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Ghosts and Genealogy in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior


The Northwest Review, 22.1 (1985; University of Oregon): 122-33.

                             "I am nourished by the Mother"

                                                                               -- Tao Te Ching, 20, trans. Chung-yuan

                                                     "I value the nursing-mother” (the Tao)

                                                                   --Tao Te Ching, 20, trans. Legge

Chinese ghosts


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     In The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston tells us that long ago in China there was a knot "so complicated that it blinded the knot-maker." It was outlawed by the emperor, but Kingston says, "If I lived in China, I would have been an outlaw knot­ maker" (190). In a sense, The Woman Warrior is such a knot. For it ties together strands of a novel, an autobiography, Chinese myth and history, and American ethnic history. Above all, The Woman Warrior is about writing. More fundamentally, it is about language. It is writing, or telling our story, that ties the knot to unify otherwise random experience. It is through writing that Maxine achieves identity and independence; through the discipline of writing she becomes a warrior.

     Several critics, treating The Woman Warrior as impressionistic autobiography, have used standard works on English and American autobiography as analytic tools (for example, Blinde, Hamsher). These fail because, knowing nothing of Chinese or Chinese-American life, such critics do not allow Kingston's book to speak in its own voice. For example, after discussing Kingston's failure to construct an omniscient narrator who typically judges the incidents of her life, Blinde turns to David Hume's epistemology for explanation! Would not the most elementary allusion to Buddhism and its concepts of anatta (no self) and co-dependent origination be much more appropriate and useful in untying the knot? To force Kingston's writing into European and American literary fads, or note how her writing departs from these expectations, perpetuates the ethnocentrism that The Woman Warrior illustrates, and ignores the special problems of culture and language that are the crux of the book.

     In a response to critical acclaim for The Woman Warrior, Kingston said critics "praise the wrong things." Expecting "The Woman Warrior to be read from the women's lib angle and the Third World angle," she acknowledged that "it is up to the writer to transcend trendy categories," like these. Kingston was most angry with critics who measured "the book and me against the stereotype of the exotic, inscrutable, mysterious oriental." Thus, she asserted, "I am an American," and "The Woman Warrior is an American book" (Amirthanayagam). Her point, that Americans are not all WASPs, is familiar. What is less familiar is her implied argument that American culture embraces more than that of European origin; that it has, at least to some degree, an Eastern thread; and that as an American book, The Woman Warrior should have caused critics to recognize that part of American culture has roots in China.

     A recognition of Chinese cultural traits, such as those enumerated by Hajime Nakamura, does much to interpret the writing in The Woman Warrior and Brave Orchid's otherwise puzzling behavior for those of us who do not have a personal knowledge of Chinese-American life. Nakamura bases many of the cultural traits he identifies on the deep structures of language. For example, he asserts that Chinese is rich in nouns that convey concrete images and weak in verbs that express change and relation. Consequently, Chinese expresses "things by individualization and specification rather than by analysis" (178). Without distinction between singular and plural, with no fixed terms to express the tense or mood of verbs, and no cases, Chinese tends to present sharp images which remain uninterpreted by precise grammatical directions (186). Intuition and sensitivity to context take the place of logical exposition (193). But such interpretation requires a shared cultural context, one in which the symbol is recognized and tacitly under­stood without explicit directions. Brave Orchid, her sister, husband, and others who grew up in China, share the same interpretive cultural system; but this is the very thing that Chinese­Americans, such as Maxine, do not share with their parents' generation. Thus, Maxine can only be puzzled by much of her mother's behavior because she lacks a knowledge of the culture in which the behavior or symbol is significant. Moreover, she cannot effectively ask her mother to interpret her behavior for two reasons. Brave Orchid understands Maxine's America little better than the daughter understands her mother's China. Cultural isolation cuts both ways. And even if Maxine asked, according to Nakamura, the Chinese language is not facile at offering such analysis.

     Chinese, Nakamura says, has a penchant for creating a "complex multiplicity expressed in concrete form" which resists analysis or allows multiple interpretation (217). Sharing the language, but not the tacit understanding acquired by growing up in China, Maxine is often confused by images and symbols she cannot interpret. Near the end of her book, Kingston asserts her American reaction to this, saying, "I had to leave home in order to see the world logically, logic the new way of seeing. I learned to think that mysteries are for explanation" (237).

     For Kingston, the explaining is concomitant with writing a book which creates a character, an identity. The Tao says, "To be aware of one's self is to be awakened" (Chung-yuan, Tao, 95). Te in Tao Te Ching denotes power and enlightenment. Te also means "to observe the mind" (Creativity, 126). In the American tradition, exemplified in such works as Walden and Leaves of Grass, this reflection is synonymous with writing. Speaking of Chinese poetry, Chung-yuan could also be speaking of the American Romantic tradition, when he says, "In the process of creation there exists no ego-self. The poetic work is brought forth from the primordial source of the great self," the Transcendental Self (Creativity, 182). This is the ground in Kingston's work where Chinese and American traditions converge to suggest a similar truth.

     In a fine book on the psychology of autobiography, John S. Dunne says, "The story of the world ... becomes the human thing that mediates between man and unknown in the world, and the one who tells the story becomes the human being who is the mediator" (56). Kingston mirrors this insight, also attesting to the expectations she has for writing, saying: "I thought talking and not talking made the difference between sanity and insanity. Insane people were the ones who couldn't explain themselves" (216). Sanity is language: a power that creates pattern and character.

   Kingston says the telling that creates character, in life as in fiction, is a process of judgment, of sorting "out what's just my childhood, just my imagination, just my family, just the village, just movies, just living" (239). In addition to these, genre judgments are also important. Maxine becomes a warrior by learning to use language to sort events into four tiers.

     There is a world of silence, a world of power and danger that the shaman must confront and master. It can destroy the person as evinced by Moon Orchid and the nameless women at the beginning and end of the book who both refuse to talk.

     Secondly, there is a world of myth, of "story-talk" and ghosts. Maxine felt that "once upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly breathe" (133). This is the world of titans and the unconscious. There are shapes and powers but little order. However, a shaman like White Tiger can use silence to deceive and master the ghosts. 

  Thirdly, there is the world of history. No "once upon a time," but fixed dates. In contrast to the fluidity of dreams and myth, there is a linear pattern. To know you are not a ghost, genealogical patterns are chanted. Maxine reports, "When my mother led us out of nightmares and horror movies, I felt loved. I felt safe hearing my name sung with hers and my father's, my brothers' and sisters'" (89). Story-talk gives Maxine a mythic China, her relatives' letters give her a historic China. History gives names: "Kwangtung Province, New Society Village, the river Kwoo, which runs past the village." With such directions, her mother "funneled China" into Maxine's ears, so that she could "go the way we came ... to find our house" in the real land, not the land of ghosts (89-90).

     Fourthly, there is autobiography. This level integrates the previous three. The silence becomes a ghost that is named. Now there is a person seeking a relationship with the silence (Dunne, 86). A person becomes filled with the ghosts of memory and myth: "Before we can leave our parents, they stuff our heads" with ghosts (102). A person has names: a Chinese name, nicknames, an American name. The Tao says, "When discrimination begins, names arise. After names arise, one should know where to abide" in the silence to which the words ultimately refer (Chung-yuan, Tao, 93). Always there is a person with a voice, a shaman. Brave Orchid, "good at naming" (76-77), recognizes that her daughter also has the shaman power: "You're the one with the charming words" (119). The silence itself cannot be spoken. But its power is manifest in the dragon, the story-talk myth of China. The genealogy of names begins with Confucius. He rides the dragon of language to create the history of man.

     In autobiography, the ordinary becomes the extraordinary or my reality: half-understood but deeply felt experience confronts the cold light of reason. Even a mother can suddenly be seen through the wrong end of the telescope: "My mother would sometimes be a large animal, barely real in the dark; then she would become a mother again" (118). The silence which seemed super-human, then tamed in myth and history, suddenly looms in one's very own mother. The dragon of myth, compelled to follow the line of history, bends in a spiral dance.


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          Transmission outside the Scriptures.
No setting up of words and letters [li, tradition, models].
Point directly at man's mind.

floating lanterns


     The first chapter, titled "No Name Woman," illustrates the danger of dreaming silence. The most common metaphor for Tao is water: "That which is best is similar to the water" (Chung-­yuan, Tao, 27). And in China, "the heavy, deep-rooted women were to maintain the past against the flood, safe for returning" (9). Women manifest the silent Tao. They give birth. The suicidal rebellion of No Name Woman is ominous: for "she was a spite suicide, drowning herself in the drinking water" (19).

     The myth of "White Tiger" illustrates how to transform a ghost, such as No Name Woman, into a tiger; the eaten becomes eater; the woman, a man. "The first thing you have to learn ... is how to be quiet." White Tiger does zazen, kneeling "all day without my legs cramping," so that her "breathing became even" (28). From the silence she emerges in myth to affect history. Her family literally carves revenge on her back, the message she carries into battle.

     Men talk, women listen. Kingston writes: "There is a Chinese word for the female I [the first person pronoun] -- which is 'slave.' Break the women with their own tongues!" (56). Caught between the Confucian emphasis on family genealogy and the American emphasis on Romantic individualism, Maxine has a great deal of difficulty interpreting exactly what is meant by the first person pronoun. Sexual and ethnic stereotypes add to the difficulty. IIn the China of her mother's day, foot-bindings were cut. Bones in the feet of girls were no longer broken and they gained an elementary freedom of movement. Maxine's tongue was similarly cut (190) by her mother in a symbolic act combining elements from the myth about power­- language carved in flesh -- and the history of liberating women in China, of which Brave Orchid was a prime example, traveling as far as America. No doubt, Brave Orchid hoped that cutting the frenum would cause Maxine to gain a new freedom: fluency, and hence power, in the language of the ghosts (i.e., Americans). Typically Maxine misconstrues this, thinking that her mother meant to bind her feet to enslave her: "You tried to cut off my tongue" (235).

     The chapter titled "Shaman" tells how Brave Orchid avoided the fate of No Name Woman. She does so by moving from myth to history, from the village to the city, East to West. As a student at a medical school, Brave Orchid conducts an exorcism, battling the ghosts of China past. She dares to talk, even to ghosts. She tells them, "I do not give in .... There is no pain you can inflict that I cannot endure." Moreover, she is armed with the sword of myth: "You're no mystery to me. I've heard of you" (82). You have a name that controls you. Following a dream battle with a ghost, in which her spirit was lost for twelve years, her fellow students recreate her identity by chanting her history (84). However, like any warrior after a battle, she is no longer quite the same. For she has won a name and mastered the world. Above all, as Maxine knows, she is a woman of power. She was one of the "new women, scientists who changed the rituals" (88). The students who chanted her descent line "pieced together new directions." For if they had given "her real descent line," they would have led her back to the village (89). Maxine must feel, however tenuously, that her mother also lived in a new world, haunted by ghosts, and found a way to master them. This ceremony is precisely what was lacking in Moon Orchid's life. So, although she came to America, her life remained in China. She grew mad, eaten by ghosts.

     A shaman passes many tests. Brave Orchid, like White Tiger, became a man, a medical doctor. She moved between myth and science. Because she dared to talk to ghosts in China, she could also talk to the white ghosts she found in America. The tests are story-talk, observation of the mind and language that carve events like the sword carves flesh. Kingston relates a story of how her mother bought a slave in China. The test, which, to some degree, would liberate the slave, is reminiscent of the Meno. Brave Orchid writes a word and tells the girl, "If you can write this word from memory, I will take you with me" (94-95). Passing this test, the girl faces another in which she is asked about the relationship between language and life. To find a lost watch in a field, the girl says, "I know a chant on the finger bones .... But even if I landed on the bone that says to look no more, I would go to the middle of the field and search in a spiral going outward until I reached the field's edge. Then I would believe the chant and look no more" (95). So too, Brave Orchid went beyond the bounds of the village, disobeying the myths and disregarding "the work of preservation" which "demands that the feelings ... not be turned into action" (9). Language must be a sword, not foot-bindings.

     Myth gives a familiar shape to the threat of silence and death. But it also confines silence to its forms. Action and daring beyond the circumscription of myth is symbolized in the act of eating, devouring like the tiger: "Big eaters win" (105). Kingston says, "I see that my mother won in ghost battle because she can eat anything" (104). Brave Orchid taunted her ghost saying that she would fry it for breakfast (83). This is also a test of discipline. For many of the things we have to eat to survive are terrible. For example, Kingston relates the nightmare meal of eating a living monkey's brain (107-108). Conversely, ghosts are eternally hungry because they did not dare to eat real life when they had the chance.

     Each chapter of The Woman Warrior has two parts: a myth or a history, and autobiographical parallels and judgment. Perhaps the most significant correspondence occurs in the chapter "Shaman" when Maxine, as an adult, exorcises the childhood ghost of her mother in a scene parallel to that of her mother exorcising the ghosts of her childhood in China. Maxine recalls eating ghosts as a child. Recalling the taste of candy sent from relatives in China, Maxine says, "Mother! Mother! It’s happening again. I taste something in my mouth, but I'm not eating anything." Her mother says, "Your grandmother in China is sending you candy again .... Human beings [Chinese] do not need Mail Ghosts to send messages" (116). Then, an adult lying in bed in the afternoon, Maxine sees her white-haired mother come into the room like a ghost. Actually, Kingston writes, "Eyes shut, I pictured my mother," constructing an image from memory and sound (116-117). She piles quilts on Maxine, suggesting the Sitting Ghost who made it difficult for Brave Orchid to breath. In the twilight room, the shaman mother, who says she has taken an LSD pill left in the kitchen by Maxine, casts spells of China, convincing us that if she had remained in China, she would still be young  (117-124). Through this long bewitching scene, Maxine says she remained unfeeling, finally asserting her independence and threatening the ghost mother, telling her, "I know how to kill food, how to skin and pluck it" (124). She is White Tiger with a scarred back. And she wins against the ghost mother. For her mother now admits, "We have no more China to go home to," and adds, "I don't want to go back anyway." White Tiger even toys with the notion of turning the tables. She asks Brave Orchid, "Does it make sense to you that if we're no longer attached to one piece of land, we belong to the planet?" (125). The planet spins and even myths cannot stop it. China is no longer the middle kingdom. The world is more than China and the myths that interpreted life there. At the end of this chapter, Maxine reports, "A weight lifted from me." She feels, "The world is somehow lighter." And her real mother, not the ghost mother, leaves her with an endearment, recognizing that she is a true daughter, that the power has been passed by the Zen method of Hui-Neng (127). 

     The story of Moon Orchid goes a step beyond No Name Woman but falls short of Brave Orchid. For Moon Orchid never psychologically leaves China. Because she does not exorcise the Chinese ghosts and myths before coming to America, they claim her. She attempts to live in a history alien to her, which does not arise from myth. In one of the most enchanting and powerful scenes in the book, Kingston illustrates the manifold possibilities for language to interpret events. Maxine and her Chinese-American siblings act without any self-conscious awareness, without any Zen consciousness. But Moon Orchid follows them, describing what they do, forcing them to become conscious of their acts, just as a Zen roshi would do. The children find this oppressive and hide from her. But as readers we see Moon Orchid's point: that there is a profound difference between unconsciously reacting to events, and being self-conscious and deliberate. The latter is the discipline of the warrior, the shaman, the enlightened. For there is a possibility of control and meaning only in considered acts. However, as Moon Orchid herself ultimately illustrates, there is as much danger in telling as in acting. The teller who stops in myth instead of growing into history and autobiography relinquishes control of life. Ironically, the mythic dreamer, imprisoned by language, can become no more than a character, a ghost in a fantasy world. The complex relations between life and language are illustrated in a passage in which a character describes the words of Moon Orchid, who is describing the act of beating eggs with an electric mixer: "The child married to a husband who did not speak Chinese translated for him, 'Now she's saying that I'm taking a machine off the shelf and that I'm attaching two metal spiders to it'" (164). Where are the real things here? In the doing, in the awareness of the doing, or in the story that purports to substitute for the act or experience to explain it?

An eighth century Zen master, Hui Hai, when asked, "How shall we understand that which is beyond the reach of words?" responded: "Now, while you are speaking, what is there which cannot be reached by your words?" How can you say it or name it? Will you allow ghosts to eat your life? How can you escape to a world beyond ghosts when "Speech is blasphemy, silence a lie" (I-tuan in Wu)? The Zen master commands us to, "Quick, speak! Show me your original face!" That is, a face that is not chosen from cultural patterns we have learned (li) or that we project because we believe it is what the audience expects and will approve. It is part of the story.      

     The Zen dilemma is answered by the chant of the history that led Brave Orchid to a new world. Moon Orchid's chant is a list of images that cannot be interpreted into other names or stories. In one's own culture there is a natural growth from silence into myth into history, tied in a knot of autobiography. Moon Orchid cannot use her Chinese life to interpret the American lives of her nieces and nephews. But, as Chinese, she cannot easily dismiss history, the America where she finds herself and her family. Unable to integrate the two, myth and history, she fails the shaman test, not possessing the courage to abandon the old myths. She is too fragile, a moon orchid blooming in the night of madness. She is too old to give birth to new myths. Moon Orchid chooses to live with ghost daughters in an insane asylum where she says, "We speak the same language, the very same. They understand me, and I understand them" (185). Unable to move in a mytho-history because they are broken into two disparate worlds, she chooses to live in myth rather than history.  

     Kingston indicates the lesson for Maxine in this: "Brave Orchid's daughters decided fiercely that they would never let men be unfaithful to them. All her children made up their minds to major in science or mathematics" (186). They resolve not to be tricked by myth, story-talk, poetry, nor to be dependent on men, to have their feet bound. Maxine wants American precision to know exactly where she is. For one needs to stand on firm ground to fight ghosts. In an outburst in which she frees herself from her ghost mother, Maxine says, "You won't tell me a story and then say, 'This is a true story,' or, 'This is just a story.' I can't tell the difference. I don't even know what your real names are. I can't tell what's real and what you make up" (235). In the Zen sense, our social or narrated life is entirely made up or spoken: "Mind ... transforms itself into phenomena" (Huang Po). And the phenomena, or our experience, becomes the story we tell. Kingston creates just such a Chinese world for the reader who has a hard time sorting out what is myth, what is history, and what is autobiography. And in the end, is it not all a story or Kingston’s narrative?

     In the last chapter, "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," Kingston suggests the step beyond Moon Orchid: how a Chinese song can be played in America. The beginning is ominous. Maxine seems to follow the No Name Woman: "My silence was thickest -- total -- during the three years that I covered my school paintings with black paint." Maxine rejects the ambiguous American images, refusing to interpret or give them a context, by simply painting a shadow over them. There are no myths, only silence, only the dark. Like the White Tiger, Maxine speaks to no one at school (192). Then she discerns the test: "It was when I found out I had to talk that school became a misery." This is the test faced by the slave girl, Moon Orchid, and her mother. The step out of the darkness is essentially Chinese. For it is guided by precedent (li, tradition), as a song offers a precedent for sound, or history for action. The responsibility and risk of speaking is lessened in repeating what someone else has first dared to speak or write. In Confucian culture, we imitate what we learn from our parents and other superiors in the five human relationships. Thus Maxine says, "Reading out loud was easier than speaking because we did not have to make up what to say." Maxine has difficulty understanding the American or Romantic concept of "I" (193). Instead of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s sense of uniqueness, she has the myth of her mother to follow and to resist. For ultimately she must tell her own life.

     In American school, Maxine learns a history, symbolized by reading out loud, following the pattern someone else set. But in the Chinese school, which she also attends every day, she finds chaos, play, freedom, life. Here "the girls were not mute. They screamed and yelled during recess, when there were no rules; they had fistfights" (194-195). In a sense, this represents a mirror image of her mother's journey. For Brave Orchid exorcised the ghosts of her Chinese village by attending a Western-style medical school in order to live in America. To be sure, Brave Orchid's story-talk creates ghosts, but, unlike her sister, she is always the shaman who commands them. The question is, how can Maxine learn to command her Chinese ghosts? For she perceives that to reject America for China is to follow Moon Orchid rather than her mother. Thus she reflects, "You can't entrust your voice to the Chinese, either" (196).    

     The confusion and crisis are illustrated in a clash of Chinese and American interpretations on the same incident in which a drugstore delivery boy mistakenly brings medicine to Maxine's house. Her mother interprets this as witchery and says the family must be revenged. Perceiving a loss of face, she sends Maxine to the druggist to demand reparation candy. Ironically, Maxine feels sick at this because, interpreting the incident in an American context, she knows that she can only be embarrassed by confronting the druggist. Sure enough, the druggist interprets Maxine's efforts as begging (196-198). The only way out of this seems to be silence. But her mother, a midwife, forces her (as would a Zen roshi) to speak, just as she forced her sister, Moon Orchid, to speak. Maxine says that because of this incident, "my mouth went perfectly crooked" (199). She then reflects on the loudness of Chinese-Americans and suggests that by sheer volume they attempt to paint-over events they cannot interpret. Like Moon Orchid, they find it easier to live in a world of myth. Maxine reports that "most of us eventually found some voice, however faltering" (200). There is one girl, however, who remains silent. Perhaps jealous that the girl had not been scarred, and imitating her mother's midwifery, Maxine attempts to make her talk. The nameless child has nothing to say since there is no self to say it. Faced with the threat of her mirror image -- like Brave Orchid's mirror image sister, Moon Orchid -- Maxine says, "I hated fragility" (204). Her intensity of will reverberates from her earlier vow not to follow Moon Orchid. Maxine will be somebody rather than a ghost. Like her mother, she will endure and take the risk of naming, even to calling herself the woman warrior.

     Maxine can endure pain and even torture others, but can she heal? Is she really a woman who can give birth? After this incident, Maxine falls ill and remains in bed for eighteen months. Following this double gestation period, Maxine's "throat burst open" and she gives birth to her unique personality against the ghost that her mother is trying to turn her into. Wielding the sword of language against her mother, she says, "I won't let you turn me into a slave or a wife .... You can't stop me from talking. You tried to cut off my tongue, but it didn't work" (234-235). Thus the book itself manifests birth and healing. It offers a ceremony that accepts life and the role of the warrior shaman not merely to live, but "to have a relationship to one's life, one's action, one's love, even if the relationship is simply one of consent" (Dunne, 20). It is a birth of spirit; a woman's initiation and enlightenment; a separation from the ocean of sleeping Being; a risk of a new world and new life. The shaman-Buddha uses language to deepen life. Events do not simply occur when you know how to name them. At the end of the book, Kingston reminds herself: "Be careful what you say. It comes true. It comes true" (237).

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