Origins of American Born Chinese - part 1
American Born Chinese, my latest graphic novel, consists of three distinct storylines. The first retells the story of the Monkey King, an ancient Chinese folk hero who is ubiquitous in Asia.
Here’s my version:
And here’s a more classic rendition:
The Monkey King first came into public consciousness as the protagonist of the fourth century novel The Journey to the West, one of four books that make up the Chinese literary canon. Since then, he’s transcended his literary roots and become a pop culture icon, something of a Chinese Mickey Mouse. There are movies, picture books, lunch boxes, T-shirts, television shows, toothbrushes, and almost any product you can imagine featuring the Monkey King. Oh, and comic books. Lots and lots of comic books.
Like most Chinese children, I first heard the Monkey King’s exploits as bedtime stories from my mom. Almost before I started drawing comics, I knew I wanted to do a comic book adaptation of the Monkey King.
But as I became more and more familiar with the character, there seemed to be less and less of a point in doing so. There were already so many Monkey King comics that he’s practically his own genre. The popular manga series Dragonball Z is a riff on The Journey to the West. Heck, even Osamu Tezuka, Japan’s God of Comics, did his own interpretation. What new insight could I possibly bring to the character?
I eventually came up with the idea to use the Monkey King as a lens through which to reflect on my own experience as an Asian-American. As I began writing the script, however, I realized that this would necessitate one drastic change to the original story.
At its heart, The Journey to the West is a Buddhist morality tale. In the original, the Monkey King raises havoc among the gods of all other traditional Chinese religions, and it is only the Buddha that is finally able to put him in his place. In American Born Chinese, I’ve replaced the story’s Buddhist underpinnings with Christian ones, drawing from my own faith.
Christianity, you see, lies at the very center of my identity as an Asian-American. I would even go so far as to say that Christianity is a vital part of “The” Asian-American experience. For proof, simply visit a Christian student group on any university campus. More likely than not, you’ll find a sea of Asian faces. By adopting this ancient Western religion that is both a part of and at odds with contemporary Western culture, we attempt to make sense of ourselves.
But is it okay for me to take an age-old Chinese folk tale and rip out its Buddhist heart? Derek Kirk Kim, one of my best friends and a decidedly non-Christian Asian-American, questioned me on this after an enthusiastic reading of my script. “How would you feel if someone took one of your stories and made it Taoist or Muslim or atheist?” he asked.
It’s a good question. And after much reflection, I’ve arrived at an answer:
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.
To be honest, I’m not entirely comfortable with that answer. But I was comfortable enough with it to be able to finish American Born Chinese, and maybe that’s all that matters.