Kingston, Maxine Hong: General Commentary

views updated



SOURCE: Juhasz, Suzanne. "Narrative Technique & Female Identity." In Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheik, pp. 173-89. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985.

In the following essay, Juhasz maintains that The Woman Warrior and China Men "compose a woman's autobiography, describing a self formed at the source by gender experience."

Maxine Hong Kingston's two-volume autobiography, The Woman Warrior and China Men, embodies the search for identity in the narrative act. The first text places the daughter in relation to her mother, the second places her in relation to her father; they demonstrate how finding each parent is a part of finding oneself. For Kingston, finding her mother and father is to name them, to tell their stories. Language is the means with which she arrives at identity, first at home, and then in the world. But because a daughter's relation to her mother is psychologically and linguistically different from her relation to her father, so is the telling of these stories different.1

Although the two texts are superficially similar, they are generated from different narrative patterns. In The Woman Warrior alternating movements toward and away from the mother take place within a textual field in which a linear progression, defining first the mother, then the daughter, takes place. In China Men narrative movement goes in one direction only, toward the father. But because this impulse in the latter book is continually diffused into generalization and idealization, it begins over, again and again. Such narrative structures suggest the evolution of female identity, which is formed in relation to the mother through the achievement of individuation in the context of connection, in relation to the father through the understanding of separation, the creation of substitutes for connection. Taken together, The Woman Warrior and China Men compose a woman's autobiography, describing a self formed at the source by gender experience.

To say this is neither to ignore nor to minimize the question of national identity everywhere present in Kingston's writing. Born in the United States to Chinese immigrant parents, her search for self necessarily involves a definition of home. Is it America, China, or some place in between? For Kingston the question of national identity complicates the search for self. Yet it is possible to understand how gender identity and national identity can be versions of one another, how home is embodied in the mother and father who together stand for the primary source of the self. For Kingston, in fact, who has never been there, China is not so much a physical place as it is a construct used by her parents to define their own identities. America too, especially for her parents, is a psychological state as much as it is a place. My own focus here on sexual identity is therefore not meant to negate the other dimension of the problem, but rather to reveal sexual and national identities as parts of one another. For it is as a Chinese-American woman that Kingston seeks to define herself.

The narrator's search for home in both books is for a place and a self. That search involves rejections of source as well as connections to it, even as the achievement of identity is a combination of individuation and attachment: "Whenever my parents said 'home,' they suspended America. They suspended enjoyment, but I did not want to go to China. In China my parents would sell my sisters and me. My father would marry two or three more wives, who would spatter cooking oil on our bare toes and lie that we were crying for naughtiness. They would give food to their own children and rocks to us. I did not want to go where the ghosts took shapes nothing like our own."2

The movement of both texts is toward her own definition of home as a place to which she can return. "The simple explanation makes it less scary to go home after yelling at your father and mother. It drives the fear away and makes it possible someday to visit China, where I now know they don't sell girls or kill each other for no reason" (WW [Woman Warrior ], 238). The explanation is the writing of the book, telling stories of home—of China and America in general, but of mothers and fathers in particular. "I want to hear the stories about the rest of your life," the narrator of China Men says to her father: "the Chinese stories." Her purpose is thereby to know him: "I want to know what makes you scream and curse, and what you're thinking when you say nothing; and why when you do talk, you talk differently from mother."3 In the first chapter of The Woman Warrior, telling the forbidden story—told to her, nevertheless, by her mother—of an aunt who committed suicide, the narrator explains, "Unless I see her life branching into mine, she gives me no ancestral help" (WW, 10). Telling her aunt's story is a way to bring their two lives together, to discover commonality. At the same time, however, it reveals their differences as well. Telling their stories, in fact, both frees her from them and binds her to them, which is the process of finding home. "Thank you, Mother, thank you, Father," says the narrator in her fantasy of herself as a woman warrior: "They had carved their names and addresses on me, and I would come back" (WW, 44).

The Chinese phrase for story telling is "talking-story," and it defines the narration of both books. It is as well the subject of both books, because finding words, telling stories, is in Kingston's writing the other major metaphor, along with home, for the process of achieving identity. Chinese into English, silence into speech: when they appear in her books, these themes are subject and technique. The narrator of The Woman Warrior, who literally could not speak in public as a child, later cries to another silent Chinese-American girl, "If you don't talk, you can't have a personality. You'll have no personality and no hair" (WW, 210). The narrator's fantasy of the powerful woman, the woman warrior of the title, involves a female avenger with words actually carved on her back: "The ideographs 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. And I have so many words—'chink' words and 'gook' words too—that they do not fit on my skin" (WW, 63). That power, equated with the ability to talk-story, is specifically associated with her mother: "I saw that I too had been in the presence of great power, my mother talking-story" (WW, 24).

Talking-story, discourse itself, is central to the difference between the two books, representative in turn of the difference in the relationships between daughters and mothers, daughters and fathers. The narrator's mother talks to her; her father does not. "Whenever she had to warn us about life, my mother told stories … a story to grow up on" (WW, 5). The Woman Warrior begins and ends with the narrator's mother talking-story. By the end of the book, the daughter's independent identity can be understood through her connection to her mother; talking-story is indicative of both parts of the mother-daughter relationship: "Here is a story my mother told me, not when I was young but recently, when I told her I also talk-story. The beginning is hers, the ending mine" (WW, 240). Her father, in contrast, does not talk. Screams and curses define his speech, but more important yet is his silence: "You kept up a silence for weeks and months" (CM [China Men ], 8).

At the core of the relationship between daughter and mother is identification. The mother-child bond has always been the primary one, and girls never have to break it in the way boys do, by understanding that they are of different sexes. Through her stories, the narrator's mother passes on her version of reality to her daughter: "She tested our strength to establish realities," explains the narrator as The Woman Warrior begins. The matter is complicated, however, by the fact that the mother often tells lies. In China Men the narrator specifically contrasts men's stories with "the fairy tales and ghost stories told by women" (CM, 37). "No, no," says the narrator's mother to her in The Woman Warrior, "there aren't any flags like that. They're just talking-story. You're always believing talk-story" (WW, 213). To find her own identity the daughter needs to ascertain the difference between herself and her mother. Discovering a separate identity for her mother is one way to help her find her own self. Discerning the relation between her mother's "truths" and "lies" is representative of this process.

With her father the narrator needs not to loosen a connection but to make one. His discourse, and especially the lack of it, is indicative of the fundamental separateness between daughter and father, a separateness that arises because the father is neither a daughter's primary love nor is he of the same sex. The narrator's father screams or curses at her, "Wordless male screams that jolted the house upright and staring in the middle of the night" (CM, 8). His curses defile women: "Your mother's cunt. Your mother's smelly cunt" (CM, 8). Worse are his long silences, whereby he "punished us by not talking … rendered us invisible, gone" (CM, 8). To believe that her father does not mean her with his curses, to find out who he really is, the daughter has to invent him: "I'll tell you what I suppose from your silences and few words, and you can tell me that I'm mistaken. You'll just have to speak up with the real stories if I've got you wrong" (CM, 10). In the face of silence, invention is her only possible recourse. Yet it cannot be trusted in the same way that the narrator of The Woman Warrior trusts her imaginings about the lives of women relatives. Furthermore, it would be better, in the end, if he would tell her himself.

Therefore, although the two texts are conceived of by their author as "one big book [, she] was writing them more or less simultaneously," and although their surface stylistic features are similar, there is a profound difference between them. Whereas she "thought there would be a big difference between the men and the women," Kingston does not in fact "find them that different."4 On the surface, the texts do look and sound alike. Both tell stories of relatives, stories interspersed with memories of the narrator's own childhood, in a matter-of-fact tone and declarative sentences that permit the speaker a fluid interchange between fact and fantasy, reportage and poetry. Yet the results are different, indicating more profound differences in narrative structure. Kingston herself points to their different sources. "In a way," she says, "The Woman Warrior was a selfish book. I was always imposing my viewpoint on the stories. In China Men the person who 'talks-story' is not so intrusive. I bring myself in and out of the stories, but in effect, I'm more distant. The more I was able to understand my characters, the more I was able to write from their point of view and the less interested I was in relating how I felt about them."5 "More distant": This distance is, I think, a necessary result of the difference in finding a father rather than a mother, and it produces a text that creates not a universal or an androgynous but a female understanding of masculine experience. The essential separation between daughter and father is bridged by fantasy that, while it may do its work with intelligence and love, is never empathetic and is always idealized. For all its attention to detail, the text it produces is curiously—or not so curiously—abstract. The Woman Warrior is a messier book, but for me it is more satisfying than China Men. Yet, taken together as they are meant to be, they offer valuable insights into the nature of female identity, as it is created in relation not simply to women, not simply to men, but to both sexes, both parents.

The Woman Warrior is "messy" insofar as its narrative patterns are several and intertwined. Complex is really a better word for the various kinds of narrative movements that taken together reflect the dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship. The move to individuate and the move to connect both arise from the essential attachment between daughter and mother; the need for separation thus exists in the context of connection. In consequence, the identity that the text establishes for its narrator is achieved through a process involving both individuation and attachment.

The largest narrative pattern has a linear direction. The first three stories move toward defining the mother, thereby distinguishing her from the daughter; the two final stories go on to define the daughter, distinguishing her from the mother. But within each of the stories other movements occur in alternating patterns, maintaining the necessary tension between separation and connection. The text as a whole, for example, can be seen as an alternation between the stories the mother tells and the stories the daughter tells. Each teller's stories, in turn, alternate between true stories and stories that are not true.

The mother creates her relationship with her daughter through the kinds of story she tells her, stories whose purpose is sometimes to keep the two women alike and sometimes to make them different, as when, for example, the mother tries to offer her daughter a life other than her own. Seeking to know her mother, the daughter begins by thinking that what she has to understand is the difference between her mother's "truths" and "lies." Ultimately, however, she comes to discover not so much which ones are lies but why they are lies, and it is this kind of awareness that helps her to see her mother as another person.

At the same time, the daughter's own narrative style also alternates between "truths" and "lies." Her truths are her actual memories of her own past; but to write her history beyond herself, she invents or imagines stories—of her dead aunt in China, of her mother's young womanhood, of the woman warrior. This process of imaginative empathy should be understood not as prevarication but as fiction. It is, however, not the literal truth, and it establishes both connection with her subject, by means of empathy, and separation as well—the story is, after all, her own creation.

In each of the stories, these alternating rhythms create the double movement of individuation in the context of connection that enables the narrator to establish identity. In the first story, "No Name Woman," for example, the mother's telling of the aunt's story gives rise to her daughter's version of it, yet the daughter's version is revisionary. The daughter's story, in turn, both deepens her connection to her female heritage and creates some separation from it and thereby control over it.

The daughter begins her search for identity in The Woman Warrior by looking, not at her mother, but at another female relative, an aunt who took her own life in China, a woman whose own identity has been denied because the family never speaks of her. It is perhaps less frightening to approach her mother and the issue of female identity in this way at the outset of the book. Nevertheless, her mother's words begin and end the story, and it is her mother who has told her of the aunt's existence. "'You must not tell anyone,' my mother said, 'what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born'" (WW, 3). The conclusion of her mother's story points specifically to connection with her own sex: "'Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you.'…Whenever she had to warn us about life, my mother told stories that ran like this one, a story to grow up on" (WW, 5).

But the daughter is not satisfied with her mother's account. "My mother has told me once and for all the useful parts. She will add nothing unless powered by Necessity, a riverbank that guides her life" (WW, 6). The daughter wants to know, for example, what kind of clothes her aunt wore, "whether flashy or ordinary." She wants, in other words, access to the motivation, the feelings, the personality of this female ancestor, to "see her life branching into mine"; she wants "ancestral help." And she senses in the very abbreviation of her mother's version a duplicity: "The emigrants confuse the gods by diverting their curses, misleading them with crooked streets and false names. They must try to confuse their offspring as well, who, I suppose, threaten them in similar ways—always trying to get things straight, always trying to name the unspeakable. The Chinese I know hide their names; sojourners take new names when their lives change, and they guard their real names with silence" (WW, 6).

To name what her mother has left out the narrator employs imaginative empathy, making up her aunt's story and in that way coming to know her, to connect with her. Because she conceives of this aunt as like herself, rebelling against tradition, she identifies with her: "my aunt, my forerunner," who, "caught in a slow life, let dreams grow and fade and after some months or years went towards what persisted" (WW, 9). To "get it straight, to name the unspeakable," the narrator must use her own imagination, not her mother's.

It takes the narrator three chapters to apply this technique directly to her mother. This third chapter, "Shaman," stands at the center and heart of the text. What precedes it is "White Tigers," the story of the woman warrior, the fabulous Fa Mu Lan, the girl who took her father's place in battle, the girl with whom the narrator identifies and into whom she turns herself, the girl who comes at last to stand for the woman writer.

Once again, impetus for the narrator's imaginative reconstruction of the story of the woman warrior is given by her mother's version. Now the daughter begins to have some intimation that her mother's duplicity has a function other than to confuse or conceal. Chinese culture, as the narrator has described it in "No Name Woman," is strongly repressive of women. Yet, as she says in the opening lines of "White Tigers," "when we Chinese girls listened to adults talk-story, we learned that we failed if we grew up to be but wives or slaves. We could be heroines, swords-women. Even if she had to rage across all China, a swordswoman got even with anybody who hurt her family. Perhaps women were once so dangerous they had to have their feet bound" (WW, 23). In telling her daughter stories of female heroism that directly contradict many of her other messages about the position of women, the mother shows her daughter another possibility for women that is not revealed in her equally strong desire for her daughter's conformity and thus safety in a patriarchal system. Which, then, is the "true" story?

In "White Tigers," too, the narrator replaces her mother's story with her own, yet at the same time she understands her mother's connection with her own version of the woman warrior, who is also an image of herself:

Night after night my mother would talk-story until we fell asleep. I couldn't tell where the stories left off and the dreams began, her voice the voice of the heroines in my sleep.…

At last I saw that I too had been in the presence of great power, my mother talking-story. After I grew up, I heard the chant of Fa Mu Lan, the girl who took her father's place in battle. Instantly I remembered that as a child I had followed my mother about the house, the two of us singing about how Fa Mu Lan fought gloriously and returned alive from war to settle in the village. I had forgotten this chant that was once mine, given me by my mother, who may not have known its power to remind. She said I would grow up a wife and a slave, but she taught me the song of the warrior woman, Fa Mu Lan. I would have to grow up a warrior woman.

[WW, 24]

Not only is the mother's connection to her daughter acknowledged here but her female power as well, a power specifically associated with her ability to talk-story. In the telling of her own story—with herself as the woman warrior, a hero possessing most of all the power of imagination—a story which is then contrasted to her actual childhood memories of repression and misogyny, the narrator concludes by identifying language as the means by which she can become a woman warrior. The association with her own mother, the woman story teller, cannot be ignored: "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" (WW, 63).

In "Shaman" the narrator looks directly at Brave Orchid, the mother whose presence has infused and helped to create the stories that precede it. She tells not one but two stories, however—or tells the story twice: the "truth"—her actual memories of her mother, a laundress in America—and the "fiction"—the story of her mother who in China became a doctor. The fiction includes her own postulation of thoughts and feelings, added to the facts she has been given to create the character of Brave Orchid. But of course both kinds of story, the mother as ordinary woman and the mother as hero, are necessary, both kinds of knowledge, truth and fiction—each a corrective for the other, each a part of the reality of character.

Brave Orchid's heroism, as her daughter tells it, identifies her with the woman warrior, because her success, like the woman warrior's, is based on powers of the imagination. "I learned to make my mind large," writes the narrator, as the woman warrior, in "White Tigers," "as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes. Pearls are bone marrow; pearls come from oysters. The dragon lives in the sky, ocean, marshes, and mountains; and the mountains are also its cranium. Its voice thunders and jingles like copper pans. It breathes fire and water; and sometimes the dragon is one, sometimes many.…When I could point at the sky and make a sword appear, a silver bolt in the sunlight, and control its slashing with my mind, the old people said I was ready to leave" (WW, 35, 39). She describes Brave Orchid in similar fashion:

My mother may have been afraid, but she would become a dragoness.…She could make herself not weak. During danger she fanned out her dragon claws and riffled her red sequin scales and unfolded her coiling green stripes. Danger was a good time for showing off.…

My mother was wide awake again. She became sharply herself—bone, wire, antenna—but she was not afraid. She had been pared down like this before, when she had travelled up the mountains into rare snow—alone in the white not unlike being alone in the black.

[WW, 79, 80]

In China, Brave Orchid is best at vanquishing ghosts, this power symbolic of her becoming a "new woman," a woman doctor. But in America, with its taxi ghosts, police ghosts, meter-reading ghosts, and five-and-dime ghosts, she is mystified, no longer in control. Although she remains brave in the face of these dangers, in her daughter's memory she is no hero but a very ordinary woman.

The factual and fantastic tales of Brave Orchid combine to make of her a complete person in her daughter's eyes, a person with a separate identity both to be proud of and of necessity to reject, to move beyond. The story ends, however, with a more recent memory, one which reminds the reader that it is the connection itself, both uncomfortable and satisfying, that endures, even after the daughter has gone on to her own life.

"'Aiaa,' sighs Brave Orchid to her daughter, now a grown woman: 'how can I bear to have you leave me again?'" (WW, 118). "Her eyes are big, inconsolable. A spider headache spreads out in fine branches over my skull. She is etching spider legs into the icy bone. She pries open my head and my fists and crams into them responsibility for time, responsibility for intervening oceans" (WW, 126). Yet even as the daughter pulls away from the connection and its corresponding need, she also, on the very next page, finds satisfaction, encouragement, and, yes, a sense of identity in it:

She yawned. "It's better, then, for you to stay away. The weather in California must not agree with you. You can come for visits." She got up and turned off the light. "Of course you must go, Little Dog."

A weight lifted from me. The quilts must be filling with air. The world is somehow lighter. She has not called me that endearment for years—a name to fool the gods. 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.

[WW, 127]

The next stage of the book moves onward, however, even if the stories themselves demonstrate that the process in life is not schematic. The next stage of the journey is to leave home, to define the self, or, Kingston says here, to speak for oneself. In the two final stories the narrator learns to talk.

"At the Western Palace" offers the story of female relatives, once again, as the prelude or first step. The association of women with madness is shown as the alternative to their achievement of self-identity. Moon Orchid, Brave Orchid's sister who cannot change Chinese reality into American reality, goes mad. "'The difference between mad people and sane people,' Brave Orchid explained to her children, 'is that sane people have variety when they talk-story. Mad people have only one story that they talk over and over'" (WW, 184). The story of Moon Orchid is expanded upon in the final chapter, "Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe": "I thought talking and not talking made the difference between sanity and insanity. Insane people were the ones who couldn't explain themselves. There were many crazy girls and women.… I thought every house had to have its crazy woman or crazy girl, every village its idiot. Who would be it at our house? Probably me (WW, 216, 220).

The narrator's own childhood silence—"a dumbness, a shame"—comes from the conflict between her Chinese upbringing and the ways of an American school, but in the story she represents it as symbolically caused by her mother (China), who seems to have cut her tongue, slicing the frenum, when she was a child. "'It's your fault I talk weird,'" accuses the daughter, later, to a mother who however has explained, "'I cut it so that you would not be tongue-tied. Your tongue would be able to move in any language.…I cut it to make you talk more, not less, you dummy'" (WW, 234, 190).

Moving beyond this terrible shyness and silence demands the thing that happens at last, when the daughter starts to talk back. "I had grown inside me a list of over two hundred things that I had to tell my mother so that she would know the true things about me and to stop the pain in my throat" (WW, 229). In a fierce tirade against her mother she asserts her own American sense of independence and attacks, specifically, her mother's talk-stories: "And I don't want to listen to any more of your stories; they have no logic. They scramble me up. You lie with stories. You won't tell me a story and then say, 'This is a true story,' or, 'This is just a story.' I can't tell the difference. I don't even know what your real names are. I can't tell what's real and what you make up. Ha! You can't stop me from talking. You tried to cut off my tongue, but it didn't work" (WW, 235).

Establishing herself as a talker in opposition to her mother—as American instead of Chinese, a truth teller instead of a liar—makes it possible for her to define herself as separate from her mother. Leaving home at this stage means leaving China, and her mother's Chinese way of talking ("We like to say the opposite"), in order to understand difference: "I had to leave home in order to see the world logically, logic the new way of seeing. I learned to think that mysteries are for explanation. I enjoy the simplicity. Concrete pours out of my mouth to cover the forests with freeways and sidewalks. Give me plastics, periodical tables, TV dinners with vegetables no more complex than peas mixed with diced carrots. Shine floodlights into dark corners; no ghosts" (WW, 237).

Yet this way of seeing and talking, this complete sense of separation from her mother, from China, is not the whole truth either, the truth of her identity, and this fact the text itself has revealed. For the text is more complex and fuller of insight than any particular moment of understanding within it. Poised against the linearity of the narrator's progress is the recurrent alternation of movement toward and tugs against connection that takes place within the narrative field, as it were, in which the forward progress occurs. Thus, when the narrator discovers her independence from her mother, that fact is indeed a part of her process toward identity but is not its fulfillment. Independence must be understood in order that connection can occur again, but a connection, finally, between two different people rather than between two people who together make one identity.

The Woman Warrior ends with its narrator's perception of this achievement, with the story of the Chinese woman poet Ts'ai Yen, with a celebration of the woman who is powerful because she can speak, can write. The story is begun by her mother, finished by the daughter. "It translates well" (WW, 243). In this way we see how the connection between mother and daughter, both storytellers, both women warriors, has been reestablished, but on terms that now both allow for separation and admit attachment.

China Men is less complicated textually than The Woman Warrior. As Kingston says, "the person who 'talks-story' is not so intrusive." Although here, too, the fact of memory is juxtaposed against the fiction of imaginative recreation, the memories are much fewer, and the imagining—the stories of male relatives, of grandfathers, father, uncles, and brother—is no longer urgent, no longer empathetic. These stories, lines thrown out across the chasm of separation, are more idealistic than realistic, more conceptual than kinetic, more parallel than developmental. The richness and tension created by the search for difference in the context of sameness—the mother-daughter relationship—is replaced by the clarity that distance offers, a lucidity that is at the same time monotonal. Only one person, after all, is talking here; narrative movement is in only one direction, not the tug toward and away from the mother but the yearning toward the father that goes so far but no farther, proceeding from anger and ignorance toward knowledge and admiration. The father need not be left, only loved:

What I want from you is for you to tell me that those curses are only common Chinese sayings. That you did not mean to make me sicken at being female. "Those were only sayings," I want you to say to me, "I didn't mean you or your mother. I didn't mean your sisters or grandmothers or women in general."

I want to be able to rely on you, who inked each piece of our own laundry with the word Center, to find out how we landed in a country where we are eccentric people.

[CM, 9]

Her father's screams, curses, and, especially, his silence produce a profound ignorance that the narrator, whose love for her father is at war with her anger, longs to destroy. The fact of this ignorance is offered as an introduction to the book in a one-page piece entitled "On Fathers." Here the narrator and her brothers and sisters, waiting at the gate for their father to come home, see a man coming around the corner. They think he is their father. "But I'm not your father," he tells them: "Looking closely, we saw that he probably was not. We went back inside the yard, and this man continued his walk down our street, from the back certainly looking like our father, one hand in his pocket. Tall and thin, he was wearing our father's two-hundred-dollar suit that fit him just right. He was walking fast in his good leather shoes with the wingtips" (CM, 3).

The parable shows not only the children's lack of familiarity with their father but also the kind of evidence upon which they have based their false sense of knowledge: clothes, shoes, shape of the body. They recognize him from the outside only, from the back, the point being that this is not genuine knowledge. The purpose of the text as a whole is to gain that knowledge by imaginatively entering the father's interiority—something denied to the daughter by actual experience—by replacing opacity and abstractness with concrete particularities, a technique that served the narrator well in The Woman Warrior to establish the identity of her mother.

Yet in using this technique the narrator is self-conscious in a way she is not in The Woman Warrior. "I think this is the journey you don't tell me," she says as she introduces one version of her father's passage to America, to be followed later by "of course my father could not have come that way. He came a legal way, something like this" (CM, 50). Whereas in The Woman Warrior the transitions between "fact" and "fiction" occur almost seamlessly, China Men bases its structure on the artifice of these transitions and of their very creation. This format helps to make us aware of the "distance" of which Kingston speaks, a distance necessitated by the nature of the father-daughter relationship, which begins in separation and difference, rather than in connection or sameness.

To tell the story of fathers is to tell the story of China's coming to America. Both the mother and the father represent China to the American-born narrator, but there is a difference in their experience and therefore in the aspect of the homeland they embody. While the women were left behind in China, coming afterward to join their husbands, the men were the sojourners who came to America to discover the "Gold Mountain" there. In seeking to know her father the narrator looks as well for the experience of active appropriation, however painful, even humiliating some of its aspects may be, that has been denied to women, who find their power in the imagination, as The Woman Warrior shows, not in the public world. China Men confronts that public world, as grandfathers and fathers wrestle with nature and society from Hawaii to Alaska, from New York to California.

Yet there is in China Men a generality, an abstractness to all this experience that seems to bespeak the impossibility of the narrator's ever claiming male experience as an integral part of her heritage. Each character in the book has his own name, his own adventures, but all are referred to more frequently as "the father," "the grandfather," "the brother," a mode of appellation that is itself indicative of the generic character of the men, their normative function. In reading, it is difficult to keep them separate. They merge into the common maleness, a concept that the prose creates. The following passage can serve as example:

He sucked in deep breaths of the Sandalwood Mountain air, and let it fly out in a song, which reached up to the rims of volcanoes and down to the edge of the water. His song lifted and fell with the air, which seemed to breathe warmly through his body and through the rocks. The clouds and frigate birds made the currents visible, and the leaves were loud. If he did not walk heavy seated and heavy thighed like a warrior, he would float away, snuggle into the wind, and let it slide him down to the ocean, let it make a kite, a frigate bird, a butterfly of him. He would dive head first off the mountain, glide into the airstreams thick with smells, and curve into the ocean. From this mountaintop, ocean before him and behind him, he saw the size of the island. He sang like the heroes in stories about wanderers and exiles, poets and monks and monkeys, and princes and kings out for walks. His arias unfurled and rose in wide, wide arcs.

[CM, 95]

What is most significant here is the combination of specific detail with a generalization of consciousness; the combination not only depersonalizes the individual man—in this instance it is Bak Gook, "The Grandfather of the Sandalwood Mountains"—so that he becomes akin to all the other male consciousnesses in the book, but also allows him, regardless of his immigrant status—he is a frequently brutalized sugarcane worker—to become heroic. All the Chinamen are capable of this kind of poetry, the result, I think, of an idealization of masculine experience representative of the daughter's approach to her father. Although the author seeks the humanizing middle ground between the father's generalized curses about the women and the daughter's idealized flights of poetic heroism, she creates such moments infrequently, despite many physical details, and these moments occur more often in actual memories than in imaginings.

These memories, which begin the book and reappear occasionally as the narrative continues, remind us that the search for the father is occasioned by both yearning and fear or anger. "The American Father" begins with memories of "father places": "He also had the power of going places where nobody else went, and making places belong to him.…When I explored his closet and desk, I thought, This is a father place; a father belongs here" (CM, 236-37). The father goes places nobody else went, made places belong to him, places that bespeak the Gold Mountain itself as well as the cellars, attics, and gambling hall of this particular father. The passage shows the daughter's yearning for the power of appropriation, heightened, perhaps, by its very inaccessibility.

After her father has lost his job at the gambling hall and becomes despondent, his children respond to his silence with a confusion—"I invented a plan to test my theories that males feel no pain; males don't feel" (CM, 251)—that finally turns to anger:

We children became so wild that we broke Baba loose from his chair. We goaded him, irked him—gikked him—and the gravity suddenly let him go. He chased my sister, who locked herself in a bedroom. "Come out," he shouted. But of course, she wouldn't, he having a coat hanger in hand and angry. I watched him kick the door; the round mirror fell off the wall and crashed. The door broke open, and he beat her. Only my sister remembers that it was she who watched my father's shoe against the door and the mirror outside fall, and I who was beaten.

[CM, 252]

Such experiences, informed as they are by powerful unmediated responses to the father's separateness, can be contrasted to the imagined experiences of the men themselves, sympathetic but lacking this intensity, experiences narrated through the creation of a masculine consciousness. Sympathy is not empathy, and the very distance between them seems to influence the nature of the knowledge that is available to the narrator.

China Men demonstrates that finding the father, for the daughter, means finding what one has always known: that distance. Fear and anger may be transformed into love, but it is a love based on knowledge laced with idealization. Over and over in China Men, in each of its stories, the daughter begins in ignorance, with silence, and fills the gap or void with the fruits of her own imagination to gain—just that—her own creation. Never having been able to encounter the true interiority of the father, she has, finally, only the stories she has told about him. She finds her identity as a storyteller, a writer, here as in The Woman Warrior, but here there is a suggestion that the imagination is less the embodiment of life itself than an alternative to it.

Consequently, the two processes—finding the mother, finding the father—seem less than parallel for the daughter. Regardless of its author's intentions, China Men is more of a postscript to The Woman Warrior than a complement to it. Because the mother is not only of the same sex but, by virtue of the familial arrangements of society, the infant's first and primary love, she remains at the center of the daughter's search for identity. The familial arrangements of society ask as well that the female be understood in relation to the male—as the word female itself suggests—so that Kingston is correct in seeing The Woman Warrior as a partial text, an incomplete autobiography. Finding the father may be understood as synonymous with ascertaining the woman's relation to the external world, or the other. Difference and distance, which produce ignorance, fear, and idealization, create boundaries that can be bridged imaginatively but cannot really be destroyed. The yearning to destroy them, perhaps the most important feature of the search, in both its intensity and its frustrations or displacement, propels the text of China Men but is also diffused by it. Kingston sees that text as an achievement for herself as a writer—not so "selfish," not so "intrusive." Perhaps she is right. Perhaps this is the success daughters can have with fathers—to displace the yearning for him with the creation of something in his place, to understand that her love must be informed by the knowledge of separateness.

Taken together, the search for the mother and the search for the father allow a person to find home, a place both inside and outside the self, in the way that, for a woman, the mother is always inside, the father always outside. Finding home gives a sense of such boundaries, of understanding not only what is eternally beyond the self but what is eternally within the self. The woman, as in The Woman Warrior and China Men, establishes her individual identity in this context. Recognizing this context, this meaning for home, she can leave it, go on into her life, while she recognizes that home can never be left but only understood.

Telling is the way to understand, so finally both volumes of Kingston's autobiography are about becoming a writer. Taken together, the two texts demonstrate the special power of telling and, especially, of the imagination for women. Traditionally denied access to the outer world by literal appropriation, women can nevertheless follow a different route. Language is symbolic action, and it becomes, in this autobiography, the route and embodiment of female psychological development.


  1. The understanding of female development that I bring to my reading of literature comes from recent studies in feminist psychology, such as Nancy Chodorow's Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1978) and Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development: (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1982). I make no attempt here to correlate specific ideas of the psychologists with specific literary interpretations, for my point is neither to "prove" the psychological theories with the literary texts nor vice versa, but rather to show how literature as well as psychology is based in and seeks to articulate such ideas about human experience.
  2. The Woman Warrior (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), 116; hereafter cited in the text as WW.
  3. China Men (New York: Knopf, 1980), p. 10; hereafter cited in the text as CM.
  4. Timothy Pfaff, "Talk with Mrs. Kingston," New York Times Book Review, 15 June 1980, 25-26.
  5. Ibid., 26.

About this article

Kingston, Maxine Hong: General Commentary

Updated About content Print Article