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.)

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The Woman Warrior is a blend of autobiographical material about the second-generation Chinese-American author and the myths and dreams that constitute her psychic reality. By fusing fact and imagination, Maxine Hong Kingston works toward answers to the central problem articulated at the beginning of the book. This problem isto figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fit in solid America. . . . Chinese-Americans, . . . how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese?

The narrative consists of five interlocking sections, each of which explores the central problem from a different perspective.

The first section, “No Name Woman,” tells the story of an aunt who, after bearing an illegitimate child, was forced by neighbors and family to commit suicide. Kingston explains that when she reached puberty, her mother told her the story of No Name Woman as a warning. The story of this aunt is vague and shrouded in the mystery of the unspeakable.

The next two sections picture strong women who refuse to be victims. No Name Woman is the victim of a community which devalues and severely restricts women; in contrast, the mythical Woman Warrior of the second section, “White Tigers,” actively avenges crimes against her community. A Chinese Joan of Arc, she leads an army in defiance of laws which would put her to death for impersonating a man if she were discovered; she also marries for love, gives birth in the saddle, and returns to her family in honor, evading the fate of the Western woman hero. Kingston explains that the Woman Warrior, also based on her mother’s stories, represents her dreams of power and creativity.

The third section, “Shaman,” recounts the life of Kingston’s mother, Brave Orchid. While still living in China, Brave Orchid battled stiff odds to be graduated with honors from a women’s medical college and then practiced her...

(The entire section is 829 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Maxine Hong Kingston presents a series of mythic and autobiographic stories that illuminate the way in which the author must deal with the sexism and racism in her world. As a young Chinese American girl, who is called such racist names as “gook” and who is repeatedly told such misogynist Chinese sayings as “girls are maggots in the rice” by her own parents, Kingston feels alienated both from the dominant American culture and from the male-dominated Chinese culture. In her memoirs, Kingston tells of her search for women role models, interweaving imaginative stories concerning such characters as Fa Mu Lan, a Chinese woman warrior, with memories of her own relationship with her strong-willed mother, Brave Orchid. Through these various stories, the narrator searches to affirm her Chinese American female identity in the context of her bicultural world.

The narrator begins her autobiography with her mother telling her a cautionary tale about her Chinese aunt, whom Kingston calls the No Name Woman. Her married aunt, who became pregnant from an illicit affair, incurs the wrath of the Chinese villagers, who attack her family’s house. Her aunt gives birth to her child and drowns both herself and the child in the family well. Kingston calls her aunt “No Name Woman” because her family, blaming the aunt for the shame that she brought to them, deliberately attempts to erase her from the family’s memory. Although Brave Orchid warns Maxine not to repeat her aunt’s story, Maxine uses the story as a catalyst for her creative imagination. Maxine attempts to imagine...

(The entire section is 672 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although other Asian American women writers preceded her, Kingston was one of the first to garner national recognition, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976 for The Woman Warrior. Thus, she has been seen as a pioneer for other Asian American women writers who have succeeded her. Politically, Kingston’s The Woman Warrior has excited interest not only because the work provides a feminist vision from a Chinese American woman’s perspective but also because of the negative reaction that it has produced in such Chinese American men as Frank Chin.

On the one hand, Kingston provides a critique of a patriarchal and misogynist feudal China that can trap women in demeaning, slavelike roles, subject to such cultural practices as foot-binding. On the other hand, Kingston points out that the Chinese culture itself provides her with such powerful women role models as Fa Mu Lan and Ts’ai Yen. Out of this complex tradition, Kingston forges a bicultural self that will allow her to enact her own “woman warrior” identity in an American society with its own racist and patriarchal legacy.

Nevertheless, Chinese American playwright Frank Chin has criticized Kingston’s work on the grounds that it propagates racist views of Chinese Americans. Interested in championing a Chinese heroic tradition to combat the often-emasculating vision that the dominant American culture has of Asian American men, Chin believes that Kingston’s feminist views distort an authentic picture of China and Chinese Americans. Certainly, however, one can argue that Kingston’s work is an autobiographic, not an ethnographic, study; Kingston is conveying her understanding of her mother’s talk-stories, which reflect a living immigrant oral culture, not a series of static, “authentic” tales. Moreover, Kingston has reformulated male heroic traditions, highlighting the contributions of women to that tradition. Thus, Kingston’s work broadens the concept of a Chinese mythos precisely because she embeds her hybrid American and feminist views within that tradition, claiming her own “woman warrior’s” voice.

Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

In The Woman Warrior: Memories of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Maxine Hong Kingston weaves myth, history, and personal recollection into the genre of autobiography. As a mirror of the author’s conscious life, the book reflects Kingston’s struggle to construct a coherent narrative from the stories, dreams, and fragmented memories of her formative years. The text is divided into five sections, made up largely of stories reconstructed from those told to Kingston by her mother, stories to “grow up on.” As central characters in these cautionary tales, female relatives and ancestors embody cultural ideals that are transmitted from mother to daughter.

The first story, “No Name Woman,” is related as a secret. The offense of its central figure, Kingston’s father’s sister, is to have borne a child outside of marriage. Shunned by her community, she drowns herself and her baby in the family well. In contrast to this hushed story of shame, the second tale celebrates a revered legend in lyrical expanses of writing, like epic poetry. A model character, Fa Mu Lan, schooled in the harsh discipline of a warrior, liberates her people from tyrants and then lives out her life as a dutiful wife and mother.

As do the first and second parts of the book, the third and fourth present contrasting views of women: victim and overcomer, healer and destroyer. The third section, “Shaman,” traces the career of Kingston’s mother, Brave Orchid, in China as a brilliant medical student and then as a physician. The fourth section features Brave Orchid’s sister, Moon Orchid. In both sections, name reveals Character: If Brave Orchid survives on bold cunning, Moon Orchid fades as a pale satellite, tragically dependent on others.

The final section focuses directly on Kingston. By the book’s end, she has clearly become its protagonist. The section climaxes with a diatribe in which Kingston refuses to listen to any more of her mother’s stories. She rejects their lack of logic or clear distinction between fiction and reality. Nevertheless, her experience with Western logic and scientism leaves her no more satisfied. A coda that completes the book tells the story of a poet who is kidnapped by barbarians; when she returns to her people, she brings with her songs that translate well on their instruments. The Woman Warrior ends, then, on a note of hope for personal integration.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Chinese Immigrants Published by Gale Cengage

Women in Chinese Society

Kingston takes revenge on centuries of Chinese female oppression in The Woman...

(The entire section is 664 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)


Literary experts both praise and criticize Kingston's writing style. She combines fact with...

(The entire section is 768 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

More than one reviewer has noted that A Woman Warrior blurs the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. In order to capture a...

(The entire section is 374 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As an autobiography, the book is concerned with portraying the experiences of a single individual faced with the problems inherent in growing...

(The entire section is 420 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

6th Century BC-1911 AD: Confinement and oppression of Chinese women abounds.

1912-1928: Last...

(The entire section is 164 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Compare and contrast the Chinese tradition of "talking story" to traditions of oral storytelling in other cultures. Describe the relative...

(The entire section is 237 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Kingston has noted that her desire to write about her people, a group most commonly identified by a common language rather than a specific...

(The entire section is 222 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Kingston reads The Woman Warrior on an audio cassette entitled Maxine Hong Kingston Reading The Woman Warrior [and]...

(The entire section is 31 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

China Men follows Kingston's The Woman Warrior. While Kingston actually started this book prior to The Woman Warrior, Knopf did...

(The entire section is 238 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)


Henry Allen, review in Washington Post, June 26, 1980.

Mary Gordon, review in...

(The entire section is 808 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Blinde, Patricia Lin. “The Icicle in the Desert: Perspective and Form in the Works of Two Chinese-American Woman Writers,” in MELUS. VI (Summer, 1979), pp. 51-71.

Chan, Jeffrey Paul, Frank Chin, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong, eds. The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers. New York: New American Library/Meridian, 1991. Chin has accused The Woman Warrior, shaped by its feminist vision, of being a “fake book,” providing an inauthentic picture of Chinese American history and catering to a racist American culture.

Cheung, King-Kok. Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto,...

(The entire section is 577 words.)