In many ways, The Woman Warrior can best be understood in its historical context, particularly by three political incidents that occurred in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: the Chinese May Fourth Movement of 1919, the 1949 Communist takeover of China, and the Chinese Exclusion Act passed by the United States Congress in 1882. Although Kingston never directly discusses the May Fourth Movement or the Chinese Exclusion Act, and only indirectly the fallout from the Communists' assuming power in China, to a large degree the events in The Woman Warrior are influenced by these three historical circumstances.
Historians often mark the beginning of modern China and its literature with the May Fourth Movement of 1919. Originally a demonstration against Japanese expansionism into China, the protest rapidly coalesced into a political, social, and cultural movement that gave birth to China's Communist Party. On May 4, 1919, several thousand Chinese students gathered in Beijing's Tiananmen Square — the same square made famous in the West for the Chinese government-sanctioned 1989 student massacre — to protest the decision by the victorious allies of World War I to cede Chinese territory to Japan. In the nineteenth century, Germany had won small territorial concessions from a weak China. Because Japan sided with the Western alliance against Germany in World War I, the Allies at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference decided to give German-held territory in Shantung Province to Japan. When Chinese laborers, merchants, and others began supporting the student protest, the movement grew into a national crisis. The six-week standoff between the students and the Chinese government forced the Chinese delegation at the Versailles Peace Conference to reject the peace treaty.
The May Fourth Movement revolutionaries sought to replace China's heavy dependence on traditionalism with Western rationalism, democracy, and individualism. One of the cultural changes demanded by the activists, and one that has great consequences for modern Chinese literature, was the abandonment of classical Chinese, a language written but no longer spoken, in favor of a vernacular modern Chinese. The intellectuals wanted to adopt a written Chinese that was closer to colloquial Chinese, known as baihua. In support of this change, modern Chinese writers began adopting Western literary genres, including the novel, dramatic play, and short story. Writing for and about the general population, they created a new literary tradition using the spoken colloquial language, devoid of the sterile and overly stylized writing of ancient Chinese. Prominent in many of these new works are narratives using a first-person point of view, as well as themes of individualism and psychological self-examination.
This new literary and cultural movement influenced the attitudes of a new generation of Chinese. Because one of the cultural changes that the student demonstrators demanded was the education of women, in The Woman Warrior, Brave Orchid's decision to pursue a medical education must be understood in the context of the May Fourth Movement. Activists for educational change had been promoting universal education in China since the late-nineteenth century, but many women remained uneducated even after 1919. Brave Orchid, who in 1934 graduated from medical college at the age of thirty-seven, is thus somewhat of a late beneficiary of this progressive change. Kingston recognizes the sacrifices that Brave Orchid made in first obtaining a medical education and then abandoning her career to join her husband in America. Simultaneously, however, Kingston is pained and marginalized by the traditional upbringing she experienced. Despite Brave Orchid's progressive education, in many ways Kingston's mother still remained a traditionalist.
The May Fourth Movement of 1919 also gave birth to the Chinese Communist Party. The Communists, who formally took over China in 1949 after a long armed struggle, soon began a program of purging landowners, whom they disparagingly labeled as capitalists, as well as anyone associated with the previous nationalist regime. Under communism, farmland was seized and redistributed among peasants, who spoke out against their former landlords and thereby were responsible for the Communist government's massacring anywhere from fifty thousand to several million former landowners.
Although Kingston discusses only briefly how the 1949 Communist takeover affected her relatives still living in China, the political problems these Chinese family members experienced certainly occurred during the period immediately following the governmental change of power. For example, in "White Tigers," Kingston recounts how in 1949, when she was nine years old, her parents received letters mailed from China that reported that Kingston's uncles "were made to kneel on broken glass during their trials and had confessed to being landowners." As such, they were executed. More gruesome is Kingston's account of the aunt "whose thumbs were twisted off." And the senseless killings of Kingston's relatives during the Communists' purge of landlords is best seen in the story of the uncle who is inhumanely slaughtered for "selfishly" capturing two doves to feed his family. Without allowing the man to defend his actions, the Communists trap him in a tree and then shoot him to death, "leaving his body in the tree as an example" to others.
A third political event that shapes Kingston's The Woman Warrior is the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was later followed by other anti-Chinese immigration laws in 1888, 1892, and 1924, all of which were passed into law by United States congresses intent on severely limiting the number of Chinese immigrants allowed into the country. In the nineteenth century, during the declining years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), China experienced great famines, internal uprisings, and wars against Western powers. During this tumultuous period, many Chinese came to America to find work; they participated in the California gold rush and worked on the transcontinental railroad. Like European immigrants, the Chinese considered America, which they colloquially termed "Gold Mountain," a land of opportunities.
In the 1870s and 1880s, however, many Americans resented the presence of these Chinese immigrants, whom they saw as cheap labor and, therefore, an economic threat. These protectionist Americans pressured Congress to pass the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which specifically restricted most Chinese from entering the United States and prevented those who were already in the country from gaining citizenship. To discourage the Chinese men who were already in the country from settling down and forming families, the act also barred Chinese women from entering the United States. In addition, anti-miscegenation laws prevented Chinese men from marrying non-Chinese women. As a result of these exclusionary laws, many Chinese who came to the United States in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries did so illegally. As illegal aliens, they lived underground lives, used fake identification papers, never mentioned their immigration status to non-Chinese people, and always avoided immigration authorities and the police. The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943.
In The Woman Warrior, although Kingston does not elaborate how her parents arrived in the United States, at least one of them must have arrived illegally. In China Men, the companion volume to The Woman Warrior, Kingston describes how her father used fake identification papers to gain entry into America and then, fifteen years later, sent for his wife from China. And in The Woman Warrior's last chapter, "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," in which Kingston discusses her childhood memories of talking about illegal stowaways arriving in San Francisco's Chinatown, Brave Orchid warns her daughter never to mention her parents' immigration status to anyone, lest they be deported. Not surprising, such a life of existing outside of mainstream America deeply affected Kingston and many Chinese immigrant families, whose enforced silence protected parents from being deported but psychologically and emotionally confused the children trying to assimilate into a new, foreign culture.