China Men (Magill's Literary Annual 1981)
In the last few decades in the United States, so-called “minority literatures” have begun to surface from beneath the various social and economic repressions which had previously denied them access to most printed media. First blacks and Jews and, more recently, Chicanos, Native Americans, and women have been given, or have taken, some part in the huge publication deluge which pours from this country every year. As a result, educators in literature have begun to understand that the great books tradition of Western civilization is but one voice in the cultural heterogeneity that is modern America. Minority writing can no longer be considered minor since, collectively, it expresses the multitude of experiences of the numerical majority, a majority that was previously made silent through forces of law, education, and material opportunity.
Despite these advances, one minority group, Asian-Americans, has, until the last few years, been surprisingly reticent about its unique experiences and contributions. Even considering that they have been on this continent for fewer years (about 180) and in smaller numbers (about one percent of the total population) than most of these other minorities, their slight publications need some explanation. The extent and reasons for this lacuna are most evident in the Chinese-American community.
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series)
In 1975, Maxine Hong Kingston, a daughter of Chinese immigrants to the United States, published The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, a reconstruction of the experiences, mythical and real, of her female ancestors. She painted a rich picture of her family, enhanced by tales from folklore and history. She had two goals in writing her book: to understand her dual ethnic and cultural heritage and to claim her identity as a female.
In China Men, Kingston turned her attention from females to the male members of her family. The book resembles The Woman Warrior in its attempt to bridge two vastly different cultures by portraying Chinese legends and popular culture and evoking the uncertainties of assimilation. Whereas The Woman Warrior was a journey inward, however, China Men is a voyage outward, an attempt to understand the experience of Chinese-American men by re-creating their lives.
Kingston’s book reconstructs the history of Chinese immigration to the United States, relying on what she heard in her family and read in books. The book has a jumbled chronology, but within it a pattern emerges: Her ancestors leave China and go to the United States either to make a fortune and return to China in glory or to stay and establish a new home that is suitable for their women. The story unfolds as she re-creates the experiences of a succession of her male relatives: grandfathers, father,...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Originally, The Woman Warrior (1976) and China Men were conceived as integral parts of a larger work. For the sake of unity, The Woman Warrior was separated out to focus more sharply on feminist issues. China Men, which deals with the male members of Maxine Hong Kingston’s family, is hence both a sequel and a complement to the earlier work; in fact, the Chinese seal inscribed on the book’s and the sections’ title pages translates “Gold Mountain’s Brave Warriors.” As a companion piece to The Woman Warrior, China Men provides important contexts essential to the understanding of Kingston as a writer in particular, and of Chinese American literature and history in general.
Not unlike its predecessor, China Men defies classification because it overlaps a number of genres including autobiography, memoir, biography, history, folklore, and novel or the short story. The generic mixture apparently stems from an attempt to synthesize two important impulses, the documentary and the imaginative, that have given impetus to Kingston’s work. The documentary impulse is crystallized at the center of the book in “The Laws,” where Kingston has compiled a chronological list of discriminatory laws designed to deprive, exclude, and oppress Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans. The biographies of the “China men” can be seen as extended exhibits documenting the struggles of generations of...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
As a companion piece to The Woman Warrior, China Men has inspired discussions on gender issues relevant to Chinese American men and women. Although the primary focus of the book is on male members of Kingston’s family, it is important that the narrative is told from a woman’s perspective and that many of the sources are derived from women’s memories and stories.
Commonly regarded as having a patriarchal, chauvinistic, and misogynist tradition, Chinese men encounter serious challenges to their male-centered culture when they become China men. The tale of Tang Ao’s becoming a woman, which offers a direct link back to The Woman Warrior (where feminist concerns loom large), allegorizes such a challenge and sets up an interpretive framework for the rest of the book, where the symbolic emasculation of China men is an underlying theme. In their encounter with America, the Chinese are seen as feminized beings because of the Orientalist tendency of the West. Historically, China men lived in a world with very few women, which had a negative effect on their mental stability—Ah Goong being a case in point. The struggle of the China men therefore cannot be fully understood without grasping the fact that they are victims of both racism and a special form of sexism.
Yet an overemphasis on the theme of emasculation in Kingston’s work can lead to the kind of false dichotomy between heroism and feminism found among certain...
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China Men is less an autobiography than an imaginative retelling of the recent history of one group of Chinese- Americans. Kingston tells stories of Chinamen in China, Hawaii, Alaska, San Francisco, Nevada, New York, and Vietnam. In the case of her father, she offers alternative versions. In an early chapter, she has him smuggled into New York in a crate; late in the book she writes, "In 1903 my father was born in San Francisco."
As in The Woman Warrior, Kingston borrows freely from family stories, folk tales, mythology and history books. Generally these are woven together seamlessly. The various sections of the book, six full chapters interspersed between twelve stories or anecdotes from one to ten pages long, vary widely in tone and subject to give the book its rich texture. The single section which seems out of place is one entitled "The Laws," an eight page overview of United States' immigration laws and policies, beginning in 1868, which affected Chinese-Americans. Kingston has commented that the section "affects the shape of the book, and it may look quite clumsy . . . [But] now maybe another Chinese-American writer won't have to write that history."
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In a broad sense, the social concerns of The Woman Warrior (1976) are continued in China Men, although the emphasis is more on the Chinese-American community, as represented by Kingston's family history, than on the personal trials of the author herself. She considers the two "one big book," which she wrote "more or less simultaneously." The second book, however, is a more ambitious undertaking than its predecessor: "What I am doing in this new book," she declared in 1980, "is claiming America." Such a goal requires that her book span several generations of men who left China for "the Gold Mountain." She weaves tales of the bitter poverty and meager successes of the early emigrants with stories of those who followed and built the railroad in the west. Little by little, they took root here and adapted their traditions to the America of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Eventually, the Gold Mountain became a place "which belonged to them, which they had invented and discovered."
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The one book which Kingston admits is a major influence on her work is William Carlos Williams' In the American Grain: "I wish I had written it," she remarked. She admires the way "Williams has told the American history poetically and, it seems to me, truly. In a way, I feel that I have continued that book."
Nathaniel Hawthorne is another writer who imaginatively reinterpreted American experience. If not a direct influence, he certainly was Kingston's predecessor in retelling American history allegorically and poetically. Like Kingston, Hawthorne possessed a deep appreciation of the power the past holds over daily life.
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Bibliography (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Broner, E. M. Review in Ms. IX (August, 1980), p. 28.
Chan, Jeffrey Paul, et al., eds. The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Cheung, King-Kok. “The Woman Warrior Versus the Chinaman Pacific: Must a Chinese American Critic Choose Between Feminism and Heroism?” In Conflicts in Feminism, edited by Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller. New York: Routledge, 1990. Considering sexual politics in the contexts of the immigration experience and racial relations in the United States, the author questions not only the use of antifeminist heroism to combat racism but also the reification of feminism per se. Observing that Kingston reveals similarities between the sufferings of Chinese men under racism and those of Chinese women under sexism, Cheung calls for negotiation rather than opposition between feminism and heroism.
Gray, Paul. Review in Time. CXV (June 30, 1980), p. 67.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. “Talk with Mrs. Kingston.” Interview by Timothy Pfaff. The New York Times Book Review, June 18, 1980, 1, 26-27.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. “San Francisco’s Chinatown: A View from the Other Side of Arnold Genthe’s Camera,” in American...
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