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The Woman Warrior

Maxine Hong Kingston

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Maxine Hong was born in 1940 in Stockton, California, where her parents, Tom and Ying Lan Hong, operated a laundry. Maxine graduated from Berkeley in 1962 and married actor Earll Kingston the same year. After becoming involved in the anti- war protests of the late sixties, the Kingstons moved to Hawaii, where Maxine taught English and began composing her two memoirs, The Woman Warrior (1976) and China Men (1980). She published her first novel, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, (1988) after returning to California with her husband. In 1990, Kingston began teaching at Berkeley.

The Woman Warrior received wide praised from critics and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction. Its appeal cut across a wide variety academic disciplines, attracting both those interested in postmodern techniques of autobiography and those interested in stories of cultural displacement and alienation. For scholars of autobiography, Kingston's story represents an important break from past writings; her complex, multi-layered and quasi- fictional narrative flies in the face of traditional autobiographies, which tend to follow a linear-chronological pattern and maintain a stable narrator—an "I"—throughout. Kingston's memoir, on the other hand, is a blending of voices and styles, often contradictory, that use many of the techniques of postmodernism: ambiguity, incoherence, pluralism, and irony.

Kingston has received some criticism for purporting to represent the "typical" experience of Chinese-Americans, and in other cases for taking traditional material and changing it to suit her own needs. One source of the latter criticism is the story of Fa Mu Lan, a traditional Chinese myth about a girl who took the place of her father in battle. In the "White Tigers" section of The Woman Warrior Kingston adds and incorporates elements from other myths to create an entirely new fantasy from the story of Fa Mu Lan. For her part, Kingston claims that she never intended such stories to be either representative or accurate. Furthermore, we must keep in mind that The Woman Warrior is not a chronicle of Chinese culture or traditions, but simply a reflection of the experience of one Chinese-American far removed from the culture and traditions about which she is writing.

Though Kingston's work may not be universally representative, it does offer a glimpse into the realities of life for many Chinese emigrants to America and their children. As early as the 1840s, Chinese immigrants had been arriving in America in search of better lives, driven from their home country by widespread poverty and attracted by possibilities in the new American West. However, like many other ethnic groups entering America at the time, the immigrants faced social, economic, and legal discrimination that limited their rights and opportunities, keeping most of them living together in pockets of Chinese communities such as the area in Stockton where Kingston grew up. Women such as Brave Orchid, who had once been a doctor in her own country, were forced to toil in sweatshops or become laundry workers—some of the few jobs available to Chinese-Americans well into the twentieth century.

Kingston's memoir finds its way onto the syllabi of many women's studies courses for the gender issues it raises, especially regarding the role of women in traditional Chinese society. Brave Orchid embodies an archetypal Chinese attitude of self-denial and self-abnegation for the good of the community—the very qualities that "No-Name Woman" lacks. Kingston's memoir is further peppered with references to the subjugation of women in Chinese culture and tradition, such as the oft-repeated phrase "better to have geese than girls." The Woman Warrior is as much about Kingston's finding voice and strength as an independent woman within this tradition, and how to reconcile the notion of Chinese wife-slave with the talk-stories about swordswomen and shamans.

Though The Woman Warrior easily stands on its own, Kingston did intend it to be read in conjunction with China Men, her companion piece published four years later. While the first work tells the stories of the important women in Kingston's life, with the men relegated to the background, the second focuses on Kingston's father, and thus completing the picture of Kingston's childhood. Kingston also believes that she finds more of a voice in China Men, and that in order to appreciate The Woman Warrior it is helpful to read what she feels is her more accomplished text. Still, it is the first memoir that usually appears on high school and college syllabi or in anthologies. The most popular chapters in anthologies tend to be the first two, "No-Name Woman" and "White Tigers."

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