Cultural Politics and Chinese-American Female Subjectivity: Rethinking Kingston's Woman Warrior



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My mother and father and the entire clan would be living happily on the
money I had sent them. My parents had bought their coffins. They would
sacrifice a pig to the gods that I had returned. From the words on my back,
and how they were fulfilled, the villagers would make a legend about my
perfect filiality. (54)

 

In celebrating the woman warrior as a success in patriarchal terms, Kingston literally pits the woman warrior against the "no-name woman," who is a failure in Chinese society precisely because she steps out of the roles of a daughter and a wife defined by the Confucian tradition and seeks love that would challenge the patriarchal rule of chastity and loyalty. In using patriarchal discourse to describe a female subject, Kingston's writing strategy fails to produce the effect of what Michel Foucault calls "the reverse discourse," a discourse which tries to demand its legitimacy by deploying the very same vocabulary and categories under which it was previously disqualified (Sexuality 101). The pitfall in Foucault's argument is that he overemphasizes the dialectical function of the multiple discursive elements in discourse and thus downplays the unequal balance of power among discourses in a given social and cultural context. In other words, the dominant and marginal discourses are often related but not necessarily always exchangeable in a dialectical sense. In this light, when she accepts the "no-name woman" as a failure and the woman warrior as a success in patriarchal terms, Kingston cannot effect any critique of Chinese patriarchal values but reproduces their logic in rewriting the female subject. In pairing these two stories of women in terms of success and failure, Kingston sets up a problematic pattern in her work which never questions the implication of patriarchal discourses or discusses sexism and racism as both intersecting and equally oppressive of Chinese-American women in the American context. In the later pairs of stories of Brave Orchid and Moon Orchid, of the narrator herself and the pink-faced girl, Kingston sends out a confusing message about how to rewrite Chinese-American female subjectivity.
IV. Chinese Immigrant Women's Life Stories
Following the pattern of the "no-name woman" versus the woman warrior, Kingston divides Chinese and Chinese-American women into the successful and unsuccessful, the active and passive, the articulate and inarticulate. Considering the "no-name woman" as a failure, Kingston describes her mother Brave Orchid as a new woman warrior who tries to succeed by becoming independent and by eliminating signs of weakness that are conventionally associated with women, or rather, Chinese women.

Kingston begins by describing Brave Orchid's glorious past in China. Since she understands the importance of a Western education in partially feudal and partially colonial China, Brave Orchid invests in a vocational school education and studies the science of gynecology. Her ambition pays off when she returns to her home village triumphantly as a doctor and relives the dream of the woman warrior: "She was welcomed with garlands and cymbals the way people welcome the `barefoot doctors' today. But the Communists wear a blue plainness dotted with one red Mao button. My mother wore a silk robe and western shoes with big heels, and she rode home carried in a sedan chair" (90).


However, when she immigrates to the United States, Brave Orchid finds that the whole social and cultural scenario is different, and her careful calculation in China no longer counts in the American context. Giving up her medical practice without any choice or question, she readily redefines her position as her husband's helper in the family laundry business and as a homemaker responsible for raising all six children. Brave Orchid maintains her illusion of honor and glory by working hard and showing an aggressive attitude: "I have not stopped working since the day the ship landed. I was on my feet the moment the babies were out" (122). Heavy workloads and harsh working conditions in Chinese laundries in the early twentieth century are well documented in sociologist Paul Siu's The Chinese Laundryman. Siu not only analyzes the history, structure, and function of the laundry business in the Chinese-American experience, but also records the inhuman working conditions of and hostile environment toward Chinese laundries in the US. The typical workload for the laundry worker was six and a half days a week, thirteen to fifteen hours a day, as recorded in the case study of the Sam Moy Laundry in Chicago. Business started at 8:00 a.m. but did not close until 11:30 p.m., a time when the workers had supper: "After supper, they all sat out in the yard to cool off before they went to bed. But they did not sleep until 1:00 a.m. It was a heavy meal, a big bowl of soup and large dishes of meat and vegetables. The shopping was done in Chinatown Sunday afternoon" (74).
Caught in the reality of laundry business, Brave Orchid is totally consumed by hard work: "I can't stop working. When I stop working, I hurt. My head, my back, my legs hurt. I get dizzy. I can't stop" (124). Brave Orchid not only works under an instinct for what Sau-ling Wong defines as "necessity," a survival strategy originating from her native land where "scarcity of resources has given rise to a rigid, family-centered social structure" ("Necessity" 5), but also hopes to keep the sense of honor and pride which the story of the woman warrior promotes. She continues to send money to relatives in China and endeavors to maintain the impression among her relatives and villagers that the family is doing well in its business and in the US. Working in the enclave of Chinatown and observing Chinese cultural tradition, Brave Orchid never raises any question about Chinese-American reality: Why were Chinese-American businesses separated from the mainstream economy? Why didn't working class immigrant women like herself get any adequate training for the work force?

In Strangers from a Different Shore, historian Ronald Takaki notes: "The Chinese were located in a different sector of the labor market from whites. By 1920, 58 percent of the Chinese were in services, most of them in restaurant and laundry work, compared to only 5 percent for native whites and 10 percent for foreign whites" (240) Like most other Chinese immigrants who lack English and sufficient training for the work force, Brave Orchid cannot practice medicine in the United States but falls into the category of unskillful and incompetent immigrant women workers of color. Inside Chinatown, Brave Orchid has been confined to the heavy work in laundry business; outside Chinatown, her opportunity has equally been limited to low-paying farm labor, and she has to compete with other immigrants of color: "She dyed her hair so that the farmers would hire her. She would walk to Skid Row and stand in line with the hobos, the winos, the junkies, and the Mexicans until the farm buses came and the farmers picked out the workers they wanted" (121). While displaying humor in retelling her mother's stories of China and of the United States, Kingston never explores the issue of institutional racism in the US context but only briefly mentions incidents that might have racial overtones and implications. Brave Orchid sometimes cannot help complaining, "I have worked too much. Human beings don't work like this in China" (123).


Although hardly successful herself in the United States, Brave Orchid tries to impose her own standard of honor and success upon her sister Moon Orchid, who has been first disoriented in colonial Hong Kong and then displaced in American culture and society when persuaded to immigrate to the United States. Brave Orchid wants Moon Orchid to confront her bigamist husband and to avenge herself on him for the shame she has suffered for thirty years. Because Moon Orchid is unprepared either intellectually or physically for the moment, such a confrontation proves disastrous in that it exposes the weaknesses of both sisters.
Although the meeting means a fight for her rights and a chance to break her silence of thirty years, the bigamist's question, "what do you want?", immediately silences Moon Orchid, bringing her back into her previous mentality and situation. Her only protest is recapitulated in the weak but crucial question: "how about me?". This is a question rehearsed for thirty years and finally delivered to the right person. But the effort of becoming a speaking subject is immediately interrupted, and compromised by a reconfirmation of the former deal: "You go live with your daughter. I'll mail you the money I've always sent you" (177).
Unable to consider the situation outside of Chinese patriarchal discourse, Brave Orchid finally demands that Moon Orchid's bigamist husband buy them a decent meal as compensation for their long trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles, rather than apologize to her sister, who has lived like a widow through her entire marriage of thirty years. This meal confirms Moon Orchid as a subaltern who is neither prepared to fight for justice in the United States, nor able to endure the inhuman working conditions in a Chinese-American laundry. Moon Orchid restages the no-name woman tragedy in the American context: she dies in a California state mental asylum, an institution which removes her from the family's awareness and experience and relieves her of her miseries and sufferings, in an ironic sense.
From the tragedy of Moon Orchid, the narrator as the second-generation Chinese-American learns the importance of breaking silence and asserting herself as a speaking subject. In practicing her own understanding of a speaking and assertive subject, the narrator targets an inarticulate pink-cheeked Chinese-American girl who never expresses herself in public and always needs protection from her older sister. In forcing the little girl to speak, the narrator repeats exactly the logic that Brave Orchid has imposed on Moon Orchid.
When running into the little girl in the school restroom by herself, the narrator uses force to create a speaking subject: "I could work her face around like dough. She stood still, and I did not want to look at her face anymore; I hated fragility. I walked around her, looked her up and down the way the Mexican and Negro girls did when they fought, so tough" (204). In fighting silence and weakness as the only enemy, the narrator exposes her own desire and anxiety, and confirms the social pressure of assimilation at her specific historic juncture. The little girl in this situation becomes what Elaine Kim calls "her anti-self, an alter-ego, another Chinese American girl who represents the fragility and softness of the victim as opposed to the survivor" (153). In suggesting what would become of a Chinese-American woman in an American context and how a Chinese-American woman should cope with American culture and society, Kingston as the narrator does not simply teach the little girl of the social reality in the United States but also validates the logic of the woman warrior in her own version in the sense that women should achieve what the patriarchal society values as important and successful. In other words, being a cheerleader and getting dates in US culture and society is an equivalent to bringing honor and glory to one's family and village in Chinese culture and society.
V. Towards the Possibility of Rewriting a Transnational Feminist Subject?
In the last chapter, "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," Kingston rewrites the story of Ts'ai Yen, a poetess who was born in A.D. 175 and abducted by Huns in Northern China. Kingston redefines cultural appropriation as a mode of articulating one's own experience through the language and thought of another culture. In stating that "it translated well," Kingston tries to justify her strategy in writing the story of exile and women and rewriting the no-name woman's tragedy and the woman warrior's legend.

However, the translation of Ts'ai Yen's sensibility, which emphasizes her Han ethnicity and her final return to the Central Kingdom, proves inadequate to express Kingston's own interest and experience as a second-generation Chinese-American who does not want to return to China but lives the American Dream in the US. In fact, Kingston's translation of Chinese culture directs the attention of uninformed readers from Chinese-America to China and, in that sense, promotes misconception and reconfirms Orientalist stereotypes about Chinese-Americans living as foreigners in the US. As Sau-ling Wong puts it, "part of The Woman Warrior's popularity has been fueled by a misplaced fascination with traditional Chinese culture, which may mean that the endeavor to produce a `translatable' Chinese American literature is destined to be undermined by stereotyping and Orientalism" ("Cultural" 35).


In an interview with Paula Rabinowitz after the publication of The Woman Warrior, Kingston promotes different reading strategies by re-situating her work in relation to mainstream American literature and suggests her efforts at rewriting American literature from the perspective of an Asian American woman:

 
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