Actively Reading


Objective for this Page:  To model a close and active reading of “No Name Woman,” identifying key issues that may be developed later.

As you read and re-read “No Name Woman,” actively engage with the words and their meanings. With pencil in hand, ask yourself and jot down questions that spring to mind. Do not worry if the answers to your questions are not clear at first reading.  More than likely, they are keys to larger issues that will become apparent after you have read the entire story, thought about it, and then re-read it.

Below in blue are the opening and conclusion of “No Name Woman.”   The boldfaced numbers found in the passage alert you to a corresponding question or commentary on the right. Try this same sort of active reading as you read it for yourself.  Feel free to suggest additional observations by e-mail to Dr. Kelli Olson at


1                  No Name Woman

1 Writers choose carefully titles. Let's consider this one. Why are names important and what would it mean not to have a name?  Is identity an issue in this work? What does it mean to be a woman in the world Kingston presents?

 2 “You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you. 3 In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born.


 “In 1924 just a few days after our 4village celebrated 5seventeen hurry-up weddings—to make sure that every young man who went ‘out on the road’ would responsibly come home—your father and his brothers and your grandfather and his brothers and your aunt’s new husband sailed for 6America, the Gold Mountain. It was your grandfather’s last trip. Those lucky enough to get contracts waved goodbye from the decks. They fed and guarded the stowaways and helped them off in Cuba, New York, Bali, Hawaii. ‘We’ll meet in California next year,’ they said. All of them sent money home.


7 “I remember looking at your aunt one day when she and I were dressing; I had not noticed before that she had such a protruding melon of a stomach. But I did not think, 'She’s pregnant,’ until she began to look like other pregnant women, her shirt pulling and the white tops of her black pants showing. She could not have been pregnant, you see, because her husband had been gone for years. 8No one said anything. We did not discuss it. In early summer she was ready to have the child, long after that time when it could have been possible.

 9“The village had also been counting. On the night the baby was to be born the 10 villagers raided our house. Some were crying. Like a great saw, teeth strung with lights, files of people walked zigzag across our land, tearing the rice. Their lanterns doubled in the disturbed black water, which drained away through the broken bunds*. As the villagers closed in, we could see that some of them, probably men and women we knew well, wore white masks. The people with long hair hung it over their faces. Women with short hair made it stand up on ends. Some had tied white bands around their foreheads, arms, and legs.

2 Who is the “you” here? Isn’t she doing exactly what her mother told her not to do? She’s telling us!

3 Is this sister the No Name Woman? Why is her story a family secret? 


4 Let’s get oriented.  Where is this village?  Later we see the men are headed to America . Where does the aunt's story take place?  Where are the mother and daughter living during the telling of the story?

5 What do you suppose “hurry-up weddings” are and what is their purpose? How do these weddings function differently than American weddings?

6 Why would America be called the “Gold Mountain”?  How would you characterize these men?


 7 What does this scene tell us about the mother’s living relationship with the aunt?  Note the quotation marks that begin this paragraph; they remind us that the aunt’s story is being told to the narrator.


 8 Silence--a strange response, isn’t it? However, silence seems to be a reoccurring feature of this story.


9 What had the village been counting?  Why do you think the word “village” rather than “villagers” is used here? 

10 How would you describe this raid? Look closely at the words: “great saw,” “disturbed black water,” “broken bunds,” “masks,” “long hair hung…over their faces,”  and “short hair … [to] stand up on ends.”

 *bund: an embankment used to control the flow of water (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)



Concluding Section


1“Don’t tell anyone you had an aunt. Your father does not want to hear her name. She has never been born.” I have believed that sex was unspeakable and words so strong and fathers so frail that “aunt” would do my father mysterious harm. I have thought that my family, having settled among immigrants who had also been their neighbors in the ancestral land, needed to clean their name, and a wrong word would incite the kinspeople even here. 2But there is more to this silence: they want me to participate in her punishment. And I have.

In the twenty years since I heard this story I have not asked for details nor said my aunt’s name; I do not know it. People who can comfort the dead can also chase after them to hurt them further—a reverse ancestor worship. 3The real punishment was not the raid swiftly inflicted by the villagers, but the family’s deliberately forgetting her. 4Her betrayal so maddened them, they saw to it that she would suffer forever, even after death. Always hungry, always needing, she would have to beg food from other ghosts, snatch and steal it from those whose living descendants give them gifts. 5She would have to fight the ghosts massed at crossroads for the buns a few thoughtful citizens leave to decoy her away from village and home so that the ancestral spirits could feast unharassed. At peace, they could act like gods, not ghosts, their descent lines providing them with paper suits and dresses, spirit money, paper houses, paper automobiles, chicken, meat, and rice into eternity—essences delivered up in smoke and flames, steam and incense rising from each rice bowl. In an attempt to make the Chinese care for people outside the family, Chairman Mao encourages us now to give our paper replicas to the spirits of outstanding soldiers and workers, no matter whose ancestors they may be. My aunt remains forever hungry. 6Goods are not distributed evenly among the dead.

 My aunt haunts me—her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, 7I alone devote pages of paper to her, though not origamied* into houses and clothes. I do not think she always means me well. I am telling on her, and she was a 8spite suicide, drowning herself in the drinking water. 9The Chinese are always very frightened of the drowned one, whose weeping ghost, wet hair hanging and skin bloated, waits silently by the water to pull down a 10substitute.

1 This warning sounds familiar.





2Why has the narrator kept silent about her aunt for so long?  What does she realize about her silence? 



3 Is the narrator saying that the family has acted worse than the villagers? How so?

4 Clearly the aunt betrayed her “hurry up” husband; however, how was the adultery and pregnancy a betrayal of the family?

 5How do Chinese beliefs about existence after death elucidate the family’s punishment of the aunt?







 6 Why bring in Chairman Mao and the even distribution of goods?


7Paper for writing versus paper for honoring: are there similarities in the two? Why does Kingston choose one over the other?

*Origami: the Japanese art or process of folding squares of paper into representational shapes (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

8How is drowning in the family’s drinking water a spiteful act? Should we think of the aunt as a victim?

9From this paragraph how would you describe the narrator’s feelings toward the aunt.  (Consider: The aunt “haunts” and  “waits silently for a substitute.”  “I do not think she means me well.”) 

10 Are there similarities in the narrator’s and the aunt’s actions?  How do they both cross forbidden boundaries?


1. Answer the questions listed in the right-hand column. Choose a question as an initial point of inquiry to generate ideas for an essay. Outline an essay complete with thesis statements and several supporting points.

2. Read another section of “No Name Woman” and list questions and comments alongside the text. Formulate a thesis statement for a presentation or an essay from your observations.


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Click to the VCCS home page.This website was developed by Dr. Kelli Olson at Piedmont Virginia Community College with the assistance of Mary Clare DiGiacomo, Coordinator of Distance Learning and Instructional Technology Design. It was funded by a grant from the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) in the Spring Semester, 2004.  © 2004 by the Virginia Community College System.