Study Guide

Dragonwings Principles

By Laurence Yep


"But the demons will beat Moon Shadow," Mother protested.

"They don't do that so much anymore." Hand Clap carefully wiped his sticky fingers on his tunic sleeve. "And they wouldn't do it to a child. Even the demons have some principles." (1.27-28)

Early in the book, Yep shows that principles are culturally relative but existent in everyone.

[...F]or Grandfather, having a queue was part of being a Tang man. He would as soon lose his nose as his queue. But even if he had been a revolutionary who knew what the queue really meant and hated the thought of wearing it, there was still the principle of the matter." (4.14)

Moon Shadow understands Grandfather's fight to death in the name of honor and dignity of self. Even if Grandfather had thought his queue was silly, there's a difference between him doing something about it and others doing something about it through violence. Moon Shadow agrees that this difference is worth dying for.

"Here, John." The demon unbuttoned his coat and reached into his pants pocket, but father shook his head.

"No tip. Happy just to look at horseless."

The demon stopped and studied Father as you might look at a dog that had suddenly said he was going to the opera. "Well, I'll be damned," he said. He reached into a pocket of his waistcoat and took out a card, and handed it to Father with a flourish. "I can use honest handymen like you. You come around anytime, you sabe me?" (4.45-47)

Windrider demonstrates his earnest fascination with machines and his willingness to help beyond financial gain. This ends up coming in handy, too, when he finds work with Mr. Alger.

Black Dog looked at me intently. "Why shouldn't we get some pleasure in this life? Why later? Why not now?"

"Because we don't owe things just to ourselves. There are others." (5.32-33)

Yep contrasts Black Dog's priority of instant gratification to Moon Shadow's more humble approach to life.

"No," Father let out his breath in a rush. "No. 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. […] Don't you see? We're all tainted by it. As long as we keep quiet and let it go on, we're as bad as they are. It eats at them; it eats at us." (5.58-60)

In a revolutionary spirit, Windrider challenges what it means to be a superior person when there are a lot of corrupt institutions are work.

Your mother was always polite to everyone. She always said that you never knew if that person might have been some king or queen in a former life. (6.25)

Windrider advises Moon Shadow to heed his mother's advice to treat everyone as though they were royalty.

She pressed her lips together for a moment, as if she were deciding something. "We must get those people out."

"It would take four of us weeks to clear tunnels for them,"
Father said.

"We'll draft help. After all, we were put on this earth to help one another," Miss Whitlaw said. (9.62-64)

Miss Whitlaw shows her magnanimous instinct to always think of others in the destruction after the earthquake.

It was a wonder to watch Miss Whitlaw sail up the block and gather people behind her like a hen collecting her chicks. In her gentlest but firmest way, she gathered up the surviving demons and set them in work crews to clearing the mounds from which people were calling.

Watching her with open admiration, Father shook his head. "Now just look at her." For myself, I could not help thinking that she had missed her vocation as a shanghaier. (9.87-88)

Miss Whitlaw's persistence in looking out for others' needs is an inspiration for Moon Shadow, who assists his father without resentment in a way that would make Miss Whitlaw proud.

"There's a whole city in ruins, and more of his kind willing to take advantage of others' misery," he explained. He touched the club in his belt. "But there's no helping other people's souls. We can only try to help the people trapped inside the rubble." (9.125)

Windrider is disappointed at healthy civilians who do not join the effort to help fellow survivors. He reflects that he can only control what he chooses to do.

By that Friday, we had dwindled from some twenty-five thousand of us to only a few hundred. Many Tang people had just got disgusted and left for points east, south, and north, where you weren't herded around like a flock of sheep by a shepherd who could not make up his mind. But the few hundred who stayed were the hard core of the Tang people – the stubbornest, orneriest individuals, who were getting tired of being pushed around. Someone had to stand firm. (10.103)

Though it is exhausting and demeaning, many of the Tang people continue to march out of protest of their maltreatment.