The Woman Warrior | Study Guide

Maxine Hong Kingston

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The Woman Warrior | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In The Woman Warrior, why does Brave Orchid involve her roommates in her experience after they come into the ghost room in the morning?

When Brave Orchid's roommates come into the ghost room the morning after she sleeps there, they have to wake her up. As she had requested, they have to bring her back to reality by telling her who she is, that they love her, that she belongs with them, and that she is a student because an attack from a ghost takes a person out of her own life. If people don't make an effort to bring the person back, that person is lost to the ghost. Then Brave Orchid tells them the story of the attack, but she gives them much more detail than what actually happened; some of it may have happened in her dreams after she fell asleep. She lets them know the ghost is not completely gone, and if they don't help her get rid of it, it will come back worse than ever, getting its strength by devouring all of them. Brave Orchid feels powerful for getting rid of the ghost when it attacked her, but she can't rid the room of it completely by herself. The women get rags, fuel, and buckets to burn and smoke out the ghost completely. They all insult the ghost, telling it they are ridding the room of it forever. They also burn the bloody block of wood they find under the bed, which smells like a dead body, killing off the last bit of the ghost. In this way, Brave Orchid raises an army of students, her roommates, to defeat the ghost.

In The Woman Warrior, why does Brave Orchid tell Maxine Hong Kingston how much she paid for the slave, and how does Kingston perceive this revelation?

Brave Orchid tells Maxine Hong Kingston how much she paid for the slave in American dollars and compares it to how much she had to pay for having Kingston in the hospital. She paid much more to have her daughter than she did for the slave. Kingston perceives this revelation as a signal from her mother that she's not living up to how much she cost, and if she doesn't do what her mother tells her, they might sell her off as a slave. She knows they can't sell her in the United States, but she fears Brave Orchid will move the family back to China where they could sell her to anyone without repercussions. Brave Orchid, however, tells Kingston these kinds of things as jokes, saying the opposite of what she means, which she explains is Chinese tradition for parents and children. By telling Kingston in a stern way that she paid more for her than she did for a slave (that did everything she asked her to do), she actually means Kingston is more valuable to her as a daughter than anyone who would serve her as a servant. Brave Orchid loves Kingston, but it's hard for Kingston to feel this love through her mother's method of expression.

In The Woman Warrior, why does Maxine Hong Kingston imagine Chinese parents suffocating their baby daughters in ash?

Maxine Hong Kingston imagines the way Chinese parents would kill their baby daughters to avoid having to feed and raise them. Chinese parents wanted boys, and the immigrants in her American "village" have carried over this desire without the added horror of infanticide. Still, the fact that Kingston can vividly imagine parents turning their baby daughter's face into the ash and waiting until the baby suffocated shows Kingston has been deeply affected by the attitude toward female children in her immigrant neighborhood. She has also been affected a great deal by her mother's stories of her patients. Her mother sometimes delivered babies that were deformed, and the parents, or her mother, had to put these babies outside to die because they would likely not survive anyway. The two ideas combine in Kingston's nightmares, and although she is pretty sure her mother never killed a baby because of its gender, she still thinks about how these babies with deformities suffered. She dreams about not being able to save them.

What is the significance of the weird foods served by Maxine Hong Kingston's mother in The Woman Warrior?

The weird foods served by Brave Orchid come from her own culture in China, the need to use up food rather than throw it away, and the need to find food when it is scarce. However, to Maxine Hong Kingston, it shows the power her mother has over ghosts. In Chinese ghost stories, the heroes eat the ghosts after killing them, or even eat them alive. To Kingston, the fact that her mother will eat absolutely anything, no matter how disgusting, gives her power over the worst of ghosts. The food also signifies the embarrassing aspects of Chinese culture that are embarrassing only to Kingston because they don't fit in with Chinese-American culture. She says neighbors are disgusted by what they see served at her house sometimes, which embarrasses her, just as the strange rituals her mother performs are embarrassing because no one else does them anymore. These holdouts from her mother's former life and her mother's inability to adapt to American life in this way make it hard for Kingston to fully fit in with other Chinese-American people.

In The Woman Warrior, what is the significance of the crazy lady in "Shaman (Crazy Lady)," and how does her story differ from those of Crazy Mary and Pee-A-Nah?

The crazy lady in "Shaman" is a woman who has always been on the fringes of society in her strange outfits and headdresses. People have largely ignored her up to the point where the story begins with her interaction with Brave Orchid, but the tale Maxine Hong Kingston tells is set in a time when everyone in the village is anxious because of Japanese warplane attacks. They have to find someone or something to blame for the attacks, and the crazy lady in the village is a convenient target. Kingston says Brave Orchid tries to protect the woman from being hurt by explaining her odd behavior, but even Brave Orchid can't shield her when the crazy lady states that she is, in fact, a spy. Of course she is not a spy, but she may feel like one as an outsider in the village. This admission seals her fate, and the villagers stone her to death. Kingston's worries about her own weirdness make her particularly interested in the crazy lady stories because she hopes she is not turning into the crazy lady of her family or her neighborhood. Two crazy ladies have already lived in her neighborhood. Crazy Mary is unpredictable but not very dangerous. Still, her family sends her away. Pee-A-Nah, however, chases the children and is volatile. She also disappears, and Kingston assumes she has been sent to an asylum as well. Kingston worries that even under the protection of her parents, her inability to fit in will eventually make her parents send her away, too, just like the crazy ladies, or she could be sold as a slave in China, where she would be stoned to death. These worries are unfounded, but Kingston holds onto them for a long time throughout her childhood.

In The Woman Warrior, why does Maxine Hong Kingston call white people "ghosts"?

Maxine Hong Kingston calls white people "ghosts" because they are usually more powerful than people in her immigrant neighborhood. The white people frequently use racist epithets and put-downs to address Chinese immigrants and Chinese-American residents. In China, ghosts in stories are extremely powerful, especially if one tries to fight physically, as exemplified in the story of the Sitting Ghost that attacked Brave Orchid in medical school. As in this story, the only way to conquer a ghost is to outwit it. Kingston and her family constantly try to find ways to outwit the white people that come into their neighborhood. If any of the white people start to understand Chinese, Kingston's mother directs the children not to speak around them so they can't get any details about the family's life. Brave Orchid also uses her broken English and polite attitude to cover up the fact she is writing insults on the laundry receipts directed at people who are rude to her. Brave Orchid is extremely wary of white people because they theoretically have the power to have immigrants reported to the state and deported back to China. The entire neighborhood mistrusts white people not only for this reason, but also because many of the people who come into the neighborhood to use their services, eat their food, or provide services from the city are not kind to them. Kingston avoids them if she can, just as she would real ghosts.

In the last part of "Shaman (Ghost Country)" in The Woman Warrior, how does Maxine Hong Kingston show her mother's state of mind to the reader?

Maxine Hong Kingston uses her mother's description of why she is still working to show her mother's loneliness. Now that all her children have grown up and moved away, she can't stand to be at home and gets physically ill if she stops working. Kingston urges her to retire because she is too old to be working in the fields. Her mother complains the work aggravates her rheumatism, but also says she can't stop. The complaints are part of her effort to get Kingston to move back home to keep her company. Kingston also uses the humorous scene where Brave Orchid sits by Kingston's bed when Kingston is trying to sleep to show that Brave Orchid is really lonely. She stares at Kingston until Kingston finally opens her eyes and talks with her mother because there is no other choice. After discussing what happens when she stops working, Brave Orchid tells Kingston she won't be happy unless all the children are back in the house with their families, as it was in China, when sons stayed with their parents and brought their wives to live with them. To be alone in the house as a couple is foreign to Brave Orchid. Because she can't adjust, she works instead. Brave Orchid's use of Kingston's nickname, Little Dog, when she finally lets Kingston go back to sleep, shows how much Brave Orchid loves her daughter, even though she knows she can't convince her to live at home.

In the first part of "At the Western Palace (Brave Orchid)" in The Woman Warrior, how does Kingston show the reader her mother's relationship with Kingston's aunt, her mother's sister?

Maxine Hong Kingston describes the scene at the airport when Brave Orchid and Moon Orchid's daughter are waiting for Moon Orchid to arrive. Brave Orchid thinks she sees Moon Orchid several times, but she really doesn't know what her sister looks like anymore. She has in her mind a picture of Moon Orchid that is more her own construction of who her sister is rather than who her sister really is. Kingston describes how flighty and messy Moon Orchid is compared to how bossy and controlling Brave Orchid can be. At home, Brave Orchid insists the presents Moon Orchid brings for the children are inappropriate. Kingston says Brave Orchid stashes the gifts away in another room and chides the children for playing with them. Brave Orchid then complains about the trail of stuff Moon Orchid leaves behind her everywhere, telling Moon Orchid to get into the kitchen to cook, making it clear Brave Orchid has always been the dominant sister in the relationship.

In The Woman Warrior, how does Brave Orchid exert control over Moon Orchid after their first dinner, and how does Moon Orchid react?

As the older sister, Brave Orchid exerts her dominant position in the family by insisting Moon Orchid confront her estranged husband. She doesn't even wait for Moon Orchid to settle into life in the United States—she gets right down to business after dinner on Moon Orchid's first day in the country. Brave Orchid behaves so much like a bully instead of a caring sister that her husband has to leave the room, having no desire to hear what he knows will be an awful conversation. Brave Orchid thinks she's being a good sister by insisting Moon Orchid demand what she would be rightfully owed if everyone were back in China. However, Moon Orchid is extremely reluctant to rock the boat because she receives financial support and hasn't seen her husband in decades. However, when her daughter steps in and says she wants to at least see what her father looks like, Moon Orchid reluctantly agrees. Still, she thinks her daughter is only curious and really doesn't need a father in her life. Moon Orchid says she wants to wait just a bit, but her personality so far indicates she's going to procrastinate as much as possible, hoping her sister will forget to push her into see her husband.

In The Woman Warrior, how does Moon Orchid's behavior at the laundry foreshadow her mental breakdown?

When Moon Orchid has been at Brave Orchid's house for several weeks, Brave Orchid begins to feel as if Moon Orchid needs some way to keep herself busy. Brave Orchid also wants her sister to earn her keep so she can impress her husband with how useful she will be to him financially, an idea common in Chinese immigrant communities where a woman's value is measured by how many sons she can produce and how much income she can bring in. This idea turns out to be terrible, as Moon Orchid is painfully inadequate at everything she tries to do. Not only does she do a poor job, she also ends up breaking and burning equipment and clothes, laughing about each mistake she makes. Her inability to see how she negatively affects the people around her and her notion that the mistakes she makes are hilarious show she is not mentally well. She appears to be regressing, becoming more childlike the longer she stays with Brave Orchid. Moon Orchid lives in her own little world and doesn't really know how to properly interact with people, which turns out to be a major flaw in her ability to have relationships. All of these behaviors become worse when she finally breaks down. She completely loses the ability to be self-sufficient or have normal interactions with people later in the memoir.

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