The Woman Warrior Kingston, Maxine Hong - Essay

Maxine Hong Kingston


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Woman Warrior Maxine Hong Kingston

(Born Maxine Ting Ting Hong) American autobiographer, novelist, journalist, essayist, and short story writer.

The following entry provides analysis and criticism of The Woman Warrior. See also Maxine Hong Kingston Criticism (Vol. 12) and Maxine Hong Kingston Criticism (Vol 19).

A highly acclaimed memoirist, Kingston integrates autobiographical elements with Asian legend and fictionalized history to delineate cultural conflicts confronting Americans of Chinese descent. Frequently studied in a variety of academic disciplines, her works bridge two civilizations in their examination of social and familial bonds from ancient China to contemporary California. As an American-born daughter of stern immigrant parents, Kingston relates the anxiety that often results from clashes between radically different cultural sensibilities. Her exotic, myth-laden narratives are informed by several sources: the ordeals of emigrant forebears who endured brutal exploitation as they labored on American railroads and cane plantations; the "talk-stories," or cautionary tales of ancient heroes and family secrets told by her mother; and her own experiences as a first-generation American with confused cultural allegiances. From these foundations, Kingston forms epic chronicles of the Chinese immigrant experience that are esteemed for their accurate and disturbing illumination of such social patterns as Asian cultural misogyny and American institutional racism. Her 1976 autobiography, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts, which won the general nonfiction award from the National Book Critics Circle, is a chronicle of Kingston's confrontation with her dual heritage.

Plot and Major Characters

The Woman Warrior is a personal, unconventional work that seeks to reconcile Eastern and Western conceptions of female identity. Kingston eschews chronological plot and standard nonfiction techniques in her memoir, synthesizing ancient myth and imaginative biography to present a kaleidoscopic vision of female character. The narrative begins with Kingston's mother's brief caveat concerning No Name Woman, young Maxine's paternal aunt, whose disrepute has rendered her unmentionable. Left in their village by her emigré husband, No Name Woman became pregnant—perhaps by rape—and was forced by the villagers to drown herself and her baby. Affirming traditional attitudes, Maxine's mother, Brave Orchid, describes such practices as foot-binding and the sale of girls as slaves, and she threatens Maxine with servitude and an arranged marriage to a retarded neighborhood boy. Subsequent chapters, however, provide sharp contrast to these bleak visions, for Brave Orchid also recites the colorful legend of Fa Mu Lan, the woman warrior who wielded a sword to defend her hamlet. Kingston then describes Brave Orchid's own incongruent character; independent enough to become one of rural China's few female doctors, she returned to her customary submissive role upon joining her husband in America. The book is divided into five sections; Kingston's character is central to the second and fifth sections, in each instance identifying herself with Fa Mu Lan.

Major Themes

The Woman Warrior was described by Paul Gray as "drenched in alienation," and is also characterized by ambiguity, because, as Gray pointed out, it "haunts a region somewhere between autobiography and fiction." The memoir concerns both issues of culture and gender, and illustrates the various forces that shaped Kingston's childhood experience. The book's subtitle, Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts, alludes to the ghosts that abounded in Kingston's childhood—not only the ghosts of her ancestors that peopled her mother's stories, but the Americans who, because they were "foreigners," were considered "ghosts" by her mother. Jane Kramer commented that young Maxine, "in a country full of ghosts, is already a half-ghost to her mother." Kingston's narrative delineates the conflicting images of womanhood handed down to her by her mother, illustrated by the myths of heroic women that stand in sharp contrast to the long-standing system of female oppression in China. Diane Johnson remarked that "messages which for Western girls have been confusingly obscured by the Victorian pretense of woman worship are in the Chinese tradition elevated to epigram: 'When fishing for treasures in the flood, be careful not to pull in girls.'"

Critical Reception

Critics lauded Kingston's fanciful description and poetic diction, through which she imparts her fear and wonder of Chinese legacies. Her memoir has been praised as a masterfully written, exceptional testament to the rich heritage that is often lost or forgotten by emigrants and their children after they settle in the United States and must adapt to American society. The Woman Warrior aroused some controversy among critics who maintained that Kingston was presenting a false impression of Chinese culture and traditions. Critics particularly took issue with Kingston's depiction of Chinese men and society in general as misogynist and what they deemed her loose, inaccurate renderings of Chinese myths, which, they argue, she presents as fact. Critics also faulted Kingston for taking liberties with the traditional genre of autobiography, including fictional elements in her narrative that are offered as fact. Other critics defended Kingston's narrative, and argued that it was not the author who classified her work as nonfiction. William McPherson called The Woman Warrior "a strange, sometimes savagely terrifying and, in the literal sense, wonderful story of growing up caught between two highly sophisticated and utterly alien cultures, both vivid, often menacing and equally mysterious." Jane Kramer remarked: "[The Woman Warrior] shocks us out of our facile rhetoric, past the clichés of our obtuseness, back to the mystery of a stubbornly, utterly foreign sensibility…. Its sources are dream and memory, myth and desire. Its crises are crises of a heart in exile from roots that terrorize and bind it."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (autobiography) 1976
China Men (autobiography) 1980
Hawaii One Summer (essays) 1987
Through the Black Curtain (essays) 1987
Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (novel) 1989

Deborah Homsher (review date Autumn 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Woman Warrior, in Iowa Review, Vol. 10, No. 4, Autumn, 1979, pp. 93-8.

[In the following review of The Woman Warrior, Homsher lauds the volume and analyzes Kingston's fictionalized approach to autobiography.]

Reading The Woman Warrior, one gets an immediate impression that its writer has worked hard to form the book. Her memories of a Chinese-American girlhood in California are spliced with myths and anecdotes told by her imposing and thoroughly Chinese mother. Chapters are arranged in blocks against opposing chapters, some gaps bridged with cries of self-doubt or victory, while others are left for the reader to interpret....

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Carol Mitchell (essay date January-June 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Talking-Story' in The Woman Warrior: An Analysis of the Use of Folklore," in Kentucky Folklore Record, Vol. 27, No. 1-2, January-June, 1981, pp. 5-12.

[In the following essay, Mitchell delineates Kingston's integration of oral storytelling into her written narrative in The Woman Warrior.]

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, by Maxine Hong Kingston, is one of a number of novels that have explored various aspects of the immigrant experience in the United States. The novel is autobiographical and focuses not on those who themselves immigrated to the U.S. from China, but rather on the first generation born in this country. Through...

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Linda Hunt (essay date Fall 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'I Could Not Figure Out What Was My Village': Gender Vs. Ethnicity in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior," in MELUS, Vol. 12, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 5-12.

[In the following essay, Hunt examines Kingston's treatment of the conflict and confusion created by her various roles as a woman and as a member of separate and distinct cultures and classes.]

Feminist theorists have argued about the extent to which women share a common culture. In Three Guineas Virginia Woolf has a character assert, "as a woman I have no country…. As a woman my country is the whole world." This has a fine ring to it, but if the sentiment were wholly true we would not...

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David Leiwei Li (essay date Fall 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Naming of a Chinese American 'I': Cross-Cultural Sign/ifications in The Woman Warrior," in Criticism, Vol. XXX, No. 4, Fall, 1988, pp. 497-515.

[In the following essay, Li surveys how Kingston establishes a uniquely Chinese-American female identity in The Woman Warrior.]

In a span of twelve years since the publication of her first book, The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston has established herself in the American literary canon. Initial recognition of her success is evidenced in such prestigious book awards as the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Woman Warrior (1976) and American Book Award for China Men (1980),...

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Joanne S. Frye (essay date 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Woman Warrior: Claiming Narrative Power, Recreating Female Selfhood," in Faith of a (Woman) Writer, edited by Alice Kessler-Harris and William McBrien, Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 293-301.

[Frye is an American educator and the author of Living Stories, Telling Lives: Women and the Novel in Contemporary Experience. In the following essay, she argues that in The Woman Warrior, Kingston portrays an image of female selfhood that is both imaginative and realistic.]

One of the compelling insights of feminist literary criticism has been the recognition that the literary traditions we inherit have often denied women the power of naming and the power...

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Malini Schueller (essay date Fall 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Questioning Race and Gender Definitions: Dialogic Subversions in The Woman Warrior," in Criticism, Vol. XXXI, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 421-37.

[In the following essay, Schueller provides an analysis of The Woman Warrior as a work that offers insight into issues of racial, national, and gender identity.]

Ever since its publication in 1976, Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior has been praised as a feminist work. But while critics have written extensively about the articulation of female experience in The Woman Warrior, they have been unable to deal simultaneously with the questions of national and racial identity that the book so...

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Wendy Ho (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mother Daughter Writing and the Politics of Race and Sex in Maxine Hong Kingston's 'The Woman Warrior,'" in Asian Americans: Comparative and Global Perspectives, edited by Shirley Hune, Hyung-chan Kim, Stephen S. Fugita, and Amy Ling, Washington State University Press, 1991, pp. 225-38.

[Ho is an American educator. In the following essay, she studies the interplay between mother and daughter in The Woman Warrior, and discusses how this interaction illuminates racial and gender-based concerns.]

In the autobiographical novel The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston, a young daughter attempts to bridge the gap among different and often conflicting...

(The entire section is 6340 words.)

Khani Begum (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Confirming the Place of 'The Other': Gender and Ethnic Identity in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior," in New Perspectives on Women and Comedy, edited by Regina Barreca, Gordon and Breach, 1992, pp. 143-56.

[Begum is an educator who has taught literature and feminist criticism at Bowling Green State University. In the following essay, she surveys the manner in which Kingston establishes her own identity as a woman and as a Chinese American in The Woman Warrior.]

The personal quest motif appears frequently in the literature of occidental societies, but rarely surfaces in that of oriental cultures, where integration with the community and family...

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Sau-ling Cynthia Wong (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Autobiography as Guided Chinatown Tour? Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior and the Chinese-American Autobiographical Controversy," in Multicultural Autobiography: American Lives, edited by James Robert Payne, University of Tennessee Press, 1992, pp. 248-79.

[Born in Hong Kong, Wong has been a professor in the Asian American studies program at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of From Necessity to Extravagance: Contexts and Intertexts in Asian American Literature. In the following essay, she surveys the controversial critical reaction to The Woman Warrior.]

Maxine Hong Kingston's autobiography, The Woman...

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Sue Anne Johnston (essay date Spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Empowerment through Mythological Imaginings in Woman Warrior," in Biography, Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 136-46.

[In the following essay, Johnston explores Kingston's use of myth in The Woman Warrior.]

In The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston explores the relation between a mythic, three-dimensional reality represented by China of the mind, and a flat literal reality equated with America. In its exploration of the shifting line between history and memory, fiction and nonfiction, dream and fact, Kingston challenges western rational ways of seeing, classifying, ordering. Indeed, the very difficulty of categorizing Kingston's work (fictive...

(The entire section is 2741 words.)

Bonnie TuSmith (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Literary Tricksterism: Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts," in Anxious Power: Reading, Writing, and Ambivalence in Narrative by Women, edited by Carol J. Singley and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, State University of New York Press, 1993, pp. 279-94.

[TuSmith has been an professor of English at Bowling Green State University and is the author of All My Relatives: Community in Contemporary Ethnic Literatures. In the following essay, she considers Kingston's narrative strategy in The Woman Warrior.]

When an ethnic female writer publishes an "autobiography," she is immediately confronted with inappropriate...

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Bonnie Melchior (essay date Summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Marginal 'I': The Autobiographical Self Deconstructed in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior," in Biography, Vol. 17, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 281-95.

[In the following essay, Melchior explores the issues of identity, the traditional Western concept of self, and the American tradition of autobiography raised by Kingston's rendering of her memoir in The Woman Warrior.]

Autobiography has been called the "preeminent kind of American expression" [Robert F. Sayre, "Autobiography and the Making of America," in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, edited by James Olney, 1980], perhaps because its autonomous "I" is strikingly congruent...

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LeiLani Nishime (essay date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Engendering Genre: Gender and Nationalism in 'China Men' and 'The Woman Warrior,'" in MELUS, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 67-83.

[In the following essay, Nishime traces Kingston's treatment of gender and ethnicity in The Woman Warrior and China Men, and discusses how genre illuminates the author's concept of identity.]

China Men, Maxine Hong Kingston's book on the history of Chinese-Americans, followed close on the heels of the publication of her much acclaimed autobiography The Woman Warrior. Kingston has said that she first envisioned the two volumes as one book; yet if we view these books as companion works, then it...

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Marlene Goldman (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Naming the Unspeakable: The Mapping of Female Identity in Maxine Hong Kingston's 'The Woman Warrior,'" in International Women's Writing: New Landscapes of Identity, edited by Anne E. Brown and Marjanne E. Goozé, Greenwood Press, 1995, pp. 223-32.

[Goldman has taught women's studies at the University of Victoria and Canadian literature at the University of Toronto. In the following essay, she assesses The Woman Warrior as a postmodern work that offers a distinctive sense of female identity.]

In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf raises questions concerning women's identity and the problem of inscribing this identity in literature. Such questions...

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Sheryl A. Mylan (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Mother as Other: Orientalism in M. Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior," in Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in 20th-Century Literature, edited by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, University of Texas Press, 1996, pp. 132-52.

[In the following essay, Mylan examines what she terms as elements of Orientalism in Kingston's portrayal of her mother in The Woman Warrior.]

In the time since Edward Said's Orientalism was first published in 1978, the investigation of Western society's attempts to contain and represent non-Western cultures has become even more important. Postcolonialist studies have increased attention to the imperialist and...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bischoff, Joan. "Fellow Rebels: Annie Dillard and Maxine Hong Kingston." English Journal 78, No. 8 (December 1989): 62-7.

Examines Dillard's American Childhood and Kingston's The Woman Warrior as portraits of teenage rebellion appropriate for study by high school students.

Chan, Mimi. "'Listen, Mom, I'm a Banana': Mother and Daughter in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club." In Asian Voices in English, edited by Mimi Chan and Roy Harris, pp. 65-78. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1991.


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