Unlike the story of the narrator's "no name" aunt, most of her mother's stories convinced her of women's strength and independence. She tells a story about one woman who invented white crane boxing. Legend says that the woman was a fighter, trained by “an order of fighting monks.” One morning, she tried to use her fighting pole to move a white crane that landed outside her window. The crane broke her pole in half. The woman recognized the crane as a spirit and asked it to teach her how to fight. Purportedly, the crane cried out in agreement; from then on, white crane fighters imitated the cry when boxing. The crane transformed into an old man and became the woman’s boxing teacher. According to the narrator, this was one of the “tamer” stories about strong women that her mother told her.
Whereas her mother told her directly that she would become “a wife and slave,” her mother’s stories had a different, more enduring kind of influence. One of the narrator’s favorite tales is the legend of Fa Mu Lan. She puts herself in Fa Mu Lan’s place and begins to describe her transformation from farm girl to “woman warrior.” The narrator, as Fa Mu Lan, follows a bird from her house all the way to the top of a steep mountain. The bird shows her a hut where a kind old man and woman live. They feed her and let her spend the night. In the morning, they invite her to stay for fifteen years and become a warrior.
Fa Mu Lan is afraid to leave her parents until the old man shows her the water in his drinking gourd, which is like a magic mirror. In it, she sees her parents; they are sad she is gone but had known from her birth that she would become a warrior. Fa Mu Lan chooses to stay and learn. The first thing the man and woman teach her is how to control her body so carefully that she blends in with her natural surroundings. Eventually, she is able to stand so still that animals approach her. She has such control over her muscles that she can move even the involuntary ones. She learns to jump twenty feet in the air from a standstill.
When Fa Mu Lan is about to turn fourteen, the man and woman blindfold her and bid her run in the mountains. She sprints without falling or bumping into anything. Eventually, she reaches a very high, snowy peak called “the tiger place.” Her teachers leave her to find her way back with no rations or tools. As the days wear on, Fa Mu Lan finds it harder to fast but refuses to hunt; she has become a vegetarian under her teachers’ watch. One night, a rabbit sacrifices itself for Fa Mu Lan. It jumps into the fire she has built and magically turns into delicious meat. She eats thankfully.
After wandering for many days, Fa Mu Lan becomes acutely attuned with the world; she can feel the passage of time and see hidden beauty everywhere. One day, she has a vision of a golden man and woman spinning in perfect time with the earth. When the vision breaks, she sees the old man and woman. They feed her and ask her to recount her journey. Fa Mu Lan falls asleep before she can tell them that she knows their secret. They are actually many lifetimes old. From then on, Fa Mu Lan can see the old man and woman as their younger selves when she looks at them. She also realizes that they are siblings or friends, not lovers.
For the next eight years, the old man and woman train Fa Mu Lan in the “dragon ways.” A dragon is so enormous, they teach her, that mountains are merely the top of its head. One can harness the dragon’s power and gain immortality by drinking sap from an ancient tree. One day, Fa Mu Lan begins to menstruate. Because she cannot be with her family on such an important day, her teachers let her watch them in the gourd. She sees a band of soldiers come to her parents’ house and draft her brother and future husband; their baron has pledged one man from every family in his district to the army. She watches disgustedly as the baron and his family send up thankful prayers for being exempt.
Despite Fa Mu Lan’s desire to save her brother and future husband, her teachers forbid her to leave. She must wait to fight until she is twenty-two and can defeat whole armies. Then one day, Fa Mu Lan looks in the gourd and sees that her father has been drafted. Carrying with her a man’s disguise and a pouch of beads, she hurries down the mountain to take his place in battle. When she reaches home, her family envelops her in love and comfort. Then she reveals her plan to fight in her father’s place. Her parents have her kneel in front of the altar and tattoo their grievances on her back. This is so that if she dies and cannot avenge their wrongs, they will be written on her body for someone else to see. She becomes “a weapon of revenge.”
One night when Fa Mu Lan is polishing her armor, a magical white horse comes to her. It is already suited with a saddle her size, and on its hooves is written, “to fly.” The family loads the horse with supplies, and Fa Mu Lan prepares to ride off in disguise. Before she can leave, a young man offers to join her; he becomes the first member of her army. A second soldier rides in on a black horse and says he wants to join her. Then the village people offer their sons to her. She takes “the ones their families could spare and the ones with hero-fire in their eyes, not the young fathers and not those who would break hearts with their leaving.” Finally, Fa Mu Lan sets off with her army.
Fa Mu Lan makes sure that her army is ruthless to enemies but kind to innocent villagers. She inspires them, feeds them, and sings to them, all the while hiding her identity. One morning, Fa Mu Lan’s husband comes to her tent and tells her, “I’ve been looking for you since the day that bird flew away with you.” The two were betrothed when Fa Mu Lan was away. From then on, husband and wife fight side by side. She fights even when she is pregnant, her belly disguised by her armor. Fa Mu Lan gives birth during a battle and then stays in battle with the minutes-old infant inside her armor. When the child is a month old, Fa Mu Lan sends him to live with her husband and his family. She rushes them off, saying, “Go now … Before he is old enough to recognize me.” With her family gone, Fa Mu Lan becomes withdrawn and lonely.
One day, Fa Mu Lan wanders carelessly into the woods, where enemies ambush her and their leader pins her to the ground. She fights fiercely, but he is very strong. Eventually, he steals her pouch of beads and flees. Fa Mu Lan then decides to continue her journey alone. After all, she and her army have already beheaded the emperor and replaced him with a rightful leader. When she returns home, Fa Mu Lan faces the baron alone. She demands that he apologize for sending so many beloved fathers and sons off to war. When he refuses, she tears off her shirt to show him her tattoo; then she beheads him. Fa Mu Lan oversees the execution of the baron’s evildoing family and servants. She and the villagers renovate the baron’s palace to use as a communal hall. Finally, she reunites with her husband and son.
Suddenly, we are back in the narrator’s American life, which she says “has been such a disappointment.” Her mother may have told her stories about strong women, but she contradicted them with sexist comments about girls being second-rate and destined for servitude. As a child, whenever the narrator heard her parents or their neighbors demean girls, she would thrash on the floor and scream. The immigrant population was so sexist that the narrator’s great-uncle would not take her or her sister on outings; he took their three brothers to keep up appearances. The narrator did not even impress her family when she returned from Berkeley with straight-A grades. It did not matter what she accomplished because her success was not theirs. As a woman, she would eventually “desert” her family to live with her husband.
As an adult, the narrator still feels pathetic next to Fa Mu Lan’s bravery and greatness. She wants to fight against sexism, racism, and other injustices, but she is not a warrior. The narrator explains a bit about the injustices her family has faced in China and America. Many of their relatives were tortured and executed by the Communist government. Those who remained wrote from communes about how they were overworked and starving. Even though the narrator’s parents escaped the Communists, the American government twice closed their laundries for the sake of urban renewal. The narrator used to search for signs that she would become like Fa Mu Lan. She was constantly looking for a bird that would lead her away. She sought out fortunetellers to be her tutors. To familiarize herself with violence, she sneaked outside to look whenever there were dead bodies in the neighborhood. Eventually, the narrator realizes that although she will never be a soldier in armor, she can fight in some way by writing about injustice.
In this chapter, Hong Kingston introduces a verb, “to talk-story.” It refers to the oral tradition of storytelling, which tends to combine reality and fantasy. In the book’s final chapter, amid her outburst at her mother, the narrator will admit that she cannot stand the liminality of “talk-stories.” Brave Orchid’s stories about the narrator’s own life bother her especially, such as the one about cutting her tongue. Not knowing what is true and what is make-believe makes her feel unsafe and excluded. The irony, of course, is that The Woman Warrior is the narrator’s and the author’s own “talk-story.” The book is considered a work of nonfiction, but it is really not so readily classified as that. In the tradition of her mother’s talk-stories, these recollections incorporate much hearsay, retell legends, and sometimes balance precariously between what is real and unreal.
While her mother’s stories can alienate the narrator, they also make her feel wanted. In “No Name Woman,” Brave Orchid tells a tale of sexism and censure; she makes the narrator complicit in her aunt’s punishment by urging her to keep the silence. But when Brave Orchid tells her daughter the legend of Fa Mu Lan, she indirectly encourages the narrator to be strong and daring. Furthermore, when she “talks-story,” Brave Orchid transforms in her daughter’s eyes from an out-of-touch and nagging parent into a “great power.” The narrator says, “At last I saw that I too had been in the presence of great power, my mother talking-story … She said I would grow up a wife and a slave, but she taught me the song of the warrior woman, Fa Mu Lan. I would have to grow up a warrior woman.” In warrior legends, the image of a woman changes from censured slave to powerful avenger. The narrator tries to reconcile these two versions of what it means to be a woman. She says, “Perhaps women were once so dangerous that they had to have their feet bound.” She surmises that “old Chinese” villagers do not really think women are weak; rather, they recognize women’s potential and make a conscious effort to make sure it is never realized.
Growing up, the narrator decides that the only way to get respect is to reject what is traditionally feminine. In one memory, she recalls: “When I had to wash dishes, I would crack one or two. ‘Bad girl,’ my mother yelled, and sometimes that made me gloat rather than cry. Isn’t a bad girl almost a boy?” She does the same thing in the book’s final chapter, when her parents bring suitors to the laundry for her. She makes herself seem as “boyish” as possible, anything but demure, obedient, and marriageable. The narrator learns later that becoming “a woman of great power” does not mean giving up what is female or feminine. A woman is never a “warrior”; she is a “woman warrior.” Fa Mu Lan does traditionally male things like avenge wrongs done to her family and lead an army. But the narrator is careful to mention the traditionally female qualities that make her such a unique leader. She feeds and sings to her soldiers to keep their spirits up. She gives birth in the heat of battle and then “[rides] back into the thickest part of the battle” with her baby slung inside her armor. She nurtures her infant in the very same moment as cutting down the enemy with her sword. She does not have to give up being a woman or a mother in order to be a warrior; she is able to be literally both at once.
In “White Tigers,” the narrator uses Fa Mu Lan’s story to laud women for the great and often unnoticed responsibilities they carry. Fa Mu Lan leaves home at the young age of seven, but it is the beginning of her menses, the sign of physical maturity, that coincides with her introduction to pain and sacrifice. On that day, she looks into the gourd and sees her family being drafted. As an adult and a warrior, it is her responsibility to save them. Like writers before and after her, Hong Kingston marks the beginning of menses as a time of personal, spiritual, and intellectual growth. No mere physical function to the narrator, menstruation is a symbol of how power and pain are wedded in a woman’s life. Fa Mu Lan sums up this view when she remembers, “I bled and thought about the people to be killed; I bled and thought about the people to be born.” First, Fa Mu Lan experiences the pain associated with menstruation. Simultaneously, she gains the power to bring life into the world, birth also being painful. So is watching her family leave to fight for a corrupt baron, and so is doing battle. The narrator's mother loads her with responsibility when she begins menstruating. She tells her the story of her "no name" aunt and tells her not to "humiliate" her family in the same way. Being a woman, and not just one of “great power,” involves enduring pain and making sacrifices.
Fa Mu Lan is the narrator’s hero, not only because she is brave and strong. As a first-generation Chinese-American, the narrator struggles to eke out her unique identity while at the same time longing to fit in somewhere. Other than fighting, the first and most important skill Fa Mu Lan learns is the ability to make herself blend in. Her teachers have been living at one with their surroundings for a long time before Fa Mu Lan arrives. The young warrior-in-training notices this the first night she spends with them. She observes: “A rock grew in the middle of the house, and that was their table. The benches were fallen trees. Ferns and shade flowers grew out of one wall, the mountainside itself.” The old man and woman have shelter, but it is barely separable from the rest of the mountainside. Even the roof lifts off so that they can be one with the sky and ground. Eventually, Fa Mu Lan learns how to be so connected with the world that she can run among the animals and make swords of lightning appear in the sky. The narrator longs to have that level of control over herself and her life as much as she wishes to feel she belongs.
Another skill for which the narrator envies Fa Mu Lan is her ability to see things incredibly lucidly. After Fa Mu Lan spends many days alone in the mountains, her senses are so refined that she is able to detect the very passage of time. She is able to see simultaneously how ancient are her teachers and how young are their spirits. The narrator only wishes she could make such clear sense of things. The contradictions the narrator sees in her community can sometimes overwhelm her, especially regarding a woman’s purpose. Fa Mu Lan learns from her teachers how to embrace paradoxes and appreciate things from multiple perspectives. She recounts, “I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes. Pearls are bone marrow; pearls come from oysters. The dragon lives in the sky, ocean, marshes, and mountains; and the mountains are also its cranium … Sometimes the dragon is one, sometimes many.” Contradictions do not baffle Fa Mu Lan; instead, she is able to explore them and gain greater understanding. In many ways, The Woman Warrior is the narrator’s (and the author’s) exploration of contradictions which, by the end, give her a stronger grasp on her world.