Seeing the Truth: A Somewhat Buddhist Interpretation of Kingston’s “White Tigers”

Maxine Hong Kingston’s “White Tigers” is a an example of biomythography. Through this genre of life narrative, she remythologizes the battles of her own life as a Chinese girl in the slums of America into the mythological battles of a “woman warrior.” I would like to argue that, in her mythology, Kingston uses the Buddhist concept of upaya. Upaya is a Sanskrit term meaning “skillfull means” and is used in Mahayana Buddhism as an invention tool to teach the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha). Many aspects of Kingston’s story suggest this spiritual interpretation – her respect for other sentient beings on the mountainside, the theme of impermanence suggested by the elderly couple, the ascetic diet during her training, and the necessity of detachment for survival. For the purpose of demonstrating how the myth functions as a type of upaya in relation to Kingston’s “real” depiction of her life, the victims of battle may be examined. In the mythological story, Kingston slays or leads the executions of the baron, along with others, who exploit the oppressed in Chinese society. On the beheading of the oppressors, she remarks that “A slow killing gives a criminal time to regret his crimes” (44). Here, the guilty are physically killed and are also forced to experience an emotional excruciation. Later, Kingston reflects upon the “real” suffering inflicted upon her Chinese family by the Communist party. Her description of the pain is moving, and she concludes this reflection by saying that “It is confusing that my family was not the poor to be championed. They were executed like the barons in the stories, when they were not barons” (51). Here, Kingston notes that the Communist party, inflicting great suffering among the Chinese people, targets the very people that it should ideologically elevate. Relating back to Kingston’s myth, in which the actual barons are killed, perhaps one can extract a deeper meaning from her reflection upon the death of her family members. If the myth is a skillful means of seeing the “truth,” perhaps the Communists really do die. Though in a physical reality they inflict suffering and prevail, their meaning dies. They do not draw up the lower class but cut them down, and thus, they cut themselves down too. They become meaningless murderers; they lose their truth.

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