Chinese Mythology In ‘American Born Chinese,’ Explained:  How It Is Different From Original Tale?


There is no better playing ground for content than ancient mythology, and Asia has always been very rich in that department. But the question arises as to why we are looking to the West for an interpretation of these stories. What makes that particular take on it so important for us when Asia itself has adapted these stories for the silver screen so many times over? Other than the mangas that have used the story of the Monkey King so many times, as mentioned by Anuj in American Born Chinese, the 2018 series Korean Odyssey comes to mind. It was a beautiful adaptation of East Asian mythology into the modern world, and something as recent as the Tale of the Nine Tailed 1938 is also doing it masterfully. However, our excitement for Disney’s take on these stories excited us beyond everything simply because of the scope it promised. We were expecting very English humor with Asian characters, and that had the potential for some delicious irony. The action sequences could have been so good, with the use of magic and mythological elements creating stunning visuals. But American Born Chinese really let us down with their crude understanding of things. Other than terrible wigs and bad makeup, and some stereotypical IKEA humor, they couldn’t get anything right with the mythology.

First of all, we don’t think Disney recognized its audience for American Born Chinese. The bulk of the audience is not going to be acquainted with the exploits of the Monkey King or any of the other mythological Chinese gods. There needed to be a little context surrounding them. We are not averse to Disney showing Wukong becoming the Great Sage by a stroke of luck and some enterprising spirit, but what on earth made him deserve the title? Shouldn’t that have been clarified, and if nothing else, shouldn’t we have been told why Wukong set off on the journey to the West, which was originally his friend’s idea? Speaking up gets attention, but how that translates into genuine merit is something that should have been explored more.

We would like to reiterate that we don’t have a problem with Disney changing the narrative itself but with their lack of story building around this changed story. In the original tale of the Monkey King, rebelling against heaven did not get him a promotion but a punishment instead: to spend five centuries trapped under a mountain. It has been debated whether the Monkey King was inspired by the Indian god Hanuman, but there is no record of the Ramayana being translated into Chinese. However, it is believed that monkey gods were worshiped in some areas, so that could be linked to the Indian myth. It is all guesswork on our part, and we wish the writers of American Born Chinese had done that to add some more depth to the gods. In the interest of that, we wish that one particular change could have been avoided: that of Sun Wukong stealing the golden staff, aka the Jingu Bang. In the original tale, the Monkey King earns the staff while answering a challenge by the Dragon King, Au Guang. Also, Sun Wukong had proclaimed himself the Great Sage, who was equal to heaven. The position did not exist before him, and that just goes to show his importance as a god.

Then there is Guanyin. The series gave no context as to why she was so important and just blindly expected us to accept it. She had paved the way for Sun Wukong to be released from his 500-year-old captivity. She needed someone to protect a monk on his journey to the West, and Wukong offered himself in exchange for his freedom. While this was the real story, what was their relationship in American Born Chinese? Another deviation would be that we saw “Piggy” fighting with Wei Chan on behalf of Wukong. However, in the original story, Pigsy was envious of Wukong, so technically, it would have made sense for him to join hands with the Bull Demon.

Finally, let us discuss the bull demon. Remember the woman, Princess Iron Fan, with whom Wukong flirted at the party? She becomes the bull demon’s wife, and the couple is the villain of the Journey to the West story. It is true that he started out as an ally to Wukong, but that was after the latter was already powerful. The Bull Demon becomes a villain because of Wukong’s deception to steal his wife’s fan for his quest. American Born Chinese should have just continued that story instead of making it a tale of failed ambition. Did you know that he called himself the “Great Sage who pacifies the heavens”? Also, he did not have seven brothers. He was part of the seven sages that Wukong had brought together.

Now that we are revisiting the original mythology, we wonder why anything was changed at all. We are asking this question from a creative standpoint. How did such a dilution of the original storyline make the series more interesting? The point that American Born Chinese was trying to make about the importance of speaking up for what one wants is better expressed in the original story than what the writers tried to do. They really ruined something that was so good, to begin with. In fact, a change that should have been considered was letting go of Freddy Wong’s story and incorporating more of the mythological history. Don’t get us wrong, Freddy Wong was one of the most heartfelt and genuine parts of the series, but if that was a point the writers were trying to make by interweaving the stories together, Sun Wukong’s history makes better sense considering the genre that is being aimed for. That would have been something to see.

If Disney plans on making a Season 2 of American Born Chinese, we pray that it treats its magic and mythology better than it did in Season 1. Sun Wukong, Wei Chan, or even the Bull Demon—they all deserve better. We also believe we are going to see some parts of the actual journey to the West since it is a matter of investigating why Jin is the fourth scroll. It can be exciting as long as Disney understands the assignment the way it does with Greek and Roman mythology.

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Divya Malladi
Divya Malladi
Divya spends way more time on Netflix and regrets most of what she watches. Hence she has too many opinions that she tries to put to productive spin through her writings. Her New Year resolution is to know that her opinions are validated.

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