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Free Study Guide: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

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CHAPTER 2: "White Tigers"


In this section, Kingston takes on the heritage of the misogyny (hatred of women and girls) of the Chinese and the difficulty of blending the old culture with her new American one. She accomplishes both by telling the folk tale of the woman warrior, named Fa Mu Lan. The "Ballad of Mulan" is a modern Chinese folk tale on which she bases the story of the woman warrior. She adds to it many of the stories and legends she has heard from her mother, seen in the movies, and read in books. By making her own additions to the folk tale, Kingston is creating her own Chinese heritage and using it for her own needs as a Chinese-American. One addition is the scene where the parents of the woman warrior tattoo grievances on her back. Kingston adds this scene to help her understand her own parents who “write their heritage” on her. Being influenced by her old world Chinese parents has been a painful process for Kingston. But she accepts that their ink is indelible, and she can never escape their words or the heritage taught by the words. As a Chinese-American woman, she still at times finds her Chinese heritage painfully confusing, but she knows it is bittersweet pain. She feels honored that her parents trust her to carry forth this important heritage, but it can be a painful burden.

In changing the original folk tale of Fa Mu Lan, Kingston is following a long tradition. All folk tales exist in many different versions, with no one of them being authoritative. Each teller of the tale changes it slightly to fit the particular needs of the present audience. Kingston changes the oral reality of the folk tale by putting it into print; but even so, she is not turning the tale into an authoritative version, only one version among many possible ones. By choosing such an elastic and flexible form as the folk tale, Kingston enters the heritage of Chinese culture as an active shaper of the culture. Instead of passively and obediently receiving the wisdom of Chinese sources, she actively works at them to make them fit with her present reality.

In this section, the reader gets the first clear illustration of a talk-story. When the young girl tells of her experiences on the mountain to the old people, she tells what the reader has not seen and adds things that were not narrated earlier. The best example of this is the story of the rabbit. In the narration of the event, the rabbit bounded up to the woman warrior, jumped into the fire, and was immediately cooked to perfection. When Kingston repeats the scene in a talk-story, she says the rabbit taught her about self-immolation and how to speed up transmigration. The disjunction between the first narration of the encounter with the rabbit and the woman warrior's own narration of it makes the reader understand that talk-story is not attached to realism. What really happened is of no significance to the teller of talk-story. It is only the significance of the story that is important. The rabbit killed itself (self-immolated) as a sacrifice to help the woman warrior in her hunger. It sped up transmigration--the change of a soul from one form of body (a rabbit) to another form of body (a human being)--and taught her that transmigration happens all the time. Since the old people laugh and say that she tells good stories, the reader infers that the story of the woman warrior is supposed to be humorous as well as morally edifying.

Kingston continues in the "White Tigers" section with her preoccupation of her mother as the conduit of her cultural heritage. It is she who tells Kingston the stories of woman warriors and through them tells her daughter the empowering news that women can be strong enough to go to battle. Her mother also gives her the limiting news that Chinese women's current roles are limited to wives and slaves.

Kingston later reveals that she and her mother were born in the year of the dragon, another connection between them. The dragon symbolizes many things in this chapter. Kingston says that one has to "infer the whole dragon from the parts you can see and touch," a philosophy that sounds a lot like Kingston's understanding of the Chinese culture. She can see and touch her mother and her mother's stories, but she must infer much about the rest of the Chinese culture from this concrete example. The dragon is also a symbol of the earth, with its head the mountaintop, and its flesh the soil. Man’s relationship to the dragon, or the earth, is minuscule, a small bug crawling on the dragon’s forehead.

Kingston tells her reader that the training for the woman warrior is fictional, but it is easy for the reader to confuse what is real and what is made up. It helps to notice Kingston's verb tenses. She begins the story of the warrior training with a conditional tense: "the call would come" and "The bird would cross the sun" and "I would be a girl of seven." This tense reveals a hypothetical sense, indicating something like this: " If I were to be a woman warrior, I would be living in a village as a peasant, and I would be called away from work by a bird." Soon, however, Kingston shifts to the regular past tense: "The door opened." She remains in the past tense for the rest of the story, giving the illusion that these events actually happened to her as a girl of seven. If that switch from conditional tense to regular past tense is missed, the reader could easily be confused about how Kingston has switched from a Chinese-American girl hearing stories about a woman warrior from her mother to a Chinese girl being trained to be a woman warrior.

Part of the fun of this section is that it contains a number of compensation fantasies. For instance, as a girl, Kingston is continually told that she is less than a boy; whereas, in the woman warrior fantasy, she is told that as a woman, she is a better fighter than the heavy-footed men. In her American reality, she would certainly have faced the difficulties of being both a mother and a writer, but in the woman warrior fantasy, having a baby is easy and does not interrupt her war campaign in the least. Her sweet husband helps her with the baby and when she gives him the word, he takes the baby home to his parents until she can finish her business. Another very significant moment of compensation fantasy is when the woman warrior sings to her troops. Her voice is so strong that she can be heard by all her troops, even though her encampment is a mile in diameter. Such is not her reality as an American, whose voice is small and unattractive. The woman warrior section abounds with many instances of compensation fantasy. It is useful to read every detail with this idea in mind in order to see how each incident makes up for some lack in the protagonist's Chinese-American reality.

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