In five chapters, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (Vintage, 1975) depicts the potential power of Chinese women, who in real life are treated as worthless entities. A culture in which raising geese is seen as more valuable than raising girls, Kingston reacts against the Chinese myths, folklore, histories, and “talk-stories” that describe women’s roles as diminished and devalued. In this memoir, her words become the sword with which she attacks a society that tells her she is valued only as a mother, a wife and a cook. And even then, women are still not valued, for they can be beaten, ignored, abandoned, and stoned to death. This memoir becomes a testament to the power of women who have warrior potential — with words and with actions. And this book becomes a symbol of Kingston’s power as a woman and a writer, giving names, histories and power to women without agency or voice.
“No Name Woman” is perhaps the most famous chapter of Kingston’s work, which categorizes the extent of an entire culture’s attitude toward a woman who commits adultery and becomes pregnant with an illegitimate child. The entire community revolts, acting against her with malice and rage. The “talk-story” that her mother tells about her aunt who has no name and who should never be mentioned is a cautionary tale, letting Kingston know that if she gets pregnant out of wedlock or commits adultery, the same thing will happen to her. She will exist without existing. She will have no name, no identity, no voice, and no family, for she will be disowned.
Although, no one knew who the father of the baby was, and no one cared, for it was her shame alone; and if this was the result of adultery or rape is irrelevant. Kingston makes it clear that in her aunt’s day a woman could not say “no” to any man; therefore, this case of adultery for which she was punished was not based on choice, but forced upon her by a man in her community. However, when the pregnancy is visible, the neighbors crash into her home, the father of the baby presumably among them, kill her livestock, smear the blood upon her walls, and revile her until she gives birth to the baby in the pigsty and then drowns them both in the well.
It is for her that Kingston begins the memoir, giving her dead aunt whose name she cannot utter, a history, a name, a purpose, an explanation, and even some power in taking her life and that of her child’s, for it is a vengeful act to drown herself and her baby, her sin, in the drinking well that eveyrone in her community shares. What was done to her was inexcusable, unthinkable, and yet everyone in the family, including Kingston’s mother, believes that it was well deserved. In this one chapter we see the lack of female power in Chinese culture, wherein women are cast into oblivion for acts that were not even in their control.
In writing this memoir, Kingston is like Fa Mu Lan, the woman warrior of China who exists only in myths. While Fa Mu Lan is trained from the age of seven to fight as a warrior, she dons the clothes of a warrior, a man, and she garners the respect of her people, even men who follow her into battle, as she avenges China and unites its people. It’s an ironic twist because in reality, women had no such power. Men, who devalued their existence, sold them as slaves, raped them, degraded them, abaondon them for new wives, and threw them into the kitchen as servants, would never follow them into battle, let alone allow them to dress up as men. And yet, this myth exists, and Kingston uses it to show how like Fa Mu Lan, she is a warrior of words, avenging the silenced voices and bound feet and controlled lives of women by giving them warrior names, assigning them warrior lives, and rewriting their denigrated histories as “talk-stories” full of female will, command, and strength that these women were denied.
Marina DelVecchio is the author of The Prostitute’s Daughter, a memoir in which she shows how she has used literature to combat a life of abuse and poverty. She blogs about female agency and the necessary empowerment of our daughters at http://marinagraphy.com. Her work can be found at the Huffington Post, The New Agenda, the WM Parenting Connection, and BlogHer. She teaches writing and literature on the college level.