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Monday, November 13, 2006

Reconsidering Maxine Hong Kingston's "White Tigers"

Podcast / audio

Maxine Hong Kingston's narrative is built on a paradox. On the one hand, historically speaking, in the community she was born in as a female, girl children were considered worse than useless - they were considered to be a burden. On the other hand, that same Chinese culture she chose to identify with has a long tradition of myth and "tell-story" (as her mother put it) about brave, valuable and valued women. The "tell-story" is a narrative of survival and functioned in powerful, often unexpected ways in the life that Kingston relates to us in what appears to be a memoir, but is quite definitely something else upon close examination.

Kingston's The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts tells the story of growing up Chinese-American in Stockton, California. While it is written in first person, giving the narrative the impression of being a memoir or autobiography, the reality is that Kingston's writing defies easy classification. With the stories of ghosts and the meta-narratives derived from the "tell-stories" of her mother, a doctor and midwife, Kingston blends autobiography, folktale, mystical narrative, and experimental fiction. Not strictly a postmodernist excursion, nor an exploration of psychological realism, the Woman Warrior contains elements of both.

Through "tell-story" Chinese girls learn about themselves and their eventual destinies, and the way the world regards them and will regard them. The irony is that the story the most memorable to the girls is the one the least likely to be realized in their lives. It is the story of the Chinese woman warrior, and here, in Kingston's narrative about herself and her consciousness, she weaves the myths together with the factual details of her life. The woman warrior fights, avenges, wins, and reverses the injustices in life. She is invincible. She possesses supernatural skills, abilities, and is admired to the point of worship. The longing to be a woman warrior is a sad counterpart to reality. In Kingston's world, and in the world of her mother and grandmothers, Chinese girls were considered worse than useless. They were considered a burden and eventually traitorous and family-abandoning. All investment and accomplishments realized by the Chinese girl would simply remind her family of what she would take from them when she left them.

Kingston's narrative represents a strategem for self-overcoming. She imagines herself alive by writing the dream. Perhaps the attributes she desires will only have life in her interior journeys, and in the development of a mental sphere that gives and breathes promise to others. Nevertheless, it is effective, as Kingston juxtaposes the dream of the warrior, who is assertive and avenging, with the reality of extreme submission and the denial of needs.

In Kingston's story, "White Tigers," the agents of change are the animals - the cranes, the white tigers, the white horses - who wield magic with their presence. The old couples and magical characters from a time long ago come into her life. They give the dreamer power, freedom, and self-actualization. The "tell-story" is what also imparts to the young girl a sense of wonder.

Are fairy tales appropriate modes for instituting real change? Kingston's narrative is ambiguous on this point. She has knowledge of who her enemies are, but how can she resist? She has "gun and knife fantasies, but did nothing useful." The warrior woman fairy tale without a correlative "other" in the phenomenal world which might give a person a way to implement the dreams is, perhaps, simply a route to resignation.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. "White Tigers," The Woman Warrior. 19-53.

Short Answer Questions for "White Tigers" by Maxine Hong Kingston
(developed by Elaine Bontempi)

1. Maxine Hong Kingston suggests that based upon the talk amongst the people within her community, a woman fails if she what?

2. Based upon the above answer, how does this contrast with the folklore within her culture?

3. The author suggests that the feet of women may have been bound because of what?

4. Why do you think women were taught stories of heroines and warriors when it was expected that they grow up to be wives and slaves?

5. Do you see any parallels between the hardships that women experienced within Maxine Hong Kingston's community, and the hardships that African Americans have endured in the United States?

6. According to the author, what community or "village" did she belong to?

7. The author recalls her rebellion growing up. What was her rebellion based upon? In what ways did she act out?

8. The author talks of her Chinese culture still handicapping her. How?

9. The author claims that her only "land" is her job. What does she mean by this?

10. The author faced discrimination because of two things. What are they?

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