Kingston, Maxine Hong (Vol. 19)
Kingston, Maxine Hong 1940–
A Chinese-American autobiographer, journalist, and short story writer, Kingston confronts her dual heritage in The Woman Warrior and its companion volume, China Men. Both are an imaginative blend of myth, legend, history, and memoir. (See also CLC, Vol. 12, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)
"China Men" contemplates exile; it seeks to explain exile by recovering history from deceit. It is quite as wonderful as "The Woman Warrior," but angrier…. The anger in "China Men" causes some seams, some scars, in its narrative that were not apparent in "The Woman Warrior." She stops to tell us, year by year, of discriminatory legislation against the Chinese in this country; her indignation is a hook in her throat; she is properly outraged at the blue-eyed "white demons"; the past wasn't pretty; we miss, for a beat, her brilliant music. But the anger is in the service of amplitude. No more lies, she is saying….
"China Men" is framed, on the one hand, by a wedding and a funeral, and, on the other, by the birth of boys. The wedding and the funeral are surprisingly similar, with a burning of paper horses and a throwing away of paper money. Both births are witnessed at a window by the older children; the first is of Mrs. Kingston's father, the second of her brother who will go to Vietnam. In between is sheer magic: poetry, parable, nightmare, the terror and exhileration of physical labor, the songs of survival, the voices of the dead, the feel of wood and blood, the smell of flowers and wounds. History meets sensuality….
It is, frankly, impossible to do justice to Mrs. Kingston's style. If more writers could manage it, our literature would be richer. Ghosts, black cranes, dreams, iron, myth, work, dragon seeds,...
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"China Men," using the same techniques as "The Woman Warrior"—the blend of myth, legend and history, the fevered voice, relentless as a truth-seeking child's—is impelled by Mrs. Kingston's need to understand the men with whom she is connected: her father, grandfather, brother, mythic figures….
Mrs. Kingston begins her quest for understanding with her own father. But whereas her mother, Brave Orchid, was full of "talk-story," her father does not speak. "You say with the few words and the silences: 'No stories. No past. No China.'" So she must piece together the few facts she has and invent the rest, a myth grown out of unknowing, foreignness….
Nowhere is Mrs. Kingston's technique—the close focus, the fascination with the details of survival strategies, the repetitive, fixated tone—more successful than in her description of the plantation workers' talking into the earth in defiance of the silence imposed upon them by white bosses. The men dig holes and shout their longings, their frustrations, down the hole to China, frightening their overseers, who leave them alone…. (p. 24)
In comparison with these tales of her ancestors, the story of the brother who goes to Vietnam is a disappointment. Unlike his forebears, the brother neither emigrates nor mutilates himself to avoid conscription. A pacifist, he joins the Navy because he thinks that there he has the smallest chance of killing and being...
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China Men is not a sequel to The Woman Warrior but a companion piece, an amplification. It revolves, again, around the author's family, who operated a laundry in Stockton, California. Both parents were born in China, and their first two children died there. Six others, born later in the US, are Americanized on the surface—casual, impatient, disconcertingly direct—but beneath the surface, haunted by a sense of being different. (p. 32)
It becomes apparent fairly early in China Men that this is a less particularized account than The Woman Warrior. The ancestors stand for many other ancestors, for the entire history of Chinese emigration…. The author's father entered this country either as a stowaway or as a legal immigrant; both versions are recounted in full, as if they really happened….
But inevitably, the particular triumphs over the general. China, to Maxine Hong Kingston, is "a country I made up." Equally, she makes up her history, her family mythology, coloring it with an artist's eye. Both of her books are nonfiction,… but in a deeper sense, they are fiction at its best—novels, fairytales, epic poems….
What make the book more than nonfiction are its subtle shifts between the concrete and the mythical. Edges blur; the dividing line passes unnoticed. We accept one fact and then the next, and then suddenly we find ourselves believing in the fantastic. Is it...
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["China Men"] is indeed a fierce book. It makes many demands. It is full of horrors, superstitions, occasional obscenities, but when one recovers one sees them as metaphors designed to burrow under preconceptions and blandness. It is all about the Chinese fathers—grandfathers, great-grandfathers—who, searching for the Gold Mountain, in order to prosper their families, turned east, left their villages, went out into the world, especially the United States, bringing their antiquity, their sagacity, and their legends with them….
It is the profound disparity between cultures which she has captured so magically. And the China men's efforts somehow to exorcise the disparity is the story of the fathers and grandfathers. The men, far more than the women, tried to forget the old ways as they felled redwood trees, built American railroads, dynamited tunnels through mountains, opened laundries and restaurants. But they too built their legends and sent them back to the villages for the next generation to make malleable and to keep alive in the search for the Gold Mountain….
Maxine Hong Kingston is brilliant. Her sense of words is magical. One has to shake one's head now and then to dispel the magic but never to dispel her insight and sagacity, her strength and resolution.
Henrietta Buckmaster, "China Men Portrayed with Magic," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by...
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E. M. Broner
In the title [China Men] Hong Kingston uses the pejorative, the patronizing "Chinamen," but she separates the words, perhaps to indicate that this designation is different. These men will not be dealt with pejoratively but heroically as the "binders and builders" of Hawaii and the States. This is a book of men, of male ancestry, a counterpart to The Woman Warrior, which was the search for self through the untold and told tales of the Chinese family, through the naming and exorcising of ghosts.
That which must be fought through in both books is imposed silence…. The Woman Warrior ends triumphantly with the author speaking out and with reference to the legend of a woman poet….
China Men commences with the angry silence of the father, a laundry worker in the land of Gold Mountain (all immigrants call the States "golden"). The daughter chronicler writes, "I think this is the journey you didn't tell me," and she proceeds to "talk story," to imagine-tell for her father. (p. 28)
As the book begins with the teacher father and his unappreciative students, it ends with the brother, a gentle fellow, a remedial-reading teacher to louts who rip books that he buys for the school library. This brother, like all the China Men, has to take his journey into the world of demons. All who are not their own are demons: immigration demons, employer demons, mortician demons, even garbage...
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China Joe is the white man's scapegoat, but he is also Kingston's collective hero [in China Men]. The great-grandfather indentured to clear the Hawaiian jungle is a proud, determined man, a leader among the other Chinese there. His work in the canefields and the lashings he receives are rendered in sharp detail. But in Kingston's account his individuality seems to fall away, and we are left with a story more like a folk tale or an epic legend than an account of one man's life. It is also the story of "every great grandfather on every island."
Historical events, too, seem transmuted here, robbed of factual precision but somehow brightened and clarified. (pp. 10-11)
In between the longer stories about her family, Kingston tells a number of ancient Chinese tales: parables about mortality and exile and persisting in the face of difficulty. Her uncles look for natural omens before setting out on a trip; and at the Immigration Station in San Francisco her father consoles the other Chinese with songs of the Heavenly Poet, Li Po. Kingston can be impertinent about these stories and superstitions, but not about her relatives's faith in them. [China Men] is a celebration of their traditional values: hard work and cunning and education and a certain salty toughness.
But for all that Kingston's account has a distinctly American ring. Perhaps it is the way she comments on the legends she tells:...
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