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

The Woman Warrior | Study Guide

Maxine Hong Kingston

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



Maxine Hong Kingston's mother has FOBs (people Fresh Off the Boat) come talk with her sister as possible marriage prospects, and this worries Kingston. She begins to sabotage any such notion by doing housework poorly or not at all, burning what she cooks, not washing dishes, and then breaking a dish every time she does wash them. She doesn't brush her hair, and she is rude to people. The mentally challenged boy stalks her at the laundry, sitting and watching her. She is terrified this young man is the person her parents have in mind for her as a husband.

One night when the whole family is at the laundry eating dinner, Kingston lets her complaints and worries fly in a rant. She claims she won't let her parents give her to an ape just because he's rich; it's their fault she started with a zero IQ; she's going to college to make real friends; she's running for office and never getting married; if they try to give her sister to another guy advertised in the newspapers, she will take her sister with her; and she's going to be a lumberjack and a journalist. Her mother, an excellent arguer herself, is horrified and says she never said she would marry Kingston off; it's not possible to sell people; and all of the awful things she says to Kingston actually have the opposing meaning. She also berates Kingston for not understanding the difference between reality and a joke and says no one would ever marry Kingston because she's messy, loud, and disobedient. She says she cut Kingston's tongue so Kingston could say charming things because Kingston turned out to be so unusual. She tells Kingston to get out, having known all along she would "turn out bad."

After revealing all these feelings to her parents, Kingston feels as if she can see the world more clearly and needs simplicity in her life. She leaves home to strike out on her own as an independent adult. She wonders how much of her childhood was really "Chinese-sight" and how much was "child-sight" she has grown out of. She realizes girls aren't sold in China and wants to go there to find out the truth. She also looks up some of the names she has been called and thinks they're not so bad, which leads her to visit her parents after the argument. She inherits the financial responsibility for relatives who are still in China now that she is out on her own and making money. She can't speak Chinese well enough anymore to be bilingual, but she is able to go back home and not feel so unwanted.

Kingston relates a story about the poet Ts'ai Yen who is captured by barbarians and isolated. She hears their flutes playing, and after a while, she begins to sing in a voice that sounds exactly like the flutes. The voice is in Chinese, not in the barbarian language, and the words are about longing for China. To Kingston, this story reflects her own feelings about her adult life and her childhood experiences.


Maxine Hong Kingston's realization that her "Chinese-sight" could have been partially "child-sight" that she would outgrow is a remarkably mature way of looking at her childhood. The argument she has with her mother as a young adult is understandable because she has been told all her life girls are a waste, she is ugly, has a funny voice, and does nothing well. Any child, Chinese or not, who hears those remarks repeatedly is bound to take them to heart at some point and bring those insecurities into adulthood.

Kingston used to be glad her family would not be going back to China because she feared being sold by her parents. Her mother makes her realize why she made all of those horrible comments; her mother says the opposite of what she means because this is what Chinese people do. Kingston is not entirely satisfied with this explanation, but she is relieved that going back to China to see who is left and how badly they really need help is not out of the question.

As an adult in a Chinese-American family, Kingston will inherit the responsibility of financially caring for a number of relatives still in China, but she wants to know who is lying about needing so much money and who is telling the truth. Again, it is hard for her to know what the truth is. China continues to call the shots, and Kingston continues to have a hard time keeping up with the game; however, she feels as if she is still singing of China in the land of the barbarians, mimicking their tune with the softness in her voice.

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