The Conflicting and Retrogressive Binaries of Identity in The Woman Warrior

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Words: 1344 |

Pages: 3|

7 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 1344|Pages: 3|7 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

There are few identities that fit neatly within conventional, binary systems of thought. Binary oppositions that exist within the spheres of race and gender are exclusive of individuals who occupy intersections of these identities. In The Woman Warrior Kingston’s goal is not to write off these binary oppositions, but to demonstrate that the narrative of a Chinese American woman does not and cannot fit within them. In this way, Kingston must oppose binary systems of thought in order to properly relay a specific narrative: one that is typically excluded and misrepresented.

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In “White Tigers” Kinston retells the historical story of Fa Mu Lan in order to establish representation where representation cannot be found. In the original tale, Fa Mu Lan fights to defend her country, but in Kingston’s imagined version, she fights against a corrupt emperor. This narrative decision destabilizes the divide between fiction and non-fiction, but not simply for theatrical purposes. At the end of “White Tigers” Kingston writes, “My parents had bought their coffins. They would sacrifice a pig to the gods that I had returned. From the words on my back, and how they were fulfilled, the villagers would make a legend about my perfect filiality. My American life has been such a disappointment” (45). These lines at first serve to demonstrate quite a stark contrast between the binary of fiction and non-fiction. The narrative of the imagined Fa Mu Lan story is interrupted abruptly by Kingston’s following thoughts on America. Ultimately, this narrative choice is not meant to reinforce the fiction and non-fiction divide, but to show that Kingston’s desired, and real, narrative lacks representation in history and present day. There is certain futility within the line “My American life has been such a disappointment” (Kingston 45). She understands that her story is non-fiction, but this does not negate Kingston’s very real experience of it. Kingston must rewrite the story of Fa Mu Lan in order to properly represent her identity as a Chinese American woman. The original story appeals to conventional ideals of Chinese culture and even Chinese femininity: loyalty, obedience, and perseverance. Kingston’s decision to fight against the corrupt emperor, however, alludes to her own struggles against an oppressive patriarchy. In this oppression, her narrative is not erased: it is simply not given a platform on which to exist. Kingston must forge her own story in order to represent her own identity.

Kingston struggles against oppressive power hierarchies but also must grapple with more internal binary oppositions. Much of her narrative is made complicated by the fact that it has been relayed to her through unstable and opposing sources. Kingston must constantly reckon with the binaries of subjectivity and objectivity and reality and falsehood when attempting to present her narrative. For example, much of what her mother, Brave Orchid, relays to her is littered with inconsistencies and slippery, elusive explanation. At the beginning of “Shaman” Kingston’s mother tells her that she once had two other siblings: “Their two children had been dead for ten years” (60). However, at the end of the story Brave Orchid counters this: “No you must have been dreaming. You must have been making up stories. You are all the children there are” (103). Here we see how Kingston cannot clearly mark the divide between fact and fiction or subjectivity and objectivity: her mother’s narrative is simply not presented this way. Further, this can be understood to be a product of Brave Orchid’s own dealings in grappling with restrictive binary thought. Her stories are inconsistent because binary thought systems prevent her identity’s acceptance. The possible shame and cultural disgrace of having dead children would prevent Kingston’s mother from speaking about the topic explicitly: she must mother dead children but also appear an adequate mother. In the same way, Kingston must accept her mother’s stories while maintaining an unspoken doubt. She writes, in “No Name Woman”, “In the twenty years since I heard this story I have not asked for details nor said my aunt’s name; I do not know it” (Kingston 16). Here we see a fundamental opposition in play that permeates all attempts of Kingston to reckon with her narrative. The story of her ghostly aunt plagues her, and yet she does not even know her aunt’s name. With unstable oppositions of reality versus fiction and subjectivity versus objectivity at the root of Kingston’s story, it is clear how her narrative would consequently challenge binary thought.

The struggle to appeal to both ends of binary oppositions is one of the main roots of Kingston’s narrative. The expectation to maintain honesty but also utmost discretion extends into the sphere of race relations that Kingston navigates within America. Her identity is made complicated by the intersection of Chinese and American that she occupies. Kingston tells the story of her days in American school, and describes a moment in which the divide between Chinese and American, foreign and not, is especially clear: “The class laughed at how dumb he was not to notice things. ‘She calls him father of me,’ He said. Even we laughed, although we knew that his mother did not call his father by name, and a son does not know his father’s name” (177). Here we see that the desperate need for assimilation prevents non-white Americans from being able to, in a sense, fully exist within their own identity. Kingston and the other Chinese American students are aware of the boy’s situation, and yet they laugh alongside their American classmates. This is because there is no space created for those who are both foreign and not: they must either appear wholly Chinese and face discrimination, or attempt to “Americanize” themselves to appease their white peers. Kingston cannot relay a story that adheres to racial binaries because she herself opposes them simply through existing. She must answer to both American and Chinese identities, and is not given the option of occupying one space on the binary. Additionally, Kingston must further deconstruct her identity through the appeal to American ideals of femininity.

At this point the many binary forces governing Kingston’s identity have begun to reveal themselves, and the intricate nature of her oppression is clear. Kingston is doubly oppressed as a Chinese American and as a Chinese American woman. She cannot simply assimilate into American culture; she must do so with consideration for the gendered expectations of both cultures. She writes, “When we Chinese girls listened to the adults talk-story, we learned that we failed if we grew up to be but wives or slaves” (Kingston 19). Here Kingston refers to the rigid structure of binary gender and the subsequently oppressive expectations for gendered performance. She must grow up a wife or slave or risk consideration as a useless woman. Kingston writes further, “We American-Chinese girls had to whisper to make ourselves American-feminine” (173). This reveals a truly complex intersection of binary oppositions. Kingston references the fact that American femininity is different from Chinese femininity, which places a strain on a Chinese American woman struggling to assert her identity. Kingston is forced not only to assimilate to American culture, but assimilate to American femininity as well. All the while she must do this with respect for her Chinese heritage, struggling to retain what elusive knowledge she possesses. In these attempts, binary ideas of gender and race are subsequently blurred.

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Kingston’s narrative demonstrates that Western reliance on polarizing binaries of thought prevents acceptance, representation, and recognition of the identities that fail to fall into either/or categories. Ultimately, she only attempts to convey her experience of life as a Chinese American woman. This identity on its own is not philosophical, but the opposing binary forces that challenge it certainly raise philosophical questions. Kingston destabilizes these binary structures in order to show that identities that fall outside of them are just as valid. She addresses and deconstructs binary thought because to do so is necessary to properly represent an identity that cannot be found within the Western, white, and male philosophy of being.

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The Woman Warrior: Opposing and Destructive Binaries of Identity. (2018, April 27). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from
“The Woman Warrior: Opposing and Destructive Binaries of Identity.” GradesFixer, 27 Apr. 2018,
The Woman Warrior: Opposing and Destructive Binaries of Identity. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 21 Jun. 2024].
The Woman Warrior: Opposing and Destructive Binaries of Identity [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 Apr 27 [cited 2024 Jun 21]. Available from:
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