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Identity and Search for Self

People form their personal identities through life experiences and interactions with the people around them. The Woman Warrior collects five stories from Kingston's life that contribute to her growth as a person and the development of her identity.

From the time Maxine is a small...

(The entire section contains 1392 words.)

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Identity and Search for Self

People form their personal identities through life experiences and interactions with the people around them. The Woman Warrior collects five stories from Kingston's life that contribute to her growth as a person and the development of her identity.

From the time Maxine is a small child, she questions who she really is, and where she belongs in her family, Chinese culture, and American culture. As a kindergartner, Maxine does not speak. She does not talk to her classmates or to her teachers. She struggles to overcome her inability to talk, trying to discover herself and to connect to her Chinese and American communities. Her mother's "talk stories" and admonitions about "ghosts" keep Maxine suspended between Chinese and American cultures. For three years, her silence is total. Underscoring the strangeness of her silence, she covers her school paintings in black paint. Her teachers fear for her sanity.

Maxine questions her mother's love for her, too. She sees that her parents treat the girls in the family differently than they treat the boys. For example, the family holds special birthday celebrations for the boys and praises their accomplishments. On the other hand, the family members insult the girls and ignore them at every opportunity. Maxine's mother, especially, sends her messages that make her feel powerless. She berates Maxine, telling her that she is stupid and ugly. Yet, in a contradictory way, Maxine's mother tries to empower her, too, by allowing her glimpses of a different life. She tells Maxine stories of Fa Mu Lan, the famous girl warrior, who is strong, smart, and brave. Hearing these stories gives Maxine an idea that women might live lives entirely different from the one she lives or the one her mother lives. She dreams of herself as a woman warrior.

Maxine's mother, too, suffers an identity crisis. In China, Brave Orchid left her role as a traditional Chinese woman to attend medical school in a distant city. Upon graduation, she practiced medicine as a respected doctor and midwife. She comes to America, however, and finds herself the same mother, wife, and slave that she was before she became a doctor.

When Maxine reaches the sixth grade, her silent frustrations catch up with her and prompt her to attack another quiet Chinese girl, who reminds Maxine too much of herself. As a result, Maxine discovers and releases her angry voice, which she later uses to confront her mother. In voicing her frustrations, anger, and fears, Maxine reviews the indignities she has suffered. Her irate mother tells her to leave.

At a distance from her mother and her Chinese traditions, Maxine begins to reconcile her Chinese self and her American self. She comes to terms with her family and begins to understand her heritage. She even begins to "talk story" herself. She at last claims an identity of her own.

Flesh vs. Spirit

Maxine's mother cautions her constantly about the various "ghosts" among whom she must live in America, warning Maxine not to imitate them. As a result, Maxine fears all the White Ghosts from the Taxi Ghost to the Police Ghost. She most fears the Newsboy Ghost, however. He stands in the street without his parents; she marvels at this blatant disobedience and runs from him in fear. Her mother reminds her, too, that Chinese ghosts exist in their own family and that she should absolutely avoid their mistakes. The No-Name Aunt, for one, represents family disgrace brought on by an overt act of defiance of tradition.

Though the ghosts in Maxine's life are not the supernatural kind, they cause her to experience the same kind of breathlessness people feel when they think they have encountered the supernatural. She feels smothered by the sheer number of American ghosts who surround her every day.

Only after Maxine reaches adulthood does she realize that her mother's talk of ghosts was really only Brave Orchid's denial of her life in America and a refusal to let go of her Chinese self. Eventually, Maxine's mother releases the image of the old China, accepting that it is not the same China that she knew in her past. As a result, Maxine can free the "ghosts" that have haunted her all her life and no longer fears China. When she does this, she finds she is able to accept both her mother and her own Chinese heritage.

Sexism

Maxine receives mixed messages from her mother regarding a woman's role in society. Sharing talk-story myths about the famous woman warrior, Fa Mu Lan, Brave Orchid permits Maxine to imagine herself as the victorious heroine. She dashes Maxine's dreams, however, with repeated stories such as the No Name Aunt's. Brave Orchid reminds Maxine through these stories that traditions live on in China, and traditions cannot be broken without punishment. Chinese women spend their lives serving their husbands and, especially, their in-laws. As is symbolized by the Chinese tradition of foot-binding, Chinese women are bound to a lifetime of self-denial. A proper Chinese woman allows her husband to provide for her while she serves as his maid and mistress.

Even in America, Chinese families nurture misogyny, or hatred of women. The grandfather of Maxine's cousins, for example, calls the girls "maggots." The woman-warrior image taunts Maxine, who despises the special treatment her brothers receive. The families hold big celebrations for the boys' birthdays and buy them wonderful gifts, like bicycles. They ignore the girls on their birthdays. When girls do get gifts, they receive such things as typewriters, which prepare them for service. Maxine sees these discrepancies and reacts to them in a confrontation with her mother. Maxine would like to be the woman warrior, the Chinese woman who successfully breaks tradition.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440

Kingston notes that through such stories as that of the aunt with no name ("We say your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born"), her mother "tested our strength to establish realities." The nature of reality, the sense that it is the creation of numerous diverse impressions and experiences, is a central concern of the autobiography. As a child, Kingston would listen to her mother "talk-story" at bedtime and "couldn't tell where the stories left off and the dreams began." Such comments emphasize Kingston's theme that story, fantasy, history and art all blend indistinguishably with personal experience to provide the raw material from which one creates a sense of identity. The power of the past, the power of traditions, folk tales and myths, to shape the present is evidenced on nearly every page. At times the narrator longs to be free from the crippling weight of the past, its customs, social order and misogyny, and live exclusively in the present. She realizes that "even now, China wraps double binds around my feet." Her task, like that of every first generation American, is, in her words, "to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fits in solid America."

One link between the different realities, between past and present, between the invisible world of Chinee custom or prejudice and the visible world of American society, is language. The power of words to enslave or liberate is the underlying theme of the entire book. Words are the vessels in which one passes on one's sense of the world. Through literal, figurative, and symbolic language people record their deepest feelings, and impose order on and give meaning to a myriad of impressions.

Kingston repeatedly refers to how the colloquial idioms affect an individual's world view or her self-esteem: "There is a Chinese word for the female I — which is 'slave.' Break the women with their own tongues!" She concludes her account of the legendary swordswoman Fu Ma Lan by noting the heroine and the author have in common "the words at our backs. The idioms for revenge are 'report a crime' and 'report to five families.' The reporting is the vengeance — not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words. And I have so many words — 'chink' words and 'gook' words too — that they do not fit on my skin." Bound by words as a child, Kingston discovers through her autobiography that words can also be swords which cut through early bonds, free her from traditional roles and stereotypes and allow her to create her own identity as a Chinese-American.

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