By Alice Mendoza
“Wittman felt pleased with himself, that he hadn’t lost his Chinese ears. He had kept a religious Chinese way of hearing while living within the military-industrial-educational complex.”
In both of Maxine Hong Kingston’s works, The Woman Warrior and Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, there are many instances of explicit presence of religion. For most Chinese (including the characters in Kingston’s books), religion is so instilled that it has become a way of life or a philosophy. They may not go to a temple or a church regularly or even participate in regular religious rituals, but the very customs or foods or the lifestyles they lead usually show that they subscribe to a worldview influenced by a mixture of Confucian, Buddhist and Daoist traditions.
The Woman Warrior is classified as an autobiography because it is Kingston’s account of growing up as a Chinese American in California. However, it is not a conventional autobiography because Kingston weaves surreal stories into it – surreal stories that are projections of her inner pain and angst of straddling two traditions that seem to be in conflict with one another. The surreal stories are presented in Kingston’s own versions of traditional Chinese mythologies, and there is some explicit religious presence in these revised mythologies.
The Chinese legend of Fa Mu Lan lends the book its title. The narrator, who is Kingston herself as a young girl, is the metaphorical Fa Mu Lan – the Woman Warrior. The narrator imagines a time when she is taken away to a magical/mythological place where she is trained to be a woman warrior. While she is away, her parents get her a “spirit bridegroom”– a man that is willing to marry her ‘in spirit’, so that if she were dead, she could still have a descent line because the man would be her spiritual husband. This belief in spirit spouses appears Daoist in nature. It also seems unrealistically positive, that the narrator’s parents bother at all, to give a descent line to a girl. In the original practice, spirit marriages are only conducted between two dead persons or to remember or to appease the spirit of a spouse who has died an untimely death. This positive twist is perhaps an attempt by the author to re-claim the worth of a female in the real misogynistic milieu she grew up in.
Another obvious example of explicit religion in The Woman Warrior is in the narrator’s mother story. The narrator’s mother, Brave Orchid, is trained as a midwife but she is portrayed as a shaman – an exorcist of ghosts. Again, the concept of ghosts is a familiar presence in Chinese religions, and most traditional Chinese, especially those who did not live in the cities, usually considered certain illnesses to be caused by ghosts or spiritual possessions. Brave Orchid did not just become the village midwife, she became a doctor and an exorcist too – an exorcist of spirits that caused illnesses. In fact, the medical school where she was trained, subscribed both to western modern medicine and the Daoist Yin/Yang concepts of health. In fact, the women were taught Chinese traditional concepts first before they were taught western medicine:
After they had mastered the ancient cures that worked, they would be taught the most up-to-date western discoveries.
Throughout the entire book, there is an emphasis on ghosts and on tricking ghosts. In China, the ghosts are nebulous but still malevolent and to be feared. When Brave Orchid helped delivered babies, she and the mothers did not call the babies by their names. Rather, the babies were called ‘Pretty pigbaby, pretty piglet’ or ‘Ugly pig, dirty pig’, to fool whichever ghosts or jealous gods who might want to take away or harm the babies.
When the narrator’s parents came to America, the ghosts became concrete, real bodies – the rest of the Americans who are not Chinese, and are therefore considered barbarians or ghosts. Hence, the book is subtitled – ‘Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts’. The irony is that the narrator and the rest of her American-born siblings are all becoming more like ghosts rather than remaining Chinese-solid like their parents.
There is also a religious belief in the power of words and of tempting bad luck. For the Chinese, it is taboo to say inauspicious things because of the fear that the things one says may just come true. For instance, when Brave Orchid’s sister, Moon Orchid descends into paranoid madness and weeps about not seeing any person who leaves the house, Brave Orchid reacts in the typical Chinese ‘religious’ manner:
She was housing a mad sister who cursed the mornings for her children, the one in Vietnam too. Their aunt was saying terrible things when they needed blessings. Perhaps Moon Orchid had already left this mad old body, and it was a ghost bad-mouthing her children.
Also, there is the incident when a delivery boy mistakenly delivers pills meant for a crazy neighbor. This causes Brave Orchid to fly into a fit because to her, it means her family is being ‘cursed’ even though it is a genuine mistake. The narrator is dreading that her mother would “make me swing stinky censers around the counter, at the druggist, at the customers. Throw dog blood on the druggist.” In the end, Brave Orchid demands that the narrator get some “reparation candy” so that the curse be “removed with sweetness”. The narrator, of course, subverts such ‘religion’ because she would never be able to explain to the druggist about such beliefs. She ends up appearing like a little Chinese beggar, while her mother mistakenly believes that she has taught the druggist this Chinese custom – “a lesson in good manners”.
The explicit religious presence in Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book is manifested in the main character, Wittman Ah Sing, who sees himself as the American incarnation of the Monkey King. Wittman is a fifth-generation young Chinese American man living in psychedelic, anti-war, civil-rights-conscious, post-Beat, 1960’s San Francisco. A graduate from Berkeley, a playwright drunk with words, dizzyingly hip and energetic, Wittman is named after another controversial American poet who was also a rebel against society like himself, Walt Whitman. Wittman’s dream is to stage the ultimate play – a play that interweaves Chinese stories and myths, at the same time incorporating certain American elements, so that the eventual result would be a Chinese American play – “an enormous loud play that will awake an audience for us” – that would break stereotypes held by other Americans about Chinese/Asian Americans.
The Monkey King or the Monkey God is a familiar figure in both Chinese-Buddhist and Hindu mythologies; thus, Tripmaster Monkey contains many allusions to such religious stories. For instance, when Wittman imagines himself as Joang Fu, a story-teller doing his entertaining spiels on pleasure cruises, he makes references to Hindu religious practices in Bali:
I myself have sailed to Bali ... There, women play gods, and men play demons and monkeys ... I stayed up chitter-chattering and chanting all night with monkey dancers, little boys in the inmost circle, me, Joang Fu, among the youths in the next circle, middle-aged men in the middle, and old men on the outside – kit-chak kit-chak kit-chak – hum hum – waves of humming in fumes of clove and cubeba cigarettes – until gods dropped out of the sky and did their dramas amidst men and monkeys – halleluia hands halleluia hands.
The explicit religious presence in Tripmaster Monkey has a sarcastic undertone, as Wittman tends to subvert ‘traditional’ religion, which emphasizes the Monkey’s Trickster characteristic. Although the Monkey in Chinese/Buddhist legends is seen as a representation of the intellect, he is also a kind of sardonic clown who sometimes would mock authority or even religion. Wittman epitomizes this parody of traditional perceptions of religion as he proclaims that ‘I am really: the present-day U.S.A. incarnation of the King of Monkeys.” To him, getting high on drugs is ‘religious’ – “I liked dope; I learned a lot. I felt religious.” Wittman does respect ‘religion’ or spirituality in others because he “had not been brought up with a religion.” The explicit religious presence is made up of a jumble of cultural references from all religions – to illustrate, perhaps Wittman’s similarity to the Monkey.
The Monkey of the Chinese classics has no fixed origins, no ancestors; he came out of a stone egg. He became the King of the other monkeys when he took on a challenge to jump through a waterfall. He discovered a kind of utopian paradise at the other side of the waterfall and the other monkeys rewarded him for his bravery by making him their king. Later, the Monkey enters a monastery to seek immortality and he acquires a Zen/Daoist name, “Aware of Emptiness”, which also happens to be Wittman’s Chinese name – Joang Fu. According to Patricia Lin, Kingston uses the Monkey as a metaphor for the postmodern man, which Wittman represents. Like the Monkey, Wittman has no fixed origins which he can claim as totally his. Like the Monkey, who can transform himself into seventy-two incarnations, Wittman can transform and create himself, availing himself of whichever culture or religion he chooses, according to whatever situations he finds himself in.
In Tripmaster Monkey, these explicit religious references therefore become the author’s narrative instrument in creating Wittman’s character as a subversive rebel. For instance, the concept of having a ‘spiritual guide’ or ‘guru’ is amusingly undermined when Wittman was invited to be a L.S.D. guide – i.e., to guide people through their L.S.D.-induced ‘trips’ or hallucinations:
Those were the days when heads prepared their trips carefully, and chose a watchman who promises to remain straight ... If called upon, the guide tells the tour group his wisdom, such as the reality he’s seeing back in the straight world. He sometimes take their temperatures and blood pressures, and writes down anything memorable that is said. Such as discoveries. Mostly what you give them is your composure. No mind-fucking.
Another instance where explicit religion is presented subversively is when an ‘ordained minister’ of the Universal Life Church, Greg/Gabe, ordains Wittman on the spot at the touristy Coit Tower. Anyone who wants to be a Conscientious Objector (the war of the moment was the Vietnam War) can be ordained by any Universal Life Church minister. To become a full-fledged minister, one just writes a letter to a Reverend Kirby Hensley, who will send a certificate of ordination and a card:
The idea of the Universal Life Church is that the First Amendment gives each one of us total freedom to make up religion. Mine has as its main and First Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ No exceptions. My god is literal about that. I’m ethically prepared if I come up against the Army philosopher.
In this case, it appears that religion is something that one can manipulate to suit one’s beliefs and opinions. Again, this seems to be part of the transformational leit motif of the Monkey. Explicit religion here appears to be manifested in Wittman’s act of searching for a self among the chaos of prefabricated representations which reject the idea of any final or permanent truth. As the epitome of the postmodernist metaphor for ‘lostness’ and angst in the midst of non-absolutism, it is fitting that the explicit religious presence in Tripmaster Monkey seems negative, albeit in a darkly humorous and subversive manner.
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QLRS Vol. 2 No. 2 Jan 2003