Passage analysis: ‘No Name Woman’ from The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston The story of the unnamed aunt in Chinese-American author Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoirs is one in which the structure and nature of ‘talking-story’ reveals much about the situation of women in the Old China. Hong Kingston’s use of narrative voice and her adopted style of writing puts across her own feelings of confusion, and the distortion of the past; it is highly instrumental in conveying the misogynistic culture about which she speaks. Prominent themes such as rape, subservience to the patriarchy and isolation are particularly potent in this passage; we are told of their devastating impacts on the lives of women. These themes explore the traditional values of patriarchy and the subordinate, powerless role of women as well as assuring the continuance of their oppressed existences. Hong Kingston’s re-telling of this tale learnt from her mother symbolises how the behaviour and the place of women is something that is learnt. In this sense, the talking-story method of passing down lessons and expectations is revealed in this passage to act as a way to maintain and reinforce the oppression of women. ‘Adultery is extravagance.’ The passage opens with an insight into traditional Chinese values about tradition. Extra-marital activity or deviation from the expected path is seen as a burden, establishing a frugal, ruthless sort of society. ‘Extravagance’ could also connote immodesty. We soon discover that the events described do not involve what we would know as adultery, but in fact, tell of rape and an abuse of power. Hong Kingston explains that the rape of her aunt was seen as an offence against the traditional institution of marriage, and disturbingly, she became the ‘prodigal aunt’, it was not the behaviour of her rapist that was seen as shocking, but rather her supposed lack of faith towards her husband who has ‘left for America.’ Because so little is known of the aunt, in the middle of the passage, Hong Kingston begins to interpret for herself the events that led to the sexual abuse. It becomes apparent that the anonymous aunt was dependent on her rapist as much as she was at his mercy. The phrase ‘if only she did not have to buy her oil from him’ is revealing of the staunch patriarchal society; the aunt is completely dependent on the man that raped her. Furthermore, Hong Kingston uses her sociological knowledge of the community to gage that ‘He was not a stranger because the village housed no strangers.’ It is even arguable to say that there is little difference between her rapist and her estranged husband, as she is under the orders of both men: ‘she always did what she was told.’ With this in mind, the cruel injustice of the aunt’s condemnation is even more poignant; it is clear that she did not have a choice. Hong Kingston explains how she has heard her mother and father speak of something called ‘an outcast table.’ It is described as a ‘commensal tradition’ when the ‘wrongdoers’ eat alone, isolated from their family. With this knowledge learnt from her parents, Hong Kingston deduces that her aunt was seen as a wrongdoer, someone who had ‘crossed boundaries’ despite the actions of her rapist. The complete absence of a sense of choice or any sort of liberty to fight against her oppressor is made apparent from the reported speech: “I’ll beat you. I’ll kill you.” It is unclear as to whether Hong Kingston knows these words as fact, however it is likely that she was able to assume based on the fact that Chinese women were subject to violence, furthermore we are previously been told that her aunt would have been given orders that ‘must…have terrified her.’ By the end of the passage, Hong Kingston’s narrative voice reflects on the events of the passage. Unlike the beginning of the passage suggests, that her aunt was a ‘prodigal’ and extravagant ‘lone romantic’, Hong Kingston knows her aunt would have been anything but a ‘wild woman.’ The community shuns her, she is disgraced. However, through Hong Kingston’s words, the reader too may understand the desperation and horror of the aunt’s situation as an isolated and totally disempowered woman, a victim of her community’s ideas and traditions. The tone of uncertainty in the passage contributes to this pervading sense of alienation which reflects the oppression of women such as her aunt. Due to the nature of talking-story, it is as if the voice of the aunt has been muffled by the voices of others; at other points in the story, her existence is denied altogether. We can perceive of the aunt’s isolation through the uncertainty of her female successors. Hong Kingston’s narrative is interspersed throughout the passage with a lingering notion of ambiguity and feelings of isolation. It is as if she cannot reach out to her aunt. Hong Kingston’s thoughts and predictions are coloured by lexical choices that indicate doubt such as ‘Perhaps’, ‘must’ and ‘It could very well have been.’ The reality of the narrator is arguably distorted, she has trouble distinguishing what is fact from what is probable because her aunt was isolated and relinquished as one who had ‘delineated’. Any sense of identity has ‘vanished.’ The wavering grip on reality in Hong Kingston’s writing is also symbolic of the precarious position of women, constantly treading a thin line, trying to meet the demands of ‘preservation’ whilst also being paralysed with ‘Fear at the enormities of tradition.’ This presents the idea of a vicious cycle, a cycle in which women were trapped. The aunt would have been prosecuted had she not submitted to her rapist, but also found herself punished on the grounds of adultery. The phrase ‘wire and bone’ represents the restricted lifestyle that women were subjected to, but it also connotes the fragility of their position. Depending on the requirements of the patriarchy, hey could be twisted like wire, expected to fit a certain mould - or crushed and diminished like bones. The subjugation of women in order to oblige the patriarchal and misogynistic culture is evidently a deep-rooted tradition within Hong Kingston’s ancestry to the extent that it impacts on her life as a modern day Chinese-American female writer. Upon examining the use of syntax in the passage we get a great deal of understanding with regards to the process of Hong Kingston’s thoughts and by extension, the weakening of the female voice. The abundance of complex, rambling sentences throughout the passage act as an identifier of the Hong Kingston’s assumptions and hesitations. Long sentences are broken up with conjunctions: ‘It could very well have been, however, that my aunt did not take subtle enjoyment from her friend, but, a wild woman kept rollicking company.’ ‘However’ and ‘but’ show how she arrives at conclusions in order to fill in the uncertainties within her knowledge of the events that have been clouded over through time. By contrast, the passage is peppered with simple sentences in order that we may detect the things that she knows to be true. ‘No one talked sex, ever.’ This is an abrupt, concrete example of what Hong Kingston has been taught about her heritage all her life. The values of modesty and honour in the Old China and the way in which these behavioural expectations kept women subdued are ideas deeply engrained throughout the generations. Consequently, they can be seen to have entirely alienated our narrator and have shaped her life today. Hong Kingston mirrors the helplessness of her aunt, and the situation of Chinese women in general in the sorrowful concluding statement: ‘she gives me no ancestral help.’ Her aunt was a victim of such deep oppression that her successors cannot reach out to her. The alienation and the profound domination of men over women resulted in the out casting of women from their families, and thus, the distance Hong Kingston feels from her aunt. The crippling, devastating impact of trying to uphold traditions whilst being at the mercy of the men in their communities once again underpins the idea of a cruel, insidious cycle of isolation, entrapment and subservience. This cycle ultimately, causes the breakdown of female relations within families and also Hong Kingston’s own feelings of alienation and uncertainty towards her heritage. To conclude, the idea that the story of the No Name Woman is told from mother to daughter to act as a warning about women who deviate from the path as opposed to a celebratory story of her female ancestors, unashamedly highlights the passage’s key themes of subservience, patriarchy and isolation. Hong Kingston’s narrative voice reveals the grave oppression that destroyed the lives of women in Old Chinese society which such extremity that Hong Kingston herself cannot see the life of her aunt ‘branching into mine.’ The silencing of the female voice resonates within Hong Kingston’s own writing which is riddled with an unshakeable feeling of uncertainty, doubt and alienation. The process of talking-story is symbolic of a process that continues to come full circle, as the expectations and restrictions placed upon women continue to effect the future generations.
Question: In what ways does Kingston defend her aunt by denouncing the problem of Chinese culture while still attempting to be respectful of her ancestry?
The story, “No Name Woman” by Maxine Hong Kingston recounts the tale of a young woman who became pregnant while unmarried and is forced to suffer the consequences. This story blurs the lines between truth and falsehood, making it difficult to decipher accurate information about the no name woman. Kingston illustrates the struggle of Chinese American immigrants to assimilate and debates the difference between authenticity and personal experience. If one reads the work just as the story of the aunt, one misses the underlying message regarding Chinese society and its detrimental effect on women. This work is a story within a story; it describes the aunt’s journey, but it also serves as a diary for the author to help resolve her mixed emotions.
Confucian familial structure stemmed from the men down. The men were the heads of the house and the leaders of society. The children, more specifically the sons, were to do as they were told and model their behavior after their fathers. Having female children, especially if you did not have a son already, was shameful, and many baby girls were abandoned. If the family was behaving according to tradition, virtue would flow down the chain of command. A woman’s duties included bearing and raising children, footbinding (if wealthy), cooking, cleaning, and serving her husband. A woman could not own land or file for divorce; once she entered a marriage she was bound to her husband. Women were gentle beings, who were viewed as delicate and fragile, devoid of their own opinions and thoughts. Kingston views this disrespect of women as a weakness of Chinese culture.
The first line hints at the secretive nature of Chinese society, another cultural weaknesses that troubles the author. “You must not tell anyone” (Norton 1507). Kingston is illustrating the concept of the inner circle. Chinese citizens tend to close off communication and analyze their words before speaking for fear of negative repercussions. The talk-story Kingston is about to hear is shameful; negative history follows generation after generation. The family in Chinese society is the most important unit, and all actions of the family members affect the entire group. Ironically, Kingston works diligently throughout this story to uncover her aunt’s history, something that her mother and father have worked hard to keep hidden. She is differentiating herself from her culture by publishing the very secret that continues to perturb her.
The author describes America as the “Gold Mountain,” or the epitome of opportunity and success. Chinese citizens were fed up with their oppressive war-lord governmental system. Many made the decision to move to America, hoping to live the American dream and achieve success. This move exposed the Chinese to a new culture, giving them a reference point to compare their society to. Their illusion of what it meant to be American was shattered. This was the exact same for Kingston, living in America made her realize that no one shares a common experience; we may all be American but we all perceive America differently. This idea was the basis for her questioning the truthfulness of her aunt’s history. Her mother’s experience is unique and personal, just as Kingston presumes her aunt’s experience was. Kingston never would have written this novel if she had not immigrated to America. This move gave Kingston the freedom of expression and the comparative mindset she needed to observe her culture analytically.
Kingston introduces the villagers, who represent one source of stress to the family system. They’re the ones who suspected the aunt of being impregnated by another man and violently storm the house. “As the villagers closed in, we could see that some of them, probably men and women we knew well, wore white masks” (Norton 1508). Their friends and neighbors, feeling burdened by the weight of Chinese society and tradition, must destroy the house and livelihood of friends and comrades. They wear white masks not only to conceal their identity but also to hide their grief. The color white in ancient Chinese society is associated with mourning. These villagers are mourning the loss of a member of their community. Contradicting tradition, some may believe the aunt was raped or believe that the whole family should not suffer. However, if they betrayed tradition, they would be ostracized. One of the pillars of Chinese culture is networking and familial ties. If someone is banished, they’re an “other,” or someone with no ties or connections to Chinese culture. This instance begs the question of when to stand up for what is right even though the consequences may be severe. Sometimes traditions are rooted so tightly that change is frowned upon, even when it is correct. Kingston breaks away from this idea when she chooses to defend her aunt and view her story as oppression rather than direct betrayal.
Kingston’s mother threatens her, exclaiming, “You wouldn’t like to be forgotten as if you had never been born. The villagers are watchful” (Norton 1508). This stresses the importance of this secret being kept within the family. Kingston goes on to explain that her mother enjoys testing her. However, Kingston isn’t one to trust the story; she begins to question the validity of the tale by exclaiming, “What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies” (Norton 1509). As desperate as the Chinese Americans were to maintain their tradition and culture, they were also desperate to fit in and assimilate. This questioning of the validity of the story renders the reader incapable of distinguishing between what is authentic to Chinese culture and what is personal fiction. Kingston is rejecting the idea that Chinese culture is authentic and real, trying desperately to separate herself from that viewpoint. Kingston is claiming that Americans, when they ask Chinese citizens about their culture, take that one unique experience and apply it universally. These people serve as synecdoches for an entire culture.
Kingston’s imagination then begins to run wild, filling in the blanks of her aunt’s history with overdramatic storylines. Her aunt is one of the victims of Chinese culture, she serves as a symbol of the way the patriarchal system suppresses women. Kingston feels the responsibility to represent her aunt and speak for her. The aunt, according to Kingston’s version, was a victim of a man’s lust. This story shows the skewed nature of ancient Chinese society. It is even more unbearable for Kingston, especially because her own mother is supportive of the actions towards her aunt. It is clear that her aunt cared for the child because she carried the baby over to the well and held it tightly in her arms during their final moments together. The aunt chose to perform this act because she and her child were isolated from society and devoid of hope to regain status. Her baby would enter the world without network ties and anyone to care for it, and the thought of the horrible life her child would endure made her uneasy. This situation reinforces the idea that one person’s actions haunt an entire family.
The ghost imagery continues to resurface throughout the story. This imagery indicates the close ties the Chinese have to ancestors and their belief in the after-life. In this case, however, the aunt does not have anyone to provide for her in life after death, so she is constantly begging others for food, wandering hungry. She haunts Kingston as well, serving as a constant reminder of the consequences that can occur as a result of one’s actions. Kingston is torn; there is a presumption in speaking for her aunt even though she may have wanted to silence herself. Kingston is anxious about the use of her aunt as a political symbol for the impropriety of Chinese culture.
The elements of Chinese society merge together towards the end of the story. “The round moon cakes and round doorways, the round tables of graduated size that fit one roundess inside another, round windows and rice bowls-these talismans had lost their power to warn this family of the law: a family must be whole, faithfully keeping the descent line by having sons to feed the old and the dead, who in turn look after the family” (Norton 1513). Everyone has their place in the tight circle that is Chinese society. The roundness indicates that the family functions as a whole unit, with each generation dependent on the other. The grandparents depend on their kids to take care of them in old age and the cycle continues as the parent’s age. One of the biggest disgraces in Chinese society is neglecting the elderly. Chinese tradition is what fuels this circle; it establishes the cultural norms and practices that define what it means to be Chinese. Not only does this circle represent familial relations, it also represents the circle of life.
This story, although it is a story about an aunt whose life fell into disarray, is in fact a historical recollection of Chinese society and a questioning of Chinese identity. The story first lays the background of the Confucian system and the need for immigration to America. It illustrates the roles of women and men in Chinese society, with women being subservient to men. In addition to laying the foundational Chinese traditional principles, the story demonstrates what occurs if one steps out of line: banishment, disgrace, and loneliness. Kingston gives the reader insight into the history of Chinese culture, which serves as a rigid guideline for the problems encountered throughout this story. Kingston is trying to come to terms with her identity in Chinese society, while continuing to give her aunt a lost voice. By writing this novel, she’s shining light on the plight of her aunt, showing respect for Chinese culture, and illustrating the problems that led to her aunt’s suicide.