Maxine Hong Kingston’s first two books defied conventional categorization. While the grantors of several critical awards labeled them nonfiction, their format is that of traditional short fiction with each chapter able to stand alone as its own story. Kingston’s use of Chinese mythology to chronicle her life and those of her ancestors not only entertains but also provides a gritty, often disturbing, education in Chinese culture, particularly in its regressive attitudes toward women. One Washington Post critic labeled Kingston’s stories “intense” and “fierce,” noting that they form “a strange, sometimes savagely terrifying and, in the literal sense, wonderful” reading. Feminist critics find themes such as the marginalization of women and their routine sacrifice to social ideals of great interest. Also intriguing is the theme of mother/daughter relationships. While Kingston’s mother seems at moments ruthless and even cruel, at other times she stands as a paragon of emotional strength, a figure well worth Kingston’s imitation. The fact that Kingston dedicates The Woman Warrior to her parents reveals her overall positive feelings toward their influence and her Chinese background.
Kingston notes Chinese literary classics as influences on her writing along with works by Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and William Carlos Williams. While Stein’s works affect Kingston’s use of dialogue, Kingston looks to Woolf for expertise in handling large expanses of time. She does not rely on the traditional use of chronology for continuity but rather on the strong individual voices of her mythological characters juxtaposed with her own modern, or postmodern, voice as narrator and sometimes as protagonist. She also cites as important her viewing of Chinese opera as a child, in which the application of a mixture of the fantastic and the realistic greatly impressed her.
“No Name Woman”
“No Name Woman” originally appeared as a chapter of The Woman Warrior in 1976. It has since been anthologized, most notably by feminist critics Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English (1985). Kingston uses legend to complement and inform fact as she relates select childhood experiences, one of which involves her hearing the story of an aunt who first shames her Chinese family by becoming pregnant by a man who is not her husband, then commits suicide. Horrifying details recall the ransacking by neighbors of the family home as “punishment” for her aunt’s immoral act:At first they threw mud and rocks. Then they threw eggs and began slaughtering our stock. We could hear the animals scream their deaths.
With a terrifying lack of emotion, the narrator’s mother adds,Your aunt gave birth in the pigsty that night. The next morning when I went for the water, I found her and the baby plugging up the well.
Ostensibly, the story proves a cautionary tale; having begun menstruation, Kingston stands warned of the shame that may result from her body’s reproductive capability. However, she focuses instead on the injustice faced by females within traditional Chinese society. More important, Kingston recognizes multiple benefits to her mother’s story. When her mother cautions her not to tell her father that she knows this tale, that act of confidence...
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The role reversal in which Tang Ao, the male warrior, becomes womanized involves a three-part discovery. First, Kingston protests against the ancient Chinese custom of foot-binding, the products of which were considered marks of beauty, although they rendered women virtually helpless. If the protagonist in “On Discovery” had been a woman, the impassioned description of the horrors and humiliations of the ritual would not be a story at all but merely a history lesson. By making the subject a man, and a warrior at that, Kingston forces the reader to participate imaginatively in each painful step of the hobbling procedure and thereby elevates the event to mythic stature.
The second discovery involves the role reversals that actually took place among the Chinese American immigrants about whom Kingston writes. Chinese men typically left their homeland and traveled to the New World alone until they earned enough money to send for their wives and children. This process often took decades, emptying whole villages of men so that the women left behind were forced to assume governance of both family and town. Thus, a strong matriarchal society arose in certain Cantonese villages. This historical situation becomes the impetus for the imaginary Land of Women society in which the empress Wu allows her subjects alternately to shackle, make fun of, torture, and soothe the hapless Tang Ao.
The third discovery illustrates the intense loneliness of the Chinese male immigrant, or wandering sojourner. Tang Ao, searching alone for the Gold Mountain, a reference to the California gold mines, is further isolated by the strange, unpredictable land in which he is held captive. The isolation of Tang Ao, then, symbolizes the suffering of tens of thousands of Chinese sojourners who came to the alien land of North America. Their survival, like the survival of Tang Ao, depended on their ability to accept both physical and psychological torture at the hands of alien captors.