Delusion in “The Paper Menagerie”

Evan Samuelson

In Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie,” metaphors shift meanings as easily as paper folds. The reader’s perspective on Laohu the paper tiger is directly related to how Jack feels about him. First, he seems to be a figment of childish imagination, then a personification of motherly love, and ultimately a personal communication from mother to son when Jack discovers the letter written on Laohu. Laohu’s significance evolves whenever Jack has a revelation (or crisis) of identity. For most of the story, Jack is torn between two binary identities: the Chinese identity he grew up with and the American identity he seeks to conform to. His feelings about his identity are manifested in his paper menagerie: as long as he accepts his mother’s culture, they are living, breathing creatures; when he rejects it, they become lifeless. He is unable to accept the fact he is Chinese-American, and his inability to make sense of his identity results in him resorting to self-imposed delusion: he imagines the sentient origami he saw as a child come back to life to soothe his remorse over mistreating his mother. In “The Paper Menagerie,” the living origami creatures are presented as the personification of motherly love but instead act as mile markers for Jack’s deteriorating sanity.

In the beginning of the story, Jack loves his animals and plays with them without any caveats. He was comfortable with his identity because he had not yet doubted its validity in his larger culture. After his American friend calls them “trash” (Liu 4), he internalizes the epithet and shuts them away in a shoebox, only for them to break out of it and return to their old places in his room. When the paper menagerie returns to their old places, it is a metaphor for how his identity cannot be denied and will continue to manifest itself despite his doubts. Fed up with their refusal to conform to his will, Jack closes them in a box and leaves it in the attic where they will not bother him. He is able to forget about them and effectively compartmentalize his Chinese identity.

The action of shutting away his paper toys is the beginning of his deteriorating mental health. He begins to resent his mother not because of any action she took, but because she represents the identity he cannot come to terms with. Only after his mother’s death did he look at them again, and they did not come alive until Qingming as she had told him. Finally, after he reads the letter inside Laohu, he cradles Laohu in his arm on the walk home, which seems to signal a change in his attitude and even suggests a type of love akin to motherly affection. It seems that, in the end, the magic imbued into them by his mother won over reality. Or is there more than meets the eye? Is it any coincidence that Jack discovers Laohu alive again on the first Qingming after her death, a time when he would already be grappling with grief?

In order “to settle the doubts of the readers, Ken Liu also describes his narrator’s hesitation to accept the animation of the paper craft” (Jabeen et al. 7). He says to himself, “…perhaps I had only imagined that these paper constructions were once alive. The memory of children could not be trusted” (Liu 9). This is the only instance in the story where he considers the nature of his playthings, and he tells himself that it was only an overactive imagination. As Jack further represses his identity (the climax of which occurs at the death of his mother, which he was not even present for), the more powerful it becomes. When he shut his toys away in the shoebox, they continued to manifest themselves without his sanction. The way in which the origami springs to life from one breath of air from his mother is similar to how Jack’s self-hatred began with a few words of discrimination spoken to him.

Jack is a second-generation immigrant with a Chinese mother and an American father. As he grows up, he begins to resent his mother and his Chinese identity in a way that mimics how American culture at large perceives him. When he was ten years old, he overhears visitors in his home discriminating against Chinese-Americans, saying “‘Something about the mixing never seems right. The child looks unfinished. Slanty eyes, white face. A little monster’” (Liu 4). His neighbors’ racial discrimination and his mother’s inability to confront them left him feeling powerless and other, and after an incident where his living origami was criticized by his American friend, he began to distance himself from his mother’s culture. If his refusal to engage with Chinese culture is “a manifestation of his self-hatred after suffering racial discrimination” (Hang 4), his paper menagerie is a manifestation of the pain of that self-hatred. Aware that he is denying his own identity, Jack does not respond by taking action and fixing the problem within himself but regresses back to a childish mental state to cope.

In the context of the story, this origami can be interpreted as a metaphor for love, magical flairs, an indication of an unreliable narrator, or a commentary on the romanticization of memory experienced by many when trying to recall childhood. Jack himself dismisses the movement of the creatures as imagination, and yet he literally embraces the moving Laohu at the end of the story. The reality of the situation is not made explicit to the reader, and thus the binaries at the work become the reader’s guide to figuring out the story. While it seems to be Liu’s intention to make a statement about the life-giving power of unconditional love, instead, he creates a harrowing situation in which an emotionally-wounded, insecure man is left with nothing but delusions of the life he once had. The creatures are not creatures at all; they are paper, and Jack is just a broken young man. Han Song’s statement about the conflict between Chinese and Western ideas from his 2013 article, “Chinese Science Fiction: A Response to Modernization,” applies directly to Jack’s identity crisis: “…we turn ourselves into monsters, and that is the only way we can get along with Western notions of progress” (Song 20).

Jack is at once aware of the absurdity of his situation and completely immersed in it. When he finally understands why his mother did what she did, he realizes that he is the living embodiment of what she had called the “saddest feeling”: “…for a child to finally grow the desire to take care of his parents, only to realize that they were long gone” (Liu 13).

In the end, Jack’s final delusion is thinking that he can communicate with his mother. He writes the Chinese symbol for love repeatedly inside the letter written on Laohu, an example of performative guilt and shame. Because someone else had to translate the letter for him, he was hit with guilt three-fold: he had acted cruelly toward his mother, he could not even understand her appeal to him because he lost her language, and he was absent for her death. He seems to understand his mother’s motivations and hopes for him, but instead of beginning the journey back to accepting his identity and following her tradition of love, he desperately tries to communicate with her to make up for all his lost time. It is unclear whether he does this for the benefit of the spectator or for himself.

In “The Paper Menagerie,” the undoing of human beings and paper alike is the inability to communicate. No one can get across exactly what they mean– barriers of language and emotion separate them. When Jack finally understands his mother, it is too much for him, and his knowledge of his own powerlessness sends him spiraling into desperation. There is no chance for him to set things right with his mother. There is no chance for him to be young again, or to set things right for himself. He is left trying to fulfill his emotional needs with fantasy, with Laohu, the last remnant of a love he could never understand but only experience. Even the story’s genre of “speculative fiction” takes on a darkly ironic tone as the delusion of Jack becomes the center of the story: all that is left for him now is to speculate about what could have been, comforted by Laohu, a creature that was never a creature at all and will forever be paper.

Works Cited

Hang, YU. “An Analysis of the Reconstruction of Chinese American Identity in The Paper Menagerie.” Journal of Literature and Art Studies, vol. 10, no. 9, Sept. 2020, p. 6.

Jabeen, Tahira, et al. “Magical Realism in Ken Liu’s Short Stories.” The Dialogue, vol. 17, no. 4, Nov. 2022, p. 16,

Liu, Ken. “The Paper Menagerie.” THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION, 2011, pp. 64–76.

Song, Han. “Chinese Science Fiction: A Response to Modernization.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 40, no. 1, 2013, pp. 15–21. JSTOR, Accessed 4 Dec. 2022.


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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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