The focus of Maxine Hong Kingston's autobiography The Woman Warrior is the talk-stories of females who have affected her life and identity in some way. A rich amalgam of Chinese heritage, legends and folktales, the text follows the reality of a woman's struggle for self identity in migrant America. Kingston finds stifling the stories she was told as a girl; they were responsible for her fear and insecurities. However, they also serve as inspiration for her own story telling as a creative writer.
Thus a critical reading raises the question of what these narratives actually intended to teach, and how they worked to influence identity. The stories of 'No Name' aunt, Fa Mulan, and Brave Orchid accentuate how women are constructed in male dominated societies. The gender orientated reading promoted by the narrator encourages the view that the power of tradition is responsible for women's oppression, rather than the male gender. Kingston's female characters submit to the patriarchy; even her narrator confesses to colluding with their silencing.
Kingston's American context, however, with the supreme value it places on individual choice, has allowed her to interrogate how these Chinese stories dictate female identity. According to Chinese Confucianism women must show obedience consecutively to their father, husband and sons. Their debased status is internalised by Chinese women who must sacrifice their lives in service to their community. Through the technique of rewriting them in an American manner the narrator is able to distinguish her personal identity from the cultural one the stories construct.
Kingston's mythopoeic text works to construct the author's bi- cultural identity, and she shows her independence by reading herself into existence through the traditional stories. Whilst Kingston has embraced her culture, she has forged her own identity only through their interrogation. In the opening sentence of The Woman Warrior, the narrator's mother Brave Orchid marks milestones with her 'talk stories. ' For example, when Kingston begins to menstruate, Brave Orchid informs her of the story of her Chinese aunt as a precaution that "what happened to her could happen to you,"(13).
A married woman, this 'No Name' aunt was ostracised and forced to commit suicide because she became pregnant whilst her husband was away. Brave orchid tells the story to 'prove' that promiscuity will be severely punished the modern western reader could interpret this as a warning against promiscuity. The horror what happened to her is emphasised to inform the narrator if women are seen to be 'promiscuous', they will be punished. The narrators mother asserts, 'you wouldn't want to be forgotten as if you had never been born,' a harsh lesson that has proved a reality for the aunt.
Kingston's father denies her, (the aunt). From this talk-story, the narrator believed that sex was 'unspeakable, and words so strong, and fathers so frail that "aunt" would do my father mysterious harm,' (22). Kingston presents the notion that patterns of behaviour are internalised, as this knowledge has manifested itself in her behaviors today. She learns the power of words and becomes a writer. The cautionary voice of her mother towards sex has meant 'imagining her (the aunt) free with sex though doesn't fit though.
I don't know any women like that, or men either,'(16). Perhaps more telling, the immense secrecy of this knowledge has imparted itself on the narrator, 'they want me to participate in her punishment and I have. ' She never asked for details about her aunt, nor referred to it again. But this would indicate that if Kingston suffered the same fate of the aunt, she too would be forced to commit suicide. In reality, modern American life has meant an alternative path may be sought, and the narrator has a choice, something denied to her aunt.
Therein lies the differentiating factor, while the narrator has allowed this story to influence her cultural identity, she has created her own personal identity, reading herself into existence through this aunt by retelling her version of the story, contrary to her mothers intention 'don't tell anyone'. She purposely presents alternative versions of what may have happened to her aunt, a passionate seductress and individualist that empower and liberate her giving immortality of sorts. In 'No Name' aunt, we see the relationship between gender, community stories and identity as something that can be negotiated.
Kingston presents the relationship as incorporating choice, that can be both influential and rejected. Kingston reads herself into existence by imparting her values about women into the story of Fa Mulan, constructing a bi cultural identity that embraces America and China. Kingston reminisces, that 'as I grew up, I had learned the chant of Fa Mulan, the girl who had taken her father's place in battle,'(25). Brave Orchid tells her daughter stories that can be empowering as they are necessary. The paradox of Fa Mulan is that her 'disguise as a male warrior when in battle is meant to illustrate the potential power'1 that Chinese women can exert.
The narrator 'learned that we failed if we grew up but wives or slaves,'(25). But it was not enough to demonstrate warrior powress, Fa Mulan's ultimate responsibility rested with her family, so 'the villagers would make a legend about my perfect filiality,'(47). It is derived from traditional Chinese Confucianism, wherein sacrifice is seen to justify the Chinese woman's secondary position in society. Kingston encourages readers to see that this legend has played a extremely influential role in shaping her perceptions of gender in society.
Indeed it is a gender orientated retelling of the myth, so that our attention is directed towards the sacrifice and responsibility that females must endure. Although the narrator has gained success in school, the ' Chinese executed women who disguised themselves as soldiers or students, no matter how bravely they fought or how high they scored,' (42). She cannot fight to avenge her village, and her powress of education is not recognised.. Hence, this hopeless inadequacy that the narrator feels manifests itself in her behaviour, ' I might as well have said, "I'm not a girl", (48).
Similarly, she justifies her existence, 'wrapping my American successes around me... I am worthy of eating the food,' (53). She rejects her female identity, for the implications and expectations this myth reveals it must entail, avenging villages, and achieving perfect filiality. But while this story has meant she still searches for the bird that led Fa Mulan to glory, the narrator 'refuses to shy my way anymore through our China Town, which tasks me with the old sayings and stories,' (53). The relationship between this story and her identity is seen in the influence it holds over her view of gender, and consequently her actions.
Her American context has led her to realise that as a woman, she is of equal worth, and inspires her to 'march to save the world,' (49). It has also served to deliver the narrators successes, in acknowledgment of her writing, which she could not have achieved in ancient China. This myth has ingrained in her identity paradoxes of both the power of women, and the necessity to prove her worth, but ultimately, she has applied the lessons of how women relate to men in a gender orientated society, to her own life.
Her context has allowed her to interrogate the compromise that Fa Mulan agreed to, becoming a warrior only to become a mother and willing servant of her family. This story is presented to serve merely as a guide for the narrators identity that can be reinterpreted, and changed. 'By talking story, Kingston, an 'outlaw knotmaker'(147), weaves the past and the present together, continuing to 'sort out what's just my childhood, just my imagination, just my family, just my village, just movies, just living. ' (183).
Her mother's achievements, explored in 'Shaman', present another paradox, which lead the narrator to represent the relationship between community stories and cultural identity as patterns of behaviour that are internalised. Brave Orchid is a contradiction of her own pronouncements that females are inherently, "bad I guess. You know how girls are," (48), in becoming a doctor who could 'cure the most spectacular diseases,' (78). In recognition of her own feminist beliefs, Kingston continues the story her mother has started of Ts'ai Yens', a poet-warrior, 'the beginning is hers, the ending, mine,' (184).
Successfully building up a 'matrilineage to counteract traditional Chinese patrialineage'2, her retelling is focused on Ts'ai Yens' recognition of the validity of barbarian culture. Had she dwelled on the sorrow the poetess' felt for this separation from her homeland, it would have read as validating the supremacy of Chinese culture over American. By concentrating on reconciliation and recognition of the nomads, the narrator suggests that the ability to live harmoniously in two cultures is possible. Thus, the narrator has finally found a voice for herself, in the power that words and song can wield.
She discovers that 'what I once had was not Chinese sight at all, but child sight that would have disappeared eventually without such a struggle,' (183). By rewriting her story, she has come to recognise that while myths were integral to her development as a child, providing a steady foundation from which to grow, she had to learn to interpret them for herself to gain a personal identity. The initial separation she had to endure from her family to gain this understanding resulted in a denial of her own rich culture. 'I had to leave home to see the world logically...
I learned to think that mysteries are for explanation. I enjoy the simplicity. ' (182) The Woman Warrior presents the relationship between gender, community stories and identity as variable, one is not dependent on the other. The narrator forms her identity through her context, time and heritage, and she shows this independence by reading herself into existence of the stories upon which she grew. Her interpretation of these talk- stories can be described as gender orientated, presenting obvious links with her own attitudes.
Hence, Kingston 'reads herself into existence', by finally imparting her own values into a story, rather than by way of analysing them afterward, and trying to figure out the traditions embedded within may fit into her own life. Her cultural identity as a Chinese American has been strongly influenced by these talk stories she grew up with. By making these stories central to the construction of her memoirs, she makes the point that they are not her identity, her American context has allowed her to interrogate them, so that they are new.