In Maxine Hong Kingston
’s memoir The Woman Warrior
, the chapter entitled “White Tigers
” illustrates the conflicting and contradictory messages sent to Chinese girls
by their mother
s and other adult relatives. The story of the woman warrior inspires young women to be heroine
s and bring honor to their families. However, the stories themselves and the treatment of the girls teach them that they hold a subordinate
place in Chinese society
Kingston tells of how 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” (Kingston 19). The stories they were brought up with glorified women who donned armor, avenged wrongs, and saved villages. Kingston shares the story of a girl who spends fifteen years on a mountaintop training to be a warrior and a great leader. She is told that “even when you fight against soldiers trained as you are, most of them will be men, heavy footed and rough. You will have the advantage” (Kingston 32). When her training is complete, she returns home to relieve her father of the draft, gathers an army of her own, and uses it to attack fiefdoms and topple oppressive empires. She and her army behead greedy, bloodthirsty emperors and barons and replace them with “a farmer who knew the earth or a beggar who understood hunger” (Kingston 37), exchanging unfeeling tyrants for sympathetic leaders. She single-handedly provides financial support for her entire family. This fantastic, legendary woman is the standard Chinese girls were given to hold themselves up to, and the stories stayed with them throughout their lives. “After I grew up,” Kingston says, “I heard the chant of Fa Mu Lan, the girl who took her father’s place in battle. Instantly I remembered that as a child I had followed my mother about the house, the two of us singing about how Fa Mu Lan fought gloriously and returned alive from war to settle in the village.…My mother said I would grow up a wife and a slave, but she taught me the song of the warrior woman, Fa Mu Lan. I would have to grow up a warrior woman” (Kingston 20).
However, the stories themselves indicate that a woman’s triumphs only have merit if people think that she is a man. Fa Mu Lan, the woman in the story, dresses as a man at all times, even concealing a pregnancy by wearing her armor altered “so that I looked like a powerful, big man” (Kingston 39). The woman warrior, extensively trained and exceptionally talented, must conceal her identity, because “Chinese executed women who disguised themselves as soldiers or students, no matter how bravely they fought or how high they scored on the examinations” (Kingston 39). Even though she saves her village from tyrannous rulers, fights as well or better than any man in any army, and becomes a legend in her own time, her victories are only possible because she is disguised as a man. The implication is clear: a woman’s triumphs are not as valuable as a man’s.
As well as the inferences gleaned from the stories, Kingston’s parents and other adult emigrants told her point-blank that she, as a female, was a disappointment. Phrases like “Feeding girls is feeding cowbirds” and “When you raise girls, you’re raising children for strangers” (Kingston 46) are tossed around lightly. Kingston saw her brothers get special treatment because of their sex: “‘Did you roll an egg on my face like that when I was born?’…‘Did you send my picture to Grandmother?’ ‘Why not? Because I’m a girl? Is that why not?’” (Kingston 46). Her great-uncle would take her brothers shopping and buy them toys and candy, leaving the girls at home. Kingston mentions the Chinese word for “the female I—which is ‘slave.’ Break the women with their own tongues!” (Kingston 47) Her achievements at school are trivialized: “it was important that I do something big and fine, or else my parents would sell me when we made our way back to China. In China there were solutions for what to do with little girls who ate up food and threw tantrums. You can’t eat straight A’s” (Kingston 46). In striking contrast to the woman warrior, Kingston grew up being told that she was useless and her contributions to the family were of no value.
Chinese girls as illustrated in The Woman Warrior receive conflicting messages as to their role in society. The folk tales they grow up with teach them to strive to be heroines, while the adults in their lives teach them that they are destined to be wives and slaves. This contradiction creates internal turmoil for Chinese girls, as they try to reconcile the slave-girls everyone thinks they are with the women warriors they wish they could be.