“The Jade Peony” – An Archetypal Literary Theory

While looking at the title of my blog post, some may be asking themselves; what is  archetypal literary theory? As defined from the website, Literary Devices, archetypal criticism is a “typical character, an action or situation that seems to represent universal patterns of human nature” (1). Through the use of symbols and patterns present in a novel, readers will be able to identify underlying topics and understand the novel from a different perspective.

Image result for the jade peony cover

The Jade Peony Book Cover

The novel I decided to read, which has become quite enjoyable so far is The Jade Peony. The Jade Peony written by Wayson Choy is about a Chinese-Canadian family living in Vancouver B.C. during the Depression and World War II. This book; narrated from the perspectives of the family’s children – Jook-Liang, Jung-Sum, and Sek-Lung – express the hardships and uncertainty of living in Canada during this time. This book expresses the importance of tradition as well as living in Canada as an immigrant. When reading this novel from an archetypal literary perspective, it becomes clear of the importance of heritage and following normal traditions. These ideas are shown through the personalities and actions of Poh-Poh and Wong Suk, who take the archetypal roles of a Wise Old Man and a hero.

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Wayson Choy; Author

Poh-Poh, also known as Grandmother or the Old One, plays a key role in the novel and can be considered The Wise Old Man. Poh-Poh, who lives with her son and his family, focuses most of her time telling stories about her past in China and making Chinese herbal supplements. Being one of the oldest citizens in Chinatown, she encourages to continue the use of Chinese tradition within her household; although not living in China. Throughout the first half of the novel, I found that a lot of the time, Poh Poh was telling others stories about her past experiences growing up and how they impacted her life. To most people, the Old One was considered quite knowledgeable and wise and was a person people would go to when seeking guidance. When her grandchildren were doing something untraditional or something she didn’t approve of, she would tell them: “You not Canada…You China” (Choy 34) reminding them of their heritage and the hardships those before them had to endure. To others, Poh-Poh often taught life principles either about their heritage or traditions and she was someone who helped when needed. Because of these qualities expressed by the Grandmother in the first half of the novel, I believed she fit the role of the Wise Old Man well.

Although she can take the role of a Wise Old Man, the Grandmother also claims the archetypal role of a trickster. In the second part of The Jade Peony, from the perspective of Jung-Sum – the second brother – when he first arrived at the train station, he thought she was the Fox Lady, “a demon creature” (Choy 89) his mother had warned him about before she died because of the way she looked at him.  A fox is often referred to as a “trickster figure, whether good or bad” who “loved to take on its favourite disguise of a friendly elderly old lady” (Choy 89). Throughout this half of the book, I believe Poh-Poh takes on many different archetypal roles including the roles of a Trickster and a Wise Old Man developing her character and showing readers all her different personalities.

Image result for the monkey man and fox lady cartoons chinese

Fox Lady 

Another character in the novel I thought represented an archetypal role was Wong-Suk, one of Poh-Poh’s friends she grew up with in China. In the novel, Wong-Suk went to dinner at Poh-Poh’s home where Jook-Liang – the daughter – connected him to one of her Grandmother’s ancient Chinese stories about the Monkey Man. As this website suggests, Wong takes the role of an archetypal hero. The Monkey Man was considered a hero because he fought against evil forces and saved people. He was the person people looked up to, giving them hope.

In my opinion, Wong also takes the role of a Mother Figure; more specifically a Fairy God Mother to Liang. After she finds out Wong is the Monkey Man, the two quickly become best friends and spent much of their time together. Although it may seem in the novel like they are just friends, I think Wong guides and directs Liang to be a better person. At the beginning of the book, all she wanted was attention. As she became close to Wong, he gave her the attention she wanted but she didn’t take it for granted. Eventually, Wong left to go back to China and she didn’t fully understand what he meant to her. After Wong left Vancouver she said: “I answered greedily, too quickly, my childish fingers grasping imaginary gold coins…then, in the days of our royal friendship, understand how bones must come to rest where they most belong” (Choy 72). Over the time Wong and Liang spent together, without realizing herself, he had directed and guided her towards being more thoughtful and understanding. In this novel, Wayson Choy incorporates many different archetypal roles into his novel making it more interesting when looking at it from this perspective.

The symbol in the novel that was clear to me was the jade peony. Although this symbol wasn’t explained completely in this half of the book, it did, however, express the importance of the stone. “Jade is the gemstone most associated with Chinese culture artifacts. Together, the combination of peony and jade make for perhaps the quintessential symbol of Chinese history and heritage” (Sexton 1). The jade peony is a very important and meaningful stone representing the Chinese history and heritage. In the novel, the stone belonged to the Grandmother who took pride in continuing the Chinese traditions and heritage. Because already expressed in the novel the importance of heritage, I believe this stone is an important symbol throughout the book and will always express the Chinese culture.

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A Jade Peony 

”The Jade Peony’ explores themes traditionally associated with novels about the immigrant experience…the burden of old ways, the necessity of learning new ones” (Gambone 7). The Jade Peony is a book that addresses the hardships and uncertainties of living in Canada during the Depression and War as well as opens readers eyes to different heritage and traditions. After reading this book from an archetypal literary theory, it is clear to me that some characters like Poh Poh and Wong show certain characteristics of claiming the role of an archetypal character. Well reading the second half of the novel, I hope the journey of Sek-Lung is expressed in a convincing and interesting way just like before.


Works Cited

“Archetype – Examples and Definition of Archetype.” Literary Devices, 9 Jan. 2018, https://literarydevices.net/archetype/. Accessed 11 July 2018.

Choy, Wayson. The Jade Peony. British Columbia, Douglas and McIntrye Ltd., 1995.

Gambone, Philip. “Hyphenates.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Aug. 1997, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/97/08/10/reviews/970810.10gambont.html. Accessed 11 July 2018.

Sexton, Timothy. “The Jade Peony Symbols, Allegory and Motifs.” GradeSaver: Getting You the Grade, www.gradesaver.com/the-jade-peony/study-guide/symbols-allegory-motifs. Accessed 11 July 2018.


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