Study Guide

Dragonwings Analysis

  • Tone

    Sympathetic, Thoughtful, Self-conscious

    Laurence Yep invests Moon Shadow with a lot of heart in a book that also is historically aware and self-conscious about being put forth into literary history. The Afterword is a perfect example of Yep's self-reflective tone as an author since he, you know, directly speaks to the reader as the author. Yep specifically points out that the story is based on a real person and event and that Dragonwings is a fictitious work.

  • Genre

    Quest, Historical Fiction, Coming-of-Age, Children's Literature

    On a basic level, Dragonwings is the story of Moon Shadow's multiple moves. We readers follow the travels of Moon Shadow from his family farm in the Middle Kingdom to the Company's building in the Tang people's village in San Francisco and finally to Miss Whitlaw's stable. After the earthquake, the Lees temporarily live in Golden Gate Park, then build Dragonwings in the Oakland foothills before moving into the new Company building at the book's end. When we notice that the book is not only organized according to time but also the physical space where Moon Shadow resides, we realize that Dragonwings is a quest where the dream that Moon Shadow pursues is one of family and belonging. In order to fulfill this dream of his, he believes he must be as loyal to Father as possible, which means believing in Windrider's dream of flight. Even though the dream that seems to fuel Dragonwings is that of flight and building a flying machine, the structure of the story shows that the larger dream is one of belonging within and without the network of family.

    Laurence Yep adds flesh to the bones of the quest formula by grounding Moon Shadow's world in a real space and time, making this a story of historical fiction. The earthquake of 1906 actually happened in San Francisco; immigration of Chinese people to America was very restricted; the Wright brothers existed and were ridiculed for their claims of flight.

    The sometimes harsh reality of the San Francisco area at the turn of the century makes a rich contrast to Windrider's fantastically mythological dream of his encounter with the Dragon King. It is by working towards his father's and his own dreams that Moon Shadow grows from the relatively inexperienced seven year old we meet in Chapter 1 to the fourteen-year-old version of Moon Shadow in Chapter 12. Not only does he gain more responsibilities as his life and the story progresses, but Moon Shadow also emotionally matures in the way that we can relate to. Our narrator's youth lends his story well to younger readers, but as with all rich literature, Dragonwings has something to offer to readers of any age.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Dragonwings is the name that Windrider and Moon Shadow give to their first full-sized airplane that they test out in Chapter 12. But the theme of dragons throughout the novel is significant for more reasons than just the airplane alone. Before the Lees even hear of the Wright brothers, Windrider has an epic dream about meeting the Dragon King and being told that he was a dragon in a former life. Moon Shadow is the only person Windrider shares this dream with who actually believes in him; the rest of the Company, Uncle Bright Star especially, thinks Windrider is crazy.

    Windrider aspires to be a dragon once more. The Dragon King told him that he would be tested as a human, and how he performs on these tests determines whether or not he will be granted dragon form again. To use dragon wings, then, seems to be a question of how much a person can rise to the challenges set before him. Moon Shadow gauges the kind of person he wants to be according to how dragonish the behavior is. For example, when he leaves the stable to "take a walk," he feels a dragon's courage in preparing to stand up to Jack and the other neighborhood bullies.

    The title "Dragonwings," then, speaks to the larger metaphor of flight. Sure, Windrider is obsessed with airplanes and the idea of flying, as in literally soaring through the air. But what of another type of flight, one where you might feel like you're soaring through the air, but your feet are still on the ground? What of putting in the mental and physical work, of building up courage and facing your fears? If you've ever felt that lump in your throat because you were experiencing something you knew to be special, then maybe that's a type of flight, too. The book seems to ask, what other kinds of flight are there? And which forms might wings take?

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Yep ends the book twice, really – first in Chapter 12 within the narrative of Moon Shadow, and second, from an outside-the-story level in the Afterword.

    Let's tackle the ending in Chapter 12 first. With the semi-successful flight of Dragonwings, Windrider's dream (and Moon Shadow's dream for his father) of flying is quenched. Though the plane literally crashes, he is able to prove to himself and to others, including Uncle Bright Star, that he can fly. At this point, Windrider's dream shifts to what has been Moon Shadow's dream all along: to have his family together again. Or perhaps we should say families plural, since Moon Shadow considers the people of the Company and the Whitlaws to be as close as kin anyway. Chapter 12 closes with Father en route to bringing Mother to America, the Lees as partners within the Company, and Moon Shadow sitting with the Whitlaws reflecting on his good fortune.

    Things wrap up pretty nicely, but there are still unanswered questions. Will Mother and Father make it back safely? If they do, how will Mother find the Tang people's village and the demons? What will happen to Grandmother – is she going to be left alone on the family farm in China? Will the Lees pay back Uncle Bright Star's loan? Will Windrider ever create an airplane again? Will race relations get any better in the Tang people's village? Or how about in the larger San Francisco community? All these things Yep leaves to our imagination. In short, we don't know about the futures of these characters. What we do know, however, is that the characters followed through on the Lees' dream of flying. And we do know that the characters have got each other to depend on, which is what really seems to matter.

    As for the Afterword: it's always an interesting decision on the author's part to write an afterword. By breaking out of the narrative, Yep draws attention to the fact that Dragonwings is a work of fiction, that it and its characters are in fact made up. But what is the effect of drawing attention to its fictional nature? We are interested in your answers, and we'll offer that the self-consciousness of this work of fiction shows how important it is to tell these stories, whether they are real or not. Yep gives us specific names of dynasties and people and tells us that there are loads of people who remain forever forgotten.

    The truth is that the "real" Tang people who immigrated to America in the early 1900s don't have available autobiographies, don't have biographies. The importance of fiction and of a piece like Dragonwings is, then, to make space for the stories of these people and to imagine the humanity of these individuals. Yep reminds us that stories can be really harmful when he references Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu. Whether stories are real or not, we tend to remember stories and characters as speaking to some truth. By offering us this story about the lives and world of the Lees, Yep provides another reality to imagine, another space to remember and honor.

  • Setting

    1903-1910; family farm in China; San Francisco, CA

    There are a lot of geographical shifts for Moon Shadow, and the move from China to America is a pretty huge one. He leaves the hard work but comfort of his small family farm and finds himself in a foreign land rife with racial tension and cultural shifts.

    During the late 1800s, many Chinese immigrants were coming to the United States, which many native-born Americans found very threatening. Particularly in California, white workers feared that Chinese immigrants would take away their jobs. As a result, laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 were passed. You can learn a lot about American immigration policies regarding Chinese immigrants and immigrants from other countries in Shmoop US History's guide to "Immigration: Era of Restriction."

    What this means for Moon Shadow, immigrating to the United States two decades after the Exclusion Act is passed, is that there's definitely that sense of fear and anger toward Chinese people. Those mindless "Ching Chong Chinaman" taunts that Jack throws at Moon Shadow are not unique to the world within this book (7.41-44). Moon Shadow has to embark on a new life in a foreign country, but he has to figure it out while adapting to a land where people will treat him poorly because they associate him with larger political stuff going on. Granted, this is not a one-way street of xenophobia; Moon Shadow has plenty of ungenerous assumptions about non-Chinese people, too (they are called "white demons," after all). Bottom line: the setting is super important to contextualize Yep's larger message of belonging within our real world and history.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    Though the unknowing reader might take one look at this young adult novel and assume it is easy, we at Shmoop think it's a bit tougher than it looks. The language and style are not too difficult when compared with other books on Shmoop, but where Dragonwings is extra chewy is in its content matter. Most people do not know much about the details and hardships of Chinese immigration to America at the turn of the century. Yep challenges the reader to care about the historical significance of events within this novel, from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. The good news is that an imagined experience of living through these events is looked at through the wide eyes and first-person narration of young Moon Shadow, who lets us into his thoughts in an everyday kind of way that eases us into the weightier issues of xenophobia, or the fear of anything different or foreign, that loom in the book.

  • Writing Style

    Simple, Imaginative

    The fact that Dragonwings is narrated by the earnest, young Moon Shadow makes Yep's open and simple sentences really jive together. When Moon Shadow sees the wreckage after the earthquake, for example, Yep expresses the narrator's new sense of fear by writing: "It was kind of scary" (10.6).

    But don't mistake simplicity here for stupidity or lack of skill. The sentences are written with a care for economy and feeling, allowing for the fantastical potential of the novel as well as the historical accuracy. For example, another walk through the city has Moon Shadow reflect, "Wherever you went, you saw the same wooden frames going up – like the skeletons of houses waiting for their wooden flesh to be attached. It was a city waiting to be reborn" (10.130).

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    Flying and Sky Imagery

    All things to do with flying are integral to this book. A lot of our discussion about flying can be found in "Characterization" and "What's Up with the Title?", so be sure to check those out. But what we will say here is that wings, the stars and moon, airplanes, dragons, and kites are all within the realm of "Flying and Sky Imagery."

    The theme of flying in Dragonwings is connected to everything, because the story is itself dependent on what flying stands for: believing in a dream and pursuing it. Uncle Bright Star might think Windrider's dream of flying is bunk, but that's because airplanes hadn't been invented yet. You can fly from Beijing to San Francisco now if you've got the money and documents, but a hundred years ago, that was hardly imagined to be a reality by most people. Since Windrider believes his true identity is as a dragon, to believe in his dream of flying is the same thing as believing in himself.

    Moon Shadow understands that it is important for him to believe in his dad and to support him, even when other people push him away as a crazy. That's probably because one of Moon Shadow's dreams was to meet his father; once he meets him, he's going to do all he can to hold onto that dream of having his father as part of his life. And in order to show how much he cares about Father, Moon Shadow supports his dream of flight and does everything he can to make it happen.


    In this book, dragons bring people together. Moon Shadow is immediately keen on Miss Whitlaw when he sees her fabulous stained glass window of a dragon. He bonds with the Whitlaws over the dragon stories he tells, showing them that not all dragons are evil, like the one in the St. George tale. Hey, that sounds kind of familiar – you know, the thing about not just generalizing that one group is all bad or all the same. Just like how the dragons are not all the same or all evil, not all Tang people are the same, and not all white Americans are the same. Dragons also serve the function of blurring the idea of reality. After all, why can't we believe in the dragon within everyone? Yep leaves it ambiguous whether or not Windrider really did speak with the Dragon King; it's up to us readers to consider. But, as Uncle Bright Star learns, what's the harm in believing in someone, in taking them at their word? Dragons remind us that a little faith goes a long way.

    Golden Mountain

    If Moon Shadow were Charlie Bucket, the Land of the Golden Mountain would be his chocolate factory. In other words, Moon Shadow has major hopes for America, and who can blame him? He's been told all kinds of fantastical things about America, like you can just scoop gold off the ground in buckets (1.16). But Moon Shadow mostly cares the Land of the Golden Mountain because that's where his dad is. When he arrives in America, he soon sees that the Land of the Golden Mountain isn't all that it's cracked up to be; but his dad is cool. He realizes that what he imagined America to be can be found in America; that is, the awesomeness that he was expecting the Golden Mountain to be can be found in the friends he's made:

    I had found my mountain of gold, after all, and it had not been nuggets but people who had made it up: people like the Company and the Whitlaws. I had not realized until I had left it that I had been on the mountain of gold all that time. (11.46)

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central Narrator)

    Moon Shadow proves to be an open and trustworthy narrator whose innocence and heart endear him to us as readers. We follow him as he grows from a kid to a teenager, from the Middle Kingdom to the Land of the Golden Mountain, from a fearful boy to a courageous young man. His youthful first-person perspective delivers the story to us through a the simple and honest lens. At the same time, the ability for a more mature Moon Shadow to interject and give us tidbits from the future offers a sense of assurance and reliability that his story is verified through multiple stages of his life and experience. So, even though Dragonwings deals with some weighty issues like racism, xenophobia, pride, and courage, Moon Shadow's point of view gives us a hand to hold, trusting that he'll explain things in a relatable way.

    • Plot Analysis

      Initial Situation

      Windrider shares his dragon dream with Moon Shadow his first night in America.

      Though the story significantly begins with Moon Shadow in the Middle Kingdom, it is not until Windrider shares his destiny as a dragon with his son that the story of Dragonwings really starts to roll. With the dream transmission, we see a common purpose that unites father and son and that places a wedge between them and the rest of the Company. It is the dream of building a flying machine that fuels the Lees' relationships with Mr. Alger, Miss Whitlaw, Robin, and eventually the Company.


      The Lees must leave the Tang people's village after they fight Black Dog and kill a man.

      Dragonwings is largely a story about moving from one place to another. After Windrider kills a man in self-defense, he and Moon Shadow must leave the Tang people's village to avoid revenge from the dead man's family. This move away from the Company, however, frees Windrider to work toward his dream of flight away from Uncle's judgment. We also structurally understand Black Dog to be an antagonist in this story since he lives with disregard to his kinsmen. This move to Miss Whitlaw's stable forges the friendship between the Lees and the Whitlaws.


      The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 strikes. The City falls apart.

      The Lees, and everyone in San Francisco, are forced to relocate when the natural disaster erupts. The somewhat comfortable routine they had going on at the stable, what with the Whitlaws so close for companionship, changes as they must consider where to relocate and where money will allow. The disaster brings out the good and the bad in people, once more complicating ideas of who you can and cannot trust. The earthquake presents the Lees with another opportunity to prove their loyalty to Uncle and the Company. But, as we will see, it's not one they take.


      Windrider insists on pursuing his flying dream despite Uncle's disapproval. Moon Shadow goes with his father.

      Just when it looked like the Lees were going to bunk with the Company again and all peace would break out between Windrider and Uncle Bright Star, Windrider makes a bid for his destiny as a dragon and decides to act for himself. Uncle Bright Star is totally peeved by this. Moon Shadow supports his father and accompanies him for one more move, this time to the odoriferous barn in the Oakland foothills.


      Just as Dragonwings is ready, Black Dog takes Windrider and Moon Shadow's savings.

      Black Dog once more proves himself to be a villain, nearly killing Moon Shadow in order to steal the Lees' savings for Dragonwings and rent. Just when it looked like Windrider was going to achieve his goal of flying in a machine, Black Dog dashes their chances by robbing them of the money to pull Dragonwings out of the barn and up on the hill.


      The Company and the Whitlaws help Windrider fly.

      But just when Windrider and Moon Shadow sound like they had just gotten kicked off of So You Think You Can Dance, the Company pulls through for them. Their surprise appearance comes not only with their physical help to push Dragonwings up the hill but also their financial support in paying rent and loaning Windrider money for partnership in the Company. And the flying dream wouldn't be completely right without Miss Whitlaw and Robin there.


      The Lees live with the Company, Mother is on her way, and Moon Shadow maintains strong contact with the Whitlaws. (Chapter 12)

      The Lees' sense of home is finally looking to stabilize, what with lodgings with the Company, the promise of Mother to be near, and frequent visits with the Whitlaws. All this, and the dream of family did not stop Windrider from flying.