what is the role of legend in the woman warrior?
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In The Woman Warrior, tradition is a source of both pride and embarrassment for the narrator. In chapters such as “Shaman” and “White Tigers,” it is clear how much she values “old Chinese” values. The narrator depends on her mother as the bastion of tradition. Having never been to China, she constructs much of her impression of China from her mother’s “talk-stories.” The tradition of The Woman Warrior is especially important to the narrator, who invokes the legends of Fa Mu Lan and Ts’ai Yen to guide her. She shows special respect for these “old Chinese” stories by the way she uses them in the book. The story of Fa Mu Lan gets almost an entire chapter. In it, the narrator tells the story from Fa Mu Lan’s perspective. She goes seamlessly from her own narrative to Fa Mu Lan’s, allowing herself to be, at least in fantasy, the great heroine.
The narrator saves the story of Ts’ai Yen for the book’s conclusion. She does not explain why she has chosen the legend, letting it speak for itself. In doing so, she stands behind the wisdom of ancient Chinese stories and of tradition. In “Shaman,” the narrator shows her reverence for her mother’s “old” talents. She is proud of her mother especially for being a shaman, being able to bridge the physical and metaphysical worlds. She also says that her mother is a “great power” when she is “talking-story,” engaged in the oral tradition.
As much as the narrator values tradition, it also embarrasses and frustrates her. Her biggest conflict is with the sexism she sees engrained in “old Chinese” tradition. She feels pressured to become a “slave” of a wife. As a child, she thrashes on the floor when she hears the older generation repeat old sayings about girls’ worthlessness. For example, her father tells her: “Chinese smeared bad daughters-in-law with honey and tied them naked on top of ant nests … A husband may kill a wife who disobeys him. Confucius said that.” The narrator becomes determined to act the opposite of what tradition mandates. She revolts by being messy and disobedient, not demure and charming like Brave Orchid wants.
The narrator’s problem with tradition comes to a head when the subject of marriage comes up. Her parents do not seem to appreciate her good grades or her determination to become a scientist. Brave Orchid tells her to follow suit like the other neighborhood girls and become a typist. The narrator thinks her parents are so desperate to marry her off that they will match her with the mentally challenged boy who follows her around. Even as an adult, living far from her parents, the narrator still feels her mother's traditions surrounding her. As she puts it, “Before we can leave our parents, they stuff our heads like the suitcases which they jam-pack with homemade underwear.”
Despite the narrator’s problems with tradition, she ultimately can take what she wants from it and leave the rest. Legends of the likes of Fa Mu Lan and Ts’ai Yen convince the narrator that her mission in life is to be brave and righteous, to become a "swordswoman" of her own kind.