Monday, April 2, 2012

The Meaning of Ghosts in The Woman Warrior

In Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior the prevalence of ghosts is apparent, but the meaning behind their recurrence is less clear. The word is used mostly by Chinese to describe Americans negatively but the traditional Chinese rhetoric of ghosts is a positive one. This seeming inconsistency in ideology behind the term is the confusing part.

Anyone who has ever seen Disney’s Mulan recognizes the importance of ghosts in Chinese culture, specifically in reference to ancestors. An individual’s ancestors are to be revered and honored so that their ghosts can influence their decedents’ lives positively. The living leave out food to feed their ancestors’ ghosts and there is even an annual holiday which recognizes the ghosts’ return to the “lower realm” (what Western religion tends to refer to as purgatory, although it is not so negatively regarded in Chinese culture). The Chinese people believe the ancestors they so revere become ghosts when they die.

So why would Kingston have Brave Orchid, her mother who was born and raised in China and still holds its culture close to her heart, refer to Americans as “ghosts”? Her tone is consistently negative when talking to or about any sort of ghost, especially when she is killing the Sitting Ghost. She even goes so far as to say, “there are no such thing as ghosts” (70). And once the move to America is made, the negative tone towards ghosts thickens. The narrator is convinced by Brave Orchid’s rhetoric to be frightened by newsboys, grocers, mailmen, and meter readers simply because Brave Orchid constantly refers to them all as White Ghosts.

The only solution I can come up for this apparent contradiction would be a perceived tainting on Brave Orchid’s part. She obviously does not enjoy living in America – it is not her home and moving here took away her profession and her independence. Her rhetoric on America around her daughter, the narrator, is consistently negative, as if the country ruins everything it touches. Maybe this contamination spreads to her culture and her religion. Maybe America ruins even this for her?

If anyone has any other thoughts as to an explanation for this, I would love to hear it! Because I am certainly confused by it all.

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