American Born Chinese | Study Guide

Gene Luen Yang

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American Born Chinese | Chapter 4 | Summary



After decreeing that all monkeys must now wear shoes, the Monkey King secludes himself for several months in an underground chamber. He trains himself in the "four major disciplines of invulnerability," which protect him from fire, cold, drowning, and wounds. He also learns "major disciplines of bodily form," including how to shape shift and turn his hairs into clones of himself. He is taller and stronger when he emerges from his lair, and a letter declaring he is to be executed for "trespassing upon Heaven" barely phases him. He no longer considers himself the Monkey King—he is now the Great Sage, Equal of Heaven.

The Monkey King rides a cloud to the underwater palace of Ao-Kuang, the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. The dragon king intends to execute the Monkey King and arrogantly apologies for not sending someone to arrest him at Fruit-Flower Mountain. "Frankly none of the gods wanted to go anywhere near your mountain," he says, continuing, "Nothing personal—we just aren't particularly fond of fleas." Despite their efforts, neither the dragon king's guard nor the dragon king himself can kill the Monkey King. Determined to be taken seriously as the Great Sage, he stomps on the dragon king. Finally convinced, the monarch gifts the Great Sage with a magic cudgel "that [can] grow and shrink with the slightest thought."

Following his meeting with Ao-Kuang, the Monkey King visits Lao-Tzu, the patron of immortality, Yama, the caretaker of the underworld, and the Jade Emperor, the ruler of the celestials. Each individual laughs at him—and is suitably punished. The group, along with all the other deities and demons, calls for help from Tze-Yo-Tzuh (Ziyōuzhē), whose name roughly translates to "He Who Is." As has become habit, the Monkey King grows overwrought when Tze-Yo-Tzuh calls him a monkey. Tze-Yo-Tzuh is unmoved. "I created you. I say that you are a monkey. Therefore, you are a monkey," he declares. The Monkey King jumps on a cloud to escape Tze-Yo-Tzuh's reach and flies past the edge of the universe. He stops in front of five golden pillars, carves his name on one, and urinates on its base. When he flies back to Tze-Yo-Tzuh to brag about his capabilities, the Monkey King is shocked to see his name (and a puddle of urine) on Tze-Yo-Tzuh's fingers. He was in the deity's hand the whole time.

They take a walk on a long and narrow stone bridge. Tze-Yo-Tzuh explains that he is everywhere and knows everything. He made the Monkey King out of rock. "A monkey I intended you to be, a monkey you are," he says. However, the Monkey King won't let go of his rage. "I don't care who you say you are, old man. I can still take you," he vows. Tze-Yo-Tzuh sighs then makes the bridge crumble. The Monkey King is buried underneath a mountain of rubble with a golden seal that prevents him from using his kung-fu powers. He stays there for 500 years.


Chapter 4 closely follows the events of The Journey to the West's initial chapters—which deal with the Monkey King's creation, expulsion from heaven, and final punishment. In that telling of the Monkey King's story, Tze-Yo-Tzuh is Buddha, the creator and major deity of Buddhism—one of the three most prominent Chinese religions. Author Gene Luen Yang presents Tze-Yo-Tzuh through a different lens. Although it is never explicitly stated in the text, Yang depicts Tze-Yo-Tzuh as the Christian idea of God. He has said as much in interviews, but the switch is also indicated by biblical allusion. As Tze-Yo-Tzuh and the Monkey King walk across the stone bridge, Tze-Yo-Tzuh says, "I have searched your soul, little monkey. I know your most hidden thoughts." This corresponds to Bible Psalm 139: 13–16, which speaks of God creating humans and therefore knowing them completely.

Such allusions and messages are common in Yang's work. A devout Christian since his college years, Yang is known for subtly weaving elements of his faith into his narratives. According to interviews, he's not trying to proselytize or tell people what they should believe. Instead his goal is to capture the feeling of belonging many Asian Americans find in the Church. As he explained to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter in 2008, Asian Americans "don't feel like [they] belong in the culture [they] find [themselves] in, or [their] parents' culture. To know that God intended you, that's powerful."

The Monkey King's greatest struggle in both The Journey to the West and American Born Chinese is his inability to accept himself for what he really is: a monkey. He wants to be taller, smarter, stronger, faster, and more talented than everyone else, even the greatest of deities. He doesn't name himself the Great Sage of Heaven, but the Great Sage, Equal to Heaven. He can't stand anyone, not even the creator of the world, to be better than he is. The Monkey King's ingrained need for superiority stems from the fact that deep down, he is ashamed of his true form. He's small and furry and people assume he has fleas. Jin Wang feels the same way about being Asian American. His skin color and eye shape are different from his classmates. His name is different, too. And even though nobody thinks he has fleas, they assume his family eats dog meat. "I am not a monkey," the Monkey King tells Ao-Kuang. Similarly, Jin denies his true self when he initially refuses to befriend Wei Chen (Wei-Zhen Sun).

The shoes the Monkey King insists his subjects wear symbolize his desire to be like those he admires—the powerful gods, demons, and assorted deities at their heavenly party. They all wear shoes, and the Monkey King believes he was denied entrance to the banquet because he doesn't. However, it's not sufficient for him to wear shoes on his own. He insists all the other monkeys—who are perfectly happy being monkeys—also wear shoes. The Monkey King doesn't want the deities to accept only him. He wants acceptance for all monkeys. He hasn't yet realized that the other monkeys like themselves exactly as they are.

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