Ghosts in Maxine Hong Kingston’s Novels
Maxine Hong Kingston, born to Chinese immigrants, was born and raised in Stockton, California. In The Woman Warrior, we get to see up close the experiences she had growing up as a first-generation Chinese-American girl and how both cultures shaped her. Kingston uses ghost throughout her novel to tie both supernatural elements and reality together. Ghost that are depicted through Kingston’s novel stray far away from the typical gothic ghost depicted in horror movies. Kingston’s ghost are depicted as social, cultural, and history. They are at times unanswered questions and unexplained things that are found in both China and the United States. A ghost can also be depicted as a place one that someone hails from or the memories of one’s family country of origin.
We are first introduced to ghost in “no name woman”, which is dedicated to her father’s sister who Kingston was unaware of for most of her life. The tale of her forgotten aunt is used as a warning story that is told to her as a young girl by her mother Brave Orchid. A name was never given to Kingston’s aunt in the novel which depicts her as “ghost” like. The no-name was shown by her family for falling pregnant when her husband was away in America for years. As an outcast her family gave no attention to her, never looked at never talked to, just an unseen figure within the family’s home. The tale was told to Kingston as warning to be “pure.” Her mother reminds her that the villagers are watching, even though they are thousands miles away from the village in China. The villagers play as an important role in young Kingston’s life, no matter what she chose to do there would always be “ghost” watching her.
In this part of the novel young Kingston can be seen as ghost like herself. Her mother scolds her demanding her to stay staying quiet about the story, to never speak of it to anyone. By doing so a sense of silence is instilled within Kingston, following her throughout her life. In A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe, a young Kingston tortures a girl who never speaks. Much like her aunt Kingston never gives a name to the quiet girl. She hated everything about the girl, “ I looked into her face so I could hate it close up. She wore black bangs, cheeks were pink and white.” It is believed that the silent girl is actually Kingston herself. Though a young Kingston has the capability to speak both in Chinese and in English is very shy and timid she does not speak in social interactions for many years. The silent girl is a depiction of her insecurities, much like the quiet girl her insecurities habitually followed her around.
In White Tigers, even the fierce warrior Fa Mu Lan could not escape ghost. Throughout her novel, Kingston slips in her criticism for sexual inequality problems and the standards of what it means to be a “woman.” The since/idea of femininity hangs over Fa Mu Lan. After war she comes back to her parent-in-law’s home and kneels in front of them and proclaims “I will stay with you, doing frame and housework, and giving you more sons.” Though she is the fiercest warrior in China, who has fought countless battles, commanded an army, and is highly respected by the emperor Fa Mu Lan falls into the role of a typical wife. Her life as a soldier will soon be forgotten , a memory to live the rest of its days hovering around in her brain.
Kingston dedicates an entire part of the novel to her mother Brave Orchid. Before coming to America, Brave Orchid took the money that was sent to her by her husband and used it to go to school to study medicine. While in the dormitory tales of a haunted room began to spread around striking fear into students. Brave Orchid was not one to fall into fear over a ghost, “most ghost are only nightmares.” One night she decides to enter the “haunted” room to entertain her fellow floormates. During her stay “something alive” climbed the foot of the bed and sat on her chest. The sitting ghost is different from the other ghost that Kingston wrote into the novel. This ghost takes shape of an animal-like creature with thick short hair who spreads itself across her body rendering her is a paralyzed state. Though she could not reach her knife Brave Orchid finds other ways to overcome this ghost. Her main focus was not letting it have control over her mind, she scorns the ghost in hopes of belittling it. Though the silent ghost is written as a literal figure we can interpret the ghost as a prefigure of her struggle with American culture. When Brave Orchid arrived in New York in January, 1940, the world was covered with ghost that she could barely breathe. By referring things as ghost she is referring to unknown things to her such as Bus ghost, taxi ghost, police ghost, and meter reader ghost. Blah blah states that In the United States the ghost is the commanding metaphor for white people—Japanese, Filipino, Mexican ghosts also appear but ‘[s]ometimes ghosts put on such mundane disguises, they aren’t particularly interesting.” Blah blah argues that what makes the white ghost interesting is that unlike Chinese ghost they do not listen to reason or tradition.
Chinese in the United States can be seen as ghost as well. In “At the Western Palace” Moon Orchid, Brave Orchid sister comes to America. Her like other women were left behind by their husbands who left to find work and were never sent for. Moon Orchid is depicted as a “tiny, tiny lady, very thin with little flickering hands,[. . .] white hair [and] a face all wrinkled” (109) She is frightened to confront her husband that abandoned her many years ago. After arriving to the states Moon Orchid’s husband married another but still continued to help her and their daughter out financially. Moon Orchid is a ghost of her husband’s Chinese past for he has chosen to forget. He has taken up a new life in the states and refuses to have his life/success jeopardize by a thing of the past. By learning English and had went through training that was much different from Chinese tradition, Moon Orchid’s husband became ghost like himself. After a series of mental instability and a constant fear of “Mexican Ghost”, Moon Orchid is checked into an insane asylum where soon after she dies. Much like Kingston’s other aunt the No Name Woman, Moon Orchid weathers away to a vague memory haunting Kingston. Women with devastating circumstances that was never given a dream ending.
As a Chinese-American daughter, Kingston exposes the harsh masculinity and gender roles that hover over her and other women. Purity is a recurring “ghost” that we see throughout the novel. The novel begins with Brave Orchid telling her daughter a horror story of which her aunt’s life ended. Her pregnancy from man to which was not her husband caused her demise. Though us as readers are unsure if she fell pregnant by rape or a secret love affair no blame was ever put upon the man. Brave Orchid’s character is quite interesting being that she originally did depend on her husband’s money and did use it to complete school, she did what must women were never given the opportunity to do and that was to be independent. After being top of her class and earning her degree she lived a small part of her life being highly respected in her village as a physician. When she moves to the United States to live with her husband there we see a replay of her taking on gender roles. She is unable to be a practicing physician so she works with her husband at the laundromat he owns. Brave Orchid once again finds herself taking on motherly duties after her children are born. Though she is a headstrong character she does not uphold the same respect in New York as she did back in the village. She’s seen as a wife not as a degree-holding powerhouse. We also see the power that men in the novel attain. Though Moon Orchid’s husband is in another continent he still holds power over her. He is the soul provider for her and her daughter, everything that Moon Orchid has is because of him including her daughter. Though she lives a lavish life she is doomed to live a life as a widow, her husband’s name consuming her, she will never be able to have a lover or get remarried.
Ghost are prevalent throughout Kingston’s young life and also others around her. Even as an adult she still is haunted by ghost and the expectations they hold. Kingston breaks down the boundaries of what ghost are and the effect they have other the people they haunt. They are used to depict things that are not seen as traditional Chinese and things that are unexplainable. China itself and the culture it possesses is a ghost that constantly haunts every single character in this novel. Brave Orchid will never let go of the memory of China and will forever call it home even though she will never be able to return.
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