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Free Study Guide: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

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The plot of these memoirs is very difficult to simplify because each section acts as a separate story, and the links between them are oblique and subtle. Each section has its own plot. The first section, "No Name Woman," tells the story of Kingston's aunt on her father's side, who becomes pregnant by a man who is not her husband. The villagers in China are horrified at her behavior and raid her family's home and farm. She gives birth to her child alone and then commits suicide and infanticide. Kingston retells this story as a means to vindicate her aunt from the censure of the villagers and to provide cultural and historical context for her actions so that she can be understood and sympathized with.

The second section, "White Tigers,” tells the story of the woman warrior, a folk hero about whom Kingston has heard since childhood. The woman warrior was provided as an alternative role for Kingston from the other two roles allotted to women -- that of wife or slave. The woman warrior is trained by two caring old people from the time she is a girl of seven through the age of twenty-two. She learns fighting and running skills from all the animals. When she finishes her training, she returns to her village and takes her father's place in battle. She becomes a famous and beloved leader of an army, meets her husband to whom her parents married her by proxy while she was away, and has a son. She participates in a peasant rebellion, which overthrows the emperor, returns home and decapitates the greedy baron of her village, and settles into a life of honor with her family. Kingston tells the story of the woman warrior as a contrast to her own American life, where she has no political voice in fighting racism and oppression.

The third section, "Shaman," describes Kingston's mother's life as a doctor in China. Brave Orchid is married to a man who migrates to the United States and cannot send for her for years. She lives with her tyrannical mother-in-law until she goes to medical school and studies to be a doctor. While at school, she fights a Sitting Ghost and impresses all her fellow students with her bravery. Then she travels back to her home village and practices medicine. Her own villagers and the people of surrounding villages treat her with great respect. She only treats ill people who are not dying, for she does not want to get the reputation of being a failure. Kingston ends the section by describing a recent visit to her mother in which her mother complains about how hard she works in the tomato fields and about her daughter’s long absences from home. Kingston cannot go home often, because she becomes sick with anxiety every time she visits. Her mother finally grants her the space to stay away.

Section four, "At the Western Palace," has Brave Orchid sending to Hong Kong for her younger sister, Moon Orchid, in order to reunite her with her husband, who has been away from her in the United States for thirty-six years. During the separation, Moon Orchid has lived a sheltered life in Hong Kong, raising her daughter and receiving monthly checks from her husband, who refuses to send for her. Brave Orchid tries to toughen her sister up by teaching her to work and persuading her to confront her husband, but Moon Orchid is hopelessly inept as a worker and fears standing up to her husband. Brave Orchid takes Moon Orchid to her husband's office building in Los Angeles, where he is a brain surgeon, and arranges a confrontation. The husband has totally assimilated into the American culture and cannot connect with Moon Orchid. Moon Orchid becomes very distraught. She stays with her daughter, now living in Los Angeles, but soon manifests paranoid delusions about being spied upon by Mexican Ghosts. Brave Orchid tries to heal her, but realizes her sister is beyond help. Moon Orchid spends her last months in a mental asylum where she dies happily.

The last section, "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," describes Kingston's desire to find her voice. Her mother cut the frenum of her tongue when she was an infant, presumably in order to keep her from being “tongue-tied” and to help her speak two languages, but Kingston finds this disturbing and ineffectual. She describes a painful childhood learning English in an indifferent school system where her language learning difficulties and cultural conflicts were treated with scorn. She remembers a totally silent schoolgirl whom she one day tortured in the girls' bathroom in an attempt to make her talk. After this event, Kingston gets a mysterious illness, which keeps her in bed for eighteen months. Kingston saves up a list of more than two hundred complaints and confessions to tell her mother. She confronts her mother, and tells her she fears being sold into slavery as her mother's China stories have led her to believe. She also refuses to be treated as a second-class citizen, and confesses that she is smart according to her American teachers. She leaves home to escape from the anxiety she feels with her mother and her cultural heritage; but she returns later with an understanding of her mother and an appreciation for her storytelling power. She ends the book on two stories, one is her mother's and the other is hers. Her mother's story is about her grandmother who loved operas so much she made her family brave bandits to attend. Her story is about an ancient Chinese poet named Ts'ai Yen who was kidnapped by barbarians and kept for twelve years during which time she had two children and learned to respect the music of the barbarians. When she returned from captivity, she produced poetry that combined barbarian language and Chinese language.

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