The Woman Warrior
The Woman Warrior and Zeus
Once upon a time, there was a man who fought for the people of his town and experienced a journey filled with danger, thrill, and fearless acts of love. This story is about a hero who is advised and betrayed by gods and goddesses, and of his adventures to find his way free of his prison and his many acts of bravery. The daughter of Zeus, a great and true friend of the mighty Kaveh, helped him and his men through their hectic adventure. As Kaveh laid tied in the Volcano of Aetna, he realized if he or any of the other prisoners tried to move they would be spewed with burning hot lava or worse eaten by Typhon. Kaveh needed to come up with a way to help get the others and himself free. He was getting desperate and thought that maybe the only way out would be by the help of a god, but he thought that not possible for it was the king of the gods who imprisoned him there. “Father you cannot punish him for trying to save the woman he loves and all those innocent people you have imprisoned with him should not be there,” Athena said to the King of the gods.
“You do not command me, he has defied my power and now he will suffer the rest of his existence next to that terrorous giant and he will see all of those innocent people die because of him,” said Zeus, the god of lightning. While Kaveh was thinking of a way out he began to think about how he got there in the first place. Kaveh was in love with a beautiful maiden named Diana. She was loved by many of the men in Athens. One of Diana’s many admirers, King Pyris, was very vain and wanted Diana all to himself, he sent one of his guards to kidnap her and stick her in a tower surrounded by a river filled with monsters.
Kaveh was a renowned warrior and he would stop at nothing to save the woman he loved or anybody at all. Kaveh and some of his warrior friends set off to find and rescue the maiden. Kaveh planned on challenging King Pyris to a duel over the maiden’s hand in marriage. Kaveh knew there would be problems because King Pyris was favored greatly by Zeus. The warrior, being strong did not lose hope. On their way Kaveh heard the loud voice of Zeus, “If you hurt King Pyris you and your men will be punished for the rest of your lives.” Kaveh did not want to endanger his friends and he sent them home. As soon as he sent them home, he continued his adventure. After a few minutes of traveling alone, Kaveh encountered himself in a tough limbo. There were three upper class men. Each man was strangling a person with a knife to their neck. The men had a princess, knight and a poor servant, The three men, gave Kaveh a simple decision, he either saved one of the prisoners or they all died. Kaveh, being the swift warrior he is, was able to save them all with one fabulous move. Leaving the three men with knives on the ground unconscious, Kaveh let the three prisoners go.
Kaveh found the beautiful maiden and fought King Pyris. They battled for two days when finally Kaveh killed the evil king. Tired but a winner, Kaveh was able to go home, with the love of his life, Diana by his side. Once they were back in Athens, the great warrior fell into a deep sleep and awoke tied in the volcano with all of his men. He cried to Zeus, “These men did no harm to King Pyris, I killed him let my men go.” That was how he ended up tied and miserable under the volcano with his warriors. The sun was at the highest it could be in the sky. The birds were loudly singing, but a cheerful tune was not heard, but a scary and violent tune was. All of them missed their home and families and Kaveh deeply desired to be reunited with his love Diana. Just as they started to give up hope Athena sent them a crow. Kaveh saw the crow and knew the blue-eyed goddess had sent the crow to save them.
The crow flew above them like a strong force using the intense wind and his dark shadow creeped over the red hot volcano like a lunar eclipse, the crow’s mouth held something that shimmered as a sword’s reflection in the sun. As the owl got closer Kaveh saw the crow carried a small dagger. The crow dropped it and speedly Kaveh caught it with his hands tied and he cut them loose. He carefully untied the rest of his friends. They made a plan to get out of the volcano by making the giant Typhon sneeze and ride on the goey and nasty snot up and out of the volcano.
With Athena’s protection, and loyal friendship to Kaveh, they made it safely out of the volcano. Kaveh and his men were tired and hungry, yet were determined to make it home without stopping. While Zeus was still resolute to put dangers and delay them from getting home, Athena protected and sent them help and gifts to assist their journey home.As the moon began to appear and the birds were no longer heard, Kaveh and his men arrived in Athens. Athens did not have a king and Kaveh was crowned king for his bravery and his selflessness. Kaveh learned what the meaning of true bravery really is. On his grand adventure he was able to mature, respect and help everyone, but most importantly, symbolized what a true warrior is. Kaveh married Diana, and Athena convinced Zeus to forgive Kaveh and let him live his life. Kaveh ruled a long and prosperous reign and lived happily with wife and many children.
Mother – Daughter Relationships in the Woman Warrior Novel
The bond between mother and daughter is an especially sacred one. However, the bond between Maxine Hong Kingston and her own mother in The Woman Warrior is like that of a roller coaster with happy highs and crashing lows. As Chinese-Americans, there is the question as to what values do they hold onto from their pasts and which ones do they leave behind. Part of me thinks that Maxine’s mother is restless from living in America; for so long she wanted to go back where she was independent rather than doing hard labor. In some ways, the way Maxine views her mother matures just as much as she and the women Maxine imagines. Additionally, the bond she and her mother have shift and change given their different cultures that eventually becomes a reconciliation of their opposing upbringings with the final section of The Woman Warrior—“A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe”.
From the beginning, Maxine’s mom hopes to protect her daughter, though her methods are a bit unorthodox. Her telling of the forbidden story of her dead aunt, the actual cutting of Maxine’s tongue, and the language Maxine grows up to hearing particularly about women and daughters shape how she views her native land China. In contrast, Maxine and her mother are alike in more ways than one—Brave Orchid does travel and leave her village just as Maxine. The only difference is that Brave Orchid goes back to help the village considering her background knowledge of Western medicine and Eastern practices. Sadly, extended life in America has made Brave Orchid bitter about her stay; referring to American life as Barbarian life and not wanting her children to leave. Her views reflect upon how Maxine’s mother treats Maxine, as she is half-Chinese and half “ghost.” (97) The way the mother and daughter connect and reform their bond are through music and stories.
The way Maxine’s mother is introduced is through the sharing of a forbidden story. Stories morph into a recurring theme where Maxine places herself in the stories to make sense of how she is to communicate with her mom, considering she is the negative image of a daughter and clashes with the ideals of Chinese womanhood. It is through the stories, especially of Fa Mu Lan, where Maxine becomes the woman warrior (20). By doing this, she follows in her mother’s footsteps—arguably a woman warrior in her own right. By the time the final section comes into play, Maxine and the reader are able to correlate and connect the other stories with Brave Orchid’s and Maxine’s lives.
With shared misery about their own lives, sense of femininity and womanhood, and knowledge that both had to venture out into the world, Maxine and her mother are able to grow closer as mother and daughter. It is in their misery and a shared need to fit in their new home when the two come together to share a talk story (206). This talk story helps to bridge the cultural gap between the two while easing the difficulty in communicating. American life is no longer seen as much as a Barbarian lifestyle, but a new way to integrate oneself into Chinese culture, something Maxine states “translated well.” (208, 209)
Depiction of Sexism in the Woman Warrior Novel
Sexism has been prevalent in societies all over for as long as one can remember. Not only is it obvious in societies, but it is also visible in literature texts made in all different parts of the world. One of the texts we studied in class in which this societal problem is seen throughout its entirety is “The Woman Warrior” by Maxine Hong Kingston. This memoir is divided into five chapters that almost explicitly discuss the many forms of adversity that women face throughout their lives. Maxine Hong Kingston mainly describes how she personally had to deal with sexism and how even after it negatively effected her, she was able to overcome it. This memoir is easily comparable to the lives of many women today that are capable of achieving great success in all forms because they are able to overcome sexism and femininity. Ultimately, the negative classifications of women in society create a barrier that prevents them from being a “woman warrior,” but can be used as motivation to overcome it.
Maxine Hong Kingston dealt with sexism for the better part of her life. Surprisingly, she was exposed to a fair amount of this sexism from her own family and close relatives. Maxine tells us about one explicit experience with sexism at her own dinner table. She was dining at her great-grandfather and great uncle’s house when right before dinner her great-grandfather turned to all six of his grandchildren and said, “Maggots! Where are my grandsons? I want grandsons? Give me grandsons! Maggots!,” showing that she experienced sexism from people that are supposed to love and care for her (Maxine Hong Kingston 5). Maxine’s great-grandfather was yelling at his six granddaughters simply because they were girls. This quote undoubtedly displays his sexist outlook towards women because he made it clear that his six granddaughters mean nothing to him, and that he is extremely upset that he does not have any grandsons. To make matters worse, Maxine was also told about her own father’s sexist views towards women. For example, Ms. Kingston recalls her mother saying, “When your father lived in China, he refused to eat pastries because he didn’t want to eat the dirt the women kneaded from between their fingers,” showing that even though sexism was prevalent in their society, Ms. Kingston could not even turn to her relatives for support (4). With this being said, Maxine used these comments as motivation to fight unfair treatment of women and it quickly causes conflict within her family. Even though this memoir was published in 1975, there is still examples of sexism in today’s society. One major example is the wage gap between men and women in the workplace. A study of the salaries of both women and men doctors was recorded and showed that, “Women earn 71 percent of men’s wages,” demonstrating how society views women as being worth less than men (Claire Cain Miller). In the end, just like Maxine faced sexism everywhere she turned, the same is happening to women all around the world no matter the time period.
All of the sexism that surrounded Maxine throughout her life negatively effected her in many ways. One of the ways being surrounded by sexism negatively effected Maxine is that she was deserted by her family. Due to the fact that she was standing up for what she believed, a majority of her family betrayed her on her journey and even felt ashamed to be related to her. This left her on her own for a large portion of her life and was only comforted by the idea that fighting against sexism would make it easier for others in the future and the fact that she knew she could be an amazing individual. Ms. Kingston also shared in her memoir that she would constantly tell herself, “I’m not a bad girl, I’m not a bad girl. I’m not a bad girl.” I might as well have said, “I’m not a girl,” proving that she grew up feeling that being born a girl was set-back (2). She began to let herself believe that being a woman was bad by default and she realized that because she was a woman she would be treated much differently than men, even though her gender was completely out of her control. Another example of sexism negatively effecting Maxine was when her mother warned her of her “forgotten aunt.” Maxine’s aunt was forgotten because she betrayed the family by committing adultery and having another mans child. Maxine’s mother states, “Don’t let your father know that I told you [about your forgotten aunt]. He denies her. Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don’t humiliate us. You wouldn’t like to be forgotten as if you had never been born. The villagers are watchful,” showing that as a woman, Maxine has to make sure she acts appropriately at all times because people will always be watching (1). In this case, sexism applied a lot of pressure to this “forgotten aunt” that ultimately caused her to drown herself in a well with her newborn baby. Finally, according to one study on the demoralization factor of sexism, “Sexism also creates an environment where women fear that their performance will confirm the stereotypes against women,” demonstrating that sexism undoubtedly effects all women negatively (Sydelle John). Not only is the specific woman targeted by the sexism demoralized, but all of the surrounded women that overhear the comments or harassment are also effected.
Maxine, setting an example for all women, chose to fight against sexism instead of becoming a victim of it. Basically, instead of surrendering to societies sexist views, Maxine made an effort to do all she could to go against it and achieve what no one thought a woman could. In addition, although everyone in her family attempts to forget her aunt because of the shame she brought onto the family, Maxine calls her “my forerunner.” Instead of alienating her aunt from the family, Maxine ultimately praises her for taking a stand against the sexist traditions by not allowing herself to become a slave to society. Another way Maxine went against societal customs to fight against sexism was by purposely doing bad in school. Women are expected to get good grades and focus in school for, “The good of my future husband’s family, not my own,” showing that everything a woman does is ultimately for someone other than herself (2). In response to Maxine’s realization, she began to do poorly in school in order to go against a woman’s customs in society. By doing so, she showed everyone that she makes her own choices that will directly effect herself as opposed to directly effecting the men in society. Maxine set an example that many other women follow today. There have been many other movements to fight against sexism since the publication of this memoir. For example, in the book “Enlightened Sexism” by Susan J. Douglas, she discusses other ways women have tried to cure the world of sexism or at the minimum attempted to gain awareness about the issue. One example Susan uses it a movement in the early 1990’s that was called Riot Grrrl. This was a rock movement that associated punk with feminism in order to educate listeners to sensitive sexist subjects such as rape and female empowerment (Susan Douglas 45). These movements combined with dedication will undoubtedly help women overcome the nightmare of sexism. In the end, the idea of sexism can be pressured and conquered by women willing to overcome the challenges societal customs impose on them.
In conclusion, although sexism is unfortunately a prevalent custom of society, it can be conquered. Maxine Hong Kingston descriptively discusses how sexism played a major role in her life and how at times, it made her feel worthless. Maxine’s experiences also directly relate to similar experiences women around the world are facing at any given moment. Towards the end of her memoir, Maxine discusses how she used sexism to motivate her to move past it and accomplish her own set goals. Maxine hopes that this mindset along with the other movements being created to fend off sexism from the world will help women be the individual they want to become and not what society attempts to force them to become.
The Woman Warrior: a Personal Novel of Maxine Hong Kingston’
Maxine Hong Kingston explores her family history and cultural and personal identity in her highly acclaimed novel The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts through the unique application of melding myth and reality to create a fantastical autobiography. With recurring themes such as sexism against women, Chinese-American cultural differences, family ideals, and unfamiliarity, Kingston showcases her exploration of her family’s cultural history through mixing myth and memory in order to discover her personal identity as a person under the minority titles of being both Chinese American and a girl. Kingston uses her womanhood, adjusting to the American settings, familial and cultural values, and her relationship with her mother as the cultural and social influences of her work to help discover what her identity is.
As a girl herself born to a culture that treats women as inferior, Kingston’s womanhood plays an important role in her personal identity and writing. “White Tigers” in The Woman Warrior accurately depicts Kingston’s dealing with her womanhood. Half of this chapter focuses on Kingston’s embodiment of the Chinese mythical woman warrior Fa Mulan while the following half focuses on Kingston’s actual childhood. In the childhood portion, Kingston explains how she lived the life of an oppressed girl where her Chinese immigrant family and emigrant neighbors viewed girls as shameful, which serves as one of the social and cultural influences of her writing and her life. Kingston mentions how the emigrant neighbors would comment that “feeding girls is feeding cowbirds” or how “there’s no profit in raising girls. Better to raise geese than girls” that her parents were ashamed to take her and her sisters out together (Kingston 46). When her Great-Uncle asked her and her siblings who wants to go out for shopping, he would yell “no girls!” and leave her and her sisters hanging (Kingston 47). It is apparent that Kingston had to deal with the sexism of her culture, and her negative depiction of the sexist treatment on her for being a girl in “White Tigers” suggests her disapproval of this cultural ideal. In contrast, the Mulan portion showcases Kingston’s, as the narrator, self-embodiment as the woman warrior of Fa Mulan. This fantastical embodiment is meant to mirror her struggle as an oppressed Chinese girl and convey her desire for the approval, respect, and acceptance that she did not receive in reality. In the Mulan portion, the narrator is trained to be a woman warrior to lead an army. Upon return to her village after her training, she is welcomed with gratitude like a man would. She notes that her parents” killed a chicken and steamed it whole, as if they were welcome home a son,” and that her family “surrounded [her] with so much love” (Kingston 33). Her parents carve a message for revenge on her back as a way to honor her sacrifice. Her mother notes that through this carving on the narrator’s back, “wherever [she goes], whatever happens to [her], people will know [her parents’ and her] sacrifice,” meaning that honor and responsibility are placed on this woman shoulders just like a male soldier would have; her parents respect her enough to give her this responsibility (Kingston 34). In addition, as the narrator prepares to leave for war, she mentions that as she puts on her men’s clothes and armor on, the villagers would comment “how beautiful [she] looks” (Kingston 36). The Kingston’s woman warrior persona in this section of “White Tigers” serves as a foil to her actual life as a normal, oppressed Chinese American girl. In contrast to her woman warrior fantasy, she doesn’t feel that she is as paramount in her real life. Her fantasy depicts her wishes for the acceptance and relevance among her family that she would feel as a female soldier. With that being said, “White Tigers” is a clear depiction of Chinese womanhood through Kingston’s perspective. Through this merging of fantasy and reality, Kingston “explores the nature of Chinese womanhood in terms of its potentials as well as its limitations” (Lan). One could argue, however, that even in Kingston’s Mulan fantasy Chinese women are still bound under national and cultural values. According to Feng Lan’s account in “The Female Individual and the Empire: A Historicist Approach to Mulan and Kingston’s Woman Warrior,” Kingston’s woman warrior story captures “the dilemma of the Chinese female caught in the contradiction between individual pursuit and communal commitment under specific historical circumstances–a dilemma that sheds light on the shared identity of Kingston’s Mulan and the canonized ‘Confucian’ Mulan, both of whom end up serving as the tool for the grand scheme of national salvation” (Lan). Although Kingston embodies a more respected, powerful figure in the woman warrior fantasy, she still lives among the cultural ideal that women are inferior and treated like slaves–women’s feet are still bound, the baron retorts that “girls are maggots in the rice,” and even the narrator says to her parents-in-laws that she will stay with them after finishing her soldier duties “doing farmwork and housework, and giving [them] more sons” (Kingston 45). The similarity between the fantasy and reality is the Chinese ideal that women are shameful and meant to be slaves, while the difference between that fantasy and reality shows Kingston’s individual goal of gaining recognition and respect despite that shame on Chinese women in both stories. This individual desire depicts Kingston’s disapproval of this social and cultural influence of oppression of women in Chinese society and conveys part of her personal identity–the strive to become a woman respected by many especially in her own family and culture despite sexist views.
Kingston’s Chinese American nationality is another influence in her writing in the sense that she is stuck between two worlds: a country she was born in but cautious about because of its “ghosts,” and a country she only knows about through her mother’s stories but has never even seen before. Kingston takes on the usual Asian American immigrant situation where she is a child of first generation parents stuck between her native home and her parents’ native home. This situation puts her in a position where she has to somehow demonstrate her true Chinese loyalty and understand what her Chinese culture is despite being a second generation child adjusting to America’s “ghosts,” bigotry, and unfamiliarity. For example, in “Tongue Tied,” Kingston notes that she, along with second generation Chinese Americans, “can’t sing ‘land where [their] fathers died,” and that her mother says that “[they], like the ghosts, have no memories.” As Ruth Maxy explained in “The East is Where Things Begin: Writing the Ancestral Homeland in Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston,” the second generation Chinese American children’s “lack of lived Chinese memories–and the first’ generation’s varying ability to explain their past clearly–leads to conflict and confusion about what they believe” (Maxy). This is Kingston’s issue–trying to understand a country that she is supposed to honor, but cannot understand because she and the second generation are born in a new world, and therefore have no real memories of any relation to China, only stories they hear. And as they try to make sense of a country based on the stories and memories that their parents dump on them, they also have to “make sense of their own lives in America” (Maxy). For Kingston, she mentions in “Tongue Tied” that it was when she “found out [she] had to talk that school became a misery, that the silence became a misery” because of her lack of comfort with English and with being a minority among the students. Her tongue was tied by her responsibility to China since Chinese was the language to be spoken at home. Kingston was not alone–she also mentions that the other Chinese students “did not talk either, so [she] knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl.” In American school, she would be silent, while in Chinese school, she and the other students “chanted together, voices rising and falling, loud and soft”; this contrast of her loudness between American school and Chinese school displays Kingston’s self struggle to make sense of her American side while being tied by the language and memories of her Chinese side. Her bicultural self-identity grants her the “aims of combating racism; community building; and cultural self-empowerment through giving a voice to the first and second generation” (Maxy). Kingston must carry on the responsibility to establish her personal, individual voice that represents the first generation’s old country and the second generation’s new country.
Lastly, Kingston’s relationship with her mother plays a huge role in exploring her identity. Her mother, labeled as Brave Orchid in The Woman Warrior, plays the role of a mother to Kingston, her storyteller of China’s memories, and almost like a foil to Kingston. It is clear that the narrator in The Woman Warrior yearns for her mother’s approval and acceptance of her since her mother always favored her siblings over her and was never really fond of her; in the reality portion of “White Tigers,” the narrator tells Brave Orchid that she got straight A’s, to which her mother brushes off by just telling her “a true story about a girl who saved her village” (Kingston 45). In the end of “Shaman,” her mother comes into her room and wishes that her daughter would come back to her parents but accepts her daughter’s decision to not stay, which shows the approval from her mother that the narrator always wanted. Her mother explains that “there’s only one thing that [she] wants anymore. [She] wants [the narrator to stay with the family], not wandering like a ghost from Romany,” so that then, she and her father “[are] happy” (Kingston 107); from this, we can see how her mother truly feels love and affection for her daughter. After the narrator explains why she cannot stay with them, her mother still accepts her decision, saying that “it’s better, then, for [her] to stay away” and that “[she] can come for visits” (Kingston 108). This truly satisfies the narrator and lets her know of her mother’s approval and affection for her that she longed for; she explains that “a weight lifted from [her],” and that “the world is somehow lighter” (Kingston 108). It’s as if Kingston has fulfilled a lifelong goal of being accepted and acknowledged by her mother. This scene insinuates the mother’s role as a foil to Kingston since throughout the book her mother was conveyed to be one who did not always favor her, but instead showed affection in this scene which indicates the narrator’s yearning for Brave Orchid’s acceptance. Her mother’s story telling also plays a role in her writing. Throughout the novel we can see that Brave Orchid talks stories of family history, Chinese stories, and stories of the American “ghosts that are meant to define the bicultural self-identities of her second generation children. According to Jeane Barker-Nunn’s “Telling the Mother’s Story: History and Connection in the Autobiographies of Maxine Hong Kingston and Kim Chernin,” Barker-Nunn comments that although Kingston “must break [her] mother’s views of the world in order to enter their own American lives, [she] also conveys a profound and moving sense of the continuities and connections they share” (Barker-Nunn). By this quote, it is implied that Kingston, though on a journey to discover her individual voice, discovers connections with her mother in the sense that she feels ties with China through her mother’s stories. This exploration of self-identity mixed with the cultural identity instilled in her mother’s native country shows “a vision in which the lines between past and present, self and other are slippery and overlapping. Kingston sets out to writer her own story and finds herself telling her mother’s” (Barker-Nunn). These all suggest that as Kingston’s identity, along with her American experiences, is formed and influenced by her mother’s storying telling of memories; in “No Name Woman,” for example, her mother’s story telling of her no-name aunt who was condemned by her own family for her adultery and suicide relates to the sexism instilled in the family, Kingston’s womanhood, and her knowledge of a family member she has never seen from a country she has never seen. Kingston’s words are influenced by her mother’s words in the path to her self-identity.
Kingston’s other acclaimed novel Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book tells the story of Wittman Ah Sing, an English major who graduated from UC Berkeley and experiences in San Francisco in the 1960s. Wittman draws away from the stereotypical Chinese character, getting Cs at Berkeley, being tall and capturing a “hippy-style.” The novel follows Wittman trying to find out who he is as a Chinese American and as Wittman Ah Sing as he tries to make a living in San Francisco. As Jonna Mackin mentions in “Split Infinities: The Comedy of Performative Identity in Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey,” Wittman has to “solve how to relate ‘Chinese’ to ‘American’ in a culturally doubled but nationally singular version of citizenship” (Mackin). This account of Wittman’s goal in Tripmaster Monkey is the very essence of Kingston’s goal of discovering her self-identity–the obligation to connect Chinese culture with American culture as a bicultural Chinese American second generation child. In the novel, Wittman attempts to utilize the words of others to define who he is—his “ironic self-reflection as a Chinese American who has to use others’ words to express his own difference” (Mackin). Wittman’s love interest, Nanci, tells Wittman that “[he] sound black,” to which Wittman asserts that “monkey see, monkey do?” (Kingston 32). This shows Wittman’s attempt to become a new, different kind of man, employing a different voice or persona into himself to help define who he is. The different voices he uses are those derived from American culture, therefore Wittman, as he struggles to discover what it means to be Chinese, overlaps his American persona with his Chinese persona. This is directly related to Kingston’s experience of juggling the American life and the Chinese life, whether it’s through the different voices of America like in Wittman’s personas, or through the different voices of native, historical China like in Brave Orchid’s words.
Kingston’s writing is the epitome of a bicultural writer born to the second generation of Chinese immigrants trying to make sense of two worlds while dealing with personal identity issues such as her womanhood and her relationship with her mother. From her writing, one can see her exploration of her self-identity through social and cultural influences such as the sexism instilled in her Chinese family, the Chinese American struggle of adjusting to America while having ties to her parents’ native country, and her mother. Kingston achieves the goal of giving her an individual voice that is representative of the first and second generation of Chinese Americans, women oppressed under sexism, and her mother.
The role of American women during World War II
American women played important roles during World War II, both at home and in uniform. Not only did they give their sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers to the war effort, they gave their time, energy, and some even gave their lives.
Reluctant to enter the war when it erupted in 1939, the United States quickly committed itself to total war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. That commitment included utilizing all of America’s assets—women included. The Axis powers, on the other hand, were slow to employ women in their war industries. Hitler derided Americans as degenerate for putting their women to work. The role of German women, he said, was to be good wives and mothers and to have more babies for the Third Reich.
When the war began, quickie marriages became the norm, as teenagers married their sweethearts before their men went overseas. As the men fought abroad, women on the Home Front worked in defense plants and volunteered for war-related organizations, in addition to managing their households. In New Orleans, as the demand for public transportation grew, women even became streetcar “conductorettes” for the first time. When men left, women “became proficient cooks and housekeepers, managed the finances, learned to fix the car, worked in a defense plant, and wrote letters to their soldier husbands that were consistently upbeat.” (Stephen Ambrose, D-Day, 488) Rosie the Riveter helped assure that the Allies would have the war materials they needed to defeat the Axis.
Nearly 350,000 American women served in uniform, both at home and abroad, volunteering for the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs, later renamed the Women’s Army Corps), the Navy Women’s Reserve (WAVES), the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARS), the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS), the Army Nurses Corps, and the Navy Nurse Corps. General Eisenhower felt that he could not win the war without the aid of the women in uniform. “The contribution of the women of America, whether on the farm or in the factory or in uniform, to D-Day was a sine qua non of the invasion effort.” (Ambrose, D-Day, 489)
Women in uniform took office and clerical jobs in the armed forces in order to free men to fight. They also drove trucks, repaired airplanes, worked as laboratory technicians, rigged parachutes, served as radio operators, analyzed photographs, flew military aircraft across the country, test-flew newly repaired planes, and even trained anti-aircraft artillery gunners by acting as flying targets.
Some women served near the front lines in the Army Nurse Corps, where 16 were killed as a result of direct enemy fire. Sixty-eight American service women were captured as POWs in the Philippines. More than 1,600 nurses were decorated for bravery under fire and meritorious service, and 565 WACs in the Pacific Theater won combat decorations. Nurses were in Normandy on D-plus-four.
At the war’s end, even though a majority of women surveyed reported wanted to keep their jobs, many were forced out by men returning home and by the downturn in demand for war materials. Women veterans encountered roadblock swhen they tried to take advantage of benefit programs for veterans, like the G.I. Bill. The nation that needed their help in a time of crisis, it seems, was not yet ready for the greater social equality that would slowly come in the decades to follow.
The National WWII Museum recognizes the contribution that women played in the success of the Allied victory in World War II and explores that contribution in depth in its Home Front gallery.
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.