60 pages 2 hours read

Maxine Hong Kingston

The Woman Warrior

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1976

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Summary and Study Guide


The Woman Warrior (1976) is an experimental memoir by Chinese-American author Maxine Hong Kingston. The book weaves together stories of Kingston’s childhood in California and her mother’s youth in rural China with folklore, legend, and myth, defying easy genre classification.

The book is divided into five parts. In the first, “No-Name Woman,” Kingston imagines different life stories for an aunt she never met—a woman who drowned herself and her baby after being expelled from her village for adultery. Kingston vividly imagines a variety of narratives detailing her unnamed aunt’s life. In the process, she surveys traditional Chinese ideals of womanhood, family, and conformity, considers her own fraught relationship with these traditions, and examines the deep secrecies and unspeakable truths in her family. She also emphasizes the reality and importance of ghosts in her life: her nameless aunt haunts her, perhaps literally.

In Part 2, “White Tigers,” Kingston’s memoir leaps into a fantastical spirit journey. She imagines her young self being called to mythical mountains to train as a woman warrior, a folkloric figure with magical fighting powers who protects and avenges her people. Having recounted this imagined epic life, Kingston returns to her real-life childhood, telling a much less glorious story of suffering and sexism. She describes how her community, even her family, routinely belittled and dismissed girls. Even as an adult she is frustrated by her inability to combat the racism she encounters in her daily life. However, she acknowledges that her warrior-self and her quotidian-self share one thing: the force of “words at their backs” (63).

Part 3, “Shaman,” is the story of Kingston’s formidable mother, Brave Orchid. While Brave Orchid’s husband is away in America, and after the loss of her first two children, she puts herself through medical school and returns to her home village as an honored doctor and midwife. Kingston also describes Brave Orchid’s run-ins with ghosts: She exorcises a monstrous hairy being from a school dorm and escapes a half-man, half-ape. Brave Orchid is presented as a woman whose tremendous powers bridge the mythic and scientific worlds.

Part 4, “At the Western Palace,” jumps forward into Brave Orchid’s life as an immigrant in California, specifically to the events preceding her sister Moon Orchid’s immigration. The gentle, ineffectual Moon Orchid is abandoned by her husband, who immigrates some time before her, and Brave Orchid concocts a series of dramatic schemes to reunite them and oust the husband’s second wife. The failure of these plans drives Moon Orchid to madness and death. This leaves a traumatic impression on Brave Orchid’s Americanized children, particularly Kingston.

The final section, “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” returns to Kingston’s childhood, namely her struggles with communication. Kingston recalls her difficulty speaking as a child; in one striking incident, she displaces her self-hatred onto another Chinese girl who’s even more silent than she, bullying her mercilessly in a school bathroom. At last, Kingston finds her voice, standing up to her parents and rejecting their expectations. But in doing so, she loses contact with the part of her heritage that unites reason and mystery. In the process of writing her memoir, Kingston rediscovers this synthesis. She ends with the story of a Chinese noblewoman, kidnapped by barbarians, who nevertheless sings beautifully in her own language.

This study guide refers to the 1977 Vintage paperback edition. Your edition’s page numbers may vary.

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