The Woman Warrior | Study Guide

Maxine Hong Kingston

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The Woman Warrior | Shaman (Crazy Lady) | Summary



This part of "Shaman" begins with more ghost stories told by Brave Orchid to her children. Maxine Hong Kingston figures out the reason her mother successfully fended off ghosts in battle was that her mother would eat absolutely anything. She notes all the best ghost-battlers ate their foes: Kao Chung eats a sea monster's feast before taking a feather sword from it and Chou Yi-han eats a ghost fried up and put on a stick. Chen Luan-feng purposely eats yellow croaker and pork together to anger the thunder gods and bring rain, while Wei Pang chops up a ghost that was a ball of flesh covered with eyes and eats it for dinner. The anonymous scholar of Hanchow defends his stash of silk and silver by eating the frogs that have come to take it away, even when there are hundreds of them.

Kingston's mother serves all sorts of horrible delicacies for dinner, including squid eyes, and the dishes are not cleared until they are consumed, no matter how long it takes. Kingston says even guests are disgusted by what they see on her mother's dinner table. As if her own dinners aren't disgusting enough, Brave Orchid tells Kingston the story of people in China eating monkey brains from a live monkey, another horror story that lives in Kingston's own brain. Kingston thinks the reason her mother survives is her ability to eat anything, including ghosts.

Kingston's mother is stronger than anyone Kingston knows, exemplified by the story of the wartime hospital her mother set up in the mountains. Brave Orchid would lift people out of fear by explaining the warplanes to them and wiggling their ears. She also says the town's crazy lady put on a mirrored headdress and began to dance in full view of the sky, making the townspeople accuse her of being a spy and bringing the planes. Brave Orchid tries to save the crazy lady by defending her, trying to convince her to take the headdress off, but the crazy lady persists, answering "Yes" to the question "Are you a spy?" The townspeople tell Brave Orchid to get out of the way, and they stone the crazy lady to death.


In this section, Maxine Hong Kingston gives even more depth to her mother's character by explaining that her mother's strength to vanquish ghosts comes from her ability to eat anything. This perspective on the wide variety of items included in the Chinese-American diet (that a Western person may never willingly touch) is unique in that it ties in not just with Chinese culinary traditions, but with the tradition of ghost stories, too. By relating her mother's ability to eat anything that can be cooked to a variety of ghost myths in which the heroes eat the ghosts, Kingston introduces an important aspect of Chinese culture that has carried over to Chinese-American culture.

The theme of ghosts is also tied to the idea that hunger and danger go hand in hand. In the section about the mystery aunt, "No Name Woman," the raid on the aunt's family home is not just a destruction of the family's possessions but a destruction of their ability to feed themselves: their crops are destroyed, too. The baron Fa Mu Lan fights has taken land and workers from families and caused them to starve. In the ghost stories Kingston shares, to eat one's enemy ghost to vanquish it also assuages hunger. In Kingston's words, "big eaters win."

The story about the crazy lady is a reflection on Kingston's mother's sense of responsibility as a doctor as well as her conscience as a human being. For Brave Orchid to risk her life trying to help the crazy lady avoid being killed by the villagers, she would have to have allowed her compassion for one person to take precedence over the fears of the group. The crazy lady is determined to raise suspicions that she is a spy, though, and she has this persistent urge to be in conflict with society in common with the other crazy ladies Kingston encounters in her American neighborhood.

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