The Role of Women in Chinese Society
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.
Silence and Voice
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.
Growing Up Chinese-American
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."
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