Brave Orchid, Maxine Hong Kingston’s mother, tells her that her father had a sister who drowned herself in the family well. The family claims that Kingston’s father only had brothers. Denial around his sister’s pregnancy began when the family first noticed her distended belly—around the same time that the men in Kingston’s family began to leave for America, or Gold Mountain.
It seems that Brave Orchid tells Kingston this story in an effort to maintain the family’s history of its women, which the men have the power to erase. The erasure could occur not only because of the wish to deny the shame that the sister brought the family, but also because going to America meant creating a new history.
No Name Woman, which is the name that Kingston grants her shamed aunt, had the baby in the early summer, according to Brave Orchid. The villagers “had been counting” the months from the time No Name Woman’s husband left until she got pregnant. They raided the family’s home “on the night the baby was to be born.”
Kingston grants her aunt an identity, though it is one that is defined by her anonymity. In the village, however, No Name Woman was known and closely watched, and was never granted the opportunity for any kind secrecy or private life.
Brave Orchid recalls that the villagers first “threw mud and rocks at the house.” Then, they became more violent, slaughtering livestock and breaking into the house, particularly the aunt’s room. They destroyed her clothes and shoes “and broke her combs, grinding them underfoot.” That evening, No Name Woman gave birth in a pigsty. When Brave Orchid went out for water, she found her sister-in-law and the baby “plugging up the family well.”
The villagers’ choice to throw “mud and rocks” is symbolic of the filth which they thought No Name Woman had brought onto her family and the village—they assume that her private actions are public, and affect them all. The comforts of her room contrast with the pigsty in which she gave birth.
Kingston notes that, whenever Brave Orchid wanted to teach her children something, she would relate a story like this one. The world that Brave Orchid knew was one of “brute survival.” The children of immigrants had to figure out how those customs fit into “solid America.”
“Brute survival” indicates that there was limited room for mistakes. No Name Woman, for example, made an error that led to her death. Brave Orchid expected her children to avoid similar mistakes, even in a country that seemed to offer more second chances.
One method of “brute survival” is the habit of being intentionally misleading. The Chinese not only confuse authorities by hiding their real names, Kingston says, but also seek to confuse the gods by “misleading them with crooked streets and false names.” This is further complicated by the penchant for telling stories. Thus, one wonders, “What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?” Kingston wonders, what actually happened and how much is just invention?
In the book, Chinese people tell stories as a mode of survival. Learning one’s history can be tricky when so much of it may have been made up, both to ensure entry to the United States and to fulfill superstitious beliefs. Fact and fiction are elusive but, it seems, one must be elusive to survive against unjust laws—both those of the immigration authorities and the gods.
Brave Orchid taught her children that whenever they did “useless” things, they used up energy. Kingston wonders if her aunt may have been one of few Chinese to be extravagant enough to commit adultery. She wonders if her aunt could have been “the lone romantic who gave up everything for sex.” It is also possible, she thinks, that No Name Woman was like many Chinese women and did not choose, but that a man may have forced her “to lie with him” and may also have “masked himself” to join in the raid on her family.
Kingston compares Brave Orchid’s notion of “useless” action with her aunt’s possible penchant for the “extravagance” of romance. Sex, in the context of No Name Woman’s Chinese village, was functional, not a matter of pleasure. Knowing that, Kingston thinks that her aunt may have been raped. If she could not choose to be in love, it is also possible that she could not choose sex.
Kingston contemplates how her aunt may have met her lover or rapist. Maybe they met in the fields or in the mountains where she would have collected fuel. Kingston is sure that he would not have been a stranger, for there were no strangers in the village. She is also sure that they would have dealt with each other for non-sexual reasons. Perhaps he sold No Name Woman cloth. When he asked for sex, she probably did what she was told, for, “she always did as she was told.”
In keeping with the notion that her aunt was probably as practical as every other member of her family, Kingston imagines that her secret relationship could have been transactional. If her lover/rapist sold her cloth, he could have asked for sex in exchange, as a form of payment. Her aunt, accustomed to obeying and fearing men, perhaps would have agreed.
No Name Woman married a man from the next village. They had not yet met, so she stood beside “the best rooster, his proxy,” for the wedding ceremony. They met once on the night of their honeymoon, then “he left for America” and they never met again. Kingston imagines that her aunt’s lover was probably not much different from her husband. He, too, likely gave orders that she followed and may have ordered her not to tell her family about him, threatening to kill her.
The fact that No Name Woman marries a rooster “by proxy” is both proof of the lack of romance offered to women in the village and the equation of women with livestock, or property. Whereas her husband had the opportunity to do as he pleased, even immigrating, No Name Woman remained the property of the village—her body and her offspring as much theirs as eggs from a hen.
As punishment for her crime against the family, No Name Woman sat alone at meals. There was, according to Kingston’s parents, an “outcast table.” Chinese people did not let their “wrongdoers” go out and start “separate new lives like the Japanese, who could become samurais and geishas.” Instead, they “hung on to the offenders and fed them leftovers.”
The villagers wanted those who offended the rules and customs to feel the weight of social alienation, which would have been less likely if they were given the individual freedom to form new lives. Feeding them leftovers indicates that they are afterthoughts or burdens, like stray animals.
No Name Woman technically belonged to her husband’s parents. In Chinese tradition, daughters-in-law lived with their husbands’ parents. When Kingston’s aunt committed her offense, her in-laws sent her back to her own family, though they could have “sold her, mortgaged her, stoned her.” Kingston finds this mysterious and wonders if they granted her this privilege “to deflect the avengers.”
Kingston finds it unlikely that her aunt’s in-laws were generous, given the traditionally servile relationship between daughters-in-law and a husbands’ parents. However, they could also have deflected the avengers by selling No Name Woman, indicating that they were not as unfeeling as Kingston suspects.
All of No Name Woman’s brothers, including Kingston’s father, “became western men.” When the family’s goods were divided, three brothers took the land and Kingston’s father chose an education. Kingston’s aunt, on the other hand, was expected “to keep the traditional ways.” Women were regarded as “heavy” and “deep-rooted,” capable of maintaining “the past against the flood, safe for returning.”
Kingston wonders what No Name Woman may have enjoyed about “her friend.” Maybe she liked the way his “hair was tucked behind his ears” or “the question-mark line of a long torso.” Perhaps he had “warm eyes or a soft voice.” For some small amount of charm, “she gave up the family.” Kingston also wonders if her aunt was “a wild woman,” but the image of her being “free with sex” does not seem right at all. These notions are attempts for Kingston to connect her life with that of her aunt so that her aunt can offer her “ancestral help.”
Kingston imposes her own ideas about what makes a man attractive to relate better to her imagining of her aunt. If she and her aunt have similar notions about desire, then maybe Kingston can understand her aunt, despite their differences in time and place. Kingston considers No Name Woman within the context of 1970s sexual liberation, whose notions of sexual freedom do not fit Kingston any more than they would have fit her aunt.
Kingston imagines her aunt working on her beauty in a mirror in an effort to sustain her love. Married Chinese women did not generally look after their appearance too much; one who did was regarded as eccentric. Married women tended to wear blunt haircuts or pulled their hair back into a bun. Her aunt, however, “combed individuality into her bob.” Using a string, she pulled back her hairline and “the tops of her eyebrows” to make “a smooth brow.” Kingston recalls that her mother repeated the technique on her daughters. Knowing how much pain this caused, Kingston hopes that No Name Woman’s lover appreciated her smooth brow.
Having a lover would have given No Name Woman more interest in expressing her femininity to appeal to him. Due to limitations in the ways a woman could express her sexuality, the only way in which she could safely be desirable would have been through combing her hair. Like many beauty rituals, No Name Woman’s method of combing caused her pain and there was always the possibility that her lover might not have noticed.
Paying such attention to her looks, Kingston imagines No Name Woman would have caused gossip. She may also have piqued the curiosity of other men, even male relatives. These men left because of poverty, but there may have been another reason— “the never-said.”
Kingston contemplates the possibility that No Name Woman’s unusual attention to her looks may have led to incest in the family. Thus, the men would have left not only for opportunity, but also to elude the shame of discovery.
Kingston thinks, too, that her aunt may have been spoiled, “unusually beloved” as “the precious only daughter.” Her family welcomed the chance to take her back after her husband left. Kingston’s grandfather was supposedly different from other people as a result of being bayoneted in the head by a Japanese soldier. Once, he tried to trade one of his sons for a baby girl, which he had brought home “wrapped up inside his brown western-style greatcoat.” His grandmother made him trade the child back. When he finally got a daughter of his own, “he doted on her.”
Kingston’s grandfather’s love of a girl was so unusual in his culture that the family created a story in which he suffered brain damage. It is possible, Kingston suggests, that her father’s love created within No Name Woman an expectation that she was deserving of other men’s love as well. The “western-style” coat in which Kingston’s grandfather wraps the strange baby girl parallels his sons’ abilities to become “western” men.
To allow for the harmony of five generations living under one roof without creating sexual confusion, Kingston notes that they “[effaced] their sexual color” in favor of “plain miens.” As a result, they all adopted loud voices, which remained “unmodulated to American tones even after years away from the village.” Kingston tried to break away from this by walking with her toes “pointed forward” and not “pigeon-toed, which is Chinese-feminine.” She also spoke “in an inaudible voice,” which was American-feminine.
To avoid the risk of incest, Kingston’s relatives made their voices unalluring, suggesting that attraction is not merely physical, but also occurs through speech. Kingston has difficulty adjusting her speech, as well as her body, to an American mode of feminine attractiveness. Whereas a Chinese voice was abrasive and overbearing, an “American-feminine” one made it seem as though she barely had a voice at all.
Silence was important, too. At the dinner table, no one spoke. No Name Woman never said “her inseminator’s name.” Kingston thinks that it could have been a man within her own household, though in their village, sleeping with a man outside of the family would have been just as bad. All men in the village were “kinsmen.” They were neutralized as possible lovers by being referred to as “brother,” “younger brother,” or “older brother.”
No Name Woman’s silence may have been a way to protect her lover, or she may have remained quiet because it would not have mattered who he was. The communalism among inhabitants of her village made all relations seem incestuous as well as public. Silence at dinner may have been a way to avoid the casual talk that leads to revelations.
To make herself less fearful of boys, Kingston herself quietly added “brother” to boys’ names. She thinks this is why no one asked her to dance and why she had no dates. She did not know “how to make attraction selective.” She thought that if she made herself “American-pretty,” the few Chinese boys in her class would fall in love with her, but so would those who were not Chinese.
Kingston had a complex relationship with Chinese boys. Through her upbringing, she was to regard them as both kin and the only suitable romantic companions. The pressure to conform to American beauty standards to attract them would also, she assumes, attract those she had been taught to regard as unsuitable.
Kingston’s family allowed for some romance, but it was important to avoid a misalliance. These couples “snapped off the future,” due to their inability to have “true offspring.” The villagers got angry at No Name Woman for acting as though “she could have a private life” which did not concern them at all. Kingston thinks that if she had committed her infidelity at some other time, during a period in which there were large yields of grain, when there was peace and many boys were born, she may have escaped their punishment.
The purpose of coupling was to ensure the continuance of future generations, not the happiness of couples. The villagers got angry at No Name Woman for choosing personal happiness. This was an indulgence that Kingston imagines might have been tolerated during a period of prosperity, but not a period in which women had to have legitimate offspring to secure the future.
After the villagers attacked their home, No Name Woman’s family believed that she had cursed them. They were certain that death was coming. To avoid the worst, they treated her as though she were already dead and called her “Ghost.” In response, she ran away into the fields and endured the pain of childbirth alone.
No Name Woman’s family erased her due to fears of punishment from the villagers and their own superstitions. By calling her “ghost,” she became the embodiment of their fears of death and the inability to perpetuate future generations.
Kingston thinks that the No Name Woman’s act of going to the pigsty to give birth may have been her last act of responsibility, her decision to “protect this child as she had protected its father.” She killed it and herself because a child with no descent line would haunt her. Kingston also thinks that carrying the baby to the well was an act of love, because she could have simply smothered it in the mud. A mother who loves her child takes it along. It is possible, too, that the baby was a girl. If it had been a boy, the family may have been more forgiving.
Giving birth in the pigsty was both an acknowledgement of her wrongdoing and of the notion that she had sullied the family’s reputation. However, No Name Woman would not deny her love for the child she was not allowed to have. Kingston posits that, if it had been a boy, she might have abandoned it and left it for the family to raise. Committing suicide with her child in her arms suggested love of the most desperate kind.
It had been twenty years since Kingston first heard the story about her aunt. She has not asked for details, not even her aunt’s name. Kingston recalls how Chairman Mao had encouraged the Chinese to give “paper replicas” of things from life, such as houses, meat, and dresses—even “spirit money”—to the “spirits of outstanding soldiers and workers, no matter whose ancestors they may be.” In a similar vein, Kingston devotes pages of paper to No Name Woman, despite her sense that her aunt’s spirit does not wish her well. Kingston, after all, insists on telling her shameful story, that of a “spite suicide” who drowned herself. The Chinese are particularly afraid of “the drowned one, whose weeping ghost…waits silently by the water to pull down a substitute.”
Kingston commits her aunt to memory by writing about her, thus giving her the history that her family denied her. Through her narrative she also gives her aunt’s life more complexity and meaning than what was traditionally granted to women of her background. Kingston, prone to superstition because of her upbringing, fears that her aunt would not appreciate this exposure of her shame. However, by calling her a “spite suicide,” Kingston raises the possibility that her aunt may have killed herself not out of shame, but anger for being unfairly deprived of the life she wanted to live.