The Woman Warrior


Maxine Hong Kingston

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The Woman Warrior Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Maxine Hong Kingston

Maxine Hong was the eldest of six children born to Chinese immigrants. Her father, Tom, had been a poet, teacher, and calligrapher in his native country. He smuggled himself to New York City from Cuba and was deported from Ellis Island until his third attempt to enter the United States, which was successful. Unable to find work in his new country as a scholar, he took a job in a laundry and then sent for his wife, Ying Lan, in 1939. Kingston’s mother had also been a professional—a midwife and doctor trained in both Chinese and Western medicine. Kingston credits her mother for bestowing her with a gift for storytelling. Ying Lan had learned the ancient art of “talk-story” from her own father, who had been a village storyteller. From her mother, Kingston heard tales about life in China, such as women going to the market to buy girl slaves, as well as myths and legends. Such stories would be incorporated into The Woman Warrior, her debut work. Kingston was educated at the University of California-Berkeley where she had received a scholarship for engineering. Later, she switched her major to English. While at Berkeley, she became involved in the Free Speech Movement, which first developed at Berkeley before spreading to other campuses. Kingston’s involvement in these protests would lead to a lifetime of activism, particularly anti-war pacifism. In 1962, she married Earll Kingston and the couple had one son. Kingston and her husband took teaching positions, first in Northern California, and then in Honolulu, Hawaii, where they moved in 1967. The success of her writing career led to Kingston being named Distinguished Professor of English at her alma mater, Berkeley, in 1990. Kingston continues to publish and leads writing retreats for war veterans and widows whose work she helps to publish.
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Historical Context of The Woman Warrior

The Woman Warrior takes place during Kingston’s girlhood in Northern California in the 1940s and 1950s. World War II had recently ended and the Japanese internment camps in her state were closed. A physical war had given way to an ideological one—the Cold War. Kingston claimed that her decision to study engineering at Berkeley had not so much been about interest in the subject as it was about the fact that ambitious students like her were often drawn toward studying the sciences to meet the demands of the burgeoning technological age. In the memoir, Kingston’s mother escapes from an onslaught of Japanese bombing in her native Canton province in the 1930s. In the same decade, Japan expanded their imperial power into China after the seizure of Manchuria in 1931. Kingston notes that her mother had been a refugee in China, living in the mountains with other refugees, then left China in the winter of 1939, several months after the outbreak of World War II in Europe, to immigrate to New York, arriving in January 1940. Kingston recounts that “the same war [was] still going on years after she [Brave Orchid] crossed the ocean.” The United States had entered World War II in 1941, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, a Hawaiian naval base, on December 7, 1941.

Other Books Related to The Woman Warrior

The political consciousness movements of the 1960s and 1970s not only led to challenges to political authority, but also inspired challenges to narrative authority. The Woman Warrior was published during a time in American literary history when scholars and readers, aided by the advent of Cultural Studies, were starting to examine what constituted an “American story” and who could write one. The desires both to assert American identity while also declaring a relationship with ancestral homelands, which Kingston addresses, was a popular subject in Black American literature in the 1970s and 1980s, in works such as Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow (1983) and Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day (1988). Kingston’s exhumation of her family history is similar to other works about seeking ancestral connections through narratives, particularly Alex Haley’s Roots (1976). Though she incorporates aspects of Chinese history and myth into her work, Kingston has been insistent that her stories are “American” stories. Kingston’s success was also linked to that of other Chinese-American authors from California who addressed issues related to immigration, racism, and Chinese cultural traditions in their works, particularly Amy Tan, whose most popular work, The Joy Luck Club, also narrates family history and illustrates generational conflicts between mothers and daughters. Playwright David Henry Hwang produced his first play, FOB (an acronym for “fresh off the boat”), a story about the Asian-American immigrant experience, in 1979; he published it in 1983. Kingston’s harshest critic, writer Frank Chin, also explored issues around immigration and racism. In his novel Donald Duk (1991), he creates a fantasy in which a contemporary protagonist morphs into a historical figure.
Key Facts about The Woman Warrior
  • Full Title: The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts
  • When Written: Early-1970s
  • Where Written: Honolulu, Hawaii
  • When Published: 1976
  • Literary Period: Postmodern American Literature
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Setting: Canton province, China; Stockton, California
  • Climax: In a long monologue delivered to her parents at dinner, Kingston screams at them—not only telling them that she does not want The Hulk around anymore, but also insisting that none of their expectations for her (that she will be a wife or a slave) are valid.
  • Point of View: First-person; third-person omniscient

Extra Credit for The Woman Warrior

Chinese Laundries. Tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants first arrived in California around the time of the Gold Rush, which lasted from 1848 to 1852. Barred from working in fishing, mining, and other industries, the Chinese discovered that they could earn income by performing a form of labor that no one else wanted to do: laundry. Chinese laundries quickly became lucrative and helped to establish Chinese immigrants as citizens.

The Free Speech Movement. Led by Mario Savio, the Free Speech Movement started at the University of California—Berkeley in 1964. The movement was a demand that universities stop restricting campus protests, arguing that such restrictions curbed students’ right to assemble. The movement created a campus atmosphere in which students could freely discuss politics and pursue other political agendas, such as Civil Rights, anti-war protests, and feminism.