The Survivor Poem by Marilyn Chin Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English for Students


The poem “The Survivor” is written by Marilyn Chin. The poem was first published in her poetry collection “The Phoenix City, The Terrace Empty” in 1994. The poem talks about the life of a woman in a patriarchal society. The speaker is a woman telling another girl the rules that have been laid down for her gender. She talks about all the rules that a woman has to follow from a young age. The poet is angry about the suppression of her gender by society and the hurdles a woman has to go through everyday in her life. In the end, the girl who “survives” is still not free from the shackles of the world.

About the poet

Marilyn Chin was born in 1955 in Hong Kong. She is a Chinese American writer, poet and a feminist activist. She has had her work published in numerous anthologies. She has also read her poetry in the Library of Congress. She is the recipient of many awards for her works like the 2020 Poetry Foundation Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, The American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature in 2019 and the Academy of American Poets Chancellor in 2018. 


The poem is written in free-verse. It is divided into two section. Each section consists of two stanzas each. The first section is made up of a quatrain and a couplet. The second section has  a quart in and a tercet.

Stanza 1

Don’t tap your chopsticks against your bowl.

Don’t throw your teacup against the wall in anger.

Don’t suck on your long black braid and weep.

Don’t tarry around the big red sign that says “danger!”


In these lines, the speaker is offering advice to someone, instructing them against specific actions. The listener is possibly a girl who is very young. The speaker tells her not to tap chopsticks on the bowl, refrain from throwing a teacup in anger, avoid weeping while sucking on a long black braid, and not to linger around a big red sign warning of danger. The instructions suggest a concern for maintaining composure and conforming to cultural or societal expectations. She uses cultural elements, like chopsticks and teacups, to add a layer of specificity to the guidance, while the red danger sign hints at potential risks or consequences.


The poem starts with the poet giving advice or warnings to someone, possibly a girl. She is instructing her how to behave and handle emotions without breaking cultural norms. The poet advises against certain actions, like tapping chopsticks on a bowl, throwing a teacup when angry, crying while sucking on a braid, and staying near a sign that warns of danger. The poet uses a protective and instructive tone, guiding the young girl on what’s considered appropriate behavior. Cultural elements, such as chopsticks and teacups, are used to emphasize the context of the advice. The red danger sign in these lines may symbolize societal or personal risks, urging caution. The poet in these lines is exploring themes like societal expectations, gender roles, and the challenges faced by women in adhering to cultural norms.

Stanza 2

All the tempests will render still; seas will calm,

horses will retreat, voices to surrender.


In these lines the speaker says that all storms will eventually become still, seas will calm, horses will retreat, and voices will surrender. She conveys a sense of eventual peace and resolution. She suggests a calming and settling of unfair situations eventually.


In these lines, the poet uses a metaphor to convey the message of eventual peace and surrender. She uses the idea of the “tempests” rendering still to imply that storms or turbulent situations will subside. The seas calming and horses retreating further emphasize the idea of pacification and a return to peace. The phrase “voices to surrender” suggests that even the voices of the society will eventually yield or quiet down.

Stanza 3

That you have bloomed this way and not that,

that your skin is yellow, not white, not black,

that you were born not a boychild but a girl,

that this world will be forever puce-pink are just as well.


In these lines, the speaker talks about accepting and affirming the unique attributes of the young girl. She talks about how it does not matter whether the girl has blossomed in one way or another. Whether the girl has yellow skin instead of white or black and was born a girl instead of a boy does not matter. The speaker envisions the world as puce-pink and embraces these differences and declares that they are “just as well.” 


In these lines, the poet addresses the variations and circumstances of one’s existence. She acknowledges the varying individual characteristics and experiences that shape a person – the choice of blooming in a particular way, the skin color being yellow instead of white or black, being born as a girl rather than a boychild, and the enduring color of the world being described as puce-pink. By talking about this, the poet is celebrating the diverse and unique aspects of one’s identity, emphasizing that each characteristic and circumstance is equally valid and accepted.

Stanza 4

Remember, the survivor is not the strongest or most clever;

merely, the survivor is almost always the youngest.

And you shall have to relinquish that title before long.


In these final lines, the speaker explains that surviving doesn’t always demand being the strongest or smartest; usually, it means being the youngest. The speaker acknowledges the survivor, likely a young girl, for facing challenges despite her age. However, the speaker realizes and recognises that the girl will eventually lose the survivor title. The speaker talks about the challenges and societal pressures the girl will still face as she grows older.


In the end, the poet emphasizes that surviving in society doesn’t necessarily depend on being the strongest or smartest; rather, it’s often about being the youngest. The poet acknowledges the young girl for having faced these challenges with resilience. However, the poet is sad because she knows that despite past triumphs, the survivor, a young girl, will continue to encounter struggles in a society dominated by men. The poet emphasizes that the journey of the young girl’s is ongoing when she talks about how the title of the survivor will be relinquished soon enough by the girl. This highlights the ever-present difficulties within a male-dominated structure. The conclusion explores the themes of vulnerability, the cyclical nature of challenges, and the ongoing obstacles faced by girls, in such a society.