Chinese Whispers

D.J. Enright

The subtitle of Maxine Hong Kingston’s first book, The Woman Warrior (now published in paperback), embodies a pun: ‘Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts’ – that is to say, among Chinese story-ghosts and also among non-Chinese, who by definition are ghosts, if not demons. ‘Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fits in solid America.’ In her books Mrs Kingston comes near to suggesting that it is America which is invisible – populated by ghosts, the Mail Ghost, the Newsboy Ghost, the Garbage Ghost – while China, the China of her parents, or the China her parents told her about, is the solid world.

This raises a question which, though it sounds prissy, is legitimate: how much of this ‘China’ is true, how much is tale-telling or, as Mrs Kingston puts it, talking-story? For the insider, there is no settled boundary between actuality and myth: it is all part and parcel of life as it is lived. While realising this – for we all have our legends – the outsider still wants to know which is which. We are sufficiently able to distinguish between Hans Andersen and the real country of Denmark: we have heard tell of both of them more or less concurrently since we were children. China is a different kettle of mysteries.

Just as the last English gentleman is, if not an Indian, then an Englishman living in India, so Mrs Kingston, born in Stockton, California in 1940, may be more Chinese than the Chinese in China. There is nothing like emigration, especially when it shows in the face, for bringing out one’s nativeness: ‘characteristics’ are accentuated in a way they never were at home. ‘What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?’ One is moved to reply that one Chinese tradition is never to explain Chinese traditions to benighted foreign barbarians. Such refusal or reluctance can seem like arrogance, or – in a politer person – modesty: outsiders won’t understand, or outsiders surely don’t want to be bothered with understanding. Being a true writer, Mrs Kingston has no truck with either thought.

One way for Chinese girls to escape being merely wives or slaves was for them to be swordswomen. Mrs Kingston weaves a story about herself as heroine, based on the tales her mother told of Fa Mu Lan. In a less diluted Water Margin epic, she is a kind of Maid Marian as Robin Hood (‘My army did not rape, only taking food where there was an abundance. We brought order wherever we went’), or a female avenger, at times a Bruce Lee in drag. She defeats a giant, who changes into his true shape, a snake – whereupon his disgusted soldiers pledge their loyalty to her. Her followers, she remarks in a nice aside, never knew she was a woman: ‘Chinese executed women who disguised themselves as soldiers or students, no matter how bravely they fought or how high they scored on the examinations.’ Finally she overthrows the Emperor and beheads him, inaugurating ‘the peasant who would begin the new order’.

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