Book Review: Author Maxine Hong Kingston reflects on Chinese culture in her novel “The Woman Warrior”

“The Woman Warrior” by Chinese American author Maxine Hong Kingston published in 1976 is a unique story, combining both autobiographical and fictional elements, which creates a novel that is both enlightening and fluid. 

Readers may notice a familiar folktale in the second section of the book: “White Tigers” tells the story of Fa Mu Lan, a woman warrior who Kingston admires and the inspiration for the 1998 Disney film “Mulan.” The story of Fa Mu Lan centers around overcoming the feelings of female inferiority in the patriarchal Chinese society.

Though readers learn of this male-dominated society through Kingston’s historical novel, this phenomenon of female inferiority in Chinese culture still exists today. 

According to a New York Times article written by Amy Qin and published in 2019, China’s current leadership has relied more and more on patriarchy as a way to structure society. 

“Instead of making it easier for women to both work and have children, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has led a resurgence in traditional gender roles that has increasingly pushed women back into the home,” Qin wrote. 

This male-dominated society that Kingston writes about is not purely fictional. It is real, and it is happening today.

However, Kingston writes of her culture with grace, though she does not avoid addressing the harsh realities she and other women have faced. Through her tale of Fa Mu Lan, Kingston tells a story of overcoming feelings of female inferiority. 

[Photo of the book “The Woman Warrior”]
Photo by McKenzie Heileman | The Arbiter

“Perhaps women were once so dangerous that they had to have their feet bound,” Kingston writes, beginning the tale of Fa Mu Lan. This statement is crucial to understanding the narrator’s feelings on traditions and female inferiority. 

Kingston takes a common tradition and practice in her male-dominated society and transforms it into a source of power. She thinks that women, in the past, were powerful, dangerous even, and because of that, a part of their bodies were restricted in order to keep them from overpowering the men that dominated their society. It is a powerful way to change the script on a cruel, common practice that Kingston despises.

In and of itself, this story subverts the patriarchy by allowing a woman to take the central role, making her powerful and dominating, strictly contrasting the dominant culture. 

“Menstrual days did not interrupt my training; I was as strong as on any other day,” wrote Kingston, through Fa Mu Lan. This statement is significant in that it demonstrates that even during a time when women are perceived as weak, the narrator is not weak; she is “as strong as on any other day.”

Critic Ruth Y. Jenkins recognizes this power that Kingston creates for women by stating that Kingston authorizes the female voice throughout the novel. 

“…many stories of female experience as well as those representing other cultures are excluded, devalued, or quickly categorized as another instance of such ‘magical’ prose,” wrote Jenkins in her journal article. 

Jenkins acknowledges that often, women’s stories, and especially those of women from other cultures besides Anglo-American culture, are belittled.  

“…these narratives record stories of female experience neither sufficiently nor authentically articulated by histories constructed from patriarchal perspectives,” wrote Jenkins. However, Kingston is overcoming this fact in the writing she creates.

These stories are created from a female voice, as Jenkins implies. This is valuable because it removes the very perspective hindering the female perspective and voice. In the simple ways she structures and writes her novel, Kingston empowers the women in her novel, and those reading it.

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