In Maxine Hong Kingston's story, The Woman Warrior, the primary theme of the story deals with a woman's place—her search for identity and self—in Chinese culture, and later in the American culture (two very different worlds).
In Part One, a tragedy surrounds an aunt in China who was not just "dead" to the family, but ignored as if she had never lived, recounting the circumstances of a woman in "the old country." Whereas America provides more flexibility in terms of how one leads his or her life, there is no such thing in China during Kingston's mother's life. The social order was to be respected, and if one breached the conduct of that order, especially a woman, society would do what it believed was necessary to correct it.
In this case, the villagers go into the aunt's house and destroy it. When the aunt is ready to give birth, she must do it in a pigsty. The aunt's shame and sense of isolation are so overwhelming, that she drowns herself and her baby in a well. The family further "punishes" the aunt, even though being dead means she is beyond caring, by not mourning her death, but by pretending she never lived.
Part Two also deals with a woman's place. The author recalls the story of Mu Lan, a woman who becomes a great warrior. Kingston imagines what that kind of life would have been like in China. Her academic endeavors in America pale by comparison, especially in the face of the pain she experiences...
...when she hears her parents say that girls are worthless.
In this section, Kingston is searching for her identity and a sense of self-worth.
Part Three is the tale of Kingston's mother, Brave Orchid, who was a strong woman—a healer. However, in America she can no longer practice healing, and we see that her power as a woman in a Chinese world has been taken from her, another theme dealing with the plight of women and their sense of identity.
Part Four is about Moon Orchid, Brave Orchid's sister. Her power as a woman comes from her husband. She has been left in China while he went to America. Brave Orchid brings her sister to America, but she cannot work so they confront the husband—who has married a younger woman. While the husband promises money, the truth of his infidelity drives Moon Orchid insane, and she is placed in an asylum. The strength of a woman, this section suggests, must come from within and not be dependent upon a man.
The final section addresses the voice of a woman in her culture, especially in the Chinese culture, as opposed to the American culture. This section speaks of Ts'ai Yen, a Chinese poetess, who was captured by the Barbarians, but was able to assimilate into their culture through music. When she returns to China...
...she brought the song for the Barbarian reed pipe back with her, and it translated well.
The message here speaks to a woman's ability to survive if she is willing to work with what life gives her and find her own truth rather than one thrust upon her. In this, the sense of the indomitable woman is again seen, supporting the idea that the primary theme of this book is about women surviving on their own terms, how difficult it is to do in China as opposed to America, and what opportunities America offers to women who would be "free" if they can only honor who they are and be proud of the woman within.