo-Tzuh says to the Monkey King (pg. 70, 80-81). Even so, this story does not read as though the author strained to make the pieces fit, so as to gain the power to accept all facets of himself. No, this is very skillful. Yang takes the most important and iconic parts of his cultural background and meshes them together with a new-found way of life. Most people who attempt to do so end up at odds with their culture, and have to fight to prove that their new life fits with what their people expect of them- but not Yang. He knows exactly how to handle this.
In searching for the history of the Monkey King, and sources for my blog, I ran across another blog that seems to have been written by Gene Luen Yang himself. It is short, but I found it very eye-opening. Toward the end he says, describing the Monkey King,
“I’ve read that many scholars believe the Monkey King himself was derived from Hanuman, a Hindu monkey-god. The original author (or authors – no one really knows for sure) of The Journey to the West took the Hindu source material (perhaps without knowing it) and used it for his (or their) own religious purposes. Furthermore, coincidence or not, this trickster monkey deity is echoed in religions and mythologies all over the world.
So in a very real sense, the Monkey King is universal. He’s been around a long, long time, and I think he’s sturdy enough to follow us wherever we go, to embody whatever philosophies and beliefs we arrive at.”
I think this shows his mindset in writing this graphic novel, and how both of his religious backgrounds could influence the story to become a blend of the Eastern and Western cultures.
The only thing I have to wonder now is this – if the Monkey King truly is “universal,” then no matter what our beliefs or our journey in life, aren’t we all just silly monkeys trying to figure out who we were meant to be?