The Woman Warrior is a book by Maxine Kingston that deals with hunger in every chapter. Outka believes that Maxine is struggling to balance her desire for freedom and the need to adhere the the traditional Chinese expectations about women. Kingston uses food to express identity in a new way. While I do not disagree with Outka, my interpretation is a little different. Kingston uses female food struggles to create a common thread throughout the novel. No Name Woman is not alone in this struggle. Brave Orchid also faces it. We can learn about the unique identities of women by understanding their struggles with food. The Chinese food culture reflects the power of each woman.
No Name Woman is unable to control her food intake, which results in her being erased from existence. She will also be left with an eternal hunger, which is the ultimate degradation of power. Kingston states that, from the villager’s perspective, adultery was not a sin in good times. But it became one when food was scarce. No Name Woman is responsible for a famine by creating another mouth to feed. No Name Woman’s adultery is likely to be punished by her husband for the same reasons that her child will bring her down. Women are wasteful, especially in times of scarcity. No Name Woman is crushed by this ideology, just as the Sitting Ghost was pressed against Brave Orchid, “absorbing his energy and becoming heavier” (69). No Name Woman has been left feeling ashamed and powerless. As if she had never existed, No Name Woman “killed her family” and was shunned. No Name Woman can’t cope with hatred towards her and uses her physical body to revenge the village through “spite suicidal drowning” (16). No Name Woman is defeated by village expectations about food and women, which cost her her life and her honor. However, the true punishment of her defeat, her loss in power, continues after death through generations.
No Name Woman’s Village deliberately denies No Name Woman’s life and family to reflect the “crime”. The aunt is sentenced to a lonely eternity of starvation. Kingston describes No Name Woman’s future by saying, “Her betrayal was so maddening that they made sure she suffered forever, even after her death.” She was hungry, and she needed food, so she had to ask other ghosts for it (16). Kingston shows that No Name Woman’s defeat by Chinese food ideology is never undone. No Name Woman’s daughter appears to be a wasteful food item that threatens everyone else in the village. “Could people who hatch chicks themselves and eat their embryos…could they engender an aunt prodigal?” The villagers punish her aunt with the same blasphemous threat, and they magnify it to her afterlife. Her ghost will be as hungry as the villagers imagine. No Name Woman was not punished to the extent that she deserved. Her punishment did not include starvation. What more can you expect from a woman whose honor, life, child and family are destroyed? The No Name Woman’s family refuses to mention her name. Kingston acknowledges that the aunt’s last bastion, her memory and story, are repressed as if she “never existed”. “And I’ve” (16). No Name Woman has no power at all (although most women in China were already weak). No Name Woman is an entity that has lost all power (although the vast majority of women in China had little to begin with).
Fa Mu Lan’s training in survival gives her the strength to overcome hunger. She can repress it, and this will give her the strength to be a woman warrior. Fa Mu Lan is proud to pass on her success for generations. Fa Mulan attributes the experience she had with a vision of golden, multi-ethnic performers to her hunger. Fa Mu Lan’s “survival tests” show that she no longer depends on the Chinese male society for her food. Fa Mu Lang’s mind opens up as she overcomes hunger and the “cracks in the Mystery” widen. She understands that time is “spinning like a North Star”, she perceives how precious equality for all humans, and “how peasant clothes are gold” and can see a strange future. Fa Mulan’s hunger training is over when she realizes her mental strength and power come from defeating the food. Fa Mu Lan’s victory over her hunger opened her mind and led to great insights. This was the first step to her attaining physical strength. After completing the “survival challenge”, she began her dragon training. She “worked daily” to exert and empower herself, including “exercising under the rain”. Fa Mu Lan continues to be a food lover after she has completed her training. This allows her to defeat evil emperors, kill corrupt barons, and even dance in the rain. Fa Mu Lan’s ability to overcome the social stigmas associated with food and womanhood allows her to achieve incredible power.
Brave Orchid wie Fa Mulan has an uncanny control over her food. Brave Orchid however, does not embrace starvation. Brave Orchid, during the struggle between her and the Sitting Ghost declares: “You are indeed a small boulder.” Yes, once I have my oil, i will fry you as breakfast. (71). Brave Orchid does not seem to be fazed by the threat of the beast. She vows that she will “fry you breakfast,” as a statement of authority. Brave Orchid eats anything and everything, including this powerful, hairy monster. In a food fight, who will be the winner? Brave Orchid demonstrates, through her verbal attacks on the Sitting Ghost and her flurry of insults and threats that she can “eat” an opponent even if physically defeated. Brave Orchid explains how the Sitting Ghost was also a very strong eater. This highlights her victory. Brave Orchid is able to defeat the Sitting Ghost because she doesn’t care what she eats.
Brave Orchid’s fearlessness as an eater has not changed even after decades of being a mother. She still controls her eating habits from the days when she was a ghost-fighting talking story. Brave Orchid does not seem to be disgusted when retelling her story about eating monkey brains. She says, “you would have been shocked at the faces that monkey made.” “The monkey screaming was laughed at by the people” (92). Brave Orchid is not afraid to tell her story, even though it seems cruel. Brave Orchid is a Chinese adaptation of a story that was adapted to counter the idea that women were wasteful, burdensome’maggots in rice.’ To claim victory against hunger, Brave Orchid must eat anything and everything if necessary. Eating monkeys alive is not a way to torture souls, but rather a means of finding food. Fa Mulan’s philosophy of not killing animals and eating only roots or nuts is very different. Brave Orchid’s Chinese-American children are taught to adopt her philosophy, even though it is not the same as Fa Mu Lan’s. Eat! ‘My mother would shout, as we hunched over bowls of blood pudding and watched it wobble on the table. Brave Orchid hopes to pass on her food dominance to her children. She encourages them to eat a wider variety of foods in the hope that they can “contend with hairy beasts, whether flesh or ghosts” (92). Brave Orchid’s children are expected to eat everything from turtles to raccoons. She believes the power of controlling the food will help them survive in America. Brave Orchid, the champion of Chinese food, is a fearless, bold eater who eats anything that crosses her path.
Maxine’s relationship to food is insecure, a reflection of her changing identity and power. Maxine considers the Fa Mulan legend, and she wonders, “If only I was unable to eat I would be a warrior just like the woman who drives me.” I must rise up and plough the fields the moment the baby is born” (48). Maxine believes she can “not eat” and is in control of her food. She acknowledges that Fa Mu Lan has the power to control food because she embraces hunger. Maxine, however, is not able to achieve the scenario. She won’t find mystical training in the midst of white tigers no matter how much she looks for it. I was desperate to find a bird that wasn’t common (49). Maxine gives up this dream, stating that she will “rise and plough the fields as soon the baby is born,” revealing her fear of being forced to be subservient to a Chinese woman because they are unable to eat.
Maxine’s attempts to mimic Brave Orchard’s food management also fail. Maxine’s disgust at Brave Orchid dishes such as squid eye, blood pudding and weird brown masses is expressed when she says, “I could live on plastic.” (92). Maxine’s semi joking preference of plastic over her mom’s cooking shows how different Maxine and Brave Orchid are in their view of food. Maxine’s picky eating habits are not comparable to Brave Orchid, who eats anything. Maxine is a picky eater, and her American tastes make it difficult for her to enjoy traditional Chinese food. In White Tigers she would refuse the bowls filled with rice offered by an elderly couple, asking, “Does anyone have cookies?” I like cookies with chocolate chips” (21). Maxine’s taste has been assimilated by her American identity. She cannot inherit Brave Orchard’s powers. Maxine can’t escape her dependence on society to provide food like Fa Mulan, so she doesn’t adopt her mother eating habits.
Maxine may not be able to control or dominate the food she eats like Brave Orchid or Fa Mu Lan, but she has power. Kingston explains that when she visits her family, she wraps up her American successes like a shawl to show that, contrary to No Name Woman’s belief, women are not wastes of food. She says: “I am worthy of the food I eat. Maxine’s “American success”, her literary and academic triumphs, enable her to overcome the stigma of Chinese women being “maggots on the rice”. She declares that she is indeed “worthy of eating” the food (43). Maxine cannot be Brave Orchid because she is not Fa Mulan. But she can still achieve power as Maxine by using her words to tell a story about her life and try to grasp an identity. Maxine is able to control her words to reveal her story. She can expose issues such as gender, race, and the dubious nature an American-Chinese ethnicity.
We understand that the concept of food is more important than just feeding our bodies. Food is both materialistic and elementary. It’s also profound, expressive and vital to cultures. Separating groups from food has a negative impact on their identity. This is why victories against the notion of women as a waste are so crucial, since they give people the power to fill in the voids created by the society’s resentment. Kingston’s goal is to portray a chilling dystopic story by highlighting women who have overcome society’s resentful view of feeding women.