Ghosts

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 an intellectually disabled 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

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-Story

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.