The Woman Warrior | Study Guide

Maxine Hong Kingston

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The Woman Warrior | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In The Woman Warrior, why does Maxine Hong Kingston's mother tell her the story about the No Name Woman?

Maxine Hong Kingston's mother tells Kingston the story about the No Name Woman because she wants to make sure Kingston knows she would humiliate the family if she got pregnant. She wants to scare Kingston by telling her how destructive and horrible the villagers can be when a woman humiliates her family by getting pregnant, and the entire family loses everything they have. She also warns Kingston that the entire family would have to pretend she had never been born, never speaking of her again, which would devastate Kingston. This story is the mother's way of explaining how menstruating means her body is capable of pregnancy, which brings with it social dangers. Her mother is simultaneously reasserting Chinese culture and parental authority as well as the authority of the emigrant village, even though in America, destruction of a family's possessions would not normally occur if a daughter got pregnant by someone who was not her husband.

In The Woman Warrior, what causes some of the villagers who attack Brave Orchid's household and destroy the family's possessions to cry?

Some of the villagers cry most likely because they know they are harming people in the family who have done nothing wrong, except for allowing the aunt to remain in the house as an outcast. They know each of the family members personally, and they know all of the men are gone, so the women left in the family will have no way to replace anything that has been destroyed or taken until the men return. Without the food they have destroyed and the crops they have torn out, the family may starve. Some of the villagers wear masks and cover their faces with their hair while others whose faces are visible are in tears. They are all embarrassed the family knows who they are and what they have done, and this action will likely end all their friendships. Many of them seem to not want to do what they are doing, but they feel they must to preserve decorum.

In The Woman Warrior, what does the ghost of the No Name Woman symbolize for Maxine Hong Kingston?

The ghost of the No Name Woman symbolizes the shame Maxine Hong Kingston has felt as a girl and as a woman in a culture that devalues girls and limits female roles. The ghost also symbolizes all of the hidden stories in the family that go untold because of the humiliation to which the family has been subjected. The ghost is supposed to symbolize the reason for Kingston to avoid sex, but instead, she symbolizes all of the desires and simple choices stripped away from women on a daily basis and their lack of control over their destinies. Kingston feels that by never speaking of the aunt again, she is participating in the punishment of the aunt's ghost, so the ghost also symbolizes Kingston's silence on controversial matters within the family. When she finally breaks her silence by speaking about the aunt, the aunt's ghost haunts her as a symbol of guilt and anger.

In The Woman Warrior, how is the first part of "White Tigers (Training)" similar to Maxine Hong Kingston's experiences as a young child in Stockton, California?

The first part of "White Tigers" is about Fa Mu Lan's training with the Old Couple, especially her time in the mountains by herself, learning how to survive on what she can find. She also learns how to avoid the white tigers who would kill and eat her if they found her. When Maxine Hong Kingston is a young child, she tries to avoid white people—"ghosts"—because they scare her, she doesn't want to have to speak English with them, and they say racist things to her. She is also trying to survive in a place that feels foreign to her, even though it's her home. She faces rules and rituals she doesn't understand all the time, and her mother yells at her every time she accidentally breaks a rule or messes up a ritual she didn't even know existed. In addition, Fa Mu Lan learns how to become a warrior only when she has left her parents, and Kingston feels the same way about living at home. She can't learn what it really takes to survive in the real world until she leaves home.

How do Fa Mu Lan's warrior powers compare and contrast with those of Maxine Hong Kingston in The Woman Warrior?

Fa Mu Lan's powers as a warrior include surviving on a mountain with tigers as well as creating and moving weapons with her mind to attack her enemies. She also has the power to raise an army to follow her, which is remarkable given that the traditional role for women in China during this time is to follow rather than lead. Her words are also extremely powerful, like Maxine Hong Kingston's words, and her parents' words of revenge against the emperor and the baron carved into her back add to her power. She is not afraid to speak her mind, again like Kingston, although a lot of the sentiments she says about her other roles, as a wife, mother, and daughter-in-law, are still very traditional, unlike Kingston. However, her will to avenge her village is strong enough that it comes first, before she resumes her other roles. Kingston wishes she has as much power as Fa Mu Lan to avenge her village, but she is too shy and too socially inept to do so, especially when she is living with her parents. She discovers that her power to fight against the oppression and racism she and her family experience grows once she leaves home, as Fa Mu Lan did. However, Kingston's power is stronger when she is writing than when she is trying to be publicly strong, unlike Fa Mu Lan. She and Fa Mu Lan both take strength from words, but Kingston's warrior power is her talent as a writer and her ability to bring out both the positive and the negative aspects of Chinese-American and immigrant life in her writing. Her unwillingness to accept racism directed at her or anyone else is also a warrior power, though unlike Fa Mu Lan, she is timid as she exerts it.

In The Woman Warrior, how is Maxine Hong Kingston's desire to be a woman warrior different from that of Fa Mu Lan's desire to take on the role?

Fa Mu Lan takes on the role of warrior to avenge her village, and trains for years to to do so (she doesn't fight until she is 22). However, her desire to avenge her village does not rule out her desire to be married to her childhood love and to have children, specifically sons. She also wants to be a dutiful daughter-in-law and serve her husband's parents in their old age, living with them in the same house. Maxine Hong Kingston's desire to be a woman warrior completely neglects marriage, motherhood, and living with parents to serve them. She is impressed with the fact that Fa Mu Lan can combine all three roles, never letting the fact she is a warrior make it impossible for her to be a wife and a mother. Kingston watches the ways in which women are expected to act, and she has been exposed to so much negative thinking about girls she finds believing anyone would love her enough to support her in what she wants to do difficult. She also finds difficult to swallow the idea that if she had children, her family would be disappointed with her if she had girls. Kingston isn't willing to perpetuate these ideas, and she decides she is going to purposely make herself look like a terrible choice as a wife so her parents will never marry her off. Unlike Fa Mu Lan, Kingston wants her warrior self to make up her entire personality so she can escape the restrictions Chinese tradition places on girls and women.

How does Maxine Hong Kingston reconcile her mother's notion of a "bad girl" and her impulse to become a warrior, not a wife, in The Woman Warrior?

Kingston is determined not to marry anyone. She can't figure out how to make sure she is being a supportive wife by not keeping a spouse from doing what he wants to do while also being supported and allowed to do what she wants to do by her spouse, the way Fa Mu Lan was. She begins to see her impulse to be a warrior as a surefire way to give up the idea of being loved enough by anyone because being a warrior is not compatible with the way her mother wants her to behave. Her mother calls her a bad girl for all of the actions she takes to make herself look like a bad match for anyone, but Kingston's impulse to act out also shows she has the energy and the will to succeed on her own. Kingston is too shy and socially awkward to do anything her parents will view as a big deal, like save them from being shoved out of their business by Urban Renewal. She uses her desire to get out on her own and be an activist to fulfill her warrior dreams, which she hopes will make her parents view her as having done something worthwhile. She has heard all of her life that girls are useless and are a drain on family resources, but she hopes her efforts to fight racism are seen by her parents as a worthy effort on her part. Her efforts can serve as proof that she is, in fact, a warrior, despite her inability to visibly avenge her village and her resistance against traditional Chinese-American female roles.

In the beginning of "Shaman (The Doctor)" in The Woman Warrior, how does the role of work in Brave Orchid's husband's life and in her own compare and contrast?

Brave Orchid's husband is working in the United States and sending money home to Brave Orchid for her living expenses. Because he is an immigrant, he cannot find the same work in the United States he did in China, so he and his friends and relatives end up working menial jobs no one else wants to do. When he gets the chance, he wants to go out and have fun to forget the fact he's doing a job he hates. Work, in his world, is necessary for survival but is not personally rewarding. He does it to support himself and his family. The photo of him laughing with the other men at Coney Island shows how he deals with not doing the job he wants to do. In contrast, Brave Orchid takes on the work of studying to be a doctor and then treating people in her village because she wants to do it. She could avoid working because she gets more than enough money to live on after her two young children die. However, she is determined to do something useful, and she uses all of her spare time working on her studies or being on call as a doctor because the work itself is important to her. If her husband were allowed to do the work that is important to him, he would likely be working all the time as well because they have both been taught a strong work ethic.

In the first part of "Shaman (The Doctor)" in The Woman Warrior, how does Brave Orchid's age affect her experience in medical school?

Brave Orchid is 20 years older than the students in her school, and the first thing she does regarding her age is to give her fellow students the impression she is only 10 years older than they are. This lie, however, isn't the first lie Brave Orchid has to tell to get through medical school without being humiliated by the other students. In Chinese culture, older people are expected to know more than other people, so Brave Orchid can't be seen at the same level as the other students. She has to look like she never studies, even though she has to study—in secret—more than they do to succeed. Brave Orchid has to fake being lucky and being blessed by the gods to avoid looking stupid in front of the other students. In the meantime, she spends most of her time studying into the night while lying to her roommates, claiming she is doing chores like sewing.

In The Woman Warrior, what is the only thing that will shrink a ghost, how does it work, and how does Brave Orchid escape the Sitting Ghost?

The only thing that will shrink a ghost is to insult the ghost. Brave Orchid shrinks the Sitting Ghost by belittling it, saying the ghost is pitiful, powerless, and a sad excuse for a ghost. The ghost shrinks as she continues, trying to make it feel terrible. The insults serve to attack the ghost's self-esteem, where fighting a ghost physically will only make it grow larger, because it knows it is more powerful than a human. Another way to insult a ghost is to insist one is not afraid and is more powerful. Brave Orchid does this with the Sitting Ghost, and she even threatens the ghost with being chopped up, fried, and eaten, a traditional occurrence in Chinese ghost stories in which the victor makes a meal out of the ghost. The Sitting Ghost doesn't completely disappear, but Brave Orchid's insults shrink it to the point that, at dawn, it runs away, and she escapes it by going to sleep, another insult to the ghost.

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