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The book is a collection of Maxine Hong Kingston's memoirs, so it is technically a work of nonfiction. But the author is careful never to mention her name in the narrative. This is presumably because the book, while grounded in truth, does not maintain a clear boundary between reality and fantasy. In light of these facts, we shall call the narrator of this book "the narrator," not "Hong Kingston," reserving the latter name for the author.
The book begins with the voice of the narrator’s mother saying, “You must not tell anyone…” She tells her daughter a dark family secret; in China, her husband’s sister drowned herself in their well. After that, the family kept secret not only the suicide, but also the sister-in-law’s very existence. She goes on to recount this sister’s birth. In 1924, her father, husband, and brothers-in-law left to seek fortune in California, “the Gold Mountain.” Like most of the men in their village, they sought money elsewhere because the village crops were suffering. The mother stayed behind with the other women, living with her sister-in-law. Some time later, she noticed that her sister-in-law was pregnant. Neither she nor anyone else in the village discussed it; the sister-in-law’s husband had been gone for years, so her pregnancy was disgraceful to the village.
On the night that the sister-in-law was to give birth, the villagers stormed their house, dressed to scare. After slaughtering the animals, they swarmed the house and destroyed everything they could find. They stole what they had not ruined before leaving. That night, the sister-in-law gave birth amid the mess from the raid. The next morning, the narrator’s mother found her and her newborn baby drowned in the family well. At the end of the story, we learn its intended moral. The mother tells her daughter, “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. The villagers are watchful.” She is warning her daughter against promiscuity and against shaming her family.
Now we hear the narrator’s voice. She explains that her mother usually invoked stories from her homeland of China to teach life lessons. The narrator and her generation, by contrast, were first-generation Chinese-Americans. They had to navigate two cultures in order to form a unique identity. Because the narrator is forbidden to ask about her aunt, she fills in the gaps in the story with her imagination. In her first version of the story, she says her aunt was a rape victim because “women in the old China did not choose [with whom to have sex].” She vilifies not only the rapist but all the village men because, she asserts, they victimized women as a rule: “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.” To make matters worse, the aunt would not have been able to hide from her rapist because the village was small; he may have been a vendor she had to visit daily. Her fear must have been constant and inescapable. The narrator considers the ways in which Chinese culture alienates those who have erred. Her own parents used to talk about an “outcast table,” where family members who had shamed the family had to eat alone.
The narrator puts aside her rape theory to imagine her aunt as a freely sexual woman, who groomed herself carefully in order to attract attention from men. She pictures her aunt drawing stares from all the village men, longing for a lover, and dying in silence to protect her baby’s father. Her actions would have threatened the village’s tradition of pairing couples from birth in order to ensure stability and conformity. The aunt’s adultery was a deviation, but it was considered “a crime” because the village was going through hard times. By giving birth to an illegitimate child—an outcast—the aunt had robbed the village of a legitimate person who would grow up to “feed the old and the dead” and “look after the family.”
The narrator imagines the end of her aunt’s life. Her family cursed her after the raid, yelling, “Ghost! Dead ghost! Ghost! You’ve never been born.” She gave birth alone in a pigsty, her newborn child a “little ghost,” an outcast like its mother. The protagonist explains that her aunt showed her child love and mercy by drowning it along with her. She could have simply abandoned her baby, but “mothers who love their children take them along.” The aunt knew that her child would grow up to be a pariah and wanted to spare it the shame that had killed her, made her a ghost, even before she died. Moreover, the baby was probably a girl. Had it been a boy, the preferred sex, her aunt might have had hope for its future and left it in the care of the village.
The narrator notes that by following her mother’s orders never to mention her aunt, she has been complicit in her aunt’s unfair punishment. She says that even in the ghost world, her aunt must be an outcast. She pictures her lonely, scrounging leftover offerings that other ghosts’ relatives leave them. To the narrator, writing about her aunt is a kind of penance for participating in her continuing castigation. Sometimes she fears that her aunt’s ghost is malevolent, striving to harm her for exposing her shame to readers.
“No Name Woman” introduces us to some of the book’s major themes. The first of these is silence. With the opening words of the book, “You must not tell anyone.” the narrator’s mother inducts her into a long tradition of keeping things secret. As the narrator explains, keeping silence is not passive; it can involve willing oneself to forget something or someone. Because the narrator does as she is told and keeps the silence about her aunt, she too shames her aunt and denies her the right to be remembered. She feels so complicit just for keeping the silence that she is afraid her aunt’s ghost wants to harm her. In the book’s final chapter, “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” we see just how much the code of silence torments the narrator; she takes out her frustration by taunting and assaulting a reticent classmate.
The second theme Hong Kingston introduces in “No Name Woman” is that of female power. In one sense the aunt is a powerless character, so powerless that she is given no name and no right to have existed. In another sense, she is too powerful to be named or remembered. Besides, as a woman, the aunt had the biological power to bring a baby into the world, and she had the social power to let her pregnancy affect the whole village. The villagers considered her baby not only an annoyance but an actual threat to their security. In hard times, this illegitimate “ghost” would spend its life as a dead weight, draining their resources and disturbing their traditions. The narrator explains that in the village community, individual power and not just female power frightened the villagers: “The villagers punished [the aunt] for acting as if she could have a private life, secret and apart from them.”
No one knows the power of giving birth better than the narrator’s mother, who has given birth to eight children as well as delivered countless others. She tells her daughter not to get pregnant out of wedlock and end up a “ghost” like her aunt. The narrator tells us, “Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fits in solid America.” First-generation Chinese-Americans, she says, must try to incorporate their parents’ “old Chinese” wisdom into their American lives. Despite the need for translation between generations, the narrator likely did not have to do much to apply her aunt’s story to her own life. It would have been the mid-1950s when her mother told her the story, a time before second-wave feminism, when “old Chinese” and American views on pregnancy out of wedlock were actually not so different from today’s American society.
The villagers never tried to find the man who got the aunt pregnant. The narrator even suggests that he helped raid her house. The double standard works in both countries. Whereas men are expected to seek adventure and throw tradition to the wind, women are expected to stay home and keep tradition: “The heavy, deep-rooted women were to maintain the past against the flood, safe for returning.” Hong Kingston uses imagery of women like trees holding strong against a flood of modernization. They are treated as the weaker sex but are expected to be the ones with moral strength.
The word “ghost” has several different meanings in the narrative. A ghost can be a disembodied spirit, an outcast, a non-Chinese person, or the memory of a person who died. In America, ghosts are non-Chinese people, “White Ghosts” or the slightly less intimidating “Black Ghosts.” They are ghosts to the immigrant Chinese people because their customs are hard to understand. In America, memories of the dead can also haunt people, such as Brave Orchid’s first two children, “no name” aunt, and later, Moon Orchid. In China, all kinds of ghosts are abundant. The narrator explains, “In the village structure, spirits shimmered among the live creatures.” “No name” aunt is a ghost during her lifetime because she is an outcast. The narrator claims that her aunt’s ghost—her spirit—is haunting her. By this, she can mean either her aunt’s spirit or simply the memory of her.
The narrator does not usually cast ghosts in a positive light, and she sets this tone when she talks about her aunt’s ghost. She supposes it is angry with her for breaking the silence and exposing her shame for all to see. The fact that the narrator’s family tries so hard to forget the aunt proves that her ghost torments them, too. They keep her spirit away by continually denying that she ever existed. That ghosts can sometimes be vengeful does not mean that they are not helpful. The narrator calls her aunt “my forerunner” and explains, “Unless I see her life branching into mine, she gives me no ancestral help.” The narrator is not so much afraid of her aunt’s ghost as she is reverent of it. She defends her aunt for at least escaping, if not taking a stand against, the sexist traditions that took away her right to her identity.