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Published: 09-11-2019

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A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe: From Silence to Song

Maxine Kingston’s The Woman Warrior wrestles with the importance of language for Chinese-American females, making use of Kingston’s personal life experiences as the novel’s foundation. In the book’s final chapter, “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” she particulars her creating relationship with silence and language. Kingston voices her frustration and mistrust of Chinese tradition in that both its speaking and silence elude connection to her. She argues that she have to find a voice of her own, as a Chinese-American woman, in order to bridge the gap in between generations and communities and that this voice should be employed to empower other individuals, not tear them down. It is through the arts that this voice requires kind, be it by way of song or literature, as in the case of the novel.

All through the chapter, it is clear that Kingston’s struggle to find her own voice is entwined with her struggle to make sense of the Chinese voice tradition. Is silence or loudness the embodiment of becoming Chinese, especially for a Chinese lady? As a young youngster, she mainly identifies with silence and initially views silence as integral to becoming a Chinese girl – “The other Chinese girls did not speak either, so I knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl” (166). Silence is one thing she initially requires comfort in. Kingston states that she enjoyed the silence and for her it was a natural state in that “it did not take place to [her] that [she] was supposed to talk” (166). For her silence was not a lack of issues to say but a “stage curtain, and it was the moment just before the curtain parted or rose” (165). Her silence, this stage curtain “so black and complete of possibilities” (165), was only hiding the “mighty operas” on stage inside her mind.

Kingston also picks up the theme of silence, or at least the absence of communication, from the Chinese adults, particularly in the communication of passing down traditions. In a single sections she talks about the ambiguity of Chinese holidays and how “even the very good things are unspeakable” (185). No a single tells her when holidays are and “the adults get mad, evasive, and shut you up if you ask” (185) She rightly questions “how can Chinese preserve any traditions at all?” (185), pointing out that one of the downsides of the silence she grew up with is that it stifles continuity among generations. The lack of communication is largely responsible for the disconnect between Chinese and Chinese Americans, which Kingston notes leaves significantly uncertainty for the younger generation in dealing with challenges in life. “If we had to depend on becoming told, we’d have no religion, no babies, no menstruation (sex, of course, unspeakable), no death” (185) Her statement may allude to the Biblical Garden of Eden, where it was not till God told Adam and Eve about the Tree of Understanding that they stumbled into the ups and downs of mortality. This construes silence as an practically infantile state, one particular in which there is shielding from both bad and very good factors in life. Right here we see Kingston disdainful of the gaps in information that this state leaves.

So then what about loudness and sound? Kingston does supply proof that perhaps it is loudness that embodies the Chinese lady. The silence that pervades the Chinese girls in American school swiftly evaporates once at Chinese college “The girls had been not mute. They screamed and yelled during recess, when there had been no rules they had fist-fights” (167). Right here she seems to argue that it is the American school atmosphere that induces the quietness in her and other girls when put in a Chinese atmosphere they adapt the Chinese expression kind. Her father also comments on this later in the chapter, “Why is it I can hear Chinese from blocks away? Is it that I comprehend the language? Or is it they talk loud?” (171) Kingston goes on to describe the irreverence of a Chinese audience at a piano recital, simply because “Chinese can not hear Americans at all” (172). And then she lays it out rather plainly by saying, “Normal Chinese women’s voices are strong and bossy” (172). Sturdy and bossy, loud and irreverent, this is what is presented to Kingston as the manifestation of Chinese. However the Chinese loud voice does not resonate with her. Her personal judgement is reflected when she says, “You can see the disgust on American faces…it is not just the loudness. It is the way Chinese sounds, chingchong ugly…not beautiful” (171). She is embarrassed by the loud Chinese tradition of banging pot lids throughout the eclipse and distrusts the Chinese voice for “they want to capture your voice for their personal use” (169).

For Kingston this mistrust of Chinese voice plays a large part in the miscommunication amongst the Chinese and the Chinese Americans. All through the complete novel and especially in this chapter, Kingston struggles to realize which stories she hears from her mother are truthful and which are jokes. Speaking of her mother’s stories, she shouts, “They scramble me up. You lie with stories…I cannot tell the difference” (202). This outburst comes from years of pent up angst about Kingston’s fears of becoming sold off into marriage and all of the several derogatory comments created about girls, especially her and her Chinese American sisters. Her mother, countering Kingston’s accusations, shouts back “You cannot even inform a joke from actual life” and “That’s what Chinese say. We like to say the opposite” (202-three). There is clearly a gap of understanding in between Kingston and her mother. This gap is symbolized in the ordeal with her mother cutting Kingston’s frenum, an act that invokes both pride and terror in her heart. Her mother claims she “cut it so that you would not be tongue-tied. Your tongue would be in a position to move in any language” (164). Kingston has a distrust of her mother’s reasoning and blames it for generating her have a “terrible time talking,” the cut “tampering with my speech” (165). So was her mother trying to silence her or free her tongue? Kingston brings up that “the Chinese say ‘a ready tongue is an evil’’ however her mother counters that “’Things are various in this ghost country’” (164). This paradox of the tongue symbolizes the ambiguities and miscommunications between the Chinese and Chinese Americans and also points out the importance of place for the guidelines of communication.

In order for her to bridge the gap in between hers and her parents’ generation, she should uncover her personal voice Kingston make clear what is at stake if she can not. On page 186 she explains, “I believed speaking and not speaking produced the difference among sanity and insanity. Insane people had been the ones who couldn’t clarify themselves.” She goes on to inform about Crazy Mary and Pee-A-Nah, both girls who grew into adulthood unable to communicate with the world. Kingston is fearful of becoming like these females “I did not want to be our crazy one” (190). So how does Kingston figure she can keep away from this fate? She has all of these fantasies and imaginary conversations in her mind, the opera that her period of black paint was hiding, and it is the need to communicate these inner truths that leads her to make her list, “a list of more than two hundred issues that I had to tell my mother so that she would know the correct factors about me and stop the pain in my throat” (197). Kingston and other Chinese-American ladies require their personal voice. She wants her voice to bridge the gap in between her mother, she wants her voice to bridge the gap among her and the outdoors planet. “If only I could let my mother know the list, she – and the planet – would grow to be much more like me, and I would in no way be alone again” (198). Right here we see another damaging of silence: isolation. Kingston hopes that discovering her personal voice will empower her in connecting with her mother and with her neighborhood.

So then what voice does Kingston advocate for? In one particular sense we can answer this by hunting for what she advocates against – voices which demean others. Throughout the novel and particularly in this chapter the voices of her mother and relatives tear her down. We can see the emotional and mental trauma wrought about Kingston as a result of this verbal abuse, including a self-hatred of her own silence and failings. In a climactic and jarring confrontation, Kingston takes out her self-loathing on the small silent Chinese girl in the bathroom right after school hours. Kingston channels all of her powers to bully the girl into speaking, berating her with phrases like “You’re disgusting” and “You’re such a nothing” (178). When Kingston herself begins to cry, we see that she is projecting her insecurities onto this tiny girl and interrogating them in a voice reminiscent of her mother’s – “You feel somebody’s going to marry you…Nobody’s going to notice you. You are so dumb. Why do I waste my time on you?” (180-1) Kingston reflects, “It seemed as if I had spent my life in that basement, carrying out the worst thing I had however done to another person” (181). Here she is, obtaining found a loud and outspoken voice like her mothers, utilizing that voice to bring down and traumatize a younger girl. This is clearly not the voice that Kingston advocates, and she makes use of this story to warn us of the dangers involved in misusing a potent voice.

As an alternative, Kingston argues for a voice that empowers other people and internalizes nuances. In the starting of this chapter, she compares her brother’s speak-story to hers – “His version of the story may possibly be better than mine because of its bareness, not twisted into designs. The hearer can carry it tucked away with out it taking up a lot room” (163). Nevertheless Kingston wants the opposite she wants her talk-story to resist simple digestion and to imbue the nuances and fantasies that reflect her considering. Alluding to the Chinese knot-maker lore, she says, “If I had lived in China, I would have been an outlaw knot-maker” (163). She needs a voice that allows her to tie stories that are complicated.

Kingston presents an instance of the voice she seeks at the finish of the novel, where she relays the tale of Ts’ai Yen. This master poetess was captured by barbarians whose haunting music “disturbed [her] its sharpness and its cold created her ache” (208). This music prompts her to sing “a song so high and clear…about China and her loved ones there. Her words seemed to be Chinese, but the barbarians understood their sadness and anger…Her young children did not laugh, but at some point sang along” (209). The voice of Ts’ai Yen transcends the language barrier and speaks to the feelings and achings of the barbarians. Furthermore, the song was able to be passed down to her children and sooner or later becomes a Chinese household song. This is the voice Kingston desires, a voice of Chinese origins that can speak to the universal human expertise, a voice that can bridge the gap amongst the Chinese and these born outdoors of China. She postulates a voice that is penetrating but not overbearing, a truthful voice that resonates between generations. In a manner arguing for the necessity of her novel, Kingston champions the arts as the avenue for this voice. It is by way of song and reed pipes that Ts’ai Yen and the barbarians connect it is by way of literature that Kingston hopes to connect Chinese and American-born.
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