The Woman Warrior
The Woman WarriorIntroduction
Maxine Hong Kingston
For Further Study
The Woman Warrior experienced immediate success upon its publication in 1976. It became an instant bestseller and secured a place in the top ten nonfiction books of the decade. Because Maxine Hong Kingston deals with stories of growth in individuals and among generations in two different cultures, teachers from various disciplines utilize the book to supplement their instruction. Some use it to discuss women's topics, while others find it serves well to encourage and support dialogue regarding sociological, historical, literary, and ethnic issues. Critics praise Kingston's ability to deal with the concerns of identity formation in Chinese women who have long been oppressed by Chinese male tradition. In addition, her skill at story telling continues the Chinese art of "talk story" but advances the oral custom to a written treasure to be passed down through generations.
The Woman Warrior has also received negative reviews because critics find its content difficult to categorize. While Knopf published the book as nonfiction, many reviewers claim that Kingston includes too many nonspecific memories for the book to be considered anything but fiction. Kingston admits that the main sources of information for her books are her mother's tales and her father's reticence, along with her own memories and imagination. Kingston defends her technique, however. She says that the book is not specifically an autobiography but combines truth and fiction in an autobiographical form.
Wheher readers love the book for its inspiring message about female empowerment or despise it for its sometimes cruel themes, most will agree with Pin-chia Feng, who wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "Kingston's writing … embodies the collective spirit of the Chinese American community."
Maxine "Ting Ting" Hong Kingston grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Stockton, California. Born in 1940 to Tom Hong and Brave Orchid, Kingston is the oldest of her parents' six American-born children. Kingston's parents serve as the primary sources for the imaginative stories she writes.
Kingston's father came to America as a scholar and teacher but made his early living in this country washing windows, and later, as part owner in a New York laundry. After losing his share of the business, Hong relocated in 1940 to Stockton, California, to manage an illegal gambling business. Brave Orchid, who had just joined her husband in America, accompanied him. Until World War II, Hong alternately ran gambling houses and suffered arrests for it. After the war, Hong opened his own laundry and provided a good life for his Chinese-American family. Hong told his daughter little about his life in China. The stories Kingston tells of her father have been pieced together from her mother's stories and her own memories.
Kingston's mother, on the other hand, was as vocal about life in China as her husband was quiet. Having managed to break free of the bonds that held her in the role of a traditional Chinese woman, Brave Orchid became a respected doctor, fighting the "ghosts" in her life and in others' lives. When she moved to America, she traded her doctor's role for one of laundry woman, cannery worker, maid, tomato picker, and mother. She would "talk stories" to her children at bedtime, offering tales of ghosts and family history as well as myths and legends. Her yarns provided her children with their connection to Chinese tradition and stimulated their imaginations. While her stories "warned" her children of the Chinese hatred for women, they also equipped them with knowledge of women who overcame the limits of traditionalism.
The "ghosts" in Kingston's stories represent the remains of these Chinese traditions present in her life as a young child and teenager. Her ghosts are the images of the American life that her parents tried to deny and of the Chinese life that they tried to forget. As a very young child, Kingston struggled with her Chinese heritage and her American existence. She did not speak English until she started school. She failed kindergarten because she did not talk and covered her school paintings with black paint. In sixth grade, Kingston attacked another Chinese girl for her refusal to speak. After this incident, Kingston spent 18 months in bed. Late in her teen years, Kingston confronted her mother, finding a strength to defy the heritage she hated.
Since her teen years, Kingston has found a different voice for her memories. Through her writing, she translates the oral tradition of her community and gives substance to the "ghosts" in her life. In doing so, Pin-chia Feng says in a biography of Kingston's life, she "unsettles both Chinese American sexism and American racism."
No Name Woman
Maxine Hong Kingston's autobiography begins with her mother telling her a story which she must never repeat about the aunt she never knew she had. In China the aunt had become pregnant long after her husband and brothers had celebrated their "hurry up" weddings and left for America. The weddings had been to ensure that all the men who went to America would come home and resume their places in Chinese society, but the aunt's adultery had disrupted that society. When the pregnancy became obvious, the enraged villagers had raided the family house, breaking and destroying their possessions as the aunt had broken and destroyed social order. That night, after the raid the aunt gave birth to her baby in a pigsty and then drowned herself and the child in the family well. The family never mentions her, pretending she was never born.
Unable to ask questions about the unmentionable aunt, Kingston speculates about her, trying to imagine what she might have been like and what might have motivated her actions. She wonders whether her aunt, a traditional Chinese woman accustomed to taking orders, was raped by one of the village men who then later joined in the raid on her home. She also wonders if her aunt, unable to seek adventure as her brothers had done by going to America, had crossed a different sort of boundary, looking for romance. She imagines the pain and isolation that her aunt must have endured giving birth to the child alone in the pigsty. Finally she realizes that her family has not mentioned her aunt not just to hide their shame but also to punish her aunt. Forgetting her aunt is the real punishment. Kingston realizes that she had unknowingly participated in this punishment, and she says that she feels her aunt haunting her now that she is the only one telling her story.
Kingston remembers the Chinese folktales her mother used to tell her about amazing warrior women who could battle whole armies and save their families. She particularly remembers the chant of Fa Mu Lan, and she slips into a fantasy in which she is Mu Lan. As Mu Lan she is a little girl who one day strays from her family's home while following a bird, and ends up in the mountains where she meets an old couple who takes her in and trains her to become a warrior. For fifteen years she stays with them and studies martial arts, meditation, and magic. Occasionally the old man shows her a magic drinking gourd in which she can see her family, and also the enemies that oppress them. In this gourd she sees her childhood lover marry her, even though she is not there for the ceremony. Finally she returns to her family and tells her elderly father that she will take his place in the war he has been drafted into. Before she goes, her parents carve words on her back which tell of all the wrongs done to them. Then Mu Lan dresses like a man and leads an army into battle. They win many battles, and for a time her husband joins her and they have a baby. Then he takes the baby back to his family while she returns to battle. Finally her army beheads the emperor who has been oppressing them and appoints a peasant in his place.
Emerging from her fantasy, Kingston reflects on what a disappointment her American life has been. The good grades she earns in school do not seem as glorious as the deeds of the woman warrior, and they do nothing to stop the pain she feels when she hears her parents say that girls are worthless. She struggles with her mixed feelings about her Chinese culture and with her uncertainty about how to blend the two cultures of which she is a part. Ultimately she realizes that she, as a writer, has much in common with the woman warrior. What they have in common are the words at their backs. Telling her story is her way of avenging herself and her family.
Shaman is largely about Kingston's mother. Kingston discusses how her mother, Brave Orchid, went to a medical college for women in China. Kingston's mother quickly became known among the other women as a brilliant student, but she made her greatest impression on the other students when she offered to spend a night in a haunted room. During the night she was visited by a "sitting ghost" which nearly smothered her, but she was too strong for the ghost, and in the morning she told the other students a fabulous tale about the event and then led them all in purging the room of the ghost. When Brave Orchid returned to her village, she became known as a great healer. In America, however, Brave Orchid cannot practice medicine and she sees all the Americans as ghosts. In the final section of this chapter, Kingston recalls her last visit to her parents. Brave Orchid, now an old woman, wants her children all at home and not wandering, but Kingston explains that she has found some places that are ghost-free and that she thinks she belongs there, where she is happier.
At the Western Palace
When she is sixty-eight years old, Brave Orchid finally manages to bring her sister, Moon Orchid, to America. Moon Orchid's husband has been in America for many years, but he has never sent for his wife or daughter. When Moon Orchid finally arrives, her daughter and Brave Orchid are there to meet her, but it soon becomes clear that Moon Orchid will not be able to make the transition to America easily. She is an old woman and unaccustomed to work, and she cannot do even the simplest of the tasks at the laundry. Finally Brave Orchid insists that Moon Orchid confront her husband. They drive down to Los Angeles, where he is a doctor with a new, younger wife who knows nothing about Moon Orchid. They trick him into coming out to their car, but when he sees them he is furious. He will continue to give his wife money, but he will not acknowledge her. Brave Orchid returns home, but soon she hears that Moon Orchid, who has stayed with her daughter, is becoming paranoid. Brave Orchid asks her sister to come back to her home and tries to cure her, but her sister is going insane, imagining that everyone she sees is planning to kill her. Finally Moon Orchid is committed to a mental asylum, where she seems happier, but where she finally dies.
A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe
Kingston tells how, when she was a baby, her mother cut her tongue so that she would not be tongue-tied, but Kingston thinks she cut too much because now she has a terrible time overcoming her shyness and talking. She realizes that silence has something to do with being a Chinese girl, as all the Chinese girls in school are quiet. Kingston grows to hate one particularly silent girl, seeing her as an embodiment of her own weakness and silence. One day she corners the girl in the bathroom and taunts her and tries, unsuccessfully, to force her to talk. Kingston comes to think that talking is what distinguishes crazy people from sane people. Crazy people are unable to explain themselves. There are a number of crazy girls in her neighborhood, and she thinks perhaps every family must have one. She doesn't want to be the crazy one, but she also doesn't want to conform to the traditional Chinese roles she thinks her parents want to force on her. She doesn't want to be married off or sold as a slave if they go back to China. She finally confronts her mother and complains that her mother's stories confuse her, that she can't tell what is true and what is just a story. She ends by announcing that she is going to college and that her mother can't stop her from talking. Her mother, also a champion talker, responds and they end up yelling at each other.
Kingston ends the book by telling a story that her mother told her, but which she ends in her own way. Brave Orchid tells her how the family always attended the theater in China, which Kingston's grandmother believed would keep them safe from all danger. Kingston likes to think that in some of those performances they heard the songs of Ts'ai Yen, a Chinese poetess who was captured by the Barbarians and kept by them for many years. During all those years she was unable to communicate with her captors, until she heard them playing on their reed pipes and joined them, adding her mournful voice to their songs. When she was returned to her people she brought the song for the Barbarian reed pipe back with her, and it translated well.
Brave Orchid, Maxine's mother, tells stories like no other person can. Her "talk stories" lull her children to sleep with visions of mythical characters, historical fact, family tales, and legendary heroes and heroines. At the beginning of The Woman Warrior, Brave Orchid warns Maxine about the sins of adultery through her story of her husband's sister. Because this unmarried sister became pregnant—and ultimately, committed suicide—the family never speaks of her or even acknowledges her life. The sister brought disgrace to the family, and Brave Orchid cautions Maxine to keep silent about her knowledge, and more importantly, to avoid the same mistake.
Brave Orchid's own story begins in China, after her husband has left for America. She is a pretty young woman with naturally curly hair, thick eyebrows, and full lips. Her eyes have a direct and serious gaze. A strong person, Brave Orchid bears the pain of her first two children's deaths alone. After ten years of waiting for her husband's return, she decides to use the money she has saved to attend medical school in a distant city. She completes her studies in two years and returns to her village, a respected doctor. She stays in China and practices medicine and midwifery until 1939.
Leaving her medical practice behind her in China, Brave Orchid moves to America. Shortly after arriving in New York in 1940, she and her hus-band relocate to Stockton, California. There, she works with him in their laundry and picks tomatoes to supplement their income. She raises her six American-born children to know their Chinese roots, expecting them to adhere to Chinese customs. She frightens them with her talk of "ghosts" and warns them to avoid the "White Ghosts" in particular. When her children disobey her for any reason, Brave Orchid disciplines them with a firm hand and a sharp tongue. Maxine thinks her mother is hardest on her. Brave Orchid tells Maxine she is stupid, ugly, noisy, and humorless. She accuses Maxine of leading her sisters astray, and calls her "unusual." Even after Maxine reaches adulthood and moves away from home, a white-haired, heavyset Brave Orchid continues with "talk stories" intended to show her children true Chinese ways.
Maxine's earliest memories are of the stories her mother told her. They include accounts of Maxine's father's sister, a nameless aunt who brought disgrace to the family, and of the brave Fa Mu Lan, a young Chinese girl who fought battles for her own father. The stories prompt Maxine to create tales of her own, myths woven around images of herself as a girl trained to be a woman warrior who becomes a legendary heroine. In reality, Maxine is a Chinese girl born in America, struggling to make sense of two sets of traditions and values.
Maxine suffers continual disappointment when she tries to please her mother with her Americanized accomplishments such as good grades in school. She does not understand why her mother berates her and calls her "bad girl." She is confused by the special treatment her younger brothers receive. Their births merit special celebrations; they learn to speak English. She wonders why her mother cut her tongue and not those of her brothers and sisters.
When Maxine starts kindergarten, she speaks no English and must endure taunting from the other children. Her teachers worry that she has psychological problems because she is so silent and covers her drawings in black paint. Maxine is in the sixth grade when her Chinese differences, reflected in another quiet Chinese girl, cause her to act aggressively. She pulls the girl's hair, pinches her cheeks, and tries to torment her into speaking. Maxine does not get the girl to speak, and Maxine, herself, ends up in bed for eighteen months. She never feels comfortable in American schools, where Chinese customs are neither understood nor valued.
Working in her father's laundry, Maxine experiences more confusion about her heritage. When she attempts to talk to her mother about her feel-ings, her mother tells her to quit talking. Maxine keeps her thoughts to herself, feeling guilty about the things she has done and the questions she has that she cannot discuss with anyone. Finally, when she can bear the guilt no longer, she spills her emotions to her mother, who tells her to leave.
The distance Maxine puts between herself and her family enables her to look at her heritage in a different light. She begins to unscramble her memories to try to resolve which experiences she has imagined and which ones are real, which experiences are representative of Chinese families and which are just family, and which experiences are typical of childhood and which ones are particular to her own childhood. Through reflection, she feels cleansed and hopeful. She discovers that she can think about going home again and even visiting China.
Fa Mu Lan
Fa Mu Lan is the mythical woman warrior about whom Brave Orchid tells her children. Fa Mu Lan disguises herself as a man and goes to battle in place of her aged father. She returns to her village victorious, a heroine for all Chinese women. Her story empowers women to seek more out of life than being the wives and slaves of men who would claim to own them. As a young girl, Maxine envisions herself as Fa Mu Lan, enabling her to escape from the disappointments of her American life.
Moon Orchid, Brave Orchid's sister, arrives in San Francisco after having waited for thirty years for her husband to send for her. Moon Orchid's daughter, Brave Orchid's children, and Brave Orchid watch for her arrival at the airport. Brave Orchid expects some change in her sister after thirty years but is surprised to see the little old woman who acknowledges their greeting. Moon Orchid seems to have gotten shorter, and she is very thin. She has tiny fluttering hands and wears her gray hair in a bun. Most unsettling of all, Brave Orchid sees that Moon Orchid is old, even though she, herself, is one year older.
Although Moon Orchid expected her husband to invite her to come to America, he never did. He has, however, always sent money, provided servants, and supported their daughter. Brave Orchid, in the meantime, has worked constantly to get her sister to America. Now that Moon Orchid has arrived, Brave Orchid thinks that Moon Orchid should reclaim her husband from his new wife. Moon Orchid does not want to take the new wife's place. She even says that the new wife can stay with them as a servant. Brave Orchid thinks her sister is lovely but useless and not very intelligent. Brave Orchid devises a plot to get the two back together. Moon Orchid reluctantly allows her sister to convince her to go along with the scheme but tells her that she is not quite ready for it.
Meanwhile, Moon Orchid tries to adjust to life in America. Her sister's children confuse her. Because they accept her compliments, they appear rude. They have white hair and smell like cow's milk. In addition, she does not understand the work her sister's family does. She cannot help at the laundry because she has no skills.
After a few months, Moon Orchid's daughter decides to go back to Los Angeles to her family, which is also where Moon Orchid's husband lives. Even though Moon Orchid tells her sister that she is happy living with her, Brave Orchid insists that it is time for them to put their plan into action. Upon arrival in Los Angeles, Brave Orchid enters the husband's office, where he practices medicine. The beautiful, young nurse is his wife. Brave Orchid tricks the doctor into coming down to the car for a supposed emergency. There, he is shocked to see his Chinese wife. He tells her that he wants nothing to do with her and that there is no room for her in his new American life.
- Kingston reads The Woman Warrior on an audio cassette entitled Maxine Hong Kingston Reading The Woman Warrior [and] China Men (Excerptsaudio Cassette). American Audio Prose Library produced the tape in June 1987.
Moon Orchid goes to live with her daughter. Brave Orchid hears nothing from her for months. When she does, she learns that Moon Orchid has become afraid of everything. She brings Moon Orchid back to her own home, convinced that she can help her overcome her fear. Moon Orchid, how-ever, slips into a world of her own. She becomes so ill that Brave Orchid commits her to a mental asylum, where she lives for the short remainder of her life.
No Name Aunt
No Name Aunt was Maxine's aunt who disgraced the family years before Maxine's birth. The aunt was Maxine's father's sister. No one speaks of this aunt. If family members spoke of her, then they would be admitting that she ever existed. According to Chinese tradition, a person who disgraces a family is a person whose existence is denied. According to the Hongs, this aunt never lived.
No Name Aunt's husband left for America in 1924 with Maxine's father. The aunt and her husband had just married. Years after the aunt's husband left, however, Maxine's mother noticed that the aunt looked pregnant. The family pretended not to see it and did not discuss it among themselves or with her. For the aunt to be pregnant so long after her husband had left was unthinkable—a disgrace to the family and to the village in which they lived.
Angry that the aunt should disgrace them, the village people raided the family's property on the night that the baby was to be born, killing their animals and destroying their home. They tore down doors, smeared blood on the walls, demolished food and furniture, and destroyed everything that belonged to the aunt. While no one knew the identity of the aunt's lover, the village people meant the destruction for him, too. The violence demonstrated to the aunt and her lover that the people did not tolerate the couple's breaking tradition. Families were supposed to stay whole. When families allowed outsiders to break their homes apart, everyone suffered the consequences.
The family angrily denounced the aunt after the villagers had left. They told her that she no longer existed for them, calling her "ghost" and wishing death upon her. She ran outside to the pigsty where she went into labor and delivered the baby. Knowing that she and the baby would have no home and would never be accepted, she chose to end its life and her own. She drowned her baby and herself in the family's well. In death, she became the "the drowned one," a weeping ghost whom Chinese fear because the ghost waits by the well to pull in a substitute.
Identity and Search for Self
People form their personal identities through life experiences and interactions with the people around them. The Woman Warrior collects five stories from Kingston's life that contribute to her growth as a person and the development of her identity.
From the time Maxine is a small child, she questions who she really is, and where she belongs in her family, Chinese culture, and American culture. As a kindergartner, Maxine does not speak. She does not talk to her classmates or to her teachers. She struggles to overcome her inability to talk, trying to discover herself and to connect to her Chinese and American communities. Her mother's "talk stories" and admonitions about "ghosts" keep Maxine suspended between Chinese and American cultures. For three years, her silence is total. Underscoring the strangeness of her silence, she covers her school paintings in black paint. Her teachers fear for her sanity.
Maxine questions her mother's love for her, too. She sees that her parents treat the girls in the family differently than they treat the boys. For example, the family holds special birthday celebrations for the boys and praises their accomplishments. On the other hand, the family members insult the girls and ignore them at every opportunity. Maxine's mother, especially, sends her messages that make her feel powerless. She berates Maxine, telling her that she is stupid and ugly. Yet, in a contradictory way, Maxine's mother tries to empower her, too, by allowing her glimpses of a different life. She tells Maxine stories of Fa Mu Lan, the famous girl warrior, who is strong, smart, and brave. Hearing these stories gives Maxine an idea that women might live lives entirely different from the one she lives or the one her mother lives. She dreams of herself as a woman warrior.
Maxine's mother, too, suffers an identity crisis. In China, Brave Orchid left her role as a traditional Chinese woman to attend medical school in a distant city. Upon graduation, she practiced medicine as a respected doctor and midwife. She comes to America, however, and finds herself the same mother, wife, and slave that she was before she became a doctor.
When Maxine reaches the sixth grade, her silent frustrations catch up with her and prompt her to attack another quiet Chinese girl, who reminds Maxine too much of herself. As a result, Maxine discovers and releases her angry voice, which she later uses to confront her mother. In voicing her frustrations, anger, and fears, Maxine reviews the indignities she has suffered. Her irate mother tells her to leave.
At a distance from her mother and her Chinese traditions, Maxine begins to reconcile her Chinese self and her American self. She comes to terms with her family and begins to understand her heritage. She even begins to "talk story" herself. She at last claims an identity of her own.
Flesh vs. Spirit
Maxine's mother cautions her constantly about the various "ghosts" among whom she must live in America, warning Maxine not to imitate them. As a result, Maxine fears all the White Ghosts from the Taxi Ghost to the Police Ghost. She most fears the Newsboy Ghost, however. He stands in the street without his parents; she marvels at this blatant disobedience and runs from him in fear. Her mother reminds her, too, that Chinese ghosts exist in their own family and that she should absolutely avoid their mistakes. The No-Name Aunt, for one, represents family disgrace brought on by an overt act of defiance of tradition.
Though the ghosts in Maxine's life are not the supernatural kind, they cause her to experience the same kind of breathlessness people feel when they think they have encountered the supernatural. She feels smothered by the sheer number of American ghosts who surround her every day.
Topics for Further Study
- Compare and contrast the Chinese tradition of "talking story" to traditions of oral storytelling in other cultures. Describe the relative importance of the tradition in various cultures and explain the purposes the tradition serves for different peoples.
- Research the history of Chinese immigration in the United States. When did it begin? For what reasons did the Chinese leave their own country? Where are the largest populations of Chinese in the United States? How have they adapted to this culture?
- Explore the history of Chinese laundries in the United States. Why did many Chinese immigrants find employment in this particular industry?
- Read about the role of women in China. Compare and contrast the role of women in China to the role of women in the United States.
- In the novel The Woman Warrior, Kingston recalls her early years in school, particularly her kindergarten year when teachers were disturbed by her black paintings and her silence. Assume the role of a child psychologist and offer an informed opinion of her reasons for these actions. Then, prescribe a course of action for the teachers and her parents.
- Take Kingston's position and defend your silence and black paintings. Defend your actions from the viewpoint of your life experiences and their contributions toward making you the successful adult you now are.
- Why do you think that Kingston spent eighteen months in bed after she confronted the silent Chinese girl? Defend your answer.
Only after Maxine reaches adulthood does she realize that her mother's talk of ghosts was really only Brave Orchid's denial of her life in America and a refusal to let go of her Chinese self. Eventually, Maxine's mother releases the image of the old China, accepting that it is not the same China that she knew in her past. As a result, Maxine can free the "ghosts" that have haunted her all her life and no longer fears China. When she does this, she finds she is able to accept both her mother and her own Chinese heritage.
Maxine receives mixed messages from her mother regarding a woman's role in society. Sharing talk-story myths about the famous woman warrior, Fa Mu Lan, Brave Orchid permits Maxine to imagine herself as the victorious heroine. She dashes Maxine's dreams, however, with repeated stories such as the No Name Aunt's. Brave Orchid reminds Maxine through these stories that traditions live on in China, and traditions cannot be broken without punishment. Chinese women spend their lives serving their husbands and, especially, their in-laws. As is symbolized by the Chinese tradition of foot-binding, Chinese women are bound to a lifetime of self-denial. A proper Chinese woman allows her husband to provide for her while she serves as his maid and mistress.
Even in America, Chinese families nurture misogyny, or hatred of women. The grandfather of Maxine's cousins, for example, calls the girls "maggots." The woman-warrior image taunts Maxine, who despises the special treatment her brothers receive. The families hold big celebrations for the boys' birthdays and buy them wonderful gifts, like bicycles. They ignore the girls on their birthdays. When girls do get gifts, they receive such things as typewriters, which prepare them for service. Maxine sees these discrepancies and reacts to them in a confrontation with her mother. Maxine would like to be the woman warrior, the Chinese woman who successfully breaks tradition.
Literary experts both praise and criticize Kingston's writing style. She combines fact with fiction—relying on her own memories, her mother's "talk stories," and her own vivid imagination—to create a view of what it is like to grow up a Chinese-American female. The critics who appreciate her ability to mold stories in this way especially like the way she reworks traditional myths and legends to modernize their messages. This technique irritates other critics, however, especially those who are Asian Americans. They argue that Kingston's retelling of Chinese myths and legends detracts from the original purposes they were meant to serve. In addition, these critics state that her dependence on so much inventiveness renders her writing difficult to classify as autobiography or fiction.
In addition to having a unique writing style, Kingston also uses an unusual structure in her organization of The Woman Warrior. The central theme focuses on a young Chinese girl's growing up in America and being pulled by the forces of both Chinese and American customs. Yet Kingston creates the drama of the girl's life through five separate stories of events through which the girl has matured. These five episodes help to show how the girl forms an identity for herself through the relationships she has with the women in her life.
Point of View
Kingston's use of the five separate stories allows her to change voices, or to tell the stories from different points of view. She tells four of the five stories from the first-person point of view. Through her own narrative, Kingston can take a stand and report events the way she sees them, speaking out against social and racial injustice. The one story that Kingston tells in the third-person narrative gives her silent aunt, Moon Orchid, a voice. Moon Orchid, never able to adjust to American life, suffers from mental illness. Telling Moon Orchid's story enables Kingston to appease Moon Orchid's "displaced spirit."
The narrator grows up in Stockton, California, where she was born in 1940. The events that actually occur in her life take place in California. Her imagined warrior life and her mother's "talk stories," however, take place in China. For example, the story of No-Name Aunt, the ghost aunt, occurs in China from about 1924 to 1934. In the chapter "White Tigers," Kingston's imagined self as a woman warrior lives in ancient China. "Shaman" is Brave Orchid's story about her life in China as a medical student and doctor, prior to her coming to America in 1939.
Symbolism provides substance for two of the five stories in The Woman Warrior. At the beginning of "Shaman," Brave Orchid is attending medical school after having spent the last decade or more of her adult life serving her husband and family as a traditional Chinese woman. When her fellow students challenge her to investigate a dormitory room that is supposedly haunted, she accepts the dare and spends the night in the room. The next day, she claims to have fought a fierce battle with "Sitting Ghost." She tells her friends that it still threatens them and convinces the girls to help her fight and conquer it. The group holds a ritual that rids the room of the dangerous spirit. This act symbolizes Brave Orchid's battle with the confining role of Chinese women.
In "At the Western Palace," Moon Orchid has arrived from China to live with her sister in California. Moon Orchid epitomizes the traditional Chinese woman. She allows her sister to manipulate a forced meeting between Moon Orchid and her Americanized husband. She does not assert herself in any way. The tiny, gray-haired, old woman keeps quiet about everything and eventually fades away in a mental asylum. Her name, Moon Orchid, symbolizes her nonentity.
Brave Orchid uses the word "ghost" in a figurative way. That is, the ghosts to which she refers most often are not supernatural beings, but Americans. She warns her children about White Ghosts of all kinds: Teacher Ghosts, Coach Ghosts, Taxi Ghosts, Police Ghosts, the Newsboy Ghost, and so on. Black Ghosts exist, too, but the children could fear them less because they were more distinct; Black Ghosts could not sneak around as easily as White Ghosts could. Other ghosts to whom Brave Orchid refers less frequently are those Chinese who have brought disgrace upon themselves or their families. No Name Aunt represents these Chinese ghosts.
While Brave Orchid warns her children about American ghosts, she does not mean to belittle Americans. She just refuses to accept her position in America and hates to release her image of herself as a respected Chinese woman.
Compare & Contrast
- 6th Century BC–1911 AD: Confinement and oppression of Chinese women abounds.
- 1912–1928: Last Chinese monarchy ends. Sun Yat-sen and his successor Yuan Shikai attempt to restore monarchy and are rivaled by warlords.
- 1917–1921: Revolution in Chinese thought and culture known as the May Fourth Movement. Also, Marxism arrives in China and the Chinese Communist Party begins with Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) in attendance.
- 1921–1927: Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang) and Russian Communists join forces.
- 1925: Chiang Kai-shek takes over military command of Kuomintang.
- 1937: Japanese invasion of China.
- 1937–1945: Rapid growth of the Chinese Communist Party, with Mao a national leader. Many Chinese come to the United States under a new immigration law that permits 105 Chinese per year to enter.
- 1949: People's Republic of China forms with Mao Zedong as chairman.
- 1965: The Chinese immigration quota is abolished.
- 1966–1969: The Chinese Cultural Revolution is led by Mao to destroy the liberal elements in China.
- Today: The 1990 Immigration Act raises the quota for Chinese immigrants and reorganizes the entrance preference system.
Women in Chinese Society
Kingston takes revenge on centuries of Chinese female oppression in The Woman Warrior. Additionally, she comes to terms with her family and their place in American society. Through her "talk stories" about herself and her female relatives, Kingston paints a picture of Chinese tradition that portrays women as objects controlled by men and used as slaves. From the days of Confucius, and reaching into the early twentieth century, the Chinese placed family above social order, and men above women. When people married, new family ties formed, and new wives became particularly subservient to their grooms' parents. Women from the higher classes lived extremely secluded lives and suffered such treatments as foot-binding. The Chinese chose young girls who were especially pretty to undergo foot-binding to keep their feet as small as possible. The binder bent the large toe backward, forever deforming the foot. Men favored women with bound feet, a sign of beauty and gentility, because it signified that they could support these women who were incapable of physical labor. While Kingston includes some stories of such subservient women, she also offers glimpses of mythical Chinese women who have broken the bonds of slavery to become warriors, heroines, and swordswomen. Kingston's own mother has offered her these visions. According to critic Diane Johnson in the New York Review of Books, Kingston "has been given hints of female power, and also explicit messages of female powerlessness from her mother, who in China had been a doctor and now toiled in the family laundry." Henry Allen, in the Washington Post, calls the resulting stories "a wild mix of myth, memory, history and lucidity which verges on the eerie." Mary Gordon gives Kingston credit for the technique, saying in the New York Times Book Review, "the blend … [is as] … relentless as a truth-seeking child's."
Chinese Political History
The Woman Warrior opens with Kingston's mother telling the story of her husband's sister who disgraced the family by having a child out of wedlock and then committing suicide. The year was 1924, when many men left China for America. China was experiencing political unrest at the time. After living under more than 3,000 years of imperialistic rule, Chinese revolutionaries forced the last Qing emperor to abdicate the throne. Sun Yat-sen became the temporary president of the Chinese Republic, supported by even the most conservative Chinese. Yuan Shikai succeeded Sun Yat-sen but died in 1916. From that time until 1928, warlords ruled China. Even though the government was unstable, the people of China began to think more liberally, adopting many Western ideas, denouncing imperialism, and attacking the social order established by Confucius. Historians refer to this nationalistic period as the May Fourth movement. At the same time, though, many Chinese embraced the newly-introduced Marxism, with Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) leading the first Chinese Communist Party.
Even though China now boasted a Communist party, Russian Communists did not support it. They instead rallied behind the Nationalist Party because it had more members and more political clout. Their intent was to rid China of the warlord influence and make way for socialism. Sun Yat-sen led this Nationalist Party, or the Kuomintang (Guomindang), from 1912 until 1925. In 1923, the Russian Communists and Kuomintang demanded that Chinese individuals join their ranks, and the Kuomintang began to adhere more closely to Russian Communism. This alliance did not last long, however, because the Kuomintang troops attacked the Chinese Communist Party and the Shanghai labor movement in a bloody massacre. Chiang Kai-shek, who had been Sun Yat-sen's military advisor, led the massacre and took over the Kuomintang when Sun died in 1925. It was Chiang and his troops who, during the Northern Expedition, destroyed the power of Chinese warlords. Kingston refers to both the warlords and the Communist rule in the chapter entitled "White Tigers." In a blending of ancient Chinese myth and modern Chinese history, she envisions herself as the female warrior who avenges the wrongs her family and country have suffered at the hands of the revolutionaries and Communists.
Kingston finished writing The Woman Warrior during her seventeen-year stay in Hawaii. At the same time that she was working on The Woman Warrior, she was also writing China Men. She told Timothy Pfaff of the New York Times Book Review that she thinks of the two books as "one big book. I was writing them more or less simultaneously." She hesitated to send The Woman Warrior to publishers, however, because she did not know what they would think of it. While publishers seldom print a writer's first attempt, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., took a chance on Kingston and her book's unusual style and content. The company published The Woman Warrior in 1976 as nonfiction. Surprisingly, the public liked the book so much, it promptly made the bestseller list. It also earned the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction that year and held the honor of being one of the top ten nonfiction books of the 1970s.
Critics applaud Kingston for her strong feminist voice and her ability to battle social and racial injustices through her use of words. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Pin-chia Feng calls Kingston "one of the most outspoken contemporary feminist writers" and a "word warrior." Critics also credit Kingston's expertise for translating stories told in oral form into written stories that maintain the unique characteristics of the Cantonese dialect that is spoken in her community. She does a thorough job of telling about a Chinese-American girl's growing up and being torn between Chinese traditions and American customs. Through a combination of myth and reality, she uncovers the Chinese tradition of male dominance and female oppression, and a Chinese-American girl's battle against it. In a Washington Post Book World review, William McPherson describes The Woman Warrior as "a strange, sometimes savagely terrifying and, in the literal sense, wonderful story of growing up caught between two highly sophisticated and utterly alien cultures, both vivid, often menacing and equally mysterious." Yet Kingston also builds the less-alien image of an important, though seldom-voiced, strength in ties between a Chinese-American girl and her mother. A good ex-ample of the result of a modern-thinking Chinese mother's influence on her Chinese-American daughters occurs at the end of Moon Orchid's story, At the Western Palace, in The Woman Warrior. Kingston writes, "Brave Orchid's daughters decided fiercely that they would never let men be unfaithful to them. All her children made up their minds to major in science or mathematics." Kingston's blend of legend and personal truths results in a work so unique that it is difficult to classify as fiction or nonfiction, biographical or autobiographical. Paul Gray says in Time, "Art has intervened here. The stories may or may not be transcripts of actual experience."
The very traits that earn the book favorable reviews, though, are also the ones that reap criticism. For example, many reviewers appreciate Kingston's attempts to tell about the Chinese-American woman's experience in America through the author's own life stories. Others, however, do not think that her stories present the truth for the community of all Chinese-American women. These critics think that Kingston combines too much fiction with the truth in her stories to be able to claim that she's reporting the Chinese-American woman's reality. Another aspect of Kingston's style that earns both approval and disapproval is her blending of traditional Chinese myths and legends with the events of her own life. Asian-American reviewers and scholars who study Chinese customs, history, language, and literature very much disapprove of this technique. They say that Kingston is twisting long-time Chinese history and legend, changing them to fit her needs. The best example of this in The Woman Warrior occurs in the chapter "White Tigers." The original legend tells of a woman who replaces her elderly father in a military draft. Kingston's version, however, makes the woman an aggressor who takes revenge on male dominance by killing the emperor. Critics view this misrepresentation as Kingston's most crucial mistake because it makes the book generic, unbelievable, and not true to Chinese heritage. Paul Gray, a critic for Time, agrees with the Asian-American critics and scholars, saying the book is "drenched in alienation" and "haunts a region somewhere between autobiography and fiction."
While critics cannot agree to appreciate the methods Kingston used to write The Woman Warrior, they can agree on its power. The book invokes a broad range of emotions—including rage, pride, enchantment, and inspiration. As a result, The Woman Warrior has won many awards, and educators use it extensively not only in literature classes, but also in women's studies, sociology, ethnic studies, and history classes.
Donna Woodford is a doctoral candidate at Washington University and has written for a wide variety of academic journals and educational publishers. In the following essay she discusses how the theme of the power of language unites the stories that make up Kingston's autobiography.
Maxine Hong Kingston's autobiography, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts, differs from most autobiographies in that it is not a first-person narration of the author's life. Rather, it is a form of nonfiction that, as Paul Mandelbaum says, "allows for—even thrives on—the vagaries of memory, translation, and point of view." Kingston tells her own life story by telling the stories of other women whose lives have impacted hers. This work of nonfiction is made up of memories, fantasies, and speculations about these women. In telling the stories of her mother, her aunts, the folk figure Fa Mu Lan, and the historical figure Ts'ai Yen, Kingston is seeking to find "ancestral help" which will allow her to understand her own life. If she can see their lives "branching into" her own, then she can better understand her own place in the world. In telling these stories she is also struggling to reconcile her identity as a member of two cultures, Chinese and American, who does not feel entirely at home in either culture. As a Chinese American woman she struggles to combat what Shirley Geok-Lin Lim has called "the cultural silencing of Chinese in American society and … the gendered silencing of women in Chinese society." She combats both of these forms of silence through the telling of stories about women who are either literally or mythically her ancestors, and because words are her weapons against silence, racism, and sexism, the power of language becomes a central and unifying theme in the book and the means through which Kingston can discover and relate her own identity.
The first chapter of Kingston's autobiography tells the story of the "no name woman," her aunt who disgraced the family by committing adultery, having a baby, and then drowning herself in the family well. Because this is a secret, shameful story, the chapter and the book begin with Kingston's mother telling her, "You must not tell anyone what I am about to tell you." Thus even the opening line of the book suggests the immense power of language. Kingston, in thinking about this story, says, "I have thought that sex was unspeakable and words so strong and fathers so frail that 'aunt' would do my father mysterious harm." But she comes to realize that the silence is not only a way of protecting her father and the family from shame, but also a way of punishing her aunt. Denying her aunt their voices and refusing to tell her story or even to acknowledge that she was born is the harshest form of punishment the family can inflict, and Kingston, by including her aunt's story as part of her autobiography, is reversing that punishment, but she is also endangering herself. She may become the "substitute" for her aunt. Her mother has told her this "story to grow up on" as a warning that if she is rebellious like her aunt, she could also be denied a story that ties her to her family and her culture. The story of her aunt highlights the dangers of speaking out even as it emphasizes the power of language.
What Do I Read Next?
- China Men follows Kingston's The Woman Warrior. While Kingston actually started this book prior to The Woman Warrior, Knopf did not publish it until 1980. China Men tells stories of Kingston's male ancestors. Kingston wrote this book to restore her Chinese family history and to take a new look at it in relation to American history.
- Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey, published by Knopf in 1989, continues her mix of Chinese mythology with fiction. The main character, Wittman Ah-Sing, is a fifth-generation Californian, Berkeley graduate, and playwright who "trips" his way from city to city trying to create his own theatre. In his drug-induced state, he imitates the Monkey King from Chinese mythology. Critics recognize this book for its diverse use of language.
- The Joy Luck Club, published by Putnam's Sons in 1989, is a story written by Chinese-American author Amy Tan. The book tells the stories of four Chinese-American daughters and their relationships with their Chinese mothers. These stories provide a good basis for comparison with Kingston's female characters in The Woman Warrior.
- Amy Tan's second novel, The Kitchen God's Wife, was published by Putnam in 1991. This book deals with female-female relationships and the effects Chinese male tradition and abuse can have on those relationships.
- The Chinese sister in Amy Tan's 1996 novel, The Hundred Secret Senses, convinces her American-born sister that she can communicate with the dead. The "ghosts" in this book evoke images of the "ghosts" in Kingston's The Woman Warrior.
The second chapter also emphasizes the power of language and story telling, but in a more positive manner. Although Kingston is distressed at the many Chinese expressions which compare girls to maggots or slaves, she also acknowledges that the Chinese stories her parents tell her offer another image of women. Girls can grow up to be "heroines, swordswomen." Kingston realizes that when she is listening to her mother tell stories she is "in the presence of great power." The story of Fa Mu Lan, which begins as one of stories told to Kingston by her mother and continues as a fantasy in which Kingston becomes Fa Mu Lan, makes the power of language even clearer. Fa Mu Lan becomes a representative of the power of language not only because she is a figure "told of in fairy tales," remembered and revered, unlike Kingston's no-name aunt, but also because of the words which are carved on her back, "words in red and black files, like an army." The words themselves become soldiers in the war, and they also turn Fa Mu Lan's body into a weapon, a living testament of the wrongs done to her family. The words furthermore connect Kingston, the writer, to Fa Mu Lan, the woman warrior, since both use words as weapons: "what [they] have in common are the words at [their] backs." If the story of Kingston's no-name aunt illustrated that refusing to tell stories could be a form of punishment, Kingston's version of the Fa Mu Lan story shows that telling a story can be a form of vengeance: "The idioms for revenge are 'report a crime' and 'report to five families.' The reporting is the vengeance—not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words." Kingston, through her writing, discovers that she, like her mother and Fa Mu Lan, has the great power of story telling.
In the third chapter, "Shaman," Kingston gives a more detailed picture of her mother's powerful use of language. She tells the story of her mother as a young woman who, like Fa Mu Lan, leaves her family to be educated and then returns to serve her community. She tells of how her mother and the other women at the medical school are "new women, scientists who changed the rituals" and who learn to chant the "horizontal names of one generation" instead of the traditional chant of ancestor's names. Brave Orchid's courage in forging these new trails connects her, like her daughter, to the woman warrior. And, like her daughter and the Woman Warrior, Brave Orchid is able to use language in battle, as when she fights the sitting ghost. Her fight against the ghost is primarily one of language, insults which she hurls at the ghost even as it is crushing her. She defeats the ghost, as Sidonie Smith has noted, with "the boldness of her word and the power of the images she voices to taunt him into submission and cowardice." Her command of language not only allows her to defeat the ghost but also to describe the battle to her friends in such a way that she makes herself seem stronger and nobler. In Smith's words, she "author[s] herself as a powerful protagonist." It is this same powerful authoring that Kingston will inherit from her mother, and this is how her mother's story becomes Kingston's story and provides her with ancestral help. The chapter closes with Kingston realizing how much she and her mother have in common: "I am really a Dragon, as she is a Dragon, both of us born in dragon years. I am practically a first daughter of a first daughter." Their use of language and storytelling connects them and empowers both of them.
The fourth chapter tells the story of another aunt, Brave Orchid's sister, Moon Orchid, who lacks the story telling power of her sister and niece. Moon Orchid, unlike her sister, is not brave enough to venture alone into new territories. She waits for thirty years for her husband to send for her. Nor does she have the brave, commanding voice of her sister. When forced to confront her husband she cannot even manage to speak: "her voice was fading to a whisper." Her lack of language becomes the weapon her husband uses against her when he tells her that he has important guests who come into his house and "you can't talk to them. You can barely talk to me." Not only is she unable to leave the confines of her family and create a new path, as Brave Orchid did, but her lack of language also prevents her from maintaining her role within her family. She is speechless and therefore helpless. Without the security of her husband and her traditional place in Chinese society, Moon Orchid goes insane, which Brave Orchid recognizes by the change in her story telling: "The difference between mad people and sane people … is that sane people have variety when they talk story. Mad people have only one story that they talk over and over." But if Moon Orchid is not able to empower herself through story telling, her story does become a source of empowerment for her nieces. Kingston weaves the simple story of her aunt into a complicated knot which gives her ancestral help by showing her the importance of being strong and vocal like her mother and not weak and quiet like her aunt, and all the girls vow never to let a man be unfaithful to them. Their aunt has become another family story for them to grow on, a warning of the danger of weakness and silence just as the story of the no name aunt was a warning of the danger of breaking boundaries.
The final chapter is full of powerful stories about language. Kingston describes her difficulties in speaking up for herself, and she wonders if it is because her mother cut too much of her tongue in an attempt to ensure that she would never be tongue-tied. She also tells how she cornered the quiet girl in the bathroom at school, taking her fear of her own silence out on the only person quieter and weaker than she felt herself to be. Additionally Kingston confesses that she is ashamed of her mother's loud voice and the way she is always insisting that Kingston translate embarrassing things for her. She reveals how her difficulty with speaking is connected to her confusion over her place in two different cultures: "Normal Chinese women's voices are strong and bossy. We American-Chinese girls had to whisper to make ourselves American-feminine. Apparently we whispered even more than the Americans." But the story with which she ends this chapter, and the book, resolves these conflicts. The story of Ts'ai Yen, a poet alone in a foreign land, becomes the story of Kingston and her mother. Both of them are, like Ts'ai Yen, women using language to help them make a place for themselves in a foreign land. And like Ts'ai Yen, they are, through language, able to bring their two cultures together, to "translate well" between them.
Thus, though Kingston's book is not a traditional autobiography, it does relate her struggle to understand herself as a member of two cultures, and it details her search for a voice of her own. As Sidonie Smith has said, Kingston recognizes the "inextricable relationship between an individual's sense of 'self and the community's stories of selfhood, [and] self-consciously reads herself into existence through the stories her culture tells about women." As a member of more than one culture, Kingston cannot "read herself into existence" with only one story. Since language is such a crucial part of her identity, the stories with which she chooses to define herself must also convey the power of language. By weaving together the stories of these women and the impact of language and story telling on their lives, Kingston is truly telling the story of her own life, and the story of her struggle to find a language in which to tell her story.
Source: Donna Woodford, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.
In this excerpt, Schueller examines the way in which The Woman Warrior questions accepted cultural definitions of female and ethnic identity.
Ever since its publication in 1976, Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior has been praised as a feminist work. But while critics have written extensively about the articulation of female experience in The Woman Warrior, they have been unable to deal simultaneously with the questions of national and racial identity that the book so powerfully raises. However, if we approach women's writing as centrally concerned not strictly with gender but with oppression, we can fruitfully examine the conjuncture and relationship between female and ethnic identity, an important issue not only for this text but for feminist theory as well. I will briefly examine the politicization of female identity offered by some feminist critics and then examine The Woman Warrior as a dialogic text, one which subverts singular definitions of racial and ethnic identity and which valorizes intersubjectivity and communication….
Feminist critics have long recognized that what constitutes female experience is not biological gender or a specific female psyche but the constraints and limitations felt by women as a result of the cultural constitution of gender and the phallocentric organization of society. To write socially and politically as a woman is therefore to question the truth status and ostensible ideological neutrality of cultural norms and institutions…. What is politically important for women and racial minorities is not to frame correct definitions of female and ethnic identity but to question all such definitions. Above all it means to reject the concept of a stable and autonomous self upon which such definitions depend….
Few contemporary American writers are as aware of the need to question and subvert accepted cultural definitions as Maxine Hong Kingston. The Woman Warrior is a sustained subversion of cultural, racial and gender definitions and an affirmation of a radical intersubjectivity as the basis of articulation.
The Woman Warrior is a collection of "memoirs" of Kingston's experiences of growing up in an immigrant family in Stockton, California. Kingston reveals the squalor and poverty of Chinatowns, the endemic racism, the traumas of acculturation in a hostile environment, and her own attempt to subvert gender hierarchies by imaginative identification with the woman warrior. But although Kingston writes polemically against the subjugation of women and the racial hostility experienced by Chinese Americans, she does not do so from a position of stability or unity. Articulation itself is a complex issue in the text. The very act of speaking involves breaking through the gender and race barriers that suppress voicing from the margins. But the voice Kingston speaks through is not isolated and autonomous. It refracts, echoes, and is creatively conjoined with the numerous voices with which it interacts. This undefined basis of narration dramatizes Kingston's determination not to create singular definitions of ethnic identity in order to combat the impoverishing stereotypes to which Chinese Americans are subject, not to postulate the foundations of a new hierarchy.
It is clear at the very outset that the act of articulation itself will be a major concern in the book. Kingston begins her memoirs with a secrecy oath imposed on her by her indomitable mother: "You must not tell anyone," and a moral drawn from the story of the adulterous aunt who has been banished from family memory. "Don't humiliate us. You wouldn't like to be forgotten as if you had never been born." Kingston is aware of the temerity involved in the very act of her writing. To articulate herself she must break through the numerous barriers that condemn her to voicelessness. The unnamed narrator thus begins her recollections with the act of listening rather than speaking. Sworn to silence, she hears the tale of the unnamed aunt who gives "silent birth" to "save her inseminator's name." This initial story establishes the denial of expression women are condemned to in patriarchy and the cultural stranglehold the narrator must fight in order to express herself….
But the anxiety of articulation is also peculiarly a racial one. Kingston is sensitive to the brutality and degradation experienced by Chinese immigrants. China Men records the heroism of Chinese railroad workers and sugarcane planters who survive hostility and violence. Living in a culture that had for long grouped Orientals with imbeciles and denied Chinese immigrants legal and naturalization rights, the present-day immigrants in The Woman Warrior still live in fear. Immigrants thus "guard their real names with silence" and even after years of living in America avoid signing innocuous permission slips for their children at school. The narrator realizes that "silence had to do with being a Chinese girl." In the American school she is overcome by dumbness, her voice reduced to a whisper. In the Chinese school she finds her voice but it is a strained one: "You could hear splinters in my voice, bones rubbing jagged against one another."…
Kingston's voicelessness is a symbolic expression of the culture's refusal to give her voice legitimacy. But the alternative to this disempowerment, Kingston knows, is not to create a "true" Chinese woman's voice or to define a singular Chinese identity to celebrate, but to question the very political structures that make positions of power and powerlessness possible. Kingston deconstructs oppositions between American and Chinese, male and female, and most importantly between Self and Other by articulating herself through a language in which opposed and diverse voices constantly coexist. By doing so, Kingston questions the values of the autonomous self and definitions of racial and sexual identity, and simultaneously presents dialogic intersubjectivity and community as the realm of hope and possibility….
Kingston deals with the necessity of maintaining and creating multiple ideological positions, of always letting the numerous voices echo in her own articulations. For Kingston this refraction of other voices is an affirmation of community and diversity. Thus it is appropriate that the final story of the book emphasizes differences and communicative interaction. "Here is a story my mother told me … recently, when I told her I also talk story. The beginning is hers, the ending, mine." As opposed to the beginning of the book where the mother silences her, here the narrator emphasizes how their voices are inextricably and dialogically linked, even if they are different….
The narrating voice as it emerges in The Woman Warrior is thus highly provisional, always full of echoes of other voices, and never autonomous. Kingston does not merely wish to appropriate power and write an authoritative "marginal" text. She wishes to celebrate marginality as a position of writing and not to postulate a new source of authority or a new hierarchy…. Denying universality, absolute values, and an autonomous self are crucial to writings of all marginal groups.
Just as it is important for Kingston to treat gender as a site of difference, it is vital for her to treat race too as a play of differences. Indeed to view The Woman Warrior as a book about an essential, abstract, female self beyond culture and society is to miss the point entirely. The immigrant experience is an integral part of the book. Kingston is sensitive to the dehumanizing definitions Chinese Americans are subject to and is determined not to perpetuate the same by merely inverting the hierarchies. At the base of such definitions is the destructive binary logic which hierarchically divides male and female, self and other, white and non white. [In his book Orientalism, Random House, 1978] Edward Said has compellingly demonstrated how such hierarchies have operated in depictions of the "Oriental" as the passive and denatured Other. In The Woman Warrior Kingston questions and undoes oppositions that make such sterile racial definitions possible.
The narrator of The Woman Warrior is uniquely positioned to dialogically question racial oppositions. She is the daughter of Chinese immigrants for whom America is temporary exile, and China home, but who nevertheless will stay in America. Her only reality is America, but it is the America of the margins (Kingston makes no bones about Stockton being a racial and economic ghetto). She goes to Chinese school and to American school. Her own undefinable position is a metaphor for the way in which ethnicity will operate: "I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes…. The dragon lives in the sky, ocean, marshes, and mountains; and the mountains are also its cranium…. It breathes fire and water; and sometimes the dragon is one, sometimes many."…
On an obvious level Kingston obviously creates clear cultural oppositions, indeed as if she were speaking in the voice of the monocultural reader. American life is logical, concrete, free, and guarantees individual happiness; Chinese life is illogical, superstition-ridden, constricted by social roles, and weighted down by community pressures. The American school teaches that an eclipse is "just a shadow the earth makes when it comes between the moon and the sun"; the Chinese mother prepares the children to "slam pots and lids together to scare the frog from swallowing the moon" during the next eclipse. American culture promises the young girl opportunity for excellence if she gets straight 'A's. She can go to college. But she also has the freedom to be a lumberjack in Oregon. In China the girl fears she will be sold as a slave; or within the immigrant community she will be married off to a Fresh Off the Boat Chinese. Indeed the structure of hierarchical oppositions is so cleverly set up that the narrator's growth might be equated with being fully "American."
But Kingston sets up these hierarchies only to subvert and make undecidable these singular oppositions. "To make my waking life American-normal, I turn on the lights before anything untoward makes an appearance. I push the deformed into my dreams, which are in Chinese, the language of impossible dreams." But just as the conventional American reader might begin to feel at ease with the comfortable hierarchy (American-normal, Chinese-deformed), Kingston challenges it. "When the thermometer in our laundry reached one hundred and eleven degrees on summer afternoons, either my mother or my father would say that it was time to tell another ghost story so that we could get some good chills up our backs." American-normal reality gets so nightmarish that Chinese ghost stories are needed to chase it away into imaginary chills. Not only is the cultural hierarchy subverted but the traditional associations of logicality and dreams are suspended….
Kingston's questioning of oppositions and her resistance to definition are intensely political strategies. For the marginal writer who is often the subject of singular definition, such a dialogic stance is often a strategy of survival. Kingston thus problematizes and subverts racial definitions in order to reveal the dangers of maintaining them….
[Kingston] presents Chinese culture as a conglomeration of diverse, multiple, often contradictory values that she does not attempt to unify into an easy explanation. Such unities, for Kingston, are the hallmarks of tourist propaganda, not lived culture. Kingston does not believe in the possibility of representing Chinese culture because that assumes that there is a simple "Chinese" reality and culture easily available for representation. As Kingston said [in Marilyn Yalom, Women Writers of the West Coast: Speaking of Their Lives and Careers, Capra Press (Santa Barbara), 1983], "There are Chinese American writers who seek to represent the rest of us; they end up with tourist manuals or chamber of commerce public relations whitewash." In The Woman Warrior every aspect of Chinese culture and Chinese immigrant life is so diverse that it resists generalization. The striking contrast between the strength of the narrator's mother, Brave Orchid, who becomes a doctor in China and fights for her rights in America and Moon Orchid who accepts the role of abandoned wife, is only one of several. Immigrant Chinese range from the wealthy, Americanized husband of Moon Orchid, to the Stockton Chinese who maintain their native village affiliations, to refugees from the revolution. And the difference between the immigrant Chinese and the Chinese from the narrator's village is so vast that to the untutored eyes of Moon Orchid, the former appear like foreigners. "I'm glad to see the Americans talk like us" says Moon Orchid to her sister. "Brave Orchid was … again startled at her sister's denseness. 'These aren't the Americans. These are the overseas Chinese'."…
The Woman Warrior thus subverts all forms that have the potential of providing cultural stability and unity…. Kingston writes polemically as a Chinese-American woman confronting and battling with the patriarchal, white American culture but she does so from a position that is radically unstable. She writes as a woman, but destabilizes the concept of gender; she speaks as a Chinese American, but questions racial definitions. Authorship therefore becomes a complicated question because Kingston refuses to give us a traditional position from which she articulates. This does not mean that the text is apolitical or socially meaningless. Gender and race are important to Kingston, but not as transcendent and true categories. Kingston does not dismiss or destroy these categories, but radically transvalues them by making them dialogically interactive. And because she subverts these categories only in relation to the singular definitions imposed by the dominant culture and does not attempt to lay the foundations of another (more pure or true) set of categories, she resists impoverishing the issues of gender and race.
Source: Malini Schueller, "Questioning Race and Gender Definitions: Dialogic Subversions in The Woman Warrior," in Criticism, Vol XXXI, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 421-437.
In the following article, Ling contrasts the role of woman as victim and victor in Kingston's The Woman Warrior.
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Source: Amy Ling, "Thematic Threads in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior," in Tamkang Review, Vol. XIV, Nos. 1-4, Autumn, 1983–Summer, 1984, pp. 155-164.
Henry Allen, review in Washington Post, June 26, 1980.
Mary Gordon, review in New York Times Book Review, April 23, 1989.
Paul Gray, review in Time, December 6, 1976.
Diane Johnson, review in the New York Review of Books, February 3, 1977.
Maxine Hong Kingston, "At the Western Palace," The Woman Warrior, Vintage International, 1989, p. 160.
William McPherson, review in Washington Post Book World, October 10, 1976.
Timothy Pfaff, review in New York Times Book Review, November 7, 1976.
Pin-chia Feng, "Maxine Hong Kingston," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 173: American Novelists Since World War II, Fifth Series, Gale Research, 1996, pp. 84-97.
Frank Chin, "Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake," in The Big Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature, edited by Jeffery Paul Chan, Frank Chin, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong, Meridian, 1991, pp. 1-92.
Chin criticizes Kingston for demeaning Chinese culture by altering traditional Chinese myths and by writing an autobiography, which he does not consider an "authentically Chinese" genre.
Elisabeth Croll, Changing Identities of Chinese Women: Rhetoric, Experience, and Self-Perception in Twentieth-Century China, Zed Books, 1995.
This book addresses the raising of Chinese daughters through and across generations before, during, and after the Revolution. Combining case-study accounts with historical data, the author describes growing up across gender-related and cultural boundaries.
Patricia Buckley Ebrey, The Cambridge Illustrated History of China, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
The author traces Chinese traditions from prehistory through modern times, focusing on the arts, culture, economics, foreign policy, emigration, and politics. Of particular interest is the author's discussion of Chinese society's treatment of women.
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, "Women in Society," in Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia [CD-ROM], Grolier Interactive, Inc., 1998.
The author explains Chinese women's lowly position in society through the early twentieth century. She notes, in particular, women's relationships with their husbands and their husbands' families, and describes the effects of their low status.
Yan Gao, The Art of Parody: Maxine Hong Kingston's Use of Chinese Sources (Many Voices: Ethnic Literatures of the Americas, Vol. 2), Peter Lang Publishing, 1996.
This author provides an analysis of Kingston's use of Chinese sources in her novels, focusing on the advantage Kingston's bicultural upbringing brings to her unique observations of Chinese and American traditions.
Donn V. Hart, "Foot Binding," in Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia [CD-ROM], Grolier Interactive, Inc., 1998.
Hart gives a vivid description of the Chinese tradition of foot binding, explaining its purposes as well as the process.
Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, "'Growing with Stories': Chinese American Identities, Textual Identities," in Teaching American Ethnic Literatures: Nineteen Essays, edited by John R. Maitino and David R. Peck, University of New Mexico Press, 1996, pp. 273-91.
Lim offers a useful analysis of the themes and structure of Kingston's autobiography before discussing approaches to teaching the book.
Paul Mandelbaum, "Rising from the Ashes: A Profile of Maxine Hong Kingston," in Poets and Writers, Vol. 26, no. 3, May/June, 1998, pp. 46-53.
An article detailing Kingston's life and work, including the 156-page manuscript she lost when her Oakland home burned to the ground. Mandelbaum praises Kingston's ability to travel "deep into the borderland that encompasses both fact and fantasy."
Paul Outka, "Publish or Perish: Food, Hunger, and Self-Construction in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 38, no. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 447-82.
Outka traces Kingston's search for selfhood and its connection to the theme of hunger in the book.
Tracy Robinson, "The Intersections of Gender, Class, Race, and Culture: On Seeing Clients Whole," in Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, Vol. 21, no. 1, January, 1993, pp. 50-58.
This article relates identity formation to the effects of a person's race, culture, and class.
Malini Schueller, "Questioning Race and Gender Definitions: Dialogic Subversions in The Woman Warrior," in Criticism, Vol. 31, 1989, pp. 421-37.
Schueller commends Kingston for her unique form of autobiography and for questioning simple definitions of female and ethnic identities.
Sidonie Smith, "Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior: Filiality and Woman's Autobiographical Storytelling," in Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, edited by Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl, Rutgers University Press, 1997, pp. 1117-37.
Smith praises Kingston's work for capturing the connection between gender and genre in autobiography and calling The Woman Warrior "an autobiography about women's autobiographical story telling."
Howard J. Wechsler, "History of China," in Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia [CD-ROM], Grolier Interactive, Inc., 1998.
The author provides a detailed description of China's history from its earliest days through modern times. Of particular importance to this novel are the author's discussions of the Nationalist Movement, the Chinese Communists, and the Kuomintang.
Gayle Wurst, "Cultural Stereotypes and the Language of Identity: Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle, Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, and Alice Walker's The Color Purple," in Cross-Cultural Studies: American, Canadian, and European Literatures: 1945–1985, edited by Mirko Jurak, Filozofska Fakulteta (Yugoslavia), 1988, pp. 53-64.
Wurst compares Kingston's The Woman Warrior with Atwood's Lady Oracle and Walker's The Color Purple, noting that in all three works the narrator strives to break down cultural stereotypes.