The Woman Warrior | Study Guide

Maxine Hong Kingston

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The Woman Warrior | Themes

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Female Roles

One of the major themes in The Woman Warrior is the role girls and women play in family life as well as in public life, both in China and in Chinese communities in the United States. Maxine Hong Kingston describes the valiant acts of Fa Mu Lan as well as her rigorous training to be a warrior, but this story is legend, not reality. Her mother, Brave Orchid, has taught her that women should consider themselves warriors, and this role does not conflict at all with being a mother and a wife in the legend. However, the legend does not discuss whether Fa Mu Lan decides her own fate as a mother or as a wife, while Kingston continually makes this choice for herself throughout the memoir. However, her mother doesn't emphasize the quality of choice; she claims that Kingston is such a messy, disobedient daughter that no one would ever marry her anyway. This option not to marry is not really considered an option but an inevitability, according to Brave Orchid. For Kingston's sister, however, Brave Orchid is determined to find a husband.

The mother–daughter dynamic is riddled with problems stemming from the cultural urge to keep daughters in the place that Chinese society has assigned them. The men in the stories refer to girls as maggots in the rice, as useless as cowbirds to feed, and a burden to the family, and the women go along with this assessment. Having more than one girl in the family is shameful for Chinese families, and Brave Orchid doesn't want to be seen in public with her two daughters until she has a son. Interestingly, though, the expectation of a Chinese woman is also for her to be bold and brash with her voice, while Chinese-American girls take on a whispery, timid personality they feel is necessary to seem feminine and get them dates. Brave Orchid hates the timid American affect her daughters take on, and tells them stories of powerful female warriors, but she also wants them to be quiet and well behaved, taking a back seat to their brother at all times. The role of the Chinese woman is a combination of the archaic insistence that girls are worthless to the family, but have the strength of a warrior.

Brave Orchid finds it hard to express love for Kingston in any way other than insulting her and telling her what she does wrong, especially if Kingston is doing something to try to fit into white American society. It takes Kingston a long time to see that her mother truly loves her and to view her mother's behavior as an attempt to protect her connection with Kingston rather than a desire to abuse her. Brave Orchid tells Kingston outright lies about her, but later claims that saying the opposite of what she means is what Chinese parents are supposed to do with their children. Brave Orchid tries to keep her children from turning into Chinese Americans, but this is impossible, living in an increasingly assimilated community. Kingston can only gain a clear view of her mother's feelings for her, as well as her love for her mother, by leaving home and seeing their dynamic from an American outsider's perspective.

Voice

The theme of finding a voice in The Woman Warrior closely ties to the roles of girls and women in China and in the United States. Maxine Hong Kingston describes Chinese women from China as having bold voices and being unafraid to state their opinions loudly and often. The Chinese-American girls in her community, however, start off as nearly silent. When they do speak, it is in a timid, whispery voice that is supposedly feminine, the voice of a pretty girl an American boy will want to date and later marry. When the focus of a girl's life is to be considered less useless by marrying into another family and producing male children, she will do anything to get dates and make a marriage happen. To get an American boy, or a Chinese-American boy, is to muffle one's personality and be subservient, quiet, and unobtrusive.

Kingston's voice is also a focus of much of the memoir in that everyone around her tells her she has the voice of a pressed duck, the kind that hangs in the window of Chinese butcher shops. Apparently, when a pressed duck is squeezed, it makes a sound similar to Kingston's voice. Kingston goes from being silent at school to being loud and obnoxious at home, which puts her in the position of being in trouble with her mother all of the time. Kingston exerts her warrior voice to get herself out of her childhood home and become self-sufficient, instead of damping it down (the whispery voice her mother hates) and getting dates with boys in her neighborhood.

Storytelling is part of finding a voice. Through talk-story (or embellished oral tradition), the women find their voices and power. All of the stories that Brave Orchid tells Kingston about her time in medical school show her as a powerful woman who can not only become a doctor and withstand all sorts of horrible experiences, but also outwit and destroy a ghost. By writing her memoir in the form of storytelling and by blending her own character with that of the woman warrior, Fa Mu Lan, Kingston finds her own voice and her power as a writer to reclaim her heritage, saving her village through memory, rather than submerging it into a completely assimilated American life.

Chinese-American Culture

Chinese-American culture is a strong theme in The Woman Warrior, with much of the story unfolding in Stockton, a city near San Francisco with a large Chinese population. The area where Maxine Hong Kingston grows up is considered to be a slum, and her parents work in a laundry business, one of the stereotypical menial jobs for Chinese immigrants no one else will take. The newly arrived Chinese make a concerted effort to keep their culture: Kingston and her siblings attend Chinese school after their day at American school is over, to keep their language and their cultural traditions.

Chinese families in the neighborhood also hold onto the traditional roles of women and girls. Families continue to view female children as a waste of food and space because they eventually end up in someone else's family, producing boys and taking care of someone else's parents in their old age. Male children ensure stability into old age because they will take wives who will be devoted to their in-laws. Kingston rails internally against this part of Chinese culture. Yet she inevitably takes on the whispery, timid public face many Chinese-American girls take on to get future husbands, even though she says she will never marry.

Food is an important part of every culture; in Kingston's family stories, it plays different roles. The violence against No Name Woman occurs in part because the aunt is bringing another mouth to feed into a starving village. The abundance of food in America frequently contrasts with its scarcity in China. Music also arises in the book. Chinese music carries a volume that is, to Kingston, much louder than American music and much easier for her to hear. These aspects of culture, in addition to the language and the familial traditions, hold Chinese-American neighborhoods together during Kingston's childhood and define her worldview until she is able to get out and experience the world on her own.

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