The Woman Warrior Essay
The Woman Warrior
Women of Chinese culture carry an innate characteristic of uselessness in a country that esteems only men. The men are strong providers, carriers of family names, and maintainers of family ideals and honor. In a country where one child per family is the norm, the birth of a female is not met with glee, but more commonly remorse. Maxine Hong Kingston challenges these roles in her novel, The Woman Warrior. The author shares five tales of strong women from her cultural and familial history. The title aptly describes the character’s often-imagined lives.
The first of the five women introduced is the author’s own aunt. No-Name Woman, an unknown relative of the past, relives her horrid tale in the form of a dubious lesson told to little girls upon reaching puberty. Her uncelebrated life is used as a moral tale to stress fidelity to family and honor. No-Name woman bore a child out of wedlock and killed herself and the child for the disgrace brought to the family. The reader gets the sense of the woman’s inner strength by the description of her imagined livelihood as told by Kingston.
No-Name Woman picks a chosen fate over the traditional Chinese role she is expected to play. “The next morning, I found her and the baby plugging up the family well,” (Kingston, 5). In choosing the family well, the suicide affects them all, highly symbolic of the disgrace, yet also physically tampering with their well-being at the same time. Although No-Name Woman encounters mostly shame and destruction of her sense of self – in that one moment when she chooses her heart over her forced duties, she becomes a warrior woman – a woman who knows what she wants and goes for it, regardless of the heavy price of her shunning.
Unlike No-Name Woman who exists regretting her decision, the tale of Fa Mu Lan follows an entirely different course. The story obviously depicts a warrior defying the typical female characteristics in Chinese tales. Recently retold in a Disney film series, the role of Fa Mu Lan is well known to girls of all ethnicities today. Kingston’s version, however, tells the tale from the present tense with the narrator often filling the position.
Contrary to the stereotype, the family supports Fa Mu Lan as she goes of to battle the baron to save her family from his tyranny. “We are going to carve revenge on your back,” my father said, “We’ll write out oaths and names,” (Kingston, 34). Her parents readily accept the strength of Fa Mu Lan, sending her out to save them all. The warrior status is cemented when she beheads the evil baron and gives reign to a peasant who will care for the people. Men turn to her for guidance and protection. Her husband even cares for their young baby, getting it out of harm’s way, while Fa Mu Lan fights the Chinese Army.
Brave Orchid, Kingston’s mother, finds her warrior way in yet another far different way from the characters discussed thus far. This story is one of educational bravery and the devotion to a better way of life. Through the hardship of living husbandless in a harsh climate, Brave Orchid lives through the deaths of her children, using the monies sent to her from America to improve herself.
“She decided to use the money for becoming a doctor,” (Kingston, 60). The braveness of her choice far outweighs the status of Brave Orchid as a ghost hunter. In a time of defeat and anguish, she finds her own way. Although the mother appears obnoxious and cold throughout much of the story, it is in her history that the reader appreciates the bravery depicted in her name.
Moon Orchid, the anti-thesis of many of the strong woman in the novel, comes across as weak and silly. In following the children around and marveling at the wonders she encounters in this new country, Moon Orchid is forced to stand up to her felonious husband and attempt some form of recognition from him. His direct dismissal destroys her sense of self and defeats her contentment.
For a brief moment, the reader sees the strength of Moon Orchid in her easy acceptance of the truth. “But he gives us everything anyway. What more do I have to ask for? If I see him face to face, what is there to say,” (Kingston, 126)? She avoids the confrontation with her husband and solidifies her way of life. Her strength comes from her avoidance, as though her inner sense of self knew he had forsaken the family and her foresight to avoid him allowed her a sense of normalcy, something stripped from her in the end.
The entire novel shows bits and pieces of the author’s own sense of strength. She fits herself into each chapter through direct commentary and inferred presence. The reader sees the warrior side of Kingston in prevailing over the Chinese stereotypes and expectations of her more traditional mother. The reflections are often times told from hearsay and inference, yet each tale forms a foundation for the author herself. In the final chapter, Kingston shares a personal telling of her life.
The reader sees her nastiness as a child in her reaction to the silent girl, her blatant hatred for many of the things her mother has tried to instill in her, and an honest questioning of the role of Chinese and American cultures in her life. “I don’t know any Chinese I can ask without getting myself scolded or teased, so I’ve been looking in books,” (Kingston, 204). The struggle for her between the two worlds was a difficult one. She becomes the warrior by having the strength to reflect on herself and her foundations, the women of her life.
The tales of the five women, and many others throughout the novel, depict a deep sense of woman fighting for their right to be as they wish to be. Whether an unwed mother to the love of her life, the warrior queen to save all China, the educated liberator of her own children, the contended wife living in her chosen realm, or an accepted Chinese-American in an un-accepting world – Kingston illustrates the right of women to be whatever they want – fighting for independence on the many fronts of societal norms.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Warrior Woman. New York, NY: Random House, 1989.