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The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

1315 words (5 pages) Essay in English Literature

05/07/17 English Literature Reference this

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The theme of finding one s own personal voice is the central aim of Kingston in her memoir The Woman Warrior. She makes various references to the physical and emotional struggle of this aim throughout the text by exploring the silence of the women in her family and Chinese culture. By adding her experience as a Chinese-American woman she discovers her voice. Kingston uses autobiography to create identity and therefore breaks out of the silence that has bound her culturally to discover a resonant voice of her own (Wong 58). Kingston supplies a voice to many voiceless women enabling them to discover their identities as individuals.

In The Woman Warrior, Kingston utilises her different voices to depict the stories of her ancestors. Through these stories told to her by her mother and her aunt, she is able to express a part of her which her own experiences cannot explain as a Chinese-American female. Her memoir is an intensely autobiographical work, yet her first person presence ranges from constant to, at times, almost non-existent.

Overall , throughout the five chapters of The Woman Warrior, there is a movement from the theme of silence in the first line of the first chapter You must not tell anyone to a voice in the final line and the last chapter It translated well (Hong Kingston 3, 209). For Kingston, silence equates to a lack of voice, which she associates with the loss of identity as a woman, which is her main aim of the text. However, she is also aware of the risks involved in asserting independence from her own Chinese community.

This idea is explored in the first chapter of the memoir, No Name Woman , where Kingston s aunt acted against her community s standards of suitable behaviour and the villagers punished her for acting as if she could have a private life, secret and apart from them (Hong Kingston 36-37). However, Kingston fear that in staying silent and not finding her own voice, she risks becoming a substitute for her nameless aunt, who remained silent her entire life. Kingston s anxiety is increased by her mother s warning: Don t tell anyone you had an aunt (Hong Kingston 18). But in writing the No Name Woman story, Kingston reacts against the family imposed silence and tells everyone of her aunt. Her aunt s silence, by refusing to name the father of her child, protects the man and simultaneously oppresses her. Kingston gives a voice to the silence woman by writing the aunt s story and theorising how her aunt became pregnant. In doing this, she removes her aunt s guilt and solidifies her identity as a Chinese-American woman. She feels that to remain silent about her aunt would be the same as rejecting her own sense of self.

The theme of silence in the text is also linked to the cross-cultural problems that Kingston comes across throughout her own life. Kingston notes that The Chinese I know hide their names; sojourners take new names when their lives change and guard their real names with silence (Hong Kingston 6). The mention of silence not only refers to the hiding of names but also to the confusion of Chinese culture to first-generation Chinese-Americans.

Although the women of traditional Chinese culture do not have voices, the stories and myths that female family members pass onto their daughters may contain subversive messages. For example, in the chapter entitled White Tigers , the legend of the Chinese woman warrior Fa Mu Lan is a constant reminder to young Kingston that women can transcend socially enforced limitations. Kingston discusses how as a child, she imagined herself to be like Fa Mu Lan, who saves not only her family but her community: the villagers would make a legend about my perfect filiality (Hong Kingston 45). It is in this chapter that we see how, even as a child, Kingston dreamt of transcending a life of insignificance. Brave Orchid s story of the woman warrior proves how stories and legends of tradition Chinese culture can create alternative, subversive voices for women who otherwise would spend their life in silence due to the dominance of a patriarchal society.

Kingston extends her empowerment of women, by providing them with individualised voices, to her own mother. Brave Orchid, her mother, is effectively voiceless in America as although she has lived in America for many years, she does not speak English. As with all the lives of the women in The Woman Warrior, Kingston vocalises and records her mother experiences. The memoir displays Brave Orchid s sacrifices and distinguishes her from the nameless Chinese women living in America.

In the chapter At the Western Palace , Kingston s aunt Moon Orchid, reveals how costly remaining silence can be. Moon Orchid relays the tale of a woman, deserted by her husband, who has completely submitted to the patriarchal view that woman should always remain silent and never question male authority. The voicelessness of s Chinese woman living in a traditionally patriarchal society is shown when the woman reluctantly confronts her Americanised husband and is unable to voice her years of rage and grief: But all she did was open and shut her mouth without any words coming out (Hong Kingston 152). Ironically, her loss of speech is the deciding factor in her husband s decision that she has no place in his American life, stating, I have important American guests who come inside my house to eat You can t talk to them. You can barely talk to me (Hong Kinston 153). However, by Kingston writing Moon Orchid s story in her memoir, she is also providing Moon Orchid with an individual voice.

In the final chapter of The Woman Warrior, A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe , Kingston deals with the generational and cultural conflicts as regards the voice of Chinese-American women. Through her American education, Kingston imagines that Americans hear the language of Chinese as chingchong ugly (Hong Kingston 199). In order for a young Kingston to feel even partially accepted by her American peers, she retracts her voice: We American-Chinese girls had to whisper to make ourselves American-feminine (Hong Kinston 172).

However, even as a child, Kingston is aware of the consequences of being without a voice. She describes the hatred she felt for another Chinese girl who refused to speak and how she physically bullied the girl to make her talk. Her hatred for the unspeaking girl is highlighted be her similarity to the girl. The young Kingston fears becoming like this silent girl, who functions as Kingston s alter ego.

In this last chapter, Kingston simultaneously questions the customs of the Chinese and the indirect way in which the Chinese speak through observing their code of silence towards Americans regarding their cultural origins and history. This lack of a voice further marginalises Kingston and other first-generation Chinese-Americans as during Kingston s discovery of her voice; she resists putting herself in a state of submission but does, however, purposely present herself poorly to her peers.

In Kingston’s final look at her past, she tells the story of the poet Ts ai Yen to represent the possibilities of two cultures coming together harmoniously. Kingston identifies with Ts ai Yen s strength in expression and sees them both as women warriors symbolically fighting to link the cultural gap between America and China.

In conclusion, Kingston’s different voices culminate to constitute the voice of her own subjectivity, to emerge from a past dominated by stories told to her into a present articulated by her own storytelling (Wong 59). The writing of The Woman Warrior, an outlet for her to explore her past, becomes Kingston s remedy for silence her way of discovering her own personal voice and a place as a Chinese-American woman in society.

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