A Song For A Barbarian Reed Pipe: From Silence To Song

The Woman Warrior explores Maxine Kingston’s personal experiences in a novel about the importance language has for Chinese American women. The final chapter of the book, “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe”, details Kingston’s relationship with language and silence. Kingston expresses her frustration and distrust of Chinese tradition, stating that its silence and speaking eludes her. She believes that in order for her to bridge between generations and communities she must use her voice, as an American-Chinese woman. This voice can take shape through the arts.

Kingston’s struggle for her own voice and her struggle to understand the Chinese voice traditions are intertwined throughout the chapter. Is it loudness or quietness that defines being Chinese for Chinese women, in particular? In her early years, she was mostly a silent child. She believed that being Chinese meant being quiet. She initially found comfort in silence. Kingston claims that she found silence comforting and it was “natural” for her. She did not think that speaking was necessary. For Kingston, silence was not an absence of words but “a stage curtain” (165). Her silence, a stage-curtain “so sombre and full with possibilities” (165), only served to conceal the “mighty opéras” she was performing in her head.

Kingston also raises the issue of Chinese adults being silent, or at the very least not communicating, especially when it comes to the passing on of tradition. She discusses the ambiguity and ‘unspeakability’ of Chinese holidays in one section (185). The adults “get mad, evasive or shut you up” if she asks about holidays. Kingston argues that the lack communication between Chinese Americans has led to a disconnect. Kingston states this leads to uncertainty among the younger generation when dealing with problems in life. If we relied on being told about everything, we wouldn’t have religion, babies, menstruation (sex would be unimaginable), or death. Silence is interpreted as a state of innocence, where one can shield themselves from the good and bad things in life. Kingston is disdainful about the knowledge gaps that silence leaves.

What about sound and loudness? Kingston shows that it’s loudness, not silence, that represents the Chinese woman. When the girls go to Chinese school, they lose their muteness. They screamed or yelled when there was no rule during recess; they fought with their fists (167). This seems to suggest that American schools are the reason for her quietness and that of other girls. They adapt Chinese expressions once placed in an environment with Chinese people. In the next chapter, her father makes a similar comment: “Why am I able to hear Chinese even from blocks away?” Do I speak the language? Kingston describes the irreverence in a Chinese piano audience, because they “can’t hear Americans” (172). Then she states quite plainly, “Chinese women are known for their strong voices and dominance” (172). Kingston is taught that Chinese women are strong, bossy, irreverent and loud. She does not like the loud Chinese voice. It is her own judgement that is expressed when she states, “You see the disgust in American faces…it’s more than just the volume.” It’s the way Chinese sound, “chingchong ugly…not gorgeous” (171). She is embarrassed and distrustful of the Chinese tradition to bang pot lids on the eclipse day.

Kingston’s mistrust towards the Chinese-Americans is at the root of miscommunication. Kingston struggles, throughout the novel and in particular this chapter to distinguish between her mother’s true stories and jokes. As she talks about her mother, Kingston shouts that “They scrambled my up.” You tell lies…I don’t know the difference. (202) The anger that Kingston has been storing up over the years is a result of all the negative comments and fears she’s had about being married off and how many women have made derogatory statements about her. Kingston’s claims are countered with her mother’s retort: “You don’t know how to make a joke out of real life”. “That’s Chinese talk.” We prefer to say the contrary (202-3). Kingston’s mother and Kingston have a clear gulf of understanding. This is evident in the incident where Kingston’s mother cut her frenum. Her heart was filled with both pride as well as terror. Her mother claims that she “cut the frenum so you wouldn’t have tongue-tied. Your tongue could move in any languages” (164). Kingston is suspicious of her mother and believes that her reasoning has caused her to have “a terrible time speaking,” and the cut “tampering my speech”(165). Was her mother attempting to silence Kingston or was she trying to free up her speech? Kingston says “the Chinese are of the opinion that a quick tongue is bad, while her mother counters with “‘Things in this Ghost Country'”. This paradox represents the ambiguities in communication between Chinese Americans as well the Chinese.

Kingston makes it clear that if she doesn’t, there are serious consequences. She explains on page 186, “I used to think that talking or not talking was the difference between sanity & insanity. She says that insane people are those who can’t communicate. She tells about Crazy Mary (a woman who was unable explain herself) and Pee A Nah, two women in their adulthood who had no communication with the outside world. Kingston fears becoming as crazy as these women. “I didn’t want to be the one who was crazy” (190). Kingston tries to avoid the fate of these women. She is filled with fantasies and imagined conversations. The opera she was hiding behind her period of black painting, this list contains “over two hundred things” that Kingston had to say to her mother to stop the pain. Kingston and Chinese-American women in general need to find their voice. She needs a voice to help bridge the divide between her and her mom, but also between her with the rest of the world. If I only told my mother about the list, I think she would be more like me and so would the rest of the world. I’d never feel alone again. We can see here that silence has another downside: isolation. Kingston is hoping that by speaking up, she can connect to her mother as well as her community.

Kingston is a vocal advocate of what? You can find out what voice Kingston opposes by examining the voices she denigrates. The voices of her family and mother tear her apart throughout the book, but especially in this particular chapter. Kingston suffers from emotional and psychological trauma caused by verbal abuse. Her self-hatred is also evident. Kingston’s self-loathing is expressed in an eerie and dramatic confrontation with the Chinese girl who was silent after school. Kingston uses her full power to force the Chinese girl to speak, calling her “disgusting” and “you’re such an idiot” (178). Kingston is expressing her insecurities by crying and interrogating the girl in a voice that sounds like her mother. You’re so dumb. Why am I wasting my time with you?” (180-1) Kingston reflects: “It felt like I spent my entire life in the basement, doing to someone else the worst thing that I have ever done.” (181). She is using her loud, outspoken voice, like that of her mother, to traumatize and bring down a young girl. Kingston’s story is a warning against the dangers of misusing powerful voices.

Kingston’s argument is that we should speak in a way that empowers other people and allows them to internalize subtleties. In the first chapter of this book, Kingston compares her story to that of her brother – “His version is perhaps better than mys because it has not been twisted or distorted into designs.” The story can be carried around without taking much space” (163). Kingston wants it to be the opposite. Her talk-story should not be easily digestible and must reflect her fantasies and nuances. She says that if she had lived there, she would have been outlawed knot maker. She requires a voice capable of tying together complex stories.

Kingston shows us the voice that she wants at the very end of her novel when she tells Ts’ai’s story. This master of poetry was captured by barbarians. Their haunting, cold music “disturbed” her (208). This music causes her to sing, “a song so clear and high…about China” (208). The barbarians could understand her words, which appeared to be Chinese. Her children didn’t laugh but sang along eventually” (209). Ts’ai Yen’s voice transcends language barriers and speaks directly to the emotions of barbarians. The song could also be passed to her own children, eventually becoming a Chinese folk song. Kingston wants a Chinese voice with a universal voice, one that bridges the gap between Chinese and non-Chinese. She posits a voice which is truthful, but not intrusive. Kingston uses the arts to advocate for her novel. Ts’ai Yen’s barbarians are linked by song and reedpipes. Kingston hopes that literature will bring Chinese and American-born together.


  • adamlewis

    Adam Lewis is a 34-year-old school teacher and blogger who focuses on education. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education from the University of Central Florida and a Master of Arts degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of South Florida. Lewis has been teaching since 2004 and has taught in both public and private schools. He is currently a teacher at a private Christian school in Florida.