Becoming a Warrior Amidst Cultural Confusion

May 13, 2019 by Essay Writer

The Woman Warrior is the memoir of Maxine Hong Kingston’s experience growing up as a first-generation Chinese American. In it, she tells the stories of several other women to reveal the struggles and issues that have affected her own life. In telling their stories, she is telling her own stories because Kingston herself is a compilation of all the women in her book. In The Woman Warrior, Kingston reveals the cultural conflicts that have affected her and how, ultimately, she is able to fight back and find her own identity.The Woman Warrior is a complex work which mixes voices, styles, fiction, and reality as it provides readers a glimpse into the Chinese-American experience. Typically regarded as an autobiography, Kingston’s memoir greatly diverges from the typical conventions of this genre. Kingston skillfully weaves the forms of autobiography, fiction, history, and mythology into a multi-layered work of art. Most autobiographies focus on the author, taking an introspective look into his or her mind and life, usually containing a consistent first person “I” narration throughout. Kingston’s autobiography, on the other hand, tells the tales of several women, both real and fictional, whose stories have shaped her life. Her book does not follow a linear pattern, and it often becomes difficult to discern what is fact and what is fiction. In fact, since most of Kingston’s stories are told to her second-hand by her mother or by someone else, it is hard to discern the validity of any of her accounts. However, the factual truth of Kingston’s stories is not important, but rather how she comes to terms with them and how she incorporates them into herself.Kingston’s book sheds light on the treatment of women in pre-Communist China. Women were considered substandard to men and were only valued in terms of their obedience, their service, and their ability to give birth to boys. Girls are sold as slaves by their families and men have more than one wife. Kingston is haunted by her mother’s tales of killing baby girls back in China and learns the notion of “wife-slave” that the Chinese emigrants brought with them to America: “When we Chinese girls listened to the adults talk-story, we learned that we failed if we grew up to be but wives or slaves” (Kingston 19). This idea of women’s subservience to men is ingrained in the minds of the children of emigrants as the right way, the only way.The idea that women were viewed as a commodity, an object owned by men, is confirmed by Kingston’s own father: “A husband may kill a wife who disobeys him. Confucius said that” (193). Such oppressive treatment of women is condoned and furthered by Brave Orchid, who carries the traditions of her people through her own practices of self-denial, through the labeling of all Americans as ghosts, and through her talk-stories. In the story of No Name Woman, China is depicted as a world of strict rules and social codes, where honor is paramount and privacy does not exist. Juxtaposing Brave Orchid and Fa Mu Lan, No Name Woman does not partake in the abnegation required of women; she does not insist on doing what is best for her family and her village. For this and for the loss of her honor No Name Woman pays dearly. Brave Orchid uses her sad end as a warning to Kingston of the dangers of breaking old customs and traditions. Kingston is warned not to tell anyone, and No Name Woman’s name is never known, because she has dishonored the family and is no longer a part of it. The father of No Name Woman’s illegitimate child, however, is never punished in any way.Kingston’s story reveals the difficulties of growing up a first-generation Chinese-American. The book exposes feelings of displacement and alienation from both societies. Kingston is caught between two very different cultures with very different values, without truly belonging to either. She does not feel completely American, because she must go to Chinese school and feels her mother’s pressure to conform to Chinese customs, but she does not feel completely Chinese, either. Even the parents of first-generation Chinese-Americans saw them this way: “They would not tell us children because we had been born among ghosts, were taught by ghosts, and were ourselves ghost-like. They called us a kind of ghost” (183). Thus Kingston, like so many other immigrant children, must forge an identity for herself between two worlds that do not completely accept her. She must deal with the austere customs of her Chinese heritage as well as the more liberal, lenient aspects of America. Thus, Chinese-Americans must search to find themselves and their place in society. Truly, Kingston’s story is a search for her own voice and an attempt to reconcile the two disparate cultures.It is even harder for Kingston to find her own place because all of her knowledge of Chinese customs and the history of her family comes to her second-hand. Her mother’s talk-stories will haunt her dreams for years to come. Yet she also feels the need to become “American-normal.” Kingston remembers walking a certain way and developing a “speaking personality” that was “American feminine” (172) in order to fit in. The complex dichotomies of the cultures pulling at Kingston will continue to affect her throughout her life: “I continue to sort out what’s just my childhood, just my imagination, just my family, just the village, just movies, just living” (205). The central conflict of the book revolves around this difficulty of reconciling what Kingston has been taught throughout her life. She must struggle with the strict traditional Chinese ways that her mother is pushing on her in often cold and cruel ways. Thus the conflict that exists is mother versus daughter, and daughter versus society – both Chinese and American. Kingston must find a way to unite the two cultures and put things into the proper perspective for herself. She must find her own voice and avenge herself on the culture that is so hard on women and which imposes a silence on her. Ultimately, Kingston is able to create for herself a life that is rich in both Chinese heritage and American culture, and she is able to reconcile with her mother and find her place.Chinese mythology plays such an important role in the lives of first-generation Chinese-Americans and their children because it is the only way that they truly learn the values and customs of their people who are so far away. Most of these Chinese-Americans have never been to China, so hearing the mythology of their culture, like the mythology of any culture, offers a glimpse into the collective psyche of the Chinese. Talk-stories are a prevalent motif in The Woman Warrior, with at least one in every chapter. Usually a mix of Chinese mythology and reality, these talk-stories teach lessons, customs, and serve as warnings. They are an effective way to communicate messages to the different generations, seen in the effect that they have on Kinston herself: “My mother has given me pictures to dream – nightmare babies that recur, shrinking again and again to fit in my palm” (86). Her mother’s talk stories have given her fears and insecurities, bad dreams, and also inspiration. They stick with her and help her to understand the culture that they come from. In the end, Kingston is able to talk-story herself, and so she carries on the tradition.The talk-stories of No Name Woman, Brave Orchid, and Ts’ai Yen all reveal aspects of Kingston herself. Their stories are told to illustrate the ways that they have shaped the person Kingston has become. Like No Name Woman, Kingston is a female struggling with the harsh customs of her culture. No Name Woman is portrayed as a timid woman who is cast out of her village, just as Kingston is a quiet girl who does not belong to either culture. No Name Woman represents those desperate, rebellious aspects of Kingston’s personality as she fights back against the oppressive Chinese culture. To punish her village, No Name Woman kills herself and her child. To avenge herself against the Chinese culture, Kingston breaks the silence taboo and tells her story.For all that she puts her daughter through, Brave Orchid is actually a very strong woman. Especially in contrast to Moon Orchid, she is a powerful and free-willed woman. Kingston recognizes that her mother is a shaman, a powerful “dragon lady” whose success in shown in her ability to talk-story. Like Fa Mu Lan, she is a warrior, as when she defeats the sitting-ghost. She fights back, just as Kingston is attempting to do with her book. Also, the story of Ts’ai Yen is a metaphor for Kingston’s memoir. Just as Kingston strives to be, Ts’ai Yen is a warrior and a poetess. They both bring back songs to their people from the “barbarians.” Kingston takes an unintelligible culture and translates it to her readers. However, the question still remains as to which culture she is translating: American, Chinese, or Chinese-American. It seems to be all cultures at once. She is able to bring the American and Chinese cultures together, translating each one to the other.In the end, Kingston is able to find her own voice and her own identity. She finds strength and independence despite the cruel oppression of the Chinese culture. She reconciles the notion of wife-slave with the stories of warriors and shaman. She redeems the woman in the talk-stories who fights back by herself becoming the female avenger, the woman warrior, who fights back against both cultures through the weapon of her writing. She is able to avoid the fine line between going crazy and being successful through her words. Kingston hangs “onto sanity by writing; [she defends herself] with words; [she] discover[s her] potential – sounds [herself] out – through articulation (Cheung 162). Kingston’s writing becomes her sword and her means of finding a voice.In The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston rebels against conventions – those of writing and those of her culture – and the result is an eloquent piece of literature about a woman warrior. Kingston rises above the conflict and confusion of her life to create a reality for herself that is a compendium of all the talk-stories, all the women, and all the cultural influences that have affected her. Kingston finds her own voice and finds peace through the very act of writing her memoirs.Works CitedCheung, King-Kok. “‘Don’t Tell’: Imposed Silences in The Color Purple and The Woman Warrior” PMLA 103 (1998): 162Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior. New York: Random House, 1976.

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