In writing The Woman Warrior, Kingston has one ultimate concern – to find her ‘lost’ self. As a female of an ethnic minority, Kingston is doubly ‘lost’. She is also ‘lost’ because she cannot be the kind of ‘Chinese’ that her parents are, the kind of Chinese who conceive of America as ‘Ghost Country’, yet she grew up alienated from these American ‘ghosts’ that she herself is turning into. China, to the narrator, (Maxine/the young Kingston) is a fictive landscape, seen vicariously through her parents’ eyes. To be a Chinese still ‘belonging to’ and clinging to China, would be equivalent to being like Maxine’s parents and the rest of their fellow ‘villagers’. It would mean subscribing to the hateful patriarchal worldview of traditional Chinese milieu. However, Maxine had to suffer much pain to be American.
Kingston’s mixing of fact and fiction in this supposedly autobiographical work is an attempt to come to terms with this ‘lost-ness’ and to deal with the pain of trying to be ‘found’ (acknowledged) as an American. The clearest manifestation of implicit religion in The Women Warrior, is therefore the ultimate concern of the author, namely Kingston’s “fraught efforts to create an identity.” Being ‘found’ as opposed to ‘lost, for Kingston means having a fluid identity – as much as there must not be stereotypes of Chinese or Blacks or Whites, there must also not be stereotypes of Chinese Americans or Chinese Americans males or females for that matter. In other words, there is no absolutist ‘identity’ to be gained / ‘found’; there must NOT be an absolutist identity for anyone.
This aspect links to the implicit presence of religion as an existentialist motif. If religion is an attempt to make meaning out of existence, in Kingston’s case, it would be her questioning what it means to be a Chinese American. Her writing of her first novel, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, is an expression of the existentialist definition of religion. Is there a particular meaning to being Chinese American? What is the ‘crisis’ of being Chinese American? This ‘crisis’, is of course, symbolized by the protagonist in Tripmaster Monkey – Wittman Ah Sing. Part of the ‘crisis’ lies in the invisibility or ‘lost-ness’ (again!) of being ‘yellow’, as Wittman rants out his fears:
They think that Americans are either white or Black. I can’t wear that civil-rights button with the Black hand and the white hand shaking each other. I have a nightmare – after duking it out, someday Blacks and whites will shake hands over my head. I’m a little yellow man beneath the bridge of their hands and overlooked.
I feel that Kingston wrote Tripmaster Monkey as a response to the “cultural mis-readings” of The Woman Warrior and China Men (which is The Women Warrior’s companion volume and is also autobiographical). These “cultural mis-readings” have added to the crisis of trying to find out what it means exactly to be Chinese American. According to Kingston’s essay (which she wrote in response to certain reviews of The Woman Warrior), these reviewers described The Woman Warrior as follows: “...their own strange and brooding atmosphere inscrutably foreign, oriental.” “At her most obscure, though, as when telling about her dream of becoming a fabled ‘woman warrior’ the author becomes as inscrutable as the East always seems to the West. In fact the book seems to reinforce the feeling that ‘East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,’ or at any rate it will probably take more than one generation away from China.”
Kingston seems to speak through Wittman Ah Sing when Wittman rants about the ‘wonderful’ reviews of his play which has been described in almost similar manner as how real life reviewers have described The Woman Warrior:
Don’t be too easily made happy. Look. Look. ‘East meets West.’ ‘Exotic.’ ‘Sino-American theater.’ ‘Snaps, crackles and pops like singing rice.’ ‘Sweet and sour.’ Quit clapping. Stop it. What’s to cheer about? You like being compared to Rice Krispies? ... They wrote us up like they were tasting Chinese food. Rice, get it? ‘Savor beauteous Nanci Lee,’ it says here. That’s like saying that LeRoi Jones is as good as watermelon. ‘Yum yum, authentic watermelon.’ They wouldn’t write a headline for Raisin in the Sun: ‘America meets Africa.’... Nobody says “twain shall,” except in reference to us. We’ve failed with our magnificence of explosions to bust through their Kipling ... There is no East here. West is meeting West. This was all West. All you saw was West. This is Journey In the West. I am so fucking offended ... They think they know us—the whole range of us from sweet to sour—because they eat in Chinese restaurants … What’s so ‘exotic’? We’re about as exotic as shit ... No exotic chop suey shit ... They’ve got us in a bag, which we aren’t punching our way out of. To be exotic or to be not-exotic is not a question about Americans or about humans.
Thus, to be ‘exoticized’ by other Americans would then be equivalent to being seen as an ‘alien other’ and not being able to claim ‘American-ness’. America is like a religion that Chinese Americans with mindsets similar to Kingston’s, want to follow and practice, but are barred from ‘full membership’ perhaps, recalling the kind of paradoxically segregated Christianity, so prevalent in America. Therefore, Chinese Americans have to create their own new ‘religion’, or worldview, a worldview that is a combination of wisdom/virtues/values that are culled from both worlds; a worldview that is no longer just ‘Chinese’ and therefore regarded as alien by mainstream America, but as another definition to be included as ‘full-membered’ American. This desire to be ‘included’ and be considered as part of the American paradigm is an echo of the pain of Chinese exclusion that still haunts Chinese America, especially Chinese American men.
The presence of religion as a form of cultural memory to recall and perhaps, to recreate new ‘memories’ to define oneself, is very clearly manifested in Kingston’s technique of ‘fictionalizing’ autobiography and re-envisioning traditional mythologies.
This is where Kingston is vociferously attacked by another Chinese American writer, Frank Chin. Chin criticizes Kingston for changing traditional Chinese myths to suit her motives and purposes, for pandering to Westernized stereotypes of misogynistic Chinese culture and emasculated Chinese American males by not celebrating Chinese heroic culture, and for the very act of writing autobiography, which Chin deems as a “Christian” (Western) form of ‘confession’ which is not ‘authentically’ Chinese, and therefore ‘fake’.
However, in trying to limit the kind of cultural memories one is supposed to share by delineating what is ‘authentic’ and what is ‘fake’, Chin, (as David Henry Hwang puts it) is acting like the ‘Ayatollah of Asian American Literature’! Also, in submitting to this “reductive cultural essentialism”, Chin is oversimplifying and dismissing Kingston’s deconstructive re-envisioning of ‘Chinese American-ness’. No matter how ‘American’ Kingston rightly characterizes her works, the ‘Chinese’ part of it, even if it is unpalatable and prone to be misunderstood, cannot be whitewashed. It seems to me that Chin is vehement that one shouldn’t wash one’s ethnic dirty linen in public:
Seven decades of nothing but one Christian autobiography after another had painlessly brought Chinese America to a self-contempt so deep that we are deaf, dumb and blind to the absence of anything real in the writing of Kingston and her literary spawn, David Henry Hwang and Amy Tan. No offense was taken at characterizing Chinese fairy tales and children’s literature of the heroic tradition as teaching both contempt for women and wife beating. Without batting an eye, the average Chinese American born here in the 1970’s, or before, will applaud the notion that Chinese history and literature are irrelevant to the understanding of Chinese American history and writing ... writing by Christian autobiographers has had the effect of displacing history with the stereotype.
However, Kingston was trying to be truthful and telling the whole truth is not easy. The truth does not lie in creating a ‘true’ Chinese American identity – there is no singular or ‘true’ Chinese American female or male identity; at times there might not even be any coherence or meaning as to what constitute ‘Chinese American-ness’, as epitomized by Wittman’s or Maxine’s character which shift endlessly and are creatively unstable, rejecting any ‘boxing-up’ into being ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘American’, ‘Chinese’ or even ‘individualistic’. Malini Schueller warns against such absolutist simplifications:
The danger of theorizing about marginalized groups—women and racial minorities—is actually that of positing an essential blackness and femininity. What is politically important for women and racial minorities is not to frame correct definitions of female and ethnic identity, but to question all such definitions. Above all it means to reject the concept of a stable and autonomous self upon which such definitions depend.
In terms of the text in both of Kingston’s works, both are narratives and religion is always implicitly present in narratives because as stated by Mark Ledbetter, “narrative serves a religious function ... the narrative structure contains a virtue that establishes a religious worldview ... narrative fiction creates a hypothetical world that possesses a religious/ethical ethos.” Ledbetter explains that the author of a narrative would establish a worldview that he or she believes to best inform human existence.
In The Woman Warrior, this hypothetical world is multi-layered, containing different worldviews. For instance, there is constant tension between the religious/ethical ethos of Maxine, the protagonist and Brave Orchid, her mother. Brave Orchid’s ethos is shaped by Confucian-inspired “Chinese relatedness”, where the chief imperatives are filial piety and loyalty to the family. Peter Kerry Powers stresses the centrality of the village in understanding ‘relatedness’:
Relatedness in such a setting extends not simply to one’s immediate family members or to one’s neighbors, but indeed through the memories of the village into the distant past, fixing one’s identity in relationship to the villagers who have shaped the village life in the past.
Such adherence to Confucian ethos means that Brave Orchid’s idea of having ‘virtues’ means subscribing to a worldview metaphorically described as ‘roundness’. This ‘roundness’ connotes ‘belonging’ to a family and a society and fulfilling social and familial obligations that extends into the afterlife. Individualistic thinking is viewed as an aberration, a dent in the roundness, and Maxine’s ‘No-Name’ Aunt became an aberration when she became pregnant with another man’s child. The aunt also literally became a lost soul because the family refuses to acknowledge or to remember her after her death, so she “remains forever hungry” in the afterlife, with no ancestors to send offerings to her.
Maxine identifies with her ‘No-Name’ Aunt because she has no ‘roundness’ herself. She shrinks from her mother’s still-rooted-in-China religious/ethical ethos. She is considered a ‘ghost-child’ because she was born in America and she “could not figure out what was (her) village”. However, she is unable to participate fully in American life, as she grows up in “an America that imagines Asian America to be Charlie Chans, Dragon Ladies, or Fu Manchus.”
The Woman Warrior ends with the establishment of Kingston’s new worldview as symbolized by the tale of Ts’ai Yen. Ts’ai Yen, a Chinese woman captured by a barbarian chieftain, has composed a song to accompany the music of the barbarian reed pipe. In the same way, Kingston’s narrative incorporates both aspects of her lineage, resulting in a new Chinese American melody of life.
In Tripmaster Monkey, the main protagonist, Wittman’s ultimate concern is to write the American play of the century – an American play that will attempt to showcase the ‘Chinese’ aspects of America, that America is not just Black or white but Chinese too. Wittman’s intention is to reclaim the ‘American’ in ‘Chinese American’. There is also no single ‘hypothetical world’ for Wittman. Wittman’s paradigm is marked by transformation – after all, he is the American incarnation of the Monkey King. Despite not having a fixed worldview, there are still tensions present. The tensions come about from Wittman’s constant battles against being categorized, in terms of his looks, clothes, behavior, attitude and lifestyle.
After reading Tripmaster Monkey, I realized how difficult it is for us to not categorize people. It seems as though we have a kind of built-in device, activated by societal engineering, for certain definitions to click in when we interact with others. The very term, ‘religion’ (if understood in the traditional/conventional sense), is a categorizing tool. However, if we conceive of ‘religion’ as having an ultimate concern or a demonstration of humans’ quest for meaning, or even for a ‘good life’, then ‘religion’ is another touchstone to help clarify our existence.
The explicit religion present in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior may appear mythical and exotic because it seems to manifest in Chinese mythological tales like the legend of Fa Mu Lan and other ‘superstitious’ Chinese beliefs of ghosts and exorcism. However, such ‘mythical’ ideas are presented in a serious manner, therefore, emphasizing the importance of religion in the narrative. This could be because, technically, The Woman Warrior is not just a narrative, but a fictionalized autobiography. The mythical/fictionalized episodes in the narrative can be read as the author’s projected ‘wishes’ or the author’s efforts to come to the terms with the painful realities of being doubly marginalized. Religion is therefore, not necessarily an absolute truth, but rather an implement used to make meaning out of the author’s existential ‘lost-ness’.
The explicit religion present in the author’s mythical metamorphosis into Fa Mu Lan, the legendary Chinese woman warrior is an illustration of the Confucian worldview of doing service to one’s family and society. So, in this instance, to be religious is to be heroic. Also, there is the ‘separation’ from the world that the author as a woman warrior has to go through. This is akin to Tillich’s view on the acknowledgement of holiness when one is caught up with an ultimate concern. Religion as manifested in the Fa Mu Lan metarmophosis, is thus seen, as heroic and honorable. Fa Mu Lan is a metaphor for the narrator, i.e., Kingston’s own ultimate concern – to be a hero for Asian/Chinese America, to fight the ‘fat and powerful men’ of racism (her real world racist boss), and Chinese patriarchy that devalues the female sex:
By looking into the water gourd, I was able to follow the men I would have to execute. Not knowing that I watched, fat men ate meat; fat men drank wine made from the rice; fat men sat on naked little girls. I watched powerful men count their money, and starving men count theirs.
The implicit religion is also portrayed as a form of remembrance; a remembrance that obliges one to do one’s heroic duty to the family. This remembrance is filled with pain, so implicitly, religion can be full of pain and sacrifice, as symbolized in carving the Woman Warrior’s back:
“We are going to carve revenge on your back,” my father said. “We’ll write out oaths and names.”
“Wherever you go, whatever happens to you, people will know our sacrifice,” my mother said. “And you will never forget either.” …
My father first brushed the words in ink, and they fluttered down my back row after row. Then, he began cutting; to make fine lines and points he used thin blades, for the stems, large blades.
My mother caught the blood and wiped the cuts with a cold towel soaked in wine. It hurt terribly—the cuts sharp; the air burning; the alcohol cold, then hot—pain so various. ... The list of grievances went on and on. If an enemy should flay me, the light would shine through my skin like lace.
This ‘mythic’ account, in my opinion, is a metaphor for the author’s pain – the pain of being marginalized, the pain of being ‘lost’ and without an existential ‘order’. The words carved on her mythical self’s back is another metaphor for the kind of weapon the author uses to ‘fight’ the ‘fat men’ of the real world – through her writing.
Therefore, in the overall narrative of The Woman Warrior, the presence of religion, although interspersed with solemn and heavily laden themes, is portrayed in a positive and uplifting manner because it is through religion (defined in the non-traditional manner), that the narrator learns to not just destroy one’s personal demons, but to re-create a clearer vision of her destiny – to be a woman word warrior for Chinese America.
Kingston’s literary doppelganger is Wittman Ah Sing, the main protagonist in Tripmaster Monkey. Wittman is word warrior too, but he is a word warrior in another sense; he is a “fool for literature”. However, explicit religion (as exemplified in both American values and Chinese values and ‘traditional’ beliefs), is portrayed satirically – the central depiction manifested in Wittman’s identification with the Monkey King.
At the same time, I think the implicit message behind the portrayal of religion as a parody is that, religion should not be seen as an absolutist mode of definition. Religion, because it is expressed through the unstable medium of language, is also unstable and even nihilistic, as illustrated by the metaphor of empty scrolls:
Wittman was working out what this means: ...The Indians give them scrolls, which they load on the white horse. Partway home, Monkey, a suspicious fellow, unrolls the scrolls, and finds that they are blank scrolls. “What’s this? We’ve been cheated. Those pig-catchers gave us nothing. Let’s demand an exchange.” So, he and his companions go back, and they get words, including the Heart Sutra. But the empty scrolls had been the right ones all along.
Thus, from the above instance, religion is seen as an ‘open’ and ‘empty’ paradigm with no definitive delineations – something which you can superimpose your own beliefs on. In other words, to exist ‘religiously’ (i.e. religion defined in the non-traditional way) means that one is ‘open’ to any paradigm. Kingston’s purpose is to present a postmodernist take on religion – that there should be no single definition of any aspect of existence, be it one’s ethnicity, culture or religion. Such a perception arises out of the marginalized Kingston/Wittman’s rigorous effort against being stereotyped. Religion, then, has to be portrayed as possessing multiple meanings and flexibility to be transformed and interpreted in new ways. For instance, the Monkey is a metaphor for how Chinese America must not be ‘boxed in’ by any kind of ‘definition’ but must be flexible enough to be transformed constantly so that there is creative ‘newness’.
The portrayal of religion, in certain respects, is colored with a certain ‘Chinese-ness’, as religion is seen as a communal activity. This is illustrated in Wittman’s engaging of almost everyone he knows (and of different ethnic backgrounds) to participate in his play. Literally, Wittman’s play is a symbol for the fulfillment of Wittman’s ultimate concern. In addition, I read the play as a metaphor for an imagined America that will be open to all kinds of Americans of all ethnicities. To work towards such a goal, an artist of color like Wittman has to subscribe to the Chinese/Asian stress on family and community. As Irma Maini puts it:
...the artist-protagonists work toward establishing identities as artists and Americans within society, not as outsiders but as involved members of that society…Thus it is crucial for Wittman not to remain aloof or distance himself from society if he is to assert his identity as an American and an artist, if he is to remove the shroud of invisibility with which dominant society has covered him.
So, is religion a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ presence in Tripmaster Monkey? Although, I feel that such ‘labels’ seem irrelevant for such a portrayal of postmodernist milieu, I am of the opinion that the religion that is present is positive. It is positive because it is through the sieve of religion that new, re-envisioned worldviews are presented.
My first love is literature. I fell in love with words on the day I learnt the letters of the English alphabet. The English language is my adopted mother tongue as technically, I have no mother tongue. I can speak Chinese but I cannot read and write in Chinese. I speak, read, write, think, pray, swear and dream in English. That accounts for my fascination with Asian American literature because I can identify with the frequently dealt with themes of lost-ness that arises from cultural alienation.
Religion is not a ‘love’ but rather, a fascination for me. I am drawn by religion because I can’t seem to shake the hold religion has on me. I am able to understand this ‘hold’ after doing this paper because I realize that every human being has a religion. Every existing, ‘sane’ and functioning human has an ultimate concern; no matter how base or lofty this ultimate concern might be.
My paper is my attempt to combine the examination of my two intellectual preoccupations. To recall, the purpose of my paper is to examine the presence of religion in Chinese American literature, focusing on certain works of doubly marginalized writers, Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston. In both authors’ works, there is a strong presence of religion. On the surface, the religious presence is rather ‘Chinese/Eastern’, as manifested in the explicit religion shown in all four books. However, the implicit religion present is more universal in nature because narratives are expressions of reality. As much as religion rattles its chains in real life, these chains rattle even louder and clearer in all literature because the creation of literature is a religious act in itself.
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QLRS Vol. 2 No. 2 Jan 2003