About The Woman Warrior
The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts is Maxine Hong Kingston’s first and most famous book. It was published in 1976 to great critical acclaim, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. In addition to being a canonical work, The Woman Warrior is considered a landmark in Chinese-American literature. It is widely taught in high schools and colleges, particularly because of its relevance to young adults.
Although most of the literary community welcomed The Woman Warrior with open arms, ohers who criticized it. Some readers found Hong Kingston’s writing style unnerving. The book is certainly not traditional as memoirs go. In fact, it defies genre. Though classified and awarded as a work of nonfiction, it is truly a hybrid of fiction with nonfiction because it alternates, often seamlessly, between fantasy and reality. Because much of the book comes out of the oral tradition, where stories constantly change between tellings, it is only natural that Hong Kingston’s stories should not be definitive versions of reality.
One major critic of The Woman Warrior is the Asian-American writer Frank Chin. In a 1991 article, “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake,” Chin complains that The Woman Warrior (along with other seminal Asian-American works) misinforms people about what it is to be Asian-American. He calls Hong Kingston’s impressions of her culture “fake,” “revisionist,” “Westernized,” “stereotypical,” and demeaning. Chin was not the only one to censure Hong Kingston for her impressionistic view of Chinese-American culture. Many of her critics tried to discredit her work by pointing out that she was not an expert on Chinese or Chinese-American history. Hong Kingston has defended herself over the years by explaining that The Woman Warrior was never meant to be a definitive guide to Chinese-American identity. Rather, she says, it reflects her and her family’s personal experiences.
The Woman Warrior consists of five chapters: "No Name Woman," "White Tigers," "Shaman," "At the Western Palace," and "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe." It contains memories from Hong Kingston’s own life, written versions of her mother’s stories, and retellings of two famous warrior-woman legends. It is important to note that not once in the book does Hong Kingston mention herself by name. Her narrator is unnamed and often elusive, changing perspectives and even inhabiting the story of the warrior, Fa Mu Lan. By distancing herself from her narrator, Hong Kingston tells us implicitly that The Woman Warrior is not to be taken literally.
Because the book is so multifaceted, it continues to generate wide critical response more than thirty years after its first publication. In addition to giving heart to its readers, The Woman Warrior has inspired other acclaimed writers, perhaps most notably the prolific Chinese-American novelist Amy Tan.
The narrator's mother. She is an unwavering woman who immigrated to the United States from a small Chinese village during World War II. She had two children in China, but they died before she left. In China, she was a renowned doctor. In America, she and her husband run a laundry. Brave Orchid is wedded to Chinese tradition. She cares about her children, but she considers them ungrateful and disrespectful because they do not understand her ways.
A neighborhood woman, the daughter of Christian converts. When she was a toddler, her parents emigrated. They sent for her when she was "almost twenty and crazy." The narrator and her siblings avoided Crazy Mary at all costs. It is Crazy Mary's prescription that the pharmacy mistakenly delivers to Brave Orchid.
Fa Mu Lan
A legendary woman warrior. At the age of seven, she is summoned into the mountains, where two kindly immortals teach her how to fight. When her family is conscripted, she returns to her village in a male disguise to fight in her father's place and save her brother. Fa Mu Lan becomes a great army leader and helps unseat the corrupt emperor and reclaim her village from the hands of an evil baron.
Brave Orchid's sister, who immigrates when she is already a senior citizen and has not seen her sister for thirty years. She has one daughter, who is already in America and married to a Chinese-American man. Moon Orchid does not wish to see her husband, but Brave Orchid forces her to confront him. After he breaks her heart and shames her, Moon Orchid slips into a state of paranoia from which she never recovers.
Moon Orchid's Husband
He immigrated to the United States many years before, and he has no contact with Moon Orchid or their daughter other than sending them money. In Los Angeles, he is a brain surgeon and is remarried. When Moon Orchid confronts him, he tells her she should not have come and that he never wants to see her again.
Moon Orchid's Daughter
She is Moon Orchid's only daughter. Brave Orchid helped her gain citizenship by matching her with a "tyrant" of a Chinese-American husband. Like her mother, she does not feel angry towards her father and is hesitant to confront him in the way Brave Orchid wishes.
She is a first-generation Chinese-American who grew up in the Chinese immigrant community of San Francisco. The narrator feels distanced from Chinese culture but at the same time wants to understand it. She generally has a hard time speaking up, except in the case of her mother. From an early age, she was determined to be the opposite of what her mother expected. The novel is her exploration of her cultural and familial inheritance.
Other Major Themes
Birth is an especially important topic in a book centered on the mother-daughter relationship. The moment of birth is when mother and daughter first live as separate sentient beings who can begin a new mutual relationship. Because the narrator’s relationship with her mother is so conflicted, it is not hard to see why she makes birth a recurring theme in The Woman Warrior.
Of all the births she mentions in the novel, the most poignant is her own. The narrator is born in America, a world away from her mother’s homeland. Because she is born on American soil, America is her homeland by default. This fact of geography makes all the difference for the mother-daughter relationship. According to the narrator, where one is born makes all the difference regarding who one will become. For much of her life, the narrator feels inadequate next to her deceased older siblings. They were “real Chinese,” as Moon Orchid says, because they were born in China. This makes them closer to the narrator’s parents than she can ever be. Were she born in China, the narrator would have learned from her parents nearly all the skills she needed to survive. She could look up to them as teachers and wise elders, as Fa Mu Lan looked up to the old man and woman. But because the narrator was born in America to Chinese parents, her mother and father cannot teach her everything she needs to know. For example, she flunks kindergarten because her parents do not teach her English.
In The Woman Warrior, birth is often seen as a catastrophic event. This trend begins in Chapter 1, “No-Name Woman,” in which the narrator’s aunt drowns herself and her baby in the family well. The baby is born healthy, but its birth is a tragedy because it is destined to be an outcast like its mother. Another tragic birth from Brave Orchid’s talk-stories is that of the baby born without an anus. That child’s birth was tragic because not even Brave Orchid could save it from certain death. Instead, it was left to die alone in the family’s outhouse. The narrator marries birth with misfortune again when she describes the village practice of killing newborn girls by pressing their faces into ash. The birth of even a healthy girl is a misfortune because girls are destined to “desert their families.”
Taken as a whole, the narrator’s birth stories reveal her anxiety about finding her identity and inner strength. Having heard so many horrifying tales of birth, for her the event represents powerlessness. The baby has no choice in whether it is born, how it is born, or where it is born. It is therefore, in that moment, powerless over its identity and its future. Babies haunt the narrator because she often feels as helpless to decide her destiny as they are.
Characters in The Woman Warrior experience culture clash in different ways. Brave Orchid and the narrator’s husband faced culture shock when they emigrated from China to the United States. In their homeland, they both had distinguished careers. Because careers often do not translate between cultures, they became manual laborers in America. They feel alienated from American culture, which is why they refer to their non-Chinese neighbors as “ghosts.”
The narrator experiences culture shock from two directions at once. She occupies the liminal space between Chinese and American cultures. As much as she is both Chinese and American, she feels as though she has little claim to either identity. To the narrator growing up, non-Chinese people are “ghosts” and Chinese immigrants—including her own family—are “barbarians.” The narrator spends much of her childhood trying to overcome her dual culture shock and reconcile Chinese and American cultures. As she states, “Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fits in solid America.” Only at the book’s end does the narrator admit that much of her perception of Chinese tradition was magnified by legend. As an adult, she knows that her parents would never sell her and that her mother wants her to be a success, not a slave. Being caught between cultures often makes the narrator feel guilty. She knows that, being American-born, she has an advantage over her parents. She may not fit in perfectly, but she is able to navigate the non-Chinese world much more easily than her mother or father could. As a child she sometimes lords this privilege over her unsuspecting parents, as when she mistranslates her mother’s complaints to the pharmacist.
Moon Orchid is a compelling example of the negative effects of culture clash. To begin with, she is already a senior citizen when she arrives in the United States. She is also emotionally frail by nature, which her husband points out when he tells her she is not strong enough for America, and culture shock causes her to lose her spirit and her mind. Brave Orchid and, to an extent, Moon Orchid, think that they can reclaim Moon Orchid’s Chinese marriage in America after thirty years.
Moon Orchid’s husband, in contrast, has not had much trouble with culture clash. He is a successful brain surgeon with a new, younger wife and two children. He has “a new life” and wants nothing to do with her or their daughter. His sending Moon Orchid away is the ultimate shock for her. From then on, she experiences paranoia, a magnified fear of the unknown. She is afraid of the Mexicans in her daughter’s neighborhood. Then she becomes afraid of the American government. Moon Orchid experiences such a severe clash of cultures that she becomes convinced that America is a place where people die just by leaving the house.
The word “ghost” has several meanings in The Woman Warrior. It can refer to a disembodied spirit like the Sitting Ghost. It can be an outcast like the “no name” aunt. It can be the memory of someone who died, like Moon Orchid. It can be a non-Chinese person, a “White Ghost” or a slightly less intimidating “Black Ghost.” When Hong Kingston calls the book “Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts,” she is referring to her experiences with all of the above. Many of the ghosts in the book are frightening or malevolent; these include “no name” aunt, the babies Brave Orchid could not save, and the Sitting Ghost. Examples of benevolent ghosts include Moon Orchid, whose story makes her female relatives swear never to be cheated by a man, and Fa Mu Lan, whose legend or memory encourages the narrator to be strong. Two ghosts whose presence the family always feels are the narrator’s older siblings who died in China.
Ghosts are synonymous with mysteries. They “shimmer” in a liminal space where things are unclear and fact is inseparable from fiction. Brave Orchid is not afraid of ghosts because she is a “shaman” who can bridge the physical and metaphysical worlds. For the narrator, in sharp contrast, ghosts signify confusion and insecurity. She feels as though she has inherited ghost stories and that she is herself a kind of ghost. She struggles with her identity and does not feel as though she belongs completely in Chinese or American culture. Because the narrator suffers from a ghostly sense of indefiniteness, she craves logic, clarity, and simplicity. She says, “Concrete pours out of my mouth to cover the forests with freeways and sidewalks. Give me plastics, periodical tables, t.v. dinners with vegetables no more complex than peas mixed with diced carrots. Shine floodlights into dark corners: no ghosts.”
The narrator is fascinated not only by women warriors, but also by especially unfortunate women. For her, the epitome of misfortune is in going insane, losing one’s reason and sense of security. The most central story of insanity in the book is Moon Orchid’s. On some level, Moon Orchid knows that confronting her husband is the wrong thing to do. Still, Brave Orchid forces her to travel to his office in Los Angeles. Moon Orchid is not emotionally strong to begin with, so she cannot withstand her husband’s rejection. Until that point, Moon Orchid has been happily living in a dream. As long as she does not see her husband, she can pretend that they still have a marriage and that he is the same man he always was. She believes she is loved. When the fantasy shatters, Moon Orchid is left with no sense of self. Whereas before the incident, she was flighty and chatty, afterward she withdraws and becomes overly serious. Eventually, she becomes paranoid about a government conspiracy and has to be placed in a mental asylum. In the asylum, Moon Orchid regains some of her happiness, but never her reason.
Another aunt, “No name” aunt, is certainly very unfortunate, and in some ways she fits the profile of insanity. She commits infanticide and suicide in one stroke when she throws herself and her newborn into the well. The narrator suggests that the villagers make “no name” aunt lose her mind. In every way they can, the villagers make her feel as though she does not deserve to live or to have ever lived. Even her own family members call her a “ghost” and pretend that she does not exist. In one way, drowning herself and her child is a valiant act of defiance. In another, it is the act of a woman driven to irrationality.
Another insane character is the village crazy woman in China. Like her future daughter, Brave Orchid is compassionate when it comes to insanity. She tells the villagers that the woman is not really trying to signal planes, no matter what she may say. Still, the villagers stone her to death. In “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” the narrator describes “half a dozen crazy women [who] are girls” who live in her neighborhood. The foremost is Crazy Mary, whose prescription accidentally gets delivered to Brave Orchid. Crazy Mary is the only one of her siblings born in China. Her parents emigrated without her. By the time they sent for her, she had gone mad.
Another “crazy woman” is the one the children call Pee-A-Nah. She is “the village idiot” and seems to think she is a witch, given the pointed hat she wears and the broom she pretends to ride. When Brave Orchid is not there, Pee-A-Nah chases the children and frightens them. There is also a woman next door, possibly bipolar, who alternates between being extremely talkative and social and being very antisocial. She spends two years in the mental asylum but is never quite cured.
The narrator says at one point, “I thought every house had to have its crazy woman or crazy girl, every village its idiot. Who would it be at our house? Probably me.” The narrator thinks that she is crazy because she “hear[s] voices in motors and [sees] cowboy movies on blank walls.” Whether these things are ghostly visions or manifestations of her creativity, they certainly make the narrator abnormal. Because she feels she does not belong, the narrator sympathizes with the insane; she does not know what it is like to lose one’s mind, but she at least knows about feeling ungrounded.
The Power of Expression: Silence and Talk-Stories
The power of the spoken and written word is one of the most central themes in The Woman Warrior. Throughout the book, the word is doubly powerful. Things that are spoken or written are equally powerful as things that are purposely kept silent. Hong Kingston introduces both silence and talk-stories in the book’s first phrase, “You must not tell anyone.” Brave Orchid is talking-story but she is also inducting the narrator into the “old Chinese” code of silence.
Let us first examine the power of the talk-story in The Woman Warrior. Brave Orchid claims she cut the narrator’s tongue to make her eloquent. As a master of the talk-story, she wants her daughter to be able to speak well. Brave Orchid’s stories save the narrator from believing all the sexist things she hears among the emigrants. She recalls, “At last I saw that I too had been in the presence of great power, my mother talking-story … She said I would grow up a wife and a slave, but she taught me the song of the warrior woman, Fa Mu Lan. I would have to grow up a warrior woman.” The legend of Fa Mu Lan convinces the narrator that standing up for one’s beliefs is valiant, no matter how much they clash with authority. Even the story of “no name” aunt, which is really about silence, gives the narrator a sense of purpose. As an adult, she commits the story to paper in order to expose the wrongs done to her aunt and redeem her spirit. The Woman Warrior itself is a talk-story even though it is written instead of spoken.
Stories are so important to the narrator because silence makes her furious. Some of the silence in the Chinese emigrant community is kept due to fear of deportation. In one instance, the narrator recounts that she could not tell her “ghost” teacher that her father had run a gambling house. In another, she explains that the emigrants avoided talking to the government or police at all costs; they even made it a habit not to report crimes. The silence that really infuriates the narrator is between parents and children. She says of her mother, “She never explained anything that was really important. [We] no longer asked.” Brave Orchid expected her children to respect and follow tradition, but she did not take the time to explain it. They learned about tradition when they would break it and Brave Orchid would slap them. The parents’ generation subjects her to their silence, their lack of explanation.
That generation also silences women. It expects them to be obedient and subservient. The narrator feels as though the community code of silence muffles her. She is not allowed to ask questions about ‘anything that is really important.’ Sex is unspeakable, death is unspeakable, and shame is unspeakable. She suspects that her mother cut her tongue not to make her eloquent as she claimed, but to shut her up. The things she wants to say are trapped inside, and when she tries to speak she has an ugly “duck voice.” When the narrator bullies the quiet girl in school, she is taking out her anger at the whole community. The incident at school mirrors her outburst in “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe.” There, she directly accuses her parents for silencing her and not sharing information with her. At the book’s end the narrator uses the story of Ts’ai Yen to explain that she finally found her voice by struggling against alienation and frustration.
In The Woman Warrior, tradition is a source of both pride and embarrassment for the narrator. In chapters such as “Shaman” and “White Tigers,” it is clear how much she values “old Chinese” values. The narrator depends on her mother as the bastion of tradition. Having never been to China, she constructs much of her impression of China from her mother’s “talk-stories.” The tradition of The Woman Warrior is especially important to the narrator, who invokes the legends of Fa Mu Lan and Ts’ai Yen to guide her. She shows special respect for these “old Chinese” stories by the way she uses them in the book. The story of Fa Mu Lan gets almost an entire chapter. In it, the narrator tells the story from Fa Mu Lan’s perspective. She goes seamlessly from her own narrative to Fa Mu Lan’s, allowing herself to be, at least in fantasy, the great heroine.
The narrator saves the story of Ts’ai Yen for the book’s conclusion. She does not explain why she has chosen the legend, letting it speak for itself. In doing so, she stands behind the wisdom of ancient Chinese stories and of tradition. In “Shaman,” the narrator shows her reverence for her mother’s “old” talents. She is proud of her mother especially for being a shaman, being able to bridge the physical and metaphysical worlds. She also says that her mother is a “great power” when she is “talking-story,” engaged in the oral tradition.
As much as the narrator values tradition, it also embarrasses and frustrates her. Her biggest conflict is with the sexism she sees engrained in “old Chinese” tradition. She feels pressured to become a “slave” of a wife. As a child, she thrashes on the floor when she hears the older generation repeat old sayings about girls’ worthlessness. For example, her father tells her: “Chinese smeared bad daughters-in-law with honey and tied them naked on top of ant nests … A husband may kill a wife who disobeys him. Confucius said that.” The narrator becomes determined to act the opposite of what tradition mandates. She revolts by being messy and disobedient, not demure and charming like Brave Orchid wants.
The narrator’s problem with tradition comes to a head when the subject of marriage comes up. Her parents do not seem to appreciate her good grades or her determination to become a scientist. Brave Orchid tells her to follow suit like the other neighborhood girls and become a typist. The narrator thinks her parents are so desperate to marry her off that they will match her with the mentally challenged boy who follows her around. Even as an adult, living far from her parents, the narrator still feels her mother's traditions surrounding her. As she puts it, “Before we can leave our parents, they stuff our heads like the suitcases which they jam-pack with homemade underwear.”
Despite the narrator’s problems with tradition, she ultimately can take what she wants from it and leave the rest. Legends of the likes of Fa Mu Lan and Ts’ai Yen convince the narrator that her mission in life is to be brave and righteous, to become a "swordswoman" of her own kind.
The legendary women warriors in the book are Fa Mu Lan and Ts’ai Yen. These heroines have much in common. They begin life as gentle girls and are transformed, by choice or by necessity, into fierce warriors. They do not give up being women in order to be warriors; both have children. They do battle far away from their families, always with the intention of returning home. Aside from being fighters in the physical sense, Fa Mu Lan and Ts’ai Yen have other skills that make them great. Their unique qualities inspire the narrator to find her own definition of “woman warrior.”
Fa Mu Lan has the unique understanding that her troops must be happy in order to win. When she sets off from her village, she takes with her only the men whom their families could truly spare. She does her best not to break any hearts. Fa Mu Lan also feeds and sings to her men to give them a sense of support and solidarity. As a woman warrior, Fa Mu Lan has the unique ability to be both a soldier and a nurturer.
Ts’ai Yen’s literary accomplishments make the narrator look up to her in particular. Ts’ai Yen becomes a warrior because barbarians kidnap her. Like the narrator, she feels alienated even from her own family; her sons are growing up in the barbarian tradition and do not speak Chinese. The legend of Ts’ai Yen shows the narrator that she does not have to fight physically in order to be a warrior. She affirms for the narrator the power of the word.
The narrator also sees Brave Orchid as a woman warrior. She understands how valiantly her mother has fought to retain a sense of identity and dignity in America. For Brave Orchid, life in America is a constant battle against the “white ghosts” who do not understand her. She is so determined to keep her family safe that she embarrasses her children to no end. One vivid example is when the pharmacy accidentally delivers a mentally ill woman’s pills to her family. Brave Orchid marches to the pharmacy with her daughter to demand that the curse of “sick medicine” be removed. The young narrator does not appreciate the gesture; she is embarrassed and thwarts her mother’s plan by mistranslating.
A less humorous example of Brave Orchid’s warrior-self is when she forces Moon Orchid to confront her husband. The scene is funny for its absurdity but pathetic because Brave Orchid is fighting a losing battle. For the most part, until she grows up, she has a hard time respecting her mother’s for-your-own-good tactics.
In China, Brave Orchid is a more literal warrior. She vanquishes ghosts such as the Sitting Ghost and the ape man. The narrator attributes her mother’s immense power to her lack of fear. When the Sitting Ghost pins Brave Orchid to the bed, she berates and threatens it, never calling for help. Like the legendary “great eaters” who cooked and ate ghosts to vanquish them, Brave Orchid is not afraid of any food, including “squid eye” and other morsels that disgust her children. While the title The Woman Warrior refers to Fa Mu Lan and Ts’ai Yen, it also refers to Brave Orchid and the narrator herself.