Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts focuses on Chinese and American female identities by blending mythology, history, and poetry. She explores these identities by reconstructing her mother’s (Brave Orchid’s) life for fifteen years in China during the 1920’s and 1930’s and through her own experiences growing up in Stockton, California, in the 1940’s and 1950’s. A second book, China Men (1980), a companion piece to The Woman Warrior, tells the story of the Chinese men in Kingston’s family. Both books span continents and generations, the first focusing on the women, the second on the men, although China Men has a female storyteller.
Kingston, a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, received her first great acclaim after the publication of The Woman Warrior. Although her work continues to be well received, her later books moved in other directions. Kingston published Hawai’i One Summer in 1987, exploring the Chinese American history of Hawaii. The novel Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1989) tells the story of twenty-three-year-old Berkeley graduate Wittman Ah Sing. In the early 1990’s, Kingston’s only copy of a recent novel was destroyed by fire, and she had to start over from scratch. (The story was later published in 2003 in a memoir-novel hybrid titled The Fifth Book of Peace.)
The Woman Warrior is divided into five sections, each of which can be easily anthologized. “No Name Woman” and “Tongue-Tied,” for example, may be read alone. Despite the stories’ ability to be separate and remain powerful, they tie together into a coherent whole. The second and fifth sections focus on Kingston, who identifies herself as a “legendary warrior woman.” The other three sections focus on Kingston’s mother’s stories and Kingston’s retelling of them. The complex narrative patterns of The Woman Warrior are intertwined; the first three stories are about the mother, and the final two stories are about the daughter.
“No Name Woman,” the first and shortest section, begins with the voice of Kingston’s mother warning the young Kingston, “You must not tell anyone . . . what I am about to tell you.” In telling the story of her father’s nameless sister, Kingston, as narrator, breaks the taboos and the silence of tradition. The breaking of the silence begins Kingston’s war on traditions that have destroyed people, women in particular. Once Kingston breaks the silence by repeating her mother’s story, she tries to fill in the gaps.
Her mother tells her what Kingston calls only a “story to grow up on,” the parts necessary to guide a growing adolescent, so that she will not humiliate her parents. The nameless aunt has a child two years after her husband’s departure for America. The villagers, to punish the family for their daughter’s impropriety, come to the home when the child is due. Disguised, they kill livestock, stone the house, and destroy everything inside the home. The disgraced family stands together in the middle of the room and looks straight ahead. They neither lock their doors against the attack nor resist it. During the night, the aunt gives birth, unattended, in the pigsty. Kingston’s mother concludes, “The next morning when I went for the water, I found her and the baby plugging up the family well.” The story is meant to introduce Kingston to the dangers that accompany the beginning of menstruation. Kingston, however, hungers for the details of the aunt’s story, details that she cannot get from her mother because the details are not necessary to make her point: “Adultery is extravagance.”
Kingston fills in the gaps in the story through various retellings of it. In these retellings, she explores gender inequality in her speculations about the lives of the men who leave their wives behind and the life of the man who fathered her aunt’s child. Kingston acknowledges her guilt for participating in the punishment of the aunt for twenty years. She says that she still does not know her aunt’s name, but at least she breaks the silence, an act that ends her participation.
“White Tigers,” the second section, retells Kingston’s mother’s story of Fa Mu Lan, the woman warrior who takes her father’s place in battle. Kingston becomes the woman warrior, doing battle against the devaluation of girl children, especially in Chinese culture. Fa Mu Lan is led away from her family by a white crane who teaches her boxing and then delivers her to an “old brown man” and an “old gray...