The Ink of Diverse Gods (Part II)
Imagined Visions, Shamans and the American Monkey God: explicit presence of religion in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Women Warrior and Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book
By Alice Mendoza
In both of Maxine Hong Kingston’s works, The Woman Warrior and Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, there are many instances of explicit presence of religion. For most Chinese (including the characters in Kingston’s books), religion is so instilled that it has become a way of life or a philosophy. They may not go to a temple or a church regularly or even participate in regular religious rituals, but the very customs or foods or the lifestyles they lead usually show that they subscribe to a worldview influenced by a mixture of Confucian, Buddhist and Daoist traditions.
The Woman Warrior is classified as an autobiography because it is Kingston’s account of growing up as a Chinese American in California. However, it is not a conventional autobiography because Kingston weaves surreal stories into it – surreal stories that are projections of her inner pain and angst of straddling two traditions that seem to be in conflict with one another. The surreal stories are presented in Kingston’s own versions of traditional Chinese mythologies, and there is some explicit religious presence in these revised mythologies.
The Chinese legend of Fa Mu Lan lends the book its title. The narrator, who is Kingston herself as a young girl, is the metaphorical Fa Mu Lan – the Woman Warrior. The narrator imagines a time when she is taken away to a magical/mythological place where she is trained to be a woman warrior. While she is away, her parents get her a “spirit bridegroom”– a man that is willing to marry her ‘in spirit’, so that if she were dead, she could still have a descent line because the man would be her spiritual husband. This belief in spirit spouses appears Daoist in nature. It also seems unrealistically positive, that the narrator’s parents bother at all, to give a descent line to a girl. In the original practice, spirit marriages are only conducted between two dead persons or to remember or to appease the spirit of a spouse who has died an untimely death. This positive twist is perhaps an attempt by the author to re-claim the worth of a female in the real misogynistic milieu she grew up in.
Another obvious example of explicit religion in The Woman Warrior is in the narrator’s mother story. The narrator’s mother, Brave Orchid, is trained as a midwife but she is portrayed as a shaman – an exorcist of ghosts. Again, the concept of ghosts is a familiar presence in Chinese religions, and most traditional Chinese, especially those who did not live in the cities, usually considered certain illnesses to be caused by ghosts or spiritual possessions. Brave Orchid did not just become the village midwife, she became a doctor and an exorcist too – an exorcist of spirits that caused illnesses. In fact, the medical school where she was trained, subscribed both to western modern medicine and the Daoist Yin/Yang concepts of health. In fact, the women were taught Chinese traditional concepts first before they were taught western medicine:
Throughout the entire book, there is an emphasis on ghosts and on tricking ghosts. In China, the ghosts are nebulous but still malevolent and to be feared. When Brave Orchid helped delivered babies, she and the mothers did not call the babies by their names. Rather, the babies were called ‘Pretty pigbaby, pretty piglet’ or ‘Ugly pig, dirty pig’, to fool whichever ghosts or jealous gods who might want to take away or harm the babies.
When the narrator’s parents came to America, the ghosts became concrete, real bodies – the rest of the Americans who are not Chinese, and are therefore considered barbarians or ghosts. Hence, the book is subtitled – ‘Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts’. The irony is that the narrator and the rest of her American-born siblings are all becoming more like ghosts rather than remaining Chinese-solid like their parents.
There is also a religious belief in the power of words and of tempting bad luck. For the Chinese, it is taboo to say inauspicious things because of the fear that the things one says may just come true. For instance, when Brave Orchid’s sister, Moon Orchid descends into paranoid madness and weeps about not seeing any person who leaves the house, Brave Orchid reacts in the typical Chinese ‘religious’ manner:
Also, there is the incident when a delivery boy mistakenly delivers pills meant for a crazy neighbor. This causes Brave Orchid to fly into a fit because to her, it means her family is being ‘cursed’ even though it is a genuine mistake. The narrator is dreading that her mother would “make me swing stinky censers around the counter, at the druggist, at the customers. Throw dog blood on the druggist.” In the end, Brave Orchid demands that the narrator get some “reparation candy” so that the curse be “removed with sweetness”. The narrator, of course, subverts such ‘religion’ because she would never be able to explain to the druggist about such beliefs. She ends up appearing like a little Chinese beggar, while her mother mistakenly believes that she has taught the druggist this Chinese custom – “a lesson in good manners”.
The explicit religious presence in Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book is manifested in the main character, Wittman Ah Sing, who sees himself as the American incarnation of the Monkey King. Wittman is a fifth-generation young Chinese American man living in psychedelic, anti-war, civil-rights-conscious, post-Beat, 1960’s San Francisco. A graduate from Berkeley, a playwright drunk with words, dizzyingly hip and energetic, Wittman is named after another controversial American poet who was also a rebel against society like himself, Walt Whitman. Wittman’s dream is to stage the ultimate play – a play that interweaves Chinese stories and myths, at the same time incorporating certain American elements, so that the eventual result would be a Chinese American play – “an enormous loud play that will awake an audience for us” – that would break stereotypes held by other Americans about Chinese/Asian Americans.
The Monkey King or the Monkey God is a familiar figure in both Chinese-Buddhist and Hindu mythologies; thus, Tripmaster Monkey contains many allusions to such religious stories. For instance, when Wittman imagines himself as Joang Fu, a story-teller doing his entertaining spiels on pleasure cruises, he makes references to Hindu religious practices in Bali:
The explicit religious presence in Tripmaster Monkey has a sarcastic undertone, as Wittman tends to subvert ‘traditional’ religion, which emphasizes the Monkey’s Trickster characteristic. Although the Monkey in Chinese/Buddhist legends is seen as a representation of the intellect, he is also a kind of sardonic clown who sometimes would mock authority or even religion. Wittman epitomizes this parody of traditional perceptions of religion as he proclaims that ‘I am really: the present-day U.S.A. incarnation of the King of Monkeys.” To him, getting high on drugs is ‘religious’ – “I liked dope; I learned a lot. I felt religious.” Wittman does respect ‘religion’ or spirituality in others because he “had not been brought up with a religion.” The explicit religious presence is made up of a jumble of cultural references from all religions – to illustrate, perhaps Wittman’s similarity to the Monkey.
The Monkey of the Chinese classics has no fixed origins, no ancestors; he came out of a stone egg. He became the King of the other monkeys when he took on a challenge to jump through a waterfall. He discovered a kind of utopian paradise at the other side of the waterfall and the other monkeys rewarded him for his bravery by making him their king. Later, the Monkey enters a monastery to seek immortality and he acquires a Zen/Daoist name, “Aware of Emptiness”, which also happens to be Wittman’s Chinese name – Joang Fu. According to Patricia Lin, Kingston uses the Monkey as a metaphor for the postmodern man, which Wittman represents. Like the Monkey, Wittman has no fixed origins which he can claim as totally his. Like the Monkey, who can transform himself into seventy-two incarnations, Wittman can transform and create himself, availing himself of whichever culture or religion he chooses, according to whatever situations he finds himself in.
In Tripmaster Monkey, these explicit religious references therefore become the author’s narrative instrument in creating Wittman’s character as a subversive rebel. For instance, the concept of having a ‘spiritual guide’ or ‘guru’ is amusingly undermined when Wittman was invited to be a L.S.D. guide – i.e., to guide people through their L.S.D.-induced ‘trips’ or hallucinations:
Another instance where explicit religion is presented subversively is when an ‘ordained minister’ of the Universal Life Church, Greg/Gabe, ordains Wittman on the spot at the touristy Coit Tower. Anyone who wants to be a Conscientious Objector (the war of the moment was the Vietnam War) can be ordained by any Universal Life Church minister. To become a full-fledged minister, one just writes a letter to a Reverend Kirby Hensley, who will send a certificate of ordination and a card:
In this case, it appears that religion is something that one can manipulate to suit one’s beliefs and opinions. Again, this seems to be part of the transformational leit motif of the Monkey. Explicit religion here appears to be manifested in Wittman’s act of searching for a self among the chaos of prefabricated representations which reject the idea of any final or permanent truth. As the epitome of the postmodernist metaphor for ‘lostness’ and angst in the midst of non-absolutism, it is fitting that the explicit religious presence in Tripmaster Monkey seems negative, albeit in a darkly humorous and subversive manner.
In writing The Woman Warrior, Kingston has one ultimate concern – to find her ‘lost’ self. As a female of an ethnic minority, Kingston is doubly ‘lost’. She is also ‘lost’ because she cannot be the kind of ‘Chinese’ that her parents are, the kind of Chinese who conceive of America as ‘Ghost Country’, yet she grew up alienated from these American ‘ghosts’ that she herself is turning into. China, to the narrator, (Maxine/the young Kingston) is a fictive landscape, seen vicariously through her parents’ eyes. To be a Chinese still ‘belonging to’ and clinging to China, would be equivalent to being like Maxine’s parents and the rest of their fellow ‘villagers’. It would mean subscribing to the hateful patriarchal worldview of traditional Chinese milieu. However, Maxine had to suffer much pain to be American.
Kingston’s mixing of fact and fiction in this supposedly autobiographical work is an attempt to come to terms with this ‘lost-ness’ and to deal with the pain of trying to be ‘found’ (acknowledged) as an American. The clearest manifestation of implicit religion in The Women Warrior, is therefore the ultimate concern of the author, namely Kingston’s “fraught efforts to create an identity.” Being ‘found’ as opposed to ‘lost, for Kingston means having a fluid identity – as much as there must not be stereotypes of Chinese or Blacks or Whites, there must also not be stereotypes of Chinese Americans or Chinese Americans males or females for that matter. In other words, there is no absolutist ‘identity’ to be gained / ‘found’; there must NOT be an absolutist identity for anyone.
This aspect links to the implicit presence of religion as an existentialist motif. If religion is an attempt to make meaning out of existence, in Kingston’s case, it would be her questioning what it means to be a Chinese American. Her writing of her first novel, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, is an expression of the existentialist definition of religion. Is there a particular meaning to being Chinese American? What is the ‘crisis’ of being Chinese American? This ‘crisis’, is of course, symbolized by the protagonist in Tripmaster Monkey – Wittman Ah Sing. Part of the ‘crisis’ lies in the invisibility or ‘lost-ness’ (again!) of being ‘yellow’, as Wittman rants out his fears:
I feel that Kingston wrote Tripmaster Monkey as a response to the “cultural mis-readings” of The Woman Warrior and China Men (which is The Women Warrior’s companion volume and is also autobiographical). These “cultural mis-readings” have added to the crisis of trying to find out what it means exactly to be Chinese American. According to Kingston’s essay (which she wrote in response to certain reviews of The Woman Warrior), these reviewers described The Woman Warrior as follows: “...their own strange and brooding atmosphere inscrutably foreign, oriental.” “At her most obscure, though, as when telling about her dream of becoming a fabled ‘woman warrior’ the author becomes as inscrutable as the East always seems to the West. In fact the book seems to reinforce the feeling that ‘East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,’ or at any rate it will probably take more than one generation away from China.”
Kingston seems to speak through Wittman Ah Sing when Wittman rants about the ‘wonderful’ reviews of his play which has been described in almost similar manner as how real life reviewers have described The Woman Warrior:
Thus, to be ‘exoticized’ by other Americans would then be equivalent to being seen as an ‘alien other’ and not being able to claim ‘American-ness’. America is like a religion that Chinese Americans with mindsets similar to Kingston’s, want to follow and practice, but are barred from ‘full membership’ perhaps, recalling the kind of paradoxically segregated Christianity, so prevalent in America. Therefore, Chinese Americans have to create their own new ‘religion’, or worldview, a worldview that is a combination of wisdom/virtues/values that are culled from both worlds; a worldview that is no longer just ‘Chinese’ and therefore regarded as alien by mainstream America, but as another definition to be included as ‘full-membered’ American. This desire to be ‘included’ and be considered as part of the American paradigm is an echo of the pain of Chinese exclusion that still haunts Chinese America, especially Chinese American men.
The presence of religion as a form of cultural memory to recall and perhaps, to recreate new ‘memories’ to define oneself, is very clearly manifested in Kingston’s technique of ‘fictionalizing’ autobiography and re-envisioning traditional mythologies.
This is where Kingston is vociferously attacked by another Chinese American writer, Frank Chin. Chin criticizes Kingston for changing traditional Chinese myths to suit her motives and purposes, for pandering to Westernized stereotypes of misogynistic Chinese culture and emasculated Chinese American males by not celebrating Chinese heroic culture, and for the very act of writing autobiography, which Chin deems as a “Christian” (Western) form of ‘confession’ which is not ‘authentically’ Chinese, and therefore ‘fake’.
However, in trying to limit the kind of cultural memories one is supposed to share by delineating what is ‘authentic’ and what is ‘fake’, Chin, (as David Henry Hwang puts it) is acting like the ‘Ayatollah of Asian American Literature’! Also, in submitting to this “reductive cultural essentialism”, Chin is oversimplifying and dismissing Kingston’s deconstructive re-envisioning of ‘Chinese American-ness’. No matter how ‘American’ Kingston rightly characterizes her works, the ‘Chinese’ part of it, even if it is unpalatable and prone to be misunderstood, cannot be whitewashed. It seems to me that Chin is vehement that one shouldn’t wash one’s ethnic dirty linen in public:
However, Kingston was trying to be truthful and telling the whole truth is not easy. The truth does not lie in creating a ‘true’ Chinese American identity – there is no singular or ‘true’ Chinese American female or male identity; at times there might not even be any coherence or meaning as to what constitute ‘Chinese American-ness’, as epitomized by Wittman’s or Maxine’s character which shift endlessly and are creatively unstable, rejecting any ‘boxing-up’ into being ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘American’, ‘Chinese’ or even ‘individualistic’. Malini Schueller warns against such absolutist simplifications:
In terms of the text in both of Kingston’s works, both are narratives and religion is always implicitly present in narratives because as stated by Mark Ledbetter, “narrative serves a religious function ... the narrative structure contains a virtue that establishes a religious worldview ... narrative fiction creates a hypothetical world that possesses a religious/ethical ethos.” Ledbetter explains that the author of a narrative would establish a worldview that he or she believes to best inform human existence.
In The Woman Warrior, this hypothetical world is multi-layered, containing different worldviews. For instance, there is constant tension between the religious/ethical ethos of Maxine, the protagonist and Brave Orchid, her mother. Brave Orchid’s ethos is shaped by Confucian-inspired “Chinese relatedness”, where the chief imperatives are filial piety and loyalty to the family. Peter Kerry Powers stresses the centrality of the village in understanding ‘relatedness’:
Such adherence to Confucian ethos means that Brave Orchid’s idea of having ‘virtues’ means subscribing to a worldview metaphorically described as ‘roundness’. This ‘roundness’ connotes ‘belonging’ to a family and a society and fulfilling social and familial obligations that extends into the afterlife. Individualistic thinking is viewed as an aberration, a dent in the roundness, and Maxine’s ‘No-Name’ Aunt became an aberration when she became pregnant with another man’s child. The aunt also literally became a lost soul because the family refuses to acknowledge or to remember her after her death, so she “remains forever hungry” in the afterlife, with no ancestors to send offerings to her.
Maxine identifies with her ‘No-Name’ Aunt because she has no ‘roundness’ herself. She shrinks from her mother’s still-rooted-in-China religious/ethical ethos. She is considered a ‘ghost-child’ because she was born in America and she “could not figure out what was (her) village”. However, she is unable to participate fully in American life, as she grows up in “an America that imagines Asian America to be Charlie Chans, Dragon Ladies, or Fu Manchus.”
The Woman Warrior ends with the establishment of Kingston’s new worldview as symbolized by the tale of Ts’ai Yen. Ts’ai Yen, a Chinese woman captured by a barbarian chieftain, has composed a song to accompany the music of the barbarian reed pipe. In the same way, Kingston’s narrative incorporates both aspects of her lineage, resulting in a new Chinese American melody of life.
In Tripmaster Monkey, the main protagonist, Wittman’s ultimate concern is to write the American play of the century – an American play that will attempt to showcase the ‘Chinese’ aspects of America, that America is not just Black or white but Chinese too. Wittman’s intention is to reclaim the ‘American’ in ‘Chinese American’. There is also no single ‘hypothetical world’ for Wittman. Wittman’s paradigm is marked by transformation – after all, he is the American incarnation of the Monkey King. Despite not having a fixed worldview, there are still tensions present. The tensions come about from Wittman’s constant battles against being categorized, in terms of his looks, clothes, behavior, attitude and lifestyle.
After reading Tripmaster Monkey, I realized how difficult it is for us to not categorize people. It seems as though we have a kind of built-in device, activated by societal engineering, for certain definitions to click in when we interact with others. The very term, ‘religion’ (if understood in the traditional/conventional sense), is a categorizing tool. However, if we conceive of ‘religion’ as having an ultimate concern or a demonstration of humans’ quest for meaning, or even for a ‘good life’, then ‘religion’ is another touchstone to help clarify our existence.
The explicit religion present in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior may appear mythical and exotic because it seems to manifest in Chinese mythological tales like the legend of Fa Mu Lan and other ‘superstitious’ Chinese beliefs of ghosts and exorcism. However, such ‘mythical’ ideas are presented in a serious manner, therefore, emphasizing the importance of religion in the narrative. This could be because, technically, The Woman Warrior is not just a narrative, but a fictionalized autobiography. The mythical/fictionalized episodes in the narrative can be read as the author’s projected ‘wishes’ or the author’s efforts to come to the terms with the painful realities of being doubly marginalized. Religion is therefore, not necessarily an absolute truth, but rather an implement used to make meaning out of the author’s existential ‘lost-ness’.
The explicit religion present in the author’s mythical metamorphosis into Fa Mu Lan, the legendary Chinese woman warrior is an illustration of the Confucian worldview of doing service to one’s family and society. So, in this instance, to be religious is to be heroic. Also, there is the ‘separation’ from the world that the author as a woman warrior has to go through. This is akin to Tillich’s view on the acknowledgement of holiness when one is caught up with an ultimate concern. Religion as manifested in the Fa Mu Lan metarmophosis, is thus seen, as heroic and honorable. Fa Mu Lan is a metaphor for the narrator, i.e., Kingston’s own ultimate concern – to be a hero for Asian/Chinese America, to fight the ‘fat and powerful men’ of racism (her real world racist boss), and Chinese patriarchy that devalues the female sex:
The implicit religion is also portrayed as a form of remembrance; a remembrance that obliges one to do one’s heroic duty to the family. This remembrance is filled with pain, so implicitly, religion can be full of pain and sacrifice, as symbolized in carving the Woman Warrior’s back:
This ‘mythic’ account, in my opinion, is a metaphor for the author’s pain – the pain of being marginalized, the pain of being ‘lost’ and without an existential ‘order’. The words carved on her mythical self’s back is another metaphor for the kind of weapon the author uses to ‘fight’ the ‘fat men’ of the real world – through her writing.
Therefore, in the overall narrative of The Woman Warrior, the presence of religion, although interspersed with solemn and heavily laden themes, is portrayed in a positive and uplifting manner because it is through religion (defined in the non-traditional manner), that the narrator learns to not just destroy one’s personal demons, but to re-create a clearer vision of her destiny – to be a woman word warrior for Chinese America.
Kingston’s literary doppelganger is Wittman Ah Sing, the main protagonist in Tripmaster Monkey. Wittman is word warrior too, but he is a word warrior in another sense; he is a “fool for literature”. However, explicit religion (as exemplified in both American values and Chinese values and ‘traditional’ beliefs), is portrayed satirically – the central depiction manifested in Wittman’s identification with the Monkey King.
At the same time, I think the implicit message behind the portrayal of religion as a parody is that, religion should not be seen as an absolutist mode of definition. Religion, because it is expressed through the unstable medium of language, is also unstable and even nihilistic, as illustrated by the metaphor of empty scrolls:
Thus, from the above instance, religion is seen as an ‘open’ and ‘empty’ paradigm with no definitive delineations – something which you can superimpose your own beliefs on. In other words, to exist ‘religiously’ (i.e. religion defined in the non-traditional way) means that one is ‘open’ to any paradigm. Kingston’s purpose is to present a postmodernist take on religion – that there should be no single definition of any aspect of existence, be it one’s ethnicity, culture or religion. Such a perception arises out of the marginalized Kingston/Wittman’s rigorous effort against being stereotyped. Religion, then, has to be portrayed as possessing multiple meanings and flexibility to be transformed and interpreted in new ways. For instance, the Monkey is a metaphor for how Chinese America must not be ‘boxed in’ by any kind of ‘definition’ but must be flexible enough to be transformed constantly so that there is creative ‘newness’.
The portrayal of religion, in certain respects, is colored with a certain ‘Chinese-ness’, as religion is seen as a communal activity. This is illustrated in Wittman’s engaging of almost everyone he knows (and of different ethnic backgrounds) to participate in his play. Literally, Wittman’s play is a symbol for the fulfillment of Wittman’s ultimate concern. In addition, I read the play as a metaphor for an imagined America that will be open to all kinds of Americans of all ethnicities. To work towards such a goal, an artist of color like Wittman has to subscribe to the Chinese/Asian stress on family and community. As Irma Maini puts it:
So, is religion a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ presence in Tripmaster Monkey? Although, I feel that such ‘labels’ seem irrelevant for such a portrayal of postmodernist milieu, I am of the opinion that the religion that is present is positive. It is positive because it is through the sieve of religion that new, re-envisioned worldviews are presented.
My first love is literature. I fell in love with words on the day I learnt the letters of the English alphabet. The English language is my adopted mother tongue as technically, I have no mother tongue. I can speak Chinese but I cannot read and write in Chinese. I speak, read, write, think, pray, swear and dream in English. That accounts for my fascination with Asian American literature because I can identify with the frequently dealt with themes of lost-ness that arises from cultural alienation.
Religion is not a ‘love’ but rather, a fascination for me. I am drawn by religion because I can’t seem to shake the hold religion has on me. I am able to understand this ‘hold’ after doing this paper because I realize that every human being has a religion. Every existing, ‘sane’ and functioning human has an ultimate concern; no matter how base or lofty this ultimate concern might be.
My paper is my attempt to combine the examination of my two intellectual preoccupations. To recall, the purpose of my paper is to examine the presence of religion in Chinese American literature, focusing on certain works of doubly marginalized writers, Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston. In both authors’ works, there is a strong presence of religion. On the surface, the religious presence is rather ‘Chinese/Eastern’, as manifested in the explicit religion shown in all four books. However, the implicit religion present is more universal in nature because narratives are expressions of reality. As much as religion rattles its chains in real life, these chains rattle even louder and clearer in all literature because the creation of literature is a religious act in itself.