The Theme Of Identity In The Woman Warrior

We live in a society that is constantly judging other people, but sometimes, it is truly important to look inwards upon yourself and discover your own identity. In her memoir The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston discovers herself as a Chinese-American, second-generation immigrant woman, as well as discovering the gaps in her identity left by her upbringing. She then must use stories to fill those gaps and complete her identity. Throughout her memoir, Kingston uses contrasting ideas to demonstrate how competing influences leaves parts of her identity missing, implying that competing influences on a person will fragment their sense of being. She then blends fiction and reality in order to complete her own identity, implying that stories are necessary to complete one’s own.

First, Kingston contrasts competing influences in order to display how parts of identity are missing. The part of Kingston’s identity that she struggles the most to find, is what it means for her to be a Chinese Woman. At the beginning of the book, it is clear that Kingston is very confused about what it means to be a Chinese woman. As Kingston writes about the stories she heard from her mother, she shows us how complicated they were saying, 'She said I would grow up a wife and a slave, but she taught me the song of the warrior woman, Fa Mu Lan'. Here, Hong Kingston directly addresses the fact that she was taught two contradictory things about what a woman should be, first her mom told her she was to be a slave, but then second her mom taught her the songs and chants of a warrior, showing us that she has dealt with the stress of competing influences on her identity as a Chinese woman from a very early age. This ultimately proves that competing influences have impacted her life since childhood, and caused conflict and confusion internally for Kingston as she grew up without a framework as to how to be a chinese woman in society. Another part of Kingston’s identity that she struggles to define her status as a second-generation immigrant. At the beginning of the book, Kingston explains how her mother would tell her stories of China, writing that, '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'. This shows how Kingston is expected to identify as both Chinese and American, when she doesn't feel like she belongs to either of them. This clearly shows a gap in Kingston’s identity, as she cannot represent her status as a Chinese-American. Kingston also contrasts the “invisible world the immigrants built” and “solid America” showing how the two worlds are vastly different, and how Kingston is expected to be able to lie in both of them. This fragments her identity, due to the competing influences on her, being Chinese, or being American. This applies to everybody in the sense that we all have multiple parts of our identity, and it is important to know that everybody is different, with different backgrounds influencing their identity.

Next, Kingston blends reality and fiction in order to complete her identity, and fill the gaps left by competing influences. At the end of the chapter “White Tigers,” Kingston’s mother tells her a story of a great warrior named Fa Mu Lan, a woman who replaced her father in battle, and hid her gender from her people, as female warriors were not permitted to fight for their people. Near the end of the story, Kingston writes, 'The swordswoman and I are not so dissimilar...What we have in common are the words at our backs. The idioms for revenge are ‘report a crime’ and ‘report to five families.’ The reporting is the vengeance — not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words. And I have so many words —’chink’ words and “gook” words too — that they do not fit on my skin”. Kingston compares Fa Mu Lan, a warrior that defeats entire armies, with herself, a girl who hardly talks in her everyday life. The reason she makes this comparison of two very different people is to highlight the fact that both Fa Mu Lan and Kingston are burdened with the words and stereotypes placed on them by others. Fa Mu Lan has her village’s grievances quite literally carved into her back, whereas Kingston has stories of China burned into her memory and is labeled with bigoted terms by the people in her new country. The main difference between them, however, is that Fa Mu Lan is able to avenge her grievances and return home, whereas it seems as if Kingston is unable to exact her revenge, as she has so many words on her back that “they do not fit on [her] skin.” Her inability to avenge her grievances leaves a void in her identity which, in turn, she replaced with stories like that of Fa Mu Lan. It is also notable that Kingston tells the story of Fa Mu Lan in first person, further implying that she filled gaps in her identity with this story. This can be further applied to all people, as everybody lacks some part of their identity that can be replaced with other peoples stories and experiences. Before beginning the last story of her memoir, Kingston writes, 'Here is a story my mother told me, not when I was young, but recently, when I told her I also talk story. The beginning is hers, the ending, mine'. Kingston compares the beginning, her mother's section of the story, to hers, the end, in order to demonstrate how stories can have different meanings for the people that hear them, and interpret them in their own way. This implies that stories can be passed along and interpreted their own way by different people needing to fill unique holes in their identity. At the end of the story, Ts’ai Yen, a Chinese poet from years ago, was captured by Barbarians, and upon her return to her people, “She brought her songs back from the savage lands, and one of the three that has been passed down to us is ‘Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,’ a song that Chinese sing to their own instruments. It translated well”. Ts’ai Yen bringing back music to her people serves as a metaphor for Kingston, representing Kingston bringing her own stories, “back from the savage lands,” and sharing them with the world. It is also crucial the last line of the book, “It translated well.” This serves as a metaphor for how Kingston, representing the stories she hears, and that she is able to translate and adapt those stories to fill the gaps in her own identity, ultimately proving that stories are necessary to replace sections of our identities that we are lacking.

Throughout the book, The Woman Warrior, we see Maxine Hong Kingston’s holes in her identity that were left by competing influences, and how she used stories to fill those holes. Her memoir highlights the reason why discovering oneself is so important, and why in a society filled with people judging others, it is necessary to look upon oneself to complete one’s own identity. 

16 August 2021
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