Agency and Cognitive Value in “The Paper Menagerie”

This is part of a series of posts about the value of speculative fiction in understanding religion.

In Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie,” Jack’s mom merits our pity. Her first memory was of her mother eating dirt during a famine so her daughter could have the last bit of flour. When she was ten, her parents died during the Cultural Revolution. She was enslaved by a family in Hong Kong and forbidden from learning English; her only chance of escape was to be sold to a wealthy American. Her American husband—Jack’s father—cared for her, but she was adrift in an entirely different culture, unable to speak the language. She connected deeply with her son, but he rejected her and his Chinese heritage; she felt like she had lost her connection to parents and her childhood all over again. She died of breast cancer before her son finished college.

If this exhausts our understanding of Jack’s mom, our knowledge of Chinese culture and religion is diminished. She easily becomes a stereotype for how we think of lower-class Chinese women—as victims of Communism, oppressive social structures, etc. (As we’ve discussed, characters in fiction can become harmful stereotypes). She’s understood almost entirely from the outside, as determined by her circumstances.

The Importance of Human Agency in Understanding Religion

This is why human agency is so important. Religious traditions, as they are actually practiced, involve real people using the tools available to them, religious or otherwise, to achieve their goals. Some internalize their being a victim, often for mental health reasons, but “dark nights of the soul” aren’t common, and they are rarely permanent. People find a way out of despair. They find a solution. This often involves adapting their religion—inventing new tools or remaking old ones—so that the problem can be solved. People are always on the ground, making their religion rise to the challenge, enacting change in their communities, themselves, their afterlives, the cosmos, etc.1

Examples can be supplied almost limitlessly. Many Jews in ancient Palestine felt oppressed by the Roman empire, so they wrote apocalypses and prophesied the imminent arrival of the Messiah who would bring political change. Or a mother in southern India who wants her son to do well on a Chemistry test, so she fasts, leaving more rice for the god Shiva. Non-Muslims in many Muslim-controlled nations until the twentieth century have converted to Islam to reduce their tax burden (and Muslim rulers sometimes discouraged conversion so that their subjects’ tax burden would not decrease). Shamans in many cultures negotiate with spirits to heal the sick, while sometimes also availing patients of medical services. Many Jains avoid eating root vegetables to avoid rebirth in hell. Mexicans today deploy their piety for Santa Muerte (Saint Death) to repel COVID-19.

Agency in “The Paper Menagerie”

Why is Jack’s mother not just a victim in “The Paper Menagerie”? Primarily because of her fantastic power to breathe life into origami animals, a power that she shares with the people of her ancestral village. When she celebrated Qingming (Chinese Ancestors’ Day) with Jack, they wrote letters to her parents. She folded them into a crane and the crane actually flew across the Pacific to the graves of her parents in China. Her magic is what makes her powerful, not to solve all her problems—she can’t cure her own cancer—but with her magic she’s able to, at least temporarily, solve the problem that matters most to her: connecting with her son and the culture of her birth.

We’ve said that fictional characters can be stereotypes for how we think about culture, but in this case so much the better that Jack’s mother is a stereotype imbued with magic. Her magic protects us against viewing her people as nothing more than victims and initiates us to a wider Daoist magical tradition.

Agency in Speculative Fiction

Let’s take a step back to consider speculative fiction in general because character agency isn’t just a trait of certain excellent works of speculative fiction, like “The Paper Menagerie.” The major reason for this is that readers want characters they care about, and proactive characters that solve their problems, or characters that grow into being proactive, are more likeable than characters that give up or stagnate.

But on a structural level, we find the recurrence of the Hero’s Journey in speculative fiction, a genre that thrives on people, problems, and environments that are larger than life. In realistic fiction, there’s much more variation in whether protagonists have problems, how proactive they are, and whether stories have plots. This can make for greater fidelity to the real world because people aren’t always heroes; sometimes a “slice of life” is more characteristic of life than plot structures and character arcs. But it being that agency is important in understanding religion, speculative fiction’s approach is more likely to furnish us with understanding, all other things being equal.

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  1. This function of religion is what leads Steven Engler to assert that science fiction is “fundamentally religious” (108), not in every sense but in the sense that both explore “links between short-term individual agency and long-term social and cosmic order” (109). (“Science Fiction, Religion and Social Change.” In Lee Easton and Randy Schroeder, Eds. The Influence of Imagination: Essays on Science Fiction and Fantasy as Agents of Change. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company)

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