Question: In what ways does Kingston defend her aunt by denouncing the problem of Chinese culture while still attempting to be respectful of her ancestry?
The story, “No Name Woman” by Maxine Hong Kingston recounts the tale of a young woman who became pregnant while unmarried and is forced to suffer the consequences. This story blurs the lines between truth and falsehood, making it difficult to decipher accurate information about the no name woman. Kingston illustrates the struggle of Chinese American immigrants to assimilate and debates the difference between authenticity and personal experience. If one reads the work just as the story of the aunt, one misses the underlying message regarding Chinese society and its detrimental effect on women. This work is a story within a story; it describes the aunt’s journey, but it also serves as a diary for the author to help resolve her mixed emotions.
Confucian familial structure stemmed from the men down. The men were the heads of the house and the leaders of society. The children, more specifically the sons, were to do as they were told and model their behavior after their fathers. Having female children, especially if you did not have a son already, was shameful, and many baby girls were abandoned. If the family was behaving according to tradition, virtue would flow down the chain of command. A woman’s duties included bearing and raising children, footbinding (if wealthy), cooking, cleaning, and serving her husband. A woman could not own land or file for divorce; once she entered a marriage she was bound to her husband. Women were gentle beings, who were viewed as delicate and fragile, devoid of their own opinions and thoughts. Kingston views this disrespect of women as a weakness of Chinese culture.
The first line hints at the secretive nature of Chinese society, another cultural weaknesses that troubles the author. “You must not tell anyone” (Norton 1507). Kingston is illustrating the concept of the inner circle. Chinese citizens tend to close off communication and analyze their words before speaking for fear of negative repercussions. The talk-story Kingston is about to hear is shameful; negative history follows generation after generation. The family in Chinese society is the most important unit, and all actions of the family members affect the entire group. Ironically, Kingston works diligently throughout this story to uncover her aunt’s history, something that her mother and father have worked hard to keep hidden. She is differentiating herself from her culture by publishing the very secret that continues to perturb her.
The author describes America as the “Gold Mountain,” or the epitome of opportunity and success. Chinese citizens were fed up with their oppressive war-lord governmental system. Many made the decision to move to America, hoping to live the American dream and achieve success. This move exposed the Chinese to a new culture, giving them a reference point to compare their society to. Their illusion of what it meant to be American was shattered. This was the exact same for Kingston, living in America made her realize that no one shares a common experience; we may all be American but we all perceive America differently. This idea was the basis for her questioning the truthfulness of her aunt’s history. Her mother’s experience is unique and personal, just as Kingston presumes her aunt’s experience was. Kingston never would have written this novel if she had not immigrated to America. This move gave Kingston the freedom of expression and the comparative mindset she needed to observe her culture analytically.
Kingston introduces the villagers, who represent one source of stress to the family system. They’re the ones who suspected the aunt of being impregnated by another man and violently storm the house. “As the villagers closed in, we could see that some of them, probably men and women we knew well, wore white masks” (Norton 1508). Their friends and neighbors, feeling burdened by the weight of Chinese society and tradition, must destroy the house and livelihood of friends and comrades. They wear white masks not only to conceal their identity but also to hide their grief. The color white in ancient Chinese society is associated with mourning. These villagers are mourning the loss of a member of their community. Contradicting tradition, some may believe the aunt was raped or believe that the whole family should not suffer. However, if they betrayed tradition, they would be ostracized. One of the pillars of Chinese culture is networking and familial ties. If someone is banished, they’re an “other,” or someone with no ties or connections to Chinese culture. This instance begs the question of when to stand up for what is right even though the consequences may be severe. Sometimes traditions are rooted so tightly that change is frowned upon, even when it is correct. Kingston breaks away from this idea when she chooses to defend her aunt and view her story as oppression rather than direct betrayal.
Kingston’s mother threatens her, exclaiming, “You wouldn’t like to be forgotten as if you had never been born. The villagers are watchful” (Norton 1508). This stresses the importance of this secret being kept within the family. Kingston goes on to explain that her mother enjoys testing her. However, Kingston isn’t one to trust the story; she begins to question the validity of the tale by exclaiming, “What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies” (Norton 1509). As desperate as the Chinese Americans were to maintain their tradition and culture, they were also desperate to fit in and assimilate. This questioning of the validity of the story renders the reader incapable of distinguishing between what is authentic to Chinese culture and what is personal fiction. Kingston is rejecting the idea that Chinese culture is authentic and real, trying desperately to separate herself from that viewpoint. Kingston is claiming that Americans, when they ask Chinese citizens about their culture, take that one unique experience and apply it universally. These people serve as synecdoches for an entire culture.
Kingston’s imagination then begins to run wild, filling in the blanks of her aunt’s history with overdramatic storylines. Her aunt is one of the victims of Chinese culture, she serves as a symbol of the way the patriarchal system suppresses women. Kingston feels the responsibility to represent her aunt and speak for her. The aunt, according to Kingston’s version, was a victim of a man’s lust. This story shows the skewed nature of ancient Chinese society. It is even more unbearable for Kingston, especially because her own mother is supportive of the actions towards her aunt. It is clear that her aunt cared for the child because she carried the baby over to the well and held it tightly in her arms during their final moments together. The aunt chose to perform this act because she and her child were isolated from society and devoid of hope to regain status. Her baby would enter the world without network ties and anyone to care for it, and the thought of the horrible life her child would endure made her uneasy. This situation reinforces the idea that one person’s actions haunt an entire family.
The ghost imagery continues to resurface throughout the story. This imagery indicates the close ties the Chinese have to ancestors and their belief in the after-life. In this case, however, the aunt does not have anyone to provide for her in life after death, so she is constantly begging others for food, wandering hungry. She haunts Kingston as well, serving as a constant reminder of the consequences that can occur as a result of one’s actions. Kingston is torn; there is a presumption in speaking for her aunt even though she may have wanted to silence herself. Kingston is anxious about the use of her aunt as a political symbol for the impropriety of Chinese culture.
The elements of Chinese society merge together towards the end of the story. “The round moon cakes and round doorways, the round tables of graduated size that fit one roundess 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” (Norton 1513). Everyone has their place in the tight circle that is Chinese society. The roundness indicates that the family functions as a whole unit, with each generation dependent on the other. The grandparents depend on their kids to take care of them in old age and the cycle continues as the parent’s age. One of the biggest disgraces in Chinese society is neglecting the elderly. Chinese tradition is what fuels this circle; it establishes the cultural norms and practices that define what it means to be Chinese. Not only does this circle represent familial relations, it also represents the circle of life.
This story, although it is a story about an aunt whose life fell into disarray, is in fact a historical recollection of Chinese society and a questioning of Chinese identity. The story first lays the background of the Confucian system and the need for immigration to America. It illustrates the roles of women and men in Chinese society, with women being subservient to men. In addition to laying the foundational Chinese traditional principles, the story demonstrates what occurs if one steps out of line: banishment, disgrace, and loneliness. Kingston gives the reader insight into the history of Chinese culture, which serves as a rigid guideline for the problems encountered throughout this story. Kingston is trying to come to terms with her identity in Chinese society, while continuing to give her aunt a lost voice. By writing this novel, she’s shining light on the plight of her aunt, showing respect for Chinese culture, and illustrating the problems that led to her aunt’s suicide.