The Woman Warrior | Study Guide

Maxine Hong Kingston

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The Woman Warrior | Symbols


Little Dog

Little Dog is the nickname Maxine Hong Kingston's mother calls her as a young child and later uses when she relents and realizes her adult daughter cannot live at home anymore. It is a nickname that symbolizes duality. The Chinese dog in myths is extremely ugly, and this ugliness also keeps children safe from harm, making them not worth anything to a god or kidnappers. When Kingston hears this nickname, she feels loved.

This nickname also symbolizes the way Chinese people in China, and immigrants in the United States, speak about girls in this memoir. The nickname symbolizes the dual nature of being a Chinese-American girl, feeling both loved and unwanted at the same time. Kingston grows up thinking she is worthless for being a girl, is destined to become a wife in an arranged marriage, or be sold into slavery by her parents. She is told by her mother she is ugly. However, her mother later insists the Chinese make these horrible remarks to their children but mean the opposite, presumably to avoid appearing too full of pride in front of the gods, the very reason why nicknames such as Little Dog are used for children.

Woman Warrior

The myth of the woman warrior comes from tales the Chinese tell their children in talk-story and chants. In this memoir, the woman warrior symbolizes what Maxine Hong Kingston wants to be: a strong, fierce woman who protects her family and makes them proud of her. It symbolizes the positive aspects of being a girl, which are extremely important to Kingston as her focus in life, because the rest of what she hears about girls is terrible: girl babies are drowned or smothered in ash in China and are called "maggots in the rice." A girl in a Chinese family is considered a financial burden and has to be married off as soon as possible. In a Chinese-American family, these notions still color much of what is said to the children, especially by elderly Chinese immigrants. Kingston cannot tolerate these insults and the constant attack on her worth unless she sees herself as the warrior Fa Mu Lan, someone who grows up to vanquish the enemy and can embrace the idea of motherhood and marriage without giving up strength and power. Kingston's reclamation of the woman warrior as an integral part of her personality is essential to her coming of age as a Chinese-American woman.


In The Woman Warrior, ghosts are prevalent, and they symbolize the blurred line between reality and illusion. While the ghosts may be American or Chinese, human or animal, alive or dead, friendly or harmful, they all present a challenge for Kingston in distinguishing the truths of her life from the stories her mother tells that act as ghost memories. Kingston's mother, Brave Orchid, views non-Chinese as ghosts: white people are White Ghosts and African Americans are Black Ghosts. Brave Orchid passes this perspective on to Kingston, who grows up terrified of the White Ghosts: the Garbage Ghost, the Newsboy Ghost, the Bus Ghost, and all of the other white people she encounters. She feels surrounded by ghosts so intensely that acting normally and even breathing around them is difficult.

With every challenge in Brave Orchid's life comes a ghost, it seems, and she is able to vanquish them by insulting them. Her fellow medical students in China help her to smoke out the remains of the ghost who tries to kill her. By surviving a ghost attack, Brave Orchid becomes a hero to her fellow students. Later, in the United States, anyone she finds threatening becomes a ghost she has to outwit.

Kingston is also haunted by ghosts, such as the ghost of No Name Woman, her aunt who committed suicide. She dreams of all of these ghosts, mostly in nightmares, and no experience throughout her childhood is devoid of some type of ghost, someone who means to stifle her or harm her in some way. As the teller of the story, Kingston must find a way to follow her mother's path in vanquishing these ghosts by finding her individual voice as a storyteller. Without this voice, the Chinese and their descendants risk becoming ghosts within American culture.

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