Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Mai 2006

6.1. Modalitäten von Kulturkontakt
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Gertrude Durusoy (Ege Universität, Izmir/Turkei)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Restoried Identities in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior

Dilek Direnç (Ege University Izmir, Turkey)


The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts is the Chinese-American author Maxine Hong Kingston’s surprisingly fresh and innovative autobiography which interweaves the literary forms of memoir, myth, and legend while articulating her experience of growing into adulthood in a culturally and racially diverse environment.(1) Born to recently immigrated Chinese parents who perceive their lives in the US as an extended visit, the writer/narrator has to move between two cultures and languages daily, constantly feeling alien to both. The memoir is centered upon the mother-daughter relationship in which the mother embodies the mother tongue/land/culture and functions as the repository of the Chinese cultural values and narratives. As a woman thrown into an alien culture which marginalizes her and her way of life, she is determined to pass her own culture’s values and stories on to her daughter, for this is her way of claiming her cultural identity and ensuring her family’s survival. Encountering Chinese culture through her mother’s memory and the stories she recounts while having the immediate experience of living in America as a racial Other, the daughter is in a state of in-betweenness and is equally displaced in both cultures. Her challenging task is to learn to translate her mother’s narratives in ways that will eventually enable her to cope with the dichotomies of cultures and to develop a hybrid identity which incorporates both cultures. This paper aims to examine how the young protagonist, in the process of growing into adulthood and constructing a self identity, has to deal with race and culture on the one hand, and gender and generation on the other, and how, eventually, she learns to reconcile two extreme cultures and succeeding generations and finds a bicultural voice to articulate her experience of moving between cultures resisting and embracing both alternately.

Kingston’s autobiographical narrative provides a personal chronicle of growing up as a Chinese-American daughter in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Challenging the definitions and boundaries of the autobiographical genre, Kingston blends fact and fiction, myth and reality, memory and history, childhood recollections and Chinese stories to create a supple enough medium to enable her to convey the trying experience of a young girl caught between two cultures and struggling with their competing claims and compelling imperatives upon her.(2) While the narrator grows up as a Chinese girl in America, she constantly encounters differences between Chinese and American ways of living, thinking, and experiencing life and values. As a Chinese daughter she faces Chinese male chauvinism at home and as a Chinese - because of her visible Otherness resulting from her skin color and Chinese feature - white American racism outside. Kingston’s narrative explores her personal experience of Chinese-American girlhood at a certain historical moment and provides a record of her encounters with a strictly patriarchal culture on the one hand and a racist one on the other. Different from the traditional Western autobiography with its unified and universal subject, ethnic autobiographies and autobiographies of diaspora explore "cross-cultural, diasporic identities" which are "constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew" ( Egan 122).(3) Similarly, Kingston’s autobiographical narrative portrays a cross-cultural self in a state of being made, traversing the cultural distance between home and the outside world, which embody two contradictory cultural extremities; thus, as a "diasporic subject," this self "exists in suspended or permanent transition" (125). Simultaneously participating in the experience and values of two conflicting worlds, the Chinese daughter in America is "in transition, on borders, and in process" (122). Crossing the borders between the Chinese home and the American world outside and between the Chinese past and American future, she negotiates cultural identity.

Kingston’s choice of the autobiographical genre to verbalize her experience - hence her use of the first person - figures significantly in the construction of a cross-cultural identity which is constantly in the making and her narrative provides a fictional retelling of this process. Shirley K. Rose sees The Woman Warrior as "a progression of highly dramatized narratives building on each other as they depict a mounting conflict between cultures" and maintains that Kingston employs "her autobiography as a way to bridge two cultures and their separate versions of reality" (12). The writer’s aim is "not to reconcile one to another or subordinate one to another" but "to give equal validity to both through articulation" (12). Her articulation of conflicting cultures and their versions of reality underline the positionality of reality and the possibility of multiple perspectives.(4) As Rose points out, since Kingston blends "what is accepted as American reality with Chinese myth and American myth with Chinese reality, readers begin to see that reality is mythically constructed" (12). Debra Homsher calls The Woman Warrior a genuine "bridge between autobiography and fiction" (98). Yet this bridge is not only of a generic kind; the narrative creates a bridge which enables its readers "to cross over to view, momentarily at least, their own cultures from the perspective of another" (Rose 13). As the bridge is a structure of transition enabling the inhabitants of each side to cross over the other, providing them with multiple positions and views, the building of it requires the invention of an identity always in transit, constantly in the making, never finalized. In the process of building this bridge through her narrative, Kingston learns to become a cultural interpreter and gradually transforms the painful experience of being trapped between two cultures to the enriching experience of being able to flow between cultures. From an alienated girl-child she transforms into a woman artist who fights with her pen and sings her song to "foreign" music to create a transcending aesthetic experience resulting in synthesis and wholeness.

Like most ethnic and multicultural autobiographical narratives, The Woman Warrior revolves around the development of an identity in which race and gender play central roles. Based on conflict between cultures and generations, it foregrounds the dynamic process of interaction between opposing cultures and succeeding generations. Identity is the ever-changing product in this process, for it is constantly negotiated between cultures and generations. The pivotal relationship in the narrative in terms of the writer/narrator’s developing identity is the one between the mother and the daughter.(5) While the mother embodies Chinese culture and the past, the American-born daughter belongs to America and is eventually of the future. The mother provides cultural narratives for her daughter, both historical and mythical, since storytelling, or "talkstory"(6) as she calls it, has been traditionally employed as a method of establishing ties and transmitting culture among generations of women. Within a dominantly oral tradition, she is the keeper of stories and she dispenses them as she sees appropriate. The narrative emerges in a dialogic process as she tells her stories and her daughter responds to them by revising and rewriting them in the process of shaping a viable identity for a Chinese girl in America.(7) It soon becomes clear that these maternal narratives are as much liberating as they are limiting. While the mother seems to uphold patriarchal values, her narratives contain contradictory messages and can be interpreted subversively. This is what her daughter does repeatedly in response to her mother’s educational tales.

The mother provides her daughter with two sets of stories to deal with: the stories of the women in the family and the mythic and historical stories of women in Chinese tradition. Accordingly, the book consists of five chapters. "No Name Woman" and "At the Western Palace" focus on the aunts of narrator and "Shaman" is centered on her mother Brave Orchid and her life experiences. Hence, these three chapters present stories of the women of previous generation. On the other hand, "White Tigers" places a legendary and "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe" a historical female figure at the center. Throughout the book, the stories of all these women are interwoven into the story of the narrator’s bildung. The mother’s stories are essential to her daughter’s identity formation as they put forward models and alternatives for the young girl "to grow up on" (Kingston 5). The young girl in America grows up resisting, fighting against and, eventually, revising and reinterpreting her mother’s Chinese stories. The arising interaction between the two cultures and generations weighs heavily upon the daughter’s developing identity. From the beginning to the end Kingston’s narrative is about re-visioning and re-storying. Both formally and thematically the daughter revises her mother’s talkstories as she writes them. Coming to America in middle age, the mother had experienced physical and cultural displacement and she narrativizes the Chinese past from where she is presently placed, her narrative already shaped by her experience of displacement. As the recipient of this narrative, the daughter’s process of meaning-making involves "physical, cultural, and linguistic translations" ( Egan 123). Her identity is invented and her life is shaped in this process of translation and negotiation between cultures and generations.

The opening chapter, "No Name Woman," is allegedly intended by the mother, Brave Orchid, as a warning for the new female generation against violating the laws of the fathers. However, while it seems to advise the daughter, who is the emerging woman since she "started to menstruate" (Kingston 5), against transgressions of any kind, particularly sexual, the narrative itself is an embodiment of transgression.(8) The mother tells her daughter the story of her paternal aunt who had a baby out of wedlock and, without revealing the name of the father, drowned herself and the baby in the family well back in China. The aunt had then been denied by the family. Paradoxically, the opening sentence of the book, "You must not tell anyone . . . what I am about to tell you" (3), puts forth a prohibition and itself breaks a prohibition by articulating the story of the "No Name Woman". In actuality, the chapter functions to give voice to the story of a woman in the writer/narrator’s matrilineage and to incorporate hers into the family history. Her existence had been denied, her story had been left out of the public (read as patriarchal and patrilineal) family history, and her name had been erased from the familial memory. "Don’t tell anyone you had an aunt. Your father does not want to hear her name. She has never been born," says the mother (18). Unknowingly and for different purposes, however, the mother and the daughter collaborate in the act of breaking the "silence" which has long been the dead aunt’s "punishment" by remembering and thus re-membering her, that is, putting back together again the pieces of her story (18). Together, they take her out of the well of forgetfulness.

Since she views the Chinese past from the American present, the daughter is positioned differently and thus her vision is inevitably much different from her mother’s. The mother’s original telling of the story and the daughter’s subsequent speculations--that her aunt might be raped or seduced--recover and pluralize the rejected aunt’s suppressed story. Twenty years after she first heard this story, the grown-up daughter still remembers it, and, by "devot[ing] pages of paper to her" (19), she provides alternative versions of her aunt’s story which counter the established version and thus writes her back into her matrilineage.(9) To write her story means to acknowledge her. It also means to preserve her memory by committing it to paper and thus immortalizing her. Eventually, it means to establish ties with her aunt against the patriarch’s forbiddance. Thus she claims her inheritance from this aunt by challenging paternal authority and violating its law of silence. She demonstrates that as a Chinese-American daughter constantly crossing borders that separate cultures, she does not need to know the name of the woman who "crossed boundaries not delineated in space" in order to claim her as her "forerunner" (9).

The second chapter of the book, "White Tigers," balances "the silence," the fate of the narrator’s aunt, both in terms of voice and characterization of the women they focus on. The first narrative centers on a young woman who committed adultery and suicide and the silence imposed on her. She is denied by her family and, since she cannot talk and is not talked about, she had been condemned to eternal silence. Her story comes to us indirectly through the voices of the women of her family who break the rule of "silence" in their own ways in accordance with the practices of their generations. The character in the following narrative, however, is "a warrior woman," a mythic heroine "who took her father’s place in battle" (24) and is "a female avenger" (51). The narrator explains the power of the original "folk story which has circulated in China for almost fifteen hundred years, The Ballad of Mulan" (Shu 211), upon the Chinese girls: "we learned that we failed if we grew up to be but wives or slaves. We could be heroines, swordswomen" (23). The warrior woman is the embodiment of such power, wisdom, and glory that the narrator speculates: "Perhaps women were once so dangerous that they had to have their feet bound" (23). Like the story of the "No Name Woman," the story of Fa Mu Lan, the woman warrior, was "given [the daughter] by [her] mother" (24). The narrator remembers "two of us singing about how Fa Mu Lan fought gloriously and returned alive from war to settle in the village" (24). She receives the story from her mother and revises it by inserting her voice and vision into the story.(10) Thus, the story is told in the first person and the female avenger becomes a speaking subject. Retelling the old legend in the voice of the female hero counters the impact of the victimized woman’s silence of the previous chapter and it displays a radical break from a narrative tradition which has always objectified women.(11)

In the narrator’s reinvented version, the woman hero receives guidance and instruction from a mysterious old couple on the mountains from the age of seven to twenty-two. After she completes her long and demanding training, she is given "men’s clothes and armor" and takes leave of her mentors (40). She later leads an army of peasants to the capital, defeats all the tyrants, and finally returns home triumphant. At this point, she relinquishes her masculine powers and privileges and resumes her traditional duties as a Chinese woman. However, Fa Mu Lan’s return to traditional Chinese womanhood does not diminish the inspirational power of her story; on the contrary, it suggests that potentially every woman is a warrior and avenger if she chooses to claim this power.(12) During her years of training and of leading the uprising, neither menstruation nor birth-giving can keep Fa Mu Lan away from the training or battle fields. By reworking the myth of this legendary woman who can move between the public and the private domain so flowingly and who can be so perfectly fluent in both the masculine and the feminine roles, Kingston is providing another story of border-crossing. When the writer/narrator incorporates elements from the legends of male heroes into her rewriting, her intention is to suggest the constructedness and performativity of gender.(13) In her retelling of the legend, she demonstrates that a woman can replace a man, a father or a husband, if need be and suggests that it is the fifteen-year-long training that makes one an invincible warrior not the sex of the person.(14) The ideology which underlies Kingston’s rewriting intends to free not only her narrator persona but, as she writes, "we Chinese girls" (25) growing up in America from the "double binds around [their] feet" (57).

The narrator closes her revised narrative of Fa Mu Lan with a suggestion: "The swordswoman and I are not so dissimilar" (62). The years during which Fa Mu Lan receives her challenging training with her wise mentors coincide with the years the narrator goes through her schooling in America trying to figure out who she is and experiencing "the tension in her life between her Chinese cultural heritage and the American reality in which she was forced to live her life" (Cook 143). Similar to Fa Mu Lan’s experience, those troubled years give her what she needs in order to fight against injustice in the world: Words, both Chinese and English words, to voice her experience. "What we have in common," writes the narrator, "are the words at our backs" (63). Thus, the second chapter of the book, "White Tigers," unveils her desire to be a warrior woman and her motive is also exposed here: She seeks vengeance for "the silence imposed by traditional patriarchal societies on women" and for "the silence imposed in American culture on minority ethnic groups"; and "[t]he symbolic vengeance that Kingston wreaks in "White Tigers" encompasses both forms of repression" (Cook 144).(15) As she declares, "[t]he reporting is the vengeance--not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words" (63).

"Shaman," the third chapter of the book, purposefully situated in the middle, narrates the story of the mother through the voice of the daughter. Her life narrative is given the central place in the book; similarly, Brave Orchid herself has actually had a central place in and a shaping influence on her daughter’s life and identity. At the beginning of her memoirs, the narrator states that it was "[her] mother who marked [her] growing with stories" (6). In the second chapter, when she remembers the legend of the woman warrior, the narrator, at a backward glance, discovers the value and use to her of her mother’s oral stories and their power: "At last I saw that I too had been in the presence of great power, my mother talking-story" (24). Teaching her daughter the chant of a female hero, the mother suggests a range of possibilities to her which are never said openly to girls in Chinese culture. In the following chapter, the narrator focuses on her mother’s experiences and she completes her discovery that her mother was also a warrior woman of everyday life.

Like Fa Mu Lan, her mother has moved fluidly between domains and roles. After her husband leaves for America and her first two children dies, neither a wife nor a mother at that moment, she goes to a medical college for women at Canton. Through hard work and intelligence, she does very well at school and gains herself a reputation for being "brilliant, a natural scholar" (75). More importantly, being a "dragoness" (79) and "a strong woman" (83), she heroically fights and defeats the ghost of traditionalism who tried to scare away "the new women, scientists who changed the rituals" at "the To Keung School of Midwifery" (88). She leaves her village "ordinary" but, as one of the new women, goes back "miraculous" with her newly acquired knowledge and skills (90). After years of doctoring, when she goes to America to join her husband, she reverses this cycle and, as a wife, a mother of six, and a hard working laundress, she becomes "ordinary" again, a situation "not so dissimilar" (62) at all to Fa Mu Lan’s experience of transformation from "the shiny general" to "bride" and "mother" after "[her] public duties are finished" (53). In facing the challenges of a new life in a strange land, the courage, strength, and resiliency that she shows is no less than Fa Mu Lan’s in facing and fighting the dangerous feudal lords. Thus, this is the chapter of recognition for the daughter: that her mother and she "are not so dissimilar" (62) after all and that, along with Fa Mu Lan, they both belong to the ranks of those warrior women. If Fa Mu Lan is the swordswoman, the mother and the daughter are the words-women; even if they deploy different means, they fight against the same injustice and silence. Her reconciliation with her mother follows her recognition that her mother is also a fighter. In the finale of the chapter, on a visit to her aged-mother, who, like a physical indication of her accumulating experience and hard work, has become bigger as she grew older, and who finally accepts that "[her daughter] must go," the middle-aged daughter experiences a sense of both continuity and liberation simultaneously: "A weight lifted from me. . . . The world is somehow lighter. . . . I am really a Dragon, as she is a Dragon, both of us born in dragon years. I am practically a first daughter of a first daughter" (127).

The following chapter, "At the Western Palace," is not intended as a story of warning but provides one, this time centering on the narrator’s maternal aunt Moon Orchid. The chapter is told in the third person and it has a moral for Brave Orchid herself as well as all her daughters. Moon Orchid’s life story, quickly delineated in this chapter, sharply contrasts with the story of her sister Brave Orchid, for the two women differ significantly in terms of their resiliency, independence, and capability for adaptation and adjustment to new beginnings and cultural conditions. Brave Orchid has been independent and assertive since the beginning. During the decade she was waiting for her husband to send for her, she uses the money he sends her to get medical training and later she builds up a successful career as a village doctor. Moon Orchid, on the other hand, is another silent woman who neither voices her own desires nor demands anything from her husband who "made her live like a widow" all through her life (178). She waits silently without ever questioning her husband’s new life or attempting to change her own: "For thirty years she had been receiving money from him from America. But she had never told him that she wanted to come to the United States. She waited for him to suggest it, but he never did (144). Outraged by the injustice of her sister’s situation, Brave Orchid arranges her coming to America and forces her to demand her rights and privileges as a first wife. Her confrontation with her Americanized husband, whose "new life around [him] so complete" (179) and who makes clear that he does not want her "in [his] house" (178), or in his life, negates her whole life and identity and unfortunately proves to be detrimental to Moon Orchid’s sanity. Despite her sister’s efforts to heal her, she gets more disturbed and finally she is institutionalized and does not live long afterwards.

Moon Orchid’s story has a different moral for Brave Orchid and her daughters. This experience forces Brave Orchid to face her misjudgment of her sister’s character and competence and her fatal mistake in forcing her values upon others and attempting to manage their lives. It was not that "Moon Orchid had misplaced herself" (181) but it was Brave Orchid who had misplaced her when she manipulated her to leave her life in Hong Kong to come to America. Not only does the shaman of the previous chapter fail in healing her own sister but originally she is the one who causes her illness. When she attempts to impose Eastern mythology upon Western reality, she fails terribly and it is her sister Moon Orchid who dearly pays for it; instead of ending up "At the Western Palace" as intended by her elder sister, she ends up a mad woman at a mental asylum. On another level, her experience in America provides a strong lesson for Brave Orchid’s daughters by underlining the vital importance of successful transition between worlds, values, and identities. Coming to America as an old woman, Moon Orchid is not able to adopt her new "home" and survive its challenges. Moon Orchid comes to "the Western Palace" but she cannot reside there; neither can she replace her previous identity of the waiting wife with a valid new identity. Brave Orchid’s daughters read their aunt’s experience correctly and they understand the significance of developing plural identities: They "fiercely decided that they would never let men be unfaithful to them" and "made up their minds to major in science or mathematics" (186). Moon Orchid provides a negative but necessary role model for them.

The last chapter of Kingston’s memoirs connects the previously introduced themes of women’s silence and powerlessness with women’s voice and power and brings them home as it deals with the silence of Chinese girls growing up in America. The chapter opens with the narrator’s discovery that "silence had to do with being a Chinese girl" (193) and explores the ramifications of this discovery as it also unfolds her agonizing experience of alienation resulting from being caught between conflicting cultures. For this generation there are two possibilities: either to get lost within the gap separating two cultures or to establish a bridge connecting them and, on this liminal space and with distance to both cultures, to develop a cross-cultural voice and identity. Alienated from both cultures, the narrator’s desperate attempt is not to end up "ghostlike" to both worlds (213); to prevent this, she needs to find a voice that is audible in both worlds. The search for a bicultural voice acquires urgency and comes to the forefront in this chapter, which records the narrator’s painful process of developing a voice to articulate the experience of being a first generation (read as "born among ghosts," "taught by ghosts") Chinese-American woman (213). The narrator struggles with and fights against silence and everything it represents to her: being a girl in her Chinese community and being Chinese in America. She cannot make herself heard by either the grandfathers who call the girls "maggots" (222) or by the bosses "in their modern American executive guise" who call the Chinese "nigger yellow" (57). Her fierce rejection of silence is demonstrated in her terrible treatment of another Chinese girl from her school who never speaks and thus "who is silence incarnate" (Demetrakopoulos 200). However, when she attacks the silent girl, an embodiment of the culturally idealized image of the silent Chinese girl/woman, metaphorically, she is attacking both the patriarchal Chinese culture which marginalizes and denies voice to women and of white America which similarly marginalizes and silences its racial and ethnic minorities.(16) The narrator gets to know "exactly who the enemy are" (57) and learns that she needs voice and words to fight them.(17)

In the final chapter voice and silence become the leading motifs and, like the "complicated" Chinese "knot" (190), they are tightly knotted to problem of identity. Although her mother finally claims that she had "cut [her] tongue" (190) to "make [her] talk more, not less" (235), the narrator’s claim that she had "a terrible time talking" (191) indicates the difficulties she had experienced in constructing a viable identity. As Sau-ling Cynthia Wong writes, because "[n]either American nor Chinese culture, as given, offers a resting place" ("Autobiography" 267), the narrator has to make her own that would answer her "need to establish a new Chinese-American selfhood" (266). Her Chinese-American girlhood shows her that she is as different from her parents’ generation as she is from white America. As her experience demonstrates, "the emigrant parents’ expectation of a ‘continuous culture’ is, if entirely human, ahistorical and therefore doomed" (268). The American-born generation will shape and assert their inevitably hybrid identities against the unrealistic demands of their emigrant families. As an American-born Chinese girl, the narrator gradually learns that she is too far removed from her ancestral land and culture to be Chinese and too different in terms of physiognomy and immigrant culture to be American. Thus, as Wong claims, The Woman Warrior, in its entirety, is "a sort of meditation on what it means to be Chinese American" (268).

In the end, the narrator achieves cross-cultural communication and is able to transcend conflict by putting her divided world into interaction. When she first attempts to talk to her mother, she "whisper[s] and quack[s] (233). However, the day comes when "[her] throat burst[s] open" and she screams her grievances at her mother (233), this time getting heard and starting a dialogue. Despite the generational and cultural divide between the mother and the daughter, in the end, Kingston, the artist, finds her own voice and blends it with her mother’s. The last story in the memoirs is jointly created by both women: "Here is a story my mother told me, not when I was young, but recently, when I told her I also talk-story. The beginning is hers, the ending, mine," the narrator informs the reader (240). Thus, in the story of the poetess Ts’sai Yen, the daughter completes the story her mother started and the ending she provides is proof of generational and cultural continuity which takes into account the need for revision and appropriation to answer the needs of the changing times and new places. With the final story, the mother and the daughter, women of succeeding generations divided by time and culture, are able to interweave their narratives; talk-story is transformed into written narrative and the maternal text is completed by the daughter to become a mother-daughter text. It is a narrative that transcends both generational and cultural boundaries, a text in which stories mingle, cultures converge, and Ts’sai Yen’s experience is reinvented.

In the revised and jointly told story of Ts’sai Yen, an historical figure reported to have been "born in A.D. 145" (Kingston 241), the poetess emerges as a woman whose story parallels and connects the experiences of both the narrator and her mother. Ts’sai Yen and Brave Orchid are both displaced women forced to live among barbarians and whose children do not understand their ancestral culture. In their attempt to transmit their language and culture, both women are frustrated when their children "imitated [them] with senseless singsong words and laughed" (242). In her own ending, however, the American-born daughter "transforms the Chinese poet into a new kind of artist" (Egan 150) who creates art out of disparate material by singing Chinese lyrics to the music barbarian flutes produces. Since she is deeply concerned about culture clashes and experiments with blending Chinese and barbarian cultures to invent her narrative as well as her identity, the narrator chooses to emphasize the power of art which transcends boundaries and translates meaning across cultures:

Ts’sai Yen sang about China and her family there. Her words seemed to be Chinese, but the barbarians understood their sadness and anger. Sometimes they thought they could catch barbarian phrases about forever wandering. Her children did not laugh, but eventually sang along when she left her tent to sit by the winter campfires, ringed by barbarians. (243)

Thus, Ts’sai Yen’s song "match[es]" the barbarians’ flutes and creates contact and dialogue across cultures. The revised story, according to Wong, suggests that "effective art should be able to reduce the effects of cultural differences and touch upon common human feelings" ("Necessity and Extravagance" 24).

As different from the original story, as Susanna Egan suggests, in the narrator’s version, "Ts’sai Yen becomes a story of intercultural understanding rather than a story of ethnic superiority" (150). The lyrics mix Chinese words with "barbarian phrases"; the song mixes Ts’sai Yen’s voice with the sounds of the flutes; and finally Ts’sai Yen leaves her tent to mix with the barbarians around the campfires. In completing the story whose beginning belongs to her mother, Kingston’s voice mixes with her mother’s. The finale of Kingston’s autobiographical narrative emphasizes mixing as an empowering and creative act both artistically and personally. A lasting product of her enforced cultural encounter is a song that Ts’sai Yen brought back with her "from the savage lands" (Kingston 243). As "Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe" is still sung by the Chinese "to their own instruments" (243), the narrator finally receives her mother’s "talk-stories" as her mother’s gifts (and as her own maternal inheritance) and makes them instrumental to her life and identity in her time and place. Ts’ai Yen, Brave Orchid, and Kingston all partake in the experience of living among the barbarians. However, as she is different from them, Kingston has no desire to return to her ancestral land. Wong rightly emphasizes that "the last pages of The Woman Warrior celebrate not return from the remote peripheries to a waiting home but the creation of a new center through art" ("Autobiography" 270). As the narrator learns to appreciate the productive interaction of plural cultures in her life, she stays on the bridge of her own making and continues to tell stories of cross-cultural lives and identities.

© Dilek Direnç (Ege University Izmir, Turkey)


(1) LeiLani Nishime draws attention to "the attack on Kingston over the autobiographical status of her book The Woman Warrior": Her critics maintain that "Kingston violates the commitment to ‘factuality’ that the name autobiography implies and, in doing so, confronts two different traditions of autobiography" (71). While Kingston contests "the non-fiction appellation of autobiography," she also challenges "the anthropological information retrieval concept of ethnic autobiography" (71). As Sau-ling Cynthia Wong writes, ethnic autobiography is expected to be "a history in microcosm of the community, especially of its suffering, struggles, and triumphs"; yet Kingston thwarts this expectation as well. ("Autobiography" 258).

(2) As she examines autobiographies of diaspora in her book, Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography , Susanna Egan calls the writers "Janus-faced critics and analysts resistant to ‘pure culture’" and observes that "[t]hey move among genres with an imaginative ease that suggests all borders are permeable" (122).

(3) By rejecting traditional Western autobiography and its well-established conventions, Kingston avoids the ideology underlying it and this serves her purposes well both in terms of form and content. Patricia Lin Blind perceives the book as "a collage of genres" and maintains that "it is at once a novel, an autobiography, a series of essays and poems (52). This collage proves to be liberating for Kinston. As Blind points out, "while the work capitalizes on the conventions of various genres, it also evades the limitations of any one genre" (52). Writing of the "genre controversy" concerning The Woman Warrior and China Men, Marjorie J. Lightfoot maintains that it is "a consequence of the author’s efforts to embrace much of life and imply its magnitude" (55).

(4) Rufus Cook suggests that Kingston’s "practice of offering alternative versions for every story and alternative explanations for every set of events is one that seems to appeal particularly to Kingston as a means of emphasizing the inadequacy to human experience of any one language, any one moral or cultural or political point of view" (138). Her attempt is to convey to her readers the awareness that the version of a story she presents to her readers is never "definitive or authoritative" but "simply another step in an on-going process of cultural revision and reconsideration" (140).

(5) As Nishime insightfully states, in Kingston’s work "[t]he story of the protagonist is intertwined with her relationship with her mother, and The Woman Warrior tells the story of the protagonist’s mother as it is ‘about’ the protagonist" (73). Therefore, the resulting story is not one of "individualism" but one which foregrounds "the social aspect of an individual identity" (73).

(6) Shirley Geok-Lin Lim notes that Kingston makes use of "the term ‘talk-stories’ frequently in her book to refer to the oral tradition narratives which she transforms into written text (253). She explains that "[t]he term itself is a common idiom drawn from Cantonese to signify any kind of oral tale, whether personal, familial, communal, or historical" (253).

(7) "In reshaping her ancestral past to fit her American present," as King-Kok Cheung observes, "Kingston is asserting an identity that is neither Chinese nor white American" (169). Drawing attention to "Brave Orchid’s endless tales" and how they "nourished her imagination," he asserts that "From this mother tongue--her Chinese heritage--she now invents tales that sustain and affirm her Chinese American identity" (169).

(8) Leslie W. Rabine claims that "From the very first sentence of the book: ‘You must not tell anyone,’ the text performs its own transgression of the paternal law concerning language, sexuality, generation, and gender" (484).

(9) As Ruth Y. Jenkins suggests, reinventing and recording her aunt’s experience enable the narrator to construct "a palimpsestic subjectivity" and declare "the value of individual female experience while weaving it into generations of female history" (66).

(10) Kingston’s rewriting of the traditional ballad can be considered as part of "the process of reclaiming and recreating myths," which has been "a central activity in the work of many feminist poets" (Humm 68). Examining the works of the American women poets in the sixties and seventies, Alicia Ostriker maintains that "the poet simultaneously deconstructs a prior ‘myth’ or ‘story’ and constructs a new one which includes, instead of excluding herself" (12). Contemporary women artists, observes Estella Lauter, revisited the inherited myths and revised them to answer their own needs" (12).

(11) "Rewriting myths," Paul Outka writes, "involves respect for both the importance of essentialist cultural tradition and the need to remake such traditions" (460). As Kingston revises and rewrites traditional myths, she has to adapt them to her time and place in order to receive help from them. "[T]he creation of a powerful female identity at once connected to cultural tradition and necessarily distinct from the misogynistic aspects of that tradition" (461) cannot be achieved without revising the male-centered myths of the masculinist Chinese tradition.

(12) Cook observes that, similar to her transformation of "the No Name Woman from a negative into a positive role model," Kingston transforms the woman warrior "from a paragon of traditional filial piety into an exemplary modern woman able to combine career goals with childrearing and marriage" (143).

(13) Instead of the conventional feminine marking of the female body, which is feet-binding in Chinese culture, her parents inflict a conventional male marking upon Fa Mu Lan’s body when they "carve revenge on [her] back" (Kingston 41), an act that indicates recognition.

(14) Kingston notes that she has been criticized by Sinologists "for not knowing myths and for distorting them" (Lim Approaches 24). She complains that "pirates correct [her] myths, revising them to make them conform to some traditional Chinese version" (24). She claims that what they do not realize is that "myths have to change, to be useful or be forgotten. Like the people who carry them across oceans, the myths become American (24). She explains: "That’s why they often appear as cartoons and kung fu movies. I take the power I need from whatever myth. Thus Fa Mu Lan has the words cut into her back; in the traditional story, it is the man, Ngak Fei Patriot, whose parents cut vows on his back. I mean to take power for women" (24).

(15) Cook maintains that especially in the "White Tigers" chapter, Kingston demonstrates that "the vengeance she craves as a literary woman warrior is not only for the sexist abuse she suffered as a girl from the Chinese emigrant community but also for the racial bigotry she has had to endure from white American society" (143-44).

(16) Yuan Shu claims that "Kingston never explores the issue of institutional racism in the US context but only briefly mentions incidents that might have racial overtones and implications" (215). Kingston does not evade the issue of racism but her emphasis in this book lies somewhere else.

(17) Providing a brief summary of the history of the Chinese presence in the US and of the exclusion laws, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim observes that "[t]his legislation kept Chinese American women as well as men socially in the underclass, a position in which writing and publishing were not generally available cultural productions" (254). Therefore, the search for "voice and words" in Kingston’s narrative is related to this kind of cultural presence and visibility as well.


Blind, Patricia Lin. "The Icicle in the Desert: Perspective and Form in the Works of Two Chinese-American Women Wonder Writers." MELUS, 6.3 (1979): 51-71.

Cheung, King-Kok. "’Don’t Tell’: Imposed Silences in The Color Purple and The Woman Warrior." PMLA, 103. 2 (1988): 162-174.

Cook, Rufus. "Cross-Cultural Wordplay in Maxine Hong Kingston’ China Men and The Woman Warrior." MELUS, 22.4 (Winter, 1997): 133-146.

Demetrakopoulos, Stephanie A. "The Metaphysics of Matrilinearism in Women’s Autobiography: Studies of Mead’s Blackberry Winter, Hellman’s Pentimento, Angelous’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Kingston’s The Woman Warrior." In Women’s Autobiography: Essays in Criticism. Ed. Estelle C. Jelinek. Bloomington & London: Indiana UP, 1980. 180-205.

Egan, Susanna. Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Homsher, Deborah. "The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston: A Bridging of Autobiography and Fiction." Iowa Review 10.4 (1979): 93-98.

Humm, Maggie. A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Feminist Literary Criticism. Great Britain: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994.

Jenkins, Ruth Y. "Authorizing the Female Voice and Experience: Ghosts and Spirits in Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and Allende’s The House of the Spirits." MELUS, 19.3 (1994): 61-73.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. 1975. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

Lauter, Estella. Women as Mythmakers: Poetry and Visual Art by Twentieth-Century Women. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

Lightfoot, Marjorie J. "Hunting the Dragon in Kingston’s The Woman Warrior." MELUS, 13. 3/4 (1986): 55-66.

Lim, Shirley Geok-Lin.
"The Tradition of Chinese American Women’s Life Stories: Thematics of Race and Gender in Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior." American Women’s Autobiography: Fea(s)ts of Memory. Ed. Margo Culley. Wisconsin & London: the U of Wisconsin P, 1992. 252-67.
Ed. Approaches to Teaching Kinston’s The Woman Warrior. New York: MLA, 1991.

Nishime, LeiLani. "Engendering Genre: Gender and Nationalism in China Men and The Woman Warrior." MELUS, 20.1 (1995): 67-82.

Ostriker, Alicia Suskin. "The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythmaking." Coming to Light: American Women Poets in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Diane Wood Middlebrtook and Marilyn Yalome. Ann Harbour: U of Michigan P, 1985. 10-36.

Outka, Paul. "Publish or Perish: Food, Hunger, and Self-Construction in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior." Contemporary Literature, 38.3 (1997):447-82.

Rabine, Leslie W. "No Lost Paradise: Social Gender and Symbolic Gender in the Writings of Maxine Hong Kingston." Signs, 12.3 (1987): 471-92.

Rose, Shirley K. "Metaphors and Myths of Cross-Cultural Literacy: Autobiographical Narratives by Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodriguez, and Malcolm X." MELUS, 14.1 (1987):3-15.

Shu, Yuan. "Cultural Politics and Chinese-American Female Subjectivity: Rethinking Kingston’s Woman Warrior." MELUS, 26.2 (2001): 199-223.

Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia.
"Necessity and Extravagance in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Art and the Ethnic Experience." MELUS, 15.1 (1988): 3-26.
"Autobiography as Guided Chinatown Tour? Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and the Chinese-American Autobiographical Controversy." In Multicultural Autobiography: American Lives. Ed. James Robert Payne. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1992. 248-79.

6.1. Modalitäten von Kulturkontakt

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For quotation purposes:
Dilek Direnç (Ege University Izmir,Turkey): Restoried Identities in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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