Ghost Stories: The Role of Chinese Culture and American Ideals in the Lives of Chinese-American Women

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.

Discussion Questions:

  1. 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?
  2. What literary elements does the narrator use in describing the “ghosts” and how does this use reflect her viewpoint of Americans?
  3. 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?

8 thoughts on “Ghost Stories: The Role of Chinese Culture and American Ideals in the Lives of Chinese-American Women”

  1. Emily,
    I agree with your statement about the story including a lot about ghosts. In the chapter titled, “Shaman” the scene where the ghost is on top of the mother’s chest was just one very vivid example. The Mother states “You’re wrong if you think I’m afraid of you. You’re no mystery to me. I’ve heard of you Sitting Ghosts before.” (70). This part in the story really makes you think about the ghost and emphasizes the impact it had on this woman as it does so on in the chapter.

  2. I think ties can indeed be drawn between the treatment of women within the two texts. One thing which is interesting is the comparison that can be drawn between Beneatha and the speaker. Beneatha wants to prove how she can become a doctor and she wants the family to support her and her schooling, however, everyone seems to nearly always be at her throat when the topic comes up. Similarly, when the speaker gets good grades, her mom tells her about a girl that saaves her village. this is a similar example of both attempting to show what they can do and gain support from the family, however, they both also have a clear want for something more than they have. Beneatha wants to experience the world, however, is financially unable. This is seen with her want to play the guitar, as well as various things mentioned throughout the text. When the speaker dreams of herself being met by an old couple, she imagines them telling her “[w]e can train you to become a warrior”(Kingston 20). The speaker wants to break free from her life of evading a shadow of her family and live a life like Mulan. Beneatha wants to break free from the belief that because she is a woman or black women, she cannot be successful, and the speaker wants to break free from her ghost. Both, however, struggle through breaking free.

  3. Emily,
    I think the most significant story for the narrator was the one about her aunt and how was shamed by the rest of her family. This story was so defining in her life because is changed her whole perspective on her family. “My aunt haunts me- her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her…” (Kingston 16). This story is the reason Kingston is writing this narrative.

    I can also see a very significant correlation between the women in A Raisin in the Sun and The Woman Warrior. In both stories, women are treated as lesser than men. In A Raisin in the Sun, Mama gave the money to Walter even though Bennie was a more trustworthy character. In The Woman Warrior, the narrator’s aunt was shunned from the family even though she was raped.

  4. Emily,
    I thought you did a really great job connecting all the points in the individual stories in this book together. I missed a huge part regarding the mother “eating the ghost” to defeat it. This was followed by the description of great eaters and heroes emphasizing the braveness of the girl’s mother. I really enjoyed your blog and it’s theme of connecting the points of the stories. In terms of connecting ideas, many of the messages from A Woman Warrior connect to ideas stressed in A Raisin in the Sun. Both books stress the importance of hard work. In A Woman Warrior, the value of hardwork is depicted through dialogue. In argument Aiaa has with her mother over her father working, the mother says “do you think your father wanted to stop work?… It took us seventeen years to get our customers”(104). This depicts how hard this Chinese family is willing work to make a living and survive in the US. This reminded me of A Raisin in the Sun in terms of how the family valued working for what you want. In Hansberry’s work everyone in the family pitches in even little Travis who carries bags at the grocery store for extra

  5. I agree with your statement about how the narrator uses descriptive language to show the intensity of her mother’s shame. “During the war, though, when you were born, many people gave older girls away for free. And here I was in the United States paying two hundred dollars for you”(126). I believed this statement was a very harsh thing to say to someone, especially if it is your daughter.
    One of the stories that I think had a significant impact on the narrator’s life is the story about when her mother bought a slave. She spoke about the jealousy she felt between her mother and the slave relationship. She says “I watch them with envy. My mother’s enthusiasm for me is duller than for the slave girl” (123). I think the narrator has never felt any positive emotion from her mother towards her.

  6. Emily,
    I love the fact that you were able to draw a connection between the role of women in “The Woman Warrior” and “A Raisin in the Sun”. I do feel that the women in “A Raisin in the Sun” are more outspoken than the women in “The Women Warrior” (or at least in this chapter specifically) but, just because they are not as outspoken, this does not mean that they are any less brave. Brave Orchid reminded me a bit of Beneatha, the way she has the courage to do the things that Moon Orchid only imagines. The fact that Brave Orchid encourages her sister to reclaim her family. One could say that Brave Orchid has the tendency to be brash in the way she speaks, similar to Beneatha. An example of this behavior is on page 142. Brave Orchid says “Are you ready to go see your husband and claim whats yours?” (142). Just like Beneatha, Brave Orchid refuses to sit idly by while her loved one is being taken advantage of. Did anyone else notice parallels between these two strong women?

  7. Emily, I love the connection you made between eating and strength in Chinese culture, it was something that was hard to catch the first time reading the text but the way you broke it down helped me to understand it. In relation to all the talk of ghosts in this section of the text, I would the following quote interesting “How do we know that ghosts are the continuance of dead people? Couldn’t ghosts be an entirely different species of creature. Perhaps Human beings just die, and thats the end. I don’t think Id mind that to much. Which would you rather be? A ghost who is constantly waiting to be fed? Or nothing?” (Kingston, 65-66). In this quote she related ghosts back to food, saying that they are always waiting to be fed. By what, I wonder? And they are also discussing what they think might happen in the afterlife. They are unsure. I feel that the afterlife is a very important topic to pay attention to if you have a focus on culture and storytelling.

  8. “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.”

    What literary elements does the narrator use in describing the “ghosts” and how does this use reflect her viewpoint of Americans?


    Throughout each memoir, Kingston displays, like you said, “the negative connotations that the Chinese associate with the term ghost. ” I agree that especially in “Shaman”, Kingston utilizes the term “ghost” to express her viewpoint of Americans. When she says “But America has been full of machines and ghosts- Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts, Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts,” I think she is implying that because Americans need to work tirelessly to live, they are not really living. I also think that it’s interesting that she capitalized each profession and the word “ghost” each time. I think she did that to infer that their profession is who they are rather than what they do.

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