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Free Study Guide: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

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CHAPTER 2: "White Tigers"


Kingston opens this section with, "When we Chinese girls listened to the adults talk-story, we learned that we failed if we grew up to be but wives or slaves. We could be heroines, swords women." A swords woman does anything to get even with those who hurt her family. Kingston recalls that it was a woman who invented the art of white crane boxing, one of the marital arts two hundred years ago. She happened to see a white crane one morning and teased it with her pole, but the bird remained immobile on its perch. She asked the white crane to teach her how to fight. Later the bird transformed into a man and taught her boxing for years to come. Kingston then tells of her mother's stories of other woman warriors. She remembers the chant of Fa Mu Lan, which tells the story of a girl who took her father's place in battle. As a child, Kingston would follow her mother about the house "the two of us singing about how Fa Mu Lan fought gloriously.” But her mother told Kingston that "I would grow up a wife and a slave.”

Kingston then begins to tell the story of the child who would become the woman warrior. She pictures a girl of seven who follows the call of a bird into the mountains. Even though the brambles tear her clothes and the rocks cut her feet, she keeps climbing up the mountain and following the bird. She climbs so high that she cannot see her village below. Soon the bird alights on the roof of a hut, and the door opens. An old woman and man come out and offer the girl food, but she refuses out of politeness. (The author adds that an American girl would have asked for some chocolate chip cookies.) The old people invite her to spend the night in their spacious hut and offer her a bed that is exactly her size. Through her window she notices the old people go outside and pull a rope which opens the roof, so they can sleep with the moon and stars. When she awakes, the old woman asks her to stay with them for fifteen years to train as a warrior. When she worries about her mother and father, the old man shows her a magic gourd full of water that shows a picture of them. Her parents are saying that they have known all her life that she would be taken for training. The old man asks her again if she would like to stay, the alternative being to go back home and pull sweet potatoes. She chooses to stay and train.

Her first lesson is in how to be quiet. They leave her beside streams until she can kneel all day so quietly that the squirrels will bury their hoardings under her skirt's hem. The old people also lead her in exercises from morning till evening. She learns to walk and carry her body correctly, pigeon-toed. After five years of training, her body is so strong she can control the dilations of her pupils and copy the sounds of bats and owls. After six years, she can run as swiftly as the deer and jump twenty feet in the air. She learns that "every creature has a hiding and a fighting skill a warrior can use." During the seventh year, at the age of fourteen, the old people take her blindfolded to the mountains of the white tigers. They shout to her to run and she does, successfully avoiding stepping off a cliff or hitting her head on a wall. The old people leave her to survive, bare handed amongst the tigers.

She gathers wood, digs where squirrels have left their nuts, and saves all gathered food for the hard climbs where nothing grows. On the third day, fasting becomes difficult as she remembers her mother's delicious meals. On the forth and fifth days, her eye sight is sharpened by hunger, and she follows deer trails and gathers "the fungus of immortality." On the tenth day, she uses a hollowed out rock to boil water and cook her roots, nuts, and fungus and eats the best meal of her life. Soon afterwards, she realizes she has started walking lightly like the animals and has arrived in “the dead land.” She has also lost count of the days and grows homesick for her parents. She eats the last of her food and starts a fire. A white rabbit hops close, looks at her, and jumps into the fire. The rabbit meat becomes perfectly cooked, and in spite of being a vegetarian, she eats the meat, "knowing the rabbit had sacrificed itself for me.”

She leaves the dead land and walks through the forest. She begins to imagine visions in the darkness. She sees "two people made of gold dancing the earth's dances. They turned so perfectly that together they were the axis of the earth's turning." The dancers then "dance the future--a machine future." She watches as the next centuries pass before her eyes in a matter of moments and sees the man and the woman grow bigger and sprout wings on their backs. When she cannot bear the brightness, she covers her eyes. When she uncovers them, she sees the old man and old woman from the hut coming to her. The old people feed her and ask her to talk-story about her experiences in the mountains with the white tigers. She tells them that the white tigers stalked her, but she fought them off with burning branches, and that she had met a rabbit who taught her about "self-immolation and how to speed up transmigration.” The old people laugh at her talk-stories and indicate she is a good storyteller.

She is next trained in dragon ways, a process that takes eight years. Unlike learning from the tigers, learning about dragons requires adult wisdom. She learns that "You have to infer the whole dragon from the parts you can see and touch." She imagines that the mountaintop is the top of the dragon's head, and the soil is its flesh. She also comes to understand her place in the universe and sees herself as a "bug riding on a dragon's forehead.” She also learns to expand her thinking, “to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes."

She works every day, even in the rain, grateful not to be pulling sweet potatoes. On New Year's mornings, she is allowed to take a break and look into the water gourd to see her parents. She also sees in the gourd the men she will have to execute in the future. She watches powerful men and starving men count their money. She sees which villagers disguise themselves as bandits and steal from their neighbors. She learns the faces of generals and rebels. She watches battles to learn strategy. She sees one warrior being attacked from behind. The old man assures her this will not happen to her because she can see behind her like a bat. She also sees her wedding in the gourd; her husband is her playmate from childhood. While watching her husband's face, she sees the approach of armored men. The villagers try to fight them off with skillets and pans, but they soon realize they are outnumbered. Her husband and her brother are forced to go and fight. She is anxious to help her fellow villagers, but the old man tells her she will not be ready for eight more years, when she is twenty-two. They assure her, however, that after her training is complete, she will be able to defeat armies.

Her training is finished and she is ready to leave the mountains, when she is finally able to “point at the sky and make a sword appear, a silver bolt in the sunlight, and control its slashing." She looks into the gourd for the last time and sees the evil baron's messenger ordering her father to go and fight. She dresses in men's clothes and armor. The old people send her away with fifteen magic beads that will protect her when she is in terrible danger. She departs and follows the bird down the mountain to her village, where her family with great love greets her, “as if they were welcoming home a son.” She tells her father, who is now aged, that she will take his place in the army draft.

When she awakens the next morning, her parents take her to the family hall. Her mother asks her to kneel and take off her shirt. Her father tells her, "We are going to carve revenge on your back. We'll write out oaths and names." Her mother tells her that whatever happens to her, people will know her. The woman warrior knows that her mother means her dead body will be a message to people. First her father brushes out the words in ink and then begins cutting; but she does not cry out even though "the list of grievances went on and on.” When the writing on her back is finished, her parents sing out what they have written, and the woman warrior looks in a mirror to see that her back is "covered entirely with words in red and black files, like an army, my army."

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