“White Tigers” and the Fa Mu Lan Warrior Epic
Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, is set in modern day San Francisco and narrated by Kingston, where she tells her own stories and those of several other women in her family. Most notably, she reminisces about the stories her mother told her about Fa Mu Lan in the chapter titled “White Tigers.” The chapter focuses heavily on Fa Mu Lan’s story as a warrior and it soon becomes clear that the white tiger is a symbol for Fa Mu Lan’s stifled eccentricity. The color white, in this context, symbolizes Fa Mu Lan’s rare characteristics as a brave and strong woman.
Though she is strong and independent, as a white female tiger, Fa Mu Lan is unable to reveal her identity of a woman when she is a soldier of war. Thus, purgatory for Fa Mu Lan stems from not being able to speak with her own voice, but rather that of a man’s, whose role she assumes. Even so, when Fa Mu Lan’s story is being told, it is told by the speaker of the book who imagines and recites the “chant of Fa Mu Lan” in her mind. Therefore Fa Mu Lan, though she is an icon, remains in social purgatory as she never has a voice of her own. In The Woman Warrior, white tigers also represent purgatory because Fa Mu Lan is not able to identify as a Chinese or American girl, and she also is not able to define her greatness. For example, in a conversation the speaker has, she states, “I got straight A’s, Mama,” and her mother replies, “Let me tell you a story about a girl who saved her village.” Immediately, the speaker is shot down and not praised for her achievements, thus the white tiger then symbolizes the speakers’ familial purgatory, but also her many attempts to achieve greatness.
Despite the color white being a symbol for purgatory, it is also a symbol for mourning, The white tigers represent the narrators’ depiction of her family and society as an odd assortment and her frustration of not being able to please them. As stated before, the narrator remains in social and familial purgatory as her voice is not accepted because of society’s implementation of high standards of living. The tigers symbolize society’s fierce implementation of rules and judgment, while the color white represents the narrator’s lament of not being able to please her family. In the text, the narrator’s mournful tone stems from her descriptions of refusing to wash the dishes or her refusal to maintain good grades. The manner in which the narrator expresses her frustration of not having a voice in her society becomes ironic since on paper she clearly and vividly does so with ease. It is then that the white tiger takes on a whole new meaning; in this context, white represents an incalculable anger and frustration that the narrator feels toward society, though simultaneously she mourns because she is a woman being underappreciated and not a man who is respected. An example of this is when the narrator explains how her parents were ashamed at having a daughter, but when her brother was born, she asked her parents, “Did you roll an egg on my face like that when I was born?” “Did you have a full-month party for me?” “Did you turn on the lights?” “Did you send my picture to grandmother?” “Why not? Because I’m a girl?” Here, her anger and frustration is seen through her questions and also in the successive manner in which they are asked. Again, it is instances like this when the symbolism of the white tiger comes into play, since the narrator fiercely tries to defend herself like a tiger, while her scolding anger builds too high into white-hot anger.
The story of Fa Mu Lan presents white tigers, white rabbits, a white horse, and snow that envelop the setting. Kingston’s choice to include these details serve to glorify Fa Mu Lan as a pure and strong figure that fights, marries, and has children—qualities that are revered in Chinese culture. In contrast, the story of the deceased aunt who had a child out of wedlock is shamed by the narrator’s family and society, thus glorifying the story of Fa Mu Lan even further. Though this dichotomy exists, it is interesting to note that Fa Mu Lan, and the aunt with no name, doesn’t have a voice with which to speak, but rather they are recognized by their actions and not their thoughts.
Maxine Hong Kingston was born on October 27, 1940 in Stockton, California. She earned her bachelor’s degree from University of California, Berkeley (where she’s currently a Professor Emeritus). Her first book, The Woman Warrior, won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. Her follow-up, China Men, won the American Book Award. In addition to these two masterworks, Kingston has written two novels: Tripmaster Monkey, His Fake Book (1989) and Hawaii One Summer(1998). Most recently she returned to the autobiographical with The Fifth Book of Peace (2003). In 2006, she edited a collection of nonfiction pieces from people touched by war in Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, which were culled from some of Hong Kingston’s writing workshops. (Bio adapted from biography.com).