Long before Disney got its hands on the Chinese myth of Fa Mu Lan (also called Hua Mulan or simply Mulan), Californian and Chinese-American Maxine Hong Kingston used the myth of the swordswoman martial artist to explore the ideas of how, despite empowering mythology, women can often be made to feel limited in their quest to “make a difference.”
As a profile on Hong Kingston from the December 13, 2003, edition of The Guardian notes, her essay “White Tigers” from her 1976 collection The Woman Warrior, is not only usual fare in university curricula but also likely partially inspired early millennium boss babe films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Kill Bill films.
But the essay is not about simple female triumph, at least not in simple terms. Instead, Hong Kingston explores the practice of some Chinese of sharing the stories of swordswomen (although some scholars and critics have debated Hong Kingston’s reliance on these myths). “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, swordswomen” (Hong Kingston 19). But the reader quickly realizes that Hong Kingston is very aware of the reality of women in the modern world, shown through her example of women of Chinese ethnicity. That reality is that women hear conflicting messages about their place and value in the world.
The woman warrior in Hong Kingston’s retelling of the Mulan myth is guided by a bird, often a symbol of freedom and agency in texts with feminist themes (think of Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron” and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening). She is trained by elders to win in war. She is the protagonist in a traditional Bildungsroman in that she leaves home on a journey and returns to find her place in society, as both a triumphant general as well as a wife and mother. Although these are all images of strength and power, she is not real but the mythic equivalanet of today’s mythic women who can “have it all.” Most of us realize, and studies tell us, that this superwoman likely does not exist and we common women simply cannot live up to these expectations of being a legendary martial arts general or just being able to happily complete the “second shift” after a long work day, despite best intentions and efforts.
Hong Kingston seems to know this. “My American life has been such a disappointment,” (45), she writes after concluding the woman warrior’s tale. Hong Kingston shows readers that in her experience, being a smart girl who wanted her own place in society was not enough, was not admired in her society:
“I got straight A’s, Mama”
“Let me tell you a true story about a girl who saved her village” (Hong Kingston 45).
Here Hong Kingston illustrates how a culture can subjugate its female members by not acknowledging their achievements and having unrealistic expectations without nurturing the women to achieve. Perhaps a girl is high-performing, but she can never live up to the accomplishments of a myth, which society members have decided is real.
Despite these obstacles and beliefs, Hong Kingston continues to accomplish – for herself, for her family, for society. Hong Kingston writes, “I went away to college—Berkeley in the sixties—and I studied, and I marched to change the world, but I did not turn into a boy” (47). Her frustration is clear. She repeats the repeated phrases of the Chinese emigrants in her childhood society: “Better to raise geese than girls” (46) and how the neighborhood people shamed her parents because they had two girls.
But still, the swordswoman remains in her consciousness. Hong Kingston writes of working within these opposing forces. She simultaneously hears she is worthless and hears that women can be revered heroines. The result is that she knows, deep down, that she is not worthless. Yet, “Even now China wraps double binds around my feet,” (48), she writes, referring to the practice of binding feet that often left Chinese women unable to walk. In her retelling of the swordswoman myth, she adds a section that explains how a group of these women overcame to become vengeance-seeking martial artists.
Hong Kingston’s text remains crucial because we live in this gray area of contradictions. Most of us are familiar with the idea that, for example, a woman boss needs to be assertive. But when she is, she is often considered a bitch or even unfit for such a position of authority. Kingston reminds us that the warrior stories may be hyperbolic and unattainable in our society, but the ideas can indeed inspire all women to realize and value their worth. “The swordswoman and I are not so dissimilar. May my people understand the resemblance soon so that I can return to them” (Hong Kingston 53). May all people understand the resemblance.
Hong Kingston, Maxine. “White Tigers.” The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. Vintage, 1989. 19-53.
Suzanne Sanders is a volunteer at the Women’s Museum of California and teaches copyediting at University of California, San Diego Extension. While an English professor at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago, she developed the college’s women’s and gender studies program and curriculum. She facilitated a roundtable discussion on teaching women’s and gender studies at the community college level at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in 2015.