Maxine Hong Kingston's tale unfolds in a non-linear fashion and is told with a kind of freedom that is mirrored by its character, Brave Orchid, who moves between worlds and jumps between past and present, achieving a sort of liminality enjoyed by magical folklore characters. In this book, we see that time is an artificial construct of the Western patriarchal system that Brave Orchid constantly ignores, defies, and redefines according to her own needs and desires.
In her article, "The Politics of Space, Time and Substance," Ana Maria Alonso states, "The Cultural inscription of the idea of the state has in part been secured through the spatialization of time, the transformation of becoming into Being, and through the symbolic and material organization of social space… time-space compression produced by modernization, which relativizes and accelerates time, fragments continuity, and generates a global temporal frame in which simultaneity is universalized and decentered" (381-388). Western cultures achieved power and solidarity by creating homogenous national identities, in part, through the drawing of spatial and temporal boundaries. A standardized time system was implemented in the 19th century by dividing the globe into different time zones and requiring all nations to sync their time to the Greenwich Mean Time, placing the West at the center of the globe spatially and temporally.
Kingston's characters are not trapped in this false construct and freely move between the two worlds—East and West—where time moves at a different pace in each. Brave Orchid first makes this journey when she is in medical school in China. She steps out of her world and into a ghost world, where time moves at an accelerated pace. It is there that she battles and defeats sitting ghost. After the battle, she tells her classmates, "For ten years I lost my way. I almost forgot about you; there was so much work leading to other work and another life – like picking up coins in a dream. But I returned…altogether I was gone for twelve years, but in this room only an hour had passed. The moon barely moved" (72-73).
It is not until later in the book, when Brave Orchid is an old woman, talking to her daughter, that we realize that the ghost world she travelled to while she was in medical school was the Western world she would eventually move to years later at her husband's request. As the story progresses, we learn that Brave Orchid views the West as an unreal world and its inhabitants as ghosts. Here time is accelerated and years roll by in an endless succession of days filled with work and the ghostly inhabitants are engaged in an endless battle to survive. She tells her daughter, "I have worked too much. Human beings don't work like this in China. Time goes slower there. Here we have to hurry, feed the hungry children before we're too old to work. I feel like a mother cat hunting for its kittens. She has to find them fast because in a few hours she will forget how to count or that she had any kittens at all…Time was different in China. One year lasted as long as my total time here…I would still be young if we lived in China" (105-106). Brave Orchid's description of constantly having to chase and feed her kittens echoes her earlier experience in the ghost world where she constantly worked and picked up an endless succession of coins. Time is wasted in the West in pointless ways and the inhabitants are like ghosts trapped in a never ending routine of work in order to survive. For Brave Orchid, the East is the real world because people are not trapped in this way and spend their time living. In the West time passes quickly not only because people are busy, but because the constant grind take its toll and accelerates the aging process. Brave Orchid's daughter even comments that her mother, who lived in China until her early forties, looked younger than she does at the same age.
In recognizing the ghostliness of the Western world, Brave Orchid is able to separate herself from it to a certain extent. Through her memories and visions of the other world, she is able to move between the worlds; however, as time goes by, her capacity to exist in this liminal reality is limited and eventually disappears. Unlike her earlier experience in medical school, there is no one in the "real world" to rub her ears and call her back home to China. As an old woman, she realizes that she is stuck in the Western world of ghosts and will never return to the East. The space she created for herself through vision and memory, shrinks with age and time, and will eventually disappear upon her death, when she too will become a ghost in the Western world.
Alonso, Ana Maria, "The Politics of Space, Time and Substance: State Formation, Nationalism and Ethnicity," Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 23, (1994), pp. 379-405
Dali, Salvador, The Persistence of Memory. 1931. Oil on canvas, 9 1/2 x 13" (24.1 x 33 cm), Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Kingston, Maxine Hong, The Woman Warrior, New York: Vintage International Books, 1975.