The Woman Warrior

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

An invisible world surrounded children born to Chinese immigrants in the United States. Growing up American, they struggled to ascertain what things in them were Chinese. How could they separate those things from “what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories"? How did Fa Mu Lan, the legendary woman warrior, compare with goddesses of the silver screen? How did a young girl growing up among American teenage mores relate to her ancestor, the outcast “No Name Woman"? In The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston recalls a girlhood spent in her parents’ laundry in a California city, in American and Chinese schools, and in the enchanting fables and fantasies of her ancient heritage.

Written from a feminist perspective, The Woman Warrior is the story of a girl’s awakening as a strong individual, in the face of misogynistic Chinese folk traditions. The tensions among these traditions, paradoxical myths of female heroism, and everyday postwar America are the background of this sensitive memoir.

Especially haunting is the tale of “No Name Woman,” Maxine’s great-aunt, who drowned herself and her newborn baby in a well. The woman’s husband had gone to America, and she had been forced by a man of the village to lie with him. She gave birth to his child in a pigsty, as was the custom of country women in old China; they believed the gods, who did not snatch piglets, would be fooled. The true punishment for No Name Woman was not the raid of her home by outraged villagers, nor her suicide. The true punishment, Maxine decides, was silence. The family deliberately forgot her. But fifty years later, the nameless woman still haunts Maxine.

Nevertheless, ancient Chinese legends taught that a girl failed if she grew up merely to be a wife or a slave instead of a swordswoman. Fa Mu Lan, the girl who took her father’s place in battle, inspired Maxine. She tells the story of the woman warrior as if it were part of her own girlhood—as indeed it was. An elderly couple tutored Fa Mu Lan for fifteen years, training her to survive barehanded among tigers, as well as to understand the ways of dragons. She learned to make her mind as large as the universe, to allow room for paradoxes. Her parents carved on her back oaths and the names of persons who had wronged her family. Then, assembling a joyous army, she rode to battle. Fa Mu Lan’s army did not rape. They took food only when there was plenty for all. Wherever they went, they brought order.

Like Joan of Arc, this Chinese woman dressed as a man, for it was the custom to execute women who disguised themselves as soldiers or students, “no matter how bravely they fought or how high they scored on the examinations.” To accept this paradox, Maxine must expand her mind, as Fa Mu Lan did.

Kingston’s woman warrior is unique. Unlike the virginal Joan of Arc, Fa Mu Lan has a husband, who visits her in battle. She carries his child, gives birth on the battlefield, and then sends the baby home to her family. After many hardships, the army reaches the cruel emperor, beheads him, cleans out the palace, and inaugurates “the peasant who would begin the new order.” Her public duties finished, Fa Mu Lan returns to her family and her traditional female role.

After living this tale, Maxine reflects that her drab American life is a disappointment. In school, she is awkward and shy. At home, she balks at the old prejudices, casually repeated by her loving family: “It is more profitable to raise geese than daughters.” Kingston skillfully juxtaposes the family’s poverty and prejudices against the girl’s dreams and the stories told by her mother, Brave Orchid.

These unresolved tensions have created ambivalent feelings in the author, as she readily admits. Fantasies of revenge for ancient wrongs contrast with her own experience that fighting and killing are “not . . . glorious but slum grubby.” Yet she aspires to be like the warrior so that her family will accept her female strength. They say, “When fishing for treasures in the flood, be careful not to pull in girls,” because that is what Chinese say about daughters. She believes they love her, but she had to get out of “hating range” in order to become strong. Later, wrapped in successes as an American woman, Maxine still resists the restrictive roles thrust on females, while envying other women, who are “loved enough to be supported.” Even as an adult, she recognizes that China still “wraps double binds around my feet.”

With women throughout the world seeking their own identity and learning independence, Kingston’s timely memoir is a scrapbook of experiences that are universal and yet particular: The Chinese word for the female I is “slave.” The dream of having one’s own room appears in Communist photographs of “a contented woman sitting on her bunk sewing. Above her head...

(The entire section is 2031 words.)