Tag Archives: Maxine Hong Kingston

FINAL PAPER: Analysis Of Kingstons’ “No Name Woman” from “The Woman Warrior”

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.

Deconstructing Kingston’s “No Name Woman”

 “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” (1507-1508).

Stripped down: saw, teeth strung, files, tearing, disturbed black water, drained away, white masks

This passage illustrates the tight knit nature of Chinese society and the destructive role it plays in the lives of these immigrants. The aunt carries on an adulterous affair, which leads to the discovery of her illegitimate child. This causes her neighbors and friends to take up arms and raid her home. The destructive imagery used here mirrors the destructive nature of Chinese society, specifically the role of women. Kingston’s aunt gives into risky sexual passion and is cast away by her village, a result just as powerful as death itself. Kingston is trying to make sense of ancient traditions and customs, while adjusting to a completely new culture. She paints a picture of a society where women and men have strict duties and jobs, with little room for private lives. Interestingly, Kingston mentions how the time period also affects the impact adultery has on the community. If the adultery had been committed during a time when food was abundant, it would have been considered a mistake and possibly been overlooked, but since the resources were scarce, adultery became a serious crime! This baby became a burden to not only the no name woman but the entire community itself, who would have to take it upon themselves to assist in the child’s upbringing and well-being.

When stripped down, this verse consists of violent words and imagery implying punishment and torture. Breaking the rules in this society was grounds for banishment. Once one was removed from the tight inner circle of the Chinese society, the duty of trying to make a life in a foreign environment was very difficult. Kingston’s choice of words is quite interesting. The saw shows the dependency on agriculture, but also foreshadows industrialization. She continues to describe how the teeth tear open the rice, which is a staple crop of Chinese culture. The next descriptors she uses, black water and white masks, indicate no color at all. This could represent the two sides: to the Chinese villagers, the issue of adultery is black and white, with little grey in between. It could also represent the black and white nature of Chinese society itself; change is frowned upon and the people continue to live in the past. In addition, the color white in Chinese culture is a color of mourning, as if these villagers are saddened by having to outcast the no name woman and are using the masks not only to provide anonymity, but to hide their sorrow.

The author placed these terms together to convey the rigidity and cruelty of Chinese society if customs were violated. This passage also illustrates the concept of separate spheres, or the roles that men and women play.

Deconstructing “roundness” in No Name Woman (p 1513)

Original:

“The round moon cakes and round doorways, the round tables of graduated size 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.”

Transformed:

“These talismans—the round moon cakes and round doorways, round windows and rice bowls—had lost their power to warn this family of the law. A family must be whole, like the round tables of graduated size that fit one roundness inside another. By faithfully keeping the descent line by having sons, the old and the dead are fed.  In turn, the family is looked after.”

The transformed passage lacks the idea of circularity, of completeness, that is very present in the original passage. Everyone has a clear duty in the family. Women bear sons. Sons feed the family. Dead ancestors watch over the family. Everything is neat and orderly, and anyone who steps out of their place and breaks the circle has betrayed family. In the original passage, Kingston organizes the ideas so that each has its own place, yet easily links to the next. First, examples of the physically-round talismans are listed. The talismans are symbolic by nature, and so she describes the law that they represent. The law ends up being circular in itself, and appropriately concludes the passage (the circularity refers back to the importance of roundness in the talismans).

On the other hand, the transformed passage goes back and forth between ideas. First the talismans and their purpose are introduced, but are juxtaposed by physical examples of such objects. Then the law starts to be described, but that too is interrupted with another example. And finally the description of the law is complete, but end result is that the theme of circularity isn’t as prominent. Instead of feeling the “roundness” of the language while we read, it seems like we are being dragged from one point to another, as if the passage was composed of jagged zig-zag lines. Supporting this idea is the structure of the original passage, which connects grammatically. By strategically placing a dash and a colon, Kingston literally connects 3 different phrases to form one flowing sentence. The transformed passage, however, with the phrases split into 4 sentences, sounds choppy and detached—almost lecture-like.

Through the transformed passage, we can more greatly appreciate how Kingston had the original passage link together, both through words and grammatical structure, to complete the vision of roundness in the family.

Introduction on Maxine Hong Kingston

Maxine Hong Kingston was not only a noted American Modernist, but her works were also of importance to the feminist movement and immigrants living in the United States. As a first generation Asian American, she knew the societal struggles of both being a woman in America, and being so close, yet so far from her own culture.

Born in Stockton California on October 27th, 1940, Kingston was the first of six children of her mother and father to be born in the United States. Kingston attended the University of California, Berkeley in 1962. It is here that she graduated, earned her BA in English, and found and later married a fellow classmate and father of her son. Kingston also spent most of her life in California, moving to Honolulu Hawaii in 1967 and teaching English at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu for a few years, then moving back to California to teach at Berkeley around the 1980s.

Finding inspiration in other American Modernist like Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Virginia Woolf, Kingston was also attributed to helping the feminist movement and civil rights in America with her works like The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts and China Men. She however faced criticism, as many authors do, for tainting traditional Chinese myths and stories to please her audience. Despite the criticisms, Kingston still holds awards like a National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Book Award under her literary belt.

Maxine Hong Kingston’s particular way of standing out from other writers is that it is classified as nonfiction, yet the stories hold myth-like features and somewhat fictional-like personal interpretations/memoirs. Since the story presented in No Name Woman is Kingston’s recollection of a story told by her mother, it is important to pay attention to the vividness, accepted beauty of language, themes, symbols, and any other importance of items that Kingston presents in this nonfictional work. Throughout, one may question the reality of the text, but one must also recall that it is classified as nonfiction.

Finally, bringing a quick introduction to the assigned reading, No Name Woman is Kingston’s retelling of a story her mother told her when she was “coming of age” to be cautious in her actions. The story within the story tells of how Maxine’s aunt (on her father’s side) got pregnant by someone other than her husband, and how the other villagers and family members of the aunt saw this as disgraceful and “gull.” It is important to note however that it is never clear if the child was a boy or girl or if the aunt willingly had illegitimate sex, although there is room for speculation of both that could go either way. In the end of the story within the story (although clearly stated at the beginning) the aunt jumps in the family well with the baby, committing a murder suicide to either save and protect, or escape the shame and solitude she and her baby would have had to face.