Dragonwings by Laurence Yep: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

This lesson provides a summary and analysis of how Laurence Yep's 1975 novel ''Dragonwings'', a work of historical fiction about a Chinese-American father and son living in San Francisco in the early 1900s, compares with real accounts of the same events.

Moon Shadow Comes to America

A young boy named Moon Shadow Lee lives in China. His father went to work in America years ago, and he has never met him. The story begins when a man named Hand Clap comes to China to visit Moon Shadow's family and then brings Moon Shadow back to America with him to meet his father.

Moon Shadow meets his father, uncle, and several friends, men who form the 'company' that runs a laundromat in San Francisco. They give him gifts: a kite, clothes, boots. The Company calls white Americans 'white demons'; a white man throws a brick through the window of the laundromat on Moon Shadow's first night, giving him a taste of the racism and xenophobia, or fear of outsiders, that his father and other Chinese immigrants have faced the whole time they've been there.

Moon Shadow's father, Windrider, has earned this name because of his skillful kite building. He is also interested in aviation, telling his son that he would love to build an airplane someday. He tells Moon Shadow that he believes his true form is a dragon, which he will return to if he lives his life on earth well.

Moon Shadow Makes Friends

A woman named Miss Whitlaw helps Moon Shadow write a letter to the Wright brothers, two brothers from Ohio who were gaining fame from their experiments with flying machines. The brothers send Moon Shadow diagrams and instructions in return. Windrider and Moon Shadow test their prototypes on sand dunes just as the Wrights are doing on the east coast. Miss Whitlaw's niece, Robin, lets Moon Shadow borrow her books.

This plane flown by the Wright brothers in 1903 would have been similar to the one built by Windrider and Moon Shadow
Wright brothers plane in 1903

Disaster Strikes

In 1906, a dangerous earthquake hits and destroys much of San Francisco. Soon after, a series of fires finish the job until the city is ruined and most people have lost everything. Moon Shadow and his father move again and help try to rebuild the village.

San Francisco after Earthquake of 1906
San Francisco after Earthquake of 1906

Through all of the ups and downs, moves, and natural disasters, Windrider continues to dream about flying. Moon Shadow wants to help his father pursue his dream of building an airplane. They go to Oakland and get new jobs and renew their commitment to building planes. Eventually, they build one that they name Dragonwings.

Black Dog, Uncle Bright Star's evil son, robs and threatens them. Windrider gives him the money; they were so close to reaching their goals and, once again, they have lost everything.

Lessons Learned

After this latest setback, the Company and the Whitlaws support them, giving them money and coming to watch them fly their plane. On one flight, the frame of the plane snaps, and Windrider breaks a leg and ribs. At this point, he realizes that family is more important than killing yourself to reach goals.

They bring Moon Shadow's mother to America so that their family can be together. The story ends with Moon Shadow and Windrider feeling lucky to have been blessed by a community like the Company and the Whitlaws, a network of friends and family that supports, loves, and takes care of each other.


In this novel, Laurence Yep skillfully combines the folklore of Chinese culture involving dragons with a touching story about family and a portrayal of actual historical events. The story is based on the true story of Fung Joe Guey, a Chinese boy who flew planes in 1909.

The Earthquake of 1906 was one of the most disastrous earthquakes to hit California. Although it is often associated with the city of San Francisco, the effects of the earthquake were far-reaching. San Francisco experienced even greater damage because of the series of fires that broke out after the earthquake.

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