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Women's History - The Woman Warrior: White Tigers and Ghosts

Updated on September 4, 2015
A woman in China in traditional attire.
A woman in China in traditional attire. | Source

Chinese Immigration and Women's Rolls

I first read this book when alerted to it by another in the martial arts classes I was taking during my second year of study. She had majored in Chinese studies in college, traveled to China twice and married a young Chinese man, She lived as the "daughter-in-law" in Hong Kong for some time, expected to do all the housework and cooking for the extended family. She was remarried to the young man in an American ceremony in California and moved to Texas and beyond, both working in the restaurant business (he the more successfully). Within just a few years, her husband divorced her and returned to Texas. Practically penniless, she had to begin her career over and landed in a substantial government job a two years later. Her married life had been a war zone of survival between Chinese and American cultures in reality and inside of herself. She was stuck in between identities.

This is a book that I will re-read every 5 years, because that is at least how often we must reminded of just how far minorities and women in the world have come or have not come in achieving the value and personhood they should achieve. Some years, they progress and regress at the same time...

A very good reminder of this is another book I recently reviewed: FireWife. Oftentimes, I will pass on review copies of books to others, but this is one I will keep, alongside Woman Warriorand some of the works by and about Native American men and women, African Americans, Aboriginals, Aborigines, and others. I felt this way about "minorities" before I discovered that I was substantially Native American and I have felt this way afterward. As the Chinese Sage relates:

Before enlightenment - chop wood, carry water

After enlightenment - chop wood, carry water.

Maxine Hong is a native Californian, born there to Chinese immigrant parents that eventually had a total of 8 children. In China, maxine's father was a scholar and respected teacher, but in America, Tom Hong could not find work as a trained poet or calligrapher, much less a teacher in the 1920s. He bought into a laundry in New York City in 1924, but was cheated out of his earnings.

Tom's wife, Ying Lan Hong, was also known as Orchid and she joined her husband in 1939 in NYC, but not until 15 years later. She had been certified as a midwife in the To Keung School of Midwifery in Canton, China. However, Tome and Orchid moved to Stockton, California and Tom accepted a job in a local casino in order to earn better wages. Neither of Maxine's parents were able to apply his or her professional training in America in the 1930s and 1940s amd this is a regretable injustice.

Not only have non-whites (mostly anyone except British-Euopean stock) had to fight for eqal opportunities in America, but so have women, and Maxine is both. She and other Chinese women have been warriors, first inorder to survive their own cultures, and then in order to survive America's.

White Tiger - Still Water


Chinese Secrets

The Woman Warrior begins as a mystery or a secret of sorts:

You must not tell anyone," my mother said, "what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born.

Women seemingly have not been much valued in China and some other Asian countries in the past, although after the Communist Revolution there, males and females were to be treated as equals among the proletariat. However, that does not keep Chinese couples that are expecting an infant to hope that it is a boy; nor some Chinese medicos in come cities from placing female infants in barely furnished killing rooms at birth, closing the door, and returning only to discard the dead bodies.

This book is the story of women that have survived cultures and been caught in between two sets of values or two identities, as was my acquaintance from martial arts class.

The story of this book goes on to demonstate that an adulterous woman became pregnant. She was terrorized by her entire village for her sin (ala The Scarlet Letter). Then she drowned in a well right after the infant was born in a pigsty after the villagers had plundered the family property, butchering the animals as well. This woman could not live in either her lover's world or in her own village, and therefore was caught between the worlds. It could be Chinese Opera or Kabuki or a Greek Classic tale.

The narrator of the story tells her young daughter in the days of her first menstruations, that the same thing could happen to her that had happened to that unfortunate woman and infant dead in the well (the girl's own aunt and cousin). What a horrible way to come into womanhood, with such a story!

The daughter goes on to tell the warning tales her mother told her about life, confusing her in America. She states that the first generation Chinese Americans had to figure out life for themselves and taking on new names in order to do so, reamining confused, perhaps. They felt that they had to hide their Chinese-ness, but also knew that they could not do so. They were caught between identities, keeping their true selves as secrets.

Chinese Five Spice Powder. Traditional: Sichuan peppercorn, cloves, cinnamon, fennel seeds, and star anise; clockwise from bottom right.
Chinese Five Spice Powder. Traditional: Sichuan peppercorn, cloves, cinnamon, fennel seeds, and star anise; clockwise from bottom right. | Source

Five Stories Like Chinese Five Spice

The title of the book is taken form the second story of five, called "White Tigers."This story is very significant, because in parts of Asia, the WHITE TIGER, the female aspect, holds the earth up and saves her from falling out of the universe; while the BLUE DRAGON, the male aspect, holds the earth down and keeps her from flying away to oblivion. Every 500 years, the dragon becomes the tiger in order to learn more and to prepare and the tiger becomes the dragon in order to do more. This is the system of change patterned after the chancing of the north and south pole every several thousands of years, and the interchanging of yin and yang forces, or the dance of male and female, or the circling around of the hands of God. The significance of the "second story" is that 2 represents a still water, restful and meditative, yet full of potential be used for action at a later time.

The first story is "No-Name Woman", the third is "Shaman", the fourth is "At the Western Palace" (about mental illness incurred via moving to America), and the fifth is "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe", about the California public schools Ms. Kingston attended.

The story's narrator imagines herself to be a legendary ancient Chinese woman warrior known as Fa Mulan. Fa learned martial arts from a couple who were hundreds of years old and then gathered an army to take over the corrupt government. After her warriors' battles, Fa became a traditional mother and wife (tiger to dragon to tiger).


The Chinese Talk-Story

The Warrior Woman is written in the style of the Chinese talk-story, which is a combination of true experiences and ancient legends. It is is much like "tall tales" told by men sitting around the cracker barrel in 19th century general stores or by fishermen everywhere. In fact, the storyline of the film Big Fish turns out to be a talk-story, evidenced by the circus peole that show up attend the protagonist's funeral and appear to really be 3/4 of what the deceased described them to be in his stories to his son ver the years.

For a talk-story about what it is like to attempt to live in American culture after moving to the US from another.stricter and more binding culture,read The Woman Warrior.

Ms. Hong on Writing

© 2008 Patty Inglish MS


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