Kingston has an almost visceral fear of silence. Silence could make it seem as though someone had never existed, as in the case of No Name Woman. In some instances, the unwillingness to talk can lead to madness, as in the case of Kingston’s aunt, Moon Orchid. In Kingston’s characterization, Chinese people associate silence with weakness and insanity, and all of the evidence that Kingston sees in childhood strongly affirms this. The act of telling stories is shown, for Kingston, to be a way to fight against silence, in all its oppressive power.
Following Chinese cultural norms, Kingston’s family relentlessly stresses the value of speaking and the danger of silence. Because of this, opposition to silence becomes associated with the Chinese aspect of Kingston’s identity.
When Kingston was a baby, Kingston’s mother Brave Orchid supposedly cut the membrane under Kingston’s tongue so that Kingston would “not be tongue-tied.” She wanted her daughter to be able to speak any language, pronounce any word, and always have something to say. Likewise, Kingston’s mother teaches her that only insane people whisper. Moon Orchid’s descent into insanity seems to prove this. Moon Orchid was unable to speak to her husband in China and, in America, her inability to speak English makes so her fearful of the world around her that she goes insane. After she is institutionalized, Moon Orchid is happier because everyone there “speaks the same language.” Thus, the ability to speak is shown to be both a kind of sanity and a metaphor for belonging, while silence becomes emblematic of Kingston’s worst fears: weakness and estrangement.
Nonetheless, Kingston does not find speech easy. For much of kindergarten, she cannot bring herself to speak because she is shy, embarrassed of her voice (particularly of revealing its “ugly” Chinese inflection to her white peers), and because American norms dictate that children—particularly girls—should be quiet and orderly, which is at odds with the loud and rowdy childhood that is expected for Chinese children (in Kingston’s experience, at least). Being enrolled in a Chinese school after the American school helps Kingston to begin to find her voice. In this way, Chinese culture is associated with speaking and claiming one’s identity.
However, Kingston shows that associating China with speech and America with silence would be too simple. In her home and in her Chinese community, Kingston notices pervasive silences on certain topics—silences that seem, to her, to be confusing and repressive. For example, Kingston describes Chinese immigrants in America refusing to speak their names and tell stories from China. While to them this is a way of protecting the parts of their identity that cannot be understood in America, to Kingston this silence is a source of confusion and pain that cuts her off from understanding her heritage. In her family, dinners are often held in silence, and Kingston notices that there are some topics that, despite her curiosity, cannot be brought up. For example, her mother tells her the story about No Name Woman only once, and she prefaces the story with the instruction that Kingston cannot tell anyone and that she should never bring it up again. This silence is the dead woman’s punishment for breaking social norms, and Kingston finds it unbearably cruel. Thus, silence is a threat that also has roots in Chinese culture, hanging over Kingston and intensifying her fear.
Kingston’s fear of silence is most palpable in the final chapter of the memoir, in which Kingston torments a silent girl in her sixth-grade class, warning her that unless she speaks, she will never amount to anything or have a personality of her own. Ultimately, Kingston acknowledges the cruelty of this act and understands that her tirade was a projection of her own fear and insecurity, rather than a genuine attempt to help the girl. Kingston fears that if she were to be silent, it would mean being swallowed up both in her family and in the American culture she is trying to navigate—but silence means something different to the other girl. This brings Kingston to an understanding that silence can be a form of cruelty and erasure (as in the silence surrounding No Name Woman) but, for others, such as Kingston’s classmate, it can be a form of self-expression and strength.
The climax of the book—the moment in which Kingston asserts her selfhood—is when she is finally able to yell at her family and vocally reject the narratives and expectations that they—and particularly her mother—have imposed on her. She tells her mother that she will not go to Chinese school anymore, that she doesn’t want to hear any more of her mother’s illogical stories, and that her mother cannot stop her from talking (despite Kingston’s mistaken belief that her mother cut the membrane under her tongue to silence her forever). This is a moment in which Kingston appears to have enough confidence and self-knowledge to assert her own needs and envision her own future. In this way, it is a moment of triumph over the silences and insecurities she has fought throughout the book.
On the other hand, though, this moment also betrays Kingston’s tremendous confusion between Chinese and American culture and between silence and speech. As Kingston’s mother correctly points out, she cut Kingston’s tongue so that Kingston would speak more, not less. While the intent of cutting Kingston’s tongue was likely perfectly clear in a Chinese context, this passage reveals that it did not translate to an American context. Kingston took the tongue-cutting as emblematic of the silence that she feels is imposed upon her as a Chinese person in America, as she is neither able to explain her heritage to her white peers, nor to express her curiosity about it to her Chinese family and community. Therefore, even though Kingston’s mother equates Chinese culture with valuing speech, Kingston herself equated her Chinese heritage with a silencing that she had to overcome.
Overall, Kingston suggests that all silence and speech is double-edged, and there is no simple way to separate silence from speech or to determine which is preferable. Silence can be powerful and affirming to one person and simultaneously confusing and painful to another. Kingston acknowledges the complexity of silence and speech by showing that the dual power of both actions to affirm or wound depends entirely on perspective. For her own part, Kingston decisively comes down on the side of valuing speech. Crucially, the kind of speech she values is her own free speech, not the kind imposed on her by either Chinese or American norms. In light of Kingston’s fear of silence and her complex thoughts about the interplay between silence and speech, her choice to write a memoir using nontraditional methods of storytelling can thus be seen as the ultimate assertion of her individuality and strength.
Silence vs. Speech ThemeTracker
Silence vs. Speech 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.
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 swordswoman and I are not so dissimilar. May my people understand the resemblance soon so that I can return to them. What we have in common are the words at our backs. The idioms for revenge are “report a crime” and “report to five families.” The reporting is the vengeance—not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words. And I have so many words— “chink” words and “gook” words too—that they do not fit on my skin.
“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.
“I cut it so that you wouldn’t be tongue-tied. Your tongue would be able to move in any language. You’ll be able to speak languages that are completely different from one another. You’ll be able to pronounce anything. Your frenum looked too tight to do those things, so I cut it.”
Normal Chinese women’s voices are strong and bossy. We American-Chinese girls had to whisper to make ourselves American-feminine.
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.
Maybe because I was the one with the tongue cut loose, I had grown inside me a list of over two hundred things that I had to tell my mother so that she would know the true things about me and to stop the pain in my throat.