The Woman Warrior

The Woman Warrior Study Guide

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts is Maxine Hong Kingston’s first and most famous book. It was published in 1976 to great critical acclaim, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. In addition to being a canonical work, The Woman Warrior is considered a landmark in Chinese-American literature. It is widely taught in high schools and colleges, particularly because of its relevance to young adults.

Although most of the literary community welcomed The Woman Warrior with open arms, ohers who criticized it. Some readers found Hong Kingston’s writing style unnerving. The book is certainly not traditional as memoirs go. In fact, it defies genre. Though classified and awarded as a work of nonfiction, it is truly a hybrid of fiction with nonfiction because it alternates, often seamlessly, between fantasy and reality. Because much of the book comes out of the oral tradition, where stories constantly change between tellings, it is only natural that Hong Kingston’s stories should not be definitive versions of reality.

One major critic of The Woman Warrior is the Asian-American writer Frank Chin. In a 1991 article, “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake,” Chin complains that The Woman Warrior (along with other seminal Asian-American works) misinforms people about what it is to be Asian-American. He calls Hong Kingston’s impressions of her culture “fake,” “revisionist,” “Westernized,” “stereotypical,” and demeaning. Chin was not the only one to censure Hong Kingston for her impressionistic view of Chinese-American culture. Many of her critics tried to discredit her work by pointing out that she was not an expert on Chinese or Chinese-American history. Hong Kingston has defended herself over the years by explaining that The Woman Warrior was never meant to be a definitive guide to Chinese-American identity. Rather, she says, it reflects her and her family’s personal experiences.

The Woman Warrior consists of five chapters: "No Name Woman," "White Tigers," "Shaman," "At the Western Palace," and "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe." It contains memories from Hong Kingston’s own life, written versions of her mother’s stories, and retellings of two famous warrior-woman legends. It is important to note that not once in the book does Hong Kingston mention herself by name. Her narrator is unnamed and often elusive, changing perspectives and even inhabiting the story of the warrior, Fa Mu Lan. By distancing herself from her narrator, Hong Kingston tells us implicitly that The Woman Warrior is not to be taken literally.

Because the book is so multifaceted, it continues to generate wide critical response more than thirty years after its first publication. In addition to giving heart to its readers, The Woman Warrior has inspired other acclaimed writers, perhaps most notably the prolific Chinese-American novelist Amy Tan.