Men are conspicuously, intentionally absent from The Woman Warrior. Each chapter focuses on a woman that affects Kingston's life, and in most cases depicts how that woman relates to the male-dominated society around her. However, it is often not the men themselves who are most oppressive in the memoir, but rather the power of tradition as carried through women. It is women who utter phrases like "better to have geese than girls" to Kingston, women who are pictured destroying the house of No-Name Woman, girls who torment each other on the playground in the final chapter. The subtext of Kingston's relationship with her mother—and her mother's talk-stories in particular—is both empowerment and disempowerment. Her mother tells her stories of female swordswomen and shamans, and is herself an accomplished, intelligent doctor, but she also reinforces the notion that girls are disappointments to their parents, despite what they may accomplish. As a little girl, Kingston feels haunted by the images or ghosts of little Chinese girls whose parents left them to die because they wanted sons instead. Given such conflicting messages, it is no surprise that in Kingston's fantasy retelling of the story of Fa Mu Lan, the warrior manages to be everything to everyone, able to satisfy the role of wife and mother while still leading her people to victory in battle. It is the only way—besides leaving home—that Kingston is able to reconcile what she has been taught.
The theme of silence begins with the first words of Kingston's memoir: "You must not tell anyone." It is both ironic and paradoxical; the former because Kingston is in effect telling everyone, the latter because so much of what Brave Orchid teaches Maxine is based on telling, giving voice to Chinese customs, traditions, and the lives of the past. As a whole, however, the Chinese emigrants are so guarded of their community that they keep silent about anything that could disrupt it. It is often their children, as Chinese-Americans, who bear the burden of the community's silence. For her part, Kingston is naturally quiet and socially awkward to begin with. It is not surprising, therefore, that much of her memoir, especially "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," is about the process of finding her own voice. Kingston's mother is clearly both a help and a hindrance: note how she says she cut Kingston's tongue in order to help her talk more, while Kingston believes her mother did it for exactly the opposite reason. It is with some pride, however, that Kingston eventually begins to tell talk-stories herself. In the end, the very act of writing her story becomes her way of finding a voice.
Though Kingston claims elsewhere that she does not want her memoir to be "representative," it is clear that she is also reaching out to other Chinese-Americans who share her feelings of displacement and frustration. For the first generation born in America, it is especially difficult to reconcile the heavy-handed and often restrictive traditions of the emigrants with the relative freedom of life in America. Being Chinese-American often means that one is torn between both worlds without really being part of either. Indeed, Kingston feels as different from her American classmates as she does from her own relatives. For a woman, this frustration is heightened because many of the typical traits of Chinese women, such as a loud speaking voice, are not considered "American-feminine." Another difficulty in being Chinese-American is that one's cultural heritage is always second-hand, filtered through the lens—or talk-story—of someone else. At the time Kingston wrote her memoir she had never even been to China. Much of the memoir is about the attempt to sort out the difference between what is Chinese and what is peculiar to her family, what is real and what is just "the movies."
Ghosts are probably the most frequently recurring motif in The Woman Warrior and also the most difficult to pin down. Ghosts refer to both American and Chinese, humans and animals, the living and the dead. There are malevolent ghosts that do harm, such as the "sitting ghost"; ancestral ghosts that look after the living; and everyday ghosts that do what everyday ghosts do, such as the "newsboy ghost." It is the very elusiveness of ghosts that make them so powerful in the memoir. Kingston grew up listening to so many of her mother's talk-stories that in writing the memoir, she can no longer tell what is real from what is imagined. Did she really have a mentally retarded boy follow her around, or is he just another ghost, a creation of her memory? Kinston must shine lights into the corners of her past to determine what is real.
An important facet of ghosts in the story is that they change depending on the point of view. To Brave Orchid, everyone in America who is not Chinese is a ghost; the most important world is the world of emigrant Chinese around her. But to Americans or Chinese-Americans, it is often the Chinese who are ghosts. After hearing Brave Orchid talk about ghosts for so long, it is a shocking role reversal when Brave Orchid and Moon Orchid confront Moon Orchid's husband, and find that he wants nothing to do with any of them; it is they who have suddenly become the ghosts.
The warrior motif is an extremely important part of Kingston's memoir, referring as it does to Fa Mu Lan, Brave Orchid, and Kingston herself. Much of The Woman Warrior is a struggle—between mother and daughter, daughter and society, and so on—making the warrior motif especially appropriate. Fa Mu Lan, the true warrior, becomes the standard by which Kingston measures herself. Though in some ways Kingston comes up wanting comparing herself to the mythical female warrior, she discovers that the very act of writing is both a battle and a victory. Brave Orchid at times a warrior, at times an inspiration to her daughter, and at times a bitter enemy. She is clearly the most forceful and free-willed woman in the memoir, especially in comparison to her sister, Moon Orchid. There are a number of instances, fictional or otherwise, when Brave Orchid fights battles, such as when she destroys the "sitting ghost" and when she threatens to hit Moon Orchid's husband. Much of Kingston's memoir is about trying to find a way to fight back: in "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," she actually shows some fighting spirit herself in a vitriolic outburst against her mother. It is significant, however, that the chapter ends with Ts'ai Yen, who is both a warrior and a poetess. As much as Kingston might want to be a fierce warrior, she knows that her true power is in her word and song.
Talk-stories, which draw on both Chinese myths and lived experience, give structure to The Woman Warrior. There is at least one talk-story in every chapter, most often told by Brave Orchid to Kingston when she is a little girl. Furthermore, the memoir begins and ends with important talk-stories, one about No-Name Woman and another about Ts'ai Yen. Most often, Brave Orchid tells talk-stories in order to teach her family about important life lessons or Chinese traditions, or to make them behave in a certain way. As such, the stories are both stifling and liberating to Kingston, responsible for many of her fears and insecurities but also providing her with inspiration. Though she is frequently upset by her mother's talk-stories, at the end of the memoir she tells Brave Orchid with pride that she tells talk-stories too. In a symbolic gesture of reconciliation, the memoir ends with a talk-story that is half Kingston's and half her mother's.
Birds are important symbols in "White Tigers" and "Shaman." In "White Tigers," a bird guides Kingston, as seven-year-old Fa Mu Lan, up the mountain to meet her mentors. The bird represents the bravery of a child who would be willing to climb a mountain in pursuit, and also represents the fantastical possibility of a girl literally rising above her station in life and growing to become a great leader. The bird is such an auspicious symbol in the legend of Fa Mu Lan, in fact, that Maxine is especially disturbed that a bird represents death in another story, that of her Fourth Uncle's death—he is killed by Communists while he is trying to capture birds as food for his family. To Maxine, it is almost as if the talk-stories are contradicting themselves.
Birds are an auspicious symbol in the talk-stories of "Shaman." A sea bird is painted on the side of Brave Orchid's boat to Canton. To Maxine, the bird represents luck because the very next ship is boarded by pirates. It might also be said to represent fortune in the literal sense; when Brave Orchid goes to the market to shop, her wallet unfolds "like wings."
Mountains represent isolation, safety, fortune and possibility in The Woman Warrior. The mountain in "White Tigers" is a magical place where Fa Mu Lan learns wisdom and martial arts. In "Shaman," the mountain near Brave Orchid's village is a place of refuge during the Japanese bombing of China. Throughout the memoir, the "Gold Mountain" is a powerful symbol of the fortune and promise of America.
The mountain is also, however, an illusory symbol. It hardly proves a refuge from the horrors of war in "Shaman," as the villagers stone to death a crazy woman whom they believe a spy. Moreover, the "Gold Mountain" does not turn out to be such a blessing for Kingston's parents, who must toil in laundries and tomato fields to earn a living. Like the bird, the mountain is a symbol that Kingston finds alternately promising and disturbing throughout her memoir.
Bound feet are the most literal symbol in the memoir, representing the restrictions placed upon women in traditional Chinese society. Bound feet make only brief appearances in the text, most likely because the practice had died out before most of the women in Kingston's family lived (there is a brief mention of her grandmother's having bound feet at the end of "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe"). There is an important section of "White Tigers" where Kingston writes about China wrapping metaphorical "double binds" around her feet. Just as the binding of feet represents both restriction and—in the most one-sided of ways—love and support, so is Kingston both frustrated by Chinese customs envious of women "loved enough to be supported."
The circle appears in "No-Name Woman" as a literal symbol, or "talisman," to represent the Chinese belief in community, family kinship, and law. The Chinese family—that is, the community of kin—is like a circle: people have children to look after them when they get old, and then the dead continue to look after the family. It is also a closed circle—shut off to everyone outside the community, like Americans—and any interruption in the circle has profound effects. Thus, even a private action, such as No-Name Woman's transgression, affects the rest of the village, and must have be punished with dire consequences.