The Woman Warrior

Themes and Analysis

According to E.D. Huntley, several themes that arise in the novel include: “silence (both gendered and racially constituted); necessity for speech; the discovery of voice; the construction of identity and the search for self-realization; the mother-daughter relationship and the conflicts that it engenders; memory; acculturation and biculturalism; and cultural alienation.”[56] Huntley compiles a list of scholarly reviews on the themes and finds that they agree with his findings, particularly themes relating to immigrant communities and cross-cultural conflict. “Other reviewers reflect on Kingston’s handling of a theme that pervades the literature of diaspora and immigrant communities, the theme of cross-cultural conflict. Huntley also notes: "For reviewer Miriam Greenspan, Maxine Hong Kingston captures “the pain of an American-born child who inevitably reject the expectations and authority of her family in favor of the values of the new land” (Greenspan 108); Linda B. Hall describes the book as “remarkable in its insights into the plight of individuals pulled between two cultures” (Hall 191); and Susan Currier writes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography that Woman Warrior is a personal narrative that represents Kingston’s effort “to reconcile American and Chinese female identities” (Currier 235)." [57] When asked about the cultural themes in her writing, Kingston responded, “I wonder if it just takes a lifetime or two to be an integrated person, so that you don’t have to think, at what point do I have to announce that I am a minority person or a woman or what? When I think back on when I was a young writer, I would wonder, ok now, when do I let everybody know that I’m Chinese American? Do I have to announce that?” [58]

The book also employs several smaller themes that feature in one or two stories but support the overarching themes mentioned by Huntley.

"No Name Woman"

Necessity and Extravagance

In an essay about The Woman Warrior, Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong writes about "the protagonist's struggle toward a balance between self-actualization and social responsibility... identified as 'Necessity' and 'Extravagance.'"[59] The struggle between necessity and extravagance is embodied in the narrator’s mother’s sparse talk-story and the adultery of the narrator’s aunt:

My mother has told me once and for all the useful parts. She will add nothing unless powered by Necessity, a riverbank that guides her life.[3]

Wong explains how “The code of Necessity that Maxine's mother lives by is a legacy from her native land, where scarcity of resources has given rise to a rigid, family-centered social structure.”[59] The aunt’s response to necessity-driven society is extravagance, embodied in her adultery:

Adultery is extravagance. Could people who hatch their own chicks and eat the embryos and the heads for delicacies and boil the feet in vinegar for party food, leaving only the gravel, eating even the gizzard lining – could such people engender a prodigal aunt? To be a woman, to have a daughter in starvation time was a waste enough.[3]

Silence: Individual and Cultural Repression Across the Generations

The theme of silence is tied to the cross-cultural difficulties that the narrator faces throughout her own life. Kingston writes that “The Chinese I know hide their names; sojourners take new names when their lives change and guard their real names with silence.”[3] The implication of silence goes beyond simply hiding names; it means the confusion of Chinese culture to first-generation Chinese Americans like the narrator. The narrator asks:

Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?[60]

But the silence of the narrator's family is also used as a curse against the adulterous aunt. The way in which the family is silent about her erases her from the family history and from life itself. It is this silence that creates a horrifying ghost out of the aunt that haunts the narrator:

My aunt haunts me—her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her.[7]

The Community vs. the Individual

Although the story takes place in 1924 before the time of the Chinese Revolution, we get the sense that there are intense communal ties binding No Name Woman’s village together. In one interpretation of the story, Kingston describes the villagers’ violent raid as a reaction against her individual will:

In the Village Structure, spirits shimmered among the live creatures, balanced and held in equilibrium by time and land...the villagers punished her for acting as if she could have a private life, secret and apart from them. [61]

This idea that the individualistic person is a negative asset to a community directly contrasts from the American culture, which values the individual. From this perspective, the No Name Woman story can be interpreted as showing the contrast between communal values of Old China versus the impending American culture that is taking so many of the villagers away.

Repression of Sexuality

The repression of sexuality can be interpreted alongside the aforementioned theme of the community vs. the individual. Kingston interprets No Name Woman’s adulterous relationship as a result of her ability to remain sexually attractive, which is an expression of individuality. All the villagers in the 1924 China town are supposed to remain dull as a sign of community solidarity:

Brothers and sisters, newly men and women, had to efface their sexual color and present plain miens. Disturbing hair and eyes, a smile like no other, threatened the ideal of five generations living under one roof.[62]

Although both men and women had to remain sexually dull in 1924 China, Kingston finds herself reevaluating the meaning of sexual attraction while growing up. She finds herself having to both repress her sexuality (she insists that she will have "no dates"[6] but also uphold a standard of being “American Feminine.”)[5] Trying to find her sexual identity as a Chinese-American woman growing up in the 1940s is something that vexes Kingston throughout The Woman Warrior.



Ghosts perpetuate throughout The Woman Warrior, but it is especially prevalent in “Shaman". There are evil poltergeists such as the Sitting Ghost who torments Brave Orchid, but there are also the numerous White and Black Ghosts referred to in America:

Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts, Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts. [28]

Brave Orchid considers all non-Chinese people to be ghosts. She sees these people as foreign and calling them “ghosts” is her refusal to accept them, though she has lived in America for so long. She still considers China to be her “home” and refers to America as a “terrible ghost country, where a human being works her life away.”[63] Kingston's character inherits the foreignness and fear associated with the American ghosts from her mother.[64] The presence of the ghosts serves to express the way that Kingston's Chinese heritage made her feel somewhat alienated from other Americans while growing up.

"At The Western Palace"

Tradition vs. Assimilation

Throughout this chapter, Brave Orchid seems incredibly unaware of the realities around her. We first notice this in the beginning, when she cannot conceive that Moon Orchid may have aged in the past 30 years. When she later “speaks with the invisibilities” [35] while her children are opening Moon Orchid’s presents, we know that something is amiss. Brave Orchid is showing a complete submissiveness to all things traditional.

This intense hold on tradition is most evident while Brave Orchid desperately attempts to reunite Moon Orchid with her husband. Brave Orchid is willing to overstep any social code to get them back together. When Moon Orchid tells her that it is against the law for men in the U.S. to have more than one wife, Brave Orchid responds by saying “The law doesn’t matter.”[65] Such blatant denial of reality proves how strongly Brave Orchid is attached to upholding Chinese moral standards. She refuses to assimilate to an American code of behavior.

The story of the Western Palace is the perfect metaphor for this idea. “East” represents the old culture of China, while “West” represents the modern culture of America. As the Empress of the East, Moon Orchid is supposed to save her husband from his impending American assimilation, embodied by his “Western Empress”, or new wife.[40]

Brave Orchid: Feminist?

“At the Western Palace” also brings up important clues as to the relationship between Brave Orchid and her husband. This is one of the only chapters in which Brave Orchid slanders her husband for being sexist, saying ““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 relationship between the two of them seems passive-aggressively hostile, which may have something to do with Brave Orchid’s anger towards men in general. Brave Orchid even cites that the role of a wife is to “scold her husband into becoming a good man”.[66]

This attitude, combined with her firm stance on setting things right with Moon Orchid’s husband, proves Brave Orchid as a type of feminist hero. This idea (although not specifically connected with Brave Orchid), is written about in Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong’s casebook on The Woman Warrior. Wong cites another writer, Jeffrey Paul Chan as saying that he “attributes the popularity of The Woman Warrior to its depiction of ‘female anger,’ which bolsters white feminists’ ‘hallucination’ of a universal female condition...”[67]

In truth, Brave Orchid’s feminine anger definitely defines the mood of “At the Western Palace”, so much so that at the end of the story, she makes her daughters take a pledge to control the wily ways of their future husbands. It is a guarded feminism, however, because Brave Orchid is essentially only arguing for control of men, not for complete independence from them.

First vs. Second Generation

This chapter clearly proves the disconnect between the American-born children and their first-generation Chinese parents. Moon Orchid believes the children to be “savage-like”, being “raised in the wilderness” of America.[68] The children are essentially so unlike Moon Orchid in their assimilated lifestyle that she cannot view them as human. The children, on the other hand, are embarrassed by their more traditional aunt and mother. When Brave Orchid suggests “calling out to Moon Orchid” through the glass in the airport the children “slink away”,[34] and when Moon Orchid returns to the Valley as a mad-woman, the children say “Chinese people are very weird".[69] Both generations are in their own worlds;, and in this chapter, there is not that much communication between the two. Moon Orchid’s husband, although not quite a second-generation emigrant, is perhaps the epitome of the split between tradition and assimilation.


As it is in the rest of The Woman Warrior, the clash between Chinese and English is rather apparent in “At the Western Palace”. Moon Orchid is especially sensitive to Brave Orchids’ children’s accents, and Brave Orchid has trouble communicating with the receptionist in the doctor’s office. The language gap is perhaps another tool to show the divide between assimilation and tradition; between first and second generation. In this chapter, however, sensitivity to language is used as a metaphor for Moon Orchid’s decline into insanity. When she claims that Mexican Ghosts are after her, Brave Orchid immediately recognizes it as farce, because Moon Orchid cannot understand English, let alone Spanish. Brave Orchid asks Moon Orchid how she knows that the Mexican Ghosts are after her, to which Moon Orchid replies:

'They were speaking English....this time, miraculously, I understood. I decoded their speech. I penetrated the words and understood what was happening inside.’ [70]

This quote, combined with Moon Orchid’s later admission that she is happy in the insane asylum because “everyone speaks the same language”,[71] proves that language is a metaphor for Moon Orchid’s overall distance and exclusion from American culture. This was the cause of her downfall—the inability to translate herself into the new world. While the basic inability to speak English was a big part of this, the idea of “truly understanding” someone else invokes allusions to more than just words—it is the comprehension of one’s identity. Already cast out from the life of her husband, who she believed to be part of her own culture, Moon Orchid was so disassociated from any sense of social belonging that she grew obsessed with ghosts. The ghosts serve as a metaphor for America’s multicultural society that ironically only found means to exclude her.

"Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe"

Speech vs. Silence

Raised in the ghost land of another nation, she imagines that Americans hear the noisy dialect of Chinese as “chingchong ugly” and instead whispers to her peers at school.[72] However, Kingston soon rebels against her inability to communicate and comes to value verbal expression as a sign of sanity and normalcy. As she encounters more instances of madness in her neighborhood, she concludes that “...talking and not talking made the difference between sanity and insanity. Insane people were the ones who couldn’t explain." [73] Kingston soon fears that she herself is crazy, and projects her hatred of own inability to speak onto her shy classmate. By physically abusing and threatening the mute Chinese girl, she symbolically rejects the binds of silence and spends the rest of the story pursuing her own form of articulation. Along with her newly found speech Kingston appears to simultaneously question Chinese tradition and the indirect way in which the Chinese speak, hiding both rituals from their children and truths from the American ghosts: “Lie to Americans. Tell them you were born during the San Francisco earthquake... Give a new name each time you get arrested; the ghosts won’t recognize you.”[74] It is thus interesting to note that Kingston’s Woman Warrior is a collection of Kingston’s personal background, fact, and fiction, all presented as one memoir.

Gender Roles & Issues

As Kingston slowly discovers her voice, she must continually reconcile with gender issues, the restrictions of her Chinese culture, and the presentation of these lies and truths. It is clear that she is ashamed of her “pressed-duck voice”, and oppressed stereotypes of women constantly bombard her and her young female relatives.[44] Her grandfather screams “Maggots!” when he deems it necessary to acknowledge the women, and her father reminds her that “A husband may kill a wife who disobeys him.”[75] Kingston resists putting herself into a state of submission by purposely presenting herself poorly to her “FOB” suitors.

Finding A "Voice"

In a final look at her past, Kingston tells the story of Ts’ai Yen to represent the possibilities of two cultures coming together.[76] Kingston as a writer identifies with the poet Ts’ai Yen over the strength they find in expression.

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