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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"


Kingston opens this section by undermining the authority of the previous narrative, told in the "At the Western Palace" section. In doing so, she reminds the reader once again that she is not an authority on her mother. She was told the story from her brother through her sister. Kingston suggests that the way a story is told (who tells it and how it is told) makes a difference in the meaning of the story. Her brother's version is spare and not complicated. It states the facts and does not speculate on them or bring up complexities that are impossible to solve. Kingston's version, on the other hand, the version given to us in "At the Western Palace," is so complex it leaves questions unanswered and makes the reader puzzle out the causes of the characters' actions. She compares herself as a storyteller to the legendary outlaw knot-makers of China. The outlaw knot-makers' knots are so complicated, they make the knot-maker go blind, just as a storyteller can get so tied up in a story that it becomes too complex, “blinding” the reader.

Kingston's disturbing memory of her mother telling her that she cut her tongue, ties in with the theme of voice and silence developed throughout the book. This section brings together many kinds of silence: the silence of insanity, the silence of second language learners in American schools, the silence imposed on girls and women in a misogynist culture, the silence of self-hatred learned when one's culture is not known or prized by the dominant culture. Probably the most disturbing scene of Kingston encountering silence is her confrontation with and even torture of the silent schoolgirl. In that scene, all of the self-hatred Kingston feels for her Chinese-ness is projected onto the silent girl. She tortures her like she tortures herself for being different from the prized norm in her school. On the other hand, the most liberating scene of Kingston encountering silence and overcoming it is her confrontation with her mother. She has stored up so much to tell and ask her mother that much of it is outdated and much of it describes such small and fleeting moments that they seem silly when said aloud. Kingston learns at that moment that she can never again be silenced without experiencing physical pain in her throat.

Kingston has learned her storytelling technique from her mother, whose stories frustrated Kingston as a child because she never knew which were fiction and which were truth. This section of Kingston's memoirs details Kingston's process of finding her own way to accept and honor her mother's storytelling. This process involves an initial repudiation of her mother. She must separate herself from her mother and even from her Chinese heritage. Only after that separation can she return to her mother whole in order to reconcile with her. In the "Shaman" section of the book, Kingston describes a time of her life when she was seeing very little of her mother. She describes there her pain in visiting home; her illnesses induced by her mother's presence. After having gained some distance from her mother, Kingston can return and tell a story with her mother, an act of reconciliation. She ends the book on this dialogue of storytelling.

The story of Ts'ai Yen is found in an ancient written Chinese text named "Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe." Kingston has taken this source and selected details of the story that fit with her American reality. Whereas she added to the tale of Fa Mu Lan in writing "White Tigers," here she selects details and leaves out other details of her source text. In the original ballad, the years of captivity are de-emphasized and the return home to the Han people is emphasized. In Kingston's version, the years of captivity comprise almost the entire tale. The return is given only about two lines. Also emphasized is Ts'ai Yen's artistry, her ability to combine her Chinese art with the barbarians' art. This story is loaded with significance for Kingston's relation to her mother. The figure of Ts'ai Yen can be seen to symbolize both Brave Orchid and Kingston. Like Brave Orchid, Ts'ai Yen is forced to live among what she considers to be barbarians. Like Brave Orchid, Ts'ai Yen has children in the barbarian land and her children are alienated from her; they cannot even speak her language; they laugh at her when she tries to teach them. Like Kingston, Ts'ai Yen learns to find beauty in the barbarians' art. Like Kingston, Ts'ai Yen learns to combine her Chinese heritage with her adoptive culture. When Kingston ends the book with the sentence, "It translated well," she could just as well be saying that of her book. In some sense, it is a translation from Chinese to American reality, and an eventual combination of the two. Kingston has finally come not only to accept, but also to embrace her rich heritage.

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