This classic novel is often credited with bringing Mulan’s story to the West. As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, Maxine Hong Kingston often felt out of place in California’s Chinatown but found solace in legends she heard from her mother. One of these was Mulan (or as Kingston calls her, Fa Mu Lan).
Up until this point, each rendition of Mulan’s story introduced a new element that was included in response to a unique situation the Chinese people faced. While Kingston’s retelling of Mulan also includes alterations to the legend, this story is mostly inspired by her personal experiences as a child living between two cultures. By combining the 1939 film Mulan Joins the Army with several other legends, Kingston produced a hero with whom she could identify.
Mulan’s story appears in chapter two of The Woman Warrior. Writing in the first person, the narrator drifts in and out of a dream and begins to live out Mulan’s legendary decision to take her father’s place in battle.
After a group of bandits attacks Mulan’s village, a bird leads Mulan to a mountain where an old couple lives. Mulan remains with the couple for several years while they teach her martial arts for the purpose of avenging her clan. Although Mulan misses her family, she can see them by looking into a magical gourd. (Her family, however, cannot see her.)
One day, when Mulan is looking into the gourd, she sees a messenger announce that the evil baron has promised that one man from each of the families in this district will join the army. When Mulan’s father is conscripted, she announces that she must travel down the mountain to take her father’s place. However, the old couple insists that her training is not yet complete. Mulan stares helplessly into the gourd and watches her brother and husband both volunteer. Her father has been spared for now.
Over the next several years, Mulan applies herself wholeheartedly to becoming a master of warfare. When she sees through the gourd that her father is conscripted a second time, Mulan finally knows with certainty that her time has come. Dressing as a man, she hurries down the mountain to rescue her father from his fate.
Mulan’s parents agree to allow her to join the army, but only to avenge their family and village. The two parents carve a long list of grievances into Mulan’s back so that the scars will spell out their desire for revenge. As she sets out, an army of boys who had been evading the draft become so moved by her decision to volunteer that they follow Mulan as their general. After Mulan leads her army on a series of inspiring victories, they become emboldened to challenge the corrupt government which has oppressed them for so long.
One day, Mulan’s husband comes to visit her in private. Mulan conceives a child and hides her pregnant belly under a large suit of armor. After the child is born, she modifies her armor so that the child can fit inconspicuously in a hidden sling. When the baby is one month old, Mulan sends her husband away with the baby so that she can concentrate her efforts on fighting for justice.
At last, Mulan comes face-to-face with the corrupt emperor, beheads him, and crowns a peasant to reign in his place.
Although the war has now ended, Mulan is still unable to rest because she never found her brother. Presuming him to be dead, she finds the baron and blames him for her brother’s fate. Mulan strips off her shirt, revealing both her true feminine nature and the words of revenge which had been tattooed on her back. While the baron is still bewildered, Mulan slices her sword through his neck.
Mulan returns home as a hero and resumes her role as a woman.