Maxine Hong Kingston (b. 1940)
Contributing Editor: Amy Ling
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The primary question for any initial reading of Kingston's The Woman Warrior has to do with genre or form. Is this text nonfiction? (It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for the best book of nonfiction published in 1976.) Since the word "memoirs" is in the title, is it autobiography? Or is it a piece of imaginative fiction, which seems most apparent in the "White Tigers" chapter included in this anthology? The Woman Warrior, of course, is all of the above, sequentially and simultaneously, a collage of genres.
As Kingston does not maintain a unity of genre, neither does she maintain a unity of diction. "White Tigers" begins with a colloquial tone, a woman speaking informally about her Chinese-American female upbringing. It then goes into a conditional tense and a story-telling mode--"The call would come from a bird that flew over our roof"--into a narration filled with magical details, described at times in a matter-of-fact manner, at other times in an elevated, poetic style. Then, without warning, the language and the subject matter lapse abruptly from the fanciful to the everyday in the sudden, disruptive line, "My American life has been such a disappointment." In diction and language also, The Woman Warrior is dialogic.
In terms of content, "White Tigers" has been called, by David Leiwei Li of USC, "a version of the Kung Fu movie interspliced with a Western." Feminists, however, admire the anger and power of the female avenger whose patient and lengthy training enables her to slice off the head of the misogynist baron in one stroke. Chinese-Americans appreciate Hong Kingston's skill not only in beautifully elaborating on a popular ancient Chinese ballad, "The Magnolia Lay," but in making its traditional Chinese heroine relevant to a contemporary Chinese-American girl's life.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Since her mother's talking-story was one of the major forces of her childhood and since she herself is now talking-story in writing this book, stories, factual and fictional, are an inherent part of Kingston's autobiography. Finding one's voice in order to talk-story, a metaphor for knowing oneself in order to attain the fullness of one's power, becomes one of the book's major themes.
As the second chapter of a five-chapter book, "White Tigers" is best understood in the context and thematic structure of the entire work. The book's first chapter, "No Name Woman," tells the story of the paternal aunt who bears a child out of wedlock and is harried by the villagers and by her family into drowning herself; the family now punishes this taboo-breaker by never speaking of her, by denying her her name. The author, however, breaks the family silence by writing about this rebel whom she calls "my forebear." "No Name Woman" presents the cautionary tale of woman as victim; "White Tigers," however, provides the model to emulate. This pattern, woman as victim then victor, is repeated through-out the text.
In like manner, Kingston inverts historical misogynist Chinese practices, such as footbinding and female infanticide, by claiming that perhaps women's feet were bound because women were so strong. Victory over handicaps, over racial and sexual devaluation is Kingston's purpose.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
One of the distinctive accomplishments of The Woman Warrior is that it crosses boundaries between genres, dictions, styles, between fact and fiction, as it crosses the boundaries between cultures, Chinese and American. In the collage of style and form, in the amalgam of language and content, in the combination of Chinese myth, family history, and American individualism and rebelliousness, Kingston defines herself as a Chinese-American woman.
The Woman Warrior is decidedly a product of the sixties, of the civil rights and women's liberation movements. It directly addresses Chinese-Americans, whom it seeks to bring into its exploration of identity, but, as an immigrant story for a nation of immigrants, it is obviously intended as well for a mainstream audience.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Like other women and ethnic writers such as Leslie Marmon Silko, Toni Morrison, and Adrienne Rich who appropriated and revisioned myths for their own uses, so Kingston appropriated the tale of the legendary Fa Mulan for her own purposes. The original ballad of the Chinese woman warrior is recorded in a fifth-century ballad of sixty-two lines; Kingston elaborates considerably on this ballad. Her most significant addition, however, is the woman warrior's marriage and childbearing while still in armor disguised as a man. In the original ballad, Mulan performs these roles sequentially; in Kingston's version, simultaneously. With this change, Kingston crosses gender barriers and separate spheres, creating a heroine who is at once a feared warrior and a tender mother.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Which aspects of Kingston's childhood experience is true of all immigrants in the United States? What is particular to Chinese-Americans?
2. Of what use is the fabulous story of the woman warrior to the daily life of the narrator?
3. Has Kingston in her life inverted the woman as victim into woman as victor? Research and explain.
Articles on the work of Maxine Hong Kingston have proliferated. This is merely a small sampling.
Blinde, Patricia Lin. "The Icicle in the Desert: Perspective and Form in the Works of Two Chinese American Women 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 (1988): 162-74.
Chua, Chen Lok. "Two Versions of the American Dream: The Golden Mountain in Lin Yutang and Maxine Hong Kingston." MELUS 8.4 (1981): 61-70.
Juhasz, Suzanne. "Towards a Theory of Form in Feminist Autobiography: Kate Millet's Fear of Flying and Sitar; Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior." International Journal of Women's Studies 2.1 (January-February 1979): 62-75.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. "Cultural Misreadings by American Reviewers." In Asian and Western Writers in Dialogue: New Cultural Identities, edited by Guy Amirthanayagam, 55-65. London: Macmillan, 1982.
Li, David Leiwei. "The Naming of a Chinese American 'I': Cross-Cultural Sign/nifications in The Woman Warrior." Criticism 30.4 (Winter 1988): 506.
Ling, Amy. "Thematic Threads in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior." Tamkang Review 14 (1983-1984): 5-15.
Rabine, Leslie W. "No Paradise Lost: Social Gender and Symbolic Gender in the Writings of Maxine Hong Kingston." Signs 12.3 (1987): 471-92.