The Woman Warrior | Study Guide

Maxine Hong Kingston

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The Woman Warrior | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Published in 1976, Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior defies genre by blending autobiography and Chinese legend. Most often called a memoir, The Woman Warrior was an immediate best seller and won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The book describes Kingston's experiences as a Chinese American and her attempts to find and understand her identity as a woman who is part of two cultures. The Woman Warrior's success opened the door to the voices of other nonwhite woman writers, including Amy Tan and Eva Hoffman.

1. Kingston did not title The Woman Warrior herself.

Kingston didn't know what title to give her book. She states, "I had thought of Gold Mountain Stories or something like that." But she gave up that idea when several other books came out with "mountain" as part of their titles. Her publisher eventually chose the title, which Kingston, an avowed pacifist, found interesting. She pointed out, "In some languages 'warrior' has to do with struggling through confusion. It does not always have to do with killing and maiming."

2. Kingston was the first Asian American woman to appear with her book on the front page of the New York Times Book Review.

As a literary trailblazer for Asian American women, Kingston was the first to be featured on the New York Times Book Review's front page—gracing it with The Woman Warrior in November 1976. Reviewer Jane Kramer called it a "brilliant memoir," explaining, "It shocks us out of our facile rhetoric, past the cliches of our obtuseness, back to the mystery of a stubbornly, utterly foreign sensibility."

3. A terrible fire destroyed Kingston's house—and the only copy of a manuscript she was writing.

In 1991 Kingston was working on a book that was to have been titled The Fourth Book of Peace, an allusion to three legendary Chinese books said to have been lost in a fire long ago. Ironically, a fire broke out in her neighborhood in Oakland, California, destroying her home and all the materials for her manuscript. In 2003 she published The Fifth Book of Peace, which included descriptions of the fire as well as much of the material that had been lost.

4. Kingston's The Woman Warrior inspired other immigrant women to write their own memoirs.

Before The Woman Warrior was published, few memoirs were in print, and most of those were by men. Kingston's work was vital in changing the way memoir was received by the reading public. According to Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, "Many women were inspired by it to write their own stories of immigrant life in this country ... it convinced them that they, too, had stories to tell." The memoir genre is now quite popular—with books ranging from Helie Lee's Still Life with Rice to Rebecca Walker's Black White and Jewish—and Kingston's influence helped to achieve that advancement of the genre.

5. Kingston uses what is called "fusion language" to tell her stories.

Kingston's work mixes Chinese and American experiences, creating what she has deemed "a fusion language." She explained that her writing includes "Chinese rhythms and tones and images" but in English. "My hands are writing English," she stated, "but my mouth is speaking Chinese."

6. Kingston originally wanted The Woman Warrior to be published together with a second book, China Men.

Kingston wrote The Woman Warrior at the same time as China Men, intending them to be published together. She ended up splitting the books by gender; The Woman Warrior addresses the experiences of a Chinese American woman, while China Men (1980) treats the experiences of Chinese men who went to America.

7. The Woman Warrior has been among the most commonly taught texts in universities.

The Modern Language Association reported that in the early 21st century The Woman Warrior was the most frequently taught book in university courses. It found a place in literature, anthropology, psychology, women's studies, Asian studies, and sociology classes. One critic cites the book's "secure status in the American feminist canon," despite the controversy it has caused because of its blending of fact and fiction, its reinterpretation of Chinese stories, and its cultural elements. Several books have been dedicated to examining the book and interpreting its form and messages.

8. The Chinese word translated as "ghost" in The Woman Warrior can also mean "white devil."

The subtitle of Kingston's book is Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts. The Chinese word kuei can be translated as "ghost," but Kingston also pointed out that it can mean "demon" or "white devil." Most often in the book, the word is used to refer to white people. Kingston explained in an interview that "as long as you don't know the true humanity of a person, they're just a ghost."

9. The woman warrior in Kingston's book was inspired by a Chinese legend.

The woman warrior in Kingston's book is the legendary Chinese heroine Mulan. There's no proof that she actually existed; her story was originally told in a poem called "The Ballad of Mulan," written in the sixth century. In the poem, Mulan joins the army as a male to save her father, who is too old to fight. She is eventually promoted to general and reveals herself as female.

10. Kingston runs writing workshops for war veterans.

Kingston claims that many of her early memories were of war or the effects of war, and as she says, "I've been trying to do something about it ever since." One of her efforts involves writing workshops for veterans. She began the practice with veterans of Vietnam and continued working with veterans of all sorts. She tells them that they need to tell what they learned in war because "This is your gift, this is what you need to give to society and to your life."

Many of these veterans find the writing invaluable. One claimed that the program saved his life. He said, "The group was a safe place for me to express the unexpressible. It was the silence that was killing me." Kingston has collected some of the veterans' writings in an anthology, Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, published in 2006.

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