The Woman Warrior

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Chapter Three: Shaman

Summary Chapter Three: Shaman


"Shaman" depicts the conflicts and paradoxes of Brave Orchid's life and of the mother-daughter relationship she has with Kingston. On the one hand, Kingston seems to gain inspiration from Brave Orchid, a woman of incredible powers and intelligence who escapes her traditional role as housewife and mother. As a ghost destroyer, Brave Orchid is a woman warrior in her own right, not unlike Fa Mu Lan. On the other hand, Brave Orchid reinforces many of the negative stereotypes that Chinese women are useless and disappointing, particularly in her descriptions of the slave-nurse who seemed to be worth more to her than her own daughter. Brave Orchid also describes to Kingston the common practice among midwives of killing baby girls at birth, suffocating them in a box of clean ashes. Kingston does not know whether her own mother ever killed a baby, but she has nightmares for the rest of her life about killing babies that she is trying to help.

Part of Kingston's difficulty stems from the ambiguity of the talk-stories; Kingston never quite knows whether or not her mother is telling the truth. At the beginning of the chapter, Brave Orchid has told Kingston that she had two other children, a boy and a girl, who died before Kingston was born; at the end of the chapter, she accuses Kingston of making these stories up and asserts that Kingston was her first child. We never quite know—as Kingston herself never knows—what, in these stories, is factual and what resides merely in the imagination of either Kingston or Brave Orchid. When Kingston writes about her mother in medical school and the story of the haunted room, she speculates that "maybe" the haunted room was actually her mother's secret study place. This uncertainty casts a general doubt over Brave Orchid's talk-story and Kingston's retelling of it.

Another paradox of "Shaman" is Brave Orchid's experience making the transition from China to America. In China she is a doctor, able to carve out a life for herself as a respected and powerful woman, able to live out the "daydream of all women"—to have a room and job of her own. In America, however, Brave Orchid must toil first in a laundry and then in a tomato field, fulfilling the roles of wife and mother at the same time. Brave Orchid is nostalgic for Chinese life, thinking that she would "still be young" if she lived there. She never stops referring to China as "home." Yet every week she receives reports of the Communists killing her uncles and other relatives for their land. She seems to understand little of the political situation in her own country, thinking that Chinese refugees from the Communists are actually Communists themselves.

Above all, "Shaman" is a story about ghosts—both the ghosts that surround Kingston and her family in America and the ghosts that Brave Orchid brings from China in her talk-stories. The ghosts can be terrifying, like the deformed babies that Brave Orchid used to deliver; ridiculous, like the "Newsboy Ghost" that Kingston and her friends follow around; or simply mysterious, like the shapeless ghost her mother battled at the To Keung School. Kingston must live with the ghosts of a country she has never seen, a country she only knows about through talk-stories that are usually fantastic and often contradictory. It seems, to say the least, to be an incredibly frustrating experience: while Kingston tries to live an "American-normal" life during her waking hours, she dreams about "shrinking babies" and "airplanes" screaming across the sky. Furthermore, the place she is taught to call home, for all she really knows of it, is nothing more than "a Chinatown bigger than the ones here."