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The Woman Warrior | Study Guide

Maxine Hong Kingston

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The Woman Warrior | Shaman (Ghost Country) | Summary



Maxine Hong Kingston's childhood is full of ghosts, white people who do the various jobs around her: a Garbage Ghost, a Newsboy Ghost, Doctor Ghosts, Scientist Ghosts, even Five-and-Dime Ghosts. Kingston feels nervous around all of them. Still, she doesn't want to go back to China because the ghosts there are worse, and, in her mind, family life may reduce her to being fed rocks while her father's next batch of children are fed rice.

After Kingston has become an adult and has moved out of the family home, she inevitably gets a cold and sometimes catches pneumonia when she visits her mother. One night as her mother sits by her, they talk about how much her mother works, and why Kingston can't stay with her. Her mother has lung problems from the dust in the laundry, and when the Urban Renewal Ghosts give her money to start over again when they take her land, Brave Orchid must get a new job. She says she is 80, at least 10 years older than Kingston thinks she is, and too old to start over. Their land in China has been sold, there is no way to go back, and yet staying in this "ghost country" never allows Brave Orchid to sleep or relax. She is working in tomato fields and washing potatoes, which makes her rheumatism worse, but if she stops working, she becomes ill. While Brave Orchid wants Kingston to live with her, she knows Kingston needs to live on her own, keep working, and stay healthy. Brave Orchid calls Kingston her old nickname, Little Dog, and Kingston feels as if her mother finally understands her a bit.


This section highlights the symbol of ghosts as they appear in Maxine Hong Kingston's Chinese-American neighborhood from childhood. However, these ghosts aren't the ghosts of ancestors who were not buried properly; the ghosts that scare Kingston and her peers are white people. The stories Kingston's mother has told about legendary ghosts are full of lessons about being careful about what one says to a ghost and remembering the ghost has power only if one gives it power. The fact that Kingston's mother refers to white people as ghosts and teaches her children to see them as such is a clue as to how Chinese immigrants view white people in terms of their power and trustworthiness. As a result of this perception, Kingston spends her childhood trying to either avoid or outsmart the white people with whom she comes into contact.

This section also explores the role of work in Chinese-American culture. Kingston describes her mother's viewpoint about her inability to quit working, another major factor in her mother's personality. As she did when she was back in China, Brave Orchid doesn't sit around at home and relax, even though she is elderly. When she stops working, she feels terrible. Kingston has inherited this work ethic, and when she comes to visit her parents, she becomes ill. Part of Kingston's susceptibility to illness may come from feeling especially vulnerable with her mother, but she also can't stand being away from work.

The nickname Little Dog may sound like an insult, but as Kingston's mother says, Chinese people like to say the opposite of what they mean because it's safer than tempting the gods to take away one's joy. Unfortunately, in an American-influenced household, the children end up taking those insults to heart; in the United States, people tend to reserve their insults for those they really don't like. Now that she is an adult having experienced life without her parents around, Kingston is finally beginning to reconcile this troubling aspect of her heritage with the reality that her mother loves her very much. The nickname, then, instead of causing her pain, makes her feel taken care of and loved.

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