TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. November 2008

Sektion 5.4. Women’s Performances in Transnational Migration
Sektionsleiterin | Section Chair: Maria-Sabina Draga Alexandru (University of Bucharest, Romania)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

The Role of Women (Writers) in the Identity Development of Ethnic Minorities

Ana-Maria Petecila (University of Bucharest) [BIO]



Chinese Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies? (Kingston 13)


This is a question that Maxine Hong Kingston puts out in the open and tries to answer as well as many other female writers who want to forge a sense of identity not only for themselves but also for the ethnic minorities that they try to represent. In this paper I will try to show how these women writers will manage to transform liminality into the centre and alterity into acceptance, by means of acculturation and deconstruction. I will focus on Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. Memoirs of a Childhood Among Ghosts.

The Kitchen God’s Wife has been qualified many times as being a piece of “historical literature”. Still, historical literature is often understood in terms of binary logic, with critics tending to privilege either phenomenalism or theoreticism, being, in short, seen as either phenomenal fact or theoretical fiction (Spivak, 1987: 242). Amy Tan’s novel negotiates between these two extremes in terms compatible with deconstruction by generating a debate about the difficulty of referencing past experiences according to phenomenalism in an attempt to create a sense of identity to which other Chinese immigrants, and not only they, could relate as well.

Paying attention to language, and most of all to its literary and rhetoric dimensions, Amy Tan generates a radical critique of neocolonialism, which misuses “ethnic” literature by valuing it merely for its capacity to teach dominant groups about “the really important things in life – Roots, Culture, Tradition, History, War, Human Evil” (Wong 200). An emphasis on language resists the neocolonial effort to displace the literary dimension of The Kitchen God’s Wife.

The Kitchen God’s Wife lends itself to “information retrieval”, inasmuch as it represents an unknown, if not a forgotten, history, which includes the rape of Nanking by the Japanese, an atrocious moment in history, when it is estimated that “more than 260,000 noncombatants died at the hands of Japanese soldiers” (Chang 4). Thus, extermination, together with exclusion from history by Japanese ultranationalists, ensures that the Chinese “cannot represent themselves; they must be represented” (Spivak, 1988: 276-77). Amy Tan takes this task upon herself, but chooses not to present in details the rape, but to transport the dramas at a personal level. Thus, Chinese history is marginalized in The Kitchen God’s Wife because it is used as a “foil for personal dramas” (Wong 200). Rather than discussing Japan’s hostility towards China, Weili, the protagonist, articulates her experiences at the hands of the monstrous Wen Fu.

We can also look at subjectivity in relation to history in Amy Tan’s novel, as it makes possible a critical negotiation of this ideology insofar as the individual is assumed reliable regarding historical events only in terms of a rhetorical effect. Weili’s Chinese identity, together with the fact that she is an American, Winnie Louie, potentially works to her advantage. Indeed, the West’s preoccupation with imparting individuality to the “native” empowers Weili to speak, as “the Chinese Woman”. That the oppressed are considered epistemically advantaged regarding the condition of oppression adds weight to Weili’s account of things: “Of course it’s a true story” (201). In doing so it resists the neocolonial understanding of “ethnic” literature as “window on the world” (MacAlister 106).

Indeed Tan’s novel enables a postcolonial critique in the sense that it problematizes traditional aesthetic categories by promoting theoretical insights about representing history. The difficulties related to forgetting and remembering are present all along in the novel. More precisely, The Kitchen God’s Wife begins with Weili wanting to forget, although this proves impossible because her attempt to isolate her past experiences in China is interrupted most obviously by Hunlan’s threat to “let all…secrets out” (83). Hulan assumes that disclosure brings about closure with respect to Chinese history. However, The Kitchen God’s Wife resists this logic, underwriting the point that secrets “remain inviolable even when one thinks one has revealed them” (Derrida 21). Thus, absolute remembering, like absolute forgetting, is impossible, but still this leads the way to a better understanding of the self, both for Weili as for her daughter, Pearl, who is now able to bridge the gap that had forever existed in her soul.

Difficulties in forging an identity are also presented at the level of language. Signifier and signified most obviously fail to coincide between speakers of different languages. At a big banquet in honor of Chinese fighter pilots, an American general makes an announcement: “With your help, we won’t be sending the Japanese back to Japan, but to kingdom come”. The fact that the Americans say one thing and the Chinese understand another is underlined when the pilots think that the general is asking them to “give the Japanese a new kingdom” (204). Misinterpretation also occurs between Chinese speakers. The old-style painting in her father’s study confuses Weili. She recalls her response: “You could not tell if the lady playing the lute was singing a happy or a sad song. You could not tell if the woman carrying the heavy load was beginning her journey or ending it” (177). This underlines the idea that children of such immigrants are not able to define an identity for themselves, living in an environment that has nothing to do with the one that their parents lived in, speaking a language that often leads to confusions and trying to be a part of the new society so as to be completely accepted and integrated.

In such a fashion, Amy Tan lets us know that only by being aware of your past and your roots can one really design an identity for himself or herself. Chinese immigrants must know where they came from in order to realize what they are today, and by the end of the story, indeed, Pearl realizes that she is not the person that she believed to be in the beginning of the novel, as, for example, she now knows that her father is not the one she knew, but Wen Fu, of whom she had had no knowledge up to that point.   

Moving on to the second novel that I am discussing, The Woman Warrior. Memoirs of a Childhood among Ghosts, the perspective changes to a certain extent. In The Woman Warrior, the search for identity is triggered by the process of globalization and is represented, on the one hand, by the essays to conciliate silence and loudness and, on the other hand, by trying to sort out what a woman means, more exactly what being a woman who finds herself in between two cultures means. I shall try to briefly analyze the entire novel, paying attention to the instances which can be relevant for the action that globalization performs in regards to the process of identity definition that the author undergoes.

First of all I believe that I should mention the fact that there are some aspects of globalization that we can refer to when applying globalization to this text. The first one is cultural globalization, namely the growth of cross-cultural contacts and the advent of new categories of consciousness and identities. This could also lead to globalism, which represents cultural diffusion, the desire to consume and enjoy foreign products and ideas, adopt new technologies and practices, and participate in a "world culture". Also, we can encounter instances of social globalization - the achievement of free circulation by people of all nations.

At first sight, this is a novel regarding a problem which had only recently appeared: a woman defining herself. Looking deeper, the author is actually trying to define an entire phenomenon which is linked to multiculturalism, but also cultural assimilation. But still, the most obvious issue is still represented by a woman defining herself and this seems very important to the author who is a woman coming from a society where women were treated just a little bit better than animals and equally to slaves and living in a culture where women are supposed to be equal to men. She thus has to reconcile her heritage with which her mother continuously feeds her and the environment around her, which both seem to be reputable forces in a continuous battle.

The Woman Warrior is made up of five chapters: “No Name Woman”, “White Tigers”, “Shaman”, “At the Western Palace” and “A Song for a Barbarian Red Pipe”. Each of them tells a story of a woman that influenced the author’s life. This is a defining characteristic of this novel and of the process of defining one’s identity. The author is a woman, so we can encounter more problems. If the author were a Chinese man trying to integrate in the American society we would have a different process, because, basically, society was and is a bit patriarchal all over the world, so a man wouldn’t have to witness and be a part of such great changes in his role in society and the family. But in our case the author is a woman, who will have to adjust to a modern type of culture, one which no longer regards women as inferior to men, but as equal to them and who lives in a Chinese family who tries to imprint in her the way of behaving and living of traditional women in the Chinese society.

First of all, the novel introduces the fact that in traditional China, women are the keepers of tradition. They are the ones that take it further and teach new generations to behave, by telling them the stories which have been passed down from generation to generation, but always on a maternal line.

The first chapter presents us with an instance of exactly this. Kingston’s mother tells the story of a dead aunt of hers, who had become pregnant by someone else than her husband and ended up by drowning herself and her new born baby in the well. The story begins with a piece of advice: “You must not tell anyone” (3). This is, however, useless, as the story only exists in order to be told and to teach its listeners a lesson (in this case a girl should not follow her aunt’s example in order not to have to suffer from the same fate). The stories are warnings, and only by being told from generation to generation can they find their purpose and be useful. Thus the mother’s words, “You must not tell anyone” mean, in my opinion, just the opposite. Tell, explain what has once happened, and thus keep your family from being shamed once again. Of course, we can see that the story is being told in the context of the American society, so Brave Orchid, Kingston’s mother, might also mean that the story must not be revealed to Americans. What is Chinese must remain Chinese, and must not be known by other cultures, which will for sure not understand such tales. This can be interpreted as an instance of resistance to the assimilation process that the superior culture is trying to impose on the inferior one.

All across the novel, there is a deep conflict between how Kingston believes that women should be treated and how they should behave, on the one hand, and how they were treated and how they had to behave in the Chinese society. There are plenty of examples from the Chinese “wisdom” regarding women, and the author is more than eager to tell us about them: “girls are maggots in the rice” (84), “it is more profitable to raise geese than girls” (105), “feeding girls is like feeding cowbirds” (106). If these words may seem simple jokes in the beginning, further on Kingston’s words become bitter and we can feel in her tone the tragedy of life in such a society: “there is a Chinese word for the female “I” which is “slave”” (185) or “I read in an anthropology book that Chinese say: Girls are necessary, too; I have never heard the Chinese I know make this concession” (190). And these statements come from a person who lives among Chinese not in China, but in America, a place which is completely different and has completely different values and a different approach to women.

In such a context Kingston is trapped in-between. On the one hand she lives in a liberal and equalitarian society and, on the other hand, she is fed with ideas and stories of traditional Chinese women and the proper ways of believing and of thinking. This is what makes the author try and find her own place and her own identity, one that would bring together and make peace between these two conflicting approaches to life.

All across the novel, we can see Kingston trying to fight a patriarchal society, so as to try and turn it into a society in which women could be free if they wanted to. She does this in order to try and bring closer the American and Chinese cultures, so as not to feel any more that she doesn’t belong to any of them.

In the second chapter, “White Tigers”, we have the motif of the woman warrior represented by Fa Mu Lan. This is a woman who breaks every kind of tradition that the Chinese society might have. She grows up to become a warrior and manages to be better than all the men at fighting, leading an army made of men and obtaining victory after victory. In the end she gets married and has a baby, becoming from a feared warrior a loving mother and wife. The example of the woman warrior is enforced by Kingston: “We learnt that we failed if we grew up to be but wives and slaves. We could be heroines, swordswomen”. What is more, her mother, born and raised in the traditional Chinese society underlines the importance of this motif: “She said I would grow up to be a wife and a slave, but she taught me the song of the warrior woman, Fa Mu Lan” (44).

In the third chapter, “Shaman”, the heroine is the author’s mother, Brave Orchid. She decides to become a doctor so she goes away to school. There she becomes a leader for all the other women by fighting and defeating a ghost that was terrifying everybody. Her mother is totally different from traditional Chinese women. She possesses logic, she is strong and strong-willed. She believes in tradition and carries it forward, but she also has a strong hand with which she leads both her husband and her children.

In the fourth chapter, “At the Western Palace”, we again see Brave Orchid as a warrior, trying to transform her sister, Moon Orchid, into a warrior. She also tries to fight men in this chapter and go against all tradition by being better than a man, but also tries to enforce tradition, by supporting the right of the first wife.

The last chapter, “A Song for a Barbarian Red Pipe”, tells the story of yet another woman, Ts’ai Yen, who was kidnapped by raiders, but who managed to live among them and, when rescued, started to sing songs inspired from her life in captivity and became a great poet.

But in all these stories, except in the last one, women, although they struggle to become warriors they are, sooner or later, defeated. Kingston’s aunt in “No Name Woman” kills herself because of the pressure that she is under due to the society she lives in. Fa Mu Lan is not really a winner, because all throughout her story she pretends to be a man, as “Chinese executed women who disguised themselves as soldiers or students, no matter how bravely they fought or how high they scored on examinations” (62). In “Shaman”, although Brave Orchid becomes a doctor and is, obviously, a strong person, she is still condemned to kill little girls which she helps bring into the world, thus killing herself each and every time. In “At the Western Palace”, Brave Orchid is again defeated and fails to transform her sister into a warrior.

The difference between American and Chinese people is seen in this book in terms of voice, and how it is used by people belonging to one or the other culture. Thus, one of the most important themes which appear in the novel and which are crucial in the process of finding of the author’s identity in terms of globalization is that of silence and voice. As I have before stated, this theme actually becomes important with the first words of the book: “You must not tell anyone” (3). It is both ironic and paradoxical; the former because Kingston is actually telling everyone, the latter because so much of what Brave Orchid teaches her daughter is based on telling, giving voice to the Chinese customs, traditions, and the lives of the past.

As a whole, however, the Chinese immigrants are so guarded about their community that they keep silent about anything that could disrupt it. In my opinion, this is a way of fighting hybridization and eventually the destruction that globalization brings. It is often the children, as Chinese-Americans, who bear the burden of the community’s silence. We can notice a big difference between the way in which the Chinese behave when among Americans and when they are surrounded only by other Chinese. When they find themselves among Americans, they keep silent. They are not loud and they do not speak. This is because, on the one hand, they consider that all traditions are to remain in their group and not to penetrate to others who aren’t capable of understanding them. On the other hand, they see Americans and ghosts, and a ghost must be ignored in order to go away.

The difference between Chinese and Americans in terms of voice and silence is easily noticeable all throughout the novel. On the one hand, Americans seem to be always voiced. They are always able to speak, although they might sometimes pretend to be voiceless when around Chinese, mainly because the difference of race. On the other hand, Chinese people, when around only Chinese, are extremely loud. They speak and, more exactly, they scream and yell to one another, but only when they find themselves in a Chinese community. When they are together with Americans they become silent. Kingston herself confessed that she felt unable to speak at the American school, while at the Chinese school she had no problems in expressing herself.

All these problems, of which the root cause is globalization, are presented in the novel. The search for identity, both as a woman and as a person living in a new type of society, find a solution in the last chapter, “Song for a Barbarian Red Pipe” and in the story of the poetess Ts’ai Yen. In her turn, Maxine Hong Kingston becomes a poetess and manages to bring together successfully all the contradictory aspects of her life.

According to her Chinese background and to her mother’s teachings, women were the keepers of tradition and of the cultural heritage of their people. By writing the novel, Kingston puts an end to the clash between the two civilizations and becomes herself just a woman taking tradition one step further and handing stories down from generation to generation. She is thus behaving according to how a Chinese woman should behave. Looking differently at the problem, Maxine Hong Kingston also destroys the differences between silence and loudness. She is no longer afraid to be heard, and thus tells her stories to everyone: Chinese, Americans, or whoever else would like to hear them and maybe learn a lesson from them.

In this manner, “Song for a Barbarian Red Pipe” is the process of the author’s finding of her own voice, and, thus, her own identity. All in all, it can be argued that Maxine Hong Kingston is able to find her own identity in a society dominated by globalization and is able to escape hybridization and assimilation. She manages to be both the traditional and the modern woman, and silence and loudness at the same time. She is silent towards every community, even her own, because she doesn’t actually speaks, she writes. At the same time, she is loud, because her novel practically screams her ideas and experiences. She is the traditional woman, because she is also the modern American woman, because she goes against Chinese customs, by letting everyone know all the stories of her nation, and by expressing her cultural heritage in a personal and unique way.

Works Cited


5.4. Women’s Performances in Transnational Migration

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For quotation purposes:
Ana-Maria Petecila: The Role of Women (Writers) in the Identity Development of Ethnic Minorities. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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