Throughout The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston highlights the influence of Chinese culture on the lives of Chinese-American women growing up in the United States. The title, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, is representative of the overall themes presented within the work. Stories from the past, treatment of women, and ghosts all play a large role in describing the struggles of Chinese girls growing up in American society.
In the chapter titled Shaman, Kingston introduces several stories told by the narrator’s mother. These stories serve as a glimpse into the mother’s life in China, which allows the reader to compare and contrast the narrator’s childhood with her mother’s. In one of her stories, she recalls an encounter with a ghost while she is on her way back from doctoring. This battle with a ghost, and the others revealed afterwards, imply the negative connotations that the Chinese associate with the term ghost. It shows that those immersed in Chinese culture believe that ghosts are haunted creatures that need to be defeated. The narrator goes on to explain that she knows her mother was victorious in her encounter with the ghost, because she can eat anything. She states, “Big eaters win” (90). This reflects the value placed on eating in Chinese society: those who can eat an obscure variety of foods are seen as strong and admirable, capable of overcoming the evil spirits known as ghosts. These stories give the readers insight into Chinese culture by painting an image of the life of narrator’s mother and therefore making it easier to envision Chinese practices and ideals.
Not only are ghosts presented in the story of the past, but they also play a role in the narrator’s modern life. The narrator recalls, “Once upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly breathe; I could hardly walk, limping my way around the white ghosts and their cars” (97). In this statement, the narrator is referring to White Americans as ghosts. She is characterizing them in this negative light because they are foreigners who discriminate against Chinese immigrants. She is implying that these ghosts were everywhere during her childhood; they were unavoidable. Her diction makes the reader feel as if the ghosts are restricting her from reaching her full potential. The use of the word “limping” suggests that the narrator was forced to live her childhood in the shadows of these white ghosts. While growing up, she continued to try her best to please her parents, but had to do so with discrimination from Americans. This idea is backed up by historical context, for example, the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese from immigrating to America.
While the narrator struggles with injustice from Americans, she also has to deal with the burden of rigid Chinese ideals. She describes the situation of her childhood household, “I could feel that clamping down and see how my mother had pulled the blinds down so low that the bare rollers were showing. No passer-by would detect a daughter in this house” (101). This statement reflects the concept that most Chinese felt ashamed to have daughters. The narrator uses descriptive language to show the intensity of her mother’s shame. She pulls the blinds as far down as possible to hide the fact that she has a daughter. Although girls were often looked down upon in Chinese society, women were responsible for many important roles. The narrator’s mother explains, “I shouldn’t have left, but your father couldn’t have supported you without me. I’m the one with the big muscles” (104). This quote is representative of similar ideas presented in A Raisin in the Sun, ideas that women are inferior to men even though they are just as hard working. This unjust viewpoint is present across cultures: it is held in both Chinese and American cultures. However, at the time the narrator is speaking, women’s’ rights were more widely accepted in America. This allows for another conflicting value between Chinese and American cultures for the narrator. The two cultures contrast and make it difficult for the narrator to establish her own identity.
- Do you feel that there are any specific stories shared that have a significant impact on the narrator’s life? If so, which one(s) and why/how?
- What literary elements does the narrator use in describing the “ghosts” and how does this use reflect her viewpoint of Americans?
- How do some of the values introduced in The Woman Warrior relate to values presented in A Raisin in the Sun? (For example: treatment of girls/women). In both works, how do these values shape or inhibit the identities of the main characters?