Kingston learns from her mother that she once had an aunt who killed herself and her newborn baby by jumping into the family well in China. The woman's husband had left the country years before, so the villagers knew that the child was illegitimate. The night that the baby was born, the villagers raided and destroyed the family house, and the woman gave birth in a pigsty. The next morning the mother found her sister-in-law and the baby plugging up the well. The woman had brought such disgrace upon her family that they decided to pretend that she had never been born.
Kingston's mother tells her the story as a cautionary tale, in the years Kingston begins to menstruate. Her mother warns her to be careful lest the same fate fall upon her. Kingston, looking back on the story later, thinks about the world in which she was raised, an "invisible world" of ghosts transposed from Chinese rural life into the emigrants' new homes in America.
Because Kingston cannot ask about her unnamed aunt—who is referred to only as "No-Name Woman"—she invents her own fantasies about why her aunt gave in to her forbidden passions. In one such scenario, her aunt is a timid woman ordered into submission by a rapist. In another, her aunt harbors a slowly blossoming passion, attempting to attract a man's attention by carefully tending to her appearance. Kingston's fantasies must have direct bearing on her own life: she rejects, for example, the idea that her aunt was a wild woman of loose morals. Instead, her aunt's greatest crime—one with which Kingston identifies—was acting on her private interests, stepping out of the role Chinese society and traditions had proscribed for her. Such traditions, Kingston says, were thought of as necessary to ensure village stability, especially when the villagers were all related in some way. Any sexual passion could lead to adultery or incest and therefore threatened the social order.
In a particularly vivid section of the chapter, Kingston imagines the time when her aunt's family casts her aunt out. Alone, her aunt is lost in the wilderness, and when the baby comes, she resorts to giving birth in a pigsty. Kingston believes that her aunt decides to kill herself and her baby together in order to spare the child a life without family or purpose. Kingston also notes that the baby was probably a girl, and as such would already have been considered practically useless to society—a theme that reappears throughout The Woman Warrior. At the end of the chapter, Kingston imagines her aunt as a lonely, wandering ghost, begging for scraps from the gifts given other ghosts by their loving relatives.
"No-Name Woman" is one of the more frequently anthologized sections of The Woman Warrior because it encapsulates so many of the rest of the text's themes: the ambiguity and complexity of "talk-story," the place of women in traditional Chinese society, and the difficulty of growing up as a Chinese- American. The struggle of Kingston's aunt—a woman who gives into a dangerous sexual passion and then is cast out by her village—is likened to the struggle of Kingston herself, who is attempting to make sense of the old customs and traditions—which she knows only from her mother—in a vastly different country.
Kingston, to illustrate this struggle, sets up a number of dichotomies and conflicts: between private and public, frivolity and necessity, the individual's need for expression and society's need for control. As she imagines what old world China was like, she paints a picture of a repressive, strictly ordered society in which people were essentially unable to have private lives. Everything had to be done for the sake of the family's or village's well- being—what Kingston calls "the Necessary." In such a world, Kingston's aunt represents the worst kind of transgressor, one whose private lusts—made public by her illegitimate child—disrupted the social order and threatened the very existence of the village. In times of plenty, notes Kingston, adultery might have been "only a mistake"; when the villagers needed everyone to work together to provide food, however, it became a crime.