Growing up children are told stories by their parents, grandparents, teachers, friends, caretakers, and what is the most important is what is learned from the story. Whether it’s a moral lesson, information about the narrator, or cultural traditions, children learn from these stories they’re told from young ages. In The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Kingston, she includes a chapter about her mother, Brave Orchid, titled “Shaman”. Kingston uses many different types of practices and symbols of Chinese culture to portray her mother as a Chinese role model for Kingston herself as well as many other Chinese Americans who read these memoirs. Kingston’s mother practicing these cultural traditions and even being compared to traditional elements provides Chinese influence on Maxine through not only content but the imagery of Brave Orchids “talk-story” and experiences shared with her daughter. In the “Shaman” chapter, we are introduced to Brave Orchid, Maxine’s mother, as a young woman attending medical school for midwifery, here is where she has some of her most notable experiences to later on share through her “talk-story” with her children.
Opening the chapter, Maxine speaks about her mother showing Maxine herself and her siblings her medical diploma and begins telling her story about her medical journey which brings us to the first major “talk-story” Brave Orchid tells her children. It begins with the haunted room in the medical school’s dormitory, Maxine’s mother is unamused by her roommates and colleague’s reactions towards small sounds they deemed to be “hauntings”. When she decides to prove to them the room is not haunted she is compared to a dragoness. Maxine describes her mother approaching danger as a dragon would “…she fanned out her dragon claws and riffled her red sequin scales and unfolded her coiling green stripes…like the dragons living in temple eaves, my mother looked down on plain people who were lonely and afraid.” (Kingston, 1989, 67). This meticulous comparison of her mother to a dragoness is relative to traditional Chinese culture. In Ancient China dragons were “associated with rulership…seen as benevolent creatures” (Cartwright 2019), which can closely relate to the way Brave Orchid is portrayed throughout the rest of the experience with this haunting. The visual imagery of Brave Orchid as a dragon in the accompany of danger is so detailed there’s many ways to imagine her as more than just a human. Not only do we get the color descriptions of red and green but the red is described as “sequined scales”, “sequin” alone provides so much visual imagery but Kingston jumps back in adding “coiling green stripes”. Kingston isn’t just providing visual imagery of color but also texture the sequin, a shiny smooth scale on the dragons’ body, the stripes that are coiled, wrapping endlessly around and around the dragons’ body. Although we are given this description of Brave Orchid as this rough and ruling dragon it contrasts her name deeply. Her name, “Brave Orchid” seems so delicate, the orchid being a flower, with petals that are smooth and magenta colored is being compared to a large red scaled dragon the complete opposite of a delicate flowering plant.
The first we are introduced to Maxine’s mother as “Brave Orchid” is when she is being “called back” to her living body after her experience with the ghost that haunts the room. Her friends chant “Come home, come home, Brave Orchid, who has fought the ghosts and won.” (Kingston, 1989, 71) firstly, let’s address the meaning of her name. Merriam-Webster defines Brave as “having or showing mental or moral strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty: having or showing courage” which can be closely compared to her actions as a dragon when confronting the dormitories haunting. The second part of her name “Orchid” is defined as “large family of perennial epiphytic or terrestrial monocotyledonous plant” (Merriam Webster) but, let’s look at the meaning of the orchid in Chinese culture. Orchids are often linked to “Confucius and the representation of honorability.” (Chinese Flower Meaning, 2017). These associations of the Orchid directly relate back to Brave Orchids character, she is viewed as honorable by her friends for confronting the ghost of the dormitory, and furthermore viewed as honorable to her family as being female and being a medical professional, especially by attending a school that practiced both eastern and western medicines. We can also analyze this “chant” her friends take part in to “bring her back” form her ghostly experience. This sort of ritual of providing stimulation to the person who has possibly been “driven out of my body and mind” (Kingston, 1989, 71), by taking the persons “earlobe between thumb and forefinger, wiggling them” (Kingston, 1989, 71) brings the story to life for Maxine’s readers. Again, the visual and auditory imagery of someone rubbing your earlobes between their fingers and chanting your family descent line while commanding you to come back is sensitive to the reader and makes you feel as if you are experiencing it alongside Brave Orchid.
Another Chinese tradition we can relate Brave Orchids ghost encounter to is the final climax of the haunting of the dormitory — the exorcism. When we reach this final climax, Brave Orchid is leading the residents of her housing hall to fight and ward off this “Sitting Ghost” with buckets of alcohol and oil to burn it until it’s nothing. “My mother directed the arrangement of the buckets and burners into orderly rows and divided the fuel. ‘Let’s fire the oil all at once,’” (Kingston, 1989, 74), the way Brave Orchid is leading her roommates and fellow residents is similar to the way Fa Mu Lan led her soldiers in war. They both show absolutely no fear, both being female, and succeeding in their leadership is all too similar to not have this sort of comparison. This comparison is important to Maxine and many other Chinese or Chinese American readers because the story of Fa Mu Lan is so well known within the Chinese community and by Maxine herself as we know from her “White Tigers” chapter. The comparison we can make of Brave Orchid to Fa Mu Lan can really influence Maxine to keep up the Chinese Traditions in her life especially since she so closely relates herself to Fa Mu Lan in the earlier chapters. In the next paragraph, Maxine’s description of how her mother and her friends go about this exorcism includes horror movie like imagery. Maxine writes “The smoke curled in black boas around the women in their scholars’ black gowns.” (Kingston, 1989, 75), this color theme of black is important here because of what the color is normally associated with. When seeing the color black in drawings or when it’s used in imagery it is usually associated with fear or evil. More so the imagery of the smoke being described as “black boas” surrounding the girls performing this exorcism can be interpreted two different ways. Merriam Webster defines “boa” as “1: any of a family of large snakes that kill by constriction…2: a long fluffy scarf” (Merriam Webster). The difference in the two definitions is vastly large but also similar in that boa constrictors wrap around their victims much like scarfs may wrap around one’s neck. Considering again black being associated with the feeling of fear, it is ironic that the smoke they are covering this haunted room in is black because although it is linked to fear, the “Sitting Ghost” itself is made up of black hair. So, they in conclusion are trying to exorcise this ghost by scaring him with fire and the black smoke when he is in fact already completely black and essentially covered in fear. Another detail I’d like to analyze when looking at this paragraph is the chapter title itself, “Shaman”, which is defined as “a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of good and evil spirits, especially among some peoples of northern Asia and North America. Typically, such people enter a trance state during a ritual, and practice divination and healing.” (Lexico Dictionaries). This definition can be closely related with the way Brave Orchid goes about handling the ghost and exorcism, something that priests often carry out. This also has many connections to the tradition brought up throughout this part of the chapter of bringing one’s soul back to its body or “home” when coming back from a fear filled experience. The fact that a Shaman is closely related to people of northern Asia connects this figure of being one to Maxine’s life and could perhaps even influence her and her imagination to carry on this influence into the spirit world that her mother obtains.
After the exorcism, Maxine explains how her and her siblings have experienced these sort of rituals as mentioned earlier also. “When my mother led us out of nightmares and horror movies, I felt loved. I felt safe hearing my name sung with hers and father’s…her anger at children who hurt themselves surprisingly gone.” (Kingston, 1989, 76). This quote describes the auditory imagery from the ritual performed on Brave Orchid from before but under less extreme circumstances. “Not when we were afraid, but when we were wide awake and lucid, my mother funneled China into our ears…’Don’t forget. Just give your father’s name, and any villager can point out our house.’ I am to return to China where I have never been.” (Kingston, 1989, 76). Again, we are shown by Kingston the visual imagery, here it comes from the simple word “funneled”. Readers are able to imagine a mother whispering information into a funnel whose lesser end is pointed into her child’s ear, while lying on her lap as if she were soothing them to sleep, creating a more intimate experience for the reader possible even imagining themselves as these children. More importantly we can look at the timing of this action. When these sorts of things are mentioned before the person receiving the information and being “performed” on is usually not fully aware of their senses. As we’ve seen in past quotes, they have to be physically stimulated. Here though, we see that Maxine and her siblings are wide awake and ready to process the information Brave Orchid is “funneling” into their minds. The significance of this is so that in future situations, if they ever need a ritual performed on them, they will know what to tell surrounding people to chant so their soul will not get “lost” as Maxine mentions her mother had because of her residents not knowing details about her such as her descent line. The last line of the quote is important to Maxine, “I am to return to China where I have never been.” (Kingston, 1989, 76), obviously with this information we can see how this is ironic since her mother has been feeding them information about China continuously yet she has never been there. By Brave Orchid doing this she is sharing their traditional values of Chinese culture and further feeding it into the lives of her children as to influence them not to conform to western cultures and ideologies. This is important to Maxine because she has grown up in America, never been to China, yet she is being told to practice these traditions and remember these facts about China so her soul can return safely to a “familiar” home she is ultimately unfamiliar with.
In the “Shaman” chapter of The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Maxine Kingston thoroughly provides the reader with descriptions of her mother as “Brave Orchid” and her mother’s “talk-story” talents that affect and influence Maxine through Chinese traditions. Kingston includes these stories of her mother to show the outside world what she grew up knowing her mother as. Although the stories told of her mother may seem fictitious, they’re based off of Maxine’s knowledge of her and her mother’s life as The Woman Warrior is defined as a memoir. The remarkable amount of imagery that is included just within these few quotes that relate back to Maxine or her mother more often so in some way really makes this chapter much more intimate to the reader. The reader can imagine themselves as one of Brave Orchids children, friends, or as Brave Orchid herself. This sort of intimacy further pushes the sharing of these Chinese traditions and elements to the reader. This is more importantly appreciated by the Chinese or Chinese American audience that come across these memoirs. They may closely relate with these memoirs or view Maxine or Brave Orchid herself as a role model of their traditions they may have forgotten to keep up with. With Kingston’s vast incorporation of imagery throughout the text and her comparisons of her mother to many Chinese elements and the practicing of Chinese traditions her mother takes part in provides an integration of her life into ours.
- “Boa.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/boa.
- “Brave.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/brave.
- Cartwright, Mark. “The Dragon in Ancient China.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 6 Nov. 2019, https://www.ancient.eu/article/1125/the-dragon-in-ancient-china/.
- “Chinese Flower Meanings.” Flower Meaning, 22 Mar. 2017, https://www.flowermeaning.com/chinese-flower-meanings/.
- Kingston, Maxine H. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Childhood Among Ghosts. Vintage International, 1989.
- “Orchid.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/orchid.
- “Shaman: Definition of Shaman by Lexico.” Lexico Dictionaries | English, Lexico Dictionaries, https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/shaman.