The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

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The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts



Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of A Girlhood Among Ghosts is one of the first texts to use autobiography to voice concerns about issues in the Asian American community. It is considered one of the most seminal works of the 1970s. An instant bestseller upon publication, The Woman Warrior received the 1976 National Book Critics Circle Award and became one of the top ten nonfiction books of the decade.

Kingston's narrative combines myth and memory, sometimes alternating between the two. She borrows ancient images of Asian war and conflict to trace the evolution of her own perspective and show how it clashes with the perspectives of her mother and other Chinese immigrants. Written in the first person, The Woman Warrior is made up of five vignettes, or short literary sketches, that investigate Kingston's own identity formation in relation to her mother and other female relatives. Kingston accomplishes this by focusing on the place of women in Chinese culture, especially their ability to find a voice of their own in a male-dominated society.

While her mother's stories provide the initial springboard for the novel, the tales are about Kingston's own struggles with her Chinese American ethnicity. Shirley Geok-lin Lim points out in her preface to Approaches to Teaching Kingston's The Woman Warrior that by revealing the repressed and unspoken stories of her family and of Chinese American history, Kingston is tracing the development of a Chinese American woman finally able to recognize the power of her ethnicity.

The book draws heavily from the myth and legend of Chinese talk stories Kingston heard from her mother while growing up in California. These mysterious tales scramble Kingston's ability to distinguish fact from fiction herself and create a childhood lost in amaze of unusual language, unfamiliar ancestral tradition, and incomprehensible behavior toward girls. These myths are so finely integrated into the women's and girl's stories that comprise The Woman Warrior, it is difficult to determine the spaces between imagination, myth, and real life.

Kingston wrote The Woman Warrior concurrently with her second novel, China Men, believing they would comprise one large book, but the stories split themselves into two volumes by gender, replicating geography and history in which the women maintained their worlds in China while the men sailed to California. Kingston considers it "an 'I' book," created by the voices she hears inside herself. Eventually, those voices release her childhood confusion and humiliation as she comes to understand the richness of her ethnic background, and the everyday strength required to be a Chinese woman in America.


No Name Woman

The first of The Woman Warrior's five vignettes opens with Kingston's retelling of the story of her aunt, repeating hermother's admonition which she is clearly breaking: "'You must not tell anyone,' my mother said, 'what I am about to tell you.'"

Maxine Hong Kingston

Maxine Hong Kingston, was born on October 27, 1940, in Stockton, California. The first of her Chinese immigrant parent's six American-born children, Kingston grew up working long hours in the family-owned laundry. She was surrounded by Americans, whom her mother considered ghosts, as well as by the ghosts of her mother's tales, which she later incorporated into her work.

With the aid of scholarships, Kingston attended the University of California at Berkeley, and graduated with an English degree in 1962. While a student there, Kingston participated in anti-war protests, which inspired her to use her voice in writing. Soon after, she married Earll Kingston, a fellow Berkeley student. They had a son a couple of years later, and Kingston began teaching high school. In 1967, in the midst of Berkeley's political uprisings and student protests against the Vietnam War, the Kingstons left for Hawaii, intending only to stop on the way to Japan. They stayed in Hawaii for seventeen years. Kingston wrote The Woman Warrior while teaching English at the University of Hawaii. She followed it a few years later with China Men, a sort of companion to the first book, about the experience of Chinese American men. Both books won the National Book Critics Circle award.

As of 2005, Kingston and her husband live in Oakland, California.

Her mother, later called Brave Orchid, shares with young Maxine the story of her husband's sister, an aunt in China who "jumped into the family well" and committed suicide. She goes on: "We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born." Maxine learns that the No Name Woman drew the wrath of her village by conceiving a child when her husband had been gone for many years on a trip to America. On the night of the baby's birth, the village tears apart the family home, killing livestock, spilling food, and defacing the walls with chicken blood. The next morning Brave Orchid finds the bodies of No Name Woman and her newly born child, to whom she gave birth in the pigsty the night before, plugging up the well. The moral of the tale is sharp and pointed for young Maxine, meant by her mother to ensure that she does not humiliate the family: "Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don't humiliate us…. The villagers are watchful."

Maxine understands that whenever her mother needs to share a lesson about life, she presents a tale like this, "a story to grow up on." As an adult, Kingston comes to understand No Name Woman's situation—a man had forced her aunt into intercourse during a time in which no married Chinese woman had the luxury to choose adultery. Kingston realizes that "the real punishment was not the raid swiftly inflicted by the villagers, but the family's deliberately forgetting her."

White Tigers

In this section, Kingston recounts Brave Orchid's story about the mythic woman warrior, Fa Mu Lan, who avenges the wrongs committed against her family by going to battle disguised as a man. The story inspired young Kingston and her friends to believe that "we failed if we grew up to be but wives or slaves. We could be heroines, swordswomen." The first-person narrative slides between myth and reality as Maxine imagines herself as Fa Mu Lan, inhabiting the powerful body and spirit of the woman whose troops follow her into battle wherever she leads.

As a young girl, Fa Mu Lan is trained to become a great warrior, a regimen that takes fifteen years. She is convinced when the old man and woman who offer to train her tell her, "You can avenge your village…. You can recapture the harvests the thieves have taken. You can be remembered by the Han people for your dutifulness." Thus, Fa Mu Lan embarks on her training to become a warrior. She sees what is happening in her home village, and vows revenge. When her father is forced by the baron to go and fight, Fa Mu Lan puts on men's armor and goes in his place. She visits her parents, who carve out their curses and grievances on her back so that if she dies in battle, others will know who to kill.

After many successful battles, Fa Mu Lan takes a husband and gives birth to a child. She fights for a while with the baby tied to her back, then gives him to her husband and tells him to go. After she has completed her battles successfully, she returns home to find that she must fight the baron who is drafting her brother. When he tells her "Girls are maggots in the rice," she cuts his head off. She returns to her family with the words on her back fulfilled.

Fa Mu Lan's grandiose myth—"a true story about a girl who saved her village"—confuses young Maxine:

I could not figure out what was my village. And it was important that I do something big and fine, or else my parents would sell me when we made our way back to China. In China there were solutions for what to do with little girls who ate up food and threw tantrums. You can't eat straight A's.

Kingston draws back out of the narrative to ponder her childhood desire to write, do, and be whatever she wants, recounting times as an adult when she refuted sexism and racism by refusing to comply. She finds that her "job is [her] only land." She finally concedes that the gross sexism of her culture's response to girls, represented in the drawings in her parent's home of baby girls being cast off down the river, makes it necessary for her to "get out of hating range." Kingston chooses to visit her family with "[her] American successes [wrapped] around [her] like a private shawl." They help her exist without shyness and without shame.


Kingston explores her mother's past, initially recounting her mother's dreams and accomplishments as a young woman in China. The story traces Brave Orchid's attendance at the To Keung School of Midwifery, something she chose to do while her husband was in America without her. Kingston describes the way Brave Orchid relished her time at school and the ways she reveled in the glorious freedom of knowing

no one would complain about the field not being plowed or the leak in the roof…. [The luxury] to shut the door at the end of the workday, which does not spill over into evening. To throw away books after reading them so they don't have to be dusted.

Brave Orchid's seemingly effortless intelligence baffles and impresses her fellow students who fail to realize the time Brave Orchid spends studying after hours in secret, believing that as an older student, she has a responsibility to appear more wise and learned. Kingston brings Brave Orchid's dragon woman personality into stark perspective when she juxtaposes the life of respect and luxury Brave Orchid enjoyed as the hero doctor of her village with the disappointingly harsh life of long, hot hours spent in the family laundry in the Bronx during the years following her emigration to America.

At the Western Palace

This section revolves around Moon Orchid, Brave Orchid's sister who also remained in China for many years waiting for her husband to summon her, though he never did. Moon Orchid's traumatic and near-comic relocation begins when, after emigrating from China, Brave Orchid decides that her delicate sister is poorly suited to working the family laundry and instead must reclaim her long-lost husband now living in Los Angeles. Upset that Moon Orchid could so easily be intimidated by an unfaithful husband she has not seen in thirty years, Brave Orchid concocts a series of absurd scenarios in which she and her sister will trap her sister's husband:

If nobody's home, we'll climb in a window. When they get back we'll be at home; you the hostess, and I your guest. You'll be serving me cookies and coffee. And when he comes in I'll say, "Well, I see your husband is home thank you so much for the visit." And you say, "Come again anytime." Don't make violence. Be routine.

Under the guise of having been hit in the street and breaking her leg, Moon Orchid does finally encounter her doctor husband and finds, to her disappointment, that he is happily committed to an American life, which includes a wife and a social circle, and has no interest is seeing her again. After living for a short while with her daughter in Los Angeles, Moon Orchid returns to live with Brave Orchid in San Francisco and slowly falls prey to dementia, causing her daughter to institutionalize her until her death.

A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe

The final installment in The Woman Warrior brings Kingston full-circle and consists of two parts that assimilate her experiences. The first recounts some of Kingston's childhood experiences, including how her mother cut her frenum (the muscle under the tongue) as a baby to keep her from being tongue-tied and allow her to easily speak many languages (though she does not cut any of her other children's tongues). Kingston ironically mocks her own adult speaking voice, tracing her discomfort with speech back to kindergarten and remembering how "school became a misery" when she discovered it required her to speak. In fact, her refusal to do so resulted in her failing kindergarten. During the sixth grade, a year when she is "arrogant with talk," Kingston decides she cannot stand a silent Chinese girl in her class. Her own disturbed silences lead her to terrorize and beat the girl who refuses to speak or cry out, no matter how badly Kingston hurts her. Immediately following the incident, Kingston becomes seriously ill, unable to leave her bed for over a year, during which time she revels with guilt and pleasure at the unmoving state of her world.

"A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe" closes with Kingston telling the story of T'sai Yen, the poetess, and the legend behind the Chinese song, "Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe." While recounting the story as her mother told it, Kingston, for the first time, chooses an ending of her own. After the theater frequented by Brave Orchid's grandmother and family is robbed by bandits and the family escapes unscathed, Brave Orchid's grandmother insists the family attend regularly to stay free of harm. Kingston wonders at the theater performances and muses over whether her family ever heard the songs of T'sai Yen, the young poetess born in 175 a.d. who was kidnapped as a young woman by a barbarian chief during a raid.

Kingston suggests that T'sai Yen, accustomed only to primitive barbarian noises, cannot bear the high-pitched flute notes that drift to her tent one evening. But eventually the barbarians hear a woman's singing voice coming from T'sai's tent: "Her words seemed to be Chinese but the barbarians understood their sadness and anger." Kingston ends her narrative knowing, figuratively and literally, that the songs, once foreign and barbarian, are now understood.


Women and War

Fa Mu Lan, the legendary swordswoman who dresses as a man to ride into battle, is considered the best-known Chinese literary figure outside of China. As noted by Feng Lan in "The Female Individual and the Empire," Mulan's original history is told in a ballad now called "Mulan shi" or "Mulan poem," first recorded in Gujin yuelu (Musical Record Old and New) in approximately 568 a.d. Although Mulan has been rewritten and marketed to an American audience in myriad ways over the years (including Disney's 1998 cartoon movie version), Kingston's reinterpretation of Mulan's actions in The Woman Warrior's "White Tigers" chapter is controversial because of the unusual way in which it skews, or distorts, the tale.

Much of The Woman Warrior revolves around young Maxine's conflicts with her mother, her ethnicity, her understanding of the world, and her silent, lost selfhood. Her mother's name, Brave Orchid, evokes the two worlds that Chinese women must traditionally live in: Brave, which recalls the characteristics of mighty warriors, and Orchid, a delicate feminine flower. A woman must be both in order to survive.

"White Tigers" draws a direct comparison between woman as literal warrior on the battlefield and as figurative woman lost then found. Kingston's Mulan story involves two narratives: a personal narrative describing a quest for her true self, and a national narrative that describes how a revolution leads to the creation of a new China.

According to scholar Lisa Plummer Crafton in "We are Going to Carve Revenge on Your Back," the narratives suggest constructive as well as destructive models of the relationship between women and their cultures. The crux of Kingston's personal narrative is her search for selfhood in response to the terrifying death of her aunt in the preceding chapter, "No Name Woman." She must resist the life of a slavewife, the fate of most women in feudal China, and in her resistance embrace the persona of the woman warrior able to control and protect herself.

In Kingston's version of "Mulan shi," Fa Mu Lan is a "chosen one" rather than a heroine by default, who joins the army to substitute herself for her aging father. Her tattooed body borrows from the tale of Yue Fei whose mother reputedly carved four characters on his back to ensure loyalty. Additionally, Fa Mu Lan in the original tradition does not become pregnant, but instead spends a steadfast and lonely life with the army, returning at the poem's end to put on makeup and resume her life as a woman. Kingston's "White Tigers" essentially transforms Fa Mu Lan from male patriot to powerful and subversive female warrior who uses her body as her weapon and strength.

As Kingston remembers her mother's stories about Fa Mu Lan, she considers how she would be chosen, fantasizing that,

the call would come from a bird that flew over our roof. In the brush drawings it looks like the ideograph for "human," two black wings … I would be a little girl of seven the day I followed the bird away into the mountains.

The chosen Fa Mu Lan begins her martial arts training by learning the connections between language and silence. She is told that "the first thing you have to learn … is how to be quiet." After six years of training, Fa Mu Lan knows, from watching the animals that gather around her during her silences, how "every creature has a hiding skill and a fighting skill a warrior can use."

Kingston's second revision to the original warrior tale, the incident of Fa Mu Lan's tattooed back, represents and re-envisions Fa Mu Lan's body as a weapon. As Fa Mu Lan's parents carve the inscriptions into her back, she becomes a cultural centerpiece, a point of power from which wrongs will be avenged. Her father tells her they "are going to carve revenge on [her] back." Her mother explains:

Wherever you go, whatever happens to you, people will know our sacrifice," my mother said…. She meant that even if I got killed, the people could use my body for a weapon…. [My father] began cutting … my back [was] covered entirely with words in red and black files, like an army, like my army.

Kingston's greatest alteration of the original text lies in her presentation of the warrior as mother. Fa Mu Lan breaks all cultural codes when she chooses both pregnancy and birth during the course of battle. She leaves battle only once, to give birth in a scene reminiscent of No Name Woman's labor in the pigsty, thus connecting the shame and powerlessness of her Chinese aunt and her inherent strength as a woman and warrior who wears the words of her ancestors on her back. At chapter's end, Kingston remembers her own experiences at UC Berkeley as a woman warrior who marches for peace and struggles to be "American feminine," ultimately claiming the swordswoman legend for herself:

The swordswoman and I are not so dissimilar. May my people understand the resemblance soon so that I can return to them. What we have in common are the words at our backs…. And I have so many words—"chink" words and "gook" words too—that they do not fit on my skin.


The Protest Movement at UC Berkeley

Just after Kingston graduated from college in 1962, UC Berkeley became the center of the Free Speech Movement (FSM), a reaction by students to the ban of on-campus political activity. The impetus for the protests came when students who had traveled through the South working to register African American voters attempted to set up tables at a campus entrance offering information about civil rights and collecting money for the cause. The students were barred from setting up their tables, and within a few weeks, protests, including marches, sit-ins, and strikes, ensued.

Though the FSM was particular to Berkeley, the campus was not unfamiliar with political protests before it. Berkeley students in the late 1950s, reflecting the protest activity of the South, protested racial discrimination in Greek fraternal organizations. In 1960 students demonstrated in support of the lunch counter sit-ins in the South. Then, in San Francisco, they protested the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee. By the mid-sixties the Berkeley campus was well known for its political fervor. It was no surprise, then, that as the Vietnam War escalated and increasing numbers of young men were drafted to the armed services, student protests continued and intensified under the anti-war banner, sometimes attracting as many as thirty thousand protesters.

Scholar Maureen Sabine emphasizes in Maxine Hong Kingston's Broken Book of Life that many of the events in The Woman Warrior take place during the height of the Vietnam War in the 1960s. The euphoria of being a part of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements deeply influenced Kingston's life and art. In an interview with Mira Schwirtz of the California Alumni Association at UC Berkeley entitled "Woman Warrior Speaks Peace," Kingston remembers how she was enchanted by the new language and mind-set of that time, and she "wanted to use that language to write a story."

The People's Republic of China

The first and third stories of The Woman Warrior, "No Name Woman" and "Shaman," are set in the 1920s and 1930s after the collapse of the Chinese empire. At that time, the country was facing civil war between the Kuomintang and the Communists, as well as an invasion by the Japanese. Soon it was mired in both: the civil war began in 1926 and, eleven years later while the internal conflict continued, Japan attacked. Both were ongoing in 1945, but after atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, it unexpectedly surrendered to China. A few years later in 1949 the civil war ended, with the Communists controlling Mainland China, and the Kuomintang taking over Taiwan. Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, became China's leader, and immediately began imposing new economic structures, as well as regulations on everyday life.

In "White Tigers," Kingston's mother Brave Orchid recounts the story of "Fa Mu Lan, the girl who took her father's place in battle," and makes allusion to the traumatic beginnings of the People's Republic of China:

I was nine years old when the letters made my parents, who are rocks, cry … letters said that my uncles were made to kneel on broken glass during their trials and had confessed to being landowners. They were all executed.

Probably best known for two campaigns that greatly altered Chinese society—the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution—Mao's reputation in the West was that of a totalitarian, or a dictator with complete social, economic, and government control. The Great Leap Forward, instituted in 1958, was an attempt to jumpstart Chinese industry using collectives of workers. The goal was to produce enough steel to keep from having to import it, but the work required many of the country's farmers and in the end, industry came at the expense of agriculture, and thus food. The famine that followed is considered one of the worst in history, with millions of people dying.

Almost ten years later, when he sensed his power and popularity waning, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution. Using a massive propaganda campaign, he convinced teenagers and young adults—who joined civilian factions known as the Red Guard—to help protect communism by stifling any opposition to it. The result was chaotic and violent. Many people died or were tortured at the hands of the Red Guard before it splintered into rival groups and was officially disbanded by Mao in 1969. While China has had numerous leaders since Mao's death in 1976, the government is still controlled by the Communist Party of China, reflecting Mao's lasting influence.


The Woman Warrior was published in 1976 to critical acclaim, even garnering the National Book Critics Circle Award for the year. Amajority of reviewers, like New York Times book critic Jane Kramer, awarded it high praise. Kramer found it a wonderfully engaging "investigation of the soul…. Its sources are dream and memory, myth and desire. Its crises are the crises of a heart in exile from roots that bind and terrorize it."

Critics like Joanne S. Frye in "The Woman Warrior: Claiming Narrative Power, Recreating Female Selfhood," experiencing the book for the first time in the 1980s, continued to relish the lush scenery of Kingston's vivid and imaginative childhood, claiming that "the power of The Woman Warrior lies not in the invisible force of fantasy as distinct from reality but in the powerful interaction of fantasy with reality—without refusing to differentiate—in determining new possibilities for female selfhood."

Despite its critical acclaim, The Woman Warrior still received strong criticism in the intervening years. A number of Asian American critics, most notably Frank Chin in "This Is Not An Autobiography," express concern over Kingston's representation of Chinese ethnicity and experiences. Among other grievances, Chin finds the cross-genre form objectionable. Though marketed and sold as an autobiography, The Woman Warrior actually combines fictional elements as well as personal experience. Chin specifically targets Kingston's inauthentic representation of Chinese culture, suggesting that its false, overblown stereotypes contribute to racist imperialism:

Maxine Hong Kingston, David Henry Hwang, Betty Bao Lord are the most important and influential writers in Chinese America today…. All fake it. All characterize Chinese history and culture in terms of the Christian stereotype and tell of the same Cinderella story of rescue from the perverse, the unnatural, and cruel Chinese into the one true universe. They are the only ones published and being produced.


Maxine Hong Kingston Reads: The Woman Warrior, China Men (excerpts), produced by The American Audio Prose Library, Inc., runs fifty-three minutes and features the author and her husband reading excerpts from The Woman Warrior and China Men.

The Berkeley Repertory Theatre performed Sharon Ott's World Premiere adaptation of The Woman Warrior in 1994.

Kingston responds to these claims in her 1982 essay, "Cultural Mis-Readings by American Reviewers," confirming her stance with finality: "I am an American writer…. The Woman Warrior is an American book. Yet many reviewers do not see the American-ness of it, nor the fact of my own American-ness." The Woman Warrior enjoys widespread popularity in the undergraduate Humanities curriculum in the United States.


Yuan Shu

In the following excerpt, Shu discusses Kingston's construction of the woman warrior as antithesis to "no-name woman" by failing to relate to modern Chinese history and Western imperialism.

In the first story of the "no name woman," Kingston, as the narrator, learns from her mother the tragedy of her aunt who committed suicide after having an affair with her fellow villager and giving birth to an illicit child. As a disgrace to the family, her aunt has since been purposely ignored and erased from the memory of the family members. Kingston's mother, in using the tragedy as a means to communicate with her adolescent daughter, explains the implication of the story, situates it in a Chinese patriarchal cultural context, and explores its relevance to the daughter: "Don't let your father know that I told you. He denies her. Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don't humiliate us. You wouldn't like to be forgotten as if you had never been born. The villagers are watchful."

In response to her mother's message, Kingston tries to reconstruct her aunt's story in her own terms and to understand the patriarchal rationale behind the tragedy. She first speculates upon what adultery could really mean to her aunt as a Chinese woman, who might have been caught in a cultural dilemma of whether to violate the patriarchal law of chastity or to submit to the patriarchal value of women's obedience to men. She restructures the story in the Chinese context: "My aunt could not have been the lone romantic who gave up everything for sex. Women in old China did not choose. Some man had commanded her to lie with him and be his secret evil. I wonder whether he masked himself when he joined the raid on her family." Such a speculation also enables the narrator to piece together the incomplete story and to construe it as a possible rape.

However, Kingston does not situate the tragedy of the no-name woman or the consequent attack upon the family by the villagers in any historical and cultural context but mystifies these stories and leaves them to the imagination and speculation of an uninformed white readership, who, she knows, would never be able to figure out the cultural twists behind. First, Kingston takes for granted that her aunt as a Chinese peasant woman could not develop any romantic relationship in defiance of the Chinese feudal tradition. In making such a general assumption, Kingston plays a double role here. On the one hand, to an uninformed white readership, Kingston serves as an insider informant telling an authentic story about her own ancestral culture and society. On the other hand, to the Chinese and Chinese-American readership whom she does not target, Kingston assumes the position of a privileged first-world woman in investigating and speculating upon the tragedy of a third-world subaltern who cannot represent herself and has to be represented by the first-world feminist writer. Such a double positioning enables the narrator to identify with the predominant white readership who are constructed as secular, liberated, and privileged in having complete control over their own lives. As Chandra Mohanty puts it, "only from the vantage point of the West is it possible to define the 'third world' as underdeveloped and economically dependent." Second, Kingston does not provide any rationale behind the attack of the villagers upon the family. In constructing Chinese peasants as mischievous, inhuman, and irrational, Kingston ignores an opportunity to educate the white readers about an already misconceived China; instead she fuels Orientalist discourses with a confirmation of their stereotypes.

Most importantly, Kingston fails to explore the tragedy of the no-name woman in relation to modern Chinese history and to US history of exclusion of Chinese laborers and their family members. In Asian Americans, historian Sucheng Chan argues that Asian international emigration at the turn of the century was a consequence of Western industrialization and imperialism, which aimed at exploiting human and natural resources worldwide and expanding their markets domestically and internationally. To have access to natural resources and markets in China, Great Britain fought two notorious opium wars against China, and in the first war (1839–42) imposed upon the Manchu government "The Treaty of Nanjing," which forced China to open its five major ports to foreign commerce, reduce and limit its customs tariff dramatically, pay an indemnity of twenty-one million silver dollars, cede the island of Hong Kong, and grant Western nations extraterritoriality which would make Westerners immune to Chinese law. Soon other Western powers and Japan followed suit and imposed so many unequal treaties upon China that the Manchu government at the turn of the century became literally bankrupt and the people burdened with unbearable taxes.

Considered in such broader political and economic contexts, the villagers' attack upon the family could be construed as a symptom of the restlessness of a feudal and colonial society which would readily direct its own energy of confusion and frustration towards anything accessible, rather than as a premeditated moment of Chinese patriarchal practice or a ritualistic pattern practiced at the village level in China. Of course, the victim in this case remains the same peasant woman. Furthermore, Kingston as a Chinese-American does not examine the no-name woman's tragedy in relation to the US history of exclusion, which not only prevented Chinese laborers from leaving and returning to the US freely, but also forbade Chinese women from coming and joining their laborer husbands in the US. "Under such strict conditions," observes Chan in her study, "the number of Chinese females entering the country each year during the six decades when Chinese exclusion was in effect numbered in the hundreds rather than the thousands." Comparing the settlement history and patterns of the Chinese laborers with those of their European counterparts, Chan concludes that exclusion was imposed at a point which "truncated the natural development of the community" when the male laborers could have brought their wives over from China and raised their families in more permanent locations rather than drifting along the ethnic enclaves of Chinatowns across the country.

In this context, the no-name woman's tragedy could be considered a direct result of Chinese feudalism and an indirect result of Western colonialism and US institutional racism. Since her husband left for the US right after their wedding in 1924, the narrator's aunt could not follow him to the US because of various immigration restrictions, and her husband would not be able to return to China for exactly the same immigration and financial reasons. The aunt must live like a widow, and if she had indicated her dissatisfaction to her parents-in-law, that might explain why she is living with her own parents rather than in-laws according to the Chinese custom: "But they had sent her back to her own mother and father, a mysterious act hinting at disgraces not told me. Perhaps they had thrown her out to deflect the avengers." What Kingston calls a mysterious act might be the prelude to the aunt's love affair with her fellow villager.

Although construed as a passive victim in Kingston's story, the no-name woman demonstrated her own sense of courage, honor, and rebelliousness. Refusing to reveal the name of the villager and to collaborate with the patriarchal rule in the village, the aunt took the blame entirely on herself: "She kept the man's name to herself throughout her labor and dying; she did not accuse him that he be punished with her. To save her inseminator's name she gave silent birth." In protecting the man, the aunt actually protested her status as a living widow who could not enjoy her family life. When she took the baby with her to the well, the aunt showed a moment of love and hate for the male villager, caring and cruelty towards her baby, forgiveness and revenge on her family: "Carrying the baby to the well shows loving. Otherwise abandon it. Turn its face into the mud. Mothers who love their children take them along. It was probably a girl; there is some hope or forgiveness for boys." By plunging into the family well, the disgraced woman showed her strong but silent protest against oppressive forces and made sure that her tragic story would become part of the histories of the family and the village, as well as of Chinese-America.

Source: Yuan Shu, "Cultural Politics and Chinese-American Female Subjectivity: Rethinking Kingston's Woman Warrior," in Melus, Vol. 26, No. 2, July 1, 2001, pp. 199-223.

Maureen Sabine

In the following excerpt, Sabine traces the recurrent theme of modern warfare through her presentation of the no-name woman as simultaneous heroic warrior, victim, and survivor albeit to achieve dignity and possess courage in the face of giving birth and dying under grievous circumstances.

If the Vietnam War made Hong Kingston feel vulnerable as the mother of an only son, human vandalism and savagery make the aunt in "No Name Woman" poignantly aware of the "preciousness" of young life even though her new baby is a daughter, begot out of wedlock, rather than the favored son and heir born to Brave Orchid or indeed to Hong Kingston. The aunt protects her daughter the only way she knows how—not by trying to keep her safe from war, but by saving her through death from further harm. In the narrator's opinion, "Carrying the baby to the well shows loving. Otherwise abandon it. Turn its face into the mud. Mothers who love their children take them along. It was probably a girl; there is some hope of forgiveness for boys." In fact, the mother's death pact with her daughter is a macabre version of the loving rituals that mark the birth of boys in traditional Chinese society.

Though the recurrent nightmare of modern warfare haunts the narrator in both The Woman Warrior and China Men, mothers and fathers are not always capable of leading their children out of its horror to safety. In "No Name Woman," the birthplace blows up into a battlefield, a Vietnam on a miniature scale. Indeed, Hong Kingston memorably told Judy Hoy that she wanted to "show the terrible problems, fights, wars within the family—even mother end daughter who love each other so much and yet have wars that tear them apart—and families fighting families. And then the fathers go across the ocean, not just because they want a better life, but because they can't stand their families." In The Woman Warrior women are given complicated representation as fire victims, the combatants, the collaborators, and the survivors of domestic violence. As feminist critics have been quick to note, the two stories that frame The Woman Warrior—"No Name Woman" and "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe"—recount the rape, subjugation, and impregnation of gifted women. Their final indignity is that they are not allowed to raise the offspring of their sexual assault in peace. Hong Kingston depicts the no name woman as a stoical warrior who faces birth and death alone. "She got to her feet to fight better and remembered that old-fashioned women gave birth in their pigsties to fool the jealous, pain-dealing gods." The China Men intertext "On Mortality" makes men look in horror at a cruel Chinese belief that women who die in childbirth will be sent in punishment to the bloody pit of the underworld. The no name woman does not escape punishment in the afterlife, but her stoicism is a reminder that both giving birth and dying require courage and that, in some societies, women who died in childbirth received the hero's tribute of the warrior killed in battle.

Source: Maureen Sabine, "'You Say with the Few Words and the Silences': The Woman Warrior's Traces of a Dialogue with China Men," in Maxine Hong Kingston's Broken Book of Life: An Intertextual Study of "The Woman Warrior" and "China Men," University of Hawai'i Press, 2004, pp. 75-76.


Chin, Frank, "This Is Not An Autobiography," in Genre, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer 1985, pp. 109-30.

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The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

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