She was born as Maxine Ashley Hong to a laundry house owner in Stockton, California. She was the third of eight children, and the first among them born in the United States. Her mother trained as a midwife at the To Keung School of Midwifery in Canton. Her father had been brought up a scholar and taught in his village of Sun Woi, near Canton. Tom left China for America in 1924 and took a job in a laundry.
Her works often reflect on her cultural heritage and blend fiction with non-fiction. Among her works are The Woman Warrior (1976), awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, and China Men (1980), which was awarded the 1981 National Book Award. She has written one novel, Tripmaster Monkey, a story depicting a character based on the mythical Chinese character Sun Wu Kong. Her most recent books are To Be The Poet and The Fifth Book of Peace.
She was awarded the 1997 National Humanities Medal by President of the United States Bill Clinton. Kingston was a member of the committee to choose the design for the California commemorative quarter. She was arrested in March 2003 in Washington, D.C., for crossing a police line during a protest against the war in Iraq. In April, 2007, Hong Kingston was awarded the Northern California Book Award Special Award in Publishing for her most recent anthology, Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace (2006), edited by Maxine Hong Kingston.
Kingston was honored as a 175th Speaker Series writer at Emma Willard School in September 2005.