Dragonwings is a historical fiction novel about a Chinese family immigrating to San Francisco in the late 1800’s and 1900’s.While it allows the reader to enter into the emotional and physical world of an immigrant family, it also allows us to analyze the reasons behind the cultural clash from the perspective of an immigrant moving to the foreign land of America. “Brotherhoods” were the name of a group of people. Brotherhoods were historically common in China with the goal of organizing members for mutual protection against oppression. These brotherhoods and their practices followed the Chinese into California, and accounts of them can be found in the pages of the novel.
The cause of brotherhoods in China is the Chinese attempt to rebel from the government. The Chinese government wouldn’t allow any group to form that would oppose the government (Saez). Many Chinese believed they needed protection from the government’s harsh treatment, so they secretly organized into groups, called “brotherhoods”, and communicated through “signs, symbols, and language, and were bound to each other through blood oaths” (Saez). Since many Chinese immigrants came from brotherhoods while in China, it was easy for them to form groups in America. “New members were recruited in the new world, as Chinese people were unable to participate freely in American Society, were denied equal justice, and were socially isolated” (Saez).
The effect of brotherhoods on the society at the time of Dragonwings was that as Chinese immigrants formed brotherhoods in America, they often brought with them the negative aspects, like opium use. Americans did not understand the Chinese language nor did they want to live alongside the opium dens that were often present among brotherhoods. After the 1906 Earthquake, Chinatown was destroyed and the Chinese immigrants had to re-locate. One newspaper writes that influx of Chinese into their neighborhoods were and evil and that their “vices and filth” came with them. The article wrote that the brotherhoods were also engaged in games like “fan tan”, and “pi gow”. ("The Chinese Crowding”). The American affluent neighborhoods were not happy with these groups living amongst them, and homeowners found it necessary to put up signs that say, “No Chinese of Japanese wanted here”. ("The Chinese Crowding”).
The portrayal of brotherhoods runs throughout the novel. All major Chinese characters in the book belong to a brotherhood. The protagonist’s brotherhood is call The Company. One character, Black Dog, plays the role of the opium addict. When Black Dog injures Moon Shadow, his own cousin, the Company members discuss what to do. They wonder if they should go to the police, but Uncle says, “no matter how bad…we don’t go to the demon police. We Tang people take care of our own affairs.” (Yep 83). Father isn’t interested in going to the police either, or to let the evil parts of brotherhoods destroy the integrity of the Chinese people. Instead he wants to rise above the nonsense, “I’m sick of having to deal with thieves and pimps and pushers. I’m sick of having to scrape and bow to men who live off the misery of their brothers and sisters.” White Deer replies, “There are good men in the brotherhoods who earn their money as we do and who don’t deal with those things. It’s only a small number who are criminals” (Yep 83). The notion of protecting members of a brotherhood runs strong in the Company.
The existence of brotherhoods in China and in America are facts. Dragonwings takes the reader’s imagination into these groups to feel the tension between the good parts of brotherhoods and the bad parts. Brotherhoods are similar to today’s “gangs”. After allowing ourselves to imagine being a member of a gang/brotherhood, would we be the type to encourage good acts? Or would we be one to bring out the worst of human nature?
Saez, Lauren. "History Jigsaw:Brotherhoods." Lauren Hamilton Sáez. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Jan. 2016. .
"The Chinese Crowding into Fashionable District." The Chinese in Oakland Following the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. The Oakland Herald, 27 Apr. 1906. Web. 11 Jan. 2016. http://www.sfmuseum.net/chin/chioak.html.
Yep, Laurence, and Laurence Yep. Dragonwings. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. Print.