The Woman Warrior

by

Maxine Hong Kingston

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Ghosts Symbol Icon

Ghosts represent fear and the unknown in the novel. Ghosts could be the result of the sudden death that seizes newborn infants, or they could account for strange Americans and the machines that they operate. Supernatural creatures, such as ghosts, explain what cannot be readily explained through science or acculturation. Brave Orchid believes that ghosts are not ancestors, as many believe, for she likes “to think that the ancestors are busier than that” and “probably more at rest.” Instead, she posits that ghosts are “an entirely different species of creature.” She includes ghosts in her “talk-story,” or narratives of Chinese legends. In the United States, she also uses the metaphor of ghosts to refer to the Americans whose customs and habits Kingston’s family cannot understand.

In the chapter entitled “Shaman,” which recounts Brave Orchid’s years as a doctor and midwife, Brave Orchid recalls her encounters with numerous ghosts, particularly those who sought the lives of newborn children. Brave Orchid refused talismans from the villagers, fearing that the ghosts would avoid her when, in fact, she wanted them to come near so that she could learn them as thoroughly as she had learned ailments in medical school. Sitting Ghost, also known as “Boulder,” is a particularly prevalent ghost. In the narrative, the ghost is introduced as “something alive, rumbling” that “climbed the foot of the bed…and landed bodily on her [Brave Orchid’s] chest” (in this way, it resembles a symptom of sleep paralysis—victims of this condition often have hallucinations of antagonistic beings sitting on their chests).Brave Orchid describes Sitting Ghost as an entity with “many wide black mouths,” something “dangerous” and “real” that “is surfeited with babies and is now coming after adults.” The Sitting Ghost is “mysterious” and “grows.” It is a spirit that feeds off of human weakness—the feebleness of an infant or the low morale of those who doubt themselves, as Brave Orchid did when Sitting Ghost sat on her chest. When a ghost takes possession of her, Brave Orchid asks her classmates to pull her earlobes back and forth and call back her spirit so that she can regain herself.

In California, or the Gold Mountain, the ghosts are innumerable. There are “Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts, and Fire Ghosts.” Ghosts are even delineated racially as “Black Ghosts” and “White Ghosts,” though the former are distinguished by being more “open-eyed and full of laughter, more distinct than White Ghosts.” The only people who are not ghosts are the Japanese who, according to one legend, may have once been Chinese people, or are the result of “an ape that raped a Chinese princess.” The suggestion is that the Japanese are not “ghosts” because they are familiar, though they are still foreign and even antagonistic. Thus, they do not need to be explained as something beyond nature. On the other hand, the Americans exhibit customs and manners that are nonsensical to Kingston’s family. To protect themselves from a language that they do not understand, they pretend that it is not a language at all. Among all of the ghosts, the children are most alarmed by the Newsboy Ghost, who is a child like them, but one with the power to call people out of their homes and make them follow him down the street. The children mimic this “ghost,” desiring his power, though they also fear him.

Ghosts Quotes in The Woman Warrior

The The Woman Warrior quotes below all refer to the symbol of Ghosts. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Storytelling and Identity Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of The Woman Warrior published in 1989.
1. No Name Woman Quotes

In the village structure, spirits shimmered among the live creatures, balanced and held in equilibrium by time and land. But one human being flaring up into violence could open up a black hole, a maelstrom that pulled in the sky. The frightened villagers, who depended on one another to maintain the real, went to my aunt to show her a personal, physical representation of the break she had made in the “roundness.” Misallying couples snapped off the future, which was to be embodied in true offspring. The villagers punished her for acting as if she could have a private life, secret and apart from them.

Related Characters: Maxine Hong Kingston (speaker), No Name Woman
Related Symbols: Ghosts
Page Number: 12-13
Explanation and Analysis:

My aunt haunts me—her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her, though not origamied into houses and clothes. I do not think she always means me well. I am telling on her, and she was a spite suicide, drowning herself in the drinking water.

Related Characters: Maxine Hong Kingston (speaker), No Name Woman
Related Symbols: Ghosts
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:
3. Shaman Quotes

The Japanese, though “little,” were not ghosts, the only foreigners not considered ghosts by the Chinese. They may have descended from the Chinese explorers that the First Emperor of Ch’in (221-210 B.C.) had deployed to find longevity medicine. They were to look for an island beyond the Eastern Ocean, beyond the impassable wind and mist. On this island lived phoenixes, unicorns, black apes, and white stags. Magic orchids, strange trees, and plants of jasper grew on Penglai, a fairy mountain, which may have been Mount Fuji. The emperor would saw off the explorers’ heads if they returned without the herbs of immortality. Another ancestor of the Japanese is said to be an ape that raped a Chinese princess, who then fled to the eastern islands to have the first Japanese child. Whichever the case, they were not a totally alien species…

Related Characters: Maxine Hong Kingston (speaker)
Related Symbols: Ghosts
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

But America has been full of machines and ghosts—Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts, Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts. Once upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly breathe; I could hardly walk, limping my way around the White Ghosts and their cars. There were Black Ghosts too, but they were open eyed and full of laughter, more distinct than White Ghosts.

Related Characters: Maxine Hong Kingston (speaker)
Related Symbols: Ghosts
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

Whenever my parents said “home,” they suspended America. They suspended enjoyment, but I did not want to go to China. In China my parents would sell my sisters and me. My father would marry two or three more wives, who would spatter cooking oil on our bare toes and lie that we were crying for naughtiness. They would give food to their own children and rocks to us. I did not want to go where the ghosts took shapes nothing like our own.

Related Characters: Maxine Hong Kingston (speaker), Brave Orchid, Father
Related Symbols: Ghosts
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

“This is a terrible ghost country, where a human being works her life away,” she said. “Even the ghosts work, no time for acrobatics. I have not stopped working since the day the ship landed. I was on my feet the moment the babies were out. In China I never even had to hang up my own clothes. I shouldn’t have left, but your father couldn’t have supported you without me. I’m the one with the big muscles.”

Related Characters: Brave Orchid (speaker), Maxine Hong Kingston, Father
Related Symbols: Ghosts
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:
5. A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe Quotes

Lie to the Americans. Tell them you were born during the San Francisco earthquake. Tell them your birth certificate and your parents were burned up in the fire. Don’t report crimes; tell them we have no crimes and no poverty. Give a new name every time you get arrested; the ghosts won’t recognize you. Pay the new immigrants twenty-five cents an hour and say we have no unemployment. And, of course, tell them we’re against Communism. Ghosts have no memory anyway and poor eyesight.

Related Characters: Maxine Hong Kingston (speaker)
Related Symbols: Ghosts
Page Number: 184-185
Explanation and Analysis:
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Ghosts Symbol Timeline in The Woman Warrior

The timeline below shows where the symbol Ghosts appears in The Woman Warrior. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
1. No Name Woman
Storytelling and Identity Theme Icon
Gender Roles in Chinese Culture Theme Icon
...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. (full context)
Storytelling and Identity Theme Icon
Gender Roles in Chinese Culture Theme Icon
Silence vs. Speech Theme Icon
...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.” (full context)
3. Shaman
Storytelling and Identity Theme Icon
...for studying was a room that was supposedly haunted. Brave Orchid named all of the ghosts that haunted the dormitory, but did not believe that they were ancestors. Instead, they were... (full context)
Storytelling and Identity Theme Icon
...also get to bed at a decent hour, Brave Orchid agreed to sleep “in the ghost room.” The other girls worried, but Brave Orchid promised to call out to them if... (full context)
Storytelling and Identity Theme Icon
...“alive” then crawled to “the foot of the bed.” She recognized it immediately: a Sitting Ghost. She fought it, but it only absorbed her energy. She knew that everyone else in... (full context)
Storytelling and Identity Theme Icon
Brave Orchid told her classmates about how Sitting Ghost had “pounced” on top of her. It had no “head, no eyes, no face,” but... (full context)
Storytelling and Identity Theme Icon
Brave Orchid insisted that the danger was not over, for Sitting Ghost fattened itself at night and was listening as she spoke. Sitting Ghost was different because... (full context)
Storytelling and Identity Theme Icon
...decided that she and her classmates had to rid the world of the “disease” of ghosts. She told them to scorn ghosts when they came to haunt them. They returned to... (full context)
Storytelling and Identity Theme Icon
Gender Roles in Chinese Culture Theme Icon
As a midwife, Brave Orchid found ways to fool the ghosts. She would refer to some infants as piglets to fool ghosts who were “on the... (full context)
Storytelling and Identity Theme Icon
During summer afternoons when it was especially hot, Kingston’s parents would tell the children ghost stories “so that [they] could get some good chills up [their] backs.” Brave Orchid told... (full context)
Storytelling and Identity Theme Icon
Kingston writes that her mother was content with hairy beasts, both ghosts and those made of flesh, because she could eat them. She also did not eat... (full context)
Storytelling and Identity Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience  Theme Icon
...Her mother had taught Kingston to see every person and machine in America as a ghost. Newsboy Ghost, with his ability to call people out of their homes with his voice,... (full context)
Storytelling and Identity Theme Icon
Gender Roles in Chinese Culture Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience  Theme Icon
...Row to get chosen to do farm work. Brave Orchid said that the Urban Renewal Ghosts had given them money for tearing down the laundry, but they could not start over.... (full context)
Storytelling and Identity Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience  Theme Icon
...away from home. She does not get sick as often, and does not worry about ghost sounds. Her mother concludes that the weather in California must not be good for her,... (full context)
4. At the Western Palace
Silence vs. Speech Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience  Theme Icon
...calls and hung up. Moon Orchid’s daughter said that her mother had talked about Mexican ghosts plotting on her life. (full context)
Storytelling and Identity Theme Icon
Gender Roles in Chinese Culture Theme Icon
Silence vs. Speech Theme Icon
The Immigrant Experience  Theme Icon
...her children. She wondered if Moon Orchid had already left her body and a mean-spirited ghost now inhabited the shell of the woman who cursed Brave Orchid’s children. Nevertheless, Moon Orchid’s... (full context)
5. A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe
Storytelling and Identity Theme Icon
Gender Roles in Chinese Culture Theme Icon
...up “Ho Chi Kuei,” which is what Brave Orchid called her at dinner. “Kuei” meant “ghost.” When directed at boys, it could mean “dog ghost,” which was almost affectionate. When directed... (full context)