The Woman Warrior is a collection of Maxine Hong Kingston's memoirs, so it is technically a work of nonfiction. But the author is careful never to mention her name in the narrative. This is presumably because the book, while grounded in truth, does not maintain a clear boundary between reality and fantasy. In light of these facts, we shall call the narrator of this book "the narrator" and not "Hong Kingston."
Chapter 1: No Name Woman
"No Name Woman" is based on Brave Orchid's talk-story from China about her sister-in-law. Brave Orchid tells the narrator the story on the condition that she never repeat it or mention her "no name" aunt. The story begins when many of the men in Brave Orchid's village left to seek fortune in America. Some time later, the sister-in-law became pregnant. The villagers, including her own family members, ostracized her because her child would be illegitimate. To them, she was a "ghost." The night she was to give birth, the villagers raided Brave Orchid's house, where she was staying. They destroyed everything in the house, leaving the sister-in-law to give birth amid the mess. The next morning, Brave Orchid found the sister-in-law and her newborn drowned in the family well. The narrator tries to imagine how her aunt got pregnant. First, she surmises that her aunt was raped. Then, she supposes that her aunt was sexually forward and took a lover.
The narrator also explains why she is breaking the silence about her aunt. She believes that Chinese culture often victimizes and silences women. She wants to give her aunt a voice. At the same time, she is frightened that her actions are angering her aunt's ghost.
Chapter 2: White Tigers
In "White Tigers," the narrator shares another of her mother's stories. This story is very different from her "no name" aunt's story because it is about an empowered and respected warrior woman. It teaches her not to give into stereotypes but instead to make something of herself. The narrator goes effortlessly from speaking in her own voice to speaking in Fa Mu Lan's. When Fa Mu Lan is seven, she follows a bird to a mountaintop, where she meets an elderly man and woman. They convince her to stay with them and train to be a warrior. The old man and woman teach Fa Mu Lan to blend in with her surroundings and to gain precise control of her body. One day, they blindfold her and make her run through the mountains until she reaches the place where the tigers live. Then they leave her to find her way back without supplies. After days of solitude and hunger, Fa Mu Lan becomes unusually attuned to the world around her. She also realizes that her teachers are not just old but immortal. When she returns, the old man and woman teach her the ways of the dragon. On the same day that Fa Mu Lan begins to menstruate, she looks into the old man's magic gourd and sees her brother and future husband being drafted. Men from every family must go to war while the baron exempts himself and his family. When she looks into the gourd again later, she sees her father being drafted.
Fa Mu Lan returns home disguised in men's clothing. In the yard one night, a white horse appears to Fa Mu Lan; it becomes her battle horse. Many of the village men join her and become her army. From then on, she is known as a great warrior and leader. She kills a band of giants and eventually unseats the emperor. While she is at war, Fa Mu Lan's husband recognizes her and they unite at last. They have a son together. He is born during a battle, and Fa Mu Lan rides back into the fray with him slung inside her armor. When she returns home, Fa Mu Lan faces the village baron alone and decapitates him. She turns his palace into a village meeting place.
When the story ends, the narrator explains how her life in America has always felt paltry next to Fa Mu Lan's. She wants to be like Fa Mu Lan and indeed, she has much to fight against. There is the "old Chinese" sexism, which she finds hard to reconcile with stories of warrior women. There is the American government, which closed her parents' laundry for urban renewal. There is the Communist government in China, which has tortured and killed many of her relatives. From an early age, the narrator resolves to become a warrior in one way or another.
Chapter 3: Shaman
In "Shaman," the narrator tells the story of her mother's life in China. Brave Orchid emigrated fifteen years after her husband. In the interim, she went to a midwifery medical school even though she was much older than the other students. She studied hard and quickly became a star pupil. The other students looked up to Brave Orchid because she was smart and not afraid of anything. One night, she volunteered to sleep alone in a supposedly haunted dormitory. As she lay in bed, a Sitting Ghost pinned her to the bed. She berated and threatened it until it finally went away. The next night, she and her roommates vanquished the ghost. Brave Orchid returned home as a woman of renown. She traveled all over to deliver babies—and to vanquish ghosts. She was so successful that she was even able to buy herself a slave to be her nurse. Brave Orchid left China during the Second World War to join her husband in America. As an old woman, Brave Orchid's greatest wish is to be surrounded by her family. The narrator loves her mother but cannot stand being around her. She gets very ill every time they visit together. Still, she is very proud to be her mother's daughter.
Chapter 4: At the Western Palace
"At the Western Palace" is distinct stylistically because it is told in the third person. It tells the story of Brave Orchid bringing her sister, Moon Orchid, to America. The sisters had not seen each other in thirty years. Brave Orchid arrived at the airport nine hours early to wait. Moon Orchid was a flighty and impractical person, especially as compared with Brave Orchid. She spent her time puttering around, asking her nieces and nephews about everything they did. Moon Orchid's husband had always sent her money, but she and her daughter had not seen him for a long time. Brave Orchid insisted that her sister reclaim her husband. She should make his new wife her slave and their children her own. Despite Moon Orchid's protestations, they drove to Los Angeles to confront the husband at his office. It turned out that he was a successful brain surgeon; they could not see him without an appointment. Eventually, Brave Orchid faked an emergency outside so that the doctor would come out. When he recognized Moon Orchid, he told her she should never have come. He said he had a new life and family and wanted nothing to do with her. After that, Moon Orchid went to live with her daughter, but she became afraid of the Mexicans in her neighborhood. She only worsened when she moved back in with Brave Orchid's family. She was convinced the government was watching her and cried whenever someone left the house. Eventually, she was placed in a mental asylum. She was happy there but never regained her sanity. She died after two years. After that, Brave Orchid and her daughters resolved never to let a man cheat on them.
Chapter 5: A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe
"A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe" encompasses many events and issues in the narrator's life. It begins be relating that her mother cut her tongue when she was born. Brave Orchid claimed she did so to help her daughter speak. The narrator was convinced her mother did it to silence her. She had a terrible time speaking in class. One day, a "ghost" from the pharmacy mistakenly delivered Crazy Mary's pills to Brave Orchid. The mother dragged the narrator to the pharmacy to demand they remove the curse of "sick medicine." The narrator instead translated that her mother was demanding free candy. From then on, the pharmacist gave them candy with all their prescriptions.
The narrator also tells of beating up a schoolmate. The girl sobbed but would not speak, and eventually, the girl's sister rescued her. After that, the narrator fell ill for a year and a half with a mysterious illness, which she takes as a curse.
The narrator takes up the issue of insanity. She describes several crazy women in her neighborhood, and she is afraid she will be next. All her life, she has tried not to conform to traditional ideas of femininity. Therefore, she is enraged when she finds out her parents have been answering marriage ads in the newspaper for her. She chases off the suitors. Eventually, she becomes afraid that her parents will marry her to a mentally challenged boy who follows her around. One night, the narrator finally lets out all the grievances she has been keeping from her mother. She says she will not be silenced or married off to be a slave. As an adult, the narrator moves far away from the Chinese immigrant community. The distance has made her realize that as a child, she magnified many of the things her parents said. She now perceives that they would never marry her off against her will or sell her into slavery.
The book ends with a story that begins with Brave Orchid's tale and ends with the narrator's. In China, Brave Orchid's mother insisted her whole family attend the theater. When bandits attacked one of the performances, her whole family miraculously survived unscathed. From then on, Brave Orchid's mother was convinced the theater would always keep them safe. The narrator says she hopes her family got to hear the poetry of Ts'ai Yen. Ts'ai Yen was a scholar's daughter who was kidnapped by barbarians. While living among them, she learned to fight. She always felt alienated from the barbarians, even her own children. One night, Ts'ai Yen became inspired to sing. Her song fascinated the barbarians. She became a prolific poet. When Ts'ai Yen was returned to her family, she brought a song with her called "Eighteen Stanzas for a Barbarian Reed Pipe." As the narrator says, "It translated well."