by Judy Huang '01
Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston, was published to great popular
acclaim. To very varied audiences, Kingston’s work seemed to embody
the views of a certain population of Chinese-American women. However,
to others, namely the playwright, author, and photographer Frank Chin,
Kingston’s words embodied a particularly innacurate, inauthentic sensibility.
Frank Chin published many scathing comments about Kingston; his words
did not necessarily distance the author’s words from the author herself
Notably, in a 1991 article, “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of
the Real and the Fake,” he writes:
seems to hold Asian American literature together is the popularity among
whites of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior (450,000 copies sold
since 1976); David Henry Hwang’s F.O.B. (Obie, best off- Broadway play)
and M. Butterfly (Tony, best Broadway play); and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck
Club. These works are held up before us as icons of our pride, symbols
of our freedom from the icky-gooey evil of . . . Chinese culture."
"Furthermore, Kingston, Hwang, and Tan are the first writers of
any race, and certainly the first writers of Asian ancestry, to so boldly
fake the best-known works from the most universally known body of Asian
American lore in history." (3)
And finally, “Maxine Hong Kingston has defended her revision of Chinese
history, culture, and childhood literature and myth by by restating
a white racist stereotype” (29).
One might question whether Chin’s remarks were just a matter of professional
jealousy; his own writings did not receive the popular acclaim of Kingston’s.
Today, in the Amazon.com paperback book rankings, The Woman Warrior
(1975) is the #5,446 best seller, whereas Chin’s Donald Duk: A Novel
(1991), is #43,064. Though Kingston’s books have had a few extra years
to sell, presumably, the differential between the two rankings will
not be bridged soon.
Chin would differ; in the introduction to the 1991 anthology of Chinese
American and Japanese American literature, The Big Aiiieeeee!, he, along
with Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong, writes:
"Here, we offer a literary history of Chinese American and Japanese
American writing concerning the real and the fake. We describe the real,
from its sources in the Asian fairy tale and the Confucian heroic tradition,
to make the work of these Asian American writers understandable in its
own terms. We describe the fake- from its sources in Christian dogma
and in Western philosophy, history, and literature- to make it clear
why the more popularly known writers such as Jade Snow Wong, Maxine
Hong Kingston, David Henry Hwang, Amy Tan, and Lin Yutang are not represented
here. Their work is not hard to find. The writers of the real are very
hard to find . . . "(xv)
Chin questions the literary authenticity of Kingston’s work, and in
doing so, asks what an “authentic” Asian American is.
It is easy to argue that Kingston represents but one of many different
perspectives in the Asian American literary oeuvre, but Chin does not
agree. First of all, his main complaint is that Kingston’s writing in
an autobiographical mode is sadly derivative of Christian brainwashing,
and that furthermore, her viewpoint is more informed by racism than
by race pride. He writes:
"With Kingston’s autobiographical Woman Warrior, we have given
up even the pretense of reporting from the real world. Chinese culture
is so cruel and she is so helpless against its overwhelming cruelty
that she lives entirely in her imagination. It is an imagination informed
only by the stereotype communicated to her through the Christian Chinese
American autobiography." (26)
Yet Hong Kingston counters that “After all, I am not writing history
or sociology but a ‘memoir’ like Proust” (Chueung 79). Still, there
are critics like Chin who imply that Kingston’s faulty knowledge of
“true” history make her work a “false” work. It is interesting from
a literary theory standpoint that since the Structuralists (post 1950’s)
to the Post-Structuralists (post 1970’s), there has been a movement
away from noting “truth” in works, preferring a non-value based system
Chin’s criticism of Kingston is troubling for several reasons: it stands
away from a “pan-Asian American identity” to separate some members of
the Asian American community as being “sellouts”; and Chin also espouses
a rather radical take on racial identity.
First of all, David Henry Hwang’s look at the Chin/Kingston feud is
"When I read The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, for instance,
it was sort of a personal and artistic revelation to me because the
juxtaposition of almost a hyper-realistic view of growing up Chinese-
American in Stockton, California with the ghosts of some imagined or
mythological past seemed to feel very real to me. After all, I'd run
for student body president at the same time that my grandmother was
telling me stories about her aunt casting out demons in Fukien."
"At the same time I was also very drawn to Frank Chin's work.
Now Frank really hates me right now and thinks I'm a white racist and
all that, but tough, he gave birth to me too and his works really inspired
me to think that. He was the first Chinese-American to be produced off-Broadway
professionally, and he inspired me to think that this was possible.
There's a character in one of his plays, Gwan Gung, who represents a
sort of Chinese-American spirit, as it were, the spirit of the early
immigrants. I began to think about the juxtaposition of Fa Mu Lan, the
woman warrior character from Maxine's book and Gwan Gung, the character
from Frank Chin's plays and I began to think what would happen if they
met in a Chinese restaurant in Torrance. Was there a way to synthesize
these two traditions?"
Hwang ends that same 1994 speech at MIT with the words: ". .
. authenticity to me is a debate over the quest to validate the humanity
of various peoples, of all the people in this country. I know a couple
who's- gosh - he's Irish and Jewish and Japanese and she's Haitian and
Filipino and something else. Anyway, they had a child and someone whose
business it is to know such things informed them that their child had
never existed before. I began to wonder if this child grows up and becomes
a writer -let's say it's a woman - what do we call her? Is she an African-
American writer or all Asian-American writer, European-American or is
she basically a woman's writer or etc? And I think that when the day
comes that we can simply call her an American writer, then we will have
gone a long way to claiming the humanity and the authenticity of all
our experiences as Americans."
While Hwang sort of glosses over the end of his speech with an appeal
to a non-racist society, the really interesting part of his speech for
me was his questioning what would happen if a radical Asian American
sat down with an older Asian American. In many ways the clash of ideologies
is generational there. But that Chin criticized Kingston in his own
generation is even more interesting. That bias within a race can be
so pronounced is somewhat disturbing to me. It just goes to show that
all people can have biases and subtle race issues to deal with, and
that as individuals, it is important to explore and eradicate biases.
The debate over autheniticity is an interesting one, but even more interesting
is the formation of race biases in people. What makes a race bias stay
in place in an individual and what makes one so critical of the very
race he is trying to embrace?
Chan, Jeffery Paul, et al. The Big Aiieeeee!. New York: Meridian ,
Cheung, King-Kok. Articulate Silences. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University
Hwang David Henry, William L. Abramowitz Guest Lecturer, Kresge Auditorium,
MIT April 15,1994: “Authenticity and Asian-American Art," or “It's OK
To Be Wrong.” http://www.mit.edu:8001/afs/athena/user/i/r/irie/www/hdhwang.txt