Summary and Analysis No Name Woman


Maxine Hong Kingston begins her search for a personal identity with the story of an aunt, to whom this first chapter's title refers. Ironically, the first thing we read is Kingston's mother's warning Kingston, "You must not tell anyone . . . what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born." Of course, keeping silent is exactly what Kingston is not doing. Because she is most concerned with exploring how her Chinese cultural history can be reconciled with her emerging sense of herself as an American, Kingston must uncover just what this Chinese cultural history is, and one way of doing so is by listening to, and then altering, her mother's stories about the family's Chinese past.

Throughout The Woman Warrior, Kingston will refer to her mother's historical tales as "talk-stories," culturally based, primarily oral stories whose general purpose is didactic. For example, here in "No Name Woman," Kingston says of her mother, who, we later learn, is named Brave Orchid, "Whenever she had to warn us about life, my mother told stories that ran like this one [about No Name Woman], a story to grow up on. She tested our strength to establish realities." Similar to a folktale, a talk-story often involves the fantastic and fuses realistic events with magical qualities. Because of this realistic-magical aspect, a talk-story can be as confusing to its audience — Kingston and her readers — as it can be inspiring.

Brave Orchid's story of No Name Woman provides one valuable inroad into Kingston's discovering her cultural history. Brave Orchid relates how on the night when Kingston's aunt gave birth to an illegitimate child, the people of the Chinese village in which the aunt and her family lived ransacked the family's house, killed all of their livestock, and destroyed their crops. Shunned by her family, the aunt gave birth in a pigsty, alone. The next morning, Brave Orchid went to gather water from the family's well, where she discovered that No Name Woman had committed suicide by throwing herself and her child down into the well.

Explaining that the aunt had become pregnant by a man whose identity the aunt never disclosed, Brave Orchid also relates that at the time — 1924 — the aunt's husband was working in America. Due to failing crops and a poor domestic economy, many of the men from the ancestral village in China were forced to leave their farms to seek work, traveling as far as America, which the Chinese nicknamed "Gold Mountain" because the original Chinese immigrants initially perceived it as a bountiful land where a good living could be made working in the gold-mining industry.

Brave Orchid's story about Kingston's aunt is a cautionary tale meant to discourage the young Kingston from engaging in premarital sex; hopefully, the fear of humiliation, ostracism, and death will serve sufficiently as a deterrent for sexual promiscuity. Brave Orchid explains to her daughter about the aunt, "Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don't humiliate us. . . . The villagers are watchful." Here, Brave Orchid's phrase "The villagers are watchful" transcends time and geography: No Name Woman severely crippled her family's social standing in the Chinese village; similarly, Brave Orchid warns her daughter not to embarrass her family, which was among many others that emigrated from their village in China and settled in Stockton, California. Kingston notes of her mother, "Whenever she had to warn us about life, my mother told stories that ran like this one, a story to grow up on." Brave Orchid uses the "talk-story" of No Name Woman to pass on codes of proper conduct and values to her daughter.

Kingston, however, does not fully understand the story's importance when she first hears it. Because she is confused by its many details, she rewrites Brave Orchid's original tale, creating the impetus for why No Name Woman acts as she does in Brave Orchid's version. Kingston knows that her mother is concerned that she not have premarital sex because her mother directly states that that is the reason for telling the story. But what Kingston does not know, at least not until the memoir's final chapter, is that her mother hopes to strengthen her daughter emotionally and psychologically by giving her a sense of who she is and where she came from. In "No Name Woman," Kingston writes, "Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhood fits into solid America." China is "invisible," an intangible place that Kingston only hears about; America is "solid," not only because she physically lives in it, but because she interacts daily with other Americans and necessarily wants to fit in. How to reconcile this conflict between these two disparate cultures becomes her thesis, the problem she attempts — and ultimately succeeds — to solve.

The young Kingston has difficulty making sense of her mother's story and fails to receive direct, unambiguous responses to her questions and concerns. Her struggle to understand how knowing the history of her aunt who committed suicide will help her conduct herself properly — according to her mother's traditional Chinese code of beliefs — is reflected in the questions she asks directly to Chinese Americans: "Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?" How, Kingston asks, can she decipher what is real and what is fiction in her mother's stories when her mother herself will not tell her? The larger issue, then, becomes how Kingston will integrate such talk-stories into her own personal life as she grows from childhood to womanhood, and just how relevant these tales of life in China are to a first-generation Chinese American with Chinese-born parents. To her American sensibilities, the stories are confusing because they are based on a Chinese context.

Because her mother's messages are difficult to adopt or apply to her immediate American reality, Kingston, after relating Brave Orchid's telling of No Name Woman's story, rewrites the tale from her own American perspective. She uses her own style of "talk-story" to guess the reasons for her aunt's actions. Ironically, although at the time she probably would not have recognized it, nor perhaps have wanted to, Kingston's rewriting her mother's talk-story as her own indicates an important element in her reconciling her Chinese past and her American present: She learns to talk-story by having listened to her mother. In this way, a continuity is established between her mother, who represents the cultural traditions of China, and herself as a first-generation Chinese American. Kingston will finally acknowledge this succession of generations when, at the end of "Shaman," she compares herself favorably to her mother and proudly recognizes their many similarities: "I am really a Dragon, as she is a Dragon, both of us born in dragon years. I am practically a first daughter of a first daughter."

Kingston rewrites No Name Woman's story based on her own understanding of the patriarchal nature of traditional Chinese society, in which women were conditioned to do as they were told, without question. Because of the close-knit community in which No Name Woman lived, Kingston contends that her aunt's sexual partner "was not a stranger because the village housed no strangers." Ironically, Kingston reasons, the same patriarchal society that subjugated women to subservient roles bears responsibility for No Name Woman's adultery. Because No Name Woman was conditioned to do everything that she was ordered to do, she was unable to gather the personal strength necessary to repel the man's sexual advances. This inability emphasizes what Kingston argues is the great disparity between how women and men were supposed to act: "Women in the old China did not choose. Some man had commanded her to lie with him and be his secret evil. . . . She obeyed him; she always did as she was told." Even more damning of this double standard in "old China" is Kingston's assertion that this man who basically raped No Name Woman was the same villager who organized the raid against No Name Woman's family. Kingston's version of Brave Orchid's original talk-story emphasizes how a dutifully submissive woman is victimized by a man's abusive manipulation of a gender-based social code.

Kingston also exposes the unfair discrimination against women in traditional Chinese society when she discusses how sons are celebrated more than daughters. She imagines that her aunt's illegitimate child must have been a girl: "It was probably a girl; there is some hope of forgiveness for boys." Only a mad person, as her grandfather is described to have been, would prefer a female child over a male. Sons were venerated because they could pass on the family name, thereby ensuring a family's stability and longevity; in contrast, daughters, who were given away by their parents at marriage, primarily functioned only as bearers of sons for their husbands' families. Such was the traditional code and operation of a patrilineal society that enforced its patriarchal ideology by imposing restrictions on women's positions and conduct. Improper actions, such as No Name Woman's, were considered a breach of this code and could lead to severe consequences, including death. Because Kingston's aunt had an adulterous affair and, even worse, probably produced a female child from the sexual union, she threatened what Kingston terms the "roundness" — the harmony and the wholeness — of her family and the larger community. This prized circularity was so enmeshed in everyday life — symbolically, in "the round moon cakes and round doorways, the round tables of graduated sizes that fit one roundness inside another, round windows and rice bowls" — that the slightest ripple, the tiniest threat, to social stability was believed by the villagers to be an outright attack on an entire way of life and therefore must be completely annihilated.

No Name Woman is attacked because her action — adultery, confirmed by pregnancy — threatens socially accepted behavior tacitly enforced through centuries of tradition. "In the village structure," Kingston notes, "spirits shimmered among the live creatures, balanced and held in equilibrium by time and land." When No Name Woman's family banishes her from the family, she runs out into the fields surrounding the house and falls to the ground, "her own land no more." Her family no longer considers her among the "live creatures, balanced and held in equilibrium by time and land." What these shimmering "spirits" are is not entirely clear, but their presence implies that both the living and the nonliving actively and forcefully protect the many traditions that stabilize the society. In No Name Woman's case, her illegitimate child violates the immense value placed on a traditional family and is, for the family, another mouth to feed. Ironically, the aunt's and her child's fates are almost whimsically determined by the time in which this story takes place; Kingston surmises, "If my aunt had betrayed the family at a time of large grain yields and peace, when many boys were born, and wings were being built on many houses, perhaps she might have escaped such severe punishment. . . . Adultery, perhaps only a mistake during the good times, became a crime when the village needed food." Remember, too, that we are told that the aunt had returned from her husband's family to live with her own. Perhaps she was thrown out because she was another mouth to feed during her husband's absence.

No Name Woman's family is implicated in her "crime" and therefore must suffer the ransacking of their house. According to Chinese custom, because the family was responsible for the daughter's wrongdoing, they should have prevented the adultery in the first place. Kingston's aunt is doubly punished by witnessing her family's being made to suffer. The family knows and must accept that it will be attacked for No Name Woman's transgression of the community's social code of how women should behave, which explains its reported passivity and resignation to the ransacking.

Kingston speculates further that her aunt may have taken some pride in her personal appearance and expressed her individuality. Any such display would have been a contravention to the established proper conduct in which young men and women learned to "efface their sexual color and present plain miens." Perhaps the aunt was seeking some affection or even romance: "She dreamed of a lover for the fifteen days of New Year's. . . . And sure enough she cursed the year, the family, the village, and herself." Traditionally, the Chinese New Year is a fifteen-day celebration beginning either in late January or early February. Because people's actions, activities, and practices during the celebration set the pattern for the entire new year, the new year must begin auspiciously.

Kingston wants to believe that her aunt had at least some positive control of her own destination rather than being merely a victim. In this less feasible scenario that Kingston feels it necessary to create, her aunt is more than just a victim who is married to a stranger, estranged immediately, raped, then ostracized by her family and community, and finally left with no choice but to commit suicide. Unfortunately, though, Kingston must acknowledge that the aunt killed both herself and her newborn baby, which leaves us very little room to doubt the horrific events contained in Brave Orchid's telling of No Name Woman's story. However, Kingston would like to think — perhaps she finds it emotionally necessary to believe — that Brave Orchid fabricated many of the story's details according to the emphasis that she intended to impress on Kingston.

Although Kingston tries to make sense of what her mother tells her, she remains unsure about the reliability of the facts surrounding her aunt's suicide, as are we. The confusion and ambivalence she feels as the author, who was once the listener, parallel ours. Her mother talked-story orally; she talks-story in print. Brave Orchid may have believed that the story would prevent her daughter from having sexual relations outside marriage and thereby bringing shame upon the family, but the daughter interprets the story according to values she can relate to, namely individualism and a strong, nurturing sense of womanhood.

One of the ways that this individualism and womanhood are defined is through language, or, at least for No Name Woman, the lack of it. Overall in the memoir, there is a movement from silence in the first line of the first chapter — "You must not tell anyone" — to language in the last line of the last chapter — "It translated well." For Kingston, silence — the absence of language — equals voicelessness, which in turn means the loss of identity as a woman, a Chinese American, an adult, all of which are what she is trying to find. However, she is very aware of the emotional risks she is taking by asserting her independence from her own Chinese community. When her aunt violated her community's standards of acceptable behavior, "the villagers punished her for acting as if she could have a private life, secret and apart from them."

Silence both begins and ends "No Name Woman," which balances Kingston's mother's opening sentence with Kingston's own thoughts about how fearfully powerful silence can be: "The Chinese are always very frightened of the drowned one, whose weeping ghost, wet hair hanging and skin bloated, waits silently by the water to pull down a substitute." Here, Kingston fears for herself: If she remains silent and fails to find her own personal voice, she risks becoming a "substitute" for her aunt, who remained silent her entire life. Unwittingly — perhaps — Kingston's mother increases her daughter's anxiety when she admonishes her never to repeat No Name Woman's story: "Don't tell anyone you had an aunt."

But telling everyone that she had an aunt is exactly what Kingston does, and for a very complex reason. If Kingston's purpose in writing The Woman Warrior is to solidify her identity as a female Chinese American, then for her to remain silent about her aunt is tantamount to her rejecting her own sense of self. She cannot deny a voice for her aunt — "my aunt, my forerunner" — without denying one for herself, which is why she reinterprets Brave Orchid's talk-story by creating a more individualized life for her aunt, who, she imagines, used a "secret voice, a separate attentiveness," much like she herself does throughout the memoir. "Unless I see her life branching into mine," Kingston writes of No Name Woman, "she gives me no ancestral help."

As with all of the female protagonists in her mother's talk-stories, Kingston's reworking of the No Name Woman tale emphasizes the similarities between her aunt and herself. For example, describing how her aunt "combed individuality" into her hair, Kingston imagines that first she "brushed her hair back from her forehead," then "looped a piece of thread, knotted into a circle between her index fingers and thumbs," around any loose hairs across her front hairline, and finally "pulled the thread away from her skin, ripping the hairs out neatly." Significantly, Kingston then writes, "My mother did the same to me and my sisters and herself," which draws a parallel between her aunt and herself. Even more important in this ritual of how No Name Woman pulls out any loose hairs is the complex knot that she uses, which Kingston describes as "a pair of shadow geese biting." The making of this complicated knot foreshadows the last chapter, "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," in which Kingston relates the story of ancient Chinese knot-makers, who tied string into intricate designs, one of which was so complicated that it blinded the knot-maker. "If I had lived in China," Kingston speculates, "I would have been an outlaw knot-maker," which is an indirect reference to No Name Woman.

Although Kingston honors her aunt by retelling No Name Woman's story in The Woman Warrior, she blames herself for having kept silent about this woman for more than twenty years. She writes, "But there is more to this silence: they want me to participate in her punishment. And I have." Here, the short sentence "And I have" emphasizes the guilt Kingston still feels for having neglected No Name Woman's memory for as long as she has. Having told a family secret, she fears recrimination from her parents and, ironically, worries that her aunt haunts her because she is displeased that Kingston has revealed her story. "I do not think she always means me well," Kingston writes about her aunt. "I am telling on her, and she was a spite suicide, drowning herself in the drinking water." However, Kingston also reveals that it was necessary, both for her own sense of self and to honor her aunt's memory, to countermand Brave Orchid's wish that she keep No Name Woman's story a secret: "The [aunt's] real punishment was not the raid swiftly inflicted by the villagers, but the family's deliberately forgetting her. Her betrayal so maddened them, they saw to it that she would suffer forever, even after death." Although Kingston never learns what her aunt's real name is, she alleviates her ancestor's long suffering by giving her the only name she can: No Name Woman.


contracts labor contracts, specifying the length and wages of work; by 1924, when Kingston's male relatives left China to work in other countries, the United States had severely limited the number of male Chinese emigrants allowed into the country. Only men who met a strict set of criteria were allowed to enter, but their wives, sons, and daughters were not allowed to come with them.

Bali an Indonesian island, approximately 1500 miles southeast of Vietnam, and directly east of Java; during the early-twentieth century, Chinese emigrants on Bali probably worked mainly for Dutch-owned private plantations.

bunds here, low walls of dirt, used to enclose water in which rice is grown.

loom a hand-operated apparatus used to weave cloth.

earthenware jugs containers made from either clay or heavy soil; once the material is sculpted into form, the container is cooked over flames and then set to cool.

acrid foul-smelling.

birth in the pigsty Giving birth in a pigsty reflects the superstitious belief that if a mother gives birth in a house and is proud of her baby, evil or envious gods might take the child from its mother; frequently, newborn babies were called pigs to trick the gods into thinking that the babies were ugly or deformed and, therefore, not worth stealing.

Oh, You Beautiful Doll a 1949 musical film about a songwriter who whimsically rewrites a serious composer's songs as popular tunes; Betty Grable did not appear in the film as Kingston suggests.

Betty Grable (1916-73) An American actress and film star, she was the most popular pin-up girl of World War II; she costarred with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in The Gay Divorcee (1934) and later appeared in such films as The Pin-up Girl (1944) and Moon Over Miami (1941).

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon Directed by the legendary John Ford, this 1949 Western film starred John Wayne in one of his greatest performances, as a cavalry commander who delays his retirement because of an impending war with Apaches.

John Wayne (1907-79) American actor known for his ruggedness as a self-styled individualist in Western films.

gizzard lining refers to the thickly lined gizzard, found mainly in birds; located directly behind the stomach, the gizzard holds ingested gravel or some other grit-like material that birds must use to digest their food.

prodigal wastefully extravagant.

tractably easily led; malleable.

proxy a stand-in, or substitute; although the rooster that No Name Woman's soon-to-be-husband sends to her is intended to be a goodwill gesture, that he sends a rooster rather than meeting her himself indicates traditional China's low regard for women.

commensal tradition a way of life in which one group of people gain something from another, unaffected group of people; Kingston condemns how Chinese families punish wrongdoers by treating the offenders as pariahs, forced to eat leftovers at an "outcast table."

samurais Ancient Japanese warriors, the samurais originated in eleventh-century Japan to enforce the laws of the imperial government, whose power was waning; their cultural dominance ended around 1700.

geishas a Japanese class of indentured women who entertain men; usually, a young girl is sold by her parents to a geisha organization, which then trains her in the duties of being a geisha.

synonym two words that have the same, or similar, meaning; Kingston writes that in China, marriage is synonymous to "taking a daughter-in-law" because after the wedding, the husband and wife live with his family, never with hers.

blunt-cut to cut hair to an even, sharply defined length around the entire head; the term "blunt-cut" implies a woman's de-feminizing her appearance.

bob a short-clipped haircut.

shadow geese refers to the art of contorting the hands to form different shapes, usually animals, which appear as shadows on a wall or other flat surfaces when the hands are illuminated from behind.

depilatory hair-removing.

to have our feet bound Beginning during the T'ang dynasty (618-906), feet-binding was an accepted cultural practice in which a female's feet were severely constricted to retard normal growth. Parents wrapped their daughters' feet with toes extended downward, stretching the instep and inhibiting the shaping of the arch. Although feet-binding was a socially elite practice that signaled a man's wealth and social position because he could afford for his wives and daughters not to work, the female's feet would become so deformed that the woman no longer could walk without being physically supported by servants. This inhumane custom ended in 1911, when the dynastic form of government was replaced with a republic.

almanac typically, an annual reference book used to predict the future; predictions are based on the positions and movements of the stars.

peroxide a chemical solution used as a disinfectant to kill germs.

whorls spirals; Kingston compares women who carried many objects on their backs to snails' coiled shells.

greatcoat an overcoat.

efface to erase or eliminate.

miens appearances.

pigeon-toed feet turned inward, in the shape of an inverted "V."

incest sex between blood-related kin.

atavism characteristics that reappear over time; Kingston likens herself to her aunt, No Name Woman: Both women share "an atavism deeper than fear," an unnamable anxiety about relationships with men.

brides' prices payments made to brides' families by grooms, as a gesture that brides will be treated well by their husbands.

dowries any material wealth that brides bring to their husbands at marriage.

maelstrom an incredibly violent and threatening storm, or situation.

moon cakes round pastries eaten during full moon of the eighth month of the lunar year.

talismans objects believed to hold magical powers; for example, a person who carries a rabbit's foot will be lucky.

fatalism a belief system whose adherents believe that all events are predetermined; a person cannot make personal choices because freewill does not exist.

culpability deserving of blame; guiltiness.

gall generally, resentment, or bitterness; because No Name Woman unknowingly goes into labor immediately after her family disowns her and kicks her out of the house, she fears that the pain racking her body is physically caused by her family's throwing her out.

agoraphobia a fear of open spaces or public places.

flayed here, stripped of all protective emotions; left completely vulnerable.

spirit money fake money that a deceased person's relatives burn to bribe the gods not to harass the deceased person's spirit.

incense here, a pleasant odor.

Chairman Mao Mao Zedong (1893-1976), founder of the Chinese Communist Party (1921), and the first chairman (1949-1959) of the People's Republic of China; even after his retirement as chairman, he retained control of the Chinese Communist Party, which in turn controlled the country.

origamied from the Japanese art of origami, which entails folding paper into different shapes without cutting or using adhesives.

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