Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

China Boy is a Bildungsroman, or rite-of-passage story. Although the novel covers only approximately one-and-a-half years of Kai’s life, it depicts a pivotal point in his growing, a time of great change and uncertainty out of which he will gather strength and survive or to which he will succumb. With the death of his mother, the physical and emotional distance of his father, the cruelty of his stepmother, and the everyday violence that he faces on his neighborhood streets, Kai is plunged into a seemingly inescapable dungeon. To escape, Kai has to draw on the very last dregs of a personal integrity—the somehow unquenchable resilience of a seven-year-old—in order to salvage a childhood gone awry. Facing violence both within and without his home, Kai nevertheless soldiers along, and despite incredible odds neutralizes the neighborhood bully in the defining battle of his short life. This culminating act signals a breakthrough for Kai, and the novel leaves the reader with the hope that with one battle won, Kai is set to win others and, ultimately, to win the long war of his childhood.

The novel is also about displacement, about the suspension between two clearly defined, seemingly irreconcilable cultures. The culture represented by Kai’s mother and Uncle Shim seems, with Mah-mee’s death, to slip away with each day. Kai, speaking a five-year-old’s broken “Songhai,” is the flotsam from that culture. The reality of a relentlessly...

(The entire section is 504 words.)