Book Review – The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

The Woman Warrior cover

I adore The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. I really do. I love how I can identify with this book even though I’m not a Chinese-American woman.

The Woman Warrior showcases women as strong and complicated and it focuses on Chinese women, both real and legendary, in a way that I’ve never seen before. Kingston presents Old China as an oppressive place that must be avoided and America is a place of hope. This presentation is problematic but very telling of Kingston’s outlook on America.

Split into five sections The Woman Warrior is a memoir mixed with Chinese ‘talk stories’ that showcases Maxine Hong Kingston’s beautiful writing style and the heritage of talk stories. The structure of the novel is probably the most interesting structure I’ve encountered as each section stands alone and yet they interconnect with each other seamlessly.

The Woman Warrior starts with the story of No Name Woman, Maxine-the-narrator’s (not to be confused with Kingston-the-author) aunt. It is unclear whether the events of No Name Woman actually happened, and Maxine questions this too, or if the story is just a cautionary tale warning women to obey their husbands and stay faithful to them. This section leaves us questioning the motive behind writing The Woman Warrior. Is Kingston going to deliver a book of cautionary tales designed to oppress women or is she going to empower women? The second section leaves no doubt that this book is about strong women who make the best of their situations if they have the opportunity.

The second section, White Tigers, is a retelling of the story of Fa Mu Lan (not the Disney version, obviously) and it shows how women are multifaceted. Fa Mu Lan is a wife and a mother but she also leads an army and saves China. She is humble and returns home after the war to be with her husband and son. Fa Mu Lan is the ultimate ‘woman warrior’. Maxine tries to be like Fa Mu Lan but she cannot stand up to her racist boss. In the end she decides that she is similar to Fa Mu Lan when she says ‘What we have in common are the words at our backs’, a reference to when Fa Mu Lan’s parents carve the names of their enemies into her back before she goes off to war.

Shaman is the story of Maxine’s mother, Brave Orchid, who was a doctor in China before she moved to America. Shaman shows the importance of medicine in Chinese culture as Brave Orchid is revered among her people. Shaman is a very graphic section that deals with babies that are left to die because of defects at birth and other uncomfortable events. This section also deals with the idea of ‘ghosts’ which comes to mean white people to Brave Orchid when she moves to America. The theme of ghosts is incredibly important in The Woman Warrior as it shows how Kingston was alienated from other Americans due to her Chinese upbringing.

At The Western Palace is the story of Moon Orchid, Brave Orchid’s sister. Moon Orchid is even more isolated from Western Culture than her sister because she cannot understand the language. She even struggles to understand Maxine and her siblings when they talk in Chinese (I don’t think the specific language is ever mentioned) because of their American accents. Moon Orchid’s husband has taken another wife in America, something which was common in China but is illegal in the USA, and she is forced to compete with her husband’s second wife. The ending is not a happy one for Moon Orchid as she cannot assimilate into Western culture and she is eventually institutionalised.

The final section is A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe, which includes the story of Ts’ai Yen, a poet born in A.D. 175. Ts’ai Yen is a woman warrior in the way that Kingston is a woman warrior, through her language. She is captured by the Southern Hsiung-nu barbarians but she escapes and the brings her songs back from the savage lands and passes down “Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe”, a song for the Chinese people to play on their own instruments. Ts’ai Yen is a source of inspiration for all women that cannot be physically strong like Fa Mu Lan. Instead Ts’ai Yen relies on her talent and education, like Brave Orchid, and this is what makes her a woman warrior.

The Woman Warrior is a beautiful novel that I really recommend. The New York Times described it as “a poem turned into a sword” and I agree. The Woman Warrior is a truly powerful book. If I had to take one thing from this book it would be this: women warriors are not born, they are made. Every woman can be a warrior.


Started: 28th September 2014
Completed: 9th April 2015

4 thoughts on “Book Review – The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

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