The Fear of the Unknown

“The Woman Warrior” is an autobiography written by Maxine Hong Kingston. Kingston displays her life in creative short stories throughout this autobiography. In the short story “Shaman,” she talks about her mother, “Brave Orchird,” and how her life was enticing and eventful. The ghosts haunt Kingston that her mother brought in her life, she paints an image for the readers about the conflicts that her relationship with her mother had brought her. There is a distrust that Kingston has within her mother, a reason for this distrust is from not knowing whether her mother had taken part in killing babies or not. Brave Orchird would describe to Kingston the common practice of killing baby girls by suffocation in a box of ashes. Kingston then suffers from nightmares about preventing babies from being killed. She said that she “would protect the dream baby, not let it suffer, not let it out of my sight. (86)” This could be a direct result from the shame that she feels from her mother, possibly killing babies without certainty. While her mother thinking that telling her these stories will help her self- esteem about being a woman, it does the opposite. Kingston’s dreams consume her about her saving the babies, and she always fails to do so, resulting in her questioning her sanity. Her dreams show how deep down Kingston is a good person and how influential her mother was on her. This also relates to how impressionable Kingston was in “No Name Woman” when her mother told her, “You must not tell anyone… what I am about to tell you.” That is additionally a difficult thing to ask of a child, and her mother continues to do this to Kington for her entire life. 

Another childhood fear that Kingston suffered from was about the expectations put on females, which started from her mother’s stories about female slavery. She had this intense fear that she was unwanted as a daughter and would be sold as a slave in her lifetime. This is yet another example of how Brave Orchirds stories instilled fear in her daughter and uncertainty about herself. She talks about how she does not want to go to China because she believes that in China, her parents would sell her. This could be a reason that she can only “smell” China and not see it. It could be her subconscious blocking out China because she believes it is a bad place. Kingston believed that her mother cared more about her slave girl than she did her daughter. She said, “My mother’s enthusiasm for me is duller than for the slave girl. (82)” When Kingston had said this, it shined a light on the fact that she is insecure about herself and believed that she was not good enough for anything, especially her mother. A mother’s approval is pivotal for a daughter’s self-esteem, and Brave Orchid damaged that for Kingston. Her telling this in a story form shows the beauty of storytelling since it paints her experience gracefully. 

At the end of the chapter, Brave Orchid says about the children who died in China that “No, you must have been dreaming. You must have been making up stories. You are all the children there are. (103)” to Kingston. This shows how she blocked out the trauma of them ever dying, which also relates to “No Name Woman” and how her family didn’t even honor her memory. This ultimately even makes her homeland unknown to Brave Orchid. The unknown can be a scary thing, especially with a young girl such as Kingston. Kingston displays her childhood in an enticing method that shows the magnitude of how impressionable she was to her mother’s stories due to the uncertainty of them.  

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the significance of the unknown in life? Especially in Kingstons life? 
  2. What does Brave Orchid represent? How does Kingston view her mother?

11 Replies to “The Fear of the Unknown”

  1. Hey Jill! I loved reading your blog post and seeing your point of view of this story. I completely agree with your point of Kingston fearing the expectations that were placed upon the women during this time and I think it’s crazy that her own mother is scaring her by sharing these stories. I don’t know how I feel about this mother now that we can assume she participated in baby killings, and tells her daughter all these scary stories at such a young age when really she should be doing all she can to protect her from things like this. I also agree with your point that she is causing Kingston to feel insecure and less important than the slave girl. A quote I found to be interesting is, “My mother has given me pictures to dream-nightmare babies that recur, shrinking again and again to fit in my palm.”(P.86) The way she says her mother gave her these terrible images is just truly sad to me. I would never want to bring this fear to my child and no mother ever should.

  2. Hi Jill! I really loved reading your blog post! I agree with you that Kingston’s mother had a huge impact on Kingston. Like most mothers, she was a big influence on her daughter especially growing up. The impact her mother had on her was somewhat negative. To answer your first question about unknown life is I think life is so precious and no one ever knows what they are going to get in life. People don’t know how long they are going to be living and I think the fact that Kingston’s mother could’ve held a baby’s life in her hands and chosen to take their life away really effected Kingston. Kingston was scarred from her mother telling her these stories. A quote that stood out to me was on page 86 was “The midwife or a relative would take the back of a girl baby’s head in her hand and turn her face into the ashes. Said my mother. “It was very easy.” Hearing how her mother said how easy it was to take a baby’s life was really disturbing, so I can only imagine what was running through Kingston’s head when her mother said this to her.

  3. Hello Jill! For me, Brave Orchid’s character works to reveal the contrast between what it was like to be a part of Chinese society, and what the American experience is like. Not only that, but to highlight the differences in the behaviors of women and men based off of their respective environments. As an example of this, take Brave Orchid showing Kingston her photo “Her eyes do not focus on the camera. My mother is not smiling; Chinese do not smile for photographs. Their faces command relatives in foreign lands…” (Kingston 58). Brave Orchids photo demonstrates the serious attitude of the Chinese, and presents a stark difference when Kingston compares that photo to the ones of her father posing at Coney Island. After coming to American society, her father is allowed to be silly and express that in photos. As well as this, Brave Orchid, a young woman, was working hard to be a doctor. She did not have opportunities to let her sillier side out. As a woman, she was expected to be mature. On the other hand, Kingston’s father being a man, was allowed to enjoy some fun and time to himself in America.

  4. Hi Jill! I agree that Kingston’s mother had a huge impact on her life and really impacted the writing of her memoir. I think that this is evident in every chapter we read, even though they’re all about different events and stories. When Kingston states that her mother said “You must not tell anyone…what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself” (1), it sets a tone of mystery throughout the whole book. Kingston has this weird relationship with her mom where you almost can’t figure out what her mom’s goal is in saying some things. For example, she must have known that saying that about the aunt would haunt her daughter. It is sometimes hard to decipher her mother’s intentions in the stories she tells, which relates to the “unknown” of this book.

  5. Hi Jill! I really enjoyed reading your blog post. To answer your second question, I believe that Brave Orchid represents her mother and the story of “Shaman” is used to represent the way her mother’s sister failed to assimilate into the new culture they migrated to. This is very understandable, at the time the Hong had a very difficult time assimilating into this new culture. Between trying to keep alive old traditions and stories such as “the village celebrated seventeen hurry-up weddings” (1) and trying to adapt to the new culture they were forced into, the transition must have been very difficult.

  6. Hi Jill, I really enjoyed your blog post, and how you focused on the theme of fear within the story. I think that Kingston sprinkling different examples of her feeling fear as she was growing up gives us a better insight on what it was like for her growing up as a Chinese American. One example of this, like you mentioned in your post, was the expectation that was put on girls. Kingston explains on page 19 that, “…we learned that we failed if we grew up to be wives or slaves. We could be heroines, swordswomen.” The girls were told stories from a very young age to inspire them to be the very best that they could be, but as we also learned from Kingston, they were still not praised as much as the boys were when they achieved things. To answer your question, part of the unknown in Kingston’s life was whether she would be praised for her achievements or not. She always wondered growing up whether she would be good enough for her parents and if she would make them proud. Would she be a slave or a swordswoman?

  7. Hey, Jill! I was fascinated in your blog post and I totally agree that Brave Orchid served as a huge impact for Maxine. To answer your second question, Brave Orchid represents two types of people: a heroic female warrior who is independent and a women who does nefarious acts. Brave Orchid is causing Kingston to feel insecure and less important than the slave girl. This is evident when Maxine says, “My mother has given me pictures to dream-nightmare babies that recur, shrinking again and again to fit in my palm” (89). To extrapolate, Maxine’s mother give her horrifying images and shapes her to be fearful in situations. It is just sad that her own mother does that to her.

    Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior : Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts. New York, 1989.

  8. Hello Jill, I think you have found something interesting. We have stumbled upon a theme of Kingstons mother telling her stories for a specific reason (e.g. safe sex and becoming a woman) but the story is so abrupt or unexpected, it has a completely different meaning to Kingston herself. We have been set up to see Kingstons mother as this mysterious, possibly shameful character that Kingston it trying to figure out. When her mother tells the story of the no name woman, she meant to teach her daughter about safe sex, but also might’ve wanted to talk to Kingston about her past, actively rebelling against the punishment of silence she was forced to participate in. The stories definitely weren’t just warnings, “Whenever she had to warn us about life, my mother told stories that ran like this one, a story to grow up on” (48). She was telling her history, maybe in the only way she saw possible. Albeit confusing for Kingston, the mothers purpose for the story and kingstons reaction will be a very good way to closely analyze the relationship Kingston has with her ancestry.

  9. Hey Jill, I really enjoyed your blog post! Personally, I believe the unknown for Kingston symbolizes fear and curiosity. As with anyone, unknown always causes curiosity and the want to know, but with Kingston only hearing poor things about China; her curiosity is mixed in with a lot of fear regarding how woman were treated in China. To answer the second question, Brave Orchid represents a living part of China to Kingston, as she is the only one telling Kingston stories regarding China. Through Brave Orchid, Kingston is able to see how men were poorly treated in China, so Kingston wanted to rebel against traditional Chinese ways, so she would not be regarded as worthless. This is seen on page 47 when the narrator states, “There is a Chinese word for the female I- which is “slave.” Break the women with their own tongues! I refused to cook. When I had to wash dishes, I would crack one or two” (Kingston, 47). The previous quote exemplifies how Kingston felt that she had to rebel against traditional Chinese ways, this way she could grow into her own person and not be regarded as a slave.

  10. Hi Jill, I loved your post and how you included fear into it because I feel as if we haven’t discussed that enough. The first thing that comes to mind when I think of ghosts is fear and what that instills inside of me. In this story, Kingston takes the fear as she tells the story and makes us all feel more comfortable while talking about ghosts and instead takes the fear and instills it into this sense of inquisition in ourselves. It makes us ask ourselves question’s like what does the unknown really symbolize? I believe that Kingston uses the stories her mother shares with her to make a sense of the world. She see’s through the stories differently and the unknown allows her to dream and see what the world could have been differently. She wears the fear so well and the way she carries herself differently is almost inspiring. When Kingston said “I inspired my army, and I fed them. At night I sang to them glorious songs that came out of the sky and into my head. When I opened my mouth, the songs poured out and were loud enough for the whole encampment to hear; my army stretched out for a mile. We sewed red flags and tied the red scraps around arms, legs, horses’ tails. We wore our red clothes so that when we visited a village, we would look as happy as for New Year’s Day. Then people would want to join the ranks. My army did not rape, only taking food where there was an abundance. We brought order wherever we went.” (Kingston, 64), this is where I was like okay, she took this fear and made herself into this really powerful women, a warrior.

  11. Hi Jill! I loved reading your blog post because of your inclusion of fear within the Woman Warrior. Before reading your post, I didn’t think about how fear relates to this book, but your post has opened up my mind to many new possibilities. To add to your point, Kingston says “If I want to learn what clothes my aunt wore, whether ashy or ordinary, I would have to begin, “Remember Father’s drowned-in-the-well sister?” I cannot ask that” (2). Fear has been instilled within Kingston’s mind whenever she wants to speak about her aunt, which I believe is the point her mother wanted to make so Kingston would not want to freely speak out her aunt. Great job on your blog post, you inspired me to think about the Woman Warrior in a new way!

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