The Woman Warrior
Silence and Language in “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe”
Maxine Kingston’s The Woman Warrior wrestles with the importance of language for Chinese-American women, using Kingston’s own life experiences as the novel’s foundation. In the book’s final chapter, “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” she details her developing relationship with silence and language. Kingston voices her frustration and mistrust of Chinese tradition in that both its speaking and silence elude connection to her. She argues that she must find a voice of her own, as a Chinese-American woman, in order to bridge the gap between generations and communities and that this voice must be used to empower others, not tear them down. It is through the arts that this voice takes form, be it through song or literature, as in the case of the novel.
Throughout the chapter, it is clear that Kingston’s struggle to find her own voice is entwined with her struggle to make sense of the Chinese voice tradition. Is silence or loudness the embodiment of being Chinese, particularly for a Chinese woman? As a young child, she mainly identifies with silence and initially views silence as integral to being a Chinese girl – “The other Chinese girls did not talk either, so I knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl” (166). Silence is something she originally takes comfort in. Kingston states that she enjoyed the silence and for her it was a natural state in that “it did not occur to [her] that [she] was supposed to talk” (166). For her silence was not a lack of things to say but a “stage curtain, and it was the moment before the curtain parted or rose” (165). Her silence, this stage curtain “so black and full of possibilities” (165), was only hiding the “mighty operas” on stage inside her mind.
Kingston also picks up the theme of silence, or at least the absence of communication, from the Chinese adults, particularly in the communication of passing down traditions. In one sections she talks about the ambiguity of Chinese holidays and how “even the good things are unspeakable” (185). No one tells her when holidays are and “the adults get mad, evasive, and shut you up if you ask” (185) She rightly questions “how can Chinese keep any traditions at all?” (185), pointing out that one of the downsides of the silence she grew up with is that it stifles continuity between generations. The lack of communication is largely responsible for the disconnect between Chinese and Chinese Americans, which Kingston notes leaves much uncertainty for the younger generation in dealing with challenges in life. “If we had to depend on being told, we’d have no religion, no babies, no menstruation (sex, of course, unspeakable), no death” (185) Her statement may allude to the Biblical Garden of Eden, where it was not until God told Adam and Eve about the Tree of Knowledge that they stumbled into the ups and downs of mortality. This construes silence as an almost infantile state, one in which there is shielding from both bad and good things in life. Here we see Kingston disdainful of the gaps in knowledge that this state leaves.
So then what about loudness and sound? Kingston does provide evidence that perhaps it is loudness that embodies the Chinese woman. The silence that pervades the Chinese girls in American school quickly evaporates once at Chinese school; “The girls were not mute. They screamed and yelled during recess, when there were no rules; they had fist-fights” (167). Here she seems to argue that it is the American school environment that induces the quietness in her and other girls; once put in a Chinese environment they adapt the Chinese expression form. Her father also comments on this later in the chapter, “Why is it I can hear Chinese from blocks away? Is it that I understand the language? Or is it they talk loud?” (171) Kingston goes on to describe the irreverence of a Chinese audience at a piano recital, because “Chinese can’t hear Americans at all” (172). And then she lays it out rather plainly by saying, “Normal Chinese women’s voices are strong and bossy” (172). Strong and bossy, loud and irreverent, this is what is presented to Kingston as the manifestation of Chinese. Yet the Chinese loud voice does not resonate with her. Her own judgement is reflected when she says, “You can see the disgust on American faces…it isn’t just the loudness. It is the way Chinese sounds, chingchong ugly…not beautiful” (171). She is embarrassed by the loud Chinese tradition of banging pot lids during the eclipse and distrusts the Chinese voice for “they want to capture your voice for their own use” (169).
For Kingston this mistrust of Chinese voice plays a large part in the miscommunication between the Chinese and the Chinese Americans. Throughout the entire novel and especially in this chapter, Kingston struggles to understand which stories she hears from her mother are truthful and which are jokes. Speaking of her mother’s stories, she shouts, “They scramble me up. You lie with stories…I can’t tell the difference” (202). This outburst comes from years of pent up angst about Kingston’s fears of being sold off into marriage and all of the many derogatory comments made about women, especially her and her Chinese American sisters. Her mother, countering Kingston’s accusations, shouts back “You can’t even tell a joke from real life” and “That’s what Chinese say. We like to say the opposite” (202-3). There is clearly a gap of understanding between Kingston and her mother. This gap is symbolized in the ordeal with her mother cutting Kingston’s frenum, an act that invokes both pride and terror in her heart. Her mother claims she “cut it so that you would not be tongue-tied. Your tongue would be able to move in any language” (164). Kingston has a distrust of her mother’s reasoning and blames it for making her have a “terrible time talking,” the cut “tampering with my speech” (165). So was her mother trying to silence her or free her tongue? Kingston brings up that “the Chinese say ‘a ready tongue is an evil’’ yet her mother counters that “’Things are different in this ghost country’” (164). This paradox of the tongue symbolizes the ambiguities and miscommunications between the Chinese and Chinese Americans and also points out the importance of location for the guidelines of communication.
In order for her to bridge the gap between hers and her parents’ generation, she must find her own voice; Kingston make clear what is at stake if she can’t. On page 186 she explains, “I thought talking and not talking made the difference between sanity and insanity. Insane people were the ones who couldn’t explain themselves.” She goes on to tell about Crazy Mary and Pee-A-Nah, both women who grew into adulthood unable to communicate with the world. Kingston is fearful of becoming like these women; “I did not want to be our crazy one” (190). So how does Kingston figure she can avoid this fate? She has all of these fantasies and imaginary conversations in her mind, the opera that her period of black paint was hiding, and it is the need to communicate these inner truths that leads her to make her list, “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 stop the pain in my throat” (197). Kingston and other Chinese-American women need their own voice. She needs her voice to bridge the gap between her mother, she needs her voice to bridge the gap between her and the outside world. “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” (198). Here we see another negative of silence: isolation. Kingston hopes that finding her own voice will empower her in connecting with her mother and with her community.
So then what voice does Kingston advocate for? In one sense we can answer this by looking for what she advocates against – voices which demean others. Throughout the novel and especially in this chapter the voices of her mother and relatives tear her down. We can see the emotional and mental trauma wrought about Kingston as a result of this verbal abuse, including a self-hatred of her own silence and failings. In a climactic and jarring confrontation, Kingston takes out her self-loathing on the little silent Chinese girl in the bathroom after school hours. Kingston channels all of her powers to bully the girl into speaking, berating her with phrases like “You’re disgusting” and “You’re such a nothing” (178). When Kingston herself starts to cry, we see that she is projecting her insecurities onto this little girl and interrogating them in a voice reminiscent of her mother’s – “You think somebody’s going to marry you…Nobody’s going to notice you. You’re so dumb. Why do I waste my time on you?” (180-1) Kingston reflects, “It seemed as if I had spent my life in that basement, doing the worst thing I had yet done to another person” (181). Here she is, having found a loud and outspoken voice like her mothers, using that voice to bring down and traumatize a younger girl. This is clearly not the voice that Kingston advocates, and she uses this story to warn us of the dangers involved in misusing a powerful voice.
Instead, Kingston argues for a voice that empowers others and internalizes nuances. In the beginning of this chapter, she compares her brother’s talk-story to hers – “His version of the story may be better than mine because of its bareness, not twisted into designs. The hearer can carry it tucked away without it taking up much room” (163). However Kingston wants the opposite; she wants her talk-story to resist easy digestion and to imbue the nuances and fantasies that reflect her thinking. Alluding to the Chinese knot-maker lore, she says, “If I had lived in China, I would have been an outlaw knot-maker” (163). She needs a voice that allows her to tie stories that are complex.
Kingston presents an example of the voice she seeks at the end of the novel, where she relays the tale of Ts’ai Yen. This master poetess was captured by barbarians whose haunting music “disturbed [her]; its sharpness and its cold made her ache” (208). This music prompts her to sing “a song so high and clear…about China and her family there. Her words seemed to be Chinese, but the barbarians understood their sadness and anger…Her children did not laugh, but eventually sang along” (209). The voice of Ts’ai Yen transcends the language barrier and speaks to the emotions and achings of the barbarians. Additionally, the song was able to be passed down to her children and eventually becomes a Chinese household song. This is the voice Kingston desires, a voice of Chinese origins that can speak to the universal human experience, a voice that can bridge the gap between the Chinese and those born outside of China. She postulates a voice that is penetrating but not overbearing, a truthful voice that resonates between generations. In a manner arguing for the necessity of her novel, Kingston champions the arts as the avenue for this voice. It is through song and reed pipes that Ts’ai Yen and the barbarians connect; it is through literature that Kingston hopes to connect Chinese and American-born.
Contradictory Criticism of The Woman Warrior: Kingston’s Text as a Political Device
Published in 1975, The Woman Warrior turned autobiographer Maxine Hong Kingston into one of the most prominent female voices of her generation. As gender/feminist studies programs developed at major Universities across the United States, professors added Kingston’s story to their curricula as an example of finding one’s feminist voice through female authorship. Yet, while feminists discovered an empowering message within the text, critics argued that the book was not only culturally inaccurate in its portrayal of Chinese culture but also irresponsible, in that it reinforced the stereotypical American views of China as an entirely patriarchal and oppressive society. In articles written about The Woman Warrior on both sides of the debate, critics such as Yuan Shu largely focus on feminist theory and concepts that were taught in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Yet, while it seems appropriate for critics to base their research on the feminist theory that was being studied at the time that the autobiography was written, Kingston’s ideas within the text were in many ways ahead of her time.
Contemporary feminist critics have included recent feminist theory into their analyses of the text to reveal priorities other than focusing on the differences between Kingston and her mother, or the No-Name woman and the woman warrior; more important is the conformative and transformative nature of each respective character. However, contemporary critics (and arguably anti-feminist critics) of the autobiography continue to base their arguments on the initial feminist response to the work that took place during what is commonly referred to as the second wave of the feminist movement (in the 1960’s and 1970’s) rather than acknowledging more contemporary feminist research. In this analysis of both the novel and the critical essays that followed, I will illustrate the distinctions between the second and third wave approaches to the work, and I will also illustrate how anti-feminist critics have chosen specific pieces of the novel and its critical analysis to base their arguments rather than focusing on the novel or criticism as a whole.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, second wave feminists focused their efforts on attaining equality for women worldwide. When The Woman Warrior was published, feminists used the work as an example of the narrative of a woman who was directly affected by the patriarchal restraints of her culture (Brave Orchid) and a child (Kingston) who although born in the United States, rather than in China, struggles to find her own feminist voice. While second wave feminists were not entirely incorrect in focusing largely on gender in their analysis of the novel, third wave feminists such as Bell Hooks believe that the multi-cultural aspect of the novel is equally important and should be treated as such. In her article Feminism A Transformational Politic, Hooks states that the problem with suggesting, as the second wave feminist movement did, “that racism and class exploitation are merely the offspring of the parent system; patriarchy” is that “this has led to the assumption that resisting patriarchal domination is a more legitimate feminist action than resisting racism and other forms of domination”(465). Particularly because the majority of the second wave feminist movement in the United States was comprised of privileged white women, women from other cultural backgrounds were hesitant to join a movement in which they felt they would be forced to lose their cultural identities in order to fight for gender equality.
Although there are many differences between third wave and second wave feminism, the incorporation of multiculturalism by third wave feminists is considered to be one of the major transitions between the two waves. Specifically, in the case of The Woman Warrior, most feminist critics who have written about the autobiography in the last twenty years, such as Shirley Goek-lin Lim, have incorporated a more multi-cultural approach in their analysis while simultaneously taking into consideration that the autobiography was published during the height of the second wave. For example, in Lim’s article The Tradition of Chinese American Women’s Life Stories, she acknowledges the divide between second and third wave feminist theory and expands on Bell Hooks’ insistence on the importance of taking a multicultural approach to feminism when she states that Kingston “has not an autobiographical story to tell but a racial and gendered consciousness to imitate and create”(264). Yet, while Lim clearly demonstrates an understanding of third wave feminist theory in her article, Yuan Shu, an antifeminist critic, either misunderstands or entirely ignores this type of response when she states, “ Critics such as Yuan Shu also contend that Kingston’s mother, Brave Orchid, and herself are character foils of one another and that her mother represents patriarchal tradition as opposed to Kingston’s individualism.” Yet, while feminist critics such as Ruth Jenkins “explore the double bind of articulating female voice in cultures that ordain silence as the appropriate expression of female experience”(1), the critics do not, as Shu believes, blame Chinese culture alone for the patriarchal tradition that promotes female silence. Instead, Jenkins points to the event in the autobiography when a young Kingston realizes that “girls had to whisper to make [them]selves American-feminine”(Kingston 200) to reveal that American culture is just as responsible for female oppression as any other.
Kingston has herself stated that she is a feminist and that her work largely represents herself and her struggle with the gender restrictions in society. Yet, in much of the analysis of the novel, there is a misrepresentation of feminism that leads critics to pit the No-Name woman against the woman warrior by viewing them as representations of “the victim” and “the feminist” rather than by looking at the faults and contractions of each to determine what Kingston is attempting to say about the relative nature of truth. Although critics of feminism have capitalized on the opposing traits of the No-Name woman and the woman warrior, some of the blame for the misrepresentation of these characters does lie in the feminist response to the text. When Ruth Jenkins states in her article, Authorizing Female Voice and Experience, that through her aunt’s pregnancy and suicide “Kingston takes revenge on the culture that denies female voice”(2) she does “other” Chinese culture by implying that patriarchy and oppression are unique to Chinese traditional values. While there is evidence within the text to support Jenkins’s statement, Kingston is also critical of American culture and its tradition of female silence in her autobiography. She states that as a child she was quiet because she “invented an American-feminine speaking personality”(Kingston 172). Yet critics, rather than solely looking at the text to support their claims that Kingston “others” the Chinese culture that she never personally experienced, focus their arguments on the feminist analysis of the autobiography that was based on theory written at the time that it was published.
One of Kingston’s most prominent critics is Frank Chin, who has consistently argued against the authenticity of the work, stating that its non-traditional approach to the autobiography “is simply a device for destroying history and literature’”(Nishime 2). Chin adamantly denies that the autobiography is an accurate portrayal of Chinese society and goes so far as to say that the work is destructive to Chinese-Americans in that it enforces the patriarchal and oppressive stereotypes that he and other scholars have attempted to deconstruct. Whether Chin is reacting to his own personal interpretation of the novel or to the largely feminist response that arose following the publication of Kingston’s work is unclear. Although many of the tragic events of the novel (such as the suicide of the no-name woman) take place in China, Kingston does not specifically blame these tragedies on Chinese culture but rather focuses on the faults of patriarchy itself. However, in an analysis of the cultural politics in “The Woman Warrior”, critic Yuan Shu suggests that due to the rise of the second wave of feminism in the 1970’s, much of the literary criticism surrounding the work has been centered on the idea that the autobiography is “an exposure of misogyny in Chinese culture and an effort to articulate a distinctive feminist consciousness”(Shu 5).
Although Frank Chin states that it is the inauthenticity of the autobiography that he opposes, his statement that Kingston’s work is “destructive” implies that his reaction to the novel is more based on certain feminist interpretations of Chinese culture as innately restrictive rather than on Kingston’s novel itself. Yuan Shu, two decades after Chin’s criticisms, focuses her analysis entirely on the feminist response that followed the publication of Kingston’s autobiography. She blames the feminist criticism, rather than the novel itself, for the demonization of Chinese culture. In particular, she targets Chinese men, stating that Kingston “never critiques patriarchal values or institutional racism” in her work but rather that feminist critics have construed “the story in terms of the American cultural imagination of China”(Shu 2). Shu goes on to state that there is a “gap between Kingston’s work and feminist interpretations of the work”(Shu 5), affirming that Kingston’s ideas on race and gender may in fact be radical yet subtle reflections on a particular historical context.
Wasted Lives and the “No Name Woman”
Hidden within “No Name Woman” are many underlying symbols and motifs, or reoccurring patterns, that work to shape the story into what it is and to help craft not only the characters’ personalities but also the overarching plot of the story. One motif that seems to be prevalent throughout the story is the reoccurrence of the idea of waste: waste of livestock, human life, and even waste of birth. This symbol of waste seems to exaggerate the theme of shame which influences every decision made in the story and not only shapes the No Name Woman but also shapes the narrator’s personal life.
Throughout “No Name Woman”, the idea of something being “wasted” surfaces repeatedly. “On the night the baby was to be born, the villagers raided our house,” says Kingston’s mother. “The villagers broke in the front and the back door… their knives dripped with blood of our animals.” (Kingston 569). Not only did the villagers slaughter the livestock, but they also destroyed many perishable goods and household objects, such as bowls, pots, rice, fruits, and vegetables. “They ripped up her clothes and shoes and broke her combs…” as well as overturning “great waist-high earthenware jugs; duck eggs, pickled fruits, and vegetables” (Kingston 569). The villagers ransacked the house and everything inside of it. They did not come into the house with the intent to loot or steal goods, but purely to destroy everything that the No Name Woman and her family owned. They spared no goods while destroying anything and everything in the house, purely to shame the No Name Woman because she was pregnant with a baby whose father was not the No Name Woman’s husband.
How the No Name Woman got pregnant is left a mystery. At the time, in 1924, her husband was in America; she became impregnated by a man other than her husband, whose identity is left undisclosed. She was either raped or had an affair, neither of which are directly confirmed in the story, but one of which can be interpreted through certain context clues hidden within the text. Kingston’s mother is telling her this story as a cautionary tale; a tale meant to persuade Kingston to conform to her parents’ values. It is meant to discourage young Kingston from engaging in premarital sex and, in the future, sex outside of wedlock. Kingston’s mother tells her this tale because, hopefully, the fear of humiliation, ostracism, and death will serve adequately as warnings against the consequences of sexual promiscuity. Because Kingston’s mother is telling her this story to persuade her to act in a manner congruent to her parents’ principles, it can be concluded that the No Name Woman became pregnant by committing adultery.
The main appearance of this ubiquitous motif of waste deals with the waste of the No Name Woman and her daughter’s lives when she commits suicide in response to feeling shameful about the actions and choices she made. The No Name Woman both kills herself and takes her child along with her when she jumps into the well. “She had taken her child with her into the wastes” (Kingston 576). Her life and her child’s life were both completely wasted because of the decisions that the No Name Woman made. This is the chief manifestation of waste in this short story. Two lives were wasted due to shame, one of them with no chance to choose for himself or herself.
One very important question is raised in the No Name Woman’s decision to bring her baby down the well with her: “Carrying the baby to the well shows loving.” (Kingston 576) But does deciding for another human being that death is the best choice for it in fact show loving? The baby didn’t have a choice, the mother decided for it. “Mothers who love their children take them along,” (Kingston 576) argues the narrator, but is this in fact a moral absolute? A mother who deliberately commits the act of filicide cannot be sane; deciding the life or death of another human being without that human being having the ability to understand what it wants is iniquitous. In theory, the idea of a filicide-suicide, such as that committed by the No Name Woman, sounds like an act of dramatic tragedy. Yet when one truly processes that what the mother is doing is against the child’s will, one sees that it is far from romantic: it is reprehensible, at least outside of the No Name Woman’s culture.
The Problem With Legacies: Analysis of Chapter One, The Warrior Woman
Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoirs do not share the focus of typical memoirs- biographical details of friends, siblings, favorite pastimes. Rather, Kingston examines the social influences that have shaped her life, view of herself, and the world. The author looks predominately at the “talk-story” of her mother, which are stories about Brave Orchid and life in China. Part of this Chinese legacy is the social and familial oppression of females that flows solidly throughout the stories in this novel. Perhaps the most striking instance of this oppression may be found in the startling scene that comprises the first chapter of The Woman Warrior, No Name Woman. Brave Orchid tells her daughter a precautionary tale about her “no-name” sister-in-law who committed suicide in China after conceiving an illegitimate child while her husband was in America. The story itself, by recounting the deeds of a woman her family refuses to remember, becomes taboo: “You must not tell anyone what I am about to tell you,” warns the narrator’s mother (1). By preserving only the sin of the story and thereby the condemnation of the “no-name-aunt,” the mother efficiently neutralizes any of the specific characteristics which define a person, successfully doling the aunt’s punishment and rendering her literally a nobody. The narrator muses, wondering, “what my aunt wore,” imagining the possible scenarios that led to her aunt’s pregnancy and death (6). Was it rape? Or mutual infatuation? Did it matter? “To be a woman, to have a daughter in starvation time was waste enough. My aunt could not have been the lone romantic who gave up everything for sex. Women in China did not choose” (6). The birth scene is one of the most disturbing and lovely scenes in the book. There is so much beauty present in the scene- ten little fingers and toes, the act of breastfeeding for the first time, and an infant asleep upon her mother’s stomach. The scene lies in stark contrast to the filth of a pigsty in the cold of night. It is ironic that a woman, the only being capable of carrying out the birthing process, should be ostracized because of that very act. It is tragic and it is beautiful that the newness of a life should so soon mix with the stillness of death- the well-water swallowing the two sparks of life that burn like the vagrant stars in the night sky that is the only witness to the aunt’s solitude. How terrible and beautiful that, “Mothers who love their children take them along,” even into the stillness of death that is far more kind than the politics of society. Subsequent to the men of the family leaving the village, Kingston notes, “They expected her alone to keep the traditional ways, which her brothers, now among the barbarians, could fumble without detection. The heavy, deep-rooted women were to maintain the past against the flood, safe for returning” (8). But in a world where women are “maggots” and “slaves” and encouraged to take part in their own subordination one could not expect otherwise. “There’s no profit in raising girls. Better to raise geese than girls” (46). The only way to escape this legacy lies in the counterview to the traditional view of women as slaves or servile wives- the warrior woman embodied in the female avenger Fa Mu Lan. This figure represents a contrast to the traditional Chinese feudal system and provides the narrator with an alternative model to follow, as well as an empowering scope through which she may understand herself. Fifty years after her aunt’s death, Kingston becomes her avenger and the voice to her memory.
Becoming a Warrior Amidst Cultural Confusion
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.
The Woman Warrior: Opposing and Destructive Binaries of Identity
There are few identities that fit neatly within conventional, binary systems of thought. Binary oppositions that exist within the spheres of race and gender are exclusive of individuals who occupy intersections of these identities. In The Woman Warrior Kingston’s goal is not to write off these binary oppositions, but to demonstrate that the narrative of a Chinese American woman does not and cannot fit within them. In this way, Kingston must oppose binary systems of thought in order to properly relay a specific narrative: one that is typically excluded and misrepresented.
In “White Tigers” Kinston retells the historical story of Fa Mu Lan in order to establish representation where representation cannot be found. In the original tale, Fa Mu Lan fights to defend her country, but in Kingston’s imagined version, she fights against a corrupt emperor. This narrative decision destabilizes the divide between fiction and non-fiction, but not simply for theatrical purposes. At the end of “White Tigers” Kingston writes, “My parents had bought their coffins. They would sacrifice a pig to the gods that I had returned. From the words on my back, and how they were fulfilled, the villagers would make a legend about my perfect filiality. My American life has been such a disappointment” (45). These lines at first serve to demonstrate quite a stark contrast between the binary of fiction and non-fiction. The narrative of the imagined Fa Mu Lan story is interrupted abruptly by Kingston’s following thoughts on America. Ultimately, this narrative choice is not meant to reinforce the fiction and non-fiction divide, but to show that Kingston’s desired, and real, narrative lacks representation in history and present day. There is certain futility within the line “My American life has been such a disappointment” (Kingston 45). She understands that her story is non-fiction, but this does not negate Kingston’s very real experience of it. Kingston must rewrite the story of Fa Mu Lan in order to properly represent her identity as a Chinese American woman. The original story appeals to conventional ideals of Chinese culture and even Chinese femininity: loyalty, obedience, and perseverance. Kingston’s decision to fight against the corrupt emperor, however, alludes to her own struggles against an oppressive patriarchy. In this oppression, her narrative is not erased: it is simply not given a platform on which to exist. Kingston must forge her own story in order to represent her own identity.
Kingston struggles against oppressive power hierarchies but also must grapple with more internal binary oppositions. Much of her narrative is made complicated by the fact that it has been relayed to her through unstable and opposing sources. Kingston must constantly reckon with the binaries of subjectivity and objectivity and reality and falsehood when attempting to present her narrative. For example, much of what her mother, Brave Orchid, relays to her is littered with inconsistencies and slippery, elusive explanation. At the beginning of “Shaman” Kingston’s mother tells her that she once had two other siblings: “Their two children had been dead for ten years” (60). However, at the end of the story Brave Orchid counters this: “No you must have been dreaming. You must have been making up stories. You are all the children there are” (103). Here we see how Kingston cannot clearly mark the divide between fact and fiction or subjectivity and objectivity: her mother’s narrative is simply not presented this way. Further, this can be understood to be a product of Brave Orchid’s own dealings in grappling with restrictive binary thought. Her stories are inconsistent because binary thought systems prevent her identity’s acceptance. The possible shame and cultural disgrace of having dead children would prevent Kingston’s mother from speaking about the topic explicitly: she must mother dead children but also appear an adequate mother. In the same way, Kingston must accept her mother’s stories while maintaining an unspoken doubt. She writes, in “No Name Woman”, “In the twenty years since I heard this story I have not asked for details nor said my aunt’s name; I do not know it” (Kingston 16). Here we see a fundamental opposition in play that permeates all attempts of Kingston to reckon with her narrative. The story of her ghostly aunt plagues her, and yet she does not even know her aunt’s name. With unstable oppositions of reality versus fiction and subjectivity versus objectivity at the root of Kingston’s story, it is clear how her narrative would consequently challenge binary thought.
The struggle to appeal to both ends of binary oppositions is one of the main roots of Kingston’s narrative. The expectation to maintain honesty but also utmost discretion extends into the sphere of race relations that Kingston navigates within America. Her identity is made complicated by the intersection of Chinese and American that she occupies. Kingston tells the story of her days in American school, and describes a moment in which the divide between Chinese and American, foreign and not, is especially clear: “The class laughed at how dumb he was not to notice things. ‘She calls him father of me,’ He said. Even we laughed, although we knew that his mother did not call his father by name, and a son does not know his father’s name” (177). Here we see that the desperate need for assimilation prevents non-white Americans from being able to, in a sense, fully exist within their own identity. Kingston and the other Chinese American students are aware of the boy’s situation, and yet they laugh alongside their American classmates. This is because there is no space created for those who are both foreign and not: they must either appear wholly Chinese and face discrimination, or attempt to “Americanize” themselves to appease their white peers. Kingston cannot relay a story that adheres to racial binaries because she herself opposes them simply through existing. She must answer to both American and Chinese identities, and is not given the option of occupying one space on the binary. Additionally, Kingston must further deconstruct her identity through the appeal to American ideals of femininity.
At this point the many binary forces governing Kingston’s identity have begun to reveal themselves, and the intricate nature of her oppression is clear. Kingston is doubly oppressed as a Chinese American and as a Chinese American woman. She cannot simply assimilate into American culture; she must do so with consideration for the gendered expectations of both cultures. She writes, “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). Here Kingston refers to the rigid structure of binary gender and the subsequently oppressive expectations for gendered performance. She must grow up a wife or slave or risk consideration as a useless woman. Kingston writes further, “We American-Chinese girls had to whisper to make ourselves American-feminine” (173). This reveals a truly complex intersection of binary oppositions. Kingston references the fact that American femininity is different from Chinese femininity, which places a strain on a Chinese American woman struggling to assert her identity. Kingston is forced not only to assimilate to American culture, but assimilate to American femininity as well. All the while she must do this with respect for her Chinese heritage, struggling to retain what elusive knowledge she possesses. In these attempts, binary ideas of gender and race are subsequently blurred.
Kingston’s narrative demonstrates that Western reliance on polarizing binaries of thought prevents acceptance, representation, and recognition of the identities that fail to fall into either/or categories. Ultimately, she only attempts to convey her experience of life as a Chinese American woman. This identity on its own is not philosophical, but the opposing binary forces that challenge it certainly raise philosophical questions. Kingston destabilizes these binary structures in order to show that identities that fall outside of them are just as valid. She addresses and deconstructs binary thought because to do so is necessary to properly represent an identity that cannot be found within the Western, white, and male philosophy of being.
Food and Power: A Female Struggle in The Woman Warrior
In Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, conflicts involving hunger are clearly of significance, appearing throughout every chapter of her memoir from “No Name Woman” to “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe.” Paul Outka’s “Publish or Perish: Food, Hunger and Self-Construction in The Woman Warrior” argues that Kingston uses food to symbolize body and mind; while food fulfills physical need, it also represents desire and aspirations. More specifically, Outka believes the narrator Maxine struggles with adhering to the traditional Chinese expectations of women (her physical need) while being unrestrained in her expression of identity through writing The Woman Warrior (her non-physical desires). While not explicitly disagreeing with Outka’s interpretation, I would like to take Kingston’s use of food in a different direction: toward defining one’s identity through their power over food. Kingston uses female struggles with food to thread a common issue through the novel, an issue faced by No Name Woman, Fa Mulan, Brave Orchid and eventually Maxine. By understanding each woman’s individual struggles with food, we come to learn more about each woman’s unique identity. Therefore, triumphs over food within Chinese culture reflect each woman’s power, or lack thereof: Kingston proves that female power is a culmination of physical and mental strength.
No Name Woman’s lack of control over food, through her struggle with Chinese societal norms, results in her existence being erased and her soul left eternally hungry, the ultimate debasement of power. When explaining No Name Woman’s adultery through the perspective of the villagers, Kingston says, “Adultery, perhaps only a mistake during the good times, became a crime when the village needed food.” Therefore, No Name Woman’s fatal violation of societal norms is creating another female mouth to feed during famine, rather than the sexual immorality of her actions; the severity of adultery – wavering between “mistake” and “crime” – depends solely on food availability. No Name Woman, living with her own family, is perhaps cast away from her husband’s household for the same reason her child brings along her demise. Women are a waste of resources, especially when food is scarce. This ideology crushes No Name Woman under its immense weight, like the Sitting Ghost pressed upon Brave Orchid’s chest, “absorbing her energy and getting heavier” (69). Bringing upon a figurative curse of death upon her family – she “killed us” – and being shunned and rejected by her community, No Name Woman is left unimaginably ashamed and nearly powerless, a “dead ghost” who had “never been born” (14). Unable to cope with the hatred of her reality, No Name Woman uses her last token of power, her physical body, to enact revenge on the villagers through her “spite suicide, drowning herself in the drinking water” (16). No Name Woman’s defeat by the village’s expectations surrounding food and women cost her life and honor, but her true punishment, her true loss of power, comes after death and continues through generations of silence.
No Name Woman’s village deliberately denies her existence and kinship to reflect her “crime” upon her forgotten soul, sentencing the aunt to a desolate eternity of hunger. Imagining No Name Woman’s afterlife, Kingston explains, “Her betrayal so maddened them, they saw to it that she would suffer forever, even after death. Always hungry, always needing, she would have to beg food from other ghosts” (16). By reintroducing the conflict of hunger in her afterlife, Kingston reveals that No Name Woman never escapes the repercussions of her defeat by the Chinese ideology of food. To the villagers, No Name Woman’s daughter, a blasphemous waste of food, threatens to worsen the hunger of everyone in the community; “could people who hatch their own chicks and eat the embryos…could such people engender a prodigal aunt?” (6). They choose to punish the aunt by enforcing and magnifying that same threat upon her afterlife, leaving her ghost as hungry as they imagine the village would become. The tragic and chilling truth, however, is that being subjected to starvation in the equivalent of a Chinese hell is not the full extent of No Name Woman’s punishment, nor is it the most heart wrenching. What else can you take from a woman who loses her honor, her life, her child, and her family? No Name Woman’s kin refuse to say her name. The aunt’s last bastion of power, the memory and story of her existence, is repressed and forgotten as though she had “never been born”; Kingston admits, “there is more to this silence: they want me to participate in her punishment. And I have” (16). No Name Woman is an entity completely removed of all power (although the vast majority of women in China had little to begin with). She is left physically weakened before death, but mentally – her thoughts, beliefs, and memory of her life – made nonexistent, until Kingston breaks the cycle of punishment by writing “No Name Woman.” If No Name Woman displays the loss of power that follows the constraints of food in Chinese society, then Fa Mu Lan depicts the opposite, a story of liberation and discovery that follows domination over food.
Fa Mu Lan’s survival training grants triumph over food by allowing her to repress hunger, granting the mental and physical strength to become an unworldly woman warrior. Unlike the erased memory of No Name Woman, Fa Mu Lan’s successes are proudly passed down for generations. After her enlightening encounter with a vision of two golden, multiethnic dancers, Fa Mu Lan attributes the experience to hunger: “It would seem that this small crack in the mystery was opened, not so much by the old people’s magic, as by hunger” (27). By surviving in barren wilderness, Fa Mu Lan conquers food by overcoming her body’s starvation; the completion of her “survival test” proves she is no longer dependent on the male-driven Chinese society to feed her (28). This defeat of hunger, prompting the “crack in the mystery” to widen, opens Fa Mu Lan’s mind, granting her the mental strength and capacity that contributes to her immense power. She now comprehends the complexity of time, “spinning and fixed like the North Star,” perceives the precious equality of all humanity, “how peasant’s clothes are golden,” and foresees a strange “machine-future” (27). As Fa Mulan realizes that her mental strength, and therefore power, comes from defeating food, the hunger segment of her training ends. Fa Mu Lan’s triumph over hunger, opening her mind to grand insights, serves as the gateway to attaining her physical strength, the other component of female power. Only after completing her “survival test” can she begin her dragon training, in which she “worked every day” to strain and empower her body – even “exercising in the downpour” during the rain (29). After completing her training, Fa Mu Lan’s relationship with food persists through her journey and battles, allowing her to slay corrupt barons and overthrow an evil emperor; “when I get hungry enough, then killing and falling are dancing too” (27). By triumphing over the social norms of food and women, Fa Mu Lan is able to attain great power through her immense physical and mental prowess, using her power to become the avenging, sword-wielding, woman warrior of legend.
Brave Orchid, like Fa Mu Lan, exerts a commanding control over food, but rather than embrace starvation, Brave Orchid balks at it; a woman who can eat anything will never go hungry. During Brave Orchid’s struggle with the Sitting Ghost, she boldly proclaims, “you are a puny little boulder indeed. Yes, when I get my oil, I will fry you for breakfast” (71). Unfazed, Brave Orchid vows to “fry you for breakfast,” a proclamation of authority over food; Brave Orchid can and will eat anything, even the powerful, hairy, grotesque beast that threatens to consume her. In a battle between two eaters, who becomes the food? Brave Orchid’s viscous verbal assault on the Sitting Ghost, an onslaught of insults and threats, demonstrates that even when physically overpowered, the mental tenacity gained by her control of food allows her to overwhelm and “eat” her opponent. The Sitting Ghost itself is ironically a strong eater too, emphasizing Brave Orchid’s victory; she explains that “it’s a good thing I stopped it feeding on me, blood and meat would have given it strength to feed on you” (73). Therefore, it is Brave Orchid’s lack of pickiness, her eagerness to eat anything she needs to, that grants her the power to defeat the Sitting Ghost.
Decades later as a mother, Brave Orchid remains just as fearless an eater, carrying her control over food from ghost-fighting talk story into daily, family life. When retelling the story of eating monkeys’ brains, Brave Orchid is not disgusted in the slightest, exclaiming, “you should have seen the faces the monkey made. The people laughed at the monkey screaming” (92). Although seemingly cruel, Brave Orchid’s unabashed storytelling reflects her perspective that anything is food; live monkeys or Sitting Ghosts, nothing is too obscure for her palate. As a response to the belief that women are a waste of food, burdensome “maggots in the rice,” Brave Orchid’s adaptation is one made for survival in China (43). In order to claim victory over hunger, she must purge her sympathies and readily consume anything if needed. Eating live monkeys is finding food, not torturing souls. This mindset contrasts strongly with Fa Mu Lan’s – to not kill animals, only eating roots and nuts – exemplifying their differences in triumphs over food. While different paths to this common goal exist, Brave Orchid attempts to enforce her perspective upon her Chinese-American children, “ ‘Eat! Eat!’ my mother would shout at our heads bent over bowls, the blood pudding awobble in the middle of the table” (92). Brave Orchid wants to share her dominance over food with her children, urging them to expand their range of food with the hope that, like her, the children could “contend against the hairy beasts whether flesh or ghost” (92). To Brave Orchid, her children must be accustomed to eating anything, from raccoons to turtles, because the power that accompanies control over food is vital to surviving in the ghost-filled, foreign land of America. Brave Orchid is a champion, a bold, fearless eater who disregards Chinese norms of food by consuming anything in her path; the power Brave Orchid gains through triumphs over food allows her to defeat all enemies – “big eaters win” (90).
In contrast to Brave Orchid’s dominance over food, Maxine’s relationship with food is unstable, representing her shifting identity and expression of power. When Maxine reflects upon the legend of Fa Mu Lan, she thinks, “If I could not-eat, perhaps I could make myself a warrior like the swordswoman who drives me. I will – I must – rise and plow the fields as soon as the baby comes out” (48). Maxine imagines herself in control of food, able to “not eat,” acknowledging that Fa Mu Lan’s power is sourced from her ability to embrace hunger. However, this scenario is unreachable for Maxine. She will never have mystical survival training amongst the white tigers, regardless of how strongly she searches for it; “My brain momentarily lost its depth perception. I was that eager to find an unusual bird (49). Maxine forfeits this aspiration, conceding to “rise and plow the fields as soon as the baby comes out,” exposing her fears that being unable to “not eat” will make Chinese female subservience her fate.
Like Maxine’s inability to attain Fa Mu Lan’s control of hunger, her attempts to replicate Brave Orchard’s management of food also ends in failure. When responding to Brave Orchid’s dishes of squid eyes, blood pudding, and strange brown masses, Maxine expresses her revulsion, clearly stating, “I would live on plastic” (92). Maxine’s preference of inedible plastic to her mother’s cooking, although stated semi-jokingly, strongly emphasizes the contrast between Brave Orchid and Maxine’s view of food. Maxine is a picky eater, incapable of Brave Orchid’s indiscriminate appetite toward anything and everything. Maxine’s American tastes diminish her desire for traditional Chinese staples; she would deny bowls of rice from the old couple in White Tigers, thinking to herself, “do you have any cookies? I like chocolate chip cookies” (21). The American portion of her identity prohibits her from inheriting Brave Orchard’s power; Maxine’s taste buds have assimilated. Therefore, Maxine, who cannot escape her reliance on society for food by overcoming starvation like Fa Mu Lan, also fails to embrace her mother’s lack of pickiness when eating.
Although Maxine does not dominate or control her food like Fa Mu Lan or Brave Orchid, she still possesses power like a woman warrior. To prove that she has overcome the ideology that women are a waste of food, distancing herself from No Name Woman, Kingston says “When I visit my family now, I wrap my American successes around me like a private shawl; I am worthy of eating the food” (52). Maxine’s “American successes,” her academic and literary triumphs, allow her to defeat the stigma that women in Chinese culture are “maggots in the rice” – declaring she indeed is “worthy of eating the food” (43). Since she cannot be Fa Mu Lan or Brave Orchid, she attains power by just being Maxine: using her written words to tell her life’s narrative in an attempt to grasp identity. While control over food allows Fa Mu Lan to behead corrupt barons and Brave Orchid to vanquish dangerous Sitting Ghosts, Maxine’s control over words empowers her to share her story, exposing the issues of gender, ethnicity, and the dubious nature of an American-Chinese identity.
By drawing parallels between control over food and possessing female power (mental and physical strength), we come to understand how conceptions of food and hunger are far more important than simply the need to nourish our bodies. Food is materialistic and elementary, but also profound, self-expressive, and vital to culture; separating groups of people from food does more than keep them hungry, it impacts their identity. This demonstrates why triumphs over the idea that women are a waste of food are so important, granting power to help fill the void created within one’s identity. Therefore, by highlighting the few women warriors who can defeat their society’s resentful attitude toward feeding them, perhaps Kingston aims to reveal a chilling dystopic tragedy: the inescapable strife of the rest of China’s women, more like No Name Woman than Fa Mu Lan, suppressed by the notion of being a burden, an unfortunate waste of food.
Words as Weapons
Stories and narratives are ubiquitous in both Chinese and American culture. These stories are often used as warnings or to teach a lesson to those who cannot or have not experienced something firsthand. The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston is a patchwork of narratives that the main character and her family experience and tell. These “talk-stories” often tell one extreme or the other: of women who are polished and scholarly leaders, or of women who disguise their female identities and/or allow their lives to be dictated by their husbands. Maxine’s personal identity is often blurred by these constant stories and they continually affect how she interprets reality. Through these stories that Maxine’s mother tells her, her mother intends to teach her that as a woman, especially a Chinese woman, she must be quiet and submissive. However, after all these talk-stories, Maxine slowly finds her voice and begins to create her own talk-stories. She imagines multiple scenarios and endings for the many characters she encounters and, eventually, imagines different turnouts for her own life. In this novel, Maxine’s life is engulfed by stories and legends that are meant to limit her as a woman. However, these very stories are what empower her in the end to not only control her own fate, but also to realize she does not have to fit into just one mold.
Maxine’s mother tells her about her aunt, the “No Name Woman,” to illustrate how women are targeted and silenced in China and how Maxine must restrain herself to avoid the persecution her aunt faced. As a result of this, Maxine recognizes the difficulty she will face for things she has no control over. Her aunt was victimized for being pregnant in a difficult time, when it’s very possible that “some man had commanded her to lie with him and be his secret evil.” (6). In ancient China, women had little voice in the paths of their lives, and if a man demanded that a woman do anything, she had no choice but to do what he said. Maxine imagines also how “the other man was not, after all, much different from her husband. They both gave orders, she followed. ‘If you tell your family, I’ll beat you. I’ll kill you. Be here next week.’ No one talked sex, ever” (6). Maxine is aware of her silence, especially when it comes to sex and sexual assault, and as a result, her lack of power and control in the situation. Her mother tells her this story as a warning, reminding her that if she is promiscuous or simply cannot hold her tongue, she will be punished severely. Her mother reminds her of this before she even begins telling the story, initially stressing, “You must not tell anyone […] what I am about to tell you” (4). Ironically, this story about a woman being silenced must also be kept quiet. Although there is no evidence of Maxine disobeying her mother’s orders to never speak about this story, she definitely does a lot of contemplating about her aunt’s possible reason to make such a seemingly huge mistake. Her imagination allows her to empathize with her aunt, realizing that her aunt likely had no command over the situation. This story is meant to scare Maxine into being obedient and quiet, however, Maxine realizes that the mother likely killed her child to protect it from the confines of society, but she still is not quite confident enough in her abilities to push the boundaries of those societal norms.
In “White Tigers,” Maxine is taught that a woman can be so much more than a wife or a slave, and uses Fa Mu Lan as a role model in her American life. Although her mother tells her “there’s no profit in raising girls. Better to raise girls than geese […]‘When you raise girls, you’re raising children for strangers,’” Maxine begins to realize that she has worth also, and can be strong warrior like Fa Mu Lan (46). She uses the story to stand up to her racist boss, and even though she gets fired, she acknowledges that “there’s work to do, ground to cover. Surely, the eighty pole fighters, though unseen, would follow me and lead me and protect me, as is the wont of ancestors” (49). She gathers strength from the story of the heroic Fa Mu Lan to fight her battles instead of being stepped all over as she was taught to be in “No Name Woman.” Maxine realizes that although she does not have physical weapons to crush obstacles like her racist bosses, but she has her words. She notes, “The swordswoman and I are not so dissimilar. What we have in common are the words at our backs. The reporting is the vengeance-not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words” (53). Fa Mu Lan teaches her that she is also able to fight back and can use her words to fight like a swordswoman and take back what is hers. She empowers herself by creating a story for herself similar to Fa Mu Lan’s that includes her as a hero, not just a silent female.
Through the story of Moon Orchid in “At the Western Palace,” Maxine sees not only how a woman can be powerful and more than just a wife or slave, but also that Moon Orchid goes insane because of her inability to communicate. When Moon Orchid arrives at her husband’s workplace, he simply tells her: “It’s a mistake for you to be here. You can’t belong. You don’t have the hardness for this country[…]You can’t alk to [my guests]. You can barely talk to me” (152-153). Moon Orchid is told that she is not American enough to belong in the life her husband is living, similar to how Maxine is told she does not fit into either culture. Her husband tells her she cannot live with them because of her lack of words. Moon Orchid eventually goes insane in her crowded new Los Angeles home, eventually ending up in a California insane asylum before passing away. This story demonstrates to Maxine that she may end up like her aunt if she continues to be silent. She also learns that she must vary her personal narratives when Brave Orchid says, “The difference between mad people and sane people is that sane people have variety when they talk story. Mad people have only one story that they talk over and over” (159). To reach fulfillment, Maxine realizes that “variety” is a must and she must avoid telling a single story about herself, specifically that she is and will continue to be a quiet submissive Chinese girl. Maxine learns that it is imperative that she find her voice and tell her many personal narratives to avoid being driven to insanity by her not only her mother’s, but also society’s norms.
“A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe” is the story that fully empowers Maxine, as she relates to the poetess Ts’ai Yen and understands that she can also fit into the cultures of both America and China, rather than being a “typical” quiet Chinese girl in America. Maxine struggled to combine the cultures of America and China her whole life, feeling too Chinese for American school but simultaneously too American for Chinese school. She grapples with silence and her journey to find her voice. Finally, she stands up to her mother’s abuse, shouting: “They tell me I’m smart[…]Even if I am stupid and talk funny and get sick, I won’t let you turn me into a slave or a wife. I’m getting out of here” (201). Maxine defies the constraints her mother has used to control and suppress her and attains a sense of self-empowerment. She realizes through the stories that she can be a successful student and person, despite her gender and even if she is “stupid and talks funny.” After her outburst, she notices that “the retarded man, the huncher, he disappeared. I never saw him again or heard what became of him” (205). It is possible that the man was another ghost of the story that haunted her, symbolizing her silence, and he served as a physical burden to her until she was able to liberate herself. Ts’ai Yen similarly had difficulty communicating with the barbarians, as whenever she attempted to talk, “they imitated her with senseless singsong words and laughed” (208). Maxine relates to this, as she sees herself as someone trying to communicate with the barbarians of America that simply mock or ignore her. However, Ts’ai Yen finally finds a song that matches the flutes of the barbarians, and although she sang in Chinese, “the barbarians understood their sadness and anger. Sometimes they thought they could catch barbarian phrases about forever wandering” (209). Like Maxine’s story, the talk-story of Ts’ai Yen begins with a woman struggling to connect with others outside of her culture, but eventually managing to sing a beautiful song that the others may not be able to understand, but can definitely appreciate. Maxine notes that her mother told her this story, and “the beginning is hers, the ending, mine” (206). This marks the full empowerment of Maxine, as she manages to weave a story meant to limit her into a story of courage and power about her own life, which she now controls and successfully meshes her separate cultures.
Talk-stories allow Maxine to realize that her own life is a story that can and must be told; she has the power to choose the ending of her life story by fitting herself into different molds similar to the ones she imagines for the characters of the stories her mother tells her. With each story she is told, she begins to empathize more and more with the main characters and can relate to them in one way or another. Through stories like “No Name Woman,” she learns that the world will be working against her no matter what. However, she is taught through stories like “Fa Mu Lan” and “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe” that despite her femininity, she can be powerful. She realizes that oftentimes words can pose as a weapon, especially for a Chinese woman who is told she must be silent or face retaliation. Although she initially struggles to make sense of the permissive American customs, she eventually discovers a way to neatly blend both cultures. Maxine finds her voice and stands up for herself, against her mother and against the standards society holds her to, and realizes she can become like Fa Mu Lan and Ts’ai Yen.
Misconstrued Narratives and the Search for A Role Model in No Name Woman
Maxine Hong Kingston’s No Name Woman explores the life of Kingston’s aunt, who had a child out of wedlock in rural China. As she doesn’t know the exact circumstances of her aunt’s story, she’s forced to imagine different versions of her aunt’s narrative. Her ultimate goal is construct a vision of her aunt that she personally identifies with, but her interpretations also present the issues that arise from stories created without possession of all the facts. Kingston tries out multiple interpretations to find one that allows her to see her aunt as a figure in whom she can relate, but in doing so her interpretations, and the lack of concrete fact and cultural context she has access to, can allow the aunt’s story to be misconstrued.
The varied interpretations of the aunt’s story stem from Kingston’s desire to see her aunt as someone with whom she can personally relate. Kingston is the product of two cultures, who feels neither wholly Chinese nor wholly American: she explains how her mother’s behavior is that of a Chinese woman, complete with “screams in public libraries or over telephones” (13), but she has tried to make herself American in spite of the Chinese environment in which she’s been raised, by “walking erect… and speaking in an inaudible voice” (13). She attempts to construct an identity for her aunt that also places the aunt at a crossroads between two worlds: she envisions her as someone who maintained her appearance in spite of the fact that “on a farm near the sea, a woman who tended her appearance reaped a reputation for eccentricity” (10). After thinking about the environment where her aunt lived, however, she reconsiders and decides that because “a woman combing her hair hexes beginnings, my aunt rarely found an occasion to look her best” (11), but in spite of that, “commonplace loveliness was not enough for my aunt. She dreamed of a lover for the fifteen days of New Year’s” (11). She is willing to change her interpretations as she takes into account outside context and how realistic her interpretations are in light of that context, but she still searches for signs that her aunt was an outlier like her amidst those stories that she deems more “accurate”.
Kingston’s identity as someone stuck between cultures, however, plays a significant part in the potential misconstruction of her aunt’s story. As she is the child of immigrants and wasn’t born in China herself, she experiences some distancing from her culture, and that lack of knowledge can lead her to incorrect interpretations of her aunt’s legacy. Everything she knows about Chinese culture comes from what she has been told; she finds herself wondering “how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family… from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?” (6). She also discusses her own personal physical expression and how she struggles with “making attraction selective” (Kingston, 8), so that she’s attractive only to the Chinese boys in her school. Kingston has difficulty reconciling her Chinese and American identities so that she can remain true to her Chinese heritage, a heritage which she doesn’t have a full and complete understanding of, while still accounting for her American upbringing, and that lack of clear knowledge regarding either culture aids in further distorting her aunt’s story: such a story requires cultural context that Kingston does not have. While Kingston’s identity as a product of two cultures is her primary motivation for trying to learn the truth about her aunt and construct the most realistic interpretation of her story possible, in order to depict her aunt as an outlier with whom she can relate, her multicultural identity acts as a hinderance as well as an inspiration. Her lack of complete access to Chinese culture aids in the wrongful interpretation of her aunt’s narrative, because she possibly neglects important aspects of Chinese culture.
The shame the aunt’s story brought her family, as a result of cultural taboos, allows her narrative to be forgotten in the larger context of the narrator’s family, which bars Kingston from accessing information about her and motivates her to unveil her story. The aunt’s story is in danger of disappearing from family records entirely; when Kingston’s mother tells her the story, she prefaces it by saying that she “must not tell anyone… what I am about to tell you” (3). Her mother only broaches the topic because Kingston has gotten old enough that she herself can get pregnant; the story is introduced as a cautionary tale. She quickly establishes what she knows to be the truth in sharing what her mother told her and then delving into her own interpretations. She shares for certain only be that her aunt had an illegitimate child, that her actions caused a raid on their family home, and that the aunt killed herself and the baby in shame. This rendering of her as nothing but a cautionary tale and a story of disgrace prevents her from being seen as a person at all: she is reduced solely to what she did and the shame she brought her family, and any other memories the family may have of her are erased from memory because Chinese cultural values render her actions disgraceful. Her own family rejected her; Kingston explains that “my mother spoke about the raid as if she had been there, when she and my aunt, a daughter-in-law to another household, should not have been living together at all” (8). Her aunt was chased from her in-laws’ house and forced back home because her actions were so despicable in the eyes of her husband’s family. Without solid fact, the aunt’s story could likely disappear beneath a sea of possible interpretations and “what if’s”, where her actual experience is completely lost. The fear of disappearing is one that Kingston imagines her aunt to have had in the moments before giving birth and committing suicide: she imagines that “the black well of sky and stars went out and out and out forever; her body and and her complexity seemed to disappear… an agoraphobia rose in her, speeding higher and higher… she would not be able to contain it” (16). The aunt is terrified of slipping into her surroundings to never be found again, a fear that’s legitimized by the way her family treats her following her death: their answer to the problem she brings is to completely ignore the fact that she ever existed. Kingston alone “devotes pages of paper to her” (19) in an attempt to honor her memory and to create a relatable figure, but the taboo surrounding the story blocks her from crucial information and, as a result, leads to speculations that can harm her aunt’s legacy.
Kingston searches for the most accurate interpretation of her aunt’s story she can find, but her interpretations can damage her aunt’s legacy by potentially ignoring important aspects of her story. She reverses her belief that her aunt was sexually promiscuous when she realizes that she “[doesn’t] know any women like that” (10). She is willing to acknowledge that she doesn’t have all of the information required to construct a definite story, and adjusts her interpretations as she takes into account additional information, but she still searches for a person similar to herself, and says that “unless I see her life branching into mine, she gives me no ancestral help” (10). Kingston explores the possibility that her aunt was raped, that “women in the old China did not choose” (7) and that her aunt’s rapist was likely an everyday, predatory presence in her life. While this is absolutely a possibility, considering Kingston’s knowledge of Chinese culture, this possibility cannot be regarded as a certainty because of Kingston’s lack of access to her aunt’s full story. The same is true for Kingston’s speculation that her aunt chose the father of her child in an act of sexual autonomy, that she chose “warm eyes or a soft voice or a slow walk… a line, a brightness” (9), and that her aunt was “wild” and “kept rollicking company” (9). While the idea that Kingston’s aunt was sexually promiscuous and chose a partner of her own free will is as valid as the idea that she was raped (while one option may better fit into traditional Chinese culture, as there is no solid factual information on the subject, both options are possible), both interpretations can deeply damage the aunt’s story and any struggles that she may have faced. The issue does not lie in which story is true and whether Kingston presents any story as truth; it lies in how varying interpretations can wrongfully depict the aunt’s experiences. If she was raped, painting her as sexually promiscuous can hurt her memory by undermining the physical and emotional violence she experienced and the way she was punished for it. If she slept with her baby’s father of her own volition, painting her as a rape victim undermines her sexual autonomy in a society where a sexually free woman would have been condemned, therefore discrediting her choice and any struggles she may have faced because of it. As Kingston searches for an explanation that both seems accurate to her and allows her to see herself in an aunt, she explores possibilities that could damage her aunt’s legacy and discredit struggles that she faced.
Maxine Hong Kingston provides multiple interpretations of her aunt’s story in No Name Woman as she attempts to see herself in the mysterious dead woman, but those varying interpretations, stemming from a lack of concrete information regarding her aunt’s situation and a lack of direct experience with Chinese culture, damage the aunt’s narrative even more than it already has been by her family. The taboo surrounding her story prevents it from being told, forcing instead multiple interpretations that can incorrectly depict her experience and erase her from the pages of family history. In her search to find an ancestor in whom she can relate, Kingston’s interpretations of her aunt’s story depict what can happen when a narrative is misconstrued.