The Woman Warrior (1975)
By Maxine Hong Kingston
Reading The Woman Warrior now, twenty-five years after its original publication, I find it difficult to separate the actual text from the cultural milieu in which it was written. This is very much a book of the 1970s — a creative memoir that, even in its title, gives voice to feminist and multiculturalist concerns. It is equal parts bildungsroman, fable, journal, poem, and immigrant story. At times, it is also really, really good.
Kingston’s main concern here is with language. Words and their power to construct meaning, history, and identity are at the heart of each of the five tales. Words become Kingston’s weapon for writing a disgraced aunt back into the family history. Words of vengeance are carved into a warrior’s back. Words of Chinese talk-stories serve as a bond between mother and daughter. And, finally, words become the means by which Kingston comes of age.
It’s only fitting, then, that Kingston’s own use of words is so impressive. I enjoyed the language of The Woman Warrior for the same reason that I’m so enamored of Tarkovsky’s films: Kingston has a gift for capturing images that speak (quite poetically and eloquently) for themselves. In the first story, “No Name Woman,” she imagines the struggle for individuality that her aunt and other women like her must have fought daily in the fields and small towns of China. “Still there must have been a marvelous freeing of beauty,” she writes, “when a worker laid down her burden and stretched and arched.” Then, in “Shaman,” she recreates the moment when her mother first tasted independence. Her arrival at a medical school is like a scene straight from Virginia Woolf: “The women who had arrived early did not offer to help unpack, not wanting to interfere with the pleasure and the privacy of it. Not many women got to live out the daydream of women — to have a room, even a section of a room, that only gets messed up when she messes it up herself.”
“No Name Woman” and “White Tigers” are the two sections most often anthologized and deservedly so. The third and fourth stories, which deal more specifically with Kingston’s own family, are less effective. The Woman Warrior is redeemed, though, in its final pages when Kingston melds two beautiful stories. One is an ancient tale of a Chinese woman held captive, who finally returns to her village and brings with her the songs of her captors. The second is the story of Kingston’s own coming of age. The juxtaposition of the two stories is handled brilliantly, reminding us of the value born from the fruitful blending of cultures.
No Name Woman — the story of Kingston’s aunt, a woman who committed suicide after disgracing the family by having an illegitimate child (though she was likely raped). Kingston attempts to right the great tragedy of the story — the family’s decision to erase her from their collective memory. Kingston gives the “no name woman” depth – love, emotion, shame, pride — by rewriting her into history.
White Tigers — The story of Fa Mu Lan, the famous Chinese swordswoman who was taken away as child to be trained as a warrior before returning home to take her father’s place in battle and leading an army to victory. Again, Kingston places emphasis on the power of words — the words of vengeance carved into her back, the words casually used by Chinese to dehumanize their daughters, the words of her mother’s talk-stories. Kingston then tries to imagine herself as a contemporary woman warrior in America.
Shaman — The story of the life of Kingston’s mother, in both China and America. A nice portrait of that frustrating ambivalence we feel toward family, which makes us both proud and embarrassed, wanting to both cling to our heritage and to define ourselves apart from it.
At the Western Plaza — Brave Orchid’ sister, Moon Orchid, arrives in America to confront the husband who never sent for her. When she does finally meet him, he refuses to allow her back into his life, having found a new life and a new wife in America. Moon Orchid is broken by the move and the betrayal, finally finding something like peace in an asylum.
A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe — The title of this section comes from the short story that ends the novel. It’s the story of a Chinese woman captured by barbarians with whom she lives for twelve years. When she returns to the Chinese, she brings with her new songs that were formed from the blending of the two cultures. The story could likewise be applied to this entire novel. The final section is about Kingston’s struggle to find her own voice. At one point, she torments another young Chinese girl who absolutely refuses to speak. Kingston finds her voice in a furious outburst at the dinner table.