The Woman Warrior | Study Guide

Maxine Hong Kingston

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The Woman Warrior | Context


Chinese Immigration in the Early 20th Century

Emigration from China to the United States was limited from 1882 to 1943. Many Chinese workers had emigrated to the country in the 19th century, first to seek gold in California, and then to work on the railroads. They left China to escape poverty and political oppression, usually leaving their families behind in the hope that they could get rich and come back to China after making their fortunes. White Americans saw Chinese immigrants as unfair competition for work, a perception that resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which prohibited immigration of Chinese workers for 10 years. The Geary Act of 1892 made immigration laws more restrictive, and by 1924, Asian immigrants were denied citizenship and forbidden to own land.

Chinese immigrants provided cheap labor, but they still sent part of their meager wages to their families back in China to keep them from starving. Many Chinese men in the United States ended up separated from their families for much longer than they planned because not only were they not getting rich, but the alternative in China was too grim to contemplate. They sent for their families to emigrate from China to the United States or remained separated from them, taking on new lives and leaving China behind for good. The rise to power of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, the seizure of family land, and the resulting poverty and/or punishment of relatives ensured that these immigrants would never be able to go back to China to live.

Immigrants to a new country are often forced to take low-paying, menial jobs that native workers do not want, primarily because their immigration status is in flux when they first arrive, and there is always the danger of deportation. To try to find work related to one's original career often required background checks that could endanger one's ability to stay in the country. Racism also continued to play a major role in keeping Chinese immigrants from pursuing their original careers. Chinese immigrants, their families, and their cultural differences were seen by white Americans as a threat to their way of life. Many Chinese immigrants unable to continue their professional careers ended up working in laundry businesses in city Chinatowns.

Chinese Legends as Talk Stories

Chinese culture has a rich and varied oral tradition of storytelling, with legends from history passed down from generation to generation, embellished in the telling to thrill audiences. Myth is also an important part of Chinese identity, from ghosts that appear disguised as people and objects, to dragons, snakes, and other creatures that both threaten humanity and create different parts of the world. Maxine Hong Kingston uses the term "talk story," a way of relating Chinese myths and legends by combining them with actual experiences in family stories, to describe her method of writing and the stories her mother tells her. For example, her mother's stories of living in a haunted dorm at her medical school in China include a battle with a ghost. Her mother embellishes the story when she tells it to her children in order to teach a lesson about how to outwit ghosts, including white people, who are like ghosts to her. Kingston's way of writing about her desires and dreams hearken back to the skills of women warriors in talk-stories told by her mother at bedtime. She writes about these stories as if she is sitting down to tell a story to her reader, which brings the reader into her vividly imagined world blended with her real life.

In addition, the way that Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans go through their daily lives, including the placement of objects throughout the house and the timing of certain activities, is directed by myths of the gods and their preferences. Doing anything to offend the gods of nature is to be avoided, and Kingston describes how Chinese-American children who are unfamiliar with these traditions find out about them through trial and error, often getting in trouble for things they didn't even know were problematic. Even the table is set for ghosts of ancestors, which alternately fascinates and embarrasses Kingston.

The classic legends of woman warriors in China, especially Fa Mu Lan, are based in history, but the legends of how these women succeeded in raising up armies and defeating their enemies are often peppered with actions that sound more magical than realistic. For example, Fa Mu Lan, who dresses as a man and raises an army to avenge her village and overthrow the emperor, is said to be able to create a sword using the power of her mind, and direct it in the same way. Fa Mu Lan is central to Kingston's views of Chinese women and her desire to transcend the image of the silent, obedient Chinese-American daughter. Other Asian-American writers, such as Amy Tan, have woven these types of myths and legends, transmitted as talk-stories, as well as their effects on daily Chinese-American life, into their novels and memoirs in a similar fashion.

Growth of Asian American Literature

Although Chinese immigrants in the United States began writing about their personal experiences as early as the late 1800s, the genre of Asian-American literature took root in the 1970s with the production of Frank Chin's 1972 play The Chickencoop Chinaman and the publication of two 1974 anthologies: Aiiieeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers and Asian American Heritage: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry. The genre itself is Asian American not only because the authors of these works of literature are Asian American, but because the characters are as well, and the stories themselves explore what life is like for Americans of Asian ancestry. Not all Asian-American literature deals specifically with the immigrant experience or the first-generation Asian-American experience, but these experiences played a central role in the development of the genre.

As a stand-alone text, rather than an anthology entry, The Woman Warrior paved the way for other Asian-American writers to achieve prominence. They include the playwright David Henry Hwang, author of 1980's F.O.B (the acronym for "fresh off the boat") and 1988's Tony Award–winning M. Butterfly. Amy Tan's best-selling 1989 novel, The Joy Luck Club, like The Woman Warrior, explores the ways that Chinese immigrant mothers hold onto cultural norms that worked in China but do not fit as well into American life, and the effects of their resistance to assimilation on their daughters born in America.

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