Last reviewed: June 2018
Chinese American memoirist and novelist
October 27, 1940
In her writings Maxine Hong Kingston speaks not only for herself and Chinese immigrants but for all marginal groups struggling to find their own voices in an oppressive foreign culture. Born of Chinese immigrant parents, she was a part of two worlds, the Chinese culture of her parents and the American one of her birth. Kingston attempts to reconcile the two heritages and out of them forge her own identity. Her father, Tom Hong, had in China been chosen by his family to be a scholar instead of a laborer. Frustrated with teaching school in his village, he had departed for the United States in 1924, leaving his wife and two infant children to follow at some unspecified time in the future. In New York he operated a laundry. After the death of her two young children, Kingston’s mother, Ying Lan Chew, still in China, acquired a medical education. She prospered, but in 1940 she gave up her respected position and left her homeland to join her husband in New York. When Tom Hong soon after lost his laundry, the family moved to California, where Kingston was born. The family endured a period of hard work and poverty during which time Kingston’s parents worked as servants and fruit pickers; eventually they established another laundry. Maxine Hong Kingston.
Maxine Hong Kingston.
Kingston’s Chinese upbringing was ambivalent. Her mother encouraged her to remain Chinese and to accept the subordinate female role in the traditional Chinese family. At the same time, however, her mother related the legend of Fa Mu Lan, which depicts a woman warrior. Kingston also had to contend with American culture. Daily in school and outside the Chinese community, she was confronted with American customs and expected to speak English, a language not spoken at home. Her response was silence. When speech was required, she spoke in a squeaky, timid, or, as she writes, “pressed duck” voice. Yet she did well in school; unable to win battles as the legendary woman warrior did, Kingston achieved victories with her grades. In 1962, the year she married Earll Kingston, she received her B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley, where she returned in 1964 to earn a teaching certificate. She then taught mathematics and English in California. In 1967 she and her husband and their son, Joseph, moved to Hawaii, where she taught English, first in high schools and then in 1977 as a visiting associate professor of English at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. In 1980 Kingston was named Living Treasure of Hawaii. Four years later, the Kingstons returned to California. There she taught at her alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley, from 1990 to 2003.
Kingston’s first book, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts, was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction. In the book, which blends autobiography, history, and myth, Kingston describes her struggle to create her own identity out of the conflicting American and Chinese cultures. The work is without a plot in the conventional sense, and it presents portraits of Chinese women, real and mythic, as they react to their culture; the real women generally respond in silence or are silenced, but in the mythic figures they find a voice that speaks for them as well as for the others who are mute.
The first section, “No Name Woman,” relates the tale of Kingston’s aunt, her father’s sister, who disgraced the family by having an illegitimate child. On the night of the child’s birth, after the villagers destroyed the family compound, she committed suicide and infanticide by flinging herself and her baby into a well. Kingston imagines the life of her aunt: her obedience in marrying the man selected by her elders, her reaction when her husband left for the United States the day after the wedding, her acquiescence when forced by a fellow villager into a sexual liaison, her acceptance of the villagers’ contempt, her refusal to name the father of her child, and her desire to end the life that had disgraced her family. Not only is Kingston telling the story that the aunt could not, she is, in a sense, avenging her; in Chinese the ideograph for “avenge” also means “to report a crime.”
Other sections of The Woman Warrior draw on legend and myth. “White Tigers” relates the tale of the woman warrior Fa Mu Lan who was adopted by a supernatural couple and groomed to be a great warrior. Dressed as a man she led her soldiers to avenge the peasants who had been mistreated by the landlords, and her fame grew with each daring exploit. In the final section, “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” Kingston recounts a Chinese tale about the legendary poet Ts’ai Yung, who, kidnapped by barbarians, was forced to wed one of the chiefs and bear him two children. They rejected her Chinese language and culture. She expressed her loneliness and longing in her poems. When she sang these one night the barbarians, though unable to understand the words, nevertheless understood the emotion, and they allowed her to return to China. In her writing Kingston contends with and finally conquers the ghosts of her childhood; she becomes both the warrior and the poetess. As warrior she is avenging or reporting the crimes committed; as poet she is telling the story for those who have been silenced. Her efforts with this debut book garnered her the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976 and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1978. It was also adapted for the stage in the 1990s.
In The Woman Warrior Kingston speaks for her female ancestors; in her next book, China Men, she provides a voice for her male relatives. Early in China Men she addresses her father, asking him why he was silent and refused to tell her his stories. Because of his reluctance to talk about the past, Kingston speaks for him and for her other male relatives, creating what she does not know.
Kingston relates the experiences of her father in two sections. The first of these, “The Father from China,” is about his accomplishments as a scholar in his Chinese village and his early success in New York, when his laundry business was prospering. This father, lighthearted and popular, Kingston never knew. In “The American Father,” Kingston presents a later period when her father, burdened with the responsibility for a large family, grew quiet, depressed, and stern. This was the father Kingston knew.
In “The Great Grandfather of Sandlewood Mountains” Kingston tells of two of her great grandfathers who planted sugarcane in Hawaii. In “The Grandfather of the Sierra Nevada Mountains” she relates her grandfather’s adventures in the United States, where he traveled three times. The first time he worked on the California railroad; the last time he became a vagrant, and he was able to return to China only with the financial support of his relatives. It was, however, through him that his family was later able to claim American citizenship, for he had argued, convincingly but falsely, that the documents proving his citizenship were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake. Kingston also includes the story of an uncle who abruptly left a comfortable life in the United States to escort his mother’s ghost back to her grave in China, as well as the story of Kingston’s brother, who served in Vietnam. Blended with these biographical sketches are historical records and tales of mythic Chinese figures, as well as the effect of U.S. policies on Chinese immigrants. Like The Woman Warrior, China Men is a testament to survival; it is about forging an identity in an alien culture. It was named a finalist for the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction and won the 1981 National Book Award.
In her 2012 memoir I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, Kingston uses free-verse poetry to relay her contemplations on ageing and reflections on life events such as her arrest at an antiwar protest and her visit to her ancestral homes in China. Reviewers noted its Whitmanesque style and the title's reference to Henry David Thoreau's poetry.
In addition to her autobiographical works, Kingston has written novels. Her Tripmaster Monkey is the story of Wittman Ah Sing framed by the story of the Monkey King who went on the journey to bring to China the Buddhist scriptures from India. This novel belongs to the tall-tale tradition where the line between fact and fiction is comically blurred. The Asian American double identity, explicitly part of this blurring, is shown to be a mine of wealth rather than a destructive split. The Fifth Book of Peace, her second novel, is an admixture of memoir and fiction, much like her autobiographical nonfiction. It was born of a lifelong desire to write about three legendary lost Chinese books of peace, which supposedly told how to end war; the published novel was named the "fifth book" after the nearly complete "fourth book" Kingston had written was destroyed by the 1991 Oakland fire. In it, Kingston recounts the loss of the manuscript, the history of the original books, a fictional escape from the Vietnam War, and the reconstruction of Kingston's home and book. As a result of the experience, Kingston also launched writing workshops with veterans.
Kingston’s books Hawai’i One Summer and To Be the Poet are collections of short essays and musings on her surroundings, memories, and her literary turn toward writing poetry. Kingston also contributes stories and articles to many magazines and journals, including American Girl, American Heritage, English Journal, New Dawn, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Viva, and The Washington Post. Her work, well received by critics as well as by the public, has been selected for various awards. These have included the Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1990), National Humanities Medal (1997), Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation (2008), and National Medal of Arts (2013). She is praised for her intense poetic prose and for her masterful blending of legend, history, autobiography, and myth. Kingston supplies a voice to those who have been silenced by their culture.