The Woman Warrior | Study Guide

Maxine Hong Kingston

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The Woman Warrior | Summary



The Woman Warrior is creative nonfiction in the style of a memoir, with legends woven into each section of the book. The main character is also the narrator and writer, Maxine Hong Kingston, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. In the memoir, Kingston relates how Chinese culture continues to influence her family life. She also explores her perception of herself concerning her strengths and weaknesses as well as her place in the world as a Chinese-American woman. She tells her story by moving in and out of tales from her childhood and adulthood in thematic order rather than in chronological order.

No Name Woman

The Woman Warrior opens with the story of Maxine Hong Kingston's aunt on her father's side, the "No Name Woman" of the section title. Brave Orchid, her mother, tells Kingston she has an aunt her father will not talk about and does not even acknowledge as having been born. Her mother says the aunt had a new husband who had sailed to America for work, and years later, the aunt became pregnant. The baby could not possibly be her husband's baby, so the villagers staged a raid of the house, and the aunt ran to the pigsty to give birth there. The next day, she was found in the drinking well, having committed suicide, taking her baby with her.

Kingston has to piece together the rest of the story, concluding that her aunt had most likely been raped. Kingston tells the story of her aunt's interlude and escape from the house as if it were truth, a talk-story based on what her mother told her, enhanced with her own imagination. Kingston feels guilty for having been part of the silence about her aunt's existence, keeping the secret, and thus punishing the aunt all over again. Kingston is then haunted by her aunt's ghost for having told her story.

White Tigers

This section begins with Maxine Hong Kingston's remembrances of her mother's talk-stories about swordswomen in Chinese legends. As an adult, Kingston hears the chant of Fa Mu Lan and remembers her mother taught her this chant as a young girl. The young Kingston hears the chant, and instead of becoming the wife or slave her mother insists she will become (like all Chinese girls), she decides to become a warrior.

The story then becomes the story of Fa Mu Lan as imagined by Kingston, as if she were the warrior herself. Fa Mu Lan follows a bird into the mountains when she is seven and ends up staying with an Old Couple who train her to be a warrior and a swordswoman. Returning to her village as an adult, her parents carve their words of revenge on her back, and she leads an army to kill the baron who has taken men from her village. Kingston identifies with Fa Mu Lan, carrying so many words of revenge on her back, coming home even though (to the Chinese) daughters are considered burdens.


In this story, Kingston describes her mother's years alone in China. While her father is in the United States, Brave Orchid, her mother, attends medical school in China and becomes a midwife. Brave Orchid ends up staying in a haunted room where a Sitting Ghost with a knife visits her in the night, and she vanquishes it. When Brave Orchid goes to practice medicine, she buys a dog and a slave to protect herself. Eventually, Brave Orchid travels to the United States to live with her husband.

Brave Orchid teaches her children to perceive the white people around them as ghosts, and she works in the laundry with her husband to be near her children. When Kingston comes home to visit, though, she feels responsible for her mother staying in the United States and working as a tomato picker. Kingston gets sick every time she visits home because she is bothered by the ghosts; she needs to leave again. Her mother eventually understands she has to leave, and calls her Little Dog, an affectionate childhood nickname meant to trick the gods.

At the Western Palace

Brave Orchid brings her sister, Moon Orchid, to the United States to live. Brave Orchid makes Moon Orchid confront her husband; Moon Orchid's husband has been sending her money for 30 years from the United States where he has married another woman, his receptionist, and has had two children. When they go to see him, he tells Moon Orchid he has a new life and she should leave him alone and live with her daughter while he keeps sending her money. Moon Orchid ends up living with her daughter, losing her mind, and being hospitalized.

A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe

In this last story, Kingston tells more of her childhood. Kingston's mother says she cut Kingston's frenum under her tongue to help her speak. However, in her American school, Kingston is completely silent for years, struggling with communication in contrast to her outspoken mother. When Kingston does speak, in Chinese, she makes her voice whispery, which her mother hates. Kingston avoids telling her mother she bullied a silent, unpopular girl at school because Kingston saw too much of herself in the girl.

Kingston tells the story of Crazy Mary, an immigrant neighbor, and a "witchwoman" the children call Pee-A-Nah, who chases them and terrifies them. Kingston fears she is the crazy one in the family because she hears voices and experiences bad dreams, but some of her craziness, such as her clumsiness and limping, is affected to avoid being married off or sold. Her mother argues with her, saying her daughter can't understand jokes, that one can't sell a person, that no one would marry Kingston anyway, and that saying Kingston is ugly means the opposite. Kingston has to leave home to figure out what is true and what is not. Her life becomes simpler, and she loses her ability to speak Chinese. She thinks of Ts'ai Yen, the poetess who sings about China to her barbarian captors in a voice much like their flutes. The words are unrecognizable to the barbarians, but they hear the sadness just the same.

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