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



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I directly continue Williams Carlos Williams' In the American Grain. He
stopped in 1860 and I picked it up in 1860 and carried it forward. When I
was writing "No Name Woman," I was thinking about Nathaniel Hawthorne and
The Scarlet Letter as a discussion of the Puritan part of America, and of
China, and a woman's place.("Eccentric" 182)

 

Alluding to the issues of women and history, Kingston concludes that she "was creating something new" and it was "the American language pushed further" (182).

In comparing "the no-name woman" to the protagonist Hester Prynne of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and in emphasizing a new dimension she has created for the American language, Kingston attempts to deflect criticism from those who have accused her of situating Asian American experience outside of an American cultural context and thus perpetuating the stereotypes of Asian Americans as foreigners and outsiders. Furthermore, when identifying the "no-name woman" with Hester Prynne, Kingston also appeals to feminist discourse of collaboration and collectivity among women and invites a reading of her work as a cultural autobiography of Chinese and Chinese-American women. She thus expresses her rhetorical situation: "Now, of course, I expected The Woman Warrior to be read from the women's lib angle and the Third World angle, the Roots angle; but it is up to the writer to transcend trendy categories" ("Mis-readings 55). Like her work in general, Kingston's message here is complicated: on the one hand, she begs for a feminist reading of her work in order to free herself from criticism by Asian American cultural nationalists; on the other hand, she equally recognizes that her book has different discourses at work and may not fit into any specific critical category.


To cultivate different reading strategies, Kingston also identifies herself with other women authors of color in the US when describing her personal friendships with Toni Morrison and Leslie Marmon Silko. She discusses their uniqueness in background and experience: "Toni's and Leslie's and my aliveness must come from our senses of a connection with other people who have a community and a tribe. We are living life in a more dangerous place. We do not live in new subdivisions without ceremony and memory" ("Eccentric" 184).
Kingston's efforts to identify herself with feminist discourses and women authors of color have been immediately acknowledged by both Euro-American and Asian American feminist critics. Sidonie Smith, for example, highly commends Kingston's work: "it exemplifies the potential for works from the marginalization to challenge the ideology of individualism and with it the ideology of gender" ("Filiality" 150). Similarly, Shirley Lim compares the Kingston controversy to that surrounding Zora Neale Hurston whose novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was accused of selling out by some prominent African American male authors, such as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, but was later defended by women writers from Toni Morrison to Alice Walker. Kingston's case has been made to appear analogous to that of Hurston in terms of both subject matter and mode of presentation.
In conclusion, I want to suggest that Kingston does make a great effort to rewrite Chinese-American female subjectivity in The Woman Warrior, but such an effort has been limited by her own vision, which is embedded in contradictory discourses of Western autobiography, US Orientalism on China and Chinese-America, and Chinese patriarchal tradition. In that sense, Kingston's work actually calls for a new feminist reading and writing strategy which would not only respond to the transnational condition of women in Kaplan's sense of collaboration and collectiveness but also consider the specific historical and cultural contexts of minority and third-world women's experiences.
Notes

For the completion of this essay, I want to thank the editors and readers of MELUS for their valuable suggestions and comments. As part of my initial dissertation project on Chinese-American literature, this essay has undergone several revisions. I am grateful to my advisor Eva Cherniavsky at Indiana University at Bloomington, whose guidance and support have been indispensable to the completion of my dissertation. I also should thank Patrick Brantlinger, Purnima Bose, and Thomas Foster who have carefully read this essay and made helpful comments. Finally, thanks to my friends and former colleagues: Nancy Cardona, Crystal Keels, Scott Macphail, Andrew Newlyn, and Stacy Takacs.

(1.) Lowe argues for the intervening function of Asian American literature: "its aesthetic is not defined by sublimation but rather by contradiction, such that discontent, nonequivalence, and irresolution call into question the project of abstracting the aesthetic as a separate domain of unification and recollection. It is a literature that, if subjected to a canonical function, dialectically returns a critique of that function" (54).

(2.) Wong analyzes the popularity of Amy Tan's works as a cultural phenomenon and compares it to other authors before Tan: "The fortunes of once-popular, now overlooked cultural interpreters in Chinese American literary history, such as Lin Yutang, and Jade Snow Wong, suggest that cultural mediation of the Orient for the `mainstream' readership requires continual repackaging to remain in sync with changing times and resultant shifts in ideological needs" ("Sugar Sisterhood" 202).

(3.) Lim observes, "The first oppositional move, towards cultural nationalism, interrogates Euro-American constructions of Asian American identity as stereotypes, and the silence or assimilationist ideology of earlier writers as complicit with white racist hegemony; it seeks instead to reconstitute an ideally or more authentic Asian American history and literary production" ("Gender Transformations" 100-101).

(4.) Chin not only challenges Kingston's sense of Chinese-American identity and community, but also problematizes her use of the autobiographical form as a symptom of subjection to the Western desire. He claims that Kingston manifests the effect of assimilation and westernization, and misinforms her readers about gender and identity configuration in Chinese-American culture: "She takes Fa Mulan, turns her into a champion of Chinese feminism and an inspiration to Chinese American girls to dump the Chinese race and make for white universality" (27).

(5.) Lim takes for granted that Kingston's work is a feminist text and situates it in the history of Chinese women's life stories: "In the tradition of Chinese American life stories, Fifth Chinese Daughter would be considered the mother text to The Woman Warrior" ("Tradition" 256).

(6.) Cheung surveys and analyzes what she calls "the `feminist' and `heroic' impulses which have invigorated Chinese American literature but at the same time divided its authors and critics" (235).

(7.) Palumbo-Liu notes a discrepancy between critical theory and its reading of minority texts: "Theory may prove its analytical strength by excavating heretofore hidden `truths' of an ethnic literary text, and ethnic literary critics may champion the legitimacy of ethnic literature by finding in it the confirmation of theory, but both may do so precisely by ignoring significant contradictions that inhere in these texts" (161).

(8.) See note 2. Wong coins the expression "Orientalist effect" to suggest how some Asian American authors try to create a re-assuring affinity between their work and American pre-conceptions of what the Orient should be.

(9.) Kaplan argues that feminist writing technologies can transform cultural production from individualized and aestheticized procedures to collaborative, historicized transnational coalitions.

(10.) Mohanty warns us of the danger of employing the notion of the "third world woman" as a singular monolithic subject and calls attention to the necessity of situating the "third world woman" in the specific cultural and historical context.

(11.) See the untranslated Chinese text Sources of Ancient Poetry (Gu Shi Yuan: Bai Hua Yue Fu Juan). Ed. Mei Wen and Yi Cai.

(12.) See note 7.

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Chin, Frank. "Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake." The Big Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature. Ed. Jeffery Paul Chan et al. New York: Penguin, 1991. 1-92.

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--. "Immigrant Autobiography: Some Questions of Definition and Approach." American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect. Ed. Paul John Eakin. Madison, Wisconsin: U of Wisconsin P, 1991. 142-70.

--. "Kingston's Handling of Traditional Chinese Sources." Approaches to Teaching Kingston's "The Woman Warrior." Ed. Shirley Geok-lin Lim. New York: MLA, 1991.

--. "Necessity and Extravagance in Maxine Hong Kington's The Woman Warrior: Art and the Ethnic Experience." MELUS 15.1 (1988): 3-26.

--. "`Sugar Sisterhood': Situating the Amy Tan Phenomenon." The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions. Ed. David Palumbo-Liu. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995. 174-210.

Yuan Sbu is an Assistant Professor of English at Texas Tech University. He teaches contemporary American literature, particularly Asian American literature. Currently, he is working on his book project on Chinese-American literature.

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Publication Information: Article Title: Cultural Politics and Chinese-American Female Subjectivity: Rethinking Kingston's Woman Warrior. Contributors: Yuan Shu - author. Journal Title: MELUS. Volume: 26. Issue: 2. Publication Year: 2001. Page Number: 199+. COPYRIGHT 2001 The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnics Literature of the United States; COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group



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