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Free Study Guide: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

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CHAPTER 3: "Shaman"

Summary (Continued)

Kingston knows that her mother can win any ghost battle because she eats everything including; raccoons, skunks, hawks, snails, and boiled weeds. Her motto was that if it tasted bad, it was good for you. In Chinese culture, if you ate strange things, you scared the ghosts away. Kingston gives several examples of big eaters that beat their ghosts. The most fantastic eater was Wei Pang who ate scorpions, snakes, roaches, worms, and many other distasteful things. Once he stayed in a family's house because they were afraid of a ghost. He saw a shining sphere flying toward him and shot it. It landed before him as a lump of flesh covered with eyes. After the “ghost” was cooked, Wei Pang ate it. Hanchow also ate himself into victory. One day he took a bundle wrapped in white silk home with him after the villagers had avoided it all day. Inside were silver ingots and a frog-like evil sitting on the ingots. The scholar chased it off, and two more frogs the size of babies appeared. He cooked them and ate them. More frogs appeared and he ate them, too. At the end of the month the frogs stopped coming and the scholar was left with the silver and satin.

Because the Japanese had invaded China, her father sent for her mother to come to the United States, instead of returning to China himself. By 1939, the Japanese had taken much of the land along the Kwoo River, and her mother lived in the mountains with other refugees. She set up a hospital in a cave in order to treat the refugees who grew ill. The displaced villagers spent their time watching for Japanese airplanes, which shot at the mountainsides daily. One afternoon, the mountain was peaceful, and the villagers stood in the sunshine, smiling at one another. A crazy lady put on her headdress with small mirrors all over it and began to dance. The villagers accused her of signaling the Japanese planes to come and attack. Brave Orchid tried to convince them that she was only crazy and, therefore, harmless; but the people stoned her anyway. She tried to run, but could not get away on her tiny bound feet. After she was dead, the villagers continued to beat her body. The planes returned that afternoon, and many villagers were buried along with the crazy lady.

Brave Orchid left China in 1939 and arrived in New York Harbor in January of 1940. Kingston was soon born in the midst of World War II. As a child, she feared the size of the world around her. She grew up seeing airplanes in the sky and ghosts everywhere. For Kingston, "America has been full of machines and ghosts--Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts, Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts, Five and Dime Ghosts." Even when they stayed away from the streets, the ghosts would come to their house in the form of Social Worker Ghosts and Garbage Ghosts. One day the children told their mother they could taste something sweet in their mouths. She told them that their grandmother in China was sending them candy again, saying “Human beings do not need Mail Ghosts to send messages.” Brave Orchid promised her children that they would soon leave all the ghosts behind and return home to China. Kingston admits that, “I did not want to go to China. In China, my parents would sell my sisters and me. My father would marry two or three more wives."

At the end of the chapter, Kingston tells about the last time she visited her parents. Her mother, close to eighty years of age, complained about how long it had been since she had seen Kingston. Brave Orchid told her the last time she saw her she was young, and now she is old. It had only been a year since Kingston’s last visit. Brave Orchid next complained that Kingston was too thin, saying the villagers gossip about their family because they cannot keep their daughters fat. Her largest complaint, however, is about her hard work in the tomato fields. Kingston tries to find out why her mother still works, dying her hair to cover the white so the farmers would hire her. Brave Orchid responds that she and her husband need the money: just as they had needed the money when running the laundry. Brave Orchid is convinced that she never would have had to work so hard in China.


This chapter, appropriately centered in the middle of the book, is about Brave Orchid: the central figure in the author’s life. As she tells about her mother, Kingston continues her narrative habit of digressiveness, interweaving the past and present. The author begins the chapter by looking at official documents and photographs of her mother, which reveal some information. For instance, her mother's lack of a smile and plain, dartless dresses show that Brave Orchid possessed typical traits for Chinese women in America. More importantly, the photographs and documents serve as prompts for Kingston to talk about Brave Orchid in China.

Kingston describes her mother as a woman who values her public persona, has lived several types of lives, loves her daughter awkwardly as a result of a cultural and generation gap, lives in a world peopled by ghosts without the ability to distinguish between superstition and science or between truth and fiction, and is a very good story teller. One of the stories that Kingston remembers hearing as a child is about the Sitting Ghost, where nothing is real and everything is symbolic. In the story, Brave Orchid says, “the world I touched turned to sand." Kingston realizes that a traditional woman like Brave Orchid would have felt her world crumbling away several times. First, when she entered medical school, leaving behind so many female traditions. Second, when her solid Chinese reality is left behind for the new world of America, and last when she and her husband lose the laundry and she is forced into the tomato fields to make a living. It is no wonder that Brave Orchid says, "there was so much work leading to other work and another life."

Ghosts are very real and serious to the Chinese, with books written about their histories and exorcisms performed to rid people of them. Ghosts are also very important in this section of the book. First, ghosts are acknowledged as the spirits of dead people, as in the No Name Woman section. In addition, they are the characters of talk-stories and spring from the folklore of many generations, such as the Sitting Ghost. More importantly, the ghosts are also all people who are not Chinese, thus the taxi ghosts, the garbage ghosts, and the police ghosts. Even Chinese-American children are half ghosts to their parents, for they do not know Chinese traditions. In a similarly arrogant manner, the Chinese believe their language is the only real language of humans; other language is ghost noise, not even decipherable or meaningful. Kingston felt very alienated and frightened as a child living in this country surrounded by ghosts. As an adult, she has tried to repudiate this imaginative ghost world of the Chinese and her childhood by having a realistic approach to life and explaining things in black and white.

At the end of this section, Kingston returns to her American reality. She explains going through a painful period of separation and differentiation from her mother, who was a very strong woman and had much influence on Kingston. In seeking to find herself, Kingston argues with everything her mother says, insensitive to her age or confusion. As a daughter, she is trying to distance herself from her mother in order to find her own voice. Even though Kingston reveals that she has always felt much anxiety in her relationship with her mother, this section marks a turning point for her. At the end of the chapter, Brave Orchid gives Kingston a benediction or blessing when she calls her “Little Dog,” a term of endearment. Brave Orchid also grants Kingston permission to gracefully stay away from her without feeling guilty.

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