In his graphic novel, Gene Luen Yang takes the classic story of the Monkey King and transforms it into one that takes the classic idea of divine beings hiding amongst the people and spins it to focus on the life of a simple Chinese American boy named Jin. By using a transformer as a symbol for transformation of the divine and the idolisation of gods by mankind, Yang can hint subtly religious themes in his simple novel that the audience can digest well.
The original monkey king story, “Journey to the West”, is about a monk who becomes more ‘Buddha-like’, much like how Jin tries and, in his own mind, does become more ‘American-like’ throughout the novel. In Yang’s graphic novel the reader is presented with the story of the Monkey King in a few pages. But within the stories’ opening pages we are quickly shown the real person the narrative will follow, a boy named Jin and the son of the Monkey King who goes by Wei-Chen. The story is about both of their own personal journeys to discover who they really are, their place in the world and what it means to be Chinese.
If this story sounds even a little familiar it may be because the Monkey King’s story i.e. “Journey to the West”, is one adapted many times in multiple forms of media, especially in recent years with the many live action “The Monkey King” movies and some digital “Monkey King” films. Even more well known is the character Son Goku from Dragonball who was adapted from Sun Wukong (the Monkey King) and who’s story practically follows a similar narrative as the monkey king. Goku even has a tail and a staff which grows longer like the monkey king’s ‘Ryui Kingu Bang’.
This Monkey King, who has obtained almost the divine abstains from entering the heavenly realm to help and guide people in the earthly realm. This is reflected in the novel by the Monkey Kings’ son who wishes to leave his divine monkey-form behind and live in the world of man as a human. Both these stories let people imagine themselves participating in this journey because this raw idea of wanting to transform yourself to fit in is a commonly understood struggle in human lives. The transformations are religious in a sense and stem from the transformer toys. In the novel, the two kids play with their transformers because it corresponds to something in their experience. As a symbol for their place in the world or for all Chinese people who were raised in America. The story of the transformers connects to their own since they like the Chinese Americans “not from this world but living in it.”
The transformation in this graphic novel is a more spiritual one because Jin, and later the Monkey King’s Son, want to transform into the ideal American. The Monkey King’s son transforms himself when he enters this world and takes the form of a stereotypical nerdy Chinese male teen and the boy Jin transforms into a Caucasian teen (Yang, 194). Jin is under the impression that to be American is an aesthetic-based determinant instead of the social-construct it is supposed to be. One must look some way and act some way to really be part of America.
Even the graphic novel’s title itself is evocative of this belief, “American Born Chinese”, a boy born in America who should be American but is still Chinese; what a diasporic take on the American population this presents. When one is born or assimilated into America, a country known and often mocked for its ultra-patriotism, they are then only referred to as and considered to be ‘American’, this becomes their sole identity.
Desiring their transformation, the two boys seem throughout the novel to be subtlety worshipping their Transformer toys. The boys are praising the transformers and wishing for an aspect of the toy that they do not have themselves; the ability to change themselves and adapt into society. These mysterious and strange beings from another world possess powers far beyond human ability and comprehension and have traits and aspects about them that humanity wishes and prays for. Holding on to these transformers Jin and Wei-Chen are kind of constantly praying to the toys like idols of worship hoping someday their wishes could be granted.
With Sun Wukong (the Monkey King) and Wei-Chen (the Monkey King’s son) being present as divinities, there seems to be this idea that they must look different from us, so the need to change their appearance arises conveniently in the plot. In the novel Wei-Chen is reminded of his status as a god by his father giving him a transformer toy and equating it to Wei-Chen himself (Yang 217). A symbolic message throughout this novel is transformation as Jin the main character, and Wei-Chen both go through and desire a transformation from who they are, to fit into American society. This is also the story of the transformers who are alien robots that take the form of vehicles and machinery from our world to fit into the same society. Jin wants to transform into a white American citizen because in his mind that’s what he needs to be to fit into society. Wei-Chen transforms into a Chinese American teen to fit into human society and in a way to reject his monkey-ness or in the subtler sense this ‘godliness’.
To conclude, through his novel Yang molds classic religious themes and ideas into a story which is digestible by the common man; detailing a struggle found in the average person’s life, the desire to change and fit in and erase any part of yourself that stands out.
Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese: Square Fish, 2009.