The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts is an autobiographical novel of Maxine Hong Kingston’s life, illuminated by references to the women whose histories influenced her. In the United States, the meager opportunities available to Chinese immigrants force her parents to earn a living by running a small laundry. Kingston’s mother, Brave Orchid, a mid-wife in China, is a forceful character who admonishes her daughter with ever-changing renditions of Chinese legends and myths as well as tales about women who have been driven to madness or death by a culture that has traditionally viewed girls and women as subordinate to boys and men.
In “No Name Woman,” Kingston recalls the haunting story of her aunt, who gave birth to a child years after her husband had gone to America. Driven to madness by the persecution of vengeful neighbors, a disgrace to her kin, she drowns herself and the baby in the family well. “Now that you have started to menstruate what happened to her could happen to you,” Brave Orchid cautions. It is one of many frightening lessons for the young Kingston as she becomes increasingly aware of the different expectations placed upon women by the Chinese traditions that continue to dominate the attitudes of immigrants.
The book takes its title, however, from Fa Mu Lan, the legendary woman warrior who, disguised as a man, sword in hand, goes forth to fight for justice. Kingston takes inspiration from this story and imagines herself an avenger of the hurts she experiences as a woman and an Asian American. As she acquires a nontraditional consciousness, her listing of grievances transcends personal and family hurts to embrace broader struggles against racism and war. Kingston loses her job at a real estate firm when she refuses to type invitations to a banquet at a restaurant that discriminates against African Americans. She also struggles to evade the expectations that she sees American girls facing: wearing makeup, becoming cheerleaders, learning to be typists, marrying rich men.
In the final chapter, “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” Kingston testifies to her passage out of the confinements and prejudices that obsess her parents. She discovers that she can speak her mind. She alludes to the story of the Chinese princess, Ts’ai Yen, who, carried off by barbarians, finds her voice and sings high and clear like a flute, a song that blends the sounds of China and of the world beyond.
The Woman Warrior is distinguished by its rich, poetic language. Chinese oral tradition and classical literature blend with the myriad impressions crowding into the mind of a Chinese American girl striving to make sense of the competing mores of California’s diverse populations.