Women as Symbols of Virtue and Honor

In Maxine Hong Kingston’s book “The Woman Warrior”, I was surprised that it opened with such a detailed anecdote of her fathers forgotten sister, who had been erased from time and history due to the shame she brought their family for conceiving a child behind her husbands back. However, as Kingston elaborates she clarifies that “The other man was not, after all, much different from her husband. They both gave orders: she followed. ‘If you tell your family, I’ll beat you. I’ll kill you. Be here again next week.'” (Kingston, 7). Kingston parallels her husband and the man she sleeps with as being in charge of her, in other words, as a woman her job was to obey any man that commands her to do their will. In this explanation, the adultery and the pregnancy are no longer entirely her fault as her mothers story suggested in the beginning, but they are the fault of a system in which her aunt is given absolutely no agency to have prevented the pregnancy to begin with. Kingston goes on to reveal that, more than likely, “She told the man, ‘I think I’m pregnant.’ He organized the raid against her” (Kingston, 7). As a man he feared his honor would be tarnished if word of his guilt in the adultery got out, and so he decided to be the organizer of the raid to cover his tracks. As a woman, her aunt could do nothing to prevent the raid, the same way she could not prevent her rape, and the same way she could not prevent the dishonor that would be brought upon her family.

Seeing as the book opens up with a tragic history of the forgotten woman, I can’t help but wonder if there is any form of agency that women have in this society. Kingston answers this question with a story about her mother plucking her eyebrows with thread, but when they complained she tells them, “It especially hurt at the temples, but my mother said we were lucky we didn’t have our feet bound when we were seven”(Kingston, 9). Their so called agency lies with their physical body and nothing more, and the way her mother rationalizes the unjust treatment of women and their lack of agency is by referring to history, in other words, things might seem bad to Kingston but for her mother, things had gotten better.

The question I have now is about the agency of women’s bodies versus the women themselves? For example, their hair, and their face and their virginity held so much power, enough power to change the village’s view of their entire family for years to come. That being said, how is it that women as people can lack agency, but women as physical property have enough agency to build or ruin a families reputation?

12 thoughts on “Women as Symbols of Virtue and Honor”

  1. I also ask myself that question. As bad as it sounds, I suppose in the time period and setting of ancient china that seemed to be normal. As stated woman’s feet were bound, the social structure was completely patriarchal, and woman were looked at just to produce children. The “No name woman” was victim to this clearly as she was told by her baby-daddy “‘If you tell I’ll kill you.”(Kingston). She had no choice much like many Chinese woman in this time period. Woman were looked at almost as like slaves. They were Chinese men’s property. Women in the tradition of China had zero power because men created the civilization that way. Women were “suppose” to be seen as pretty prizes with no actual purpose of contributing in societal functions other then the main necessity of reproduce. However if a woman does something wrong it ruins her reputation. Woman could not hold any sort of large status- which sucks. Hopefully as the book goes along we see a change in this.

  2. Katie, spectacular analysis! One part that stuck out to me in your analysis was the beauty standards women were expected to adhere to in plucking their eyebrows, styling their hair, and binding their feet. Although the latter did not follow the family to America, I think there is something to be said about how these beauty standards are also a sign of women being viewed as private property.

    The quote that sticks out to me follows the narrator’s discourse about the reasons why woman cut their hair: “At their weddings they displayed themselves in their long hair for the last time” (9). I think this cutting of a woman’s hair after years of careful treatment and special attention shows how Chinese society views the autonomy of women. It seems that a newlywed cutting her hair implies that she is getting rid of the last of her agency in order to fit into her society’s stereotype that she is now reliant on her husband. It is interesting, however, to compare this hair cutting with the hair cutting of flappers during the roaring twenties. These woman saw the cutting of their hair as an act of autonomy in itself. At first, this may seem like an unfair comparison since Chinese woman are cutting their hair against their will, but my comparison really lies in the power hair holds in relation to “standard beauty.” In all, I am excited to see how the story of the aunt unfolds; I will be on the lookout for more examples of beauty standards in the pages to come.

  3. Hey Katie! Your blog had lots of great insight on the beginning of the book. I have to say I agree with you when you claim you were surprised with the opening of the book, and how there were lots of details about the aunt who was killed for having sexual relations with someone other than her husband. While reading this, it made me think about how different cultures have different ways of defining beauty, and the different definitions of acceptable behavior in a society. Women are usually put in the spotlight to be beautiful and have lots of pressure put on them to meet beauty standards. For example, Kingston discusses how she was lucky she didn’t have to get her feet binded unlike other Chinese women in the past. The quote that spoke to most was the one regarding a bride’s hair: “All the married women cut-blunt their hair… At their weddings they displayed themselves in their long hair for the last time” (9). The cutting of hair can represent how women cut all ties of their previous life before they were married. Once they are married and cut their hair, they are biting the norms of society and are liable to be controlled by male figures.

  4. Hey Katie! I really like how you started out your blog! It compels the reader. The question at the end makes a very good point. I personally don’t understand how a woman could not speak for themselves yet hold so much responsibility towards the reputation of their family. It just doesn’t make much sense at all. Especially when you look deeper… the sister unwillingly got pregnant, which should have been brought up to those who raided her land. Its not like she intentionally went out and cheated on her loyal husband. She was genuinely threatened and didn’t have much of a choice. One thing I was curious about while reading this passage was how a family could just give their daughter away because she became pregnant. I didn’t understand how they could do that even though she was not a child.

  5. Katie,
    I really like your arguments core idea of the definition of how one’s agency works within inherently patriarchal societies. Within the last few centuries, there has been an essential expression of Hair as a symbol of agency. If the hair was kept down, the common ideas of the time indicated there was an excess of agency. This created a queerness to the Heteronormative space because there was now a self-identity of sexuality for women. This was deemed “dangerous” for many toxically masculine communities. Creating these constraints are so similar to the constraints that Kingston explicitly presents to us in “The Woman Warrior” by writing “‘Don’t let your father know that I told you. He denies her. Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don’t humiliate us. You wouldn’t like to be forgotten as if you had never been born”(5). There is arguably a lot to unpack in this paragraph alone. but through the lens of agency, the most explicit danger in this quote is the devaluing of the girl’s sexuality. This bolsters the struggling dynamic between toxically masculine and sexually oppressed.

  6. Hi Katie, I really liked your post! When I was reading this, the first few pages really disturbed me. I noticed a parallel between the treatment of the animals and women, specifically the narrator’s aunt. When the raid begins and their home is torn to shambles, the animals are wrapped in to the affair and have to suffer the consequences as well. Like you mentioned, the aunt can’t do anything to protect herself – from the rape, to the pregnancy and then the raid – and her tragic story just demonstrated how women were viewed as commodities. The animals, who were sentient beings, were slaughtered and abused because the raiders believed that taking it out on the animals would damage the family. Animals were seen as objects, much like the aunt was. The parallel you made with women representing honor is definitely important. What astounds me is that the woman’s behavior goes hand in hand with the man’s honor. Women are their own individuals despite them not being viewed that way in this story, and even if the aunt chose to have an affair, it should not symbolize a man’s honor or virtue. The aunt is not given the ability to use her voice and tell her story, and her rights and feelings are repressed, just like the animals who are sucked in to this mess. One line that I found worth mentioning was on page four: “The villagers broke in the front and the back doors at the same time, even though we had not locked the doors against them” (Kingston). This could be interpreted as the family understanding what was inevitable. They didn’t even try to fight because they knew this would happen due to the aunt’s supposed wrong-doings.

  7. Katie,
    I also was surprised when reading the beginning pages of the book. It actually shocked me. As horrible as the story was, it drew me; I found myself wanting to read more. It was also somewhat of a culture shock. I was surprised when the mother threatened her with this story, saying “Now that you’ve started to menstruate, what happened to her can happen to you. Don’t humiliate us,” (5). This use of a threat against her daughter is absurd to me and rather extreme. However, given the time period of this story, it was expected. The speaker grew up differently, living somewhat of a sheltered life. She lived with great constraints and even guilt. As children, going to carnivals meant feeling guilty for having fun. This is not a normal childhood.

  8. Hi Katie! I really like your blog post and the different connections you have made. There are apparent differences between gender in this time and woman often have the short end of the stick. As I was reading about the raid I was shocked, I couldn’t believe that they were torturing her Aunt for something completely out of her control. “They ripped up her clothes and shoes and broke her combs, grinding them underfoot”(4). In this village many of the villagers have strong opinions about adultery and what a woman does with her body. I feel like it is impossible for a woman to live freely in this type of communities and it is sad because her aunt was raped and taken advantage of by men. There is a lot of stigma towards sexual relations between men and woman and this is how social constructions of how woman are supposed to act are created in these type of villages. To answer your question throughout years I feel like woman have been viewed as property and inferior to men and men are to control women. Woman as individuals lacks agency because I think people believe they need someone with authority or power to guide them. When a woman builds a family with a man I guess the man believes that he has to almost govern her. She is to do as she is told and she is to act the way that he wants and look a certain way as well and if she is to make him look bad then there will be consequences. It is extremely unfair and woman is unable to express themselves freely like most men are able to in this type of society.

  9. Hey Katie I really enjoyed your blog post because I too had very similar insights and questions. And to respond to your question, I found it extremely interesting that women have such little influence on the men and elders of their family but yet they can make one small mistake and cause an outburst so big a raid occurs. On page three, when the raid is first brought up Kingston says, “The village had also been counting. On the night the baby was to be born the villagers raided our house” (Kingston 3). By this quote you can see just how invested the villagers were and how much this child meant to not only the family but the whole village. Women at this time were to be seen and not heard and if they were to do something good, they weren’t praised or anything it was just expected. But if one small thing occurred that was seen as “bad” or disrespectful in any way the whole world came crumbling down on them. I don’t understand why they had this much power but at the same time held all the power in the world in certain ways. Overall, your blog post was extremely thought provoking and helped me dive more deeply and critically into the reading.

  10. Hi Katie!
    You made some really good points and pulled in some valid information to support the points. I believe in the Chinese culture back then, women were viewed as property in a way. This is unrelated to the story, but look at Mulan for example- she wanted to defend her families honor, but that was hard since she was a girl. However, she was dolled up at the beginning of the story to try and find a husband. The culture back then was different, it was all about property and honor. But anyway, back to No Name Woman. It was very hard to read about the treatment of the girl’s aunt, and one part that struck me the most was during the raid they “left red prints” (4) on the pane of the house and “they smeared blood on the doors and the walls” (4) all because a woman was raped by a man that was not her husband and got pregnant. This book held some vivid imagery that was sort of terrifying, and it shows one example of probably many where the woman is treated poorly due to something that was out of her control.

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