What Feminist Issues does Maxine Hong Kingston Raise in No Name Woman?


Maxine Hong Kingston is the best recognized Asian-American writer today and her work attracts attention from many circles—Chinese-Americans, feminist scholars and literary critics. Her works are usually an admixture of fiction and fact, memory and imagination and their subjects range from the difficulties and complexities in the life of the Chinese woman to the immigrant life of Asian-Americans. No Name Woman focuses on the lot of the Chinese woman and particularly the sexism in Chinese culture. In it she describes the life of her shamed, drowned aunt who lived in China where there was no room for a woman’s ideas, feelings or emotional states.

Kingston lashes at the misogynist practices that are so common in Chinese culture and which her parents, Asian-American immigrants, still cling to. The whole society, including her own family, sees Kingston’s aunt as an outcast because she has committed adultery, but not a single question is raised as to which man is involved. The American in Kingston protests this sexist attitude and suggests that it should be treated with the contempt it deserves. The writer allows her imagination to run wild and she begins to see the possibility that the man responsible for her aunt’s plight is also likely to be the one who betrayed her and that he probably took part in the raid on her hut, which is very unfair to her.
Carrying this point further, Kingston ironically portrays the way such women outcasts are treated in Chinese culture. Instead of allowing the victims to go elsewhere and start life afresh, they are made to stay in the family and suffer humiliation at the hands of family members. Thus when Kingston says her aunt “offered us up for a charm that vanished with tiredness,” she is actually lashing at the fact that her aunt should be ostracized for doing what is natural. As a woman, her aunt is expected to stay at home and wait for the return of her husband whose face has become a blur to her. The men on their part go “out on the road” and seek adventure, and nobody monitors their conduct. This again, to Kingston, is unfair: “They expected her alone to keep the traditional ways, which her brothers could fumble without detection.”
Kingston also protests the way Chinese culture has psychologically sworn women to silence. This loss of voice runs through the whole story and the writer’s imagination gives it various shapes. It is presented through the aunt’s silent nursing of her desire to be loved, her obedience, albeit docile, first to her husband’s sexual demands and then to her lover’s warning to keep their illicit affair secret. It is also seen in the way the woman silently bears the pain of humiliation, child birth, and finally, suicide.
With this silence comes the loss of the identity of the woman in Chinese culture. Having been sworn to perpetual silence, the woman loses herself in this male-dominated society. For Kingston, who perceives this situation from her American orientation, these circumstances are unacceptable. Chinese women are not allowed to do anything that pleases them, everything they do must conform to their men’s expectations, from the way they keep their hair, to the way they dress; in fact, anything that could amount to self-assertion on the part of women is frowned upon: “On a farm near the sea, a woman who tended her appearance reaped a reputation for eccentricity.” Physically and psychologically, then, the Chinese woman is, to quote from Shakespeare, “cribb’d, cabin’d, confin’d….” To Kingston, however, the fact that in the case of her aunt this loss of identity is allowed to go beyond the grave is unpardonable. A woman who has been thus hounded to her grave should be allowed to rest in peace, but for her family to want to obliterate all memories of her is unacceptable.
Another issue Kingston raises is that women, having been thus schooled into subservience, are then made to suffer drudgery. For instance, while the men are seeking adventure or engaging in other frivolous activities, the women are literally the hewers of wood and drawers of water. Performing these activities puts women at great risk, as Kingston conjectures the possibility of her aunt having been raped while fetching wood in the forest. The writer figuratively compares the women to sea snails because they carry wood, babies and laundry on their backs.
Among Chinese children, adults discriminate in their treatment of girls. No Name Woman protests such practices as the binding of girls’ feet and the selling of girl slaves. It condemns such misogynist sayings as, “It is better to feed geese than girls”. In her characteristically ironic tone the author states: “To be a woman, to have a daughter in starvation time was a waste enough”. Boys are considered human while girls are regarded as less than human. Kingston suggests that she herself had to put up with these aspects of Chinese culture while she was growing up. In other words, though her parents migrated to America, cultural practices like the painful ripping off of short hair are so much an integral part of their lives that they had to put their children through them. Furthermore, Kingston, in a sarcastic manner, suggests that her aunt drowned with her baby because it was probably a girl for whom there would have been no hope of forgiveness.
In conclusion, one can say that No Name Woman is a practical demonstration of a woman writer expressing her own ideas rather than trying to write like a man. Kingston’s creative process is perhaps enhanced by the fact that she was writing at a time when women’s lives, so often ignored, were becoming the focus of much contemporary writing. In her unique style of combining fact with fiction, she raises a lot of issues on the low status assigned to women in Chinese culture and condemns the sexism in this culture.

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