Divided into five chapters, each of which is more or less self-contained, Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior explores the many forms of adversity that women face. Kingston uses women's stories to explore her own cultural history. As a first-generation Chinese American, she struggles to reconcile her Chinese cultural heritage with her emerging sense of herself as an American.
In the memoir's first chapter, "No Name Woman," Kingston's mother, Brave Orchid, tells her daughter about an aunt on Kingston's father's side of the family. This aunt, whom Kingston names No Name Woman because her real name is never spoken by the family, becomes pregnant while her husband is working in America. When No Name Woman no longer can hide her pregnancy from her family and her village, the villagers destroy the family home as punishment for her adultery. After giving birth in a pigsty, she kills herself and the baby by drowning in the family well.
In the second chapter, "White Tigers," Kingston recalls the legend of Fa Mu Lan, a woman warrior who leads her people to victory in battle. As a child, Kingston felt girls could not achieve greatness in a man's world. "White Tigers" is the story of her own childhood fantasy of overcoming feelings of inferiority as a female. Like Fa Mu Lan, she imagines herself leaving home at seven years of age and being brought up by martial arts teachers. She becomes a great warrior, triumphantly returning to her home to save her people.
"Shaman" relates the story of Brave Orchid's extraordinary medical career as a midwife in China. After giving birth to two children in China, Brave Orchid takes the unusual step of attending medical school, after which she works as a doctor in her home village and becomes a very successful healer. Eventually, she gives up her career to join her husband in America. However, unable to practice medicine in America, she and her husband open a laundry business in California.
As The Woman Warrior progresses, Kingston relies less on her mother's narratives and more on her own recollections of family events and of experiences growing up. In the memoir's fourth chapter, "At the Western Palace," she writes about her aunt, Moon Orchid, who fails to assimilate into American culture. Moon Orchid's husband arrived alone in America and became a successful doctor. However, after many years of practicing medicine in Los Angeles, he remarried and abandoned Moon Orchid, who remained in Hong Kong waiting for him to send for her. Brave Orchid, determined to have Moon Orchid confront this irresponsible man, arranges for her sister to immigrate to America, but when Moon Orchid finally faces her husband, he again rejects her and chides her for disrupting his life and career. Moon Orchid subsequently goes mad, ending her days in an insane asylum.
In the last chapter, "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," in which Kingston describes her childhood emotional experiences and the conflicts she felt growing up in a Chinese household in America, she depicts the pains of finding a personal identity and a voice to express herself to her parents and a society that do not understand her. She ends The Woman Warrior with the legend of Ts'ai Yen, an ancient Chinese female poet who was captured by a non-Chinese tribe and who lived among these nomadic people for twelve years but could never fully assimilate into their culture. Kingston strongly implies that her mother is like Ts'ai Yen in that Brave Orchid longs to return to her Chinese village, but Kingston also suggests that she too sees herself as a foreigner among Americans, caught between the Chinese traditions of her parents and American culture's emphasis on individuality. Her memoir is similar to Ts'ai Yen's cathartic song, which the barbarians cannot understand: "Her words seemed to be Chinese, but the barbarians understood their sadness and anger."