Asian-American Literary “Authenticity”: Frank Chin’s 1991Criticism of Maxine Hong Kingston In 1975

by Judy Huang '01

The 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 either.

Notably, in a 1991 article, “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake,” he writes:

"What 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." (2)

"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 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 of analysis.

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 interesting:

"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?

Sources Cited

Chan, Jeffery Paul, et al. The Big Aiieeeee!. New York: Meridian , 1991.

Cheung, King-Kok. Articulate Silences. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

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.”