Maxine Hong Kingston’s book, China Men, recounts a plethora of fictions, non-fictions, myths and histories of the different men (mostly in her family) and their various journeys, all compiled into one collection. The summary from GoodReads states,”(Kingston) chronicles the lives of three generations of Chinese men in America, woven from memory, myth and fact. Here’s a storyteller’s tale of what they endured in a strange new land.” China Men, published in 1980, is a great companion work to The Woman Warrior, designed to be the sequel to the first work, another of Kingston’s somewhat disjointed, memoir-esque works that deal with many of the same themes of tradition, displacement and family.
What I loved most about the work was the way that Chinese myths and the reality, seemed to bleed and infuse one another. In other words, it seems that the mythical sense of understanding of the world, that is (presumably) such an intrinsic part of traditional Chinese culture, almost penetrated the actual experiences that people were having: both in informing what had happened, and why. The way that Kingston deals with this collision of myth and reality is artful and insightful and was part of what made reading the work a true pleasure.
“The relatives kept saying, ‘This is the ancestral ground,’ their eyes filling with tears over a vacant lot in Stockton.”
What I would like to really focus on, though, is the shifts in perspectives, sans shift in tone, that Kingston employs in her writings. While China Men is not particularly cohesive, and by this I mean that you may be disappointed if you are looking for a linear narrative that you can read straight through, China Men tells stories of men in America, China, and Vietnam all in the same, cohesive voice: almost as if Kingston is herself speaking for the men she speaks of, rather than serving as an outlet for their voices. While this can be a bit disarming, and almost exhausting, as I found it difficult to form emotional attachment to characters I could scarcely distinguish from one another, I suspect that this may have been a deliberate choice on Kingston’s part: by unifying the voice of the “collective Chinese/Asian man”, she speaks perhaps to their facelessness in society, or at least their facelessness in society, historically. She alludes, further, to a culture that cannot distinguish between Asian people, a culture which beyond non-recognition is disinclined generally to open itself to understanding, and challenges this generalized notion by providing the reader with such a disparate and full array of characters and tales.
“I’ve decided to stay in California.” He said, “California. This is my home. I belong here.” He turned and, looking at us, roared, “We belong here.”
By challenging the culture of exploitation, facelessness, and conflation that the Chinese-American, and indeed the Asian American in general, has been forced to deal with in the United States from the 1800s, Kingston gently pushes the reader to reconsider, perhaps, socially ingrained stereotypes: we see Chinese men drinking, praying, cheating, loving, wishing, hoping, and losing their minds. There is no over-simplification in this book: it speaks at once to both the broad range of people, without feeling the need to resort to a severance with all things Chinese. Chinese culture remains a fundamental part of each and every mans identity, but this never means that each man lives, thinks, or believes in the same way; his actions, while influenced by culture, are ultimately that of an individual, just as each of our actions are. China Men portrays a culture of all kinds of different people, not simply falling into, or too actively against, stereotypical notions of what a culture and it’s people should be, have been, or are.
China Men is an insightful book; while not easy to read, or digest, it speaks volumes to the issues surrounding Asian-American, specifically Chinese-American, culture and expectations, especially in men. Going into this book having read The Woman Warrior, I was prepared for the sort of artistic style that Kingston seems partial to, and still found myself stumbling through certain chapters a bit disoriented; I would suggest, reading The Women Warrior first, as I personally found it much easier to work through. Overall, there is no doubt that Kingston’s work is masterful and insightful: China Men exceeded my expectations.