Download China Men Study Guide

Subscribe Now

China Men Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

InChina Men, Maxine Hong Kingston tells the stories of her male relatives who came to America. The opening chapter, “Our Fathers,” signals her intention to embrace the community of Chinese immigrants. She challenges readers to reconsider the Eurocentric version of American history by bringing to their attention the contributions of Chinese to the building of America.

Kingston weaves her narrative from a poetic association of folklore, fantasy, and fact. In “On Discovery,” she relates a Chinese legend: the arrival in North America of Tang Ao during the reign of the Empress Wu (694-705). Captured and forced to become a transvestite, feet bound, face powdered and rouged, ears studded with jade and gold, Tang Ao was forced to serve meals to the court. The bewildering experience of this precursor is a metaphor for the emasculation of Chinese men in America as racism disempowered them, forcing them to perform women’s tasks: laundering and cooking.

In America, Kingston’s forefathers find themselves off center as they are marginalized by U.S. laws. A chapter on laws, in the middle of China Men, documents the legislation and court decisions that, beginning in 1868, systematically excluded Chinese immigrants from normal treatment until 1958. Particularly dehumanizing was the law prohibiting the immigration of the wives and children of Chinese men working in America.

Through the portraits of her many forefathers, Kingston describes a multitude of immigration experiences. Great-grandfather Bak Goong sails to Hawaii in the hold of a ship and works for endless years under the whip on a sugar plantation. His dream of saving enough money to reach Gold Mountain is a mirage. The story of grandfather Ah Goong details the courage and skills of the Chinese who built the most difficult and dangerous section of the transcontinental railroad. They worked for lower wages and endured longer hours than white laborers but were denied the right to own property and become citizens. Nevertheless, Ah Goong prophesies: “We’re marking the land now. The tracks are numbered.”

Kingston’s father, Baba, a man of scholarly accomplishment in China, enters America full of hope, only to be reduced to washing other people’s clothes. Then, demonstrating the changing status of the Chinese in America after World War II, his son, drafted into the U.S. Navy to serve in the Vietnam War, receives the highest level of security clearance. “The government was certifying that the family was really American, not precariously American but super-American.” Kingston’s brother declines the invitation to attend language school, however, because he fears his improved Chinese will be used by intelligence to “gouge Viet Cong eyes, cattleprod their genitals.”

Kingston thus ends her chronicle of Chinese American history on a questioning note. The Chinese American is now a full citizen but must share in all that is questionable in American culture.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Originally conceived as a single work, The Woman Warrior and China Men express two halves of the whole of Kingston’s life and her heritage, attempting reconciliation with, first, female ancestors and, second, with male ancestors. While Kingston’s mother appears garrulous and larger than life, her father is taciturn and does not share his history with her, so his biography and motivations are approached more speculatively, with Kingston at times posing several possible variations for one event as well as different motivations. She says she hoped that the different paths she described would not only capture the choices Chinese men made historically but would also compel her father to share with her the facts of his personal journey. Though the narrative line in China Men is simpler, moving consistently toward the father, the book as a whole is much more of a study in American history and American racism than is The Woman Warrior.

The six major sections of the book follow two short introductory pieces, one a personal reflection about...

(The entire section is 1,772 words.)