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Free Study Guide: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

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CHAPTER 1: "No Name Woman"


The narrator is a girl who has just reached puberty. Her mother tells her the story of her "No Name Aunt" as a means of warning her away from premarital sex. The story is completely secret in the family. The chapter begins, "'You must not tell anyone what I am about to tell you." The voice is Kingston's mother, Brave Orchid. She first tells Kingston very briefly and crudely that the no name aunt was her father's sister who committed suicide by jumping into the family well. Brave Orchid adds that the family acts as though she had never been born.

In 1924, their native village in China had just celebrated "seventeen hurry-up weddings" between men who embarked for the United States, called "The Gold Mountain," and women of the village. The marriages took place to ensure the men's eventual return to the village. Brave Orchid, living with her husband's family as was customary for Chinese wives to do, noticed that her new sister-in-law was pregnant even though it had been years since her husband had departed the village. The family remained silent about this fact, but the people of the village had noticed it, too. One night just before the due date of the baby’s birth, the villagers wearing masks, raided the house of the no name woman as punishment. They destroyed the family's crop, slaughtered their livestock, broke their household goods, and ruined their supplies. During the raid, the family could only stand and stare in disbelief. The woman gave birth in the pigsty that same night and Brave Orchid found her sister-in-law and the baby the next day drowned in the family well.

Brave Orchid gives a warning to Kingston: “What happened to her could happen to you. Don't humiliate us. You wouldn't like to be forgotten as if you had never been born." Kingston follows her mother's story with a meditation. As a second-generation Chinese American, she is confused about fitting the stories of past Chinese generations to "solid America." She adds that the elder Chinese confuse the gods by using false names. Kingston thinks they also confuse their children who are always trying to get things straight and to name the unnamable. She says that the younger Chinese Americans that she knows hide their real names and struggle with trying to separate out what in them is Chinese and what in them is American. She admits that she also struggles with her identity.

Kingston returns to the story of her no name aunt and says that if she wants to know something more about her than what her mother has told her, she cannot ask her mother directly. Her mother is guided only by necessity and has already told Kingston all the necessary parts. She remembers that as children, whenever she and her siblings did anything fun or frivolous, they were accused of needlessly using up energy. In thinking about the no name aunt, Kingston says, "adultery is extravagance." She tries to figure out how her aunt could have been so extravagant as to have committed adultery. She adds that in the China of her aunt's time, the people wasted nothing, not even the gizzard lining of the chickens. Also at that time, women in China were considered to be a definite waste. Kingston then reasons that her aunt "could not have been the lone romantic who gave up everything for sex." She decides that her aunt must have been forced to have sex with some man, likely one of the villagers who raided her home. She imagines that the aunt had probably encountered this man while working in the fields. He had ordered her to have sex with him, and she had obeyed because she had been taught to always do as she was told.

Kingston goes back in time to when her aunt was married. On the first night she saw him, they became husband and wife and had sex; he then sailed for America. Kingston imagines that her aunt probably had forgotten even what he looked like. Next, Kingston remembers conversations between her mother and father in which they had referred to the outcast table where wrongdoers were forced to eat alone. She adds that, unlike the Japanese who let outcasts leave the family to become samurais and geishas, the Chinese made the outcasts remain in the family, ostracized for life. She guesses that her aunt must have eaten at the outcast table.

Kingston finds another question about the story. Even though wives always went to live with their husbands' families, the aunt was apparently living with her own family at the time of the raid. She wonders if the aunt had been sent back from her husband's family in disgrace. Then she remembers that her aunt was an only daughter in a family of four brothers, all of whom had traveled to the United States. Perhaps the family had sent for the daughter, but they certainly expected her to "keep the traditional ways." Kingston assumes that her aunt, her "forerunner," had let her delicate dreams grow. She imagines that her aunt perhaps found a man attractive for subtle things like the way his hair grew, and disgraced the family for such a subtle attraction. Kingston momentarily entertains the idea that perhaps her aunt could have been "a wild woman" who kept "rollicking company." She then dismisses this scenario because it does not fit with the aunt’s time.

Next, Kingston envisions her aunt working on her appearance in front of a mirror. She knows that a woman of her aunt's time would quickly gain a reputation as an eccentric if she tended to her looks. All the married women "blunt cut their hair" or wore tight buns. Kingston identifies with her aunt’s spirit and imagines that she "combed individuality into her bob." Kingston then remembers a story about her grandfather, who was no name’s father. One day he brought home a baby girl, having traded one of his sons for her. His wife had made him retrieve the son. Kingston hopes that when he had his own daughter, the no name aunt, he doted on her before her tragic end.

Kingston digresses again and thinks about the Chinese immigrants who always seem to have loud voices, "not modulated to American tones even after years away from the villages where they called their friendships out across the fields." Ironically, at the Chinese dinner table, there is quiet, for no one is allowed to talk.

Kingston then returns to the story of the aunt and definitely decides that the pregnancy is due to a rape rather than a voluntary love affair. She says the guilty man might have been someone of her own family, but even a man outside the family would have been abhorrent because "all the village were kinsmen." In a population that has only one hundred surnames, the Chinese studied birth charts to prevent incest. Because of such kinship ties, sexual advances were thought to be dangerous. Kingston says that as a girl, she used to add "brother" silently to boys' names to hex them or to make them less appealing or less scary. She adds that she had also hexed herself because she did not date while growing up. She had trouble making herself attractive to the Chinese boys in her class.

Kingston next digresses into the Chinese village structure, where "spirits shimmered among the live creatures, balanced and held in equilibrium by time and land." If one person acted outside the norm, the violence of that action "could open up a black hole, a maelstrom that pulled in the sky." Returning to the aunt’s story, Kingston realizes that the villagers were frightened by the aunt's violation of custom in getting pregnant. The raid was punishment for her acting like she could have a private life.

Kingston next imagines what it would have been like after the raid. The family cursed the aunt, calling her a ghost, claiming she had never been born. The aunt would have run out into the fields to lie down with the first pains of childbirth. She would remember that "old-fashioned women gave birth in their pigsties to fool the jealous, pain-dealing gods, who do not snatch piglets." She would then run to the pigsty before the next contraction. When the baby was born, she would touch it in the dark, feeling for fingers and toes. But the aunt realized that the child had no family and decided to take the baby with her to death.

Kingston returns to Brave Orchid's original warning. For twenty-five years, since she has heard this story, she has kept silent about it, never asking questions. She does not even know her aunt's name. She decides that the real punishment to the aunt was not the raid, but the family's deliberately forgetting her in a culture that worships heritage and ancestors. Kingston ends the chapter by admitting that her aunt still haunts her all these years. She knows that her aunt performed a ‘spite’ suicide, downing herself and her infant in the family drinking water, knowing that the drowned ghost is a fearful figure in Chinese culture. In spite of the suicide and infanticide, Kingston gives the no name aunt the history that she deserves, and in doing so, makes a statement that all women are important and have value. She also defies her mother who has warned her to remain silent about the story.

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