Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces China Men Analysis

Kingston’s main purpose is to understand the experience of becoming a Chinese-American. In The Woman Warrior she investigated her female heritage; China Men completes her search by exploring the history of the males in her family. Frustrated by the silence of her father (“You say with the few words and the silences: No stories. No Past. No China”), she bases her sometimes fanciful reconstruction of her collective male biography on the few words she has from her relatives. Her search for her family and personal identity drives her to explore both her Chinese and her American pasts.

Her Chinese background emerges hazily out of the realm of incomplete recollection, imagination, and myth. Her family, like the majority of the one million Chinese-Americans, originated in the Canton region of south China. Her father, the fourth son of a peasant family, was reared to become a scholar-official in the service of the imperial dynasty. Born in 1903, he was in fact too young to have taken the imperial civil service examinations, which ceased to be given in 1905. Nevertheless, Kingston takes liberties with history to describe her father’s taking and passing the exams and becoming the village teacher. His career as a teacher was unhappy, as the students cared little for learning and he became increasingly dissatisfied. Her descriptions of his experiences are deft and hilarious. Eventually, her father became so frustrated that he joined other men in his clan to go to the United States, which Chinese immigrants symbolically named Gold Mountain.

In the course of introducing her father, Kingston reveals something of her wider family background and its connection to classical Chinese culture. Her fanciful description of her father’s taking the imperial examinations links the family to the elite Confucian traditions. While her retellings of classical myths often are only loosely connected with the original Chinese legends they invoke, it must be noted that her purpose is not to record the myths accurately but to explain her family and her heritage.

Her father’s training in classical Confucianism gave him access to the Four Valuable Things (ink, inkslab, paper, and brush) which symbolize the high culture of China and contrast strikingly with the folk traditions by which ordinary Chinese lived. He memorized the classic texts, learned to write stylized essays and poetry, and practiced all the arts of peace (wen) that in Confucian theory would create a peaceful, harmonious society. In this rarefied world of scholarship and high culture, gods, demons, and ghosts did not figure prominently. Through her father’s participation in the Confucian examination system, Kingston inherited China’s great cultural traditions.

These traditions, however, stand in stark contrast to the everyday world of myth and folklore experienced in the Chinese village. Whereas Confucius encouraged his disciples to focus their attention on living equitably with other humans in the visible world and directed them to follow rules of etiquette tempered by humanitarian attitudes, ordinary Chinese villagers resided in a universe peopled by gods, ancestral spirits, and ghosts. Kingston’s telling of the ancient Chinese myths is an attempt to integrate China’s great and little traditions in her own life as a Chinese-American.

Some have criticized Kingston for taking too many liberties with the myths and thus misrepresenting folk culture. Kingston has...

(The entire section is 1424 words.)