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The Woman Warrior

The Woman Warrior


by Maxine Hong Kingston

The Woman Warrior Chapter 5 Summary

A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe

  • Kingston admits that she found out about Moon Orchid's meeting with her husband from her sister, who found out through her brother. Kingston's brother is a bare bones kind of storyteller, which Kingston thinks might be better than her convoluted way.
  • Kingston's mom told her that she cut her frenum (that connective part of the tongue) so she could speak more easily. Kingston laments this act since she did not have an easy time with English. Kingston recounts her three-year-long silence.
  • Kingston writes about befriending the "Negro kids" at school. She comes to associate silence with Chinese girls; she performs this part (5.34).
  • The author talks about the difference between the character for "I" in Chinese and the word in English.
  • Kingston and her sister go to Chinese school after class from 5-7:30 pm. Silence isn't so much of an issue in Chinese school, but she and her sister are both nervous to recite in front of the class.
  • Kingston's mom still puts pressure on her to speak up. Kingston remembers how her mom thought the drugstore delivery boy put a curse on their household by delivering the wrong medicine. She orders Kingston to go and reverse the curse.
  • Begrudgingly, Kingston goes and asks for free candy, sweet stuff to take the bitter out of the house. Kingston tells the druggist that it's a Chinese thing to give free candy. All the druggists buy it and give them candy every time the Kingstons come in. Kingston is embarrassed because she thinks the druggists assume they're beggars.
  • Kingston considers how Chinese sounds to Americans and how English sounds to Chinese. She's having a hard time figuring out how vocal to be; Chinese women are loud, but American femininity seems to demand a more demure approach.
  • There's one girl in Kingston's Chinese class who's always silent. It really ticks Kingston off. She notes that they are similar in that they both walk when they play baseball, without swinging the bat ever.
  • Kingston makes fun of this girl with the other classmates. Kingston is friends with this girl's older sister though.
  • One day, Kingston runs into the silent girl after school. Kingston corners her and pressures her to talk. She pinches her cheeks and pulls at her hair, teasing her and yelling at her to say a single word. Kingston hates her features, the perfect fit of her shirt collar, and the fleshiness of her cheeks. The girl, as you can imagine, is bawling.
  • This continues for some time and Kingston becomes more self-conscious of how it's going. She starts to cry, too.
  • The quiet girl's sister comes and they all walk home.
  • In a karmic twist, Kingston spent the next 18 months bedridden with a mysterious though painless disease. She loves it though.
  • Kingston grew up thinking of Chinese stuff as tricky to figure out; so many unspeakable taboos and rituals that she's just expected to know even though no one explained them to her, least of all her mom. Kingston figures that Chinese culture must always be invented since no one ever seems to tell the next generation what the traditions are.
  • Kingston goes into a couple of descriptions of insane women she knew growing up. She figures that the difference between insane and sane is that insane people can't explain themselves. The women in her examples mostly end up in insane asylums.
  • Kingston figures that every house has a insane person, and she's the one of her house. She thinks she must be crazy. To make sure, she asks her best friend (her sister) whether she also talks to people inside her head. Her sister reacts like she's nuts.
  • Kingston grows up anxious because she is both crazy and a Chinese girl. She feels certain her parents will sell her. The family has a lot of girl cousins, and the grandpa calls them maggots, shrieking at them for his grandsons. The family celebrates when a grandson is born.
  • Brave Orchid's friend says that Kingston's talking sounds like a duck. She says Kingston will never get married off with a talk like that. So Kingston realizes that another way of getting rid of Chinese daughters is to marry them off.
  • Brave Orchid and her husband place ads in the newspaper for fellows to marry their daughters. Men come over, interested. Brave Orchid insists that the older daughter marry first. Kingston is glad that she is an obstacle to her sister getting married off. When she meets the men, Kingston purposefully acts out by dropping dishes and doing broom dances.
  • The mentally disabled boy in Kingston's Chinese class starts following her around, sitting in front of the family laundry and such. Her parents don't mind. Kingston stops acting weird on purpose for fear that her parents will think she and this boy are right for one another. She refers to him as a monster.
  • One day Brave Orchid and Kingston look into one of "the monster's" cartons, while he's taking a potty break. They find a bunch of porn. Kingston's mom commends him for being curious about the female body.
  • Kingston has compiled a list of two hundred things to tell her mom; two hundred true things about herself so her mom might know her on her own terms.
  • She works up the courage to tell her mom the first of 207 things: she killed a spider once. Brave Orchid is busy starching laundry and doesn't seem to react much to any of the truths.
  • Finally, Brave Orchid requests that Kingston stop gabbing away every night, calling her crazy. Kingston is somewhat relieved but also anxious that she has so many things she won't get to tell her mom.
  • One night, when all the family is crowded in the laundry for a dinner break, Kingston goes off on a tirade. She makes fun of "the monster," accuses her mom of plotting to marry her off, and of confusing her sense of reality.
  • Brave Orchid, also a talented talker, says the suitors were for her sister, not Kingston – no one would want to marry someone who talks like a duck.
  • The argument ensues back and forth. Kingston says that she'll go to college and won't have to worry about talking nice, acting proper, or being pretty. Brave Orchid says that she only calls her kids ugly out of a Chinese sense of modesty.
  • The more Kingston talks, the more she ticks off the items on her list. But the more she talks, the more items she senses on her list.
  • The next day "the monster" disappears. Kingston never finds out what becomes of him and figures that she made him up.
  • Kingston doesn't know what to believe and wants to go to China to see whether the stories about Communism are true. The relatives in China write to her family in America asking for money. Isn't Communism supposed to provide services and goods for common people, though? She figures she will soon be the one to send money away to relatives in China; she'll inherit the address book of names.
  • Kingston writes of a story her mom used to tell. She says that the beginning is her mom's telling, but the ending is hers. Kingston's grandma used to love the opera in China, insisting that everyone in the house clear out and join her at the theater. The bandits would follow the acting troupes and ransack people's houses while they were at the show. But Brave Orchid's house didn't get off so bad, so they continued to go to the theater.
  • Kingston likes to imagine that they heard the songs of Ts'ai Yen at these operas. Ts'ai Yen, Kingston tells us, is a poetess born in 175 A.D. She was the daughter of Ts'ai Yung, a "scholar famous for his library" (5.195).
  • Ts'ai Yen was captured by the lead bandit of the Southern Hsiung-nu. He gives her a horse as a gift for birthing his children. As a barbarian, she rides with the bandits for twelve years and has two children. She speaks Chinese to her children, but they make fun of her foreign sounds.
  • The barbarians use reeds for weapons and instruments. The sound of its tune makes Ts'ai Yen feel cold, disturbed. One night, the barbarians hear her singing from the tent. Her sound matches the reed's. The song she sings has some of the barbarian's language in it about "forever wandering," and her children sing along (5.196).
  • Ts'ai Yen marries Tung Ssu, a person of the Han race in China. She passes on songs, including "Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe." Kingston tells us that these songs are now played on traditional Chinese instruments.

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