Kingston characterizes traditional Chinese culture as having rigid gender rules that particularly limited women’s self-expression and did not value girls. Brave Orchid’s stories of buying girl slaves and midwifing reveal the brutality of life in China for girls and women who considered themselves fortunate if they were allowed to live beyond infancy (again, at least in Kingston’s portrayal). Through storytelling, Kingston imagines what it would be like if people in her ancestral country had believed that girls were as capable and worthy as boys. By imagining herself as the warrior Fa Mu Lan, Kingston expresses her wish to be a hero and a fighter, an image that sharply contrasts with her mother’s prediction that she will grow up to be “a wife and a slave”—a woman defined only in relation to others. Later, by reimagining the story of No Name Woman, Kingston also gives credence to the possibility that a Chinese woman could have a sex life that is about her own pleasure and a wish to share her beauty, as opposed to accepting a typical life of servitude and obedience. Through the power of her imagination, Kingston adds richness and complexity to the lives of these women, thereby offering them more individuality than they may have been afforded in life due to the restrictive gender roles of their culture.
The story of No Name Woman is both a source of shame, hence the pretension of silence when telling the tale, and a cautionary fable. Kingston’s dead aunt is the protagonist of a story that Kingston’s mother orders her not to tell. Kingston is thus left to construct an image of her aunt from that of the young woman lying dead at the bottom of a well with her illegitimate baby. On the other hand, Fa Mu Lan’s image is colorfully illustrated on one of the paper dolls that her aunt, Moon Orchid, brings back from China. Both women, however, are the protagonists of stories about rejecting gender conventions in favor of living the lives most suitable to them.
Brave Orchid concludes No Name Woman’s story by warning her daughter about the vulnerability of women’s bodies: “Now that you have started to menstruate, it could happen to you. Don’t humiliate us.” Brave Orchid frames pregnancy as something that just happens to a woman when she is not careful. She, unlike her daughter, does not entertain the possibility that No Name Woman may have been in love or that she may have wanted the child that she took with her to the bottom of the well. Kingston interprets it as an act of love, for her aunt could have simply smothered the baby and lived, albeit with her shame. Sex, after all, was not something that women were to be assertive about.
On the other hand, in Kingston’s retelling of Fa Mu Lan’s story, the girl’s assertion that she would take her father’s place in battle is an ultimate sign of the dutifulness that many Chinese men prize in their daughters. She is forgiven for wearing a warrior’s clothes, an act that would normally warrant execution. In her retelling of the story of The Woman Warrior, Kingston contemplates a scenario in which a woman can disobey convention and still succeed. Fa Mu Lan’s successes are a husband who is her equal partner and who appreciates both her beauty and strength and a son who admires his mother for being a general. When The Woman Warrior gets pregnant, she is not in a delicate state; on the contrary, she alters her armor so that her protruding stomach can give her the look of “a powerful, big man.”
Kingston contrasts her fantasies of Fa Mu Lan with the reality of her own life, which she finds disappointing and characterized by her struggle to prove her worth to her parents, who find fault with her for being a girl. Kingston’s fights with her mother in particular are not only about gender, but also a conflict over language—about Kingston’s right to take her mother’s chant of Fa Mu Lan and make it her own, and also her right to define and assert her girlhood in a way that is meaningful to her, as opposed to accepting her mother’s gender-based expectations.
As a child, Kingston does not have the language to refute her mother’s insistence that she is “bad” or useless. Instead, she cries, which only reinforces her mother’s accusation that she is a “bad girl.” In other instances, Kingston refutes the language used against her—“I’m not a bad girl”—repeating the negation, though she is not empowered by doing so. The folk tales, on the other hand, give her a language of resistance and serve as an ultimate form of rebellion, for Kingston is using the stories that her mother had told her, stories drawn from a culture that traditionally oppressed women.
While a student at Berkeley, Kingston develops a stronger voice through protesting for various causes, particularly against the Vietnam War, which her brother is fighting in. Protesting, Kingston notes, “did not turn [her] into a boy,” meaning that it neither earned Kingston her family’s respect nor did it get her Fa Mu Lan’s warrior’s welcome which they bestowed, instead, to her brother after his return from Vietnam. The benefit is that in protesting Kingston learns to accept that her voice can be heard without her having to throw tantrums or try to out-shout her mother at the dinner table. She also learns to negotiate between the “strong, bossy” voice more typical of a Chinese woman and the softer American feminine voice of the postwar era. Kingston’s voice, like her identity, is somewhere in-between.
In that margin, Kingston learns that she can develop an idea of womanhood that is based neither on her mother’s traditional assumptions nor on the soft, girlish image she sees in American popular culture. By re-appropriating and re-imagining the lives of her dead aunt and Fa Mu Lan, she slyly makes Brave Orchid’s stories of non-traditional women work in her favor. If Fa Mu Lan could defy expectations and become the pride of her village, Kingston believes that she can, too. Her mode of femininity can be uniquely her own.
Gender Roles in Chinese Culture ThemeTracker
Gender Roles in Chinese Culture Quotes in The Woman Warrior
“You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born.
They expected her alone to keep the traditional ways, which her brothers, now among the barbarians, could fumble without detection. The heavy, deep-rooted women were to maintain the past against the flood, safe for returning. But the rare urge west had fixed upon our family, and so my aunt crossed boundaries not delineated in space.
It could very well have been, however, that my aunt did not take subtle enjoyment of her friend, but, a wild woman, kept rollicking company…
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.
After I grew up, I heard the chant of Fa Mu Lan, the girl who took her father’s place in battle…. I had forgotten this chant that was once mine, given me by my mother, who may not have known its power to remind. She said I would grow up a wife and a slave, but she taught me the song of the warrior woman, Fa Mu Lan. I would have to grow up a warrior woman.
But the Communists wear a blue plainness dotted with one red Mao button. My mother wore a silk robe and western shoes with big heels, and she rode home carried in a sedan chair. She had gone away ordinary and come back miraculous, like the ancient magicians who came down from the mountains. “When I stepped out of my sedan chair, the villagers said, ‘Ahhh,’ at my good shoes and my long gown. I always dressed well when I made calls. Some villages brought out their lion and danced ahead of me. You have no idea how much I have fallen coming to America.”
Nor did she change her name: Brave Orchid. Professional women have the right to use their maiden names if they like. Even when she emigrated, my mother kept Brave Orchid, adding no American name nor holding one in reserve for American emergencies.
My mother’s enthusiasm for me is duller than for the slave girl; nor did I replace the older brother and sister who died while they were still cuddly. Throughout my childhood my younger sister said, “When I grow up, I want to be a slave,” and my parents laughed, encouraging her.
I hope this holeless baby proves that my mother did not prepare a box of clean ashes beside the birth bed in case of a girl. “The midwife or a relative would take the back of a girl baby’s head in her hand and turn her face into the ashes,” said my mother. “It was very easy.” She never said she herself killed babies, but perhaps the holeless baby was a boy.
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.
“A long time ago,” began Brave Orchid, “the emperors had four wives, one at each point of the compass, and they lived in four palaces. The Empress of the West would connive for power, but the Empress of the East was good and kind and full of light. You are the Empress of the East, and the Empress of the West has imprisoned the Earth’s Emperor in the Western Palace. And you, the good Empress of the East, come out of the dawn to invade her land and free the Emperor. You must break the strong spell she has cast on him that has lost him the East.”
“Oh, Sister, I am so happy here. No one ever leaves. Isn’t that wonderful? We are all women here. Come. I want you to meet my daughters.” She introduced Brave Orchid to each inmate in the ward—her daughters. She was especially proud of the pregnant ones. “My dear pregnant daughters.” She touched the women on the head, straightened collars, tucked blankets. “How are you today, dear daughter?” “And, you know,” she said to Brave Orchid, “we understand one another here. We speak the same language, the very same. They understand me, and I understand them.” Sure enough, the women smiled back at her and reached out to touch her as she went by. She had a new story, and yet she slipped entirely away, not waking up one morning.