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The Woman Warrior

Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

by Maxine Hong Kingston

Paperback, 209 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $14 |


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The Woman Warrior
Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts
Maxine Hong Kingston

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Book Summary

A first-generation Chinese-American woman recounts growing up in America within a tradition-bound Chinese family, and confronted with Chinese ghosts from the past and non-Chinese ghosts of the present

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Excerpt: The Woman Warrior

Chapter One

No Name Woman

    "You must not tell anyone," my mother said, "what Iam about to tell you. In China your father had a sister whokilled herself. She jumped into the family well. We say thatyour father has all brothers because it is as if she had neverbeen born.

    "In 1924 just a few days after our village celebratedseventeen hurry-up weddings—to make sure that everyyoung man who went `out on the road' would responsiblycome home-your father and his brothers and your grandfatherand his brothers and your aunt's new husband sailedfor America, the Gold Mountain. It was your grandfather'slast trip. Those lucky enough to get contracts waved goodbyefrom the decks. They fed and guarded the stowawaysand helped them off in Cuba, New York, Bali, Hawaii. `We'llmeet in California next year,' they said. All of them sentmoney home.

    "I remember looking at your aunt one day when she andI were dressing; I had not noticed before that she had sucha protruding melon of a stomach. But I did not think, `She'spregnant,' until she began to look like other pregnantwomen, her shirt pulling and the white tops of her blackpants showing. She could not have been pregnant, you see,because her husband had been gone for years. No onesaid anything. We did not discuss it. In early summer shewas ready to have the child, long after the time when itcould have been possible.

    "The village had also been counting. On the night thebaby was to be born the villagers raided our house. Somewere crying. Like a great saw, teeth strung with lights,files of people walked zigzag across our land, tearing therice. Their lanterns doubled in the disturbed black water,which drained away through the broken bunds. As the villagersclosed in, we could see that some of them, probablymen and women we knew well, wore white masks. The peoplewith long hair hung it over their faces. Women withshort hair made it stand up on end. Some had tied whitebands around their foreheads, arms, and legs.

    "At first they threw mud and rocks at the house. Thenthey threw eggs and began slaughtering our stock. Wecould hear the animals scream their deaths—the roosters,the pigs, a last great roar from the ox. Familiar wild headsflared in our night windows; the villagers encircled us.Some of the faces stopped to peer at us, their eyes rushinglike searchlights. The hands flattened against the panes,framed heads, and left red prints.

    "The villagers broke in the front and the back doorsat the same time, even though we had not locked the doorsagainst them. Their knives dripped with the blood of ouranimals. They smeared blood on the doors and walls. Onewoman swung a chicken, whose throat she had slit, splatteringblood in red arcs about her. We stood together inthe middle of our house, in the family hall with the picturesand tables of the ancestors around us, and looked straightahead.

    "At that time the house had only two wings. When themen came back, we would build two more to enclose ourcourtyard and a third one to begin a second courtyard. Thevillagers pushed through both wings, even your grandparents'rooms, to find your aunt's, which was also mine untilthe men returned. From this room a new wing for one ofthe younger families would grow. They ripped up her clothesand shoes and broke her combs, grinding them underfoot.They tore her work from the loom. They scattered the cookingfire and rolled the new weaving in it. We could hearthem in the kitchen breaking our bowls and banging thepots. They overturned the great waist-high earthenwarejugs; duck eggs, pickled fruits, vegetables burst out andmixed in acrid torrents. The old woman from the next fieldswept a broom through the air and loosed the spirits-of-the-broomover our heads. `Pig.' `Ghost.' `Pig,' they sobbed andscolded while they ruined our house.

    "When they left, they took sugar and oranges to blessthemselves. They cut pieces from the dead animals. Some ofthem took bowls that were not broken and clothes that werenot torn. Afterward we swept up the rice and sewed it backup into sacks. But the smells from the spilled preserveslasted. Your aunt gave birth in the pigsty that night. Thenext morning when I went for the water, I found her andthe baby plugging up the family well.

    "Don't let your father know that I told you. He deniesher. Now that you have started to menstruate, what happenedto her could happen to you. Don't humiliate us. Youwouldn't like to be forgotten as if you had never been born.The villagers are watchful."

    Whenever she had to warn us about life, my mother toldstories that ran like this one, a story to grow up on. Shetested our strength to establish realities. Those in the emigrantgenerations who could not reassert brute survival diedyoung and far from home. Those of us in the first Americangenerations have had to figure out how the invisible worldthe emigrants built around our childhoods fits in solid America.

    The emigrants confused the gods by diverting theircurses, misleading them with crooked streets and falsenames. They must try to confuse their offspring as well,who, I suppose, threaten them in similar ways—always tryingto get things straight, always trying to name the unspeakable.The Chinese I know hide their names; sojournerstake new names when their lives change and guard theirreal names with silence.

    Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand whatthings in you are Chinese, how do you separate what ispeculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family,your mother who marked your growing with stories, fromwhat is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is themovies?

    If I want to learn what clothes my aunt wore, whetherflashy or ordinary, I would have to begin, "RememberFather's drowned-in-the-well sister?" I cannot ask that. Mymother has told me once and for all the useful parts. Shewill add nothing unless powered by Necessity, a riverbankthat guides her life. She plants vegetable gardens ratherthan lawns; she carries the odd-shaped tomatoes home fromthe fields and eats food left for the gods.

    Whenever we did frivolous things, we used up energy;we flew high kites. We children came up off the ground overthe melting cones our parents brought home from work andthe American movie on New Year's Day—Oh, You BeautifulDoll with Betty Grable one year, and She Wore a YellowRibbon with John Wayne another year. After the one carnivalride each, we paid in guilt; our tired father counted hischange on the dark walk home.

    Adultery is extravagance. Could people who hatch theirown chicks and eat the embryos and the heads for delicaciesand boil the feet in vinegar for party food, leavingonly the gravel, eating even the gizzard lining—could suchpeople engender a prodigal aunt? To be a woman, to havea daughter in starvation time was a waste enough. My auntcould not have been the lone romantic who gave up everythingfor sex. Women in the old China did not choose. Someman had commanded her to lie with him and be his secretevil. I wonder whether he masked himself when he joinedthe raid on her family.

    Perhaps she had encountered him in the fields or on themountain where the daughters-in-law collected fuel. Or perhapshe first noticed her in the marketplace. He was not astranger because the village housed no strangers. She hadto have dealings with him other than sex. Perhaps heworked an adjoining field, or he sold her the cloth for thedress she sewed and wore. His demand must have surprised,then terrified her. She obeyed him; she always did as shewas told.

    When the family found a young man in the next villageto be her husband, she had stood tractably beside the bestrooster, his proxy, and promised before they met that shewould be his forever. She was lucky that he was her ageand she would be the first wife, an advantage secure now.The night she first saw him, he had sex with her. Then heleft for America. She had almost forgotten what he lookedlike. When she tried to envision him, she only saw the blackand white face in the group photograph the men had hadtaken before leaving.

    The other man was not, after all, much different fromher husband. They both gave orders: she followed. "If youtell your family, I'll beat you. I'll kill you. Be here againnext week." No one talked sex, ever. And she might haveseparated the rapes from the rest of living if only she didnot have to buy her oil from him or gather wood in thesame forest. I want her fear to have lasted just as long asrape lasted so that the fear could have been contained. Nodrawn-out fear. But women at sex hazarded birth and hencelifetimes. The fear did not stop but permeated everywhere.She told the man, "I think I'm pregnant." He organized theraid against her.

    On nights when my mother and father talked abouttheir life back home, sometimes they mentioned an "outcasttable" whose business they still seemed to be settling, theirvoices tight. In a commensal tradition, where food is precious,the powerful older people made wrongdoers eat alone.Instead of letting them start separate new lives like theJapanese, who could become samurais and geishas, the Chinesefamily, faces averted but eyes glowering sideways,hung on to the offenders and fed them leftovers. My auntmust have lived in the same house as my parents and eatenat an outcast table. My mother spoke about the raid as ifshe had seen it, when she and my aunt, a daughter-in-lawto a different household, should not have been living togetherat all. Daughters-in-law lived with their husbands'parents, not their own; a synonym for marriage in Chineseis "taking a daughter-in-law." Her husband's parents couldhave sold her, mortgaged her, stoned her. But they had senther back to her own mother and father, a mysterious acthinting at disgraces not told me. Perhaps they had thrownher out to deflect the avengers.

    She was the only daughter; her four brothers went withher father, husband, and uncles "out on the road" and forsome years became western men. When the goods weredivided among the family, three of the brothers took land,and the youngest, my father, chose an education. After mygrandparents gave their daughter away to her husband'sfamily, they had dispensed all the adventure and all theproperty. They expected her alone to keep the traditionalways, which her brothers, now among the barbarians, couldfumble without detection. The heavy, deep-rooted womenwere to maintain the past against the flood, safe for returning.But the rare urge west had fixed upon our family, andso my aunt crossed boundaries not delineated in space.

    The work of preservation demands that the feelingsplaying about in one's guts not be turned into action. Justwatch their passing like cherry blossoms. But perhaps myaunt, my forerunner, caught in a slow life, let dreams growand fade and after some months or years went toward whatpersisted. Fear at the enormities of the forbidden kept herdesires delicate, wire and bone. She looked at a man becauseshe liked the way the hair was tucked behind his ears, orshe liked the question-mark line of a long torso curving atthe shoulder and straight at the hip. For warm eyes or asoft voice or a slow walk—that's all—a few hairs, a line,a brightness, a sound, a pace, she gave up family. She offeredus up for a charm that vanished with tiredness, apigtail that didn't toss when the wind died. Why, the wronglighting could erase the dearest thing about him.

    It could very well have been, however, that my aunt didnot take subtle enjoyment of her friend, but, a wild woman,kept rollicking company. Imagining her free with sexdoesn't fit, though. I don't know any women like that, ormen either. Unless I see her life branching into mine, shegives me no ancestral help.

    To sustain her being in love, she often worked at herselfin the mirror, guessing at the colors and shapes that wouldinterest him, changing them frequently in order to hit onthe right combination. She wanted him to look back.

    On a farm near the sea, a woman who tended herappearance reaped a reputation for eccentricity. All themarried women blunt-cut their hair in flaps about their earsor pulled it back in tight buns. No nonsense. Neither styleblew easily into heart-catching tangles. And at their weddingsthey displayed themselves in their long hair for thelast time. "It brushed the backs of my knees," my mothertells me. "It was braided, and even so, it brushed the backsof my knees."

    At the mirror my aunt combed individuality into herbob. A bun could have been contrived to escape into blackstreamers blowing in the wind or in quiet wisps about herface, but only the older women in our picture album wearbuns. She brushed her hair back from her forehead, tuckingthe flaps behind her ears. She looped a piece of thread,knotted into a circle between her index fingers and thumbs,and ran the double strand across her forehead. When sheclosed her fingers as if she were making a pair of shadowgeese bite, the string twisted together catching the littlehairs. Then she pulled the thread away from her skin, rippingthe hairs out neatly, her eyes watering from the needlesof pain. Opening her fingers, she cleaned the thread, thenrolled it along her hairline and the tops of her eyebrows.My mother did the same to me and my sisters and herself.I used to believe that the expression "caught by the shorthairs" meant a captive held with a depilatory string. Itespecially hurt at the temples, but my mother said we werelucky we didn't have to have our feet bound when we wereseven. Sisters used to sit on their beds and cry together,she said, as their mothers or their slaves removed the bandagesfor a few minutes each night and let the blood gushback into their veins. I hope that the man my aunt lovedappreciated a smooth brow, that he wasn't just a tits-and-assman.

    Once my aunt found a freckle on her chin, at a spot thatthe almanac said predestined her for unhappiness. She dugit out with a hot needle and washed the wound with peroxide.

    More attention to her looks than these pullings of hairsand pickings at spots would have caused gossip among thevillagers. They owned work clothes and good clothes, andthey wore good clothes for feasting the new seasons. Butsince a woman combing her hair hexes beginnings, my auntrarely found an occasion to look her best. Women lookedlike great sea snails—the corded wood, babies, and laundrythey carried were the whorls on their backs. The Chinesedid not admire a bent back; goddesses and warriors stoodstraight. Still there must have been a marvelous freeing ofbeauty when a worker laid down her burden and stretchedand arched.

    Such commonplace loveliness, however, was not enoughfor my aunt. She dreamed of a lover for the fifteen days ofNew Year's, the time for families to exchange visits, money,and food. She plied her secret comb. And sure enough shecursed the year, the family, the village, and herself.

    Even as her hair lured her imminent lover, many othermen looked at her. Uncles, cousins, nephews, brothers wouldhave looked, too, had they been home between journeys.Perhaps they had already been restraining their curiosity,and they left, fearful that their glances, like a field of nestingbirds, might be startled and caught. Poverty hurt, andthat was their first reason for leaving. But another, finalreason for leaving the crowded house was the never-said.

    She may have been unusually beloved, the precious onlydaughter, spoiled and mirror gazing because of the affectionthe family lavished on her. When her husband left,they welcomed the chance to take her back from the in-laws;she could live like the little daughter for just a while longer.There are stories that my grandfather was different fromother people, "crazy ever since the little Jap bayoneted himin the head." He used to put his naked penis on the dinnertable, laughing. And one day he brought home a baby girl,wrapped up inside his brown western-style greatcoat. Hehad traded one of his sons, probably my father, the youngest,for her. My grandmother made him trade back. Whenhe finally got a daughter of his own, he doted on her. Theymust have all loved her, except perhaps my father, the onlybrother who never went back to China, having once beentraded for a girl.

    Brothers and sisters, newly men and women, had toefface their sexual color and present plain miens. Disturbinghair and eyes, a smile like no other, threatened the ideal offive generations living under one roof. To focus blurs, peopleshouted face to face and yelled from room to room. Theimmigrants I know have loud voices, unmodulated to Americantones even after years away from the village where theycalled their friendships out across the fields. I have not beenable to stop my mother's screams in public libraries or overtelephones. Walking erect (knees straight, toes pointed forward,not pigeon-toed, which is Chinese-feminine) andspeaking in an inaudible voice, I have tried to turn myselfAmerican-feminine. Chinese communication was loud, public.Only sick people had to whisper. But at the dinner table,where the family members came nearest one another, noone could talk, not the outcasts nor any eaters. Every wordthat falls from the mouth is a coin lost. Silently they gaveand accepted food with both hands. A preoccupied childwho took his bowl with one hand got a sideways glare. Acomplete moment of total attention is due everyone alike.Children and lovers have no singularity here, but my auntused a secret voice, a separate attentiveness.

    She kept the man's name to herself throughout herlabor and dying; she did not accuse him that he be punishedwith her. To save her inseminator's name she gave silentbirth.

    He may have been somebody in her own household, butintercourse with a man outside the family would have beenno less abhorrent. All the village were kinsmen, and thetitles shouted in loud country voices never let kinship beforgotten. Any man within visiting distance would havebeen neutralized as a lover—"brother," "younger brother,""older brother"—one hundred and fifteen relationship titles.Parents researched birth charts probably not so much toassure good fortune as to circumvent incest in a populationthat has but one hundred surnames. Everybody has eightmillion relatives. How useless then sexual mannerisms, howdangerous.

    As if it came from an atavism deeper than fear, I usedto add "brother" silently to boys' names. It hexed the boys,who would or would not ask me to dance, and made themless scary and as familiar and deserving of benevolence asgirls.

    But, of course, I hexed myself also—no dates. I shouldhave stood up, both arms waving, and shouted out acrosslibraries, "Hey, you! Love me back." I had no idea, though,how to make attraction selective, how to control its directionand magnitude. If I made myself American-pretty sothat the five or six Chinese boys in the class fell in lovewith me, everyone else—the Caucasian, Negro, and Japaneseboys—would too. Sisterliness, dignified and honorable,made much more sense.

    Attraction eludes control so stubbornly that whole societiesdesigned to organize relationships among people cannotkeep order, not even when they bind people to one anotherfrom childhood and raise them together. Among thevery poor and the wealthy, brothers married their adoptedsisters, like doves. Our family allowed some romance, payingadult brides' prices and providing dowries so that theirsons and daughters could marry strangers. Marriage promisesto turn strangers into friendly relatives—a nation ofsiblings.

    In the village structure, spirits shimmered among thelive creatures, balanced and held in equilibrium by time andland. But one human being flaring up into violence couldopen up a black hole, a maelstrom that pulled in the sky.The frightened villagers, who depended on one another tomaintain the real, went to my aunt to show her a personal,physical representation of the break she had made in the"roundness." Misallying couples snapped off the future,which was to be embodied in true offspring. The villagerspunished her for acting as if she could have a private life,secret and apart from them.

    If my aunt had betrayed the family at a time of largegrain yields and peace, when many boys were born, andwings were being built on many houses, perhaps she mighthave escaped such severe punishment. But the men—hungry,greedy, tired of planting in dry soil—had been forcedto leave the village in order to send food-money home. Therewere ghost plagues, bandit plagues, wars with the Japanese,floods. My Chinese brother and sister had died of anunknown sickness. Adultery, perhaps only a mistake duringgood times, became a crime when the village neededfood.

    The round moon cakes and round doorways, the roundtables of graduated sizes that fit one roundness inside another,round windows and rice bowls—these talismans hadlost their power to warn this family of the law: a familymust be whole, faithfully keeping the descent line by havingsons to feed the old and the dead, who in turn look afterthe family. The villagers came to show my aunt and herlover-in-hiding a broken house. The villagers were speedingup the circling of events because she was too shortsightedto see that her infidelity had already harmed the village,that waves of consequences would return unpredictably,sometimes in disguise, as now, to hurt her. This roundnesshad to be made coin-sized so that she would see its circumference:punish her at the birth of her baby. Awaken her tothe inexorable. People who refused fatalism because theycould invent small resources insisted on culpability. Denyaccidents and wrest fault from the stars.

    After the villagers left, their lanterns now scattering invarious directions toward home, the family broke theirsilence and cursed her. "Aiaa, we're going to die. Death iscoming. Death is coming. Look what you've done. You'vekilled us. Ghost! Dead ghost! Ghost! You've never beenborn." She ran out into the fields, far enough from the houseso that she could no longer hear their voices, and pressedherself against the earth, her own land no more. Whenshe felt the birth coming, she thought that she had beenhurt. Her body seized together. "They've hurt me too much,"she thought. "This is gall, and it will kill me." With foreheadand knees against the earth, her body convulsed andthen relaxed. She turned on her back, lay on the ground. Theblack well of sky and stars went out and out and out forever;her body and her complexity seemed to disappear. She wasone of the stars, a bright dot in blackness, without home,without a companion, in eternal cold and silence. An agoraphobiarose in her, speeding higher and higher, bigger andbigger; she would not be able to contain it; there would noend to fear.

    Flayed, unprotected against space, she felt pain return,focusing her body. This pain chilled her—a cold, steady kindof surface pain. Inside, spasmodically, the other pain, thepain of the child, heated her. For hours she lay on theground, alternately body and space. Sometimes a vision ofnormal comfort obliterated reality: she saw the family inthe evening gambling at the dinner table, the young peoplemassaging their elders' backs. She saw them congratulatingone another, high joy on the mornings the rice shoots cameup. When these pictures burst, the stars drew yet furtherapart. Black space opened.

    She got to her feet to fight better and remembered thatold-fashioned women gave birth in their pigsties to fool thejealous, pain-dealing gods, who do not snatch piglets. Beforethe next spasms could stop her, she ran to the pigsty, eachstep a rushing out into emptiness. She climbed over thefence and knelt in the dirt. It was good to have a fence enclosingher, a tribal person alone.

    Laboring, this woman who had carried her child as aforeign growth that sickened her every day, expelled it atlast. She reached down to touch the hot, wet, moving mass,surely smaller than anything human, and could feel that itwas human after all—fingers, toes, nails, nose. She pulledit up on to her belly, and it lay curled there, butt in the air,feet precisely tucked one under the other. She opened herloose shirt and buttoned the child inside. After resting, itsquirmed and thrashed and she pushed it up to her breast.It turned its head this way and that until it found her nipple.There, it made little snuffling noises. She clenched herteeth at its preciousness, lovely as a young calf, a piglet, alittle dog.

    She may have gone to the pigsty as a last act of responsibility:she would protect this child as she had protectedits father. It would look after her soul, leaving supplies onher grave. But how would this tiny child without familyfind her grave when there would be no marker for her anywhere,neither in the earth nor the family hall? No onewould give her a family hall name. She had taken the childwith her into the wastes. At its birth the two of them hadfelt the same raw pain of separation, a wound that only thefamily pressing tight could close. A child with no descentline would not soften her life but only trail after her, ghostlike,begging her to give it purpose. At dawn the villagerson their way to the fields would stand around the fence andlook.

    Full of milk, the little ghost slept. When it awoke, shehardened her breasts against the milk that crying loosens.Toward morning she picked up the baby and walked to thewell.

    Carrying the baby to the well shows loving. Otherwiseabandon it. Turn its face into the mud. Mothers who lovetheir children take them along. It was probably a girl; thereis some hope of forgiveness for boys.

    "Don't tell anyone you had an aunt. Your father doesnot want to hear her name. She has never been born." Ihave believed that sex was unspeakable and words so strongand fathers so frail that "aunt" would do my father mysteriousharm. I have thought that my family, having settledamong immigrants who had also been their neighbors in theancestral land, needed to clean their name, and a wrongword would incite the kinspeople even here. But there ismore to this silence: they want me to participate in herpunishment. And I have.

    In the twenty years since I heard this story I have notasked for details nor said my aunt's name; I do not know it.People who can comfort the dead can also chase after themto hurt them further—a reverse ancestor worship. The realpunishment was not the raid swiftly inflicted by the villagers,but the family's deliberately forgetting her. Her betrayalso maddened them, they saw to it that she wouldsuffer forever, even after death. Always hungry, alwaysneeding, she would have to beg food from other ghosts,snatch and steal it from those whose living descendantsgive them gifts. She would have to fight the ghosts massedat crossroads for the buns a few thoughtful citizens leaveto decoy her away from village and home so that the ancestralspirits could feast unharassed. At peace, they couldact like gods, not ghosts, their descent lines providing themwith paper suits and dresses, spirit money, paper houses,paper automobiles, chicken, meat, and rice into eternity—essencesdelivered up in smoke and flames, steam andincense rising from each rice bowl. In an attempt to makethe Chinese care for people outside the family, ChairmanMao encourages us now to give our paper replicas to thespirits of outstanding soldiers and workers, no matterwhose ancestors they may be. My aunt remains foreverhungry. Goods are not distributed evenly among the dead.

    My aunt haunts me—her ghost drawn to me becausenow, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages ofpaper to her, though not origamied into houses and clothes.I do not think she always means me well. I am telling onher, and she was a spite suicide, drowning herself in thedrinking water. The Chinese are always very frightened ofthe drowned one, whose weeping ghost, wet hair hangingand skin bloated, waits silently by the water to pull downa substitute.

Copyright © 1976 Maxine Hong Kingston. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-679-72188-6