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
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
“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.”
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.