Skip over navigation

The Woman Warrior

Maxine Hong Kingston

Plot Overview

Context

Character List

The Woman Warrior focuses on the stories of five women—Kingston's long-dead aunt, "No-Name Woman"; a mythical female warrior, Fa Mu Lan; Kingston's mother, Brave Orchid; Kingston's aunt, Moon Orchid; and finally Kingston herself—told in five chapters. The chapters integrate Kingston's lived experience with a series of talk-stories—spoken stories that combine Chinese history, myths, and beliefs—her mother tells her.

The first chapter, "No-Name Woman," begins with one such talk-story, about an aunt Kingston never knew she had. Because this aunt had brought disgrace upon her family by having an illegitimate child, she killed herself and her baby by jumping into the family well in China. After hearing the story, which is told to her as a warning, Kingston is never allowed to mention her aunt aloud again, so she decides to create a history of her aunt in her memoir. She imagines the ways that her aunt attracted a suitor, comparing her aunt's actions of quiet rebellion against the community to her own rebellion. Kingston also recreates her aunt's horrible experience of giving birth in a pigsty and imagines her aunt's ghost walking around with no one to give it gifts, as was Chinese custom. In the end, Kingston is unsure whether she is doing justice to her aunt's memory or just serving her own needs.

"White Tigers" is based on another talk-story, one about the mythical female warrior Fa Mu Lan. Fa Mu Lan, whose story is told through Kingston's first-person narrative, trains to become a warrior from the time she is seven years old, then leads an army of men—even pretending to be a man herself—against the forces of a corrupt baron and emperor. After her battles are over, she returns to be a wife and mother. The story of Fa Mu Lan is contrasted sharply with Kingston's own life in America, in which she can barely stand up to her racist bosses. Kingston realizes, however, that her weapons are her words.

"Shaman" focuses on Kingston's mother, Brave Orchid, and her old life back in China. Brave Orchid was a powerful doctor, midwife, and, according to the talk-story, destroyer of ghosts back in her village. To a young Kingston, Brave Orchid's past is as astounding as it is terrifying, and many of the images from her mother's talk-story—Chinese babies left to die, slave girls being bought and sold, a woman stoned to death by her villagers—haunt Kingston's dreams for years to come. At the end of the chapter, Maxine visits her mother after being away for many years. The two arrive at some kind of understanding after many years of disagreement and conflict, and Brave Orchid is warm and affectionate towards her daughter for the first time in the memoir.

The title of "At the Western Palace" refers to another of Brave Orchid's talk-stories, about an emperor who had four wives. It is an analogy for her sister Moon Orchid's situation: Moon Orchid's husband, now a successful Los Angeles doctor, had left her behind in China and remarried in America. Brave Orchid urges her sister into a disastrous confrontation with the man to demand her due as his wife. As a result, Moon Orchid, who does not speak a word of English, is left to fend for herself in America. She eventually goes crazy and dies in a California state mental asylum.

The final chapter of the memoir, "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," is about Kingston herself. This section focuses mainly on her childhood and teenage years, depicting her anger and frustration in trying to express herself and attempting to please an unappreciative mother. There are a number of characters whose personalities highlight many of her Kingston's own characteristics, including a silent Chinese girl whom Kingston torments as a little girl. In a pivotal moment in the chapter, Kingston, after unsuccessfully trying to express her feelings one at a time, erupts at her mother with a torrent of complaints and criticisms. Later in her life, however, Kingston comes to appreciate her mother's talk-stories. At the end of the chapter she even tells one herself: the story of Ts'ai Yen, a warrior poetess captured by barbarians who returns to the Chinese with songs from another land. It is a fitting conclusion to a text in which Kingston combines very different worlds and cultures and create a harmony of her own.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us