As a memoir, The Woman Warrior is Maxine Hong Kingston’s effort to tell her own story. By telling her own story, though, Kingston mostly finds herself telling the stories of others—those in her family, those around her, and the myths of the Chinese and American cultures between which she is caught. She interweaves these personal stories, family stories, and myths so that they build on one another, both chronologically and thematically. Crucially, she also allows the stories to overlap and contradict one another, without attempting to unify the stories or resolve their discrepancies. That stories are so central to each character in the book, and that Kingston tells her own story through the interwoven, contradictory stories of others, suggests that storytelling occupies a foundational place not only in Kingston’s life but in human life more generally. Stories are how people understand themselves, and how they relate to others. In fact, by showing that stories are simultaneously messy and malleable, and that storytelling is always a negotiation between self, community, and culture, Kingston makes storytelling a metaphor for the complex and contradictory process of constructing one’s own identity.
Though many of the stories that Kingston tells are not her own (they are frequently family stories or myths), she ultimately tells each story in an effort to understand herself better, and to break free from the conventions of her community and its negative attitude toward girls. She uses the legends that her mother teaches her during “talk-story,” particularly that of Fa Mu-Lan, the woman warrior, to construct new meanings of femininity and ideas about what kind of woman she would like to become. Her choice of “talk-story” legends reveals her own values, while her revision of her aunt’s story allows for her to explore uncertainty.
Perhaps the most striking example of Kingston using storytelling to figure out who she is comes from her retelling of the story of her deceased aunt, the “no name woman.” She reimagines the story of No Name Woman’s adulterous pregnancy three times: in the first version, it was rape; in the second, she chose to sleep with the man who impregnated her; in the third, her aunt slept with many men because she was a “wild woman.” These stories about No Name Woman are also possibly stories about Kingston herself—Kingston is making up stories about her long-dead aunt to try to understand her own evolving sexuality and how to position her sexual development between Chinese and American cultural norms. Thus, her aunt was not wanton because Kingston does not see herself as wanton. Conversely, it is possible that her aunt chose a lover, that she had the gall to be the sole romantic in her village, eschewing convention to pursue desire. Kingston would like to do the same, which is why she refuses to believe that she will grow up to be “a wife and a slave,” and asserts her independence to her parents in the memoir’s climax. Kingston is the only member of her family who wishes to talk openly about her aunt. In her writing, she gives No Name Woman a complexity and freedom that her aunt was not allowed in real life.
Another way that Kingston uses storytelling to come to terms with her evolving multi-cultural identity is through embracing contradiction and unknowing. Kingston never presents one definitive truth through storytelling, instead allowing for a multitude of truths to exist in parallel, even when many of them are irreconcilable. By telling contradictory versions of the same story without attempting to resolve their differences, Kingston evokes the impossibility of reconciling the truths and norms of her American upbringing with what she learns and intuits about China.
One example of this is the story of Moon Orchid, Kingston’s aunt from China whose husband left her to go to America and start a new family. In an effort to convince Moon Orchid to hunt down her husband in Los Angeles and take him back from his second wife, Kingston’s mother tells Moon Orchid a Chinese story about a good empress who had to save the Emperor from a bad empress. Kingston herself is caught between understanding the Chinese norms and stories that justify such an intervention, and the American norms that approve of him starting a new life. Ultimately, there is no one truth to this story—no good or bad characters. It is simply a story of the collision of two ways of life that cannot be easily resolved.
Most of Kingston’s stories that take place in America center around such irreconcilable contradictions, while her family stories from China—a place Kingston herself has never been—are characterized by her inability to know details at all. This is apparent in the story of No Name Woman, whose choices and motives can only be guessed. This ambiguity is also evident in Kingston’s inability to come to a conclusion about whether or not her mother had children who died in China. The gaps in Kingston’s stories about China mirror the gaps in her knowledge of China overall. Kingston’s insistence on telling stories that are full of gaps and contradictions is meant to demonstrate fundamental truths about identity, and particularly multi-cultural identity. Every person—but particularly one who is the child of immigrants—is shaped by many conflicting stories and perspectives, and by places and events that will always remain murky and unknown. Thus, the nontraditional structure of Kingston’s storytelling mirrors the gaps and contradictions in her own identity.
Kingston’s nontraditional style of storytelling—her multiple conflicting narratives and her tendency to blend myth and personal history, for example—mirrors her complex process of identity formation, but it is also more active than that. Kingston’s storytelling style is an attempt to assert herself by reinventing the style of storytelling used by her relatives.
Many of the stories Kingston is told by her mother are didactic, meaning that they are not intended to explore ideas or raise questions, but should instead instruct Kingston on what she should and should not do. Kingston’s mother tells her the story of No Name Woman, for example, with the intention of showing Kingston the danger of wanton sexuality and the importance of modesty and fidelity. Kingston’s choice to tell the story multiple ways and fill in its gaps by imagining her aunt’s different motives and desires, then, transforms this from a moralistic story to an open-ended one that helps Kingston to explore her own curiosity and identity.
Likewise, the story of the good empress that Brave Orchid tells Moon Orchid is meant to provide her with a moral lesson. What this story does not do, however, is prepare Moon Orchid for the complexity of the situation she is facing or give her tools to make an informed decision on how to proceed. Kingston is committed to reflecting the multiple nature of reality through her stories rather than presenting a simplistic and ultimately false image through such moralistic narratives.
Thus, Kingston’s overt rejection of stories with morals, single truths, and singular perspectives is not simply a mirroring of the complex way she sees the world. Rather, Kingston’s choice of storytelling style is an active way of claiming an identity different from her family’s, and an acknowledgement that she will have to create her own modes of storytelling in order to thrive in America. Instead of using stories to instruct and repress, Kingston learns to use nontraditional storytelling as a vehicle for her curiosity and a tool for liberating herself from norms and identities that restrict her sense of self. Storytelling thereby reveals the ambiguity of her identity as both Chinese and American, the product of history as well as a symbol of her family’s future. She hovers between both, and so refuses to settle into a single narrative to explain who she is.
Storytelling and Identity ThemeTracker
Storytelling and Identity 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.
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.
I saw two people made of gold dancing the earth’s dances. They turned so perfectly together they were the axis of the earth’s turning [….] Chinese lion dancers, African lion dancers in midstep. I heard high Javanese bells deepen in midring to Indian bells, Hindu Indian, American Indian [….] Then the dancers danced the future—a machine-future—in clothes I had never seen before. I am watching the centuries pass in moments because suddenly I understand time, which is spinning and fixed like the North Star. And I understand how working and hoeing are dancing; how peasant clothes are golden, as king’s clothes are golden; how one dancer is always a man and the other a woman.
It is confusing that my family was not the poor to be championed. They were executed like the barons in the stories, when they were not barons. It is confusing that birds tricked us.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
What I’ll inherit someday is a green address book full of names. I’ll send the relatives money, and they’ll write me stories about their hunger […] I’ve been making money; I guess it’s my turn. I’d like to go to China and see those people and find out what’s a cheat story and what’s not. Did my grandmother really live to be ninety-nine? Or did they string us along all those years to get our money? Do the babies wear a Mao button like a drop of blood on their jumpsuits? When we overseas Chinese send money, do the relatives divide it evenly among the commune? Or do they really pay 2 percent tax and keep the rest? It would be good if the Communists were taking care of themselves; then I could buy a color t.v.