The Woman Warrior
|Author||Maxine Hong Kingston|
|Genre||memoir, autobiography, Chinese folk tale|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|979.4/053/092 B 22|
|LC Class||CT275.K5764 A33 1989|
The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts is a memoir, or collection of memoirs, by Maxine Hong Kingston, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1976. Although there are many scholarly debates surrounding the official genre classification of the book, it can best be described as a work of creative nonfiction.
Throughout the book's five chapters, Kingston blends autobiography with old Chinese folktales. What results is a complex portrayal of the 20th century experiences of Chinese-Americans living in the U.S in the shadow of the Chinese Revolution.
The Woman Warrior has been reported by the Modern Language Association as the most commonly taught text in modern university education. It has been used in disciplines as far-reaching as American literature, anthropology, Asian studies, composition, education, psychology, sociology, and women's studies. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of TIME magazine's top nonfiction books of the 1970s.
- 1 Genre
- 2 Plot summary
- 2.1 "No Name Woman"
- 2.2 "White Tigers"
- 2.3 "Shaman"
- 2.4 "At the Western Palace"
- 2.5 "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe"
- 3 Themes and Analysis
- 3.1 "No Name Woman"
- 3.2 "Shaman"
- 3.3 "At The Western Palace"
- 3.4 "Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe"
- 4 Language and narrative voice
- 5 Writing process
- 6 Reception
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Bibliography
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
The specific genre of The Woman Warrior has been disputed due to Kingston's blend of perspectives, specifically traditional Chinese folktale and memoir. With this mixture, Kingston tries to provide her audience with the cultural, familial, and personal context needed to understand her unique position as a first-generation Chinese-American woman.
Friedman's assessment of autobiography with regard to women and minority groups explains Kingston's intricate blend of perspective and genre: women and cultural minorities often don't have the privilege of viewing themselves as individuals isolated from their gender or racial group. Kingston illustrates this condition through her use of Chinese talk-story, her mother's traditional Chinese perspective, and her own first-person view as a Chinese American.
The book is divided into five interconnected chapters, which read like short stories.
"No Name Woman"
The story was originally published in 1975 as the first of five stories included in a book by Kingston called The Woman Warrior. There are three characters in this section:
Maxine's Aunt (the "no-name woman"): A young woman in China who is married off just before her husband and his brothers leave for America. When she becomes pregnant long after her husband has left, the townspeople ransack her family's home, humiliating the entire family. When it is time for her to give birth, she must do so alone in the barn. Although the baby is born healthy, it is most likely a girl; realizing how limited the infant's prospects are, the Aunt takes the baby and jumps in the well, drowning them both. Her family now pretends she never existed.
Maxine (narrator): Maxine is still a young girl, still coming to terms with adolescence and the transition into womanhood, in terms of not only the physical and emotional changes brought on by puberty, but also of the societal expectations placed on Chinese girls and the discrepancy between Chinese and American ideas of womanhood. She is terror-stricken by her mother's story and keeps silent about it for years, but at the same time fantasizes about what her nameless aunt must have felt, noticing problems with the story that suggest a more complicated picture than what her mother is telling her. Over the years, she wonders if the aunt had fallen in love with the other man, if she was forced into a sexual relationship, or if she was just a woman who enjoyed and wanted sex.
Maxine’s Mother: Maxine's mother tells her the story of her father's alleged sister, claiming that her father and his family won't even acknowledge her existence. The mother uses the story to instill in Maxine a fear of breaking societal norms and of bringing shame to her family. But Maxine realizes that her mother may not be telling the full story: she speaks as though she had seen the events, but she never explains why the Aunt was still living with her own family when custom dictated that she stay with her husband's family. Was her mother really there, was she simply repeating a story she had heard, or was she making up the entire story as a cautionary tale?
Part 1: Mother's Narration
In the first part of this chapter, the narrator is recounting how her mother once told her the story of the No-Name Woman. The chapter essentially opens as a vignette told from the mother’s point of view.
"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."
After this opening line, the narration continues in the mother’s voice. She tells the story of the No Name Woman, her husband’s deceased sister. In 1924 China, with her husband already emigrated to the United States, No Name Woman became impregnated through participating in an adulterous relationship. The rural villagers violently rampaged the family house in disapproval of the deed. No Name Woman ultimately gave birth in a pigsty and drowned both herself and the newborn child in a well.
Part 2: Kingston's Interpretation
The middle portion of this chapter is Kingston’s retelling of the No Name Woman Story. Kingston uses her own experiences with Chinese tradition and culture to substantiate alternate “versions” of the tale. For instance, she questions No Name Woman’s agency in her own pregnancy. She first proposes that No Name Woman must have been raped, since “Women in the old China did not choose.” When she later tries to imagine a more sexually liberated No Name Woman, her own experiences interject:
Imagining her free with sex doesn’t fit, though. I don’t know any women like that, or men either. Unless I see her life branching into mine, she gives me no ancestral help. 
Kingston finally settles on a version of the story in which No Name Woman is portrayed as someone who embraces her feminine sexuality to quietly attract a lover. She contrasts from the other Chinese villagers who “efface their sexual color and present plain miens.” She also differs from Kingston, who prefers being “sisterly, dignified, and honorable” to any expression of attractiveness. In the end, the villagers’ raid is interpreted as a reaction to the break in community equilibrium caused by No Name Woman’s efforts to be attractive and therefore individualistic.
Part 3: What the Story Ultimately Means to Kingston
At the end of “No Name Woman”, Kingston reflects on the importance of her mother's story. She concludes that the real lesson is not how No Name Woman died; rather, why she was forgotten:
The real punishment was not the raid swiftly inflicted by the villagers, but the family’s deliberately forgetting her. 
Kingston goes on to suggest that the act of writing out her mother’s talk-story serves as an act of remembrance to No Name Woman. A sympathetic reception of this story, however, is complicated by Chinese tradition, which will forever banish the No Name Woman to her well.
Part 1: The Story of Fa Mu Lan- Training
In the first part of “White Tigers,” Kingston recounts her mother’s talk-story of Fa Mu Lan, a woman warrior who took her father’s place in battle.
"[My mother] 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." 
Kingston tells the story in the first-person perspective, essentially morphing into Fa Mu Lan. She follows a bird up “around and around the tallest mountain, climbing ever upward”  until she reaches the home of an old couple. They feed her and give her shelter, and in the morning the old woman asks her, “Do you think you can bear to stay with us for fifteen years? We can train you to become a warrior.”  After this offer, she begins the first of her training: mimicking animals and scavenging for food. In her seventh year (age 14), the old couple leads her “blindfolded to the mountains of the white tigers.”  Here, she is left barehanded and fasts for days.
"When I get hungry enough, then killing and falling are dancing too." 
After she returns, the old couple trains her in “dragon ways”  for eight years and then lets her look inside a water gourd. The first scene she sees is of her marriage to a childhood friend; the second is of her husband and youngest brother being conscripted into the army. She grows angry and wishes to help them, but only until she “point[s] at the sky and make[s] a sword appear, a silver bolt in the sunlight, and control[s] its slashing with [her] mind”  does the old couple allow her to leave.
Part 2: The Story of Fa Mu Lan- Her Return
“I have been drafted,” my father said. “No, Father,” I said. “I will take your place.” 
Her parents carve revenge on her back- their oaths and names. Her mother tells her, “We’ll have you with us until your back heals.”  She dons the guise of a man and becomes a great warrior while creating a massive army. She defeats a giant who is actually a snake, and his army pledges their loyalty to her. Soon after she is joined by her husband, becomes pregnant, and orders her husband to leave with the baby. Unaccompanied, she travels home to battle the baron who took her village’s sons. With her quick swordsmanship, she slashes him across the face and cuts off his head. At last, she resumes her duties as a wife. However, in traditional Chinese folktale, Hua Mulan doesn't accepts the emperor's rewards or official position after the war come to an end. She returns home and care for her families eventually.
Part 3: Kingston’s Comparison
"My American life has been such a disappointment." 
Kingston reverts to talking about her life in America and compares it to the story of Fa Mu Lan. She is told, “There’s no profit in raising girls. Better to raise geese than girls.”  Kingston yearns to find “the bird”  that Fa Mu Lan found and expresses her disappointment in having “no magic beads [or] water gourd sight.”  She cannot gather the courage to speak up against her racist boss, let alone save her people in China.
In the end, Kingston decides that she and Fa Mu Lan are similar:
"What we have in common are the words at our backs." 
Part 1: Kingston’s Mother and the To Keung School of Midwifery
Using her mother’s old diplomas and photos from her years in China, Kingston recounts the story of her mother’s life as a lady scholar. “Not many women got to live out the daydream of women—to have a room, even a section of a room, that only gets messed up when she messes it up herself” – the To Keung School of Midwifery made this all possible. Her mother “quickly built a reputation for being brilliant, a natural scholar who could glance at a book and know it.” Her schoolmates are all afraid of the ghosts that lurk in the building. To show that there is nothing to be afraid of, she sleeps in the ghost room of the dormitory. She fights and ultimately ignores a Sitting Ghost, which has “thick short hair like an animal’s coat.” With the help of her peers, she lights buckets of alcohol and oil on fire and sings a song to banish the Sitting Ghost:
“Run, Ghost, run from this school. Only good medical people belong here. Go back, dark creature, to your native country. Go home. Go home.”
Part 2: Brave Orchid’s Return to Her Village
Brave Orchid, Kingston’s mother, returns home after two years of study. She buys a slave to train as a nurse. Kingston remarks, “My mother’s enthusiasm for me is duller than for the slave girl; nor did I replace the older brother and sister who died while they were still cuddly.” Her mother also complains that she had to pay two hundred dollars to the doctor and hospital for her while “during the war [...] many people gave older girls away for free.” As a midwife in her village, Brave Orchid never treated those about to die; however, she could not choose which kinds of babies to deliver as with the old and sick: “One child born without an anus was left in the outhouse so that the family would not have to hear it cry.” The villagers would attribute baby defects to ghosts while Brave Orchid would say “the baby looked pretty.” Brave Orchid was faced with many other difficult situations, and she always meant well. Villagers accused the village crazy lady of “signaling the planes” and of “being a spy for the Japanese,” but Brave Orchid unsuccessfully refuted that “she’s a harmless crazy lady.”
Part 3: Ghosts and Life in America
Kingston was born during World War II and grew up with her mother’s talk-stories. Her mother taught her that all white people around her were “ghosts”:
“Once upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly breathe; I could hardly walk, limping my way around the White Ghosts and their cars.”
Though Kingston was frightened by the ghosts she knew, she was more terrified of the ghosts entirely unfamiliar to her. For this reason she did not want to go to China. She said, “In China my parents would sell my sisters and me. My father would marry two or three more wives [who] 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.”
When Kingston visits her mother, they chat about “ghosts” and how Brave Orchid can never go back to China now that the family’s land has been taken over. “I don’t want to go back anyway,” she says:
“When you’re all home, all six of you with your children and husbands and wives, there are twenty or thirty people in this house. Then I’m happy.”
Kingston tells her that she gets sick so often when she is home and can barely work. Brave Orchid understands her daughter and tells her she can come for visits instead. Affectionately, she calls Kingston “Little Dog,” an endearment she has not called her for years.
"At the Western Palace"
Part 1: The Airport
“At the Western Palace” opens with Brave Orchid, her two children, and her niece at San Francisco International Airport. Brave Orchid is waiting for her sister Moon Orchid to arrive from Hong Kong. Moon Orchid is emigrating to the United States after being separated from her sister for 30 years.
While she waits, Brave Orchid sees Vietnam War soldiers, who remind her of her own son who is fighting abroad. This causes anxiety in Brave Orchid, for she is not sure of his actual whereabouts. The description of the Vietnam War is important in that it places the setting of the chapter in the contemporary 1970s during which The Woman Warrior was written.
Brave Orchid also contemplates the ways that immigration has modernized over the years, comparing her own experiences at Ellis Island to the “plastic” of the airport. Like the other chapters of The Woman Warrior, Brave Orchid labels all non-Chinese people in the airport as “ghosts”.
When Moon Orchid’s plane finally arrives, Brave Orchid cannot recognize her sister. She consistently mistakes her for much younger Chinese women. Once the two sisters are reunited, they likewise cannot believe how old they each have grown. They argue the entire ride back home, with scenes such as this:
'You’re an old woman,' said Brave Orchid.
'Aiaa. You're an old woman.'
'But you’re really old. Surely, you can’t say that about me. I’m not old the way you’re old.'
'But you really are old. You’re one year older than I am' 
Part 2: At Brave Orchid’s House
The sisters arrive back at Brave Orchid’s house in the Valley. They are greeted by Brave Orchid’s husband, who has aged significantly in Moon Orchid’s eyes. Moon Orchid then bestows gifts from China to all of Brave Orchid’s children. One of these gifts includes a paper cut-out of Fa-Mu-lan, the Woman Warrior. Brave Orchid grows disillusioned at what she presumes to be her children’s lack of gratitude for the gifts, and goes outside to “talk to the invisibilites”, or curse her children in the name of Chinese tradition.
After a traditional family dinner in silence, Brave Orchid pressures Moon Orchid into coming up with a plan to reclaim her Chinese husband. Moon Orchid’s husband emigrated to the Los Angeles 30 years prior, and had since been remarried and fathered children in America. Although he sent monetary remittances to Moon Orchid, he had no intention of actually resuming a relationship with her. Now, he has no idea that Moon Orchid and his daughter are in the U.S., for it was Brave Orchid that arranged for both of their emigration papers.
Brave Orchid spends the night desperately trying to convince Moon Orchid of the righteousness of seeking out her husband, saying things like:
"You have to ask him why he didn’t come. Why he turned into a barbarian. Make him feel bad about leaving his mother and father. Scare him. Walk right into his house with your suitcases and boxes. Throw her stuff out of the drawers and put yours in. Say, ‘I am the first wife, and she is our servant’." 
Part 3: The Summer
Moon Orchid is still hesitant about Brave Orchid’s proposition. In the meantime, she spends the summer in Brave Orchid’s house. The gap between the second-generation children’s behavior and Moon Orchid’s expectations is immense. To Moon Orchid, the Americanized children seem “unhappy, immodest, rude, quiet, and savage-like”. It is important to note that one of these children includes Maxine Hong Kingston herself, who is indirectly referenced when the omniscient narrator describes Brave Orchid’s oldest daughter.
Moon Orchid attempts to work at Brave Orchid’s laundry, but finds the work too challenging and the heat too uncomfortable. Her frailty and inability to handle the laundry leads readers to notice a sharp contrast between her and the tough persona of Brave Orchid. Since Moon Orchid is inefficient at the laundry, when she has time, Brave Orchid takes her to Chinatown. Moon Orchid comments on the assimilated Chinese, calling them “Americans”, and the two of them snicker at gambling women they encounter in a restaurant. Nevertheless, the summer lags on. With all of her curious pestering of the children and unsuccessful attempts to work the laundry, Brave Orchid becomes more and more anxious to reunite Moon Orchid with her husband.
Part 4: Confrontation
Brave Orchid, her oldest son, Moon Orchid, and Moon Orchid’s daughter drive South to Los Angeles. They are on a mission to find Moon Orchid’s husband. Upon leaving, Brave Orchid’s husband begs Brave Orchid to leave Moon Orchid’s husband "out of women's business," to which Brave Orchid passive aggressively responds to her children:
'When your father lived in China, he refused to eat pastries because he didn’t want to eat the dirt the women kneaded from between their fingers.’ 
The drive consists of Brave Orchid giving Moon Orchid many different pep talks to encourage her to confront her husband. In one of these talks, Brave Orchid uses Chinese myth as validation for Moon Orchid’s cause, invoking the story of the Western Palace. She compares her struggle to that of the “Good Empress of the East”, who had to compete for her husband (“The Emperor”) against his other wife, the “Empress of the West.” Brave Orchid urges Moon Orchid to: “...come out of the dawn and invade her land and free the Emperor. You must break the strong spell she has cast on him that has lost him the East.”
Upon arrival in Los Angeles, they realize that the husband’s “residence” is really a metropolitan high-rise office building. Moon Orchid is too scared to approach it, so Brave Orchid takes on the task. She enters the doctor’s office (he is a neurosurgeon) and speaks with the receptionist, who turns out to be his wife. Brave Orchid struggles to speak English while the young, Americanized receptionist struggles to speak Chinese, which leads to an even more awkward interaction. Brave Orchid returns to her car, having been stymied by the medical bureaucracy that requires an appointment for all those who wish to speak with the doctor.
Brave Orchid then comes up with a plan. She forces her son to return to the office, tell the doctor that a woman has a broken leg, and require that he come provide medical assistance. The son complies, and the doctor comes to the vehicle where Moon Orchid and Brave Orchid are waiting. When he sees the two women, he addresses them as “Grandmothers”, clearly pointing out the age gap between them and himself. When he finally recognizes Moon Orchid, he tells her:
'It’s a mistake for you to be here. You can’t belong. You don’t have the hardness for this country. I have a new life... You became people in a book I had read about long ago.' 
Brave Orchid, who was the main one speaking during this entire interaction, resigns herself to the doctor’s explanation, but still demands one thing out of him: that he take the two women out to lunch. The doctor agrees. When they return, he and the women part ways, never to see each other again. Moon Orchid stays in Los Angeles with her daughter.
Part 5: Moon Orchid's Decline
At the end of the chapter, Moon Orchid declines in mental health and is forced to return to live with Brave Orchid. Moon Orchid has developed a paranoia of “Mexican Ghosts”, or Mexican people, thinking that they are after her. Moon Orchid tries in every possible way to shut out the outside world, demanding lights be turned off, windows be closed, and reeling in fear whenever someone left the house. Eventually, Moon Orchid is institutionalized. Before her death, Brave Orchid visits Moon Orchid, and Moon Orchid tells her:
'I am so happy here...we are all women here...we speak the same language, the very same. They understand me, and I understand them.' 
The chapter ends with Brave Orchid’s daughters pledging to never let their men run astray.
"A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe"
Part 1: The Cutting of the Tongue
In this story, Kingston reveals that her mother cut the membrane under her tongue. When asked why, her mother responds: “I cut it so that you would not be tongue-tied. Your tongue would be able to move in any language. You’ll be able to speak languages that are completely different from one another. You’ll be able to pronounce anything.” Kingston believes that her mother should have cut more or should not have cut it at all, because she has “a terrible time talking.” She spoke to no one at school, “did not ask before going to the lavatory, and flunked kindergarten.”
After American school, Kingston would go to Chinese school. Here, children were not mute: “Boys who were so well behaved in the American school played tricks on [the teachers] and talked back to them. The girls [...] screamed and yelled during recess.”
One day, a delivery boy accidentally delivers a box of pills to the laundry owned by Kingston’s parents. Her mother insists that Kingston go to the drugstore and demand reparation candy. When the druggists and clerks give candy, Kingston’s mother exclaims, “See? They understand. You kids just aren’t very brave.” However, Kingston knew that they did not understand and thought that her family was a bunch of beggars without a home who lived behind the laundry.
Part 2: The Silent Girl
Kingston despises a Chinese girl who is a year older than she is because she refuses to talk. One day, she finds herself alone with the girl in the lavatory. Kingston tells the girl, “I am going to make you talk, you sissy-girl.” No matter what she does—screams at her, pulls her hair, squeezes her face—the girl remains silent. Even when the girl is crying, Kingston continues to berate her:
“Look at you, snot streaming down your nose, and you won’t say a word to stop it. You’re such a nothing. [...] Talk!” 
Afterwards, Kingston spent the next eighteen months sick in bed with a mysterious illness with no pain and no symptoms. The mental illness suddenly disappears when her mother, the doctor, tells her, “You’re ready to get up today. It’s time to get up and go to school,” and she does.
Part 3: Crazy Mary, Pee-A-Nah, and Other Stories
Kingston writes about other eccentric stories in “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe.” Crazy Mary, a daughter of Christian converts, was left behind in China for twenty years while her parents came to America. By the time she came to America, she was crazy and “pointed at things that were not there.” Her condition never improved, and she was eventually locked up in the crazyhouse.
Pee-A-Nah, the public, “village idiot” witchwoman, would chase Kingston and the other children through the streets. She was probably locked up in the crazyhouse as well.
Kingston’s mother desperately tries to be a matchmaker and brings a FOB (Fresh-off-the-Boat) home to meet her. Kingston does everything in her willpower to appear unladylike, unattractive, and unskilled. A mentally disabled Chinese boy begins following her around and Kingston is afraid her mother will try setting them up together.
Part 4: Kingston’s Confession
After Kingston screams to her mother and father that she does not want to be set up with the developmentally disabled boy, she launches into a laundry list of things she is and is not going to do, regardless of her mother’s opinion:
“So get that ape out of here. I’m going to college. And I’m not going to Chinese school anymore, [...] the kids are rowdy and mean. [...] And I don’t want to listen to any more of your stories; they have no logic. [...] Ha! You can’t stop me from talking. You tried to cut off my tongue, but it didn’t work.”
Kingston’s mother shouts back, “I cut it to make you talk more, not less, you dummy,” and “Ho Chi Kuei. Leave then. Get out, you Ho Chi Kuei.” Ho Chi Kuei is a term immigrants frequently use for Chinese Americans, and it literally means "like – i.e. similar to (Ho Chi) – a ghost (Kuei)". Kingston cannot figure out the exact translation, but she muses that Hao Chi Kuei means “Good Foundation Ghosts”:
The immigrants could be saying that we were born on Gold Mountain and have advantages. Sometimes they scorn us for having had it so easy, and sometimes they’re delighted.
Part 5: Ts’ai Yen
In the final part of “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” Kingston tells the story of Ts’ai Yen, a poet born in A.D. 175. After captured by the Southern Hsiung-nu barbarians, she brings her songs back from the savage lands and passes down “Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” a song that “Chinese sing to their own instruments.”
Themes and Analysis
According to E.D. Huntley, several themes arise in the novel, including: “silence (both gendered and racially constituted); necessity for speech; the discovery of voice; the construction of identity and the search for self-realization; the mother-daughter relationship and the conflicts that it engenders; memory; acculturation and biculturalism; and cultural alienation.” Huntley compiles a list of scholarly reviews on the themes and finds that they agree with his findings, particularly themes relating to immigrant communities and cross-cultural conflict. “Other reviewers reflect on Kingston’s handling of a theme that pervades the literature of diaspora and immigrant communities, the theme of cross-cultural conflict. Huntley also notes: "For reviewer Miriam Greenspan, Maxine Hong Kingston captures “the pain of an American-born child who inevitably reject the expectations and authority of her family in favor of the values of the new land” (Greenspan 108); Linda B. Hall describes the book as “remarkable in its insights into the plight of individuals pulled between two cultures” (Hall 191); and Susan Currier writes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography that Woman Warrior is a personal narrative that represents Kingston’s effort “to reconcile American and Chinese female identities” (Currier 235)."  When asked about the cultural themes in her writing, Kingston responded, “I wonder if it just takes a lifetime or two to be an integrated person, so that you don’t have to think, at what point do I have to announce that I am a minority person or a woman or what? When I think back on when I was a young writer, I would wonder, ok now, when do I let everybody know that I’m Chinese American? Do I have to announce that?” 
The book also employs several smaller themes that feature in one or two stories but support the overarching themes mentioned by Huntley.
"No Name Woman"
Necessity and Extravagance
In an essay about The Woman Warrior, Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong writes about "the protagonist's struggle toward a balance between self-actualization and social responsibility... identified as 'Necessity' and 'Extravagance.'" The struggle between necessity and extravagance is embodied in the narrator’s mother’s sparse talk-story and the adultery of the narrator’s aunt:
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.
Wong explains how “The code of Necessity that Maxine's mother lives by is a legacy from her native land, where scarcity of resources has given rise to a rigid, family-centered social structure.” The aunt’s response to necessity-driven society is extravagance, embodied in her adultery:
Adultery is extravagance. Could people who hatch their own chicks and eat the embryos and the heads for delicacies and boil the feet in vinegar for party food, leaving only the gravel, eating even the gizzard lining – could such people engender a prodigal aunt? To be a woman, to have a daughter in starvation time was a waste enough.
Silence: Individual and Cultural Repression Across the Generations
The theme of silence is tied to the cross-cultural difficulties that the narrator faces throughout her own life. Kingston writes that “The Chinese I know hide their names; sojourners take new names when their lives change and guard their real names with silence.” The implication of silence goes beyond simply hiding names; it means the confusion of Chinese culture to first-generation Chinese Americans like the narrator. The narrator asks:
Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?
But the silence of the narrator's family is also used as a curse against the adulterous aunt. The way in which the family is silent about her erases her from the family history and from life itself. It is this silence that creates a horrifying ghost out of the aunt that haunts the narrator:
My aunt haunts me—her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her.
The Community vs. the Individual
Although the story takes place in 1924 before the time of the Chinese Revolution, we get the sense that there are intense communal ties binding No Name Woman’s village together. In one interpretation of the story, Kingston describes the villagers’ violent raid as a reaction against her individual will:
In the Village Structure, spirits shimmered among the live creatures, balanced and held in equilibrium by time and land...the villagers punished her for acting as if she could have a private life, secret and apart from them. 
This idea that the individualistic person is a negative asset to a community directly contrasts from the American culture, which values the individual. From this perspective, the No Name Woman story can be interpreted as showing the contrast between communal values of Old China versus the impending American culture that is taking so many of the villagers away.
Repression of Sexuality
The repression of sexuality can be interpreted alongside the aforementioned theme of the community vs. the individual. Kingston interprets No Name Woman’s adulterous relationship as a result of her ability to remain sexually attractive, which is an expression of individuality. All the villagers in the 1924 China town are supposed to remain dull as a sign of community solidarity:
Brothers and sisters, newly men and women, had to efface their sexual color and present plain miens. Disturbing hair and eyes, a smile like no other, threatened the ideal of five generations living under one roof.
Although both men and women had to remain sexually dull in 1924 China, Kingston finds herself reevaluating the meaning of sexual attraction while growing up. She finds herself having to both repress her sexuality (she insists that she will have "no dates" but also uphold a standard of being “American Feminine.”) Trying to find her sexual identity as a Chinese-American woman growing up in the 1940s is something that vexes Kingston throughout The Woman Warrior.
Ghosts perpetuate throughout The Woman Warrior, but it is especially prevalent in “Shaman". There are evil poltergeists such as the Sitting Ghost who torments Brave Orchid, but there are also the numerous White and Black Ghosts referred to in America:
Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts, Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts. 
Brave Orchid considers all non-Chinese people to be ghosts. She sees these people as foreign and calling them “ghosts” is her refusal to accept them, though she has lived in America for so long. She still considers China to be her “home” and refers to America as a “terrible ghost country, where a human being works her life away.” Kingston's character inherits the foreignness and fear associated with the American ghosts from her mother. The presence of the ghosts serves to express the way that Kingston's Chinese heritage made her feel somewhat alienated from other Americans while growing up.
"At The Western Palace"
Tradition vs. Assimilation
Throughout this chapter, Brave Orchid seems incredibly unaware of the realities around her. We first notice this in the beginning, when she cannot conceive that Moon Orchid may have aged in the past 30 years. When she later “speaks with the invisibilities”  while her children are opening Moon Orchid’s presents, we know that something is amiss. Brave Orchid is showing a complete submissiveness to all things traditional.
This intense hold on tradition is most evident while Brave Orchid desperately attempts to reunite Moon Orchid with her husband. Brave Orchid is willing to overstep any social code to get them back together. When Moon Orchid tells her that it is against the law for men in the U.S. to have more than one wife, Brave Orchid responds by saying “The law doesn’t matter.” Such blatant denial of reality proves how strongly Brave Orchid is attached to upholding Chinese moral standards. She refuses to assimilate to an American code of behavior.
The story of the Western Palace is the perfect metaphor for this idea. “East” represents the old culture of China, while “West” represents the modern culture of America. As the Empress of the East, Moon Orchid is supposed to save her husband from his impending American assimilation, embodied by his “Western Empress”, or new wife.
Brave Orchid: Feminist?
“At the Western Palace” also brings up important clues as to the relationship between Brave Orchid and her husband. This is one of the only chapters in which Brave Orchid slanders her husband for being sexist, saying ““When your father lived in China, he refused to eat pastries because he didn’t want to eat the dirt the women kneaded from between their fingers'. The relationship between the two of them seems passive-aggressively hostile, which may have something to do with Brave Orchid’s anger towards men in general. Brave Orchid even cites that the role of a wife is to “scold her husband into becoming a good man”.
This attitude, combined with her firm stance on setting things right with Moon Orchid’s husband, proves Brave Orchid as a type of feminist hero. This idea (although not specifically connected with Brave Orchid), is written about in Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong’s casebook on The Woman Warrior. Wong cites another writer, Jeffrey Paul Chan as saying that he “attributes the popularity of The Woman Warrior to its depiction of ‘female anger,’ which bolsters white feminists’ ‘hallucination’ of a universal female condition...”
In truth, Brave Orchid’s feminine anger definitely defines the mood of “At the Western Palace”, so much so that at the end of the story, she makes her daughters take a pledge to control the wily ways of their future husbands. It is a guarded feminism, however, because Brave Orchid is essentially only arguing for control of men, not for complete independence from them.
First vs. Second Generation
This chapter clearly proves the disconnect between the American-born children and their first-generation Chinese parents. Moon Orchid believes the children to be “savage-like”, being “raised in the wilderness” of America. The children are essentially so unlike Moon Orchid in their assimilated lifestyle that she cannot view them as human. The children, on the other hand, are embarrassed by their more traditional aunt and mother. When Brave Orchid suggests “calling out to Moon Orchid” through the glass in the airport the children “slink away”, and when Moon Orchid returns to the Valley as a mad-woman, the children say “Chinese people are very weird". Both generations are in their own worlds;, and in this chapter, there is not that much communication between the two. Moon Orchid’s husband, although not quite a second-generation emigrant, is perhaps the epitome of the split between tradition and assimilation.
As it is in the rest of The Woman Warrior, the clash between Chinese and English is rather apparent in “At the Western Palace”. Moon Orchid is especially sensitive to Brave Orchids’ children’s accents, and Brave Orchid has trouble communicating with the receptionist in the doctor’s office. The language gap is perhaps another tool to show the divide between assimilation and tradition; between first and second generation. In this chapter, however, sensitivity to language is used as a metaphor for Moon Orchid’s decline into insanity. When she claims that Mexican Ghosts are after her, Brave Orchid immediately recognizes it as farce, because Moon Orchid cannot understand English, let alone Spanish. Brave Orchid asks Moon Orchid how she knows that the Mexican Ghosts are after her, to which Moon Orchid replies:
'They were speaking English....this time, miraculously, I understood. I decoded their speech. I penetrated the words and understood what was happening inside.’ 
This quote, combined with Moon Orchid’s later admission that she is happy in the insane asylum because “everyone speaks the same language”, proves that language is a metaphor for Moon Orchid’s overall distance and exclusion from American culture. This was the cause of her downfall—the inability to translate herself into the new world. While the basic inability to speak English was a big part of this, the idea of “truly understanding” someone else invokes allusions to more than just words—it is the comprehension of one’s identity. Already cast out from the life of her husband, who she believed to be part of her own culture, Moon Orchid was so disassociated from any sense of social belonging that she grew obsessed with ghosts. The ghosts serve as a metaphor for America’s multicultural society that ironically only found means to exclude her.
"Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe"
Speech vs. Silence
Raised in the ghost land of another nation, she imagines that Americans hear the noisy dialect of Chinese as “chingchong ugly” and instead whispers to her peers at school. However, Kingston soon rebels against her inability to communicate and comes to value verbal expression as a sign of sanity and normalcy. As she encounters more instances of madness in her neighborhood, she concludes that “...talking and not talking made the difference between sanity and insanity. Insane people were the ones who couldn’t explain."  Kingston soon fears that she herself is crazy, and projects her hatred of own inability to speak onto her shy classmate. By physically abusing and threatening the mute Chinese girl, she symbolically rejects the binds of silence and spends the rest of the story pursuing her own form of articulation. Along with her newly found speech Kingston appears to simultaneously question Chinese tradition and the indirect way in which the Chinese speak, hiding both rituals from their children and truths from the American ghosts: “Lie to Americans. Tell them you were born during the San Francisco earthquake... Give a new name each time you get arrested; the ghosts won’t recognize you.” It is thus interesting to note that Kingston’s Woman Warrior is a collection of Kingston’s personal background, fact, and fiction, all presented as one memoir.
Gender Roles & Issues
As Kingston slowly discovers her voice, she must continually reconcile with gender issues, the restrictions of her Chinese culture, and the presentation of these lies and truths. It is clear that she is ashamed of her “pressed-duck voice”, and oppressed stereotypes of women constantly bombard her and her young female relatives. Her grandfather screams “Maggots!” when he deems it necessary to acknowledge the women, and her father reminds her that “A husband may kill a wife who disobeys him.” Kingston resists putting herself into a state of submission by purposely presenting herself poorly to her “FOB” suitors.
Finding A "Voice"
In a final look at her past, Kingston tells the story of Ts’ai Yen to represent the possibilities of two cultures coming together. Kingston as a writer identifies with the poet Ts’ai Yen over the strength they find in expression.
Language and narrative voice
The language of The Woman Warrior invokes a complex juxtaposition of cultural and linguistic voices. Kingston tries to capture and emulate the nuances of Chinese speech through her prose. Trying to transmit a Sinitic language by means of an Indo-European language was no easy task, and one that Kingston had to pursue actively. Nevertheless, The Woman Warrior is not pure talk-story. There is in fact a blending of first, second, and third person narration. The first-person narration of Kingston is her own American voice, the second-person is that of the Chinese talk-story, and the third-person (which only appears in “At the Western Palace”) is a mixture; a talk-story transposed from Kingston’s Chinese parents to her American siblings, and finally back to Kingston herself. What results from this combination of voices can only be described as a “fusion language” unique to Kingston, almost like her own type of Creole language.
Writing in this “fusion language,” which is an American language with Asian tones and accents, or rhythm, is a way that Kingston brings together Chinese and Western experiences. This “melding” of the two experiences – the images and metaphors—is what makes Kingston’s style her own. Kingston admits that one of the ways she works to bring these two together is to speak Chinese while writing or typing in English.
The completion of The Woman Warrior came from Kingston’s on-the-spot writing of her thoughts. She wrote down anything—until some of it started falling into place. It was this habit that allowed Kingston to complete The Woman Warrior in just three years while teaching at a boarding school that demanded she be on call twenty-four hours a day.
It is interesting to note that the original title of The Woman Warrior was Gold Mountain Stories. As Kingston states in a 1986 interview with Jody Hoy:
“The publishers didn’t like a title that sounds like a collection of short stories; they never like to publish collections of short stories. I wasn’t that happy with either of those titles, I think that calling that book The Woman Warrior emphasizes ‘warrior.’ I’m not really telling the story of war, I want to be a pacifist.” 
In terms of Kingston’s decision-making process in what to include and exclude from her story, she admits to using only what she deemed was “necessary” cultural imagery. She didn’t want readers to approach her work as "exotic.” What cultural references she did allow to remain in The Woman Warrior she considered to be more “American-friendly.” This, of course, was a very subjective endeavor on her part, and, in a more recent reflection she had on The Woman Warrior, Kingston was quoted as calling the cultural references “really Chinese.”
Since its publication in 1976, The Woman Warrior has maintained a "vexed reception history that both attests to its popularity and questions it."  Much of the debate concerns issues dealing with "autobiographical accuracy, cultural authenticity, and ethnic representativeness,"  while the critical center of the battle is whether or not Kingston offers a faithful representation of Chinese culture and of Chinese-Americans.
Reviewer Michael T. Malloy thought the book to have an exotic setting, but deemed it too mainstream American feminist, dealing with only the "Me and Mom" genre.
Generally, The Woman Warrior has been well received by Kingston's American audience. However, some Asian readers have expressed harsh critiques of her collection. Jeffery Paul Chan expresses displeasure that the collection was posed as non-fiction, a genre label that he believes to belittle Chinese-American experiences. He believes Kingston to have given a distorted view of Chinese-American culture; one that is based on her own experience. Chan is also upset at the mistranslation of the Cantonese term, "ghost" and Benjamin R. Tong, another of Kingston's critics, goes as far as to say that this mistranslation was done deliberately to "suit white tastes so that her book would sell better." 
Tong critiques Kingston by saying that she has the sensibility of Chinese-American history but no "organic connection" to it. He claims that she is only "catching pigs," or tricking whites by giving them what they think is Chinese, and selling out her own people.
One critic, Sheryl Mylan believes that Kingston constructs an Orientalist framework to separate herself from her mother and her culture, but in the process she replicates the ideologies of the US dominant culture. Another critic, Sau-ling Wong perceives Kingston's "Orientalist effect" to be the result of Kingston's failure to critique patriarchal values or institutional racism, resulting in misconceptions about Chinese culture and Chinese-Americans. Other critics, such as David Li, suggests that the collection functions as "a means of contesting power between the dominant culture and the ethnic community; whose value lies in foregrounding the representational issues that have accompanied growth of Asian American creative and critical production."
Among Kingston's most relentless critics is Frank Chin, who accuses Kingston of being "unChinese" and "a fake."  He criticizes Kingston for giving her readers more Orientalist stereotypes, as well as criticizing her readers for accepting these stereotypes. Chin also accuses Kingston of "practising an inauthentic Orientalism inherited from the apologetic autobiographies written in the Chinese American 'high' tradition." 
In Kingston's defense, reviewer Deborah L. Madsen explains this accusation as Chin's tendency to privilege the low, working-class tradition of Chinese-American writing as "authentic," which is not Kingston's tradition. Madsen claims that autobiographical Chinese-American writing is full of competing discourses that differ both culturally and racially, and as Chinese-American writers seek both Chinese ethnicity and American citizenship, the result may be "a subversion of racial authenticity," which she believes to be the case with Kingston. Other reviewers, such as Jeehyun Lim believes that the criticism that accuses Kingston's representation of the Chinese-American community as barbaric, "misreads her play with ideas of foreignness and nativeness."  Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong criticizes Tong and Chan for their demands of cultural authenticity:
To demand orthodoxy in the treatment of ethnic experiences is to subscribe to a narrowly utilitarian theory of literature, and the price one pays for this simplification is the same as the price one pays for the censorship of Extravagance seen repeatedly in this study: a reduction in the fullness of life, a shrinking of the self to meaner if more manageable proportions.
In 1982, Kingston herself wrote a rebuttal essay entitled "Cultural Mis-readings by American Reviewers" in which she disparaged her critics for insisting she represent the Chinese or aspire to some standard of excellence set forth by other Chinese-American authors. "Why must I 'represent' anyone besides myself?" Kingston asks.
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- The Woman Warrior study guide, themes, quotes, character analyses, teacher resources