Literature Study GuidesThe Woman WarriorA Song For A Barbarian Reed Pipe Cut Tongue Summary

The Woman Warrior | Study Guide

Maxine Hong Kingston

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The Woman Warrior | A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe (Cut Tongue) | Summary



"A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe" focuses on Maxine Hong Kingston herself. The story begins as she asks her mother why she cut Kingston's frenum when she was a baby, and her mother says it was to allow her to speak more languages. However, Kingston becomes completely silent in American school when she realizes she has to speak in English. She can read aloud but can't hold a conversation, and often gets sent under the stairs with the loud boys. All of the Chinese girls in American school are very quiet, but when they all attend Chinese school later in the day, they are loud and boisterous. Kingston says there are African-American children in her Chinese class as well, and that a few walk her home to protect her from bullies.

One day, the pharmacist sends a prescription to Kingston's house by accident, and Brave Orchid, horrified this will curse the household, makes Kingston take it back and insist the pharmacist give her candy to make the curse go away, as a Chinese pharmacist would do. This isn't the only difference that embarrasses Kingston: the Chinese language is guttural and loud, while Japanese and English are soft and musical, so soft that Chinese can't hear it. Chinese names seem harsh to Kingston, while English names flow. The music of China is limited to five notes in a minor key, while Western music is "unhearable." Kingston and the other Chinese girls feel they have to lower their volume, making their voices quiet and whispery to be "American-feminine." Kingston visits a speech therapist and is able to speak normally in those sessions, but she can't assert herself in public.


In this section, Maxine Hong Kingston wonders why her mother would cut her tongue but not those of her siblings. Her childhood is fraught with worry about how she sounds when she speaks, but it isn't just the sound of her voice that worries her: it's the shame of saying something the wrong way, being misunderstood, or being unpopular. Kingston says all of the Chinese-American girls are quiet in "American school," but they become their noisy selves once they are in Chinese school in the afternoons. Still, it seems Kingston is on the extreme end of quiet, as she says she is completely silent all through kindergarten and first grade. The fact she has been evaluated as having an IQ of zero at this point in her life is evidence of the shame she carries, not being able to force herself to speak English in school. Her anger at her mother for being part of the cause of her shame is exacerbated by her mother's insults about the sound of her voice.

Evidence of shame about being Chinese also arises in this section. Kingston's statement that she was worried her mother would make her do some kind of weird ritual in the pharmacy to reverse a curse expresses the kind of typically Chinese actions her mother does that are embarrassing to her when white people are watching. Part of the theme of Chinese-American culture in this memoir is related to how much of her Chinese identity Kingston must hold onto to fit in as an American. For Kingston to shun her mother's rituals, she has to be disrespectful to her mother who does not understand why Kingston makes certain choices to be considered acceptable in white American society.

The constant pull between Kingston's love for her mother, anger at how she is treated by her mother, and embarrassment for all of the deeply traditional Chinese attitudes her mother holds onto all make for a girl who finds existing out loud difficult in the world of English-speaking Americans.

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