Summary – Chapter Two, ‘White Tigers’
The narrator describes how ‘we Chinese girls’ listen to adults ‘talking-story’, where ‘we learned that we failed if we grew up to be but wives or slaves’. They also learn that they could be ‘heroines, swordswomen’ and thinks ‘perhaps women were once so dangerous that they had to have their feet bound’. She explains how it was also a woman who invented white crane boxing 200 years ago.
Her mother tells her of other older and less tame stories of swordswomen, ‘night after night’. On Sundays, they also go to see movies at the Confucius Church where they see swordswomen ‘jump over houses from a standstill’: ‘At last I saw that I too had been in the presence of great power, my mother talking-story.’ She remembers the chant of Fa Mu Lan, the girl who took her father’s place in battle, and as a child she follows her mother about the house and they sing about her returning home alive from war: ‘She said I would grow up a wife and slave, but she taught me the song of the warrior woman, Fa Mu Lan. I would have to grow up a warrior woman.’
The narrator then goes on to relate this story. At the age of seven, a first-person narrator follows a bird into the mountains and an old couple offer to train her to be a warrior. She asks about her parents and they say that they will teach her to avenge her village and recapture the harvest the thieves have taken.
She agrees, and learns to be silent and to walk into battle. After years of training, she learns control and is even able to control the dilation of her pupils. After six years she is able to run with the deer and jump 20 feet into the air. At the age of 14, the old couple lead her blindfold into the mountains of the white tigers. They wave goodbye and she finds wood and food (and is supposed to find her way back alone). When she returns from her ‘survival test’, she is trained in ‘dragon ways’ and this takes another eight years.
She returns to her village to fight in the place of her father (after she looks into the magical gourd and sees her father has said he must fight). He tells her he has been drafted and she says she will replace him. Her parents carve tattoos denoting revenge in her back, and their oaths and names, and so wherever she goes people will know her sacrifice and will never forget her either. Before she leaves to fight, she dresses in men’s clothes and has her hair cut ‘in a man’s fashion’ too and is told by people how beautiful she looks.
A young man steps out of the crowd and he looks familiar to her ‘as if he were the old man’s son’ and says he wants to go with her. She tells him he is her first soldier in her army. The villagers give them the sons they had hidden in the last conscription and she only takes the ones that the families can spare. They travel north to the Emperor who is ten thousand miles away. They wear red clothes and look happy when they visit villages and people want to join their ranks: ‘We brought order wherever we went.’ When the army is bigger, she pursues the enemies that she saw in the gourd when with the old couple.
She never tells her army the truth, that she is a woman, as ‘Chinese executed women who disguised themselves as soldiers or students, no matter how bravely they fought or how high they scored on examinations’. Her husband joins her and when she is pregnant she alters her armour and only hides from battle once when giving birth to their baby boy.
After a month, they name him and have the ‘full-month ceremony’. She also asks her husband to take their son back to his family before the baby can recognize her. More fighting ensues, and ‘much hardship’, but when a few of ‘our millions’ arrived at the capital they face their Emperor personally, behead him and inaugurate ‘the peasant who would begin the new order’.
She returns home after visiting the ‘Long Wall’ and one more battle awaits her: with the baron who had drafted her brother. She tells the baron she is a ‘female avenger’ and he tries to appeal to her ‘man to man’ and says ‘girls are maggots in rice’ and it is ‘better to raise geese than daughters’. The last one is one she particularly hates to hear. She beheads him and punishes others of his family and servants similarly. Some are reprieved, such as the guard who joined the household in exchange for a child hostage and women with bound feet are released from a locked room. After the trials, she says the baron’s hall is to be used for village meetings and declares it a new year, the year one.
The narrative cuts to the present-day narrator and to her American life, which has been ‘such a disappointment’. When she tells her mother she got straight As, for example, her mother replies, ‘“let me tell you a story about a girl who saved her village”’ and the narrator cannot ‘figure out’ what is her village. She also thinks it is important to do something ‘big and fine’ or her parents will sell her when they return to China.
When her parents or emigrant villagers says things such as ‘feeding girls is feeding cowbirds’ when she is a child, she screams and thrashes on the floor, and is seen as ‘bad’. These villagers also shake their heads at her and her sisters and make her parents ashamed to take them out together. There is a good aspect to the birth of her brothers, but she learns ‘new grievances’ and asks her parents if they also held a full-month party for her. She also remembers how her great-uncle would not take the girls out on a Saturday morning (and roar ‘no girls’). The boys return from these trips with candy and new toys.
When she is older, she encounters racist employers and recalls how her parents’ laundry was torn down. To avenge her family, she will have to take on ‘the stupid racists’ and the tyrants who took away their home and work. This means taking revenge on Chinese communists who took their farm and rage against those in the United States in New York and California who took their laundries.
News from China makes her parents cry when she is aged nine. They are told in letters that her uncles had to kneel on broken glass during their trials and confess to being landowners. They were all executed and an aunt drowned herself. Other aunts and cousins disappeared, and some suddenly began writing again from communes or Hong Kong and asked for money.
The narrator (as an adult) now lives where there are Chinese and Japanese people, ‘but no emigrants from my own village looking at me as if I had failed them’. She also says that she and the swordswoman ‘are not so dissimilar’ and hope her ‘people’ understand so she can return to them. She and the swordswoman both have words on their backs, and the idioms for revenge are ‘report a crime’ and ‘report to five families’ – the reporting is the vengeance: ‘And I have so many words – “chink” words and “gook” words too – that they do not fit on my skin.’
Analysis – Chapter Two, ‘White Tigers’
By claiming a similarity with the swordswoman, the narrator (and author) ask(s) to be understood and appreciated for their willingness to challenge unfairness and inequality. For the narrator, these battles are as she says concerned with racism, sexism and the theft of land.
The narrator’s preparedness to discuss inequalities in an already marginalized culture, of a culture particular to Chinese-American immigrants, is one that has drawn criticism and praise. This is because the negative criticisms of Chinese-American culture may be seen as betrayal. It is in keeping with the context of the time of writing, of 1970s second-wave feminism, though, that Hong Kingston attempts to negotiate and analyze the detrimental effects of racism and sexism.