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.
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.'"
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."