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Free Study Guide: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

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CHAPTER 4: "At the Western Palace"

Summary (Continued)

His nurse taps on the window. He quickly gestures to the Chinese women a sign to be silent since he has never told his American wife that he had a wife in China. She leaves after he assures her he will be up in a moment. Brave Orchid asks him why he never wrote to tell Moon Orchid that he was never going to come back or send for her. He answers that he has turned into a different person, an American. "You became people in a book I had read a long time ago." Brave Orchid insists that he at least take them to lunch in a good restaurant. He does and then they depart. The son drives Moon Orchid back to her daughter's house, and she never sees her husband again.

Brave Orchid does not hear from her sister for several months and finally calls her niece to find out what is happening. Moon Orchid whispers into the phone that she cannot talk because "They're listening. Hang up quickly before they trace you." The same week, Brave Orchid receives a letter from her niece saying that Moon Orchid has become afraid that "Mexican ghosts were plotting on her life.” She had asked her daughter to set her up in a new apartment across town where she was now hiding. She told her daughter not to come see her so as not to be followed. Brave Orchid tells her niece to send Moon Orchid to her immediately. She says this fear of Moon Orchid's is an illness and that she will cure her.

Brave Orchid greets her sister at the bus station and walks her home. Her sister seems shrunken. When she gets inside, Moon Orchid tells her sister she is very afraid. Brave Orchid holds her sister's earlobes and begins a healing chant, which continues for hours. She also cries to think that she has whisked her sister across the ocean to such misery and decides she will make it up to her. She stays home from the laundry and throws out the Thorazine that has been prescribed for Moon Orchid. She picks over her herbs and chooses the gentlest plants to make medicine, like in their old Chinese village. She watches over Moon Orchid at night, rarely sleeping herself, and tells her sister she will help her spirit find a good place. Moon Orchid, however, grows worse, and the family is made to humor her and her fears. She cries when they leave her and often does not know who they are upon their return. Brave Orchid's husband tells his wife that Moon Orchid is mad. At first Brave Orchid will not relent; in the end, she calls her niece who puts Moon Orchid into a state mental asylum. Brave Orchid visits her sister twice. At each visit Moon Orchid is thinner and more shrunken, but surprisingly happy, dancing like a child. She is pleased because now no one ever leaves her. One morning, Moon Orchid did not wake up.

Brave Orchid tells her children they must help her to keep their father from taking a new wife. Her husband tells her he is almost seventy years old and does not plan to take a second wife. Remembering the story of their aunt, Moon Orchid, Brave Orchid's daughters decide that “they would never let men be unfaithful to them."


This is the only chapter in which Kingston uses an uninterrupted storytelling format. It is told in the regular past tense, and Kingston, the present-day "I" narrator, never comes in to break the narrative or comment on her present life or her gaps in knowledge. Here, Brave Orchid gets center stage in the center of the book, and Kingston shrinks into the background only mentioned in the third person as the oldest of Brave Orchid's children whose name sounds like "ink" to Moon Orchid.

Moon Orchid and Brave Orchid represent for Kingston two very different modes of feminine gender. Up until this chapter, the book has portrayed Brave Orchid as the main image of a Chinese woman: a picture of strength, daring, imagination, and will. In Moon Orchid, a very different mode of Chinese femininity is developed. She is quiet, submissive, delicate, and in genuine need of protection and care. Moon Orchid fulfills more of the American stereotype of Chinese women, often perpetuated in books and movies. For Kingston, Moon Orchid is another example of Chinese womanhood to be avoided. Where her mother is loud and embarrassing, Moon Orchid is silent, as she tries to be demure. Kingston is determined to be like neither Chinese woman.

Moon Orchid serves a second function in her contrast to her sister. She comes directly from China and, thus, brings with her all the cultural customs in which Brave Orchid has either adapted or abandoned. She is unable to look people directly in the eyes, and imagines that those who do are wild animals or barbarians. She is shocked to find that Brave Orchid has hung her own family’s portraits, when the custom is to hang only the pictures of dead ancestors. Unable to question the authority of any man, Moon Orchid has lived thirty years without challenging the husband who abandoned her. When she finally sees him, she is unable to utter a word. Unlike Brave Orchid, who has adapted to a life filled with hard work and providing for her family, Moon Orchid has lived off the money sent by her husband and never worked for a living, unable still to provide for herself. Even more than Brave Orchid, she thinks only things Chinese are human and all else is savage and ghost-like. As a result, Moon Orchid is unable to make the transition to life in America and goes mad.

This section also reveals Brave Orchid's sense of disconnection with her children. They are not only a generation apart, but also virtually a culture apart. Brave Orchid does not understand the measures of success in the United States, which have marked her children's school years. She questions their honesty in telling her of their successes since her measures of success are Chinese, at which her children fail. She wonders why anyone would want to marry her children, since they seem lazy and disorganized to her. She also resents their American ways, their abilities to laugh at life and stare trouble in the face. In this aspect, Kingston has provided a valuable and poignant insight into the pain of being an immigrant parent who watches her children become foreigners.

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