The Woman Warrior

I’ve finally read Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1975), a book I have heard so much about but somehow never got to until now. The book is creative non-fiction, a memoir of Kingston’s Chinese childhood among “ghosts.” Ghosts are white Americans, and reading this book gave me access to what it must really be like to grow up in a country where you are an outsider, where your parents fit one culture and your peers fit another, and where you must straddle a fine line of loyalty and sensemaking.

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The results of this are confusing. Kingston explained, “I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes. . . . sometimes the dragon is one, sometimes many” (p. 29). I loved this explanation for her own experiences, but I see this as true for many of us, as we live in situations and a world that is not black and white. It is hard to make sense of paradoxes, but this point of view invites them and helped me to realize that paradoxes are life. Accepting them is the only way to understand some of the difficult situations we might face.

Kingston’s chapters read as individual “short stories” of different experiences. This made the book easy to read, put aside, and contemplate, before going on to the next phase. In one section, she retells the legend of Fa Mulan, whom we all have become familiar with through Disney. It is a beautiful story that gets more justice from Kingston’s writing than from the animated big screen.

My favorite chapter is toward the end, called “At the Western Palace.” This is the story of Kingston’s mother, Moon Orchid, and her sister Brave Orchid. Moon Orchid has lived in the United States for some time, practicing medicine and raising her family. Brave Orchid arrives as an old woman. She’s there to find her husband, who left decades ago for the United States. Brave Orchid spends weeks and months with Moon Orchid, imagining how she’ll let her husband and his “second” wife know that she’s here. After much resistance and the willingness to stay with her sister for the rest of her life, Brave Orchid is finally dragged to her husband’s office (he’s a doctor), where the family realizes that he is younger and has a much younger wife. They remember the practice of marrying off young men to older Chinese women before they left for the United States in an effort to make them return. Brave Orchid has a strange confrontation with her “husband” and the two part without any sort of reconciliation and without Brave Orchid taking her “rightful” place in the household over the younger, newer wife. This story, while comical in the telling, represents a serious grappling with the old and new ways of two cultures that have very different expectations for marriage and ambition.

Earlier we learn of the consequences for women if they break marital bonds. Kingston recounts what she heard of an aunt who died. She finds out that this aunt became pregnant while her husband was away, and she tells an imagined story of how this aunt committed suicide because of the viciousness and judgments of her neighbors, among whom was likely her lover. Kingston mourns this early death, along with the death of the aunt’s newborn baby, although her family refrains from speaking of this woman and considers her a disgrace who was never born. They see her demise as necessary. Again, we see Kingston wrestling with the distances between cultures.

We learn more about the cultural differences in marriage in the final chapter, “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe.” Kingston writes of the desire her parents seem to have to marry her off to a strange and very stupid young man. They seem to think little of her and her prospects, despite her smarts. Her parents warn, “Chinese smeared bad daughters-in-law with honey and tied them naked on top of ant nests . . . A husband may kill a wife who disobeys him. Confucius said that” (p. 193). However, after much worry and confusion, Kingston learns that her parents did not intend him for her. She is safe.

I enjoyed the lyrical quality of this memoir, and I can see why it stands as an important part of an emerging multicultural canon. It certainly represents an important part of the American experience, the immigrant experience, which should be familiar to us all.

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30 thoughts on “The Woman Warrior

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  1. As an immigrant who is by now living longer in my host country than my place of origin, I can relate so very much with her story. Though I tried so hard to fit in, I can’t change my appearance. I can never be one of “them” nor I can go back being what I was. I am hovering between worlds, not here nor there.

    1. That is such a hard place to be. I think I feel that sometimes in other settings, among different groups that I’m supposed to belong to but really don’t fit in that well. You might also enjoy Jhumpa Lahiri’s books. She writes about this a lot too.

  2. Happy New Year Ms. January. I like making room for paradoxes as they exist. Most answers are not black and white just as most problems are complex and multi-faceted beyond the scope of our Twitter world. We will not solve many of them without knowing this. Sounds like an interesting book. BTG

  3. A completely off-topic comment: I was scrolling down and reading this post when I saw your Instagram photo of Pioneer Girl. I love the Little House on the Prairie books and Pioneer Girl is going straight on my TBR list! Perhaps I’ll treat myself to it when this week is over: it’s exam week for me and I have an open exam, which involves writing three essays in three days. Although I try to live in the moment, I’ll be glad when Friday rolls around!

    1. It is Wilder’s autobiography, never before published! It is the “gritty” version of her wonderful children’s books. I love her work so much. I hope you get a copy of this one. I had trouble finding it, but one of my former students works at the bookstore. I asked for it a few days ago and she tried to help me find it, but we couldn’t. I tried to order online, but it was out of stock. Then miraculously, that student located it while doing some shelving and put it on hold for me! I can’t wait to start reading it.

  4. Thanks for writing about this book, Emily. I think I had read parts of it when I was in college, and it’s still my goal to read it, especially as a Chinese American woman. I’ll be honest though, I get turned off by the “exotic” writing used in some Asian American writing – “ghosts” and “blossoms” and all of that. It’s not the way any Asian American I know talks but I should probably give this book a shot before making these judgments!

    1. Yeah, I can see why that language is annoying to you. Do you think Asian Americans talked like that when Kingston was writing, or when they first come to the country? Or is she just trying to be “fancy” and poetic?

      1. I would doubt it (that it’s how Asian Americans spoke at the time). It’s another reason I have stayed away from Amy Tan novels. Of course, maybe older generations talked like that but we didn’t in our family and the parents of my Asian American friends didn’t either. I just wondered if it’s the linguistic equivalent to sweet and sour pork – if writers used that literary device (can I call it that?) to make their writing appealing to a western audience. I could be wrong here too – the Chinese population is so vast and diverse and maybe somewhere in China people do talk like this.

  5. I feel sooo old now! “The Woman Warrior” was one of the set texts for 3 unit English in my last year at school way back in 1989! 😦 I had never heard of it again, until now. Talk about ghosts of the past. So glad it is still being read. It shared a reading list with New Zealand’s Janet Frame (Owls Do Cry) and our own West Australian Tim Winton (An Open Swimmer). I still follow Tim Winton’s novels but have lapsed from Janet Frame and Maxine Hong Kingston. Thanks for the challenge, Emily. As I’ve said before, your blogs always give me something to think about. 🙂

    1. I hadn’t heard of Frame and Winton, so you’ve given me some new authors to explore! Yes, this book enjoyed a measure of “fame” when it first came out. I think it is one I heard about all those years ago and just haven’t visited until now. But it is one that has stayed with me as a “must-read.” Glad to hear you’ve read it too (in a more timely manner!).

  6. I love stories about multicultural experiences! This sounds alternately sad and uplifting. I think I might need to add this to my list.

  7. Thank you for posting this! I once had a class with Maxine to teach us “everything I know about writing.” It was a simple exercise in interviewing a fellow classmate, telling their story to the class, and choosing a handful of words to describe them. Needless to say, it was amazing and has been imprinted on my soul ever since!

  8. So, this is a fun coincidence. I was interested in this book when I read this post last week and then I forgot about it. Now I’m cleaning out my wallet and on an old tattered post-it from who knows how long ago, I had reminded myself then to look this book up. And it’s just surfaced today, so shortly after your post. If I believed in stars aligning, I’d say that they have for me and this book!

  9. Your review is so intriguing, and it is good to learn different culture and the story looks so attractive. I wish I could read that one one day.

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