The Woman Warrior

Plot summary

The book is divided into five interconnected chapters, which read like short stories.

"No Name Woman"

The story was originally published in 1975 as the first of five stories included in a book by Kingston called The Woman Warrior. There are three characters in this section:

Maxine's Aunt (the "no-name woman"): A young woman in China who is married off just before her husband and his brothers leave for America. When she becomes pregnant long after her husband has left, the townspeople ransack her family's home, humiliating the entire family. When it is time for her to give birth, she must do so alone in the barn. Although the baby is born healthy, it is most likely a girl; realizing how limited the infant's prospects are, the Aunt takes the baby and jumps in the well, drowning them both. Her family now pretends she never existed.

Maxine (narrator): Maxine is still a young girl, still coming to terms with adolescence and the transition into womanhood, in terms of not only the physical and emotional changes brought on by puberty, but also of the societal expectations placed on Chinese girls and the discrepancy between Chinese and American ideas of womanhood. She is terror-stricken by her mother's story and keeps silent about it for years, but at the same time fantasizes about what her nameless aunt must have felt, noticing problems with the story that suggest a more complicated picture than what her mother is telling her. Over the years, she wonders if the aunt had fallen in love with the other man, if she was forced into a sexual relationship, or if she was just a woman who enjoyed and wanted sex.

Maxine’s Mother: Maxine's mother tells her the story of her father's alleged sister, claiming that her father and his family won't even acknowledge her existence. The mother uses the story to instill in Maxine a fear of breaking societal norms and of bringing shame to her family. But Maxine realizes that her mother may not be telling the full story: she speaks as though she had seen the events, but she never explains why the Aunt was still living with her own family when custom dictated that she stay with her husband's family. Was her mother really there, was she simply repeating a story she had heard, or was she making up the entire story as a cautionary tale?

Part 1: Mother's Narration

In the first part of this chapter, the narrator is recounting how her mother once told her the story of the No-Name Woman. The chapter essentially opens as a vignette told from the mother’s point of view.

"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."[2]

After this opening line, the narration continues in the mother’s voice. She tells the story of the No Name Woman, her husband’s deceased sister. In 1924 China, with her husband already emigrated to the United States, No Name Woman became impregnated through participating in an adulterous relationship. The rural villagers violently rampaged the family house in disapproval of the deed. No Name Woman ultimately gave birth in a pigsty and drowned both herself and the newborn child in a well.

Part 2: Kingston's Interpretation

The middle portion of this chapter is Kingston’s retelling of the No Name Woman Story. Kingston uses her own experiences with Chinese tradition and culture to substantiate alternate “versions” of the tale. For instance, she questions No Name Woman’s agency in her own pregnancy. She first proposes that No Name Woman must have been raped, since “Women in the old China did not choose.”[3] When she later tries to imagine a more sexually liberated No Name Woman, her own experiences interject:

Imagining her free with sex doesn’t fit, though. I don’t know any women like that, or men either. Unless I see her life branching into mine, she gives me no ancestral help. [4]

Kingston finally settles on a version of the story in which No Name Woman is portrayed as someone who embraces her feminine sexuality to quietly attract a lover. She contrasts from the other Chinese villagers who “efface their sexual color and present plain miens.”[5] She also differs from Kingston, who prefers being “sisterly, dignified, and honorable” to any expression of attractiveness.[6] In the end, the villagers’ raid is interpreted as a reaction to the break in community equilibrium caused by No Name Woman’s efforts to be attractive and therefore individualistic.

Part 3: What the Story Ultimately Means to Kingston

At the end of “No Name Woman”, Kingston reflects on the importance of her mother's story. She concludes that the real lesson is not how No Name Woman died; rather, why she was forgotten:

The real punishment was not the raid swiftly inflicted by the villagers, but the family’s deliberately forgetting her. [7]

Kingston goes on to suggest that the act of writing out her mother’s talk-story serves as an act of remembrance to No Name Woman. A sympathetic reception of this story, however, is complicated by Chinese tradition, which will forever banish the No Name Woman to her well.

"White Tigers"

Part 1: The Story of Fa Mu Lan- Training

In the first part of “White Tigers,” Kingston recounts her mother’s talk-story of Fa Mu Lan, a woman warrior who took her father’s place in battle.

"[My mother] 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." [8]

Kingston tells the story in the first-person perspective, essentially morphing into Fa Mu Lan. She follows a bird up “around and around the tallest mountain, climbing ever upward” [9] until she reaches the home of an old couple. They feed her and give her shelter, and in the morning the old woman asks her, “Do you think you can bear to stay with us for fifteen years? We can train you to become a warrior.” [10] After this offer, she begins the first of her training: mimicking animals and scavenging for food. In her seventh year (age 14), the old couple leads her “blindfolded to the mountains of the white tigers.” [11] Here, she is left barehanded and fasts for days.

"When I get hungry enough, then killing and falling are dancing too." [12]

After she returns, the old couple trains her in “dragon ways” [13] for eight years and then lets her look inside a water gourd. The first scene she sees is of her marriage to a childhood friend; the second is of her husband and youngest brother being conscripted into the army. She grows angry and wishes to help them, but only until she “point[s] at the sky and make[s] a sword appear, a silver bolt in the sunlight, and control[s] its slashing with [her] mind” [14] does the old couple allow her to leave.

Part 2: The Story of Fa Mu Lan- Her Return

I have been drafted,” my father said. “No, Father,” I said. “I will take your place.” [15]

Her parents carve revenge on her back- their oaths and names. Her mother tells her, “We’ll have you with us until your back heals.” [16] She dons the guise of a man and becomes a great warrior while creating a massive army. She defeats a giant who is actually a snake, and his army pledges their loyalty to her. Soon after she is joined by her husband, becomes pregnant, and orders her husband to leave with the baby. Unaccompanied, she travels home to battle the baron who took her village’s sons. With her quick swordsmanship, she slashes him across the face and cuts off his head. At last, she resumes her duties as a wife. However, in traditional Chinese folktale, Hua Mulan doesn't accepts the emperor's rewards or official position after the war come to an end. She returns home and care for her families eventually.

Part 3: Kingston’s Comparison

"My American life has been such a disappointment." [17]

Kingston reverts to talking about her life in America and compares it to the story of Fa Mu Lan. She is told, “There’s no profit in raising girls. Better to raise geese than girls.” [17] Kingston yearns to find “the bird” [18] that Fa Mu Lan found and expresses her disappointment in having “no magic beads [or] water gourd sight.” [18] She cannot gather the courage to speak up against her racist boss, let alone save her people in China.

In the end, Kingston decides that she and Fa Mu Lan are similar:

"What we have in common are the words at our backs." [19]


Part 1: Kingston’s Mother and the To Keung School of Midwifery

Using her mother’s old diplomas and photos from her years in China, Kingston recounts the story of her mother’s life as a lady scholar. “Not many women got to live out the daydream of women—to have a room, even a section of a room, that only gets messed up when she messes it up herself”[20] – the To Keung School of Midwifery made this all possible. Her mother “quickly built a reputation for being brilliant, a natural scholar who could glance at a book and know it.”[21] Her schoolmates are all afraid of the ghosts that lurk in the building. To show that there is nothing to be afraid of, she sleeps in the ghost room of the dormitory. She fights and ultimately ignores a Sitting Ghost, which has “thick short hair like an animal’s coat.”[22] With the help of her peers, she lights buckets of alcohol and oil on fire and sings a song to banish the Sitting Ghost:

Run, Ghost, run from this school. Only good medical people belong here. Go back, dark creature, to your native country. Go home. Go home.”[23]

Part 2: Brave Orchid’s Return to Her Village

Brave Orchid, Kingston’s mother, returns home after two years of study. She buys a slave to train as a nurse. Kingston remarks, “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.”[24] Her mother also complains that she had to pay two hundred dollars to the doctor and hospital for her while “during the war [...] many people gave older girls away for free.”[25] As a midwife in her village, Brave Orchid never treated those about to die; however, she could not choose which kinds of babies to deliver as with the old and sick: “One child born without an anus was left in the outhouse so that the family would not have to hear it cry.”[26] The villagers would attribute baby defects to ghosts while Brave Orchid would say “the baby looked pretty.”[26] Brave Orchid was faced with many other difficult situations, and she always meant well. Villagers accused the village crazy lady of “signaling the planes” and of “being a spy for the Japanese,” but Brave Orchid unsuccessfully refuted that “she’s a harmless crazy lady.”[27]

Part 3: Ghosts and Life in America

Kingston was born during World War II and grew up with her mother’s talk-stories. Her mother taught her that all white people around her were “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.”[28]

Though Kingston was frightened by the ghosts she knew, she was more terrified of the ghosts entirely unfamiliar to her. For this reason she did not want to go to China. She said, “In China my parents would sell my sisters and me. My father would marry two or three more wives [who] 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.”[29]

When Kingston visits her mother, they chat about “ghosts” and how Brave Orchid can never go back to China now that the family’s land has been taken over. “I don’t want to go back anyway,”[30] she says:

When you’re all home, all six of you with your children and husbands and wives, there are twenty or thirty people in this house. Then I’m happy.”[31]

Kingston tells her that she gets sick so often when she is home and can barely work. Brave Orchid understands her daughter and tells her she can come for visits instead. Affectionately, she calls Kingston “Little Dog,”[32] an endearment she has not called her for years.

"At the Western Palace"

Part 1: The Airport

“At the Western Palace” opens with Brave Orchid, her two children, and her niece at San Francisco International Airport. Brave Orchid is waiting for her sister Moon Orchid to arrive from Hong Kong. Moon Orchid is emigrating to the United States after being separated from her sister for 30 years.[28]

While she waits, Brave Orchid sees Vietnam War soldiers, who remind her of her own son who is fighting abroad. This causes anxiety in Brave Orchid, for she is not sure of his actual whereabouts. The description of the Vietnam War is important in that it places the setting of the chapter in the contemporary 1970s during which The Woman Warrior was written.

Brave Orchid also contemplates the ways that immigration has modernized over the years, comparing her own experiences at Ellis Island to the “plastic” of the airport.[33] Like the other chapters of The Woman Warrior, Brave Orchid labels all non-Chinese people in the airport as “ghosts”.

When Moon Orchid’s plane finally arrives, Brave Orchid cannot recognize her sister. She consistently mistakes her for much younger Chinese women. Once the two sisters are reunited, they likewise cannot believe how old they each have grown. They argue the entire ride back home, with scenes such as this:

'You’re an old woman,' said Brave Orchid.

'Aiaa. You're an old woman.'

'But you’re really old. Surely, you can’t say that about me. I’m not old the way you’re old.'

'But you really are old. You’re one year older than I am' [34]

Part 2: At Brave Orchid’s House

The sisters arrive back at Brave Orchid’s house in the Valley. They are greeted by Brave Orchid’s husband, who has aged significantly in Moon Orchid’s eyes. Moon Orchid then bestows gifts from China to all of Brave Orchid’s children. One of these gifts includes a paper cut-out of Fa-Mu-lan, the Woman Warrior. Brave Orchid grows disillusioned at what she presumes to be her children’s lack of gratitude for the gifts, and goes outside to “talk to the invisibilites”,[35] or curse her children in the name of Chinese tradition.

After a traditional family dinner in silence, Brave Orchid pressures Moon Orchid into coming up with a plan to reclaim her Chinese husband. Moon Orchid’s husband emigrated to the Los Angeles 30 years prior, and had since been remarried and fathered children in America. Although he sent monetary remittances to Moon Orchid, he had no intention of actually resuming a relationship with her. Now, he has no idea that Moon Orchid and his daughter are in the U.S., for it was Brave Orchid that arranged for both of their emigration papers.

Brave Orchid spends the night desperately trying to convince Moon Orchid of the righteousness of seeking out her husband, saying things like:

"You have to ask him why he didn’t come. Why he turned into a barbarian. Make him feel bad about leaving his mother and father. Scare him. Walk right into his house with your suitcases and boxes. Throw her stuff out of the drawers and put yours in. Say, ‘I am the first wife, and she is our servant’." [31]

Part 3: The Summer

Moon Orchid is still hesitant about Brave Orchid’s proposition. In the meantime, she spends the summer in Brave Orchid’s house. The gap between the second-generation children’s behavior and Moon Orchid’s expectations is immense. To Moon Orchid, the Americanized children seem “unhappy, immodest, rude, quiet, and savage-like”.[36] It is important to note that one of these children includes Maxine Hong Kingston herself, who is indirectly referenced when the omniscient narrator describes Brave Orchid’s oldest daughter.[37]

Moon Orchid attempts to work at Brave Orchid’s laundry, but finds the work too challenging and the heat too uncomfortable. Her frailty and inability to handle the laundry leads readers to notice a sharp contrast between her and the tough persona of Brave Orchid. Since Moon Orchid is inefficient at the laundry, when she has time, Brave Orchid takes her to Chinatown. Moon Orchid comments on the assimilated Chinese, calling them “Americans”,[38] and the two of them snicker at gambling women they encounter in a restaurant. Nevertheless, the summer lags on. With all of her curious pestering of the children and unsuccessful attempts to work the laundry, Brave Orchid becomes more and more anxious to reunite Moon Orchid with her husband.

Part 4: Confrontation

Brave Orchid, her oldest son, Moon Orchid, and Moon Orchid’s daughter drive South to Los Angeles. They are on a mission to find Moon Orchid’s husband. Upon leaving, Brave Orchid’s husband begs Brave Orchid to leave Moon Orchid’s husband "out of women's business,"[39] to which Brave Orchid passive aggressively responds to her children:

'When your father lived in China, he refused to eat pastries because he didn’t want to eat the dirt the women kneaded from between their fingers.’ [39]

The drive consists of Brave Orchid giving Moon Orchid many different pep talks to encourage her to confront her husband. In one of these talks, Brave Orchid uses Chinese myth as validation for Moon Orchid’s cause, invoking the story of the Western Palace. She compares her struggle to that of the “Good Empress of the East”, who had to compete for her husband (“The Emperor”) against his other wife, the “Empress of the West.”[40] Brave Orchid urges Moon Orchid to: “...come out of the dawn and invade her land and free the Emperor. You must break the strong spell she has cast on him that has lost him the East.”[40]

Upon arrival in Los Angeles, they realize that the husband’s “residence” is really a metropolitan high-rise office building. Moon Orchid is too scared to approach it, so Brave Orchid takes on the task. She enters the doctor’s office (he is a neurosurgeon) and speaks with the receptionist, who turns out to be his wife. Brave Orchid struggles to speak English while the young, Americanized receptionist struggles to speak Chinese, which leads to an even more awkward interaction. Brave Orchid returns to her car, having been stymied by the medical bureaucracy that requires an appointment for all those who wish to speak with the doctor.

Brave Orchid then comes up with a plan. She forces her son to return to the office, tell the doctor that a woman has a broken leg, and require that he come provide medical assistance. The son complies, and the doctor comes to the vehicle where Moon Orchid and Brave Orchid are waiting. When he sees the two women, he addresses them as “Grandmothers”, clearly pointing out the age gap between them and himself.[41] When he finally recognizes Moon Orchid, he tells her:

'It’s a mistake for you to be here. You can’t belong. You don’t have the hardness for this country. I have a new life... You became people in a book I had read about long ago.' [42]

Brave Orchid, who was the main one speaking during this entire interaction, resigns herself to the doctor’s explanation, but still demands one thing out of him: that he take the two women out to lunch. The doctor agrees. When they return, he and the women part ways, never to see each other again. Moon Orchid stays in Los Angeles with her daughter.

Part 5: Moon Orchid's Decline

At the end of the chapter, Moon Orchid declines in mental health and is forced to return to live with Brave Orchid. Moon Orchid has developed a paranoia of “Mexican Ghosts”, or Mexican people, thinking that they are after her. Moon Orchid tries in every possible way to shut out the outside world, demanding lights be turned off, windows be closed, and reeling in fear whenever someone left the house. Eventually, Moon Orchid is institutionalized. Before her death, Brave Orchid visits Moon Orchid, and Moon Orchid tells her:

'I am so happy here...we are all women here...we speak the same language, the very same. They understand me, and I understand them.' [43]

The chapter ends with Brave Orchid’s daughters pledging to never let their men run astray.

"A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe"

Part 1: The Cutting of the Tongue

In this story, Kingston reveals that her mother cut the membrane under her tongue. When asked why, her mother responds: “I cut it so that you would not 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.”[44] Kingston believes that her mother should have cut more or should not have cut it at all, because she has “a terrible time talking.”[45] She spoke to no one at school, “did not ask before going to the lavatory, and flunked kindergarten.”[44]

After American school, Kingston would go to Chinese school. Here, children were not mute: “Boys who were so well behaved in the American school played tricks on [the teachers] and talked back to them. The girls [...] screamed and yelled during recess.”[46]

One day, a delivery boy accidentally delivers a box of pills to the laundry owned by Kingston’s parents. Her mother insists that Kingston go to the drugstore and demand reparation candy. When the druggists and clerks give candy, Kingston’s mother exclaims, “See? They understand. You kids just aren’t very brave.”[47] However, Kingston knew that they did not understand and thought that her family was a bunch of beggars without a home who lived behind the laundry.

Part 2: The Silent Girl

Kingston despises a Chinese girl who is a year older than she is because she refuses to talk. One day, she finds herself alone with the girl in the lavatory. Kingston tells the girl, “I am going to make you talk, you sissy-girl.”[48] No matter what she does—screams at her, pulls her hair, squeezes her face—the girl remains silent. Even when the girl is crying, Kingston continues to berate her:

Look at you, snot streaming down your nose, and you won’t say a word to stop it. You’re such a nothing. [...] Talk!” [49]

Afterwards, Kingston spent the next eighteen months sick in bed with a mysterious illness with no pain and no symptoms. The mental illness suddenly disappears when her mother, the doctor, tells her, “You’re ready to get up today. It’s time to get up and go to school,”[50] and she does.

Part 3: Crazy Mary, Pee-A-Nah, and Other Stories

Kingston writes about other eccentric stories in “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe.” Crazy Mary, a daughter of Christian converts, was left behind in China for twenty years while her parents came to America. By the time she came to America, she was crazy and “pointed at things that were not there.”[51] Her condition never improved, and she was eventually locked up in the crazyhouse.

Pee-A-Nah, the public, “village idiot” witchwoman, would chase Kingston and the other children through the streets. She was probably locked up in the crazyhouse as well.

Kingston’s mother desperately tries to be a matchmaker and brings a FOB (Fresh-off-the-Boat) home to meet her. Kingston does everything in her willpower to appear unladylike, unattractive, and unskilled. A mentally disabled Chinese boy begins following her around and Kingston is afraid her mother will try setting them up together.

Part 4: Kingston’s Confession

After Kingston screams to her mother and father that she does not want to be set up with the developmentally disabled boy, she launches into a laundry list of things she is and is not going to do, regardless of her mother’s opinion:

So get that ape out of here. I’m going to college. And I’m not going to Chinese school anymore, [...] the kids are rowdy and mean. [...] And I don’t want to listen to any more of your stories; they have no logic. [...] Ha! You can’t stop me from talking. You tried to cut off my tongue, but it didn’t work.”[52]

Kingston’s mother shouts back, “I cut it to make you talk more, not less, you dummy,”[52] and “Ho Chi Kuei. Leave then. Get out, you Ho Chi Kuei.”[53] Ho Chi Kuei is a term immigrants frequently use for Chinese Americans, and it literally means "like – i.e. similar to (Ho Chi) – a ghost (Kuei)". Kingston cannot figure out the exact translation, but she muses that Hao Chi Kuei means “Good Foundation Ghosts”:

The immigrants could be saying that we were born on Gold Mountain and have advantages. Sometimes they scorn us for having had it so easy, and sometimes they’re delighted.[54]

Part 5: Ts’ai Yen

In the final part of “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” Kingston tells the story of Ts’ai Yen, a poet born in A.D. 175. After captured by the Southern Hsiung-nu barbarians, she brings her songs back from the savage lands and passes down “Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” a song that “Chinese sing to their own instruments.”[55]

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