Kingston, Maxine Hong: Title Commentary

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The Woman Warrior

The Woman Warrior


SOURCE: Hunt, Linda. "'I Could Not Figure out What Was My Village': Gender v. Ethnicity in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior." MELUS 12, no. 3 (fall 1985): 5-12.

In the following essay, Hunt examines the relationship between gender and ethnicity in The Woman Warrior.

Feminist theorists have argued about the extent to which women share a common culture. In Three Guineas Virginia Woolf has a character assert, "as a woman I have no country.…As a woman my country is the whole world."1 This has a fine ring to it, but if the sentiment were wholly true we would not find in women's lives so much pain, confusion, and conflict. Temma Kaplan explains the complexity of the subject: "It is impossible to speak of 'women's culture' without understanding its variation by class and ethnic group. Women's culture, like popular or working class culture, must appear in the context of dominant cultures."2

The truth of Kaplan's statement is borne out by reading fiction and autobiography written by women from different backgrounds. Such books not only show the great cultural diversity women experience but also evoke the incompatible definitions of femininity and the irreconcilable demands a woman is likely to encounter as she attempts to live in more than one cultural world at the same time.

Women's worlds may vary widely depending on ethnic background and social class, but in the societies from which we have written literature, male dominance is a common denominator.3 Maxine Hong Kingston's autobiographical The Woman Warrior suggests that we need to pay attention to the contradictions male dominance creates for women who are at one and the same time subordinated by a culture, and yet, embroiled in its interstices; such women may be painfully at odds with themselves. A woman like Kingston, who is doubly marginal (i.e. not a member of the dominant race or class) is likely to feel this conflict with particular acuteness because an affiliation with a minority culture tends to be particularly strong.4

Explaining to the reader one of the many contradictions which are part of the legacy of her Chinese-American girlhood, Kingston comments bitterly, "Even now China wraps double binds around my feet."5 The most difficult double-bind has been the need to reconcile her loyalty to her Chinese-American heritage, a background which devalues and even insults women, with her own sense of dignity as a female.

This paper is about Kingston's attempt to resolve the war within herself, a struggle that is exacerbated by the tremendous emphasis Chinese culture puts on social cohesion. She has been raised to experience and require a powerful identification with family and community, and yet, as a woman, she cannot simply accept a place in a culture which calls people of her sex "maggots," "broom and dustpan," "slave."

Maxine Hong Kingston's personal struggle is fought—and resolved at least partially—on the battlefield of language. The words used against her sting, and, unable to find the right words and the right voice to express her own point of view, and indeed, unsure of that point of view, she is rendered nearly voiceless for much of her youth. She speaks inaudibly or in a quack, and once physically assaults another Chinese girl whose silence reminds her of her own. The core of the problem is that by being simultaneously insider (a person who identifies strongly with her cultural group) and outsider (deviant and rebel against that tradition), she cannot figure out from which perspective to speak. It is only through mastery of literary form and technique—through creating this autobiography out of family stories, Chinese myths, and her own memories—that she is able to articulate her own ambivalence and hereby find an authentic voice.

Kingston begins with an aunt back in China whose name the family tried to forget, telling her story in such a way that she artfully shifts point of view and sympathy in order to convey her divided loyalties. The aunt became an outsider to her village by getting pregnant while her husband was in America. The enraged villagers, terrified by her behavior, drove her to suicide: any lust not socially-sanctioned was seen as disruptive of the social order.

The author identifies with the rebellious aunt, whom she calls "my forerunner," creating from her imagination various detailed scenarios, first of rape and then of romantic attraction, alternative versions of what might have happened, which are narrated in the omniscient third person. Kingston hypothesizes that her female relative might have succumbed to her impulses as relief from the burden of being "expected … alone to keep the traditional ways, which her brother now among the barbarians in America could fumble without detection" (p. 9). She expands on her theme, beginning to imagine in sensuous detail the pull that an attractive man might have had on this aunt "caught up in a slow life."

But Kingston's allegiance is abruptly withdrawn. Interrupting her sensuous description of the imagined lover, the narrator exclaims, "She offered us up for a charm that vanished with tiredness, a pigtail that didn't toss when the wind died" (p. 9, emphasis mine). The word "us" is startling because Kingston has abruptly shifted from third person to first person plural and from identification with the aunt, the outsider, to being one of the villagers, an insider.



A lot of Asian American history is masculine history, because the women didn't come until very recently. For 100 years Chinatown was masculine—men founded and lived in Chinatown, and all the work that was here was done by men. It's only been in the last 40 or 50 years that we've had any feminine history in this country. Okay, so what happens when all our writers are women? The men critics say, "You have feminized our history, and you emasculate us when you do that."

Kingston, Maxine Hong, with Paul Skenazy. Excerpt from Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston. Edited by Paul Skenazy and Tera Martin. University Press of Mississippi, 1998, p. 145.

The aunt's story is resumed in a more objective vein, and we are given an explanation of the motives of the avengers of the social code:

The frightened villagers, who depend on one another to maintain the real, went for my aunt to show her a personal, physical representation of the break she had made in the "roundness." … The villagers punished her for acting as if she could have a private life secret and apart from them.

(p. 14)

While the remainder of the tale emphasizes the events which befell the persecuted woman, her thoughts and feelings, the narrative remains riddled with ambivalence. Kingston's recounting of her aunt's story has been a defiant act of recompense towards the forgotten relative, a desire not to participate in her punishment. Yet, one more twist occurs in the last sentence of the chapter:

My aunt haunts me.… I alone devote pages of paper to her.… I do not think she always means me well. I am telling on her, and she was a spite suicide, drowning herself in drinking water.

(p. 19)

Suddenly the aunt is seen as an enemy, and Kingston's own act in writing her story appears in a different light.

Kingston's profound conflict about where her loyalty lies regarding the experience of this aunt she has never met serves to convey her own agonized indecision about what stance to take towards her own Chinese-American upbringing. If she identifies with the community, she must accept and even endorse her own humiliation at their hands; if she allows herself to fully experience the depths of her alienation, she is in danger of being cut off from her cultural roots. Thus she juxtaposes an exploration of the legend of Fa Mu Lan, a tale her story-telling mother used to chant, against the story of the outlaw aunt. The purpose is to test whether her culture's myth about a heroic woman who defends her village will provide a way for Kingston to transcend the degrading female social role, and yet, be loyal to the community.

Kingston retells the story, casting herself as the swordswoman who through magic and self-discipline is trained to bring about social justice while at the same time fulfilling her domestic obligations. Significantly, a good part of her training involves exercises which teach her how to create with her body the ideographs for various words: in Kingston's universe it is through mastery of language that a warrior is created. Language is again important in that before Fa Mu Lan sets out, dressed as a man, to lead her male army against the enemies of her people, the family carves on her back the words which suggest their endless list of grievances.

When the narrator, Kingston's fantasy of herself as Fa Mu Lan, returns home the villagers "make a legend about her perfect filiality" (p. 54). This myth, combining heroism and social duty as it does, is explored to see if winning the approval and admiration of the Chinese or Chinese-American community can provide so much gratification that Kingston will be persuaded to repress her injuries at the hands of the community. However, she subverts her own attempt by embedding within her tales of the female avenger certain elements which bring forth once again the theme of the injustices women suffer as a sex and the issue of female anger.

Hunting down the baron who had drafted her brother, she presents herself as defender of the village as a whole: "I want your life in payment for your crimes against the villagers." But the baron tries to appeal to her "man to man," lightly acknowledging his crimes against women in a misguided attempt at male-bonding:

Oh, come now. Everyone takes the girls when he can. The families are glad to get rid of them. "Girls are maggots in the rice. It is more profitable to raise geese than daughters." He quoted to me the sayings I hated.

(p. 51)

Since this version of the swordswoman's story is Kingston's own creation, she is surely introducing the baron's sexism at this juncture to show the reader that, try as she does, she cannot simply overlook the patriarchal biases of Chinese culture. The enemy of her village seeks to create an alliance with the defender of family and community on the common ground of misogyny. No wonder Kingston exclaims just after the swordswoman's tale is finished, "I could not figure out what was my village" (p. 54).

Even more subversively, in the process of spinning out her tale of the dutiful defender of the village, Kingston briefly indulges in a digression about a different kind of warrior woman. She has herself (the swordswoman) released from a locked room in the baron's castle a group of "cowering, whimpering women." These females who make "insect noises" and "blink weakly … like pheasants that have been raised in the dark for soft meat" are utterly degraded:

The servant who walked the ladies had abandoned them, and they could not escape on their little bound feet. Some crawled away from me, using their elbows to pull themselves along. These women would not be good for anything. I called the villagers to come identify any daughters they wanted to take home, but no one claimed any.

(p. 53)

As creator, Kingston allows herself to respond with hostility to her own fantasy of the ultimate in female humiliation by turning these pathetic creatures into "witch amazons" who "killed men and boys." Unlike Fa Mu Lan, who is impelled to be a warrior by idealism and disguises herself as a man, these women are mercenaries (i.e. self-interested), ride dressed as women (i.e. female-identified), and buy up girl babies from poor families; slave girls and daughters-in-law also run away to them. Kingston reveals her intense discomfort with this anti-social story she has used to deconstruct the socially-acceptable swordswoman myth by distancing herself from it. She falls into the conditional: "it would be said," "people would say," and concludes, "I myself never encountered such women and could not vouch for their reality" (p. 53).

Despite such subterfuges, the reader has not been allowed to forget that any Chinese woman who seeks to identify exclusively with the injustices experienced by the entire "village" at the hands of outsiders will be denying the damage she herself and others of her sex have suffered at the hands of outsiders and insiders alike. The term "female avenger" becomes ambiguous: can Kingston be satisfied with being an avenger who is a female or does she need to be the avenger of females?

Not ready to answer this question, Kingston uses the third and fourth chapters of The Woman Warrior to probe even further the implications of her culture's sanctioned way for a woman to be strong. Brave Orchid, Kingston's mother, has lived a life that conforms quite closely, within the limits of realistic possibility, to the woman warrior model. Left behind in China when her husband went off to America to improve the family's fortunes, she entered medical school and became a doctor. Through rigorous self-discipline she triumphed not only over her studies but over a "sitting ghost" who serves as the symbolic embodiment of the fear and loneliness she must have experienced. "You have no power over a strong woman," Brave Orchid asserts to the ghost.

After completing her studies Kingston's mother returned home to serve her people as a practitioner of medicine. For some years she braved the terror of the dark woods as she went from village to village on her rounds as a physician. Like the swordswoman of the legend who returns from public life to do farmwork, housework, and produce sons, Brave Orchid accepted the next, more mundane, phase of her life without complaint; when summoned by her husband to the United States she became his partner in a laundry and had six children (including the author) after the age of forty-five.

Kingston is being as fair as possible. Her mother's story shows that the warrior woman model could work for some women. Proud of her past achievements, Brave Orchid has turned them into materials to draw on when she "talk-stories." Yet Kingston follows the narrative of Brave Orchid with the experience of Moon Orchid, Brave Orchid's sister, whose emigration to the United States leads to her madness and death. This aunt is not a strong person—and it is important that Kingston remind us that not all women have access to the remarkable reserves of strength and inflexible will that have served her mother. Also, Brave Orchid is responsible for her sister's breakdown in that she insists that Moon Orchid aggressively pursue her Americanized and bigamously remarried husband. She assumes her sister's husband and his second wife will accept their obligation to Moon Orchid since she is "Big Wife" (first wife), and bolsters Moon Orchid's faith by reminding her of family stories from China in which the first wife had no difficulty reclaiming her position in the family after a lapse of time. Brave Orchid's advice is dangerous because she is holding onto a myth of reality structured around laws and traditions that regulated marital interaction in China and offered some protection to women but which is useless in America. Thus Kingston reminds us that new situations require new myths. The warrior woman legend may have been the best Chinese society could offer her mother, but if she herself is to use it, fundamental modification will be necessary.

It is in the final chapter, "A Song For A Barbarian Reed Pipe," that Kingston articulates most explicitly both her fury at her Chinese heritage and the strategies she has found for making peace with that heritage and salvaging from it what she can. She tells of how as a teenager she stored up in her mind a list of over two hundred truths about herself, bad thoughts and deeds to confess to her mother. When she tried to tell one item a day only to find Brave Orchid simply wasn't interested, she "felt something alive tearing at [her] throat."

Finally, one night when the family was having dinner at the laundry, her "throat burst open." Instead of confessing her own disloyalty to family and Chinese tradition, Kingston found herself bitterly cataloguing her own numerous grievances:

When I said them out loud I saw that some of the items were ten years old already, and I had outgrown them. But they kept pouring out anyway in the voice of Chinese opera. I could hear the drums and the cymbals and the gongs and brass horns.

(p. 236)

The transmutation of sins into grievances is significant: the fact that Kingston conceptualized these items first one way and then the other reveals again the ambivalence about whether she is insider or outsider which caused her muteness. This outburst is an important breakthrough in that she is impelled to make a choice, and choosing to identify as injured outsider frees her to speak. At this stage what she articulates with that newfound voice is the need to get away from the Chinese-American community: "I won't let you turn me into a slave or a wife. I'm getting out of here. I can't stand living here anymore" (p. 234).

At the same time, Kingston's list of grievances is certainly an echo of the grievances the legendary swordswoman had had carved on her back, the difference being that Fa Mu Lan's list was not personal. Kingston's autobiography becomes her way of being a woman warrior on her own behalf and perhaps on behalf of other Chinese girls and women. She had found a way to exact revenge against her background (one idiom for revenge being to "report a crime") and yet to honor it. In crying out to the world about her culture's mistreatment of women, she has in a sense taken on the warrior role her culture recommended to those of its women most capable of heroism. In finding a literary form and techniques which allow her to give voice to the conflicts and contradictions which almost silenced her, Maxine Hong Kingston is paying tribute to the importance her family and culture have always placed on the verbal imagination.

Kingston's autobiographical masterpiece, with its theme of diverse cultural realities, reminds us to be careful about embracing a universal notion of what it means to be a woman. At the same time, however, the book raises the possibility that an important link not for all but for many women is the disjunction between female identity and the other aspects of cultural heritage. Agonizing contradictions between allegiance to gender and fidelity to some other dimension of one's cultural background—and this might be race or class instead of or as well as ethnicity—may be a commonplace of the female experience. From an artistic point of view the result may be an anxiety of identity that is at least as debilitating as the "anxiety of authorship" that Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert argue takes away women's sense of legitimacy as writers.6 Maxine Hong Kingston found a way to break out of the silence created by this anxiety, but the alienation which stems from such a rupture at the very center of their beings may be one of the most profound obstacles women face in finding their voices.


  1. Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1938), p. 166.
  2. Temma Kaplan, "Politics and Culture in Women's History: A Symposium," Feminist Studies, 6 (Spring, 1980), 44.
  3. It is interesting to note that several anthropologists have made a convincing case for the existence of sexually egalitarian pre-literate societies. See, for example, Peggy Reeves Sanders, Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981) and Eleanor Leacock, "Ideologies of Male Dominance As Divide and Rule Politics: An Anthropologist's View," in Woman's Nature, eds. Marian Lowe and Ruth Hubbard (New York: Pergamon Press, 1983).
  4. See Margaret Homens, "Her Very Own Howl: The Ambiguities of Representation in Recent Women's Fiction," Signs, Winter, 1984, for an interesting discussion of the significance of women's double-marginality.
  5. Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior (New York: Random House, 1977), p. 57. (All further page references will be cited within the text and will be to this edition.)
  6. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979).


SOURCE: Morante, Linda. "From Silence to Song: The Triumph of Maxine Hong Kingston." Frontiers 9, no. 2 (1987): 78-82.

In the following essay, Morante contends that The Woman Warrior "narrates Kingston's own journey from silence and selflessness to song and selfhood."

Maxine Hong Kingston begins The Woman Warrior with the tale of her nameless aunt, a woman engulfed by defeating silence. She concludes her memoir with the legend of Ts'ai Yen, a female poet who triumphs in song. An American heiress confounded by a legacy of Chinese language and culture, Kingston records her own struggle for self-expression. The mute schoolgirl who smeared paper with opaque black paint, the incommunicative adolescent who could not voice her sorrow to her mother, the inarticulate young adult who could only peep in protest to her racist employers eventually becomes the adult artist who "talks-story" in a "high and clear" voice.1

In The Woman Warrior Kingston inextricably knots this pursuit of words with the process of self-creation and survival. Silence obliterates identity. It blots the self from Kingston's childhood paintings as it effaces her aunt's name, hence her being, from posterity's memory. Word-lessness is paired with insanity, the disintegration of the coherent self: "Insane people were the ones who couldn't explain themselves," Kingston's narrator decides (p. 216). Deranged women, all of them inarticulate, haunt the text's nightmarish landscape.2 Kingston's neighbor, now chattering, now speechless, is eventually shut up in an insane asylum. Laughing, snarling, crazy Mary points at the invisible and lunges out of darkness. Pee-anah, the village idiot, wordlessly pursues children through slough and street. Moon Orchid, Kingston's transplanted aunt, her soft voice dissipating into whispered lunacies, ultimately finds others who "speak the same language" only in a mental hospital (p. 185). These nonspeakers torment young Kingston who believes "talking and not talking made the difference between sanity and insanity" (p. 216). She worries that she will join the mad sorority; she too is unable to speak to others; she too visits with the people inside her head.

Conversely, articulation creates selfhood. Kingston, unlike the lunatic women who plague her, in the end does not succumb to the silence that imperils her childhood and adolescence. As an adult, as the writer of her autobiography, she eventually discovers her voice and the courage to employ it. The Woman Warrior narrates Kingston's own journey from silence and selflessness to song and selfhood. This triumphant telling, the act of writing, engenders and preserves the identity of its creator.3

Kingston depicts her childhood and adolescence as an unending, yieldless labor for words to express and beget her identity. Her taunt at another mute schoolgirl—"If you don't talk, you can't have a personality"—is actually the self-directed warning of a child frightened by a desolate expanse of widening silence (p. 210). This early silence is, in part, a legacy from a people who believe that "a ready tongue is an evil."4 The Chinese keep secrets, they conceal their real names, they withhold speech. The hovering threats of deportation directed toward Chinese immigrants in America deepen this taciturnity.5 Even as a child Kingston realizes the cultural roots of her reticence: "The other Chinese girls did not talk either, so I knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl" (p. 193).

Her speechlessness has to do also with cultural dislocation: being a Chinese girl in an American school, a daughter of China exiled in an alien country.6 She must disentangle the traditions and language, the legacies of her dual homelands: "Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fits in solid America" (p. 6). Her inability to enunciate or comprehend the American pronoun "I" suggests this cultural confusion amidst which her speech and identity falter:

I could not understand "I." The Chinese "I" has seven strokes, intricacies. How could the American "I," assuredly wearing a hat like the Chinese, have only three strokes, the middle so straight? Was it out of politeness that this writer left off strokes the way a Chinese has to write her own name small and crooked? No, it was not politeness; "I" is a capital and "you" is lower-case. I stared at the middle line and waited so long for its black center to resolve into tight strokes and dots that I forgot to pronounce it.

(p. 193)

The bold, simple, "straight" strokes of the genderless English pronoun radiate the imposing Individualism of the self in American culture. But the "small and crooked" feminine Chinese pronoun figures the dwarfing of the female self in a culture that practiced "girl slavery and girl infanticide" (p. 222). Language is the vessel of culture; "There is a Chinese word for the female I which is a 'slave'" (p. 56). The two contradictory cultural concepts of the female self baffle and silence Kingston's younger self.7

She stutters not only over the pronoun "I." Her silence is "thickest-total" during her early schooling (p. 192). American kindergarten is "the first silent year": "When I went to kindergarten and had to speak English for the first time, I became silent" (p. 191). In first grade, when she is called upon to read out loud, "squeaks come out of [her] throat" (p. 193). In second grade her "too soft or nonexistent" voice excludes her from the class play (p. 194). Even in her Chinese school her voice rasps like a "crippled animal running on broken legs" (p. 196).

In sixth grade Kingston's effort for voice and selfhood crests when she tortures her Doppelgänger, another wordless and insecure Chinese classmate.8 Their lack of athletic skill yokes Kingston and her other self, hallmarking their shared passivity:

We were similar in sports. We held the bat on our shoulders until we walked to first base. (You got a strike only when you actually struck at the ball.) Sometimes the pitcher wouldn't bother to throw to us. "Automatic walks," the other children would call, sending us on our way.

(pp. 200-01)

Defeat in the all-American sports arena signals failure in the arena of American social life. Too unaggressive to strike at the ball, the last chosen for their teams, the girls are timid benchwarmers virtually excluded from their social group.

When she attacks her alter ego Kingston tries to destroy what she despises and fears in herself, the reticence and servility of the Chinese feminine self that hinder her becoming the confident, well-liked American "I." Aching for a "stout neck," "hard brown skin," and the daring to "hit the ball," she berates her shadow self for her "flower-stem neck," "baby-soft" skin, and inability to "swing at the ball" (pp. 201, 204-05, 208). Her unintentionally reflexive jeers unmask her own aspirations to become all-American: "Do you want to be like this, dumb … your whole life? Don't you ever want to be a cheerleader? Or a pompon girl? What are you going to do for a living?" (p. 210). It is not without irony that Kingston looks back on her younger self who applauds the American-feminine role model of cheerleader. Though it is better to be a cheerleader than a slave, American girls, instead of starring on the field, occupy the sidelines.9

Still, the satire of American sex roles, evident in this passage and throughout the work, is overshadowed by blatant Chinese misogyny. Kingston stresses the fact that it is her American teachers who foster her sense of self-worth, independence, and achievement. Moreover, the derision of the retrospective adult does not undercut the earnest intertwining of speech and selfhood in this passage. To become a cheerleader, the symbol of American schoolgirl "rah-rah" popularity, one must be able to shout. At heart, it is the voicelessness of her double, herself, the way "she would whisper read," the way that only "wheezes … came out of her plastic flute," that makes the young Kingston shudder (pp. 201, 202).

Thus, when she pinches and tears the soft flesh of her mute China Doll mirror self, she tries to slay the fabulous, monstrous concept of female worthlessness that extinguishes her speech. But the expunging of an inculcated psychological "dragon" by excoriating its physical objectification is an impossible feat.10 She fails utterly. Her descent into the underworld of the self, appropriately set in the sex-segregated, mazy hell of a basement lavatory, does not yield self-knowledge or voice. Rather, her own cries, pleas, and shrieks echo the "sobs, chokes, noises" of her double and bind them more inextricably (p. 207). Neither achieves meaningful speech. In the end, Kingston, self-annihilated, wraps herself in the silence of a sickbed. When she rises after a year and a half and returns to school, she "ha[s] to figure out again how to talk" (p. 212).

From childhood through adolescence, Kingston continues her quest for self-expression. As a teenager she is familiar with the English language and American culture, but her voice still squeals with ugly "duck"-like insecurity (p. 232). Reluctant incommunicativeness still isolates her. She seeks a pathway out of this aloneness by unbosoming her secret sins, dreams, and afflictions to her mother, Brave Orchid:

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 … how I had prayed for a whitehorse of my own.…How I wanted the horse to start the movies in my mind coming true. How I had picked on a girl and made her cry. How I had stolen from the cash register.…If only I could let my mother know the list, she—and the world—would become more like me, and I would never be alone again.

(pp. 229-30)

It is the wish of the adolescent for the magical telling that would transform her separation into connection, that would make her loneliness disappear. But her wish is unfulfilled. Even when she relays her least significant confidences, her mother's punctuating response, "m'm, m'm," intensifies Kingston's aloneness (pp. 232, 233). And when she divulges her longing for the imaginary steed that will carry her into the never-never land of adventure, her mother silences her: "I can't stand this whispering.… Senseless gabblings every night. I wish you would stop.…Whispering, whispering, making no sense. Madness. I don't feel like hearing your craziness.…Leave me alone" (p. 233). The real Brave Orchid is too distant from the fairy-tale land of communication: "So I had to stop.… I shut my mouth, but I felt something alive tearing at my throat.… Soon there would be three hundred things, and [it would be] too late to get them out before my mother grew old and died" (p. 233).

Just as Brave Orchid now silences young Kingston's confession, so has she interfered with her speech throughout her girlhood. Kingston recalls how as a child she believed her mother actually severed her frenum:

I used to curl up my tongue in front of the mirror and tauten my frenum into a white line.… I saw no scars in my mouth. I thought perhaps I had had two frena, and she had cut one.… At … times I was terrified—the first thing my mother did when she saw me was to cut my tongue.

(p. 190)

This recurrent memory embodies figurative truth: Brave Orchid has tampered with her daughter's speech. Kingston opens her memoir, suggestively, with her mother's command for silence: "You must not tell anyone … what I am about to tell you" (p. 4). As China's spokeswoman the mother instills in her daughter a sense of the literally "unspeakable" (pp. 6, 215). But her prohibition of speech wells from a more private source of paranoia. Like the other Chinese immigrants she is nervous about her precarious status. She distrusts even her own children, threatened by their foreignness.11 When Kingston questions Brave Orchid about the shadowy issues of immigration and citizenship, she is shrilly warned: "Don't tell … Never tell … Don't tell" (pp. 213-15). Brave Orchid believes that if her daughter dares to speak out, they will be sent out, back to China.

Worried that the family will be deported if they stand out in any way, Brave Orchid orders her daughter to bury her identity and protests under a protective veil of quiet:

"Don't tell," … Lie to Americans. Tell them you were born during the San Francisco earthquake. Tell them your birth certificate and your parents were burned up in the fire. Don't report crimes; tell them we have no crimes and no poverty. Give a new name every time you get arrested.

(pp. 214-15)

Deny your birth, name, and ancestry, Brave Orchid cautions: swallow your protest. She demands the silence that is self-obliteration.

When Kingston fears that her parents have arranged her marriage to a retarded boy who has been loitering around inside her family's laundromat, her "throat bursts open" in a climactic confrontation with her mother. The adolescent begins to cross the threshold into selfhood (p. 233). Assuming that her parents have chosen a hideous half-wit for her mate—a "monster" altogether unfit to mount with her upon her white charger—she blurts out her most precious secrets:

Do you know what the Teacher Ghosts say about me? They tell me I'm smart, and I can win scholarships. I can get into colleges. I'm smart.…I know how to get A's, and they say I could be a scientist or a mathematician if I want. I can make a living and take care of myself.…Not every body thinks I'm nothing. I am not going to be a slave or a wife.… I am going to get scholar ships, and I'm going away.…So get that ape out of here.…And I'mnot going to Chinese school anymore. I'm going to run for office at American school, and I'm going to join clubs. I'm going to get enough offices and clubs on my record to get into college.…Ha! You can't stop me from talking. You tried to cut off my tongue, but it didn't work. So I told the hardest ten or twelve things on my list all in one outburst.

(pp. 227, 234-35)

The monologue reiterates her taunts at her schoolgirl double. Now, when she refuses to become a slave or a wife or to attend Chinese school, she again rejects the traditional Chinese devaluation of women. Now, when she resolves to become a club officer and to attend college, she again determines to become the esteemed, self-reliant westerner. Appropriately, her voice, no longer whispering, no longer duck-like, is "like Chinese opera. I could hear the drums and the cymbals and the gongs and brass horns" (p. 236). Though the passage rings with the exaggeration of the mock epic, it describes a turning point in young Kingston's life. Her declaration of independence frees her and temporarily soothes her throat pain.12 She leaves home "to see the world" (p. 237). She sets forth to discover "places in this country that are ghost free," where she can "belong" (p. 127).13 Kingston's narrator is coming of age.

It is as an adult that Kingston tells her own story in The Woman Warrior. It is a story told both in spite of and because of the mother who silenced her and yet taught her to sing. A reproach and a tribute. Young Kingston justifiably accuses her mother of trying "to cut off [her] tongue" to stop her speech; Brave Orchid rightfully claims that she severed her daughter's frenum so that she "would not be tongue-tied" (pp. 235, 190).

Brave Orchid's paradoxical effects upon her daughter's speech emerge from the duality of her own character, a discordant marriage of feminism and misogyny. As a young woman she had courageously journeyed alone across China to medical school where she subdued ghosts and learned to conquer disease. Even in America her strength and spirit prevail over the drudgery of the family laundromat. Ironically, while living in China this paradigm of female power had gone to market and—after examining and bargaining like a shrewd farmer buying livestock—had purchased an adolescent girl to serve as her slave. In America, though she owns no slave girl, she has a daughter whose self-respect she batters with misogynist doctrine. Brave Orchid embodies the selfhood that she insists women can never possess.14

Kingston identifies this confounding contradiction in her mother-as-teacher: "She said I would grow up a wife and a slave, but she taught me the song of the warrior woman, Fa Mu Lan" (p. 24). While predicting her daughter's selflessness, Brave Orchid makes her cognizant of the Song of the Self; while demanding her wordlessness, she instructs her in the art of "talkingstory."15

In fact, though Kingston reproaches her mother for impeding her speech, the structural design of the individual chapters of The Woman Warrior pays tribute to Brave Orchid and the "great power" of "talking-story" that she passes down to her daughter (p. 24). As Kingston constructs each of her chapters—either directly or indirectly—upon one of Brave Orchid's talk-stories, it is as if she is inheriting her mother's bequest of words again and again.16 In "No Name Woman," for example, Brave Orchid's barely told tale of her sister-in-law's sexual violation and its consequences, the birth and death of the illegitimate baby, the punishment and suicide of the mother, is the germ of Kingston's lavish retelling of the same story. In the beginning of "White Tigers," the second chapter, Kingston recollects how as a girl she had trailed her mother around the house, "the two of us singing about how Fa Mu Lan fought gloriously and returned alive from war to settle in the village" (p. 24). Brave Orchid has "taught" her young daughter the "song" that stimulates the grown artist's elaborate fantasy of another young girl's becoming a victorious female avenger of crimes against her village (p. 24). As Brave Orchid has once again "given" Kingston the subject of her art, the design reappears (p. 24). "Shaman" describes the China her mother had "funneled … into [her] ears" (p. 89). This chapter, which narrates Brave Orchid's adventures as a medical student and doctor in China, is Kingston's imaginative flight to a time before her birth and to a land she has visited only in her mother's storytelling. Brave Orchid's tales allow her daughter to "return to China" where she has "never been" (p. 90). Kingston's own talk-story of the encounter between her mother and aunt with her bigamist uncle, "At the Western Palace," is thrice-removed from one of Brave Orchid's narratives.

Her account of her aunt's futile attempt to reclaim the husband who three decades before had left her in China and set out to discover a new life—and wife—in America is based upon the story passed from her mother to her brother to her sister to her. It is clearly fanciful, "twisted into designs" (p. 190). In "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," the final chapter of The Woman Warrior, she acknowledges her artistic debt to her mother: "Here is a story my mother told me … when I told her I also talk-story. The beginning is hers, the ending, mine" (p. 240). Kingston, in essence, has described the process and design of her autobiography. Brave Orchid is the womb from which her daughter's art is born.

Kingston christens her autobiography The Woman Warrior because in the legend of the female avenger she discovered an avatar of self-hood, an ideal that celebrated the union of femininity and verbal as well as physical power. Fa Mu Lan, Ts'ai Yen, the swordswoman of the "White Tigers" fantasy, and Brave Orchid—the women warriors real and make-believe who rage across the text—all possess the power of speech. The imaginary avenger of "White Tigers" sings to her troops "glorious songs that came out of the sky … when [she] opened [her] mouth, the songs poured out and were loud enough for the whole encampment to hear" (p. 44). Brave Orchid, the aptly named modern incarnation of the female warrior, is a "champion talker" whose voice never fails (p. 235).

Kingston likens herself to one of the woman warriors suggested by the title of her memoir, particularly the swordswoman of the "White Tigers" fantasy: "The swordswoman and I are not so dissimilar.…What we have in commonare the words at our backs" (p. 62). Kingston has learned that these scarred grievances, the crimes against women and minorities, must be uttered in spite of the fearful mothers and racist executives determined to silence her. Unlike the spluttering adolescent who timidly objects to the bigotry of her employers, Kingston now shouts out against prejudice and stereotyping.17 She protests loudly (and not too much) the sexist Chinese axioms that hammered upon her sense of self-worth: "Girls are maggots in the rice"; "It is more profitable to raise geese than daughters"; "Feeding girls is feeding cowbirds"; "When fishing for treasures in the flood, be careful not to pull in girls" (pp. 51, 54, 62). She denounces the Sins of the Fathers against the female self. Her words blast sexism and racism. While the imaginary swordswoman decapitates her enemies, Kingston surpasses this "childish myth"18 because she wields deadlier arms:

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. And I have so many words—"chink" words and "gook" words too—that they do not fit on my skin.

(p. 63)

But words, the weapons of destruction and aggression, paradoxically create and preserve. The act of writing—or telling—engenders selfhood. Suggestively, the first and last characters to serve as focal points of the book, the voiceless aunt and the victorious poet, mirror Kingston's own progress from the silence that is selflessness to the song that is selfhood.

As Kingston has fathomed, no-name aunt's real punishment for her sexual violation and pregnancy is not the suicidal drowning of her body in the well but the drowning of her name—or identity—in silence. The culture that venerates ancestors and eternalizes them by means of an oral tradition damns her to anonymity, to the underworld of the unmentionable. "You must not tell anyone … what I am about to tell you"; "Don't let your father know that I told you." Thus Brave Orchid encloses her skeletal version of her sister-in-law's story in warnings to her daughter (pp. 3, 5). And Kingston, though eager for the particulars of her aunt's life, "cannot ask" her mother further questions about "Father's-drowned-in-the-well sister" (p. 6).

Instead she directs her inquiry to her own imagination. With the power of fantasy she conjures her aunt's long-silent, invisible ghost and delivers her from oblivion by fleshing her out in generous detail. If she cannot baptize her with a name, she can at least sculpt her into a possible shape—as a romantic living in a culture condemning her to conforming sexlessness, as a slave cowering before male command.19 Certainly the aunt was a woman defeated by silence, who labored "in eternal cold and silence," who, never pronouncing her impregnator's name, gave "silent birth" to a baby whose cry was quickly drowned, together with her own sobs, in the family well (pp. 16, 10). Even now her ghost "waits silently" to pull another down to oblivion (p. 19).

But in relating this story of wordless failure, Kingston not only rescues her aunt's memory, she overcomes the silence thwarting the final establishment of her own identity. Warned, on the day she began to menstruate, of her aunt's sexual transgression, she now tells the tale and thereby heralds her own crossing of the threshold into selfhood. The initial chapter demonstrates the triumph of speech in the entire work. As she finds the courage to speak when ordered to be silent, so does she discover "words so strong" that they can secure her identity (p. 18). The adult articulates for the child and adolescent once hushed by insecurity. The artifact creates and saves the artist.

Kingston concludes her memoir with the parable of Ts'ai Yen. In recounting the life story of this ancient woman warrior whose battle for self-expression culminated in songful victory, she retells her own story. She sings of her double; she celebrates herself. The child who shuddered at the strangled wheezes of the flute of her one-time alter ego is now the adult proclaiming the flute-like voice of another double self.20 This triumphant song of becoming a woman and a warrior is the climax, the "high note" of the entire piece (p. 243).

Twenty-year-old Ts'ai Yen, at the portal of adulthood, is abducted to a barbarian land where no one understands her language. Like her legendary ancestress, Kingston has struggled to grow up among the uncomprehending "ghosts" of an alien land. Both women transform—this time the telling does work its magic—the desperate loneliness of their cultural dislocation into art. Ts'ai Yen, upon hearing the high-pitched music of flutes, longs for and then achieves voice to echo this sound; she sings "a song so high and clear, it matched the flutes" (p. 243). Her lyrics of her distant home and family articulate her "sadness and anger" to the barbarians (p. 243). The poet Ts'ai Yen has discovered a voice and language that "translated well" (p. 243). Her songs have descended to Kingston, the deserving heiress of this legacy. Like Ts'ai Yen, Kingston has yearned for voice and has learned to vocalize. She too has "translated" the wordless "anger and sadness" of her life "among ghosts" into an autobiography or a self that speaks eloquently to us. She too has become a woman and a warrior.


To my mother, Maria DeRobertis Morante, I dedicate this article with love because she taught me her own version of the woman warrior's song when I was a child. To my two daughters, Kristin and Marissa Morante Tester, I dedicate this article with hope that I can in turn teach them this song of womanly strength and dignity.

  1. Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (New York: Random House, 1977), p. 243. All further references to this edition appear in the text.
  2. Although there is one mentally retarded, also incoherent Chinese boy, madness is consistently associated with women in WW. See also Shirley Nelson Garner, "Breaking Silences: The Woman Warrior," Hurricane Alice, 1, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 1983/84), 5-6.
  3. Suzanne Juhasz, in her essay "Towards a Theory of Form in Feminist Autobiography," in Women's Autobiography: Essays in Criticism, ed. Estelle C. Jelinek (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1980), p. 236, observes, "It is through words—through finding them, forming them, saying them aloud, in public—that Kingston reaches selfhood." See also Robert Rolf, "On Maxine Hong Kingston and The Woman Warrior," Kyushu American Literature (May 1982), p. 5; Margaret Miller, "Threads of Identity in Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior," Biography, 6, No. 1 (Winter 1983), 27-28; Garner, p. 5.
  4. Kingston, p. 190. See also p. 13: "Every word that falls from the mouth is a coin lost."
  5. See Kingston, p. 213.
  6. See Kingston, pp. 196-99, where she describes another incident underlining her cultural dislocation. See also Woon-Ping Chin Holaday, "From Ezra Pound to Maxine Hong Kingston: Expressions of Chinese Thought in American Literature," MELUS, 5, No. 2 (1978), 18, who maintains, "The biography it [WW] presents is that of someone belonging to a marginal group, the Asian-American, coping with its ethnic origins in American society"; and Juhasz, p. 233.
  7. See Kingston, pp. 12, 200, where she describes how, when trying to modulate the "Chinese-feminine" voice into the softer tones of "American-feminine," she whispers inaudibly.
  8. Deborah Homsher, "The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston: The Bridging of Autobiography and Fiction," Iowa Review, 10, No. 4 (1979), 95. See also Miller, p. 21, and Garner, p. 6.
  9. Rolf, p. 8, notes that in this passage Kingston mocks "the superficial trappings of traditional American femininity." Still, he maintains that both the American and Chinese "types of female are viewed with irony, neither is presented as clearly superior to the other."
  10. Stephanie A. Demetrakopoulos, "The Metaphysics of Matrilinearism in Women's Autobiography: Studies of Mead's Blackberry Winter, Hellman's Pentimento, Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Kingston's The Woman Warrior," in Women's Autobiography, p. 200.
  11. See Kingston, p. 213.
  12. Rolf, p. 6, describes this scene as a "furious declaration of her independence." Garner, p. 6, notes the freeing power of this speech.
  13. See Kingston, pp. 116-27, where she records a dialogue with her mother that takes place years after she has left home.
  14. Several critics discuss Brave Orchid's contradictory nature. See Homsher, p. 96; Demetrakopoulos, pp. 201-02; Miller, p. 23. 15. Miller, p. 24, describes Brave Orchid as a woman warrior "diminished by the American reality." She contends that "there is only one power she has left to bequeath her daughter: the power to 'talk-story.'"
  15. See Carol Mitchell, "'Talking-Story' in The Woman Warrior: An Analysis of the Use of Folklore," Kentucky Folklore Record, 27 (January-June 1981), pp. 6-7. Mitchell analyzes Kingston's use of oral stories to structure the autobiography. See also Homsher, p. 95, and Miller, p. 26.
  16. See Kingston, pp. 57-58, where she describes the failure of her voice in confrontations with her racist employers.
  17. Kingston, in "Cultural Mis-readings by American Reviewers," in Asian and Western Writers in Dialogue: New Cultural Identities, ed. Guy Amirthanayagam (London: Macmillan, 1982), p. 57, contends that the "White Tigers" chapter is a "childish myth … not the climax we reach for."
  18. Note that Kingston also postulates, then rejects an identity of a scarlet woman for her aunt. See Juhasz, p. 232; Homsher, p. 94.
  19. Several critics note likenesses between Kingston and Ts'ai Yen. See Holaday, p. 22; Patricia Lin Blinde, "The Icicle in the Desert: Perspective and Form in the Works of Two Chinese-American Women Writers," MELUS, 6, No. 3 (1979), 52; Rolf, p. 9.

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