Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (published in 1976) is known for its feminism and for giving voice to the experience of being first generation Asian American. It is an intersectional masterpiece that is part factual memoir and part “talk-story,” i.e., creative storytelling, not just about Hong Kingston’s childhood but also about her female relatives. Through these women, we see the juxtaposition of strength and powerlessness, of warriors and ghosts, of Chinese and Chinese-American. For Hong Kingston, being able to use one’s voice meant being able to keep one’s own life and sanity, which sadly was not possible for many women. Ghosts in this memoir are not just spectral presences, but rather are those who are on the outside, who are not of the village or community, and often these ghosts are women (although they are also non-Chinese in general). Yet, the Chinese also have a tradition of the female warrior who, at great personal risk, defends and avenges her family. Hong Kingston’s memoir is about her path to figuring out how to define her village/community and how to live like a warrior and not a ghost or slave.
The memoir is divided into five chapters, each featuring either Hong Kingston (HK) or a female relative. She starts with the story of her father’s sister “No Name Woman,” whose existence was erased by the family because of the shame she brought them. No Name Woman had married a man who, like HK’s father and many others, left their village in China to go to the “Gold Mountain,” (i.e., the United States) to earn money to send back home. Her husband had already been gone a few years when No Name Woman became pregnant. Shortly before giving birth, masked villagers attacked their home (she had been living with her parents), destroying or taking everything they could. Later No Name Woman gave birth alone and killed herself and her baby. For HK’s mother, who tells the story, the moral is evident: don’t get pregnant and humiliate your family. But for HK, many unanswered questions remain, such as what was her name? Why was she living with her own family instead of her husband’s? Most likely she had been kicked out. Most likely, No Name Woman was the victim of rape and not a consensual affair, and the rapist would have been a villager (i.e., someone she knew). No Name Woman killed herself and her child by throwing herself down a well, a good location for a ghost to haunt fellow villagers. Most likely the baby was a girl, since a boy would have been too valuable to kill and could have managed to live in the village while a girl could not. The ghost of No Name Woman haunts HK, who has become complicit in her punishment by keeping the secret, by participating in deliberately forgetting her, until now.
The next chapter deals with the story of Chinese swords-women, particularly the legend of Fa Mu Lan, which HK’s mother Brave Orchid tells her. Brave Orchid frequently told stories of brave heroic women to her children, but at the same time, she emphasized that HK would grow up to be “a wife and a slave.” The goal of HK’s parents, now living in San Francisco, was to eventually return the family to their village in China, and HK can see from the way her family lives in the US and the way that neighbors (all from the same Chinese village) treat her and other girls that this is not an acceptable fate. Throughout the memoir, HK emphasizes the difference between the treatment of Chinese boys (preferred and spoiled) and Chinese girls (seen as a burden). HK resolves that she will be a warrior woman and imagines how she will become one via a tale reminiscent of the story of Fa Mu Lan.
The next two chapters deal with HK’s mother Brave Orchid and her mother’s younger sister Moon Orchid, and they are powerful and moving. These chapters best exemplify the dichotomy of warrior and ghost, of the powerfulness and powerlessness of women. Brave Orchid is aptly named. Her story is focused on the years her husband was in America but she was still in their village in China. Brave Orchid had had two children who both died while their father was away, so she resolved to use the money he sent home for herself. Brave Orchid enrolled in medical school and became a midwife. Though older than the other students, she was very intelligent and worked hard, and she became a successful and respected doctor in their village before moving to the US in 1940. In the US, she and her husband started a laundry (twice) and had several more children. Moon Orchid, on the other hand, never moved to the US because her husband never sent for her. He sent money to Moon Orchid and their daughter for over 30 years. Brave Orchid intervened to bring her niece to America and then later to bring Moon Orchid. Brave Orchid wants Moon Orchid to confront her husband, a successful doctor in LA who has married again. Brave Orchid imagines all kinds of scenarios in which Moon Orchid shames her husband and his wife, while forcefully demanding her rightful place in his home. But it is clear that Moon Orchid is not at all like her sister. She is timid, effacing, quiet. The fallout from the confrontation with her husband is painful and tragic. Moon Orchid ends up a sort of ghost, living among other ghosts. HK and her sisters resolve that this will not happen to them; they will study math and science and never let men be unfaithful to them.
The final chapter refocuses on HK and her struggle as she grew older (in her teenaged years) to figure out who she is and what her village is, to make sure she doesn’t become a ghost or a slave to a man. She struggles with the secretive nature of her parents, the embarrassing habits of Chinese villagers in America, the cultural divide between her parents’ generation and her own, having been born and raised in America. They are, even to their parents, “ghosts” of a kind. They are not of the village (and don’t want to be) but they are not accepted as fully American either. The theme that stands out in this chapter is using one’s voice, of talking so as not to lose one’s sanity. HK tells a shameful story on herself from childhood — about tormenting another Chinese girl who would not or could not speak. HK is angry at her silence, though she admits that in school she herself was usually silent and paid a price for it later. What HK sees as she grows is that females who are silent, who don’t talk, end up losing their sanity and she desperately wants to avoid this. HK ends up having a huge fight with Brave Orchid, each shouting at the other, each not understanding the other but perhaps not as far apart in their desires as we thought.
The Woman Warrior succeeds as a personal memoir about specific people in a particular point in time. It is also a timeless examination of the unavoidable consequences of discrimination, injustice and silence: if you don’t speak your truth, you might go mad; the injustices of the past must be confronted or they will haunt you; if you don’t choose to become a warrior for some village, you might fade into a ghost. And women can save themselves.