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Free Study Guide: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

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CHAPTER 3: "Shaman"


Kingston writes that sometimes her mother shows her the medical diploma she earned in China. It is held in a metal tube with the ideograph for "joy" written on it in red. The tube also bears a 1950 airmail stamp from Hong Kong, has a crushed middle, and smells of China. Three rolls are inside the can, including the diploma from the To Keung School of Midwifery for two years of instruction and hospital practice. The award lists midwifery, pediatrics, gynecology, "Medicine," "Surgery," therapeutics, and bandage. When Kingston sees the word “Hackett” following the Dean's signature on the diploma, she finds a history book that tells her that European women doctors founded Hackett Medical College for Women at Canton in the nineteenth century.

The second scroll is a photograph of the graduating class. Kingston picks out her mother immediately, even though the picture was taken forty years before. She compares her mother with the other women of the picture. She notices that the other women seem softer and have smiling eyes. She notes that her mother looks intelligent, alert, and pretty; but Kingston cannot tell if she is happy since she does not smile. (“Chinese do not smile for photographs.”) Kingston then remembers the photographs of her smiling father that were taken when he first came to America. In each picture that he sent home, he wore a different American outfit. One was taken in a bathing suit at Coney Island Beach. In his winter picture, he is sitting in Central Park.

The third scroll is a Chinese document with the English words "Department of Health, Canton" imprinted on her mother’s photograph. Kingston looks at the picture to see if her mother’s face shows fear about her husband not returning to China and not sending for her. Their two children had been dead for ten years, and she must have been fearful that she would not be able to have any more children. At least her husband sent her money regularly, and since she had no children to spend it on, she bought clothes and paid for her education. She traveled to the Keung School alone. At the dormitory, she was assigned a room with five other women, who immediately offered her tea and soon became her friends. Her mother lived in the dormitory for two years, free from the servitude of family life. There, her tyrant mother-in-law could not force her to run errands.

The students were called to an auditorium where they heard speeches on their education. They would begin "with a text as old as the Han empire, when the prescription for immortality had not yet been lost." They would learn of Chang Chung-ching, the father of medicine, who studied the "two great winds, yang and yin that blew through the human body.” After they mastered the ancients, they would study modern medicine. Her mother began memorizing her books immediately and regularly studied either in the dining hall with other students or in her room alone. She quickly gained a reputation for being brilliant, but she had to push herself because she was supposedly ten years (really twenty years) older than her fellow students. She did not let the others know how hard she studied, for "the sweat of hard work is not to be displayed. It is much more graceful to appear favored by the gods."

Kingston’s mother had a secret study place, which her daughter thinks was in the haunted room, where strange shadows and ghosts would supposedly show up. Her mother was not afraid of the room because she believed that most ghosts "are only nightmares." One of her colleagues protested that ghosts are not just nightmares. Her family had been haunted by the ghost of her great-grandfather who wrote a message with incense sticks, requesting a Ford car be placed on his plaque. After they did so, the haunting stopped. The other women then dared Brave Orchid to sleep in the haunted room, and she accepted their dare. Inside the room, she wrapped herself in a blanket and began to read aloud until she grew sleepy and turned out the light. After a while, she heard a rushing sound coming from under the bed. Something then landed on her chest and absorbed her energy. Since the ghost was hairy, she pulled its hair and spoke to it. She called the ghost Boulder, threatened it with fire, and told it that it would not win. She then told her ghost guest of the history of ghosts and taunted it with its inability to transform into other things like a beautiful lady or a drowned woman. Then, Brave Orchid ignored the ghost and began to chant her lessons for the next day's classes. The ghost went away.

In the morning she tells her fellow students that a ghost had strangled her and at three o'clock in the morning, she had died for a while and "was wandering and the world I touched turned into sand." For ten years she seemed lost, walking from the Gobi Desert to this room in the Keung School. But she did not lose to the ghost, for she had bodily strength, bravery, goodness, and control. She told her friends that “Good people do not lose to ghosts,” but that the danger was not over. She ordered them to come back after classes with buckets of alcohol and oil. They returned as instructed, fired up the oil and alcohol, and walked to the ghost room. Her mother chanted to the ghost, “I told you we would come back for you." When the smoke cleared, the women found a piece of wood dripping with blood under the bed. They burned it and laughed at the smell. "The women of the To Keung School of Midwifery were new women, scientists who changed the rituals."

Brave Orchid had returned home after her two years of study and was greatly admired by the peasants and welcomed with garlands and cymbals. In her village, she became a successful doctor and delivered babies, kept watch during epidemics, and straightened broken bones. She often birthed babies in pigpens, calling the new baby “pretty piglet” to fool the ghosts who were seeking an infant. But she refused to work with patients, who were dying, for she did not want to be judged a failure or bring death from house to house.

Brave Orchid bought a white puppy to serve as a watchdog on her night calls. She also bought a slave girl in the Canton market. Parents often sold their daughters, but her mother chose to buy from a professional. She examined the teeth of the older girls, felt their pulses, and stopped at a girl whose pulse sounded strong. She tested the girl’s intelligence by having her look at a word she wrote and then write it out again from memory. She also asked the girl several questions. When the girl answered all the questions appropriately, Brave Orchid acted dissatisfied so the dealer would lower the charge. The slave girl intentionally got an answer wrong about weaving, and Brave Orchid bought her for half price. Before she went to the United States, she sold the slave girl for $180. Kingston then imagines that her mother's enthusiasm for her is not as strong as it was for the slave girl.

Then Kingston shifts to her American childhood when her parents ran a laundry. When the laundry got to one hundred and eleven degrees, her parents would begin to tell ghost stories in order to give each other chills. The adults would keep running the presses and shout out the stories. Her mother told a story of walking home across a rope-bridge after doctoring a sick family at night. As she stepped onto the bridge, two whirlwinds appeared and threw her upside down. When they departed, she went on her way. Kingston's great-uncle, who was also in the laundry, said they were Sit Dom Kuei. Kingston has not been able to find this combination of words in the dictionary. Kuei means ghost, but the other words do not translate.

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