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Free Study Guide: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

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CHAPTER 5: "A Song for the Barbarian Reed Pipe"

Summary (Continued)

Within a few blocks of her house, she knew six crazy women or girls, all belonging to village families. The woman who lived next door was “bought” by her husband to be his wife and soon after her arrival in the United States was taken to a mental hospital. Crazy Mary’s parents, who were Christian converts, left her behind as a child in China. She was twenty and crazy by the time they sent for her. Kingston began to imagine that every house had a crazy woman in it and wondered who it would be at her own house. She was afraid that it might be herself since she was so imaginative. She spoke with imaginary people during the day, had nightmares of being a vampire at night, and worried about being insane. Kingston also worried that her family might sell her to be a maid. She tried to make herself unsellable by dropping dishes, picking her nose, wearing wrinkled clothes, and affecting a limp.

Kingston remembers her parents weeping over China turning to Communism; but Kingston was glad because it meant her parents would stay in the United States. She did not want to go to China because they oppressed women there. A husband was allowed to kill his wife who disobeyed him, and a bad daughter-in-law was smeared with honey and tied to an ant’s nest. She also understood nothing about her native land, for her parents never taught her any of the history. On holidays, they would eat certain foods but not explain why. As a youth, Kingston wondered how the Chinese could keep traditions at all since they never explained them to their children. Now as an adult, Kingston wants to go to China and see how the Communists are treating the people.

Kingston learned her parents had started answering advertisements in the Gold Mountain News for young men looking for wives. She also noticed a sudden series of new men coming to the laundry. Kingston saw one of the men looking over at her and her sisters' photographs. Kingston was not interested in him so she began to drop dishes, raise dust around the man’s chair, limp around the room, and spill soup on him. When the man left, Kingston's mother yelled at her for her clumsiness and rudeness. A mentally retarded boy from Chinese school was also interested in Kingston. He followed her around at school and came to the laundry to watch her, sitting on two crates that he brought with him. Kingston wanted to make sure that no one thought he was a good match for her, so she studied hard and got straight A’s. She also tried to avoid him by switching shifts at the laundry, but he brought his crates to the later shift as well. One day, the family opened the boy’s crates and found them stuffed with pornography. Her mother was not upset, but instead said that she was surprised that he was smart enough to find out about women.

Kingston remembers that she had a list of over two hundred things that she wanted to tell her mother. One thing was her wish for a white horse. Another thing was to confess that she had picked on a girl and made her cry. She had also stolen from the cash register at the laundry, pulled up onions from the garden out of anger, and had jumped head first off the dresser so she could fly. "If only I could let my mother know the list, she--and the world--would become more like me, and I would never be alone again." She decided to tell her mother one item a day. She would wait until the quietest time of Brave Orchid’s day, when she was starching shirts in the laundry in the afternoon. She began by telling her that she had smashed a spider, the first thing she had ever killed. Her mother did not respond, so Kingston told her mother why it was important. On the second day, she told her mother that she had hinted to a ghost girl that she wanted a doll until the girl had given her one. On the fifth day, she decided to tell a harder one, the story of wanting a white horse. When she spoke to her mother, her duck voice came out, a voice she never used with family. She asked her mother, "What's it called when a person whispers to the head of the sages and ask for things?" Her mother says, "Talking-to-the-top-magician." She confessed to having asked for a white horse. Her mother only responded with "Mm." On another night she began to whisper to her mother, and Brave Orchid told her, “I don't feel like hearing your craziness." Kingston had to stop, but she felt something "tearing at" her throat.

One night at the laundry when the family was eating dinner, Kingston’s throat burst open and she began talking and burbling. She told them the Teacher Ghosts told her she was smart and could win scholarships to colleges, that she could make a living and take care of herself. She told them, "I can do ghost things even better than the ghosts can. Not everybody thinks I'm nothing. I am not going to be a slave or a wife." She also told them she was not going to go to Chinese school any more. Finally, she told her mother she did not want to listen to any more of her stories, for “they scramble me up.” Brave Orchid responded by denying that she was trying to marry her off and complaining that her daughter cannot distinguish real from false. Finally, her mother calls her a "Ho Chi Kuei," a ghost. She then realized she had to leave home in order to see the world more logically and leave behind the magic and the ghosts.

Kingston tells one last story, one her mother told recently. In China, Brave Orchid's grandmother loved the theater very much, and when the actors came to her village, she bought up a large section of the seats. When the danger of bandits was predicted, her family protested against leaving the house to go to the opera because the bandits would steal their furniture. The grandmother insisted that everyone in the family come to the opera because she could not watch it alone. Her family packed the furniture and carried it to the opera. The bandits robbed the theater instead of the house. The family ran in all directions, except the women who could not run because of their bound feet. The entire family made it home safe, "proof to my grandmother that our family was immune to harm as long as they went to plays. They went to many plays after that."

Kingston likes to think that at some of these performances, they heard the songs of Ts'ai Yen, a woman poet who was born in A.D. 175. When she was twenty years old, she was kidnapped by a barbarian chieftain and became pregnant. She had two children during her twelve years of captivity, and her children did not speak Chinese. She spoke to them in Chinese when their father was out of the tent, but "they imitated her with senseless singsong words and laughed." The barbarians around her gathered reeds and dried them in the sun. They tied them on flagpoles and in their horse's manes and tails and cut notches into them so that during battle, the reeds would make "high whirling whistles" which terrified the enemies. They also played flutes. "They reached again and again for a high note.... which they found at last and held,--an icicle in the desert." She was haunted by their music and began to sing. She sang about China and her family there. "Her words seemed to be Chinese, but the barbarians understood their sadness and anger.” Her children began to sing along with her. When she was finally ransomed, she brought her songs back and one has been passed down as "Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe." Kingston says it is a song the Chinese sing to their own instruments. "It translated well."

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