MAXINE HONG KINGSTON
THE WOMAN WARRIOR
Maxine Hong Kingston is Senior Lecturer for Creative Writing at the
University of California, Berkeley. For her memoirs and fiction, The
Fifth Book of Peace, The Woman Warrior, China Men, Tripmaster
Monkey, and Hawai’i One Summer, Kingston has earned numerous
awards, among them the National Book Award, the National Book
Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, the PEN West Award for Fiction,
an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Literature
Award, and a National Humanities Medal from the National
Endowment for the Humanities, as well as the rare title of “Living
Treasure of Hawai’i.”
ALSO BY MAXINE HONG KINGSTON
Hawai’i One Summer
The Fifth Book of Peace
To Mother and Father
No Name Woman
At the Western Palace
A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe
“You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you.
In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the
family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she
had never been born.
“In 1924 just a few days after our village celebrated seventeen hurry-up
weddings—to make sure that every young man who went ‘out on the road’
would responsibly come home—your father and his brothers and your
grandfather and his brothers and your aunt’s new husband sailed for
America, the Gold Mountain. It was your grandfather’s last trip. Those
lucky enough to get contracts waved goodbye from the decks. They fed and
guarded the stowaways and helped them off in Cuba, New York, Bali,
Hawaii. ‘We’ll meet in California next year,’ they said. All of them sent
“I remember looking at your aunt one day when she and I were dressing; I
had not noticed before that she had such a protruding melon of a stomach.
But I did not think, ‘She’s pregnant,’ until she began to look like other
pregnant women, her shirt pulling and the white tops of her black pants
showing. She could not have been pregnant, you see, because her husband
had been gone for years. No one said anything. We did not discuss it. In
early summer she was ready to have the child, long after the time when it
could have been possible.
“The village had also been counting. On the night the baby was to be born
the villagers raided our house. Some were crying. Like a great saw, teeth
strung with lights, files of people walked zigzag across our land, tearing the
rice. Their lanterns doubled in the disturbed black water, which drained
away through the broken bunds. As the villagers closed in, we could see that
some of them, probably men and women we knew well, wore white masks.
The people with long hair hung it over their faces. Women with short hair
made it stand up on end. Some had tied white bands around their foreheads,
arms, and legs.
“At first they threw mud and rocks at the house. Then they threw eggs and
began slaughtering our stock. We could hear the animals scream their deaths
—the roosters, the pigs, a last great roar from the ox. Familiar wild heads
flared in our night windows; the villagers encircled us. Some of the faces
stopped to peer at us, their eyes rushing like searchlights. The hands
flattened against the panes, framed heads, and left red prints.
“The villagers broke in the front and the back doors at the same time,
even though we had not locked the doors against them. Their knives dripped
with the blood of our animals. They smeared blood on the doors and walls.
One woman swung a chicken, whose throat she had slit, splattering blood in
red arcs about her. We stood together in the middle of our house, in the
family hall with the pictures and tables of the ancestors around us, and
looked straight ahead.
“At that time the house had only two wings. When the men came back, we
would build two more to enclose our courtyard and a third one to begin a
second courtyard. The villagers pushed through both wings, even your
grandparents’ rooms, to find your aunt’s, which was also mine until the men
returned. From this room a new wing for one of the younger families would
grow. They ripped up her clothes and shoes and broke her combs, grinding
them underfoot. They tore her work from the loom. They scattered the
cooking fire and rolled the new weaving in it. We could hear them in the
kitchen breaking our bowls and banging the pots. They overturned the great
waist-high earthenware jugs; duck eggs, pickled fruits, vegetables burst out
and mixed in acrid torrents. The old woman from the next field swept a
broom through the air and loosed the spirits-of-the-broom over our heads.
‘Pig.’ ‘Ghost.’ ‘Pig,’ they sobbed and scolded while they ruined our house.
“When they left, they took sugar and oranges to bless themselves. They
cut pieces from the dead animals. Some of them took bowls that were not
broken and clothes that were not torn. Afterward we swept up the rice and
sewed it back up into sacks. But the smells from the spilled preserves
lasted. Your aunt gave birth in the pigsty that night. The next morning when I
went for the water, I found her and the baby plugging up the family well.
“Don’t let your father know that I told you. He denies her. Now that you
have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don’t
humiliate us. You wouldn’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 told stories that ran
like this one, a story to grow up on. She tested our strength to establish
realities. Those in the emigrant generations who could not reassert brute
survival died young and far from home. Those of us in the first American
generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants
built around our childhoods fits in solid America.
The emigrants confused the gods by diverting their curses, misleading
them with crooked streets and false names. They must try to confuse their
offspring as well, who, I suppose, threaten them in similar ways—always
trying to get things straight, always trying to name the unspeakable. The
Chinese I know hide their names; sojourners take new names when their
lives change and guard their real names with silence.
Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are
Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty,
insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories,
from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?
If I want to learn what clothes my aunt wore, whether flashy or ordinary, I
would have to begin, “Remember Father’s drowned-in-the-well sister?” I
cannot ask that. My mother has told me once and for all the useful parts. She
will add nothing unless powered by Necessity, a riverbank that guides her
life. She plants vegetable gardens rather than lawns; she carries the odd-
shaped tomatoes home from the 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 over the melting cones our parents
brought home from work and the American movie on New Year’s Day—Oh,
You Beautiful Doll with Betty Grable one year, and She Wore a Yellow
Ribbon with John Wayne another year. After the one carnival ride each, we
paid in guilt; our tired father counted his change on the dark walk home.
Adultery is extravagance. Could people who hatch their own chicks and
eat the embryos and the heads for delicacies and boil the feet in vinegar for
party food, leaving only the gravel, eating even the gizzard lining—could
such people engender a prodigal aunt? To be a woman, to have a daughter in
starvation time was a waste enough. My aunt could not have been the lone
romantic who gave up everything for sex. Women in the old China did not
choose. Some man had commanded her to lie with him and be his secret
evil. I wonder whether he masked himself when he joined the raid on her
Perhaps she had encountered him in the fields or on the mountain where
the daughters-in-law collected fuel. Or perhaps he first noticed her in the
marketplace. He was not a stranger because the village housed no strangers.
She had to have dealings with him other than sex. Perhaps he worked an
adjoining field, or he sold her the cloth for the dress she sewed and wore.
His demand must have surprised, then terrified her. She obeyed him; she
always did as she was told.
When the family found a young man in the next village to be her husband,
she had stood tractably beside the best rooster, his proxy, and promised
before they met that she would be his forever. She was lucky that he was her
age and she would be the first wife, an advantage secure now. The night she
first saw him, he had sex with her. Then he left for America. She had almost
forgotten what he looked like. When she tried to envision him, she only saw
the black and white face in the group photograph the men had had taken
The other man was not, after all, much different from her husband. They
both gave orders: she followed. “If you tell your family, I’ll beat you. I’ll
kill you. Be here again next week.” No one talked sex, ever. And she might
have separated the rapes from the rest of living if only she did not have to
buy her oil from him or gather wood in the same forest. I want her fear to
have lasted just as long as rape lasted so that the fear could have been
contained. No drawn-out fear. But women at sex hazarded birth and hence
lifetimes. The fear did not stop but permeated everywhere. She told the man,
“I think I’m pregnant.” He organized the raid against her.
On nights when my mother and father talked about their life back home,
sometimes they mentioned an “outcast table” whose business they still
seemed to be settling, their voices 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 the Japanese, who could
become samurais and geishas, the Chinese family, faces averted but eyes
glowering sideways, hung on to the offenders and fed them leftovers. My
aunt must have lived in the same house as my parents and eaten at an outcast
table. My mother spoke about the raid as if she had seen it, when she and my
aunt, a daughter-in-law to a different household, should not have been living
together at all. Daughters-in-law lived with their husbands’ parents, not their
own; a synonym for marriage in Chinese is “taking a daughter-in-law.” Her
husband’s parents could have sold her, mortgaged her, stoned her. But they
had sent her back to her own mother and father, a mysterious act hinting at
disgraces not told me. Perhaps they had thrown her out to deflect the
She was the only daughter; her four brothers went with her father,
husband, and uncles “out on the road” and for some years became western
men. When the goods were divided among the family, three of the brothers
took land, and the youngest, my father, chose an education. After my
grandparents gave their daughter away to her husband’s family, they had
dispensed all the adventure and all the property. They expected her alone to
keep the traditional ways, which her brothers, now among the barbarians,
could fumble without detection. The heavy, deep-rooted women were to
maintain the past against the flood, safe for returning. But the rare urge west
had fixed upon our family, and so my aunt crossed boundaries not delineated
The work of preservation demands that the feelings playing about in one’s
guts not be turned into action. Just watch their passing like cherry blossoms.
But perhaps my aunt, my forerunner, caught in a slow life, let dreams grow
and fade and after some months or years went toward what persisted. Fear
at the enormities of the forbidden kept her desires delicate, wire and bone.
She looked at a man because she liked the way the hair was tucked behind
his ears, or she liked the question-mark line of a long torso curving at the
shoulder and straight at the hip. For warm eyes or a soft voice or a slow
walk—that’s all—a few hairs, a line, a brightness, a sound, a pace, she gave
up family. She offered us up for a charm that vanished with tiredness, a
pigtail that didn’t toss when the wind died. Why, the wrong lighting could
erase the dearest thing about him.
It could very well have been, however, that my aunt did not take subtle
enjoyment of her friend, but, a wild woman, kept rollicking company.
Imagining her free with sex doesn’t fit, though. I don’t know any women like
that, or men either. Unless I see her life branching into mine, she gives me
no ancestral help.
To sustain her being in love, she often worked at herself in the mirror,
guessing at the colors and shapes that would interest him, changing them
frequently in order to hit on the right combination. She wanted him to look
On a farm near the sea, a woman who tended her appearance reaped a
reputation for eccentricity. All the married women blunt-cut their hair in
flaps about their ears or pulled it back in tight buns. No nonsense. Neither
style blew easily into heart-catching tangles. And at their weddings they
displayed themselves in their long hair for the last time. “It brushed the
backs of my knees,” my mother tells me. “It was braided, and even so, it
brushed the backs of my knees.”
At the mirror my aunt combed individuality into her bob. A bun could
have been contrived to escape into black streamers blowing in the wind or
in quiet wisps about her face, but only the older women in our picture album
wear buns. She brushed her hair back from her forehead, tucking the 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 she closed her fingers as if she were making a pair of shadow geese
bite, the string twisted together catching the little hairs. Then she pulled the
thread away from her skin, ripping the hairs out neatly, her eyes watering
from the needles of pain. Opening her fingers, she cleaned the thread, then
rolled 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 short hairs” meant a captive held with a depilatory string. It
especially hurt at the temples, but my mother said we were lucky we didn’t
have to have our feet bound when we were seven. Sisters used to sit on their
beds and cry together, she said, as their mothers or their slaves removed the
bandages for a few minutes each night and let the blood gush back into their
veins. I hope that the man my aunt loved appreciated a smooth brow, that he
wasn’t just a tits-and-ass man.
Once my aunt found a freckle on her chin, at a spot that the almanac said
predestined her for unhappiness. She dug it out with a hot needle and
washed the wound with peroxide.
More attention to her looks than these pullings of hairs and pickings at
spots would have caused gossip among the villagers. They owned work
clothes and good clothes, and they wore good clothes for feasting the new
seasons. But since a woman combing her hair hexes beginnings, my aunt
rarely found an occasion to look her best. Women looked like great sea
snails—the corded wood, babies, and laundry they carried were the whorls
on their backs. The Chinese did not admire a bent back; goddesses and
warriors stood straight. Still there must have been a marvelous freeing of
beauty when a worker laid down her burden and stretched and arched.
Such commonplace loveliness, however, was not enough for my aunt. She
dreamed of a lover for the fifteen days of New Year’s, the time for families
to exchange visits, money, and food. She plied her secret comb. And sure
enough she cursed the year, the family, the village, and herself.
Even as her hair lured her imminent lover, many other men looked at her.
Uncles, cousins, nephews, brothers would have 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 nesting birds,
might be startled and caught. Poverty hurt, and that was their first reason for
leaving. But another, final reason for leaving the crowded house was the
She may have been unusually beloved, the precious only daughter,
spoiled and mirror gazing because of the affection the 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 from other people,
“crazy ever since the little Jap bayoneted him in the head.” He used to put
his naked penis on the dinner table, laughing. And one day he brought home
a baby girl, wrapped up inside his brown western-style greatcoat. He had
traded one of his sons, probably my father, the youngest, for her. My
grandmother made him trade back. When he finally got a daughter of his
own, he doted on her. They must have all loved her, except perhaps my
father, the only brother who never went back to China, having once been
traded for a girl.
Brothers and sisters, newly men and women, had to efface their sexual
color and present plain miens. Disturbing hair and eyes, a smile like no
other, threatened the ideal of five generations living under one roof. To
focus blurs, people shouted face to face and yelled from room to room. The
immigrants I know have loud voices, unmodulated to American tones even
after years away from the village where they called their friendships out
across the fields. I have not been able to stop my mother’s screams in public
libraries or over telephones. Walking erect (knees straight, toes pointed
forward, not pigeon-toed, which is Chinese-feminine) and speaking in an
inaudible voice, I have tried to turn myself American-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, no
one could talk, not the outcasts nor any eaters. Every word that falls from
the mouth is a coin lost. Silently they gave and accepted food with both
hands. A preoccupied child who took his bowl with one hand got a
sideways glare. A complete moment of total attention is due everyone alike.
Children and lovers have no singularity here, but my aunt used a secret
voice, a separate attentiveness.
She kept the man’s name to herself throughout her labor and dying; she
did not accuse him that he be punished with her. To save her inseminator’s
name she gave silent birth.
He may have been somebody in her own household, but intercourse with
a man outside the family would have been no less abhorrent. All the village
were kinsmen, and the titles shouted in loud country voices never let kinship
be forgotten. Any man within visiting distance would have been neutralized
as a lover—“brother,” “younger brother,” “older brother”—one hundred
and fifteen relationship titles. Parents researched birth charts probably not
so much to assure good fortune as to circumvent incest in a population that
has but one hundred surnames. Everybody has eight million relatives. How
useless then sexual mannerisms, how dangerous.
As if it came from an atavism deeper than fear, I used to add “brother”
silently to boys’ names. It hexed the boys, who would or would not ask me
to dance, and made them less scary and as familiar and deserving of
benevolence as girls.
But, of course, I hexed myself also—no dates. I should have stood up,
both arms waving, and shouted out across libraries, “Hey, you! Love me
back.” I had no idea, though, how to make attraction selective, how to
control its direction and magnitude. If I made myself American-pretty so that
the five or six Chinese boys in the class fell in love with me, everyone else
—the Caucasian, Negro, and Japanese boys—would too. Sisterliness,
dignified and honorable, made much more sense.
Attraction eludes control so stubbornly that whole societies designed to
organize relationships among people cannot keep order, not even when they
bind people to one another from childhood and raise them together. Among
the very poor and the wealthy, brothers married their adopted sisters, like
doves. Our family allowed some romance, paying adult brides’ prices and
providing dowries so that their sons and daughters could marry strangers.
Marriage promises to turn strangers into friendly relatives—a nation of
In the village structure, spirits shimmered among the live creatures,
balanced and held in equilibrium by time and land. But one human being
flaring up into violence could open up a black hole, a maelstrom that pulled
in the sky. The frightened villagers, who depended on one another to
maintain 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 villagers punished 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 large grain yields and
peace, when many boys were born, and wings were being built on many
houses, perhaps she might have escaped such severe punishment. But the
men—hungry, greedy, tired of planting in dry soil—had been forced to leave
the village in order to send food-money home. There were ghost plagues,
bandit plagues, wars with the Japanese, floods. My Chinese brother and
sister had died of an unknown sickness. Adultery, perhaps only a mistake
during good times, became a crime when the village needed food.
The round moon cakes and round doorways, the round tables of graduated
sizes that fit one roundness inside another, round windows and rice bowls—
these talismans had lost their power to warn this family of the law: a family
must be whole, faithfully keeping the descent line by having sons to feed the
old and the dead, who in turn look after the family. The villagers came to
show my aunt and her lover-in-hiding a broken house. The villagers were
speeding up the circling of events because she was too shortsighted to 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 roundness had to be made coin-sized so that she would see its
circumference: punish her at the birth of her baby. Awaken her to the
inexorable. People who refused fatalism because they could invent small
resources insisted on culpability. Deny accidents and wrest fault from the
After the villagers left, their lanterns now scattering in various directions
toward home, the family broke their silence and cursed her. “Aiaa, we’re
going to die. Death is coming. Death is coming. Look what you’ve done.
You’ve killed us. Ghost! Dead ghost! Ghost! You’ve never been born.” She
ran out into the fields, far enough from the house so that she could no longer
hear their voices, and pressed herself against the earth, her own land no
more. When she felt the birth coming, she thought that she had been hurt. Her
body seized together. “They’ve hurt me too much,” she thought. “This is
gall, and it will kill me.” With forehead and knees against the earth, her
body convulsed and then relaxed. She turned on her back, lay on the ground.
The black well of sky and stars went out and out and out forever; her body
and her complexity seemed to disappear. She was one of the stars, a bright
dot in blackness, without home, without a companion, in eternal cold and
silence. An agoraphobia rose in her, speeding higher and higher, bigger and
bigger; she would not be able to contain it; there would no end to fear.
Flayed, unprotected against space, she felt pain return, focusing her body.
This pain chilled her—a cold, steady kind of surface pain. Inside,
spasmodically, the other pain, the pain of the child, heated her. For hours
she lay on the ground, alternately body and space. Sometimes a vision of
normal comfort obliterated reality: she saw the family in the evening
gambling at the dinner table, the young people massaging their elders’ backs.
She saw them congratulating one another, high joy on the mornings the rice
shoots came up. When these pictures burst, the stars drew yet further apart.
Black space opened.
She got to her feet to fight better and remembered that old-fashioned
women gave birth in their pigsties to fool the jealous, pain-dealing gods,
who do not snatch piglets. Before the next spasms could stop her, she ran to
the pigsty, each step a rushing out into emptiness. She climbed over the
fence and knelt in the dirt. It was good to have a fence enclosing her, a tribal
Laboring, this woman who had carried her child as a foreign growth that
sickened her every day, expelled it at last. She reached down to touch the
hot, wet, moving mass, surely smaller than anything human, and could feel
that it was human after all—fingers, toes, nails, nose. She pulled it up on to
her belly, and it lay curled there, butt in the air, feet precisely tucked one
under the other. She opened her loose shirt and buttoned the child inside.
After resting, it squirmed 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 her teeth at its preciousness, lovely as a
young calf, a piglet, a little dog.
She may have gone to the pigsty as a last act of responsibility: she would
protect this child as she had protected its father. It would look after her soul,
leaving supplies on her grave. But how would this tiny child without family
find her grave when there would be no marker for her anywhere, neither in
the earth nor the family hall? No one would give her a family hall name. She
had taken the child with her into the wastes. At its birth the two of them had
felt the same raw pain of separation, a wound that only the family pressing
tight could close. A child with no descent line would not soften her life but
only trail after her, ghostlike, begging her to give it purpose. At dawn the
villagers on their way to the fields would stand around the fence and look.
Full of milk, the little ghost slept. When it awoke, she hardened her
breasts against the milk that crying loosens. Toward morning she picked up
the baby and walked to the well.
Carrying the baby to the well shows loving. Otherwise abandon it. Turn
its face into the mud. Mothers who love their children take them along. It
was probably a girl; there is some hope of forgiveness for boys.
“Don’t tell anyone you had an aunt. Your father does not want to hear her
name. She has never been born.” I have believed that sex was unspeakable
and words so strong and fathers so frail that “aunt” would do my father
mysterious harm. I have thought that my family, having settled among
immigrants who had also been their neighbors in the ancestral land, needed
to clean their name, and a wrong word would incite the kinspeople even
here. But there is more to this silence: they want me to participate in her
punishment. And I have.
In the twenty years since I heard this story I have not asked for details nor
said my aunt’s name; I do not know it. People who can comfort the dead can
also chase after them to hurt them further—a reverse ancestor worship. The
real punishment was not the raid swiftly inflicted by the villagers, but the
family’s deliberately forgetting her. Her betrayal so maddened them, they
saw to it that she would suffer forever, even after death. Always hungry,
always needing, she would have to beg food from other ghosts, snatch and
steal it from those whose living descendants give them gifts. She would
have to fight the ghosts massed at crossroads for the buns a few thoughtful
citizens leave to decoy her away from village and home so that the ancestral
spirits could feast unharassed. At peace, they could act like gods, not ghosts,
their descent lines providing them with paper suits and dresses, spirit
money, paper houses, paper automobiles, chicken, meat, and rice into
eternity—essences delivered up in smoke and flames, steam and incense
rising from each rice bowl. In an attempt to make the Chinese care for
people outside the family, Chairman Mao encourages us now to give our
paper replicas to the spirits of outstanding soldiers and workers, no matter
whose ancestors they may be. My aunt remains forever hungry. Goods are
not distributed evenly among the dead.
My aunt haunts me—her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years
of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her, though not origamied into
houses and clothes. I do not think she always means me well. I am telling on
her, and she was a spite suicide, …
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