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Maxine Hong Kingston's groundbreaking semi-autobiographical work, The Woman Warrior, was first published in 1976, long predating the current trend of memoirs and creative nonfiction. In addition, The Woman Warrior was one of the first literary works to address the unique struggle for autonomy and identity that is faced by women of color in America, especially those who, as children of immigrants, traverse the border between American culture and that of their native country as embodied in the older generation.
Kingston's The Woman Warrior
In the text, Kingston relates her family's history, intertwined with folktales from the Chinese culture that underscore that society's historical lack of respect for females. Kingston's attempt to define her own identity from amidst the intersection of American and Chinese cultures is the overarching theme of The Woman Warrior. Woven through the book are three main areas of conflicted personal identity that Kingston faces:
- What it means to be Chinese in America
- What it means to be female in Chinese culture
- Creating an aggregate whole that reconciles all of these elements
- Honoring Chinese cultural traditions while recognizing their fundamental misogyny
One of the central conflicts that Kingston navigates in The Woman Warrior is the jarring cultural displacement of being a Chinese child in America in the 1940s, "othered" on several levels by her non-Caucasian outward appearance, language, and mannerisms. As Kingston describes her early experience in kindergarten, it is clear that the world view and entire mode of being that has been instilled in her as a young Chinese girl is at odds with what is deemed socially acceptable in America. For instance, the young Kingston is at first unable to grasp that class participation, a pillar of the American educational system, is central to her success as a student. This concept is wholly alien to Kingston's traditional Chinese world view, in which children, particularly girls, are expected to be silent and obedient.
Self Identity in Kingston's The Woman Warrior
Similarly, Kingston's development of an autonomous self-identity is challenged by her need to reconcile the traditional Chinese treatment of women with her perception of women as essentially strong and good. Through the stories her mother, Brave Orchid, relates to her, Kingston the child recognizes the paradoxical disparity between the strength and heroic actions of women and their status as little more than domestic slaves and chattel in the view of traditional Chinese culture. One moment in Kingston's childhood that succinctly encapsulates the tension between these two perceptions of the innate value of women is her realization of the significance that one Chinese term for female had the alternate connotation of slave.