‘The Woman Warrior’ Keeps the Legend of Fa Mu Lan Alive

Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir re-imagined and breathed new life into a vital figure of Chinese folklore for a new audience.

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As a child, Maxine Hong Kingston listened to the legend of a girl who took her father’s place in battle, who fought gloriously, returned from war, and settled down in her village. Fa Mu Lan starred in her mother’s stories, told night after night, as Kingston drifted off to sleep.

“I had forgotten this chant that was once mine, given to me by my mother, who may not have known its power to remind,” the Stockton native writes in her iconoclastic debut, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, a blend of myth and autobiography published in 1976. “She 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.”

The anonymous folk ballad likely circulated in oral tradition before appearing in a sixth-century text compiled by a Buddhist monk. Brief and beguiling, its 300 words or so served as “the forbearer of all succeeding variations and interpretations, and the foundation of the heroine’s fame,” according to Lan Dong’s Mulan’s Legend and Legacy in China and the United States. “The tale has been neither static nor consistent…. Instead, it has undergone many changes and has been enriched by historical conjecture and literary imagination.”

The spare ballad left much room for elaboration and interpretation. Over the centuries that followed, the folktale would expand in poems, plays, operas, novels, and films. In some of these, Fa Mu Lan was idealized as a virtuous icon. At other times, she exemplified women’s abilities and equal rights. A 1930s adaptation galvanized Chinese audiences during the war against Japan. Fa Mu Lan has twice been a Disney heroine: in 1998, with a dragon sidekick, Mushu, and again in 2020, in a live-action film.

In the original ballad, the girl purchases a horse and saddle, then goes “ten thousand miles on the business of war.” Her narration skips how she transforms from maiden to warrior. By contrast, Kingston’s vivid training montage seems shaped in equal parts by the lore passed down by her mother and by the swashbuckling martial arts movies at the local theater.

Under the tutelage of a pair of mountain immortals, Fa Mu Lan learns to hold still for so long that squirrels bury their hoards in the hem of her shirt. She controls the dilations of her pupils and learns to make her mind as large as the universe.

In Kingston’s feminist retelling, the narrator and her followers “did not rape, only taking food where there was an abundance. We brought order wherever we went.”

And in spite of—or maybe because of—getting pregnant, the cross-dressing narrator remains powerful. She alters her armor to accommodate yet more shape-shifting and walks with foot soldiers to avoid jouncing the baby she carries within.

As befits a narrator with a millennium and a half of legends behind her, she’s aware of the legacy she comes from, of the legacy into which she writes: “I would be told of in fairy tales myself,” she predicts, but only on her terms. “I refuse to shy my way anymore through our Chinatown, which tasks me with the old sayings and the stories.”

Author and playwright Frank Chin seemed to believe those sayings and stories were sacrosanct. In the 1991 anthology The Big Aiiieeeee!, he argued that Kingston’s, Amy Tan’s, and David Henry Hwang’s versions of traditional stories—shaped by their assimilation, by their faulty memory, and by how they lost touch with tradition—were a “lie” that destroyed Chinese history and literature. Myths, he claimed, were “immutable and unchanging.”

But Kingston’s Fa Mu Lan belies that view. Myths persist because they are endlessly adapted and reinterpreted within the context of the time in which they are written and rewritten, and of the time in which they are received.

I was a teenager when I first encountered Kingston’s urgent, lyrical prose: the family secrets exposed by the myths Kingston retold and remade while growing up in post–World War II California.

I wasn’t consciously paying homage to Kingston when I began writing my debut novel, A River of Stars, in which the myth of the cowherd and the fairy weaver plays a central role. In the classic legend, the lovers are separated by the Milky Way but for one day a year. In my retelling, the vastness also stands in for the distance between ancestral and adopted homelands, the distance between lovers, between mothers and daughters. In my forthcoming Forbidden City, the teen protagonist rewrites myths not only to entertain her lover—a character based on Chairman Mao—but also to claim a place in history for women and for herself.

My mother did not raise me with these myths; I came to them later as an adult, drawn to their power. But Kingston opened the way for me and so many writers, inspiring a generation of us. She will inspire generations more. In the four and a half decades since she wrote The Woman Warrior, Asian American poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have flourished. Together, we represent the kind of army her Fa Mu Lan rallied.•

Be sure to sign up for our free, monthly California Book Club, which will discuss The Woman Warrior with Maxine Hong Kingston on October 21 at 5 p.m. Pacific. To join the California Book Club, click here. Join us in the Clubhouse to discuss the book.

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