Critical Essays The Woman Warrior in the Chinese Literary Context


In The Woman Warrior, Kingston addresses many of the same themes and concerns found in modern and traditional Chinese literature. Comparing Kingston's work to other Chinese literary texts can enhance our understanding of her memoir. In addition to Ts'ai Yen, a figure from traditional Chinese literature and culture who plays a prominent — though brief — role in The Woman Warrior, issues surrounding women's roles are common themes in the literature of many major twentieth-century Chinese writers, including Shen Congwen and Ding Ling, both of whom were influenced by reading Western literature. These two Chinese authors write about the conflicts arising from modern women's determination to find fulfillment and prominent voices in a traditionally patriarchal culture. Although unlikely that Kingston, who is more comfortable with the English language than Chinese, consulted the stories written by Shen and Ding, their texts, which deal with situations and contain incidents similar to those in The Woman Warrior, lend cultural and historical credence and authenticity to many of the episodes in Kingston's memoir.

Many of the events depicted in The Woman Warrior appear in other Chinese works of literature. For example, the talk-story about No Name Woman is highly reminiscent of Shen Congwen's short story "Xiaoxiao." One of modern China's best-known male writers, Shen, who often writes about issues stemming from the clash between modern and traditional Chinese culture, wrote "Xiaoxiao" in 1929. In the short story, Xiaoxiao, although betrothed to a young boy by her family, who live in rural China, becomes pregnant by her lover, a young errant laborer. After her lover abandons her, Xiaoxiao runs away from her family to join the female students in town. For her, girls who attend school represent freedom, an entirely new and modern concept for Chinese women. However, her family catches her running away and discovers that she is pregnant. Staunch traditionalists who blindly accept patriarchal society's status quo, Xiaoxiao's family must decide between two traditional options available to disgraced families such as theirs, whose daughters break sexual taboos: either kill Xiaoxiao by drowning her, or sell her. Her uncle chooses to sell her, but no one will buy Xiaoxiao. Only after she gives birth to a boy — and not to a girl — is she somehow redeemed. "The whole family loved the baby," Shen writes. "As he was a boy, Xiaoxiao was not sold after all."

The death of Kingston's aunt, No Name Woman, supposedly occurred in the same decade in which Shen wrote "Xiaoxiao." Because the practice of killing or selling adulteresses was still common, Kingston's portrayal of No Name Woman's suicide is a believable account of what might have happened to her aunt. As in Shen's story of Xiaoxiao, Kingston emphasizes the gender-based prejudice that her aunt faced: "Mothers who love their children take them along [in death]. It was probably a girl; there is some hope of forgiveness for boys." However, what Kingston does not consider, perhaps because to do so is too emotionally charged, is that her aunt's suicide may not have been suicide at all, but may have been murder, an option that Xiaoxiao's uncle seriously weighs for his niece. No Name Woman gives birth first before committing suicide to see whether the baby is a boy or girl, for a male child could perhaps save her life. Following Kingston's deduction that the baby is likely a girl, perhaps No Name Woman, by drowning herself instead of letting a lynch mob execute her, simply fulfills the inevitable. As Kingston explains, boys are valued over girls in Chinese culture; even today in rural China, the practice of killing girls at birth is not unknown.

Another Chinese author whose literary works deal with many of the issues featured in The Woman Warrior is Ding Ling. In many of her short stories, for example, "Miss Sophie's Diary" and "When I was in Xia Village," she details the conflicts experienced by young women who try to secure personal, individual voices and freedoms in a twentieth-century China still shackled by patriarchal traditions. Ding Ling patterned these stories after the experiences of people she knew, particularly her mother, who had an unusual, non-traditional career analogous to that of Kingston's mother's. When Ding Ling's father died, her mother, who was then thirty years old, enrolled in the Provincial First Girls' Normal School to prepare for a career as a teacher. In the moving story "Mother," Ding Ling writes about her mother's courage and determination to succeed as a woman in a male-dominated society. As it was indeed rare for adult women in early-twentieth-century China to pursue professional studies, both Kingston's and Ding Ling's mothers made extraordinary career decisions. When Ding Ling's mother completed her education, she started two schools in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, and young Ding Ling began her education there.

In The Woman Warrior, Kingston repeatedly asserts the importance of education, recognizing that Chinese society, although it deems education very important, does not value educating women as much as men. To be a writer, scholar, and poet in China is to be held in high regard. Thus, the decisions of Ding Ling's and Kingston's mothers to pursue an education are even more extraordinary given societal limitations. Clearly, Kingston believes education to be liberating for women. Her own decision to become an educator and writer must be seen in this context.

Given the respect that Kingston has for educators and storytellers like herself, it is not coincidental that she ends The Woman Warrior with the true story of Ts'ai Yen, the first and greatest female poet of ancient China. Captured by the Southern Hsiung-nu in 195, Ts'ai Yen lived among her kidnappers for twelve years but could never fully assimilate into their culture. To cope with her separation from her family and village, Ts'ai Yen wrote "Eighteen Stanza for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," in which she tells of her captivity and her feelings of alienation among foreigners. Similarly, Kingston, in her memoir's last chapter, named for Ts'ai Yen's poem, strongly implies her parents' anguish living in America and, to a lesser degree, her own sense of herself as an alien among "barbarians." Brave Orchid's talk-stories are like the song that Ts'ai Yen sings, which the barbarians cannot understand: "Ts'ai Yen sang about China and her family there. Her words seemed to be Chinese, but the barbarians understood their sadness and anger." The voice that Ts'ai Yen uses is a foreign one, not fully intelligible to others; Brave Orchid's talk-stories mystify Kingston, who struggles to find a personal meaning, something useful, in them. Like both her mother and Ts'ai Yen, Kingston establishes herself as a storyteller and scholar, an act of defiance against a culture that limits women. Claiming a personal voice that is both anguished and bold, she stresses the alienation that she feels living and growing up in a foreign culture. If Kingston's childhood fantasy was to be like Fa Mu Lan, a woman warrior who saves her family from an evil baron, her adult aspiration is to be like Ts'ai Yen, a poet who exorcises her grief through art, thereby saving herself and, indirectly, her family as well.

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