Kingston says that when Chinese girls listened to adults “talk-story,” or tell tales, they learned that they failed if they grew up only to be wives or slaves. Instead, they could be heroines or swordswomen. A swordswoman could get revenge against anyone who hurt her family. Moreover, it was a woman, according to legend, who invented “white crane boxing.” According to Brave Orchid, that woman, “already an expert pole fighter,” had asked the spirit of a white crane if it would teach her to fight. It later returned “as an old man” who “guided her in boxing for many years.”
In narratives, or “talk-story,” the Chinese girls Kingston describes noticed that women were granted more flexibility in regard to who they could become. Real life offered these girls a fate of servility, but in the stories, they could be powerful and were also granted key roles in history. Whereas real life had relegated them to passivity and rooted them to their villages, they could be as active and mobile as men—and even more so—in “talk-story.”
On Sundays, Kingston and Brave Orchid would see movies at the Confucius Church. In the films, swordswomen would “jump over houses from a standstill,” without even “a running start.” Kingston perceived her mother’s ability to talk-story as another “great power.” After she grew up, she recalled the chant of Fa Mu Lan, “the girl who took her father’s place in battle.” Kingston had heard it in childhood, but she learned the full chant later. Her mother had always told her that she would “grow up a wife and a slave,” but the song of Fa Mu Lan led Kingston to her decision to become “a warrior woman.”
In the story of Fa Mu Lan, Kingston finds a role model and a way to break with the sexist legacy of the past. However, Kingston recognizes that not all power needs to be physical. Her mother’s ability to tell a story without a preparation is similar to the ability of the swordswomen in the films to jump over houses without a running start.
The call to become a warrior would come from “a bird that flew over [their] roof,” similar to those in brush drawings. Kingston begins to imagine herself as Fa Mu Lan. She would have been seven years old on the day that she followed the bird into the mountains. The village that she had come from “would have vanished under the clouds.” The bird, which would appear golden due to their proximity to the sun, would rest “on the thatch of a hut,” which appeared to be a part of the mountainside until the bird rested its feet upon it.
In the universe of talk-story, a person’s fate is decided through signs. The bird is perhaps a symbol in Fa Mu Lan’s story due to birds being messengers, as well as traditional symbols of freedom. Kingston is attracted to the story as a child not only because it diverts from the traditional narrative of girls as wives and slaves, but also because the story gave her a path to follow.
The door to the hut opens. An old man and an old woman come out “carrying bowls of rice and soup and a leafy branch of peaches.” At bedtime, they tuck her into a bed just as wide as Kingston / Fa Mu Lan’s body, and the old woman covers her with “a silk bag stuffed with feathers and herbs.” Opera singers, the old woman say, “who begin their training at five, sleep in beds like this.”
The future swordswoman is trained by elders, indicating that she is a part of a tradition that has nothing to do with childbearing. Her training is long and complex, requiring a special diet and particular sleeping arrangements. The comparison with opera singers likens fighting to an art.
The old man and old woman ask Kingston / Fa Mu Lan to stay with them for fifteen years. When she asks about her parents, the old couple show her an image in a drinking gourd. There, at the bottom, Kingston / Fa Mu Lan’s parents are looking at the sky, as though searching for her. Her mother says that she did not think that the girl would be taken so soon. Her father says that they knew from her birth that she would be taken. Now they will have to harvest the potatoes without her. The old man asks Kingston / Fa Mu Lan what she would like to do: learn to be a warrior who fights barbarians and bandits or go harvest sweet potatoes. If she remains, the old woman says, she could avenge her village and be remembered forever. Kingston / Fa Mu Lan decides to stay.
The choice is between a dull but normal life close to those one loves and an exciting life that offers the reward of heroism, but also loneliness and years of grueling training. The fact that Kingston chooses this as her fantasy life indicates that, as a young person, she wanted an extraordinary life, even if it required great challenges. The notion that Fa Mu Lan was fated from birth to become a warrior suggests that some people are destined to live more remarkable lives than others, but only if they choose to accept the option offered to them.
The first thing Kingston / Fa Mu Lan has to learn, says the old woman, is how to be quiet. They leave her by the streams to watch for animals. At dawn, they lead her in exercises that end at sunset. After five years, her body becomes so strong that she can “control even the dilations of the pupils inside [her] irises.” After six years, she can run beside deer. She can also jump twenty feet into the air from a standstill, “leaping like a monkey over the hut.”
The warrior woman’s first lesson diverts from the lesson Kingston had been taught growing up—to speak and to make her voice strong and loud. The purpose of the training is not only to make the body strong, but also to improve her concentration, to make every action intentional.
In her seventh year of training—she is fourteen—the old people lead her “blindfolded to the mountains of the white tigers.” With a running start, Kingston / Fa Mu Lan leaps “over the roots, rocks,” and “the little hills.” The “tiger place” is “a mountain peak three feet from the sky.” The old man and old woman wave goodbye, then slide down the mountainside. The old woman takes the bow and arrow, and the old man takes the water gourd. Kingston / Fa Mu Lan has to survive “bare-handed” in the snow.
Kingston imagines enduring a survival ritual, similar to what boys must endure in some cultures as a rite of passage. As a fourteen-year-old girl, the focus is no longer on making herself “American-feminine” to be attractive, but on being physically strong and capable, traits that are usually more appreciated in boys.
Kingston / Fa Mu Lan collects wood. The old man and old woman had taught her that fire is stored in trees “that grow red flowers or red berries in the spring or whose leaves turn red in the fall.” On the first night, she burns half the wood. She sleeps “curled against the mountain” and hears “the white tigers prowling on the other side of the fire.” In the morning, she collects more “wood and edibles,” but she eats nothing. She only drinks the water made from melted snow.
Kingston imagines being in communion with nature and knowing how to survive in the natural world alone. This is reminiscent of Brave Orchid’s belief in brute survival, but this time the survival depends on truth. In both instances, it is a matter of knowing what to do and what not to do in order to live.
Kingston / Fa Mu Lan has gotten “smug” in her strength because the first two days were so easy. The third day of fasting is hard. She “faded into dreams” about the meals her mother cooked. She burns most of her wood that night, for she is unable to sleep out of fear of death. On the fourth and fifth days, she tracks deer and gathers “the fungus of immortality” from the place where they had “nibbled.” On the tenth day, she packs snow and builds a fire around a rock. In the melted snow, she puts “roots, nuts, and the fungus of immortality.” For “variety,” she eats “a quarter of the nuts and roots raw.” This turns out to be the best meal of her life.
Fa Mu Lan begins to long for home, and food is one of the most accessible comforts of home. In her youth, she does not know that hunger can be difficult, so she underestimates it. To avoid the possibility of death from starvation, she tracks and gathers “the fungus of immortality.” This fantasy protects Kingston from the possibility of not surviving in the world when it fails to provide, and family is no longer around to help.
One day, Kingston / Fa Mu Lan walks “long distances.” Food becomes very scarce. She has walked into “dead land,” where there isn’t even any snow. She resolves to continue onward, fasting until she gets to the next woods. She burns almost all of her fuel to avoid wasting strength by carrying a lot of wood. After a while, she loses count of the days. She misses her mother and father. One night, she eats the last of her food, but is still able to make a nice fire. Staring into the flames reminds her of her mother and home-cooked meals.
The “long distances” that the warrior woman walks are similar to the long distance that we later learn Kingston traveled in order to gain some freedom from her family and its pressures. There is a tension between missing home, but also wanting to survive on her own and wanting to test her individual strength in isolation.
Suddenly, a white rabbit appears. For a moment, Kingston / Fa Mu Lan thinks it is “a blob of snow that had fallen out of the sky.” Her parents had taught her how to “hit rabbits over the head with wine jugs, then skin them cleanly for fur vests.” She puts another branch on the fire to help the rabbit keep warm. It does not remain beside her, but instead jumps into the fire. The flames go down a little, then shoot up “taller than before.” When the fire calms, she sees that the rabbit has been transformed into meat, “browned just right.” The rabbit has sacrificed itself for her.
The rabbit is a symbol of good fortune and a reminder of the survival tactics that Kingston / Fa Mu Lan’s parents have taught her. The sudden appearance of the rabbit is indicative of the way in which a stroke of good luck can temporarily relieve one’s suffering and that, sometimes, things show up at the precise moment in which you need them. The scene also emphasizes how Fa Mu Lan seems fated to become a great warrior—even animals give themselves up to help her in her time of need.
During her fast, before the rabbit appeared, hunger made Kingston / Fa Mu Lan hallucinate. She saw “two people made of gold dancing the earth’s dances,” turning “so perfectly that together they were the axis of the earth’s turning.” She saw Chinese and African lion dancers “in midstep” and heard “high Javanese bells deepen in midring to Indian bells, Hindu Indian, American Indian.” The dancers “danced the future […] in clothes she had never seen before.” Suddenly, she understood time and understood that “working and hoeing” were also forms of dance and that peasant’s clothes are just as golden as those of a king, and that “one of the dancers is always a man and the other a woman.”
In her hallucinatory dream, Fa Mu Lan witnesses the harmony of men and women and of other cultures. Her comparison of the same objects from different cultures is a reminder of how Kingston has used influences not only from Chinese culture but also from American culture and others to create her personalized myth of Fa Mu Lan. She applies a class consciousness, too, that the original story may not have had, as well as an emphasis on the equality of the sexes.
Kingston / Fa Mu Lan then sees “the old brown man and the old gray woman” walking toward [her] out of the pine forest.” They feed her vegetable soup and ask her to talk-story about what happened “in the mountains of the white tigers.” Kingston / Fa Mu Lan tells the old couple that the white tigers “had stalked [her] through the snow” and that she “fought them off with burning branches.” She also tells them that her great-grandparents’ spirits had appeared to lead her “safely through the forests.” She says that the rabbit she ate had taught her about self-sacrifice and “how to speed up transmigration.” The old couple laugh and say that she tells good stories. They tell her to go to sleep, for the next day, she will have her first dragon lessons. Kingston / Fa Mu Lan want to tell them that, in her dream, she saw how old the couple really was, but she “was already asleep.”
Kingston describes the old couple for the first time in this passage, but only with colors that could reflect their respective places in nature. Brown, for instance, is reminiscent of the color of the cooked rabbit. This indicates that the old people, too, have a place in nature and provide her with nourishment similar to that of the rabbit. The legend that Kingston narrates becomes a metanarrative in which she does talk-story within a talk-story. In each case, she includes her personal vision and creativity to express something she has learned about life. Both the stories of Fa Mu Lan and the spirit journey are about survival and identity formation.
Dragon training takes another eight years. Learning and copying tigers is relatively easy, but “adult wisdom” is required to know dragons. Dragons are too big, and Kingston / Fa Mu Lan will never see a live one in its entirety. Climbing the mountains is like walking on top of a dragon’s head. The closest she comes to seeing a dragon whole is when the old man and the old woman “cut away a small strip of bark on a pine that was over three thousand years old.” Its resin flows “in the swirling shapes of dragons.” They tell her that, if she decides in her old age to live “another five hundred years,” she should drink “ten pounds of this sap.” For their own immortality, the old couple eat the leaves of the “red-cloud herb,” which they send Kingston / Fa Mu Lan out to pick.
Learning tigers was easier because it required skills that come easily to young people—quickness and determination. Learning dragons, however, is about understanding the immensity of things and accepting that some things can never be known fully. In the story, dragons not only symbolize the vastness of the world, but also the idea of believing in that which one cannot know or see. In the context of this story, dragons have always existed and, like the divine, are present in all things, even the sap in a “small strip” of pine.
Kingston / Fa Mu Lan makes her mind “large” to understand the universe and its “paradoxes.” She works every day and exercises in downpours. She is grateful not to be pulling sweet potatoes. On New Year’s mornings, the old man lets her watch her family in the water gourd—they are eating the biggest meal of the year. For the holiday, the old couple do not give Kingston / Fa Mu Lan money, but a bead wrapped in red paper, which they take back “for safekeeping.” As usual, they eat “monk’s food.”
Kingston / Fa Mu Lan thinks that, had she remained with her parents, she would not have developed the philosophical sense to contemplate life’s immensities. She would have led a simple farm life, which would have been happy and uncomplicated. Still, she misses the smaller pleasures of being with family during holidays.
Kingston / Fa Mu Lan also look in the water gourd to watch the men she will one day have to kill. They are “fat men” who eat meat and drink rice wine. They “sat on naked little girls.” She watches them counting their money while starving men count what little they have. When bandits go home with what they have stolen, she waits for them to remove their masks so that she can see their faces. She also learns the faces of generals and rebels.
Kingston / Fa Mu Lan must avenge those with power who take advantage of those who are powerless. The “fat men” are greedy and so abusive of power that they sit “naked” on “little girls,” an image that suggests sexual abuse. She learns faces to see who will be on her side and who she must defeat.
The old man shows Kingston / Fa Mu Lan the “strengths and weaknesses” of other warriors when they go into battle. She sees the ways in which warriors could be cheated in battle if the peasants decide to attack. The old man insists that she will never be “trapped like that poor amateur.” One could hold back the peasants with one hand and “kill the warrior with the other.”
A good warrior, the old man teaches her, maintains an awareness of enemies on all sides. The other warrior is an “amateur” for his overestimation of the decency of other people. Peasants, or seemingly powerless people, could become enemies, too.
When Kingston / Fa Mu Lan starts menstruating, she thinks that she has injured herself jumping over her sword. Menstruation does not interrupt her training, however. The old woman explains that she is now an adult and could have children, but they ask that she “put off children for a few more years.” Kingston / Fa Mu Lan asks if she can learn how to stop the bleeding, but the old woman insists that this is not something one can control; she has to let it run.
Despite all of her training and the awareness she had learned to control her body, Kingston / Fa Mu Lan knows nothing about her ability to menstruate until it occurs. It is possible that, in early adolescence, Brave Orchid also did not tell her daughter about this process until it happened to her. Kingston may have imposed her own ignorance onto her revision of the legend.
To console Kingston / Fa Mu Lan for being without her family on the day she becomes a woman, the old man and old woman let her watch her family inside the magical gourd. They are visiting friends during someone’s wedding. Her mother expresses gratitude for Kingston / Fa Mu Lan, wherever she is, even if she is dead. Kingston / Fa Mu Lan predicts that she will be happy one day, and that she will go back and marry her childhood playmate.
In adolescence, Kingston / Fa Mu Lan experiences not only loneliness for her family, but also the desire to love romantically. In keeping with the notion of suitors as “brothers” in the culture Kingston was taught, she chooses a man with whom she grew up to marry.
Suddenly, armored men on horseback approach the villagers, who grab “iron skillets, boiling soup, knives, hammers, scissors,” and whatever else to protect themselves. One of the horseman “shouted from the scroll in his hands” that the baron has “pledged fifty men” from the district, “one from each family.” Kingston / Fa Mu Lan’s future husband and youngest brother both volunteer, but her father insists that he will go instead.
The conscription of men into duty parallels the draft of young men into the Vietnam War—an event that was close to Kingston due to her brother being sent to fight. Her fantasy of Fa Mu Lan may have been an expression of her own wish to fight on behalf of her brother—perhaps not in the war, but against it. She later became an anti-war protestor.
The water in the gourd “churns” and Kingston / Fa Mu Lan then sees the faces of the baron and his family, who thank the gods out loud for “protecting them from conscription.” The baron feasts “on the sacrificial pig.” Kingston / Fa Mu Lan plunges her hand into the gourd, wanting to grab the baron’s throat. She asks the old man and old woman if she can return to help her family. They insist that, at fourteen, she is not ready. She will have to wait until she is twenty-two, and big enough and skillful enough to save families from armies. Until then, they say, she will have to be patient, but she can occasionally use the water gourd to watch her future husband and brother.
In the context of the Fa Mu Lan tale, the water gourd is the object that allows Kingston / Fa Mu Lan contact with her family. Figuratively, it is her vision of the world beyond the mountain—a world in which injustice prevails and Kingston / Fa Mu Lan is powerless to defend her family and her village against it. Similarly, as an adolescent, Kingston was unable to save her brother from Vietnam, but as a student protestor at Berkeley (she would have been around 22), she could use her voice to “save families from armies.”
Kingston / Fa Mu Lan stays on the mountain for years, talking only to the old man and the old woman. One day, when she can “point at the sky and make a sword appear [...] and control its slashing with [her] mind,” they tell her that she can leave. The old couple give her fifteen beads to use in case she encounters danger. They bow to one another, and then a bird flies Kingston / Fa Mu Lan down the mountain. She looks behind her and sees the old people waving in the mist.
Once again, a bird serves as her guide, this time back to her village and her former life. The ability to “make a sword appear and control its slashing" is the ability to use weapons readily but discriminately. A proper warrior was not just a skilled fighter, but she would also know when to fight.
When Kingston / Fa Mu Lan reaches her village, she sees how old her mother and father have gotten. She helps them carry their farming tools. Her family relates all of the stories the villagers told to explain her disappearance. One cousin said that the Eight Sages took her away to teach her magic and changed her into a bird. Another cousin said, with a giggle, that some villagers thought she had gone to the city and become a prostitute. Kingston / Fa Mu Lan tells them that she “met some teachers who were willing to teach [her] science.”
The villagers told each other talk-story to explain Kingston / Fa Mu Lan’s disappearance. Interestingly, her parents knew what had happened and could have explained, but chose to let the family create legends around her disappearance, perhaps in an effort to mislead them about who she would become. Kingston / Fa Mu Lan sticks with the cultural tradition of secrecy and explains her knowledge vaguely as “science.”
Kingston / Fa Mu Lan's father announces that he has been drafted. She insists that she will take his place. Her parents then kill a chicken “and steamed it whole, as if they were welcoming home a son.” Kingston / Fa Mu Lan has gotten out of the habit of eating meat as a result of her training, though, so she eats rice and vegetables instead. After eating, she goes to sleep to prepare “for the work ahead.” In the morning, her parents wake her. Her mother instructs her to remain in her bedclothes. She is holding a washbasin, a towel, and a kettle of hot water. Her father holds a bottle of wine, an ink block and pens, and knives of different sizes. Her mother puts “a pillow on the floor before the ancestors” and instructs her to kneel. She then washes Kingston / Fa Mu Lan’s back and announces that they will carve a message of revenge into her back, including “oaths and names” so that, even if she dies, the people can use her body as a weapon.
There is a reversal of gender roles here: the daughter takes the male’s place as a warrior, despite the fact that disguising herself as a warrior could get her killed even by those on her own side. Her father will be the one to remain at home, rooted to the village, while his daughter will take on the active role of a fighter. Not only will Kingston / Fa Mu Lan fight, she will also be a living written record of the wrongs committed against her people. Here, Kingston suggests that a writer bears words as weapons in the same way that a warrior bears a sword. Both use these tools to fight against injustice. Through the tale of Fa Mu Lan, Kingston can explore being a literal fighter and one who combats through language.
The writing is painful, but Kingston / Fa Mu Lan’s training has taught her how to withstand the pain caused by the cuts and applications of alcohol. Her parents nurse her back to strength. One day, while she is in the courtyard polishing her armor, a white horse appears. It wears a saddle, just her size, with red, gold, and black tassels. Dragons and tigers are drawn into it, in a swirl pattern.
Just as the bird appeared at the beginning of the tale to guide her to the mountain, once again an animal shows up to tell Kingston / Fa Mu Lan what to do next. Her fate is dictated to her by these signs. The dragons and tigers are reminiscent of her training on the mountain.
Kingston / Fa Mu Lan has been waiting for such a sign. Her parents prepare her food and the villagers bring gifts. She can’t carry everything with her, and takes only “a small copper cooking bowl.” She puts on men’s clothes and armor and ties her hair back as a man would. The people marvel at how beautiful she looks. A young man in the crowd volunteers to be her first soldier. Then another man appears, riding a black horse. She draws her sword, thinking that he is an enemy but, he too is coming to join her army. The villagers then give Kingston / Fa Mu Lan their real gifts: their sons. She takes those who are not too beloved and who are not yet fathers—the young men “with hero-fire in their eyes.”
Kingston / Fa Mu Lan is regarded as “beautiful” in a masculine guise and, as a male, wins the support of the men in her village. She is an anomaly—a valued daughter, but one with the spirit and skill to fight. She reflects a sensitivity during her conscription that is typically ignored when drafting soldiers (like in the Vietnam War, or the scene with the baron). She does not choose those who would be missed too much—the favorites or men with children—but chooses men who have a desire to fight. Thus, there is more reason and choice in the selection process.
Often, Kingston / Fa Mu Lan walks beside her horse. At times when they have to impress other armies, she “mounted and rode in front.” Those soldiers who have horses flank her. At night, she entertains her army with songs. When they visit villages, they are happy, encouraging others to join them. Her army does not rape, and only takes food where it is abundant. When she wins over a good number of people willing to fight, Kingston / Fa Mu Lan builds up an army that could attack “fiefdoms” and the enemies she had seen in the gourd.
Kingston / Fa Mu Lan leads with humility. She treats her fellow soldiers as though she is one of them, despite being a general and secretly a woman. It’s also suggested that her femininity leads her to ensure that they do not commit rape or other forms of harm, such as taking food from those who need it. Kingston imagines a principled army, rooted in strength and altruism.
Kingston / Fa Mu Lan’s first opponent is a giant. She cuts off its leg, then, when it leans forward, she cuts off its head. Instantly, the giant reverts to its true self—a snake. On a green ledge above the battlefield, Kingston / Fa Mu Lan sees the giants’ wives crying. They are two fairy sisters. They cry while watching the battle, then climb back into the sedan chairs of their palanquins and let their servants carry them away.
Kingston draws inspiration from fairy tales and Bible stories. Like David battling Goliath, she defeats a giant. As in fairy tales, the giant turns out to be another creature altogether, revealing the possibility that things are not always as intimidating or as impossible as they seem.
Kingston / Fa Mu Lan leads the army northward. The emperor sends the enemies that she was chasing after her and her army. Despite the attacks, her army always defeats them. Kingston / Fa Mu Lan never tells her soldiers the truth about her being a woman. The Chinese kill women who “disguised themselves as soldiers or students, no matter how bravely they fought or how high they scored on the examinations.”
Kingston / Fa Mu Lan knows that a woman’s extraordinary ability to fight would not be enough to protect her against her society’s hatred of women, particularly those who transgress its rules regarding gender. Success matters less than maintaining the status quo that regulates and oppresses women.
One spring morning, while Kingston / Fa Mu Lan is in her tent repairing equipment, her childhood friend and future husband appears. He says that she is beautiful and that he has been looking for her. Kingston / Fa Mu Lan says that she had been looking for him, too. She shows him the message inscribed on her back. He weeps, then loosens her hair to cover the words with it. For the first time, Kingston / Fa Mu Lan has a partner. They ride together into battle, just as when they played together in the village, pretending to be little soldiers. When she gets pregnant, during the final four months, she wears her armor “altered” in order to look “like a big, powerful man.” Her nude body looks strange to her, with words carved on her back and “the baby large in front.”
Once again, Kingston / Fa Mu Lan’s fate is dictated to her by the sudden appearance of figures who will facilitate her character’s evolution. Kingston conveniently positions a childhood friend as her future husband to overcome her real-life conundrum of not knowing how to make herself attractive to new acquaintances. The ideal marriage would be one between equals, and one in which her femininity would not hinder her but would instead be another source of strength. Fa Mu Lan’s pregnancy becomes another sign of her power, like her sword and the words on her back.
Kingston / Fa Mu Lan hides from battle only once, to give birth to her son. She and her husband make a sling for the baby inside her armor. They tie the umbilical cord to the red flag—a secret joke that makes her and her husband laugh. At night, in their tent, she carries the baby on her back. When the baby is a month old, Kingston / Fa Mu Lan and her husband name him. Kingston / Fa Mu Lan’s husband finds two eggs and they dyes them red. She peels one and rolls it over the baby’s head for good luck. She then gives her husband the baby to take to his family. She had decided to send her child away from her.
Kingston / Fa Mu Lan inserts womanhood into the notion of being a warrior. By creating a story in which Fa Mu Lan hides a baby in her armor and ties an umbilical cord to the army’s flag, she is directly asserting the essential role of women in cultivating warriors and in maintaining the strength of the nation. However, Fa Mu Lan does not define herself solely as a mother, which is why she sends the child away.
Kingston / Fa Mu Lan’s body slims again, and she gets lonely, feeling the milk drip from her breasts. Her loneliness makes her careless. She is confronted one day by “the prince who had mixed the blood of his two sons with the metal he had used for casting his swords.” In her confrontation with him and his army, she is afraid, and he takes the beads that the old man and old woman had given her. She goes back to her soldiers and gathers “the fastest horsemen” to pursue him. Finally, Kingston / Fa Mu Lan decides to stop. Her horses are exhausted, and she doesn’t want to travel further south. She would win again, but “slow and without shortcuts.”
In her eagerness to resume her status as a warrior, Kingston / Fa Mu Lan misses having her child near her. Kingston suggests through her revision that the bond between a mother and child can be a source of strength, just as the prince who had mixed the blood of his sons with the metal of his swords sought strength from succeeding generations. Distancing herself from her child in the interest of getting back to work as a warrior made her weaker.
A few million villagers go with Kingston / Fa Mu Lan to the capital to face their emperor. They “beheaded him, cleaned out the palace, and inaugurated the peasant who would begin the new order.” She tells them that they can go home if they want, but she will continue on to see the Long Wall, or the Great Wall, which is so close. However, they do not want to leave her. They go to “the northern boundary of the world, chasing Mongols en route.” She reaches the wall and touches it with her fingers, and she and the villagers cry. In her travels north, Kingston / Fa Mu Lan had not found her brother who was drafted.
The confrontation with the emperor is an act of deposing unjust leadership and, by going to the Great Wall, the army reconnects with the nation’s true values. Here, Kingston may have been expressing a wish that she hoped to fulfill through her protests at Berkeley: to remove the leadership that had sent her brother to Vietnam and to find a leader who would represent the wishes of the people.
Back home, Kingston / Fa Mu Lan drops her soldiers off “at crossroads and bridges” and confronts the baron in his stronghold alone, as she had intended. She finds him counting money with his abacus. He demands to know who she is, and encircles his money with his arms as though she had come to take it. She announces herself as “a female avenger,” and the baron responds with disbelief. She tells him to express sorrow for his actions, including conscripting her brother and taking away her childhood. The baron denies that he has done anything to her. At this point, Kingston / Fa Mu Lan rips off her shirt and reveals the message on her back. She also reveals her breasts, confirming that she is, indeed, a female warrior. While the baron is in shock, Kingston / Fa Mu Lan slashes his face and then cuts off his head.
The significance of dropping her army off at “crossroads and bridges” is that Fa Mu Lan / Kingston has reached a point at which her decisions can lead her forward on her path or, in defeat, set her and her village backward. She confronts the baron and his greed but does not defeat him only with her sword, as one would expect, but with the shock of her womanhood and the power of language. Again, Kingston uses her femininity to foil and mislead her enemies. She takes the feminine stereotype of dishonesty and concealment and uses it against men who wish to do her and her family harm.
The villagers enter the baron’s home and drag his family out into the courtyard, “where they tried them next to the beheading machine.” They search the house, hunting for people to bring to trial. Only guards who had joined the baron’s house for a good reason, such as one who had joined to save a child hostage, are spared. Kingston / Fa Mu Lan search the house and find a group of “whimpering women” with “little bound feet.” She gives them each a bagful of rice. They later become “swordswomen” who form “a mercenary army.” According to legend, when “slave girls and daughters-in-law” run away, it is supposedly to join this army that “killed men and boys.”
Kingston uses a historical narrative similar to that of the French Revolution, which ended with a spate of beheadings, to create a scenario in which the village gets revenge against the baron and his family. The “whimpering women” with bound feet were probably concubines. Thus, they probably “killed men and boys” in revenge for their own mistreatment at the hands of men. Unlike Kingston / Fa Mu Lan, whose vengeance is largely based on class injustice, these women seek revenge for their sexual exploitation and that of other women.
After the trials, the villagers “tore down the ancestral tablets” and Kingston / Fa Mu Lan declares that the baron’s great hall will be used for operas and talk-story. Then she returns home to her in-laws and her husband and son. During a parade, her son marvels at the general, and Kingston / Fa Mu Lan’s husband tells the boy that he is watching his mother. The child runs to her, and she gives him “her helmet to wear and her swords to hold.” She later tells her in-laws that she will remain with them from now on, but her mother-in-law, “a generous woman,” tells her to go see her own parents—her mother and father “and the entire clan” will be living well off of the money she has sent. Later, the villagers “would make a legend about [her] perfect filiality.”
Kingston / Fa Mu Lan’s “perfect filiality,” or dedication to her family and her village, is facilitated by her willingness to break with convention by becoming a general, and not only disguising herself, but conceiving a child and giving birth while in the midst of a war. Her willingness to break with convention would have reverberations: she would not be obligated to play the servile role of the daughter-in-law and she would have the gratitude of her village for taking care of it financially. Being a provider is also a traditionally male role.
Kingston thinks that her own American life was “a disappointment.” Brave Orchid complained about having a girl and acted as though she did not care that Kingston was a straight-A student, for one “can’t eat straight A’s.” When Kingston threw tantrums, her mother would call her a “bad girl,” which Kingston denied. Kingston thinks that she was denied certain privileges for being a girl. When her great-uncle, an “ex-river pirate” went shopping, he insisted on taking only the boys, who returned from these Saturday trips “with candy and new toys.”
The story of Fa Mu Lan protects Kingston against the painful sexism she endures in her family, in which she is not only unappreciated but made to feel guilty for the simple fact of having been born a girl. Her successes are not a source of pride for the family, whose traditions dictate that she will belong to another family one day and that her successes will then be “theirs.” It does not occur to them that she has her own needs, or that her successes could be her own.
Kingston went to study at Berkeley and protested against the Vietnam War, which her brother was fighting. She notes that this activity “did not turn [her] into a boy.” Her parents interpreted her good grades as a benefit for her future family, not for them. She insisted that she did not want to marry and would show the “nosey emigrant villagers” that girls did not have an “outward tendency.”
Kingston develops a behavior of contrariness to show her parents and neighbors that their ideas of what makes a girl are not valid. She does not exactly wish to be a boy, but wants to be treated as individually as one—that is, to demonstrate that she can do things for her own benefit and principles.
Kingston refused to comply easily and do the things that were expected of her. When she had to wash dishes, she broke a few. When people asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she claimed to want to be a “lumberjack in Oregon.” Even in adulthood, she burned the food when she cooked, unless she was happy, and generally avoided feeding other people. It angered Kingston not to be supported, and to be regarded as a burden.
Kingston rebels against domesticity, or the activities to which women are typically relegated. She instead asserts an interest in being a lumberjack, because it is as far removed from Chinese culture and the fate of “wife and slave” as anyone could expect. Kingston carries this resentment of traditional roles into adulthood, for they compromise selfhood.
Urban renewal led to Kingston’s parents’ laundry being torn down to make room for a parking lot. This angered her, but she could only act on her anger in her fantasies. She learned from “the fairy tales” who the enemy was, even in their “modern American executive guise.” When she was a teenager, she worked in an art supply house that sold paints to artists. Her boss was racist. She also worked “at a land developers’ association” that was planning a banquet dinner for contractors at a restaurant “being picketed by CORE and the NAACP.” She refused to type the invitations and got fired.
As often as she was at odds with her family, Kingston had advantages as an American—being native born, speaking the language fluently—that obligated her to protect them from its injustices. Moreover, “talk-story” had given her a context in which to understand good and evil. She saw her racist bosses as versions of the villains in the stories. Though she did not resist them with a sword, she withheld her talent with language, refusing to use it on their behalf.
Kingston also felt responsible for avenging her family against those who had taken things from them—the Communists who had taken their farm in China and those who had taken their laundries in New York and California. The news from China about what her family was enduring was harsh. Her uncles had been tortured and executed for being landowners and an aunt had her thumbs twisted off. Shortly thereafter, the aunt drowned herself. The other aunts, mothers-in-law, and cousins disappeared, having been sent to Communist communes, while others went to Hong Kong. The old people were killed or were asked to kill themselves due to being “useless.” A grandmother and Fourth Aunt escaped, but her husband, Fourth Uncle, was killed by Communists for trying to take food for his family. Oddly, Kingston thinks her family was treated like the baron's in the Fa Mu Lan legend.
In an odd reversal, Kingston imagines that, in Communist China, her family was regarded as an unjust enemy, fattening itself off of the work of others. This is strange for her, given her personal commitment to social justice, and due to the relative poverty of her relatives. Kingston expresses that notions of heroes and enemies are not always as clear as in the stories; context matters. In the context of Communist China, her landowning family was portrayed as the enemy. In Kingston’s country, the Communists are the villains for their disregard of human life.
Kingston was not actually much of a fighter, she says. She fought the most during junior high and always cried. Brave Orchid tried to lock her children in the house to keep them from looking “at dead slum people,” but they would always find ways to try to look at a body. Kingston thinks that she and the swordswoman are not so dissimilar. Kingston, too, has a desire to get revenge for all of the racial slurs that have been carved onto her back, but which “do not fit on [her] skin.”
The fantasy of Fa Mu Lan is incompatible with who Kingston actually is. Kingston shrank from violence, and her mother protected her from the violence that existed in their community. Kingston does not have the stomach to fight with a sword, but she can fight with words. She will take the slurs that have been used to define her and convert them into weapons in her fight for recognition and selfhood.