The woman warrior : memoirs of a girlhood among ghosts

by Maxine Hong Kingston

Paperback, 1989

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New York : Vintage International, 1989.

Description

Chinese American woman tells of the Chinese myths, family stories and events of her California childhood that have shaped her identity.

User reviews

LibraryThing member PinkPandaParade
Probably most intriguing about the structure of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, beginning with "No Name Woman” and ending in A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” is that it characterizes Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir, told in the interesting format of non-sequential episodes, as one that begins in oppressed silence but ends in universal song. When looking at the three woman warrior figures in the book – her aunt, the No Name Woman; the rewritten legendary warrior in “White Tigers” (based upon the Mulan legend); and the poet and barbarian captive, Ts’ai Yen – the characteristics that unite them all are their determined attempts at asserting their own kinds of power, femininity, and individuality in patriarchal Chinese society. The methods through which they do so revolve around words written, spoken, or not spoken: from the silence practiced by No Name Woman, to the words written on the warrior’s back, to the songs created by Ts’ai Yen and, finally, to the stories that Kingston as the author uses to find the marks of the woman warrior within herself, and to do so in a way that allows the readers insight into a life that even the narrator is grappling to understand. The words that open Woman Warrior, which begins with the story of No Name Woman, are quite interestingly an admonition of silence: “’You must not tell anyone,’ my mother said, ‘what I am about to tell you’” (3). This admonition signifies a promise, and a breaking of a promise: The narrator’s mother Brave Orchid is showing courage and confidence in her daughter by sharing something that should not be remembered, yet at the same time, her mother is breaking the silence surrounding her sister-in-law, the titled No Name Woman. This is one of the first of many of the narrator’s mother’s talk-stories, ones that were told with a purpose to aid her children in life events, while sealing the bond between child and mother. The story of the woman warrior, who is the protagonist of “White Tigers,” is created in history and then transformed by the narrator into one of triumph through the breaking of silences. Inspired by Kingston’s childhood and the stories of Yue Fei and Mulan, the chapter becomes another way for the narrator to celebrate the breaking of silences, something that continues throughout the book. This union between mother and daughter the novel can be seen as the compromise of generations, an idea carried out in Kingston’s appropriation of myths and stories seen in the retelling of these woman warriors. Her mother, in fact, is the narrator’s guide of the methods in which to appropriate talk-stories for her own purposes. Kingston’s retellings are part of the idea that a culture growing up in one country can appropriate the lessons of their parents, who grew up in another. It is the idea and the hope that stories created by a patriarchal culture can still make room for its daughters, ultimately one the most important ideas Kingston communicates in her beautifully rendered book.… (more)
LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
While the writing here was enjoyable enough, and some of the portions interesting, I had a hard time really engaging with or enjoying Kingston's work here. Parts of the book that move into talk-stories and are presented more like legends were the ones I found most unique and interesting, but the more realistic parts of the book left me somewhat bored, and ready to be finished. The characters just weren't all that likable, and there wasn't enough depth to get a feel for anyone in the story but the speaker. I could appreciate the structuring and goals of the work, but for similar effects and writing, I'd recommend Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street or work by Amy Tan instead. I can't see myself recommending this as a full work, though I might recommend the second part of the book by itself, which is the one portion here that I truly enjoyed and found worthwhile.… (more)
LibraryThing member mldg
Maxine Hong Kingston tells how the ancient patriarchal Chinese society still oppressed her as an American born Chinese female. She tells of the struggle to find freedom and self-worth with a mixture of legend and personal experience. In the end she learns to speak for herself and find independence from and identity with her very strong mother. At times this book disturbed and confused me; but always, I was captivated by its intensity.… (more)
LibraryThing member ccavaleri
A really interesting take on the Mulan story and on feminism. In short, sometimes stories that portray women as strong aren't actually helpful. The Mulan story sets an unreachable standard which is illustrated through the life of the modern main character and her super-woman mother.
LibraryThing member d.homsher
A Chinese-American girl's memoir, made up of distinct chapters, inspired by stories the author heard from her Chinese mother.
Kingston weaves fictional elements into the separate chapters of her autobiography, trying to comprehend her Chinese mother's former life and in that way reconnect with the impressive, mysterious, and sometimes frightening woman who is her mother. In the process, Kingston tends to describe or reimagine the lives of mad women, outcast women, and slaves in China, many of whom she learned about through her mother's cautionary tales. The narrator both fears and identifies with these outcasts. Thus, her efforts to make a bridge to her mother through her writing are always complicated by rebellion and resistance.… (more)
LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
"The Woman Warrior" is an early example of the "midlife memoir" genre and it's a classic of the form, a far more serious and purposeful piece of work than most of the books that bear that description. Hong Kingston's writing is at once impressively fluid and forceful, and reading it sometimes feel like seeing a long-silenced personality suddenly bloom on paper. The author also does an excellent job of illustrating her precarious cultural position. She's caught between two societies she can't gain access to: an emmigrant Chinese society whose rules she can neither inquire about nor understand and a white American "ghost" world that does not entirely accept her. She's aware that she's likely to remain an outsider looking in, but she also avoids the navel-gazing that plagues so much of this genre. Her book is, in some ways, the cultural history of an entire community. Telling a story larger than herself, Hong Kignston includes whole chunks of Chinese mythology in her narrative and recounts the fates of many of the relatives who emigrated with her. Some of her relatives were unprepared to deal with the seismic changes that awaited them in their new home and met with crushing disappointment; if anything "The Woman Warrior" demonstrates how tenaciously people can hold on to the cultures and social structures they were born into and how profound the differences between East and West can sometimes be. Other migrants, like the author's parents, display superhuman amounts of personal resilience and an awe-inspiring capacity for work, leaving the author feeling guilty, grateful, and a little excluded.

The book also makes excellent use of the silence that once permeated the author´s childhood and adolescence. From the language barriers that separate many of the book's characters American society to her family's prohibition on speaking during mealtime to the a family history that sometimes too painful to discuss, silence plays a major role in this personal history, and it's hard to name another writer that does so much with what might be termed "negative literary space." "The Woman Warrior" could also be read as Hong Kingston's own brave attempt to take a meticulous personal inventory and to understand her cultural origins, even if she knows that some of them are likely to remain beyond her understanding. As she tries to fill in the empty spaces that have haunted her since childhood, the author displays a steadfast faith in the power of narrative to create order, and we should perhaps be grateful for the fact that the author's domineering mother was a masterful storyteller who "story talked" for hours while leaving a great deal unsaid. The end product of this difficult upbringing and the author`s own considerable literary talents is "The Woman Warrior," and it's a fantastic read and a book that might change the way you look at every immigrant's experience. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member g0ldenboy
This is the second of three novels assigned to my college's Asian American Literature course. While there are flashes of poetic language, its disorganization and stereotypical portrayals make it difficult to enjoy.
LibraryThing member .Monkey.
This was not at all what I was expecting from something calling itself a memoir. Initially I was a little put off, confused by what I was reading, though I didn't dislike the writing; but after settling back and adapting myself to the more original manner in which it was written, I enjoyed it for what it was. I think it provided an interesting glimpse into a life as an American-born Chinese. That weird zone of having parents from one culture, while growing up in a place completely different, the two not understanding each other at all, and the children therefore not really fitting into either one. There were some sad bits, some amusing bits, some ...different (to a westerner who knows next to nothing about Chinese culture) bits - there's hairy ghosts, ape-men, jealous gods... Overall a provocative engaging read.

I would recommend it, just with the warning to know going into it you're not getting some kind of straight-forward biography type thing. ;)
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LibraryThing member cestovatela
Kingston writes about how her isolating experiences as a Chinese girl among American classmates, but what struck me was the universality of her story. This is a story that anyone who's ever felt stifled or shy can relate to, or anyone whose family is full secrets or been touched by mental illness...the list of experiences we can share with Kingston is a long one. Bonus points for including loads of Chinese folklore to distinguish this from dozens of other "daughter of China" books.… (more)
LibraryThing member Stevil2003
This is the memoir of a Chinese-American girl, primarily concerning her relationship with her mother. I loved it. It's a great set of stories about cultural assimilation, about trying to bridge yourself between two worlds, the world of your family and the world everyone else belongs to. How do you make sense of what your mother tells you when everyone else tells you something else? Kingston works these stories into her own life in a variety of fashions, whether it be imagining what life was like back in China and what significance it has for her, or weaving her own experiences into the legend of Fa Mu Lan. But when you come down to it, there's a level on which all the cultural stuff it just trappings; this is the tale of a child trying to figure out her parents, a tale of us have to reenact in our own lives. Kingston does her best, and the result is a compelling portrait of a woman filled with contradictions, a woman who shaped Kingston in ways she had never imagined.… (more)
LibraryThing member mysteena
"The Woman Warrior" explores a girl's search for identity. Is she Chinese, American, a ghost, a slave, a crazy woman? The writing is so unique, written in a memoir yet fictional manner. Very poetic, beautiful writing that asks to be read aloud. I actually did read some aloud to Chris, just because I was so struck by the passage that I had to share it with someone. I'm so glad I read this!Here's my entry for the class discussion board:In “The Woman Warrior”, we learn how difficult it is for Chinese-American girls to develop a sense of identity. Where do they belong: In the world of China, where girls are discarded as slaves and called maggots, or the world of America trying to fit in amongst the ghosts? To reiterate the point of her unattainable identity, the narrator never reveals her name to her readers. This makes her even more anonymous to us, and accentuates the fact that she herself has had difficulty discovering whom she really is.Growing up, her mother did not fully teach her about her Chinese heritage and customs. Instead, her mom was upset by her questions and disgusted that these things weren’t instinctive to her daughter. The author writes, “From the configurations of food my mother set out, we kids had to infer the holidays. She did not whip us up with holiday anticipation or explain…How can Chinese keep any traditions at all? They don’t even make you pay attention, slipping in a ceremony a clearing the table before the children notice specialness” (185). In some respects her mother had given up on her American born children maintaining a sense of Chinese heritage, or understanding Chinese “ways”. When forcing Moon Orchid to face her husband, Brave Orchid says to her son “You can’t understand business begun in China. Just do what I say. Go.” (151). She doesn’t accept the fact that her children might have some insight into life in America and instead treats them as if they have no understanding of life on either continent. She also refers to her children as Americans, (“Don’t be silly. You Americans don’t take life seriously.” (150), yet for years the children lived with the expectation that someday their family would move back to China. This must have further confused their sense of belonging.As a result of her befuddled identity, the author grows up unsure of her place in the world. She refuses to talk when she enters public school and even when she begins talking she does so in an unsure, “squeezed duck” voice. She becomes infuriated at the girl who never talks, perhaps because she sees herself in the girl, and tries to force the girl to speak. I found it particularly interesting that she spent so much time describing this episode between her and the silent girl, alone in the bathroom. I believe she was combating herself at this moment, trying to force herself to speak normally. The author also is full of fear. She’s afraid of ghosts, afraid of becoming a crazy woman, afraid of being married to a man she doesn’t know, afraid of being sold for a slave. These are all types of identities that she knows she doesn’t want thrust upon her, but which her mother has led her to believe could be a possibility for her life. Even as a grown woman, returning home for a visit, her mother still has a strong hold on her daughter’s sense of well being and identity. “I could feel her stare – her eyes two lights warm on my graying hair, then on the creases at the sides of my mouth, my thin neck, my think cheeks, my thin arms. I felt her sight warm each of my bony elbows, and I flopped about in my fake sleep to hide them from her criticism.” (100). Once again, she is viewing herself from her mother’s perspective (too skinny!) and she loses her own sense of self.One last point that I found fascinating was how she has researched her Chinese heritage. Throughout the novel, she mentions phrases and words that she has tried to discover the meaning to. One example is Ho Chi Kuei, for which she lists about 12 different translations that she’s discovered. She continually searches for a fuller understanding of who she is, and where her identity lies.Subject: The Woman Warrior Reply Quote Set Flag… (more)
LibraryThing member tronella
Interesting memoir of a Chinese-American woman and the stories told to her by her mother. I enjoyed it.
LibraryThing member Kayla-Marie
Maxine Hong Kingston writes a very imaginative memoir that ends with Kingston's discovery of her voice and her journey towards wholeness. She interweaves stories of her mother and her aunts, as well as Chinese legends (most notably, a unique take on the Fa Mu Lan legend) as told to her by her mother when she was a young girl. She includes many desriptions of Chinese traditions and behaviors, often comparing Chinese and American culture, which I found quite interesting. Her writing is beautiful. She uses a lot of creative license in this memoir.

The reason why my rating is not higher than it is is because this novel read very slowly for me. It would take me an hour to read 30 pages. I am not sure why that is. Perhaps I just wasn't in the right mood to read this memoir or maybe it was because it deviated so much from what I was expecting from a book classified as nonfiction (it could possibly be both these things since the two can be connected very easily). The author speculates a lot on the stories her mother told her and sometimes she will create her own fictional endings to the stories from her family history. She will imagine a story that she actually knows very little details of and make it into a complex narrative. The insertion of Chinese legends also takes away from the nonfictional aspects of the memoir. I know authors are given a creative license in their memoirs, but I think Kingston went a little overboard. I also have a difficult time referring to this novel as a memoir. My definition of a memoir is an account of a significant moment in the author's own life, so I believed that Kingston would focus on herself and her experiences. However, she rarely talks about herself at all except in the last chapter. Instead, she chooses to focus on the women in her family, particularly her mother and two of her aunts (one from each side of her family). Most of the stories she recounts happened before she was born or were ones she wasn't there to witness first-hand. The stories are known to her second-hand, mostly told to her by her mother. This offered great insight into Chinese culture from around the early to mid-1900s, but I feel like I didn't get to know the author too well.

However, despite all of this, I would recommend this book. It is a beautifully written and imaginative piece of work. I may suggest reading it as a semi-autobiographical historical fiction novel rather than as a nonfiction memoir, though.
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LibraryThing member eesti23
The Woman Warrior creates an account of a girl who grows up in America amongst her Chinese family and community. The novel moves from point to point in time, mainly in a story-telling type way. Stories about older relatives lives in China are mixed with stories of life in America and this at times can be a bit challenging to follow. Each chapter, whilst semi-independent, does flow together with the other chapters creating a satisfied feeling at the end. Some chapters were much more enjoyable to read, in my opinion, than others - in particular the one about Maxine's mother becoming a doctor and when Maxine's Aunt came to stay with them in America.
A surprisingly enjoyable read, especially once you get a bit further into the book.
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LibraryThing member Crowyhead
This is a moving and at times gripping account of growing up female and Chinese-American.
LibraryThing member StefanY
This collection of Chinese folklore is also a complex soul-searching journey for the author in which she delves into the folklore of her Chinese heritage that has been imparted to her over the years mainly by her mother and assesses how these tales relate to her own inner self in the way that she has been raised by her parents and also in the way that she has grown both within and apart from these cultural boundaries.

The stories themselves are fairly interesting and entertaining, but what really makes this book noteworthy is the introspection of the author as a Chines-American woman growing up within two separate cultures in the 1970's and the inner strength and courage that she develops throughout this growing-up process.

While it was a bit outside of my comfort zone at times, I really appreciated this book for the honesty and sincerity of the author and the courage that it took to put all of her internal feelings and thoughts out into the ope for all to see.
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LibraryThing member kchung_kaching
Even though Frank Chin was highly critical of this book, it deserves a place in Asian American literature and the AA movement. Amy Tan though...not so much.
LibraryThing member Czrbr
Book Description: New York: Vintage Books, 1977. Paperback. Good Memoirs & Myth. Memoirs of a girlhood among ghosts. Sources are dream and memory, myth and desire,
LibraryThing member amelish
I'd like to discuss this book with my mother, and see what she makes of it.
LibraryThing member siubhank
The misunderstanding, angst of a young Chinese American girl. Her parents immigrated shortly before WWI, but strictly maintain their cultural rules of child rearing, until their older children start school and come home with 'new' ideas. The girl, the youngest of a large family is pulled between two cultures. She manages to adapt, by misleading her mother, presenting the face of a good Chinese maiden, but learning how to become a modern American woman.… (more)
LibraryThing member kant1066
“The Woman Warrior” is haunted with ghosts: Mexican ghosts, Negro ghosts, white ghosts, janitor ghosts, teacher ghosts, and so on. I don’t mean this to be a paranormal or spiritual observation. Kingston uses the term so casually, we know what she is talking about – a ghost is almost anything or anyone outside of her Chinese-born family – but that still left me wanting a fuller explanation. We don’t get one. So, what is a ghost? It is something that, despite its seeming absence, leaves a trace of itself, a residue that can’t be erased. It’s a metaphor that runs throughout the entire book, and is extraordinarily apropos for a book that is, at its core, about the archetypical clash of two cultures.

I enjoyed the novel as a total reading experience – and I suppose there’s not a lot more you can ask from a book – but I felt because I wasn’t a Chinese woman, that I was missing something vitally important. I figured that most of the people who have probably enjoyed it haven’t been either of these things, so I tried to ignore how awkwardly self-conscious the book made me feel about my own identity, and trudged merrily on.

The book is about a lot of things – growing up in the United States with parents who were born in their native China; the difficulties one has living with parents who have yet to become properly acculturated even though you as a daughter are already intimately familiar with that culture; even what it means to be Chinese, and how the weight of Chinese history and civil mythology can weigh heavily on someone who hasn’t even set foot in that country. The book is composed of five vignettes or chapters, which don’t flow in a chronological way, but revolve around the same characters: Maxine, her mother, her female Chinese relatives she’s never met.

I can see how this would have been a punch to the literary establishment’s gut when it was published nearly forty years ago, on the coattails of “Fear of Flying” and a myriad of other works important to the feminist tradition. Not only does Kingston’s story recognize her womanhood and coming to terms with that in a particular time and place in the United States, she complicates matters by recognizing her Chinese heritage, which has very different ideas of what it means to be a good daughter, a feminine woman, and so on.

This has been sitting on my bookshelf staring at me for several years now, and I’m glad that I finally chose to read it. Is it something that I’m likely to ever read again? Probably not. It’s exactly the kind of book that college students across the humanistic disciplines – sociology, anthropology, cultural studies – should be exposed to: horizon-expanding and full of ideas to widen the minds of parochial university freshmen, i.e., kids that need the aforementioned culture clash. Once out of school, many people would never again admit to reading for self-edification. I’m not one of those, and self-edification was part of the reason I read this book. It’s just that every time I stop to think about it, I can’t help but think all over again of how self-conscious it made me of being a privileged white male. I know, I know. #FirstWorldProblems
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LibraryThing member juniperSun
Kingston keeps us a bit unsure of what is story and what is real--the tale of Fa Mu Lan is told in the first person--which reflects Kinsgton's own difficulty as a child in telling them apart. Dominated by her mother, she was never sure how to please her, continually running afoul of some superstitious stricture. Her mother never answers questions, just tells some story and since the stories change from time to time, Kingston has to create her sense of her past from the pieces she gleans.… (more)
LibraryThing member streamsong
This was the August PBS/NYT Now Read This selection. It’s been hailed for 40 years as a classic of Chinese-American memoir literature. It’s also been highly criticized.

It’s a different sort of memoir. The author combines the story of her childhood in a Chinese-American neighborhood with her mother’s stories of China and Chinese folktales.

Kingston was never quite sure which of her mother’s stories were true and which were merely supposed to be morally instructive. And so, it’s memoir with a strong dose of what her mother called ‘talk-story’: and combines fiction with non-fiction.

It’s a story of strong women in a world not always kind to women. She relates the tale of Fa Mu Lan, the Chinese folk heroine who donned men’s clothes and fought in battle. She tells the story of her mother, a medical doctor in China, who having joined her husband in the United States, slaved night and day in the family Chinese laundry. Not all the women warriors win; some lose; some give up and settle in the place they have arrived.

But it’s a story of how author Maxine Hong Kinston became the person she is. And that’s the best kind of memoir.
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LibraryThing member engpunk77
I had to read this in some class I took as an undergraduate English major. I recall not enjoying it too terribly much, but as I skim through the passages that I underlined and recall some parts of the story, I think it may be better than a 2.
It's quite possible that my experience with the book was tarnished by factors such as my work load, my feelings about my TA (she made class discussion horrible), the paper I had to write about it, and what my professor did with it.… (more)
LibraryThing member TiffanyAK
This book is difficult to get into at times, but the cultural elements that it reveals are fascinating. More than that, the stories are generally truly intriguing. There is a lot of depth here that almost seems to require at least a second reading to appreciate. There was a bit too thin of a line between story and truth, as well as generalizations and accurate representation, for me, but that is almost nitpicking. My one big issue is that the outright Chinese stories, such as the one about Fa Mulan, take up a bit too much space in the book when I am wanting to read about Kingston. Still, extremely worth reading as a whole. Many of the family stories are extremely sad, but they pulled me in nonetheless.… (more)

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