From Populism to Racism: The Chinese American Trickster Tradition from Sun Wu Kong to Wittman Ah Sing

Sun Wu Kong, the Monkey King in Chinese mythology warrior tale.

Abstract

This article discusses the Chinese American trickster tradition focusing specifically on archetypes and several key themes, such as racism, populism, and essentialism. We argue that the figure of the Monkey King is central to Chinese American literature, particularly in Chinese American women’s writing, and the concepts of populism and racism are made relevant through the cultural appropriation of this folk figure in the writings of Chinese American authors. Furthermore, the article discusses tricksterism in relation to politics and cultural production, particularly the Monkey King. In this regard, the article makes an original contribution to the literature on tricksterism and cultural populism by analyzing the Chinese American trickster tradition from these fresh perspectives.

By Omer Sener* & Mustafa Demir

There is a thriving Chinese American trickster tradition with distinctive characteristics peculiar to Chinese American literature, specifically Chinese American women’s writing. Producing some of the earliest examples of Chinese American women’s writing, the Eaton sisters—Edith Eaton (also known as Sui Sin Far) and Winnifred Eaton—used trickster techniques in their writings, although they did not create a trickster tradition based on one protagonist, like Sun Wu Kong. On the other hand, Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Gish Jen, all established Chinese American authors, have developed a Chinese American trickster tradition with trickster characters. The primary source and inspiration for these characters is the Chinese trickster tradition with hints of the African American Signifying Monkey (Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land comes to mind). It is fair to say that Kingston’s trickster character Wittman Ah Sing became the basis of the Chinese American variety, while Tan and Jen further shaped this evolving tradition with new tricksters, such as Mona, Lanlan, and Kwan Li.

When we talk about the Chinese American trickster tradition, the monkey as an archetype emerges as a prominent motif. This can take the form of an actual monkey-like character in the narrative, or like the Signifying Monkey, through narrative elements and language use. However, the use of the monkey trickster as an archetype is ever-changing and open to new interpretations, as each author brings something new to the table, with new characters as well as new trickster narratives and traits. Writing about the dynamic nature of myths and tricksters, Estella Lauter holds that “myths are part of the dynamic of history instead of being one of its reservoirs”—as such, myths are not “records of a completed process” (1984: 3). set Never set in stone, tricksters as archetypes adapt, change, and transform as time goes on through new narratives and via cultural adaptation. Thus, they are dynamic and fluid rather than static.

Kingston, Tan, and Jen have all contributed to the development of a Chinese American trickster tradition which, as mentioned, draws extensively on the Chinese trickster tradition. However, it is distinguished from the classic approach by its distinctive trickster types and styles, its own arguments, and a “communal signification” (Vizenor, 1993: 187). It is therefore focused on the concerns of the Chinese American community and its ethnic heritage.

The main aims of the Chinese American trickster tradition can be summarized as follows: Re-establishing bonds with one’s ethnic community, reclaiming one’s heritage, and reinterpreting the same ethnic heritage and traditions. “Ethnic” here signifies the broadest range of cultural and racial elements, concerns, and issues. As such, while gender plays an important role, the connecting tissue of the Chinese American trickster tradition is ethnic belonging as well as inter-ethnic relations and tensions.

Maxine Hong Kingston bases her trickster character—Wittman Ah Sing, an assertive and popular trickster—on the Monkey King. The Sing (星) in Wittman’s name means “star” in Cantonese). Kingston’s primary concerns in writing The Woman Warrior, published in 1989, were gender inequality, patriarchy, and oppression. However, her central theme and driving point in creating Wittman Ah Sing and writing Tripmaster Monkey, published some years late, was to create a popular Chinese American trickster who is concerned for the wellbeing of his community and fights racial stereotypes of the Chinese.

Shades of Populism in Culture

According to Jagers and Walgrave, populism is a type of discursive practice and is essentially a form of rhetoric (Jagers & Walgrave, 2007). For others, populism is a well-devised strategy (Barr, 2009) formulated with the intention of transforming the existing system of governance or taking over the state apparatus. For others still, it is essentially a political style or performance (Moffit, 2016).

Although there are many different approaches to populism—focusing variously on ideology, strategy, style, or discourse (Mudde 2004; Bar 2009; Moffit 2017)—there is a scholarly consensus that it is a social plague creating antagonistic us versus “the enemy” other binaries. Furthermore, populist figures see such divisions as an opportunity and try to capitalize on them by further dwelling on the sociological faultiness to portray themselves as the savior of the “real people” of the country from the exploitation of the enemy “Other.” Thus, exaggerating divisions and threats, the populist aims to deconstruct society’s social fabric in a way that defines the interests of “the people” (i.e., the populist’s followers) versus those opposed (“the Other”). Therefore, “notwithstanding its competing definitions, leaving its ontological nature to the discussion in the extant literature, … populism is about constructions (construction, de-construction, and re-construction) of ‘the people(s),’ and mobilization in an antagonistic fashion by the populists. This is because construction of ‘the people’ is ‘the main task of populists’.” (Yilmaz et al. 2021: 3).

Populist divisions and binaries are created at different levels or in different dimensions such as “vertical” and “horizontal” (Taguieff, 1995: 32–35) or in civilizational terms (Brubaker, 2017). Concerning this civilizational aspect of populism, Taggart (2000) explains how populists construct “heartlands” and appeal to the people, stirring a feeling of nostalgia in them. Thus, populists invite the people—“the rightful owners” of the native land to reconstruct and live in these “heartlands.” In the construction of these heartlands, the primary reference is to history. However, more than history, it is the culture that keeps those emotions alive in mind and practice. Therefore, we argue that it is culture that allows for the conversion of certain periods of history into emotional spaces— namely, “heartlands” that people yearn to reconstruct and live. In this regard, we can view certain aspects of the trickster, as in the example of the Monkey King, appropriated for the purposes of patriotism, nationalism, and populism, as the tools of culture used to carve out history for “heartlands.”

Populism in Literature

Populism as a concept is more discussed in the realm of politics than culture. However, culture and populism are related concepts that need to be scrutinized in relation to one another. Hence, the merging of the two concepts as “cultural populism” is understood to mean “primary cultural production” or “aesthetic populism” also denotes the “study of popular cultural texts” (McGuigan, 1992: 2). As such, cultural populism can be understood as the infusion of “popular cultural elements” into “‘serious’ works of art” (McGuigan, 1992: 3). Thus, at the intersection of populism and culture, we see that populism lacks the default negative connotation it has vis-à-vis politics. Rather, at least in one of its meanings, it is understood simply as the popularization of art and cultural production among the masses.

On the other hand, populism, in its negative connotation, is also present in the cultural domain. Hence, cultural populism is criticized for trivializing art or cheapening the quality of entertainment (TV films versus cinema, popular bestsellers versus literary books). This kind of populism does not mobilize the masses; rather, it affects the consumers in ways more subtle, which are criticized (creating less complex, watered-down versions of literary characters or stories, with the assumption that the masses cannot comprehend more complex forms of storytelling or art).

Finally, concerning cultural populism and mass media, the criticism that populism creates “lowbrow” (cf “highbrow”) culture is worthy of discussion and analysis (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017: 108). As can be observed in our paper, the difficulties involved in popularizing classical literature (in the form of the Chinese classic Journey to the West) and creating popular forms of culture in the form of animation films and TV cartoons while appropriating the themes as characters to popular political leaders (as in the case of Mao Zedong), are all the more apparent here, and worth discussing in relation to populism and tricksterism.

Wittman Ah Sing

This article attempts to identify and analyze the different trickster types in the Chinese American tradition. Each of thesehas specific functions and attributes (ranging from countertypes to mediators), in line with specific themes (such as populism, essentialism, and racism). Hynes and Doty have previously categorized tricksters and identified their attributes, such as trickster as “shape-shifter,” “deceiver/trick player,” and trickster as “situation-inverter” (1997: 34). We argue that such categories are necessary to comprehend the functions of tricksters in the Chinese American trickster tradition.

There are different dimensions of the trickster created by Kingston. In Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, Kingston creates a new trickster archetype with Wittman Ah Sing. On the second level, she creates a “trickster countertype” in the person of Wittman, countering the culture and dominant worldviews that produce stereotypes of Chinese Americans. Wittman Ah Sing set an example in Chinese American literature as a new archetype by being the first fully-fledged trickster protagonist written by a Chinese American author. The concept of archetype was initially used to mean a “symbolic figure” in tribal lore (Jung, 2003: 4).

According to Jung, while it can be “disseminated … by tradition, language, migration,” an archetype can also “rearise spontaneously” with no apparent influence from outside factors, and at any given time or location (Jung, 2003: 13). Joseph Henderson also talks about “trickster archetypes,” but unlike Jung, whose definition is based on parapsychology, he bases his definition on the study of tricksters in oral literature. Henderson gives the example of the Coyote in the Native American oral tradition as a trickster archetype ([1967] 2005: 28). Henderson holds that a “trickster archetype” can assist people in “mediat[ing] between the powers of good and evil” (2005: 28).

So, a trickster archetype is not an archetypal figure with a purely evil or purely good presence but is marked as a go-between with the abilities of “creative experimentalism” (Henderson, 2005: 28). In parallel to these definitions, by “trickster archetype,” we mean a model that sets precedence in creating trickster characters in a literary tradition. A trickster archetype contains the basic attributes of all other tricksters within the same trickster tradition, as it represents the trickster tradition as a whole.

On the other hand, tricksters that follow the archetypal example take a specific attribute of that archetype and embellish it, developing in this way new types. In this sense, Wittman Ah Sing is the trickster archetype of Chinese American women writers’ fiction (and Chinese American literature in general) and was followed by other trickster characters with different traits.

Referring to her study of myths in the work of women artists and poets of the twentieth century, Lauter explains her stance regarding the uncovering of myths and archetypes. She remarks that “[t]hese women have not discovered truths that are outside history; they have simply responded to the imperatives of their own history in ways that may disclose the imperatives of ours” (Lauter, 1984: x). Thus, while these writers write and rewrite traditional trickster figures, and in some cases, create a new trickster archetype, they also write to respond to their own past and present in a dynamic understanding of meaning production through tricksters.

Wittman Ah Sing parallels other trickster archetypes, such as the trickster archetype of the Coyote, but especially the Monkey King of classical Chinese literature. In line with Henderson’s description of a trickster archetype, Wittman’s actions and character are ambiguous. His transgressive and disruptive behavior can be considered harmful, but his intentions and the results of his actions can be considered positive and constructive. Like other trickster archetypes from various traditions, Wittman Ah Sing also stands out with his creativity, experimenting with new trickster strategies, and becoming the prime example of the trickster in Chinese American literature.

With this said, let us now look at the attributes of tricksters in the Chinese American tradition and the general discourses and themes that they are associated with in Chinese American women’s fiction.

The Chinese character, Chinese Monkey God Sun Wu Kong in the novel Journey to the West. Photo: Bundit Yuwannasiri.

The “Awkward Dinner Guest:” Populism and the Chinese Trickster

One of the themes and discourses that is relevant to Chinese American tricksters is populism. We argue that one of the trickster archetypes is the trickster in the guise of an “awkward dinner guest,” who—after getting himself drunk—challenges the hosts by asking difficult and bizarre questions. Nevertheless, such questions can lay bare underlying problems, however discourteous it may be of the guest to raise them (Moffitt, 2010). In fact, according to Moffitt, the “awkward dinner guest” is the very personification of populism in relation to liberal democracy (2010).

In this trickster guise, the awkward dinner guest can be a positive force, laying bare the shortcomings of the system and challenging the status quo. However, the guest can also be a hindrance in a democratic context. The functioning of democracy is undermined if the guest challenges democratic practices. However, the trickster can also be a force for good if it can “identify otherwise overlooked political problems” and become the voice of minorities and “marginalised groups” (Gidron & Bonikowski, 2013). In this sense, Wittman Ah Sing is the perfect example of a popular and populist trickster who becomes the voice of marginalized Chinese Americans. The discursive challenge to populism is highlighted in Wittman’s tricksterism through the example of Wittman’s unsuccessful efforts to find work at an employment office. Here, unemployment as a recurring issue in American society is laid bare and implicitly critiqued via the narrative.

Furthermore, in line with the Monkey King archetype, Wittman Ah Sing creates chaos, disrupts authority, and challenges stereotypes about Chinese people created by the majority culture (Kingston, 1998: 78–79). Similarly, Wittman’s final aim is to create his own one-man show through which he plans to share his populist discourse about tackling stereotypes. Through the show, he aims to unite the Chinese community, echoing in a way the discursive goals of a populist “leader of the people.”

However, it is more noteworthy that the very archetype of Chinese tricksterism, Sun Wu Kong, on which Wittman Ah Sing was based, was also utilized as a banner holder of populist political discourse. Thus, in the context of this trickster archetype, the trickster is not only the awkward dinner guest but a cultural hero of populism itself. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the archetypal Chinese cultural hero and trickster, Sun Wu Kong, was used by the Chinese Communist Party as a symbol of communism, appropriating the figure of the trickster to fit the party’s populist discourse. It is no coincidence that a cartoon version of Sun Wu Kong, the Chinese trickster, was shown on Chinese national television for decades.

What is more, books and films were published in China where Sun Wu Kong was identified with none other than Mao Zedong through political undertones and allusions. In Havoc in Heaven, a Chinese animation film from 1965, the Monkey King challenges the authority of the Jade Emperor in line with the Journey to the West narrative. The difference here is that, unlike the classic novel, the animation has a “political backdrop” that became apparent to viewers and film critics in China, who noticed the political undertones with its revolutionary themes (Harvard Press, 2014).[1] In light of the film, Mao was “compared … to the mischievous Monkey King,” and Heaven, where the Jade Emperor resided, was compared to the Chinese bourgeoisie, which Mao was fighting against.

Thus, Monkey King became a populist trickster who challenged the despotic ruler in the form of the Jade Emperor. This strife between Monkey King and the Jade Emperor was appropriated to fit the populist discourse of China’s communist government. However, even before the new political and populist signifiers attached to Monkey King, it can be said that the original Chinese trickster archetype had populism as a central theme, as he went on to challenge all the gods stuck in their old ways, as a way of challenging authority and mobilizing the masses, in the form of his monkey followers (Harvard Press, 2014).

The Trickster Countertype

A countertype is created in the face of a stereotype about a certain group or ethnicity. Thus, countertypes are positive portrayals that show how wrong the stereotypes are concerning the targeted group, as they demonstrate the positive traits of that group or show the opposite of the stereotype. In this way, a countertype operates as a “positive stereotype” (Nachbar & Lause, 1992: 238).

Two important cultural examples that showcase countertypes about African Americans are The Cosby Show and the American film Shaft. Nachbar argues that The Cosby Show presented an African American family with none of the stereotypes associated with African Americans, while Shaft presented the viewers with an African American private detective protagonist who was assertive, courageous, and clever (Nachbar & Lause, 1992: 238). However, The Cosby Show’s presentation of Black people can be criticized. The countertypes in the show do not represent the conditions of the majority of African Americans. Rather, the show presents a middle-class version that ignores the poor living conditions and economic inequalities true for many Black people in American society even today.

Similarly, Shaft’s creation of a countertype for Blacks is not entirely benign, as the film lauds gangster culture and presents Black men as dangerous and prone to violence. These examples presented as countertypes were, in fact, criticized for showcasing a selective and sometimes misleading and harmful version of the ethnic group they were thought to represent. Another criticism against countertypes in general is that they fail to meaningfully change or transform the stereotypes they confront. Countertypes on their own are not politically effective in overcoming stereotypical depictions. The main criticism of countertypes is that despite their utilization in media and literature, the stereotypes associated with ethnic groups persist in other domains of popular culture and popular imagery.

The trickster countertype functions similarly to the cultural countertype, with a few significant differences. While the countertype directly aims to replace existing stereotypes, the trickster countertype does not necessarily aim to take the place of a stereotype. Rather, a trickster countertype, such as found in Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land, functions to challenge and dispel the essentialism, inequalities, and cultural reductionism that create stereotypes. Another significant difference of the trickster countertype is its ability to utilize some of the traits of the stereotypes about a particular ethnic group to mock and disrupt the dominant discourses that made these stereotypes possible.

Rather than countering stereotypes headlong, the trickster countertypes often point at the problems and inequalities. The trickster countertype does this effectively by utilizing the trickster’s characteristics of transgression and transformation. The trickster countertype depends largely on the existing trickster narratives, and ethnic-minority writers such as Gish Jen create trickster countertypes as protagonists.

Jen transforms Sun Wu Kong into a trickster countertype in her novel. While in Tripmaster Monkey, Kingston creates a Chinese American trickster archetype and countertype in the person of Wittman Ah Sing, in Mona in the Promised Land,it is Mona who follows in the footsteps of the trickster archetype, disrupts inequalities, racism, and essentialism in the American society, while at the same time providing a utopian alternative with her trickster powers.

The Trickster Mediator

Tricksters have always been noted for their role as mediators between the known world and the supernatural world and as interpreters of the gods, as they communicate with the unseen world and channel their knowledge to the world of humans.

When discussing aspects of tricksters from Afro-Caribbean folklore, Gates emphasizes the role of Afro-Caribbean tricksters as mediators (1989: 6). Esu, a trickster in the Yoruba oral tradition and other African cultures, is mainly known for his function as the “messenger of the gods,” as he makes sense of the messages of the gods, and brings those messages to men, and carries the wishes of men to the gods in turn (Gates, 1989: 6). Given the tricksters’ ability to cross boundaries, they can also take on the role of a messenger between the world of the gods and the mortal world (Stookey, 2004: 129). Hermes, a mythical figure from Greek mythology who is characterized as the messenger of gods, also performs the role of the trickster: as a trickster, he is not bound by any restrictions and can also communicate “lies and deceits” (Stookey, 2004: 130). As a trickster, Esu is, like Hermes, a “shifty mediator” whose mediation can be disruptive and full of tricks (Hyde, 2008: 125).

For Gates, the tricksters’ tricks are themselves his “mediation” (1989: 6). Although most tricksters have some attributes of mediation, not all tricksters are messengers of the gods and communicators of gods’ wishes to humanity. The trickster as mediator is a specific type whose relationship with the supernatural is his primary attribute and specialty. Like the two classic trickster mediators, Hermes from Greek mythology, and Legba from African folklore, all trickster mediators are scarcely “rule-governed;” therefore, they can both make sense of the gods’ messages and leverage them for their trickster ends (Stookey, 2004: 130). Another attribute of the trickster mediator is his role in making sure that human beings offer sacrifices to the gods; otherwise, he brings them suffering and afflictions (Hyde, 2008: 125).

Like the trickster mediators Hermes, Legba and Esu, the Monkey King has also mediated between deities and mortals. The Monkey King is constantly in touch with the supernatural world, always summoning spirits, gods, and demons, either to his aid or to question them for a wrongdoing. Like the trickster mediator, he can also be mischievous in his communication and tricks humans and deities into believing in him, twisting and distorting facts for his benefit.

When the Monkey King visits the Underworld, he communicates with Yama, the King of the Dead, and then erases his records from the archive of the dead to become immortal. When he is appointed to a position to take care of the horses in the palace of the Jade Emperor, he ditches work to trick the gods and eats the pills of immortality. As part of his penance for wrongdoing in a past life, Monkey King is also punished for his trickery in his mediation with the gods: he promises Kwan Yin, the goddess of Mercy, that he will join a Buddhist monk on his journey to India and abide by his rules. But after a while, he relapses into his old violent ways, fighting and killing many of those who cross his and the monk’s path on the journey to India. Because of his mischief, Kwan Yin metes out another punishment, forcing the Monkey King to wear a magical iron helmet that causes him severe headaches whenever he descends into mischief.

As a trickster mediator, Kwan Li in The Hundred Secret Senses also communicates with the supernatural world, which she calls the World of Yin. In line with her attributes, she is also a trickster mediator, as she has a close affinity with the Monkey King trickster of the Chinese tradition. While Kwan follows the patterns of a trickster mediator, she is a reinvention of the Monkey King character, emphasizing his attributes of mediation. Like traditional trickster mediators such as Hermes and Esu, Kwan Li interprets the messages she receives from spirits residing in the World of Yin and conveys them to her sister Olivia and anyone who comes to her to seek help from the World of Yin.

Unlike traditional tricksters, Kwan Li has an altruistic nature, always wanting to help her sister Olivia and her friends. However, it is striking to observe that as a trickster mediator, Kwan Li is also not a stranger to the idea of sacrifice. While traditional trickster mediators like Esu request that humanity makes sacrifices to the gods, Kwan Li gives up her own lifeto save a precious friend from death.

The Trickster Disruptor

One of the key characteristics of tricksters in various oral traditions is disruption. The trickster’s attribute of disruption creates chaos, unsettling the balance and breaking the “order of things” (Wiget, 1994: 95). The Monkey King often disrupts the schemes of the authorities to achieve his aim of immortal life. He tricks the Jade Emperor, the ruler of the universe, and disrupts the Heavenly Peach Banquet, wreaking havoc there after realizing that the authorities have not invited him. Following the example of the Monkey King, Wittman Ah Sing also creates chaos, disrupting parties and challenging accepted stereotypes about Chinese people (Kingston, 1998: 78–79).

The trickster disruptor is different from Wittman Ah Sing and the traditional Chinese trickster Monkey King in one important aspect: The Monkey King and Wittman break the order of things with a particular aim and with positive results in the end. While the Monkey King destroys opponents and the many bandits who cross his path on the way to India, his ultimate aim is to safely take delivery of and bring the Buddhist scriptures back to China for the good of the community. Similarly, despite Wittman’s transgressive behavior, his particular aim is to found his own one-man show and, through his show, bring together his disparate community.

The trickster disruptor breaks the balance and makes life difficult for others, creating disorder and chaos without any particular aim, acting as a negative force. Even if the results of her actions may have some relatively positive outcomes, this is not deliberate and conscious, as the trickster disruptor disturbs the balance without such goals. However, despite the trickster disruptor’s primary role as a troublemaker, she shares one significant trait with the trickster mediator—namely, the source of inspiration. This source is the Chinese oral tradition, through which proverbs, stories, sayings of Chinese scholars are incorporated into the trickster discourse. Despite this positive aspect, the trickster disruptor’s role is often not welcomed by society. Finally, like the trickster mediator, the trickster disruptor also feels she belongs nowhere. Since she leads a liminal life, even if she may feel some connection to particular individuals and places, she is not ultimately bound to any one place or person.

Monkey King esport and sport mascot logo design. By FNR Graphics.

Trickster Techniques in Kingston, Tan, and Jen’s Work

In this final part of the article, we would like to look at some of the trickster techniques that refer to a specific use of language, characters, and style in a given text, which gives the text its trickster qualities, which in return has ideological functions and implications for the writer and readers. According to Gerald Vizenor, the “trickster is a liberator and healer in a narrative, a comic sign, communal signification and a discourse with imagination” (1993: 187). By identifying the trickster both as a sign and a discourse, Vizenor emphasizes that the trickster does not necessarily always appear in a given text but can also manifest itself as a discourse and style.

A trickster language and style are not necessarily only apparent in texts with trickster figures, given that the trickster can also manifest itself as a “language game in a comic narrative” (Vizenor, 1993: 187). Henry Louis Gates Jr. emphasizes the trickster’s use of formal language, particularly in the context of the Afro–American trickster figure of the “Signifying Monkey” (Gates, 1989: xxi). The Signifying Monkey becomes relevant in analyzing the narrative style and language of the trickster, given that it is more a rhetorical device or a “rhetorical principle” than an actual figure (Gates, 1989: 44), and it has significant functions in the production of meaning alongside the trickster’s actions in the text. The Signifying Monkey, as the “‘ironic reversal’ of the insulting stereotype of the Black as monkey-like, uses language to break away with stereotypes, using different language tropes such as puns, metaphors, repetition, irony, and hyperbole, all of which constitute his trickster ability of ‘Signifying’” (Gates, 1989: 52).

The most important aspects of a trickster tradition in the context of Chinese American literature in general and Chinese American women writers’ fiction, in particular, are their stance against essentialism and stereotypes and their close-knit connections with different forms of storytelling. The trickster technique of Kingston, Tan, and Jen foregrounds storytelling as a significant part of the construction of identity and community. By telling their stories from multiple perspectives, the tricksters in Kingston, Tan, and Jen’s novels create narratives that do not have one central “authorial” perspective that dominates their trickster novels. Their challenging essentialist constructions of Chinese identity is another significant and definitive aspect of the Chinese American monkey trickster tradition. This technique is apparent in Kingston’s characterization of Wittman Ah Sing, who invokes the trickster Monkey King. He also culturally dismantles reductionist depictions of the Chinese through his trickster ability of transgression. Kingston’s trickster strategy, which challenges essentialist discourses about Chinese Americans, is shared with Jen, who also challenges Chinese stereotypes in the trickster character of Mona.

A significant technique in the Chinese American monkey trickster tradition is building a trickster identity that is fluid and subject to change. It has been noted by critics such as Hynes that essentialist conceptions of identity are rigid, static, limited, and limiting and that the trickster figure provides a significant challenge to this static view of identity, intersecting with the postmodern conception of identity. Hynes remarks, pointing to the divergent character of the trickster, that “the logic of order and convergence, … is challenged by another path, the random and divergent trail taken by that profane metaplayer, the trickster” (1997: 216).

Another trickster technique utilized by the authors is the use of laughter and parody to dismantle dominant ideologies and hegemonic constructions. The novel is “a fundamental liberation of cultural-semantic and emotional intentions from the hegemony of a single and unitary language” (Bakhtin, 1998: 366). According to Bakhtin, “the rogue, the clown and the fool” represent the negative side of the Rabelaisian novel (1998: 406), as symbols of what Bakhtin calls “Rabelaisian laughter” and as figures that clearly have trickster qualities. In Bakhtin’s view, Rabelaisian laughter signifies a quality in the novel that operates to bring out “the crude, unmediated connections between things that people otherwise seek to keep separate” and to “destroy … traditional connections and abolish … idealized strata” (1998: 170). On the other hand, for Bakhtin, the positive side in Rabelais’ conception of the novel form relies “upon folklore and antiquity” (1998: 169–170). Thus, Kingston, Jen, and Tan use laughter and criticism to expose ethnic stereotypes and essentialist constructions of ethnic identity on the one hand while maintaining their connection to their cultural narratives and myths through trickster strategies and figures in their novels on the other.

Another central aspect of a trickster technique in the fiction of Chinese American women writers is “liminal cultural position,” characterized by the transgression of existing boundaries, whether they are cultural, ethnic, or ideological boundaries. Liminality as a concept was first coined and discussed in the context of anthropology as a phase in the rites of passage of tribal peoples. Arnold Van Gennep, who coined the term “rites of passage,” uses the term “liminal” while discussing initiation and transition rites of tribal societies (1960: 11, 21, 53).[2]

Van Gennep also associates rites that involve passing through a door or a portal with the liminal, calling them “liminal/threshold rites” (1960: 21–22). As part of the rites of passage of a tribe, the liminal phase represented a threshold in the ritual, which was preceded by the separation of the individual from the society. The trickster’s apparent autonomy from society’s norms and restrictions is a metaphor that stems from the actual condition of the liminal phase in the rites of passage of a tribal society. As Turner observes, the person who goes through the “liminal period” in the rites of passage gains an ambiguity and enters a “cultural realm” that is unstable, and completely separate from and dissimilar to the past and coming phases of the ritual ([1965] 2008: 94–95).

At the same time, the attributes of liminality as a condition are, also, the attributes of the person who dwells in the liminal space, what Turner calls the “liminal personae” or the “threshold people” and what we call the trickster embodying a “liminal position,” echoing Smith’s argument that the trickster has a “liminal cultural position” that allows him to move beyond the confines of the world (1997: 12). Hence, the main characteristic of liminality is ambiguity and the condition of eluding any fixed definitions or classification. Therefore, “liminal entities” “are neither here nor there” and are “betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial” (Turner, 2008: 95).

Tricksters are relatively free from society’s laws and restrictions, which allows them to expose these same restrictions and create new spaces of meaning production on a textual level. Despite liminal space being confined to the homogenous and monolithic character of the tribal society, the liminality utilized in the fiction of the trickster writer functions as a bridge between different cultural influences, genders, and ethnic groups in a society while also evading monolithic definitions of culture and ethnicity, reflecting Van Gennep’s association of threshold rites with liminality (1960: 21).

Paralleling the liminal space of threshold rites, which allows the initiated individual to travel between the world of immortals and the world of gods or from the world of the dead to the world of the living (Van Gennep, 1960: 53), the trickster in the liminal space of the novel can cross ethnic boundaries and challenge existing worldviews. In this way, Wittman Ah Sing can defy Frank Chin’s claims to a belligerent and patriarchal Chinese tradition and reject being enlisted in the Vietnam War. Mona Chang of Mona in the Promised Land can go beyond ethnic boundaries and freely exchange cultural traditions with Sherman Matsumoto of Japan and Seth Mandel, a Jewish American. A “liminal position” informs and empowers the fiction of trickster writers such as Kingston, Tan, and Jen. What we call the “liminal space” of the trickster text allows for questioning ethnic stereotypes and becomes useful for women and people of color in the face of racism in a patriarchal society.

Conclusion

In this article, we have analyzed the different aspects of the trickster in Chinese American literature and attempted to provide an overview of the different trickster types and discourses found in the Chinese American trickster tradition, from populism to countertypes, with particular attention paid to the novels of Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan and Gish Jen, whose writings, we argue, have had an enormous impact on the way the Chinese American trickster tradition found its unique identity within American literature.

Finally, we discussed the Chinese American trickster tradition through the lens of the techniques utilized by Chinese American authors in shaping and influencing the literary tradition in question. During our research, we have found that while Tan and Jen’s trickster characters are female, they are still based on the male trickster Monkey King, and their primary concern is to challenge ethnic stereotypes, create inter-ethnic and inter-communal harmony, and challenge racist ideologies.

To conclude, the Chinese American trickster tradition evolves with each new novel and short story that utilizes trickster techniques and characters. While each is worthy of study in its own right, we can nevertheless trace common origins in classical Chinese literature and in the figure of Sun Wu Kong.

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(*) OMER SENER holds a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies and Literary Criticism. His research interests include tricksters, cultural populism, video games, Asian American (Japanese, Korean and Chinese) literature, comparative literature, and creative writing.

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[1] The title of the article in question, “Havoc in Mao’s Heaven,” is a reference to the animated film, Havoc in Heaven, and could also be a reference to a quote attributed to Mao Zedong: “There is great chaos under Heaven; the situation is excellent” (“天下大乱,形势大好”). Understood to refer to the Cultural Revolution, as a way of creating order through chaos, the attribution of the quote to Mao is nevertheless questionable. 

[2] We use “liminal space” to denote the complete narrative space of a trickster text that accomodates the trickster, while using “liminal position” to denote the liminal attributes of the trickster in literature. Thus the trickster has relative freedom in the liminal space of trickster fiction, which allows him or her to cross the “limen” of societal restrictions and hierarchies. 

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