The Paper Menagerie Summary, Theme, Critical Appreciation by Ken Liu
The Paper Menagerie Summary
The emotional story revolves round a Chinese – American boy, struggling to be one with American way of life, and his Chinese mother, unwilling to give up Chinese language and culture even in America. The mother was gifted with a unique quality of origami. She made animals, birds, dolls and with almost a magical skill, she could animate those creations. They could move, make sound, fly and act like animated objects. She did all these to amuse and entertain her child.
But the child started liking American toys and developed a dislike for his mother’s origami and everything that belonged to his mother’s Chinese culture. He felt that his slit-eyed, flat nosed face and yellowish complexion were hated by American neighbours and his classmates. So, he tried to emulate them by transforming himself into an American.
He even stopped talking to his mother when she could not interact in English. With time, the boy’s interest in his mother’s origami was lost and even her terminal illness couldn’t carve a line in the boy’s mind. Finally, the mother died, mumbling a few words to the boy’s father and the boy.
After two years of his mother’s death, the boy – then a grown-up man found a piece of origami in the shape of a dog, and when he straightened up the paper- folds he found something was written in Chinese script. As he never had learnt to read Chinese script, he consulted a young Chinese woman who deciphered the script and the man got to know the rueful story of his mother.
Born in 1957, the mother was from a remote village of China. She survived the great famine but lost all but herself in the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1966. As a fugitive she tried to reach Hong Kong but was caught in the way and was handed over to the girl-traffickers of Hong – Kong. The boy’s father, then settled in America, bought her and took her to America as his wife. Thus, she was sans education, money, help but inherited the great magical art of origami which was the only thing she could offer to her son.
The Paper Menagerie About the Author Ken Liu
Born in Lanzhou, China in 1976, and educated at Harvard law school, Ken liu is a Chinese-American author of speculative fiction. A winner of Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards for his fiction. Liu’s most characteristic work is the four-volume epic fantasy series, The Dandelion Dynasty, in which engineers, not wizards, are the heroes of a silk punk world on the verge of modernity.
His debut collection of short fiction, THE PAPER MENAGERIE and other stories has been published in more than a dozen languages. A second collection, THE HIDDEN GIRL and other stories followed suit. He also wrote the STAR WARS novel, the legends of Luke Sky walker.
The Paper Menagerie Theme
The theme of Ken Liu’s short story, “THE PAPER MENAGERIE” is primarily the universal bond between a mother and her son. Settled in America, the son struggles to identify himself with Americans and their way of life. He also tries to transform his mother to Americanism but she couldn’t and perhaps wouldn’t. She was a gifted artist of magical origami. She created animals and birds and sea animals that could move, make sound and swim.
But the more the boy grew, the more banal his mother’s artistry appeared to him and he, in order to be an American, developed his interest in American toys. Gradually the boy grew up, his father settling up elsewhere, and got to know about his mother’s rueful story from one of his mother’s origami. He got to know what damage and destruction could natural disasters and political upheavals could do to human life. The genocide in name of Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1966 played havoc in the life and family of his mother.
Once a family of happy peasantry, his mother became a fugitive at an age, when she should have been playing with doll or practicing the art of origami, she had to flee to Hong – Kong for life and there she was sold to her husband by the woman traffickers. The boy’s father’s role in the story is significant in the way that without him, the conflict of culture between the west and the orient couldn’t be slated.
The Paper Menagerie Critical Appreciation
Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie” is a moving, emotional short story that deals with estrangement, love magic, identity crisis, ambition discernment, distress due to political upheaval, and a perpetual conflict of philosophy between the orient and the west. Like one of those from universal motherhood, Jack’s mother loves him dearly.
Jack mother, all but a fugitive from China, fleeing to Hong kong for life, is caught by the girl traffickers, but is helped by an old lady to gets listed in the catalogue of Chinese women who are to be sold to Chinese-American husbands. She is also sold to a Chinese- American husband, who treats her well and settles in Connecticut, U.S.A.
Often she felt estranged from her peasant life at Sigulu, her village in China, where she learnt the art of magical origami which put life into the paper crafts of animals and birds. The Cultural Revolution of China in 1967 caused havoc in the lives of the Chinese people and that brought a mass exodus from China to which Jack’s mother fell victim.
Jack says, “Mom’s breath was special. She breathed into her paper animals so that they shared her breath, and thus moved with her life. This was her magic.” This statement however, is exaggerated since no mortal hand could instill life in inanimate objects in the world. In his desire to emulate the Americans, Jack develops his choice for American toys and their way of life.
The magical origami of his mother was now a matter of distaste and so was the Chinese language. He wanted to identify himself as an American. Both he and his father implored upon the mother to cook and speak American. She tried but failed. Jack was discerned because by then, he had been caught in the Menagerie of American Dreams.
His mother’s oriental mind could not reconcile with the western way of life and in finally, died in a terminal disease, living behind her pitiful biography in Chinese script on Laohu, a paper tiger. The pathos in the story is obvious and has an emotional appeal for the reader.
The Paper Menagerie Characters
Jack-Jack is a Chinese-American boy settled in Connecticut, U.S.A. His father has reconciled with American life style and society. But his mother cannot. Jack feels alienated in American set up with his Mongoloid looks and his mother’s magical origami. He is lured by the dream of American El Dorado and therefore, tries to become an American in body, mind and in everything. In order to be a perfect American, both he and his father implore upon his mother to speak and cook American. And much though she tries her best, her oriental lineage stands before her as the buffer.
One cannot accuse Jack for his mind set. He must have the adage at the back of his mind which says, ‘Be a Roman, when you are in Rome’.’ living in America, and working there for a career with an oriental mind-set would hardly help Jack attain his ambitious goal.
Even he prefers American toys to his mother’s origami. Albeit it is true that unless and until one becomes a part of mainstream American life, it is difficult for an easterner to survive in American environment. But that hardly demands any disrespect for his ancentral lineage and that is where Jack is mistaken.
He had even stopped talking to his mother when she failed to comply with American way of life, which was an act of cruelty on Jack’s pari Jack’s discernment for his ailing mother is almost an unforgivable offence. In his run for career, he forgets his mother, his father withdraws from him and relocates elsewhere but Jack has his target fixed at his corporate career. This is quite an example of a selfish, ungrateful young man forgetful about his responsibilities towards his family.
Jack learns the pitiful background of his mother only after her death. She had recorded her pitiful life in Chinese script on a piece of her origami. Jack gets its translated from a Chinese interpreter and then realizes the pangs of the conflicting life of his mother who could not reconcile in western environment leaving her oriental lineage.
The mother-Jack’s mother, a peasant girl, had a peaceful life in a remote village of China. At a very tender age, she mastered the art of origami and knew how to instill life in those paper animals and birds. Unfortunately, during the mass exodus from China to Hong Kong after the Cultural Revolution in China in 1966, she became a fugitive and fell in the trap of girl traffickers of Hong Kong, and worked there, almost as a slave. Jack’s father, then an unmarried Chinese-American, bought her and married her to take her to Connecticut, U.S.A. There they got settled.
In Connecticut, she gave birth to Jack and like a universal mother, loved her son and took every possible care to rear him. She believed in the simpler pleasures of oriental life and could never reconcile with American life. She made her paper creatures and instilled life into them and those could move, make sounds like their real counterparts. All these she did to amuse and please her only son.
Her son grew up and wanted to come out of his oriental background and embrace American culture in body and mind. He detested his mother’s creations and opted for American toys. She was hurt, but bore it silently because that was part of her oriental habit. She was implored by her husband and her son to speak and cook American.
She, much like a patient wife and mother, tried to comply. In the process, she learnt to cook American food, but couldn’t pick up American English. Her inability almost made her shrink into insignificance in the life of her husband and her son. But she never protested, and remained within her oriental frame of mind. She wrote and spoke Chinese, but stopped making any more origamic creatures. Life for her became grey and colourless.
There was no material insecurity in her life, but the life of pleasure, the essential elixir for living, was taken away from her. She missed her simple pastoral life of the village and felt a fish out of water in the U.S. Finally, god becomes merciful to her and relieves her from the pangs of life through mundane finality-death by Cancer after proloned illness.
The Paper Menagerie Title of the Story
Menagerie means a collection of wild animals kept in captivity for exhibition. The Paper Menagerie means paper made animals by way of origami. The Chinese-American family in the short story consists of a father, a mother and their only son, named Jack. They are settled in the U.S.A. The mother is almost a wizard in origami. Her creation of animals and birds can make sounds and move as if they are animated. As a boy, Jack loves his mother’s creation.
But with years, he develops his obsession for American toys and American life style as he is afraid that his Mongoloid looks may alienate him from mainstream American life. Since he decides to settle there permanently, he has to be an American by every means. He even impresses upon his mother to speak English and cook American food.
But his mother, much though her husband implores upon her to act like what his son says, cannot fully comply with both her son and her husband. Jack grows up and his distaste for his mother’s origami grows bitter. He becomes an American boy in life and style. Then one day, he hoards his mother’s origami creations into a shoe box and forgets about those in due course, making the shoe box a menagerie for all those paper animals.
Jack grows up and his distaste for his mother’s origami grows bitter. He becomes an American boy in life and style. Then one day, he hoards his mother’s origami creations into a shoe box and forgets about those in due course, making the shoe box a menagerie for all those paper-animals.
Jack grows to be a young man and has Susan, an American girl, as his friend who retrieves all those paper animals from the shoe box in the Attic. She calls Jack’s departed mother “an amazing artist.” Without repeating the whole story, we may say that not only does Jack make a Menagerie of the paper animals created by his mother, but also he makes himself one of the living animals in the luring Menagerie of the west. Thus the title is justified.
The Paper Menagerie Setting
Setting forms an integral part of the story. Set at Connecticut, U.S.A, the story draws the picture of a conflicting culture between the west and the orient. The Chinese family in the story has migrated to America and is settled there. Whereas Jack and his father reconcile with American language and culture, his mother can’t.
Jack liked his mother’s origami at an early age because it was simple magical as it animated the paper dogs, fish, birds etc. Those could move and even make sounds of their likes in the real world. But gradually, he became obsessed with American toys and culture as he wanted to identify himself as an American, lest he was alienated for his Mongoloid looks.
The adage says, “Be a Roman when you are in Rome.” Jack believes in the adage and therefore, takes all the trouble to convert himself into an American. His mother was a fugitive from trouble-tom remote village of China where she mastered the art of magical origami. Pertaining to a peasant family, her life was pure and simple, befitting to an Oriental village. She cannot give up her cultural identity for the lure of the west, much though her husband and her son press her to take to American way of life.
The setting therefore, is important in the story so as to understand this perpetual conflict. We may recount from our experience about the refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan, who resettled in India and most of them changed in behaviour and culture. It was easy for the newer generation to change with the change in set-up, but the elders suffered greatly as they felt alienated in a new setting.
The mother in the story died of a terminal disease leaving behind her pathetic story in Chinese script on a paper-dog. Jack, by then a young man, got to know though a Chinese interpreter the pangs of his mother’s life and there the story ended. Thus the setting is important in the short story, THE PAPER MENAGERIE.
The Paper Menagerie Annotations and Vocabulary
Menagerie — A collection of wild animal kept in captivity for exhibition
Sobbing — crying noisily
Soothed — gently calm, reduce pain or discomfort
Pleated — fold in cloth made by doubling materials over on itself
Tucked — Push, fold or turn
Twitched — give a short, sudden jerking or convulsive movement.
Pounced — spring or swoop suddenly so as to catch prey.
Rustling — make a soft muffled cracking sound like one caused by the movement of day leaves or paper.
Startled — showing sudden shock or alarm.
Vibrated — Move rapidly to and fro.
Origami — Japanese art of folding paper in decorating shapes and figures.
Catalogue — a complete list of items typical one in alphabetical order.
Flipping — To express mild annoyance.
Cheongsam — also known as Qipao, is a Chinese gown worn by women.
Calm — absence of strong emotions.
Contempt felt good like wine — The need to belong is intrinsic to all people. But especially for children, it is the need to make it or break it, the force that determines their viewpoints, attitudes,The way they experience the world.
Growling — Animal, guttered sound expressing hostility.
Capillary action — It is the process of a liquid flowing in a narrow space without the assistance of, or in opposition to, any external forces like, gravity.
Limp — walk with difficulty because of damaged legs.
Whimpered — Feeble sound experience of fear, pain etc.
Winced — make an involuntary grimace or shrinking movement of the body out of pain or distress.
Soggy — wet and soft.
Translucent — allowing light, but not detailed shapes to pass through-semi transparent.
Drooping — let or make fall vertically.
Skittering — more quickly or lightly.
Peeking — look quickly or furtively
Chink — slit eyed
Hunched — bend the top of one’s body favoured.
Attic — a space or room in the roof of a building.
Shoved — push roughly.
Mime — The theatrical technique of suggesting action, character or emotion without using words.
Exaggerated — Over stated the reality
Cuddle — hold close in one’s arms as a way of showing love.
Hum — make a low, continuous sound like a bee.
Smuck — move or go in a furtive way
Interwining — Connect or link closely.