Maxine Hong Kingston tells the story of Fa Mu Lan in The Woman Warrior, placing herself in the position of Mu Lan. In the story, she stays with an old man and woman in the mountains, who teach her for fifteen years. She learns to be quiet, to be aware of the world around her, to fight well. Vowing revenge on the men who captured their harvest and took her people, Kingston trains to become a warrior. After fifteen years of training, she is ready to be sent out into the world to avenge her people.
After returning home for a time, she gathers an army. The fighters revere her, and yet they do not know she is a woman: such knowledge would lead to her execution, no matter her extraordinary skills. Having married a childhood friend, she grows pregnant and yet misses only one battle while giving birth. After a month with the child, she tells her husband to go and take the baby to his family before he grows old enough to recognize her.
After slaying the emperor and installing a peasant to the post, she returns home to kill the baron who had drafted so many men from the village, including her brother. Having accomplished her goals, she returns to her husband and son and kneels at her parents-in-laws' feet, offering filiality.
Kingston contrasts this picture with the immediate statement “My American life has been such a disappointment.” Kingston has not had the sort of life enjoyed by a swordswoman: far from it. Her parents called her “bad girl” and treated her as less than a man. She states:
And 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.
The story of the swordswoman follows her throughout her life as she tries to both follow and repudiate it. She burns the food when she cooks and lets the dishes rot, and yet she thinks, “If I could not-eat, perhaps I could make myself a warrior like the swordswoman who drives me.” One of the key qualities of Fa Mu Lan was her filiality, but Kingston rejects this, stating of her family:
I had to get out of hating range.
Kingston says herself that she “mustn’t feel bad that I haven’t done as well as the swordswoman did; after all, no bird called me, no wise old people tutored me. I have no magic beads, no water gourd sight, no rabbits that will jump in the fire when I’m hungry. I dislike armies.” And yet she shares key similarities with the woman warrior, perhaps most notably her need to accept paradoxes:
I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes. Pearls are bone marrow; pearls come from oysters. The dragon lives in the sky, ocean, marshes, and mountains; and the mountains are also its cranium. Its voice thunders and jingles like copper pans. It breathes fire and water; and sometimes the dragon is one, sometimes many.
Living stuck between American culture and her mother’s stories, Kingston must learn to understand that things can have multiple meanings. People on the street can just be typical people, or they can be White Ghosts. A practical understanding of paradoxes is perhaps the only way that she can mend the gap between cultures.
But most of all, she and the swordswoman share the scars on their backs:
The swordswoman and I are not so dissimilar. May my people understand the resemblance soon so that I can return to them. What we have in common are the words at our backs. The idioms for revenge are “report a crime” and “report to five families.” The reporting is the vengeance—not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words. And I have so many words—“chink” words and “gook” words too—that they do not fit on my skin.
Vengeance fuels Kingston’s actions: her refusal to cook for others, her anger at being called a “bad girl,” her protests of that which is not right. And furthermore, her parents have carved their vengeances upon her back, just as the swordswoman’s parents did, and so she must bear their grievances as well as her own.