by Laurence Yep
Tools of Characterization
Pop Quiz: What do the names Moon Shadow, Windrider, Uncle Bright Star, and Robin have in common? You've got it, they all have to do with the sky. It is no coincidence that these four characters are also four of the most significant and likeable characters.
Moon Shadow tells us in the beginning of Chapter 3 that every "Tang man has several names," so this idea of names having to do with identity is also supported by the book (3.1). We know that Father wasn't called Windrider at birth; only after his dream of the Dragon King calling him Windrider does he self-identify as Windrider, as though it is his true dragon name. Windrider's dream is to fly, or ride in the wind. Pretty apt naming, right?
Moon Shadow is a pretty intense name; we've got the moon, which is in the sky but is really out in space and orbits around the Earth. So maybe what "Moon Shadow" tells us about our narrator is that he's able to imagine things that are beyond the immediate present reality. He is able to see the moon and believe in its existence, just as he is able to see his father and believe in his identity as a dragon. Furthermore, Moon Shadow is remarkably good at not resenting the fact that he is kind of shadowed by his father's dream for himself.
Similarly, we are encouraged to dig Uncle Bright Star not only because he is regal, but also because he really has a lot of heart and just sometimes has a sad way of showing it. But his name's Uncle Bright Star, so you just kind of forgive him for his off moments and realize that, like the North Star, Uncle Bright Star is a leader when all else is dark.
As for Robin, well, yeah, she's a chirpy bird who's mostly just super friendly and into flying things, like dragons and airplanes.
To contrast, we can consider Black Dog's name. Do dogs fly? No, unless you're thinking The Neverending Story, and we're not even sure that's a dog. But not all land-locked animals are necessarily villainized in Dragonwings. White Deer and Old Deerfoot, for example, are named for terrestrial folk that are known to be peaceful. But still, you know what they say about dogs: their bark is worse than their bite. Black Dog doesn't need to be so nasty; he could opt in on the love shared among the Company crowd. But he doesn't. For more ideas on names, see what Shmoop has to say about each character in "Characters."
It's no coincidence that one of the first things we learn about Black Dog is that he's pale and has "a scar by his right temple that he had gotten in a sword fight" (2.83). Yeah, that sword fight apparently isn't his last. It's also no coincidence that Moon Shadow immediately takes to Miss Whitlaw's smile and the "friendly twinkle" in her eyes (6.33). And Mr. Alger is remarkable as a "big, cheerful-looking demon with a bland, round face" (4.37). Sounds about right. Looking friendly apparently is a good sign in this novel. Uncle Bright Star is described as "built like a rock" with the marks of grueling work in the Sierra Mountains, so we might expect him to be stubborn, proud, and hard to sway (2.3-4). Lefty's amputated right hand speaks both to his gambling addiction and the tragic loss of his poet's hand.
Oh, and don't forget the discussion on queues as reminders of the Manchus forcing Tang people to submission and demeaning them as horses (2.72). The queues are a reminder, too, of how something meant to shame people can be forgotten and turned into a source of vanity, and also how xenophobia and race is not only on a white/non-white binary.
The first gifts Moon Shadow receives from the Company upon his arrival in the Land of the Golden Mountain are garments to prepare him for work and life in America. When White Deer says "I hope they fit," there seems to be more at stake than the clothes themselves (2.67). With the gift of proper clothing, the Company shows their wish for Moon Shadow to fit in to their family. And we know when Uncle Bright Star means business, because he dresses up in his fancy silk suits. Fine clothing is not necessary to designate a fine person, however. Miss Whitlaw has a pressed but understated dress that moves with her. In their time scrimping in the Oakland foothills, Moon Shadow is looking pretty shabby. But that doesn't detract from the dream or from him as a person. So, even though Laurence Yep takes time in his novel to describe his characters' wardrobe, it's really to show that material stuff takes a back seat to a strong dream and people to share it with.
Maybe the best example of how actions make a man is to contrast Black Dog and Moon Shadow. Moon Shadow begins work as soon as he arrives in America, whereas Black Dog steals from ten-year-old family friends, beats women, and threatens to kill Moon Shadow for money. Moon Shadow collects overdue bills from customers, and Black Dog beats him up and steals that money. These are all ways that Yep shows us readers that Moon Shadow is an honest and hard worker who contributes to the family business, while Black Dog is a corrupt thief who would steal from anyone, including his own Company members. For more ideas on how Black Dog and Moon Shadow are foils for one another, check out "Character Roles."