Kingston recounts the story of her dead aunt who, due to the shame that she caused her family by giving birth out of wedlock, is never mentioned by her given name; thus, she is known as No Name Woman. Brave Orchid, Kingston’s mother, has given her daughter some details about her aunt’s life: she was married to a man who left her to immigrate to America and, during his absence, she became pregnant by a man whom she never identified. When the villagers found out about her pregnancy, they ransacked the family home.
Kingston imagines several explanations for her aunt’s pregnancy. In one scenario, she considers the possibility that her aunt’s lover had organized the raid against her, and that he was a cruel man who “gave orders,” including the order to have sex with him to spare her life. In another scenario, Kingston imagines her aunt as “a wild woman” who “kept rollicking company” and was “free with sex,” but she quickly abandons this notion due to its implausibility. Instead, Kingston imagines a young woman who appreciated her beauty and had romantic notions, fostered from being a beloved daughter. Still, she had shamed her family. When the time came for her to give birth, she went out to a pig-sty and bore what Kingston imagines was a baby girl. No Name Woman carried the infant to the well, which she envisioned as an act of love—a contrast to the women who smothered infants in mud or abandoned them. The family later found her and the newborn dead at the bottom of the well.
The family’s wish to deliberately forget No Name Woman—to treat her as though she had never been born—only piqued Kingston’s curiosity. She is tempted to ask her mother for additional details, such as the clothes that her aunt wore, but she knows that her mother would find such a question pointless. Kingston notes that her aunt’s ghost is drawn to her “after fifty years of neglect,” since Kingston not only speaks about her but dedicates “pages of paper to her.”
On the other hand, her mother also tells Kingston and her siblings “talk-story” (or legends) about swordswomen. These women had defied convention like her aunt, but their stories were committed to memory. One such example is “the chant of Fa Mu Lan, the girl who took her father’s place in battle.” Kingston imagines herself as Fa Mu Lan, the warrior woman, to defy her mother’s prediction that she would grow up to be “a wife and a slave.” In her fantasy, she is living in a hut on the top of a mountain. An old man and an old woman enter with “bowls of rice and soup and a leafy branch of peaches.” They ask her to remain with them for fifteen years so that they can train her to become a warrior through “exercises that began at dawn and end at sunset.” Her purpose becomes to avenge her village against a greedy baron who seizes the villagers’ crops and forces the men and boys into conscription.
One day, a messenger goes to her family home (where she no longer lives) and demands one of the men of the household. Kingston/Fa Mu Lan’s father agrees to go fight. When she learns the news, the girl insists on returning home, but the old man and old woman insist that she must remain with them until the age of twenty-two, when she will be powerful enough to lead an army. When the fateful day arrives, they give The Woman Warrior “men’s clothes and armor.” Kingston/Fa Mu Lan’s family welcomes her home as though “they were welcoming home a son.” They carve a message of revenge into her back so that, even if she were killed in battle, everyone would know how they had sacrificed their daughter.
The villagers are impressed with Kingston/Fa Mu Lan, and soon men begin volunteering for her army. Shortly thereafter, she reunites with a “childhood friend” whom she marries and who fights alongside her; when she gets pregnant, she continues to fight, but alters her armor to look “like a powerful, big man.” Confronting the baron in his “stronghold,” she sees him counting his money with an abacus, sitting “square and fat like a god.” The Woman Warrior announces herself as “a female avenger” and the baron is incredulous until she rips off her shirt to expose the message on her back, which also exposes her breasts. While he is still in shock, Kingston/Fa Mu Lan beheads him. The villagers ransack the house to gain revenge on the baron’s family for all of the crops that they seized over the years. After the trials of the baron’s allies, The Woman Warrior helps to install a new order, one that includes arts such as “opera” and “talk-story.” Her son delights in the sight of his mother, the general, and she is forever remembered by the villagers for her “perfect filiality.”
Kingston contrasts the excitement and honor of this fantasy with her less-eventful and less-welcome girlhood. She is a straight-A student, but her mother does not see the purpose of good grades. For her “tantrums” and minor rebellions against the family’s expectation that she will be “a wife and a slave,” she is labeled as a “bad girl,” which Kingston first denies, then accepts, claiming that she will never marry but will instead go to Oregon and become a lumberjack.
In China, Brave Orchid had trained as a doctor and midwife and was so talented that, occasionally, she would allow the other students to glance at her test papers to help them get back on track when they had forgotten something. Brave Orchid was the oldest student in her class and did not tell her classmates that some of them were young enough to be her daughters or that she already had two children. While in medical school, Brave Orchid had her first encounter with Sitting Ghost who crawled into her bed and sat on her chest. She banished it by denying that it could instill fear in her. There were other ghosts, too, such as Wall Ghosts, which attempted to lead her away from her path of becoming a doctor. Brave Orchid’s knowledge of ghosts, she believes, allowed her to manage them just as well as she managed illness and dislocated joints.
Brave Orchid left China “in the winter of 1939,” shortly after witnessing the stoning of a mentally-ill woman whom the villagers had claimed was a spy for the Japanese. She arrived in New York Harbor in January 1940 to reunite with her husband, who had already smuggled himself onto Ellis Island from Cuba. Kingston was born “in the middle of World War II.” In America, the family encounters more “ghosts”—Black Ghosts and White Ghosts, Taxi Ghosts and Police Ghosts, and—most frightening of all to the children—Newsboy Ghosts. Kingston’s mother and father retain the hope of returning to China. This lasts until Kingston is well into adulthood and her father gives his last piece of land to her uncles.
In California, the family operates a laundry. When Brave Orchid’s younger sister, Moon Orchid, arrives from California, Brave Orchid attempts to employ her at the laundry until she can make arrangements to reunite her sister with her estranged husband who lives in Los Angeles. Moon Orchid proves to be incapable of work and annoys her elder sister with her fondness for fancy clothes and for seeming “useless.” Brave Orchid insists that Moon Orchid force her way back into her husband’s life, asserting her rights as First Wife, though Moon Orchid has no interest in this. Her husband has financially supported her and sent their daughter to college; this seems to be enough. However, Brave Orchid ignores her sister and arranges for her son to drive them to Los Angeles.
They arrive at a skyscraper which houses Moon Orchid’s husband’s medical practice. When they enter his office, they see that he has a new, younger wife who works as his nurse. They hatch a scheme in which they tell the nurse to inform the doctor that someone is injured outside. When he arrives to help, they see that he looks younger, too, and refers to Moon Orchid as “Grandmother.” Brave Orchid informs him that he is speaking to his wife, and the man says that he moved on without Moon Orchid because he did not believe that she was strong enough to survive in America and because she did not speak, not even to him. The encounter is devastating to Moon Orchid, who remains in Los Angeles with her daughter but begins to have paranoid delusions about Mexican Ghosts plotting on her life. To help her recover, she moves back to Stockton so that Brave Orchid can treat her, but it is of no use. She descends further into madness, repeating the same “talk-story” about Mexican Ghosts. Her daughter commits her to a state asylum where she finds friendship with a few other women and learns a new “talk-story,” but shortly thereafter, Moon Orchid dies.
During Kingston’s childhood, her mother tells her that she cut the frenulum under Kingston’s tongue to help her talk more (to keep her from being “tongue-tied”) and to enable her to learn any language. However, given the family’s penchant for silence, Kingston thinks that her mother cut her tongue so that she would not speak at all. As a result, she becomes resistant to silence. She bullies a girl in her sixth-grade class for not speaking much, and she insists that silence can lead to madness.
When a mentally- and physically-challenged boy begins hanging around her family’s laundry, Kingston gets the notion that her parents plan to marry her off to him. She has an outburst at dinner one evening in which she rejects this possibility, as well as all of her parents’ and her culture’s other notions of what her life ought to look like. Brave Orchid, a “champion talker,” talks over her daughter and denies what she says, arguing that they never believed that she was ugly or dumb, but that they merely said “the opposite,” according to Chinese custom. Kingston struggles with her own voice. A typical Chinese woman’s voice, she notes, is “strong and bossy.” An American feminine voice is softer.
Kingston concludes with the story of the poetess, Ts’ai Yen. When she was twenty, Ts’ai Yen was captured in a raid by the southerner Hsiung-nu. She fought alongside him, later gave birth, and taught her children to speak Chinese—a language different from their father’s “barbarian tongue.” One day, the villagers heard her singing about her native China. Those songs were later passed down by her Han descendants after she returned from the “savage lands.” Kingston notes how well they have translated.