Maxine Hong Kingston, an eminent memoirist and a celebrated Chinese-American autobiographer, is best known for The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976) and its companion volume, China Men (1980). The Woman Warrior won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976 for non-fiction, and China Men was awarded the 1980 American Book Award. Kingston's unusual blend of fantasy, autobiography, and Chinese folklore makes her works highly personal and unconventional. The Woman Warrior and China Men are heavily influenced by many related sources, particularly her mother's childhood stories of China, her own experiences as a first-generation Chinese American, the less-than-favorable treatment of her ancestors who immigrated to America, and the racism and denigration of women that she encountered growing up in post-World War II California.
Maxine Ting Ting Hong was born on October 27, 1940, in Stockton, California, which had been a major supply center during the California gold-rush era of the mid-nineteenth century. A year earlier, in 1939, her mother, Ying Lan Hong, had arrived from China at Ellis Island, New York, to join her husband, Tom, who had emigrated from China to the United States fifteen years earlier. Named for a blond female gambler whom her father had met while working in a gambling establishment in California, Maxine, the first of six American-born children in the family, grew up in Stockton's Chinatown, where her parents owned a laundry business. She never felt that her parents encouraged her to do well in her academic studies, in part because in their conservative Chinese culture, women often are not expected to have careers outside of the home. Her negative childhood experiences are reflected in The Woman Warrior, in which she exhibits a certain bitterness leveled at her parents, as well as at American and Chinese cultures.
After having excelled in her high-school studies, Hong won eleven scholarships that allowed her to attend the University of California at Berkeley, from which she graduated in 1962. That same year, she married Earll Kingston, an actor. Two years later, she returned to Berkeley to pursue a teaching certificate, which she received in 1965. For the next two years, she taught English and mathematics in Hayward, California, and then in 1967, she, her husband, and their son, Joseph, moved to the island of Hawaii, where her great-grandfathers first had worked when they immigrated to America. In China Men, Kingston describes the experiences of her forefathers working on the rough plantations of Hawaii, which they called Sandalwood Mountain.
In Hawaii, Kingston taught English at the state university and at Mid-Pacific Institute, a private school; in her spare time, she wrote. When The Woman Warrior was published in 1976 and became an immediate and unqualified success, she retired from teaching and devoted her energies to writing. China Men, which relates the ordeals of the male members of Kingston's family in America, appeared in 1980, followed by Hawaii One Summer (1987), a collection of twelve prose selections. In 1989, she published Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, her first traditionally structured novel, in which she tells the fictitious story of Whitman Ah Sing, a Chinese American living in Berkeley, California, during the counter-culture 1960s, with its hippies, tie-dyed tee-shirts, and drug addiction. The energetic adventures of Whitman Ah Sing, whose name evokes images of the American poet Walt Whitman and his refrain phrase "I sing" — "Ah Sing" — reveal the protagonist's unease about his role and future in America.
Kingston is a frequent commentator and guest speaker at academic conferences and cultural events across the country, and she has often found it necessary to write articles defending The Woman Warrior, explaining herself and rebutting some critics who feel that the famous autobiography focuses too much on exotic Chinese history and not enough on the day-to-day racism that Chinese Americans face in American society. To these charges, Kingston responds that she is not trying to represent Chinese culture; she is portraying her own experiences.