Maxine Hong Kingston
Maxine Hong Kingston, both the writer and the main character, begins her childhood struggling with her parents' expectations of her as a culturally Chinese girl in an American city. She takes on her mother's view of white people as different types of ghosts, and sees herself as a warrior, imagining herself in the character of the legendary Fa Mu Lan. She insists on being a writer as an adult, despite her parents' disapproval of writing as a career appropriate for a woman and despite their expectation she get married and have children.
Brave Orchid is an independent woman who attends medical school and midwifery school in China as an adult, 10 years after most people would go. When she arrives in the United States, she works in her husband's laundry business and has six children. She is brash and loud, and she insults her children to prevent ghosts from taking them away. Her expectations of her children follow Chinese traditions closely, despite the fact that they live in the United States.
Fa Mu Lan
Fa Mu Lan is Kingston's imagined self as well as a legend. She leaves her village to train to be a warrior with her mentors, an Old Couple. She returns home to fight the baron who has taken away her brother and her husband. She disguises herself as a man and ends up leading all of China to victory, starting a new dynasty. In Kingston's imagination, Fa Mu Lan can be the savior of her people, an independent warrior who makes her own choices and still comes back to have the life of a mother and wife.
No Name Woman
No Name Woman, the aunt Kingston didn't know she had, is put to shame for her pregnancy by another man while her husband is working in the United States. She brings humiliation to her family, whose house, belongings, crops, and livestock are destroyed in a raid by the villagers. She gives birth and then commits suicide in the drinking well, bringing her baby to drown with her.
Moon Orchid has been living in China with her daughter, receiving money from her husband for everything she needs. Meanwhile, he has married again and has two children, without having told Moon Orchid he was never going to send for her. Brave Orchid brings her to the United States to live and to demand her husband acknowledge her as his First Wife.
The Old Couple
The Old Couple take care of Fa Mu Lan, and they train her to be a warrior, giving her magical beads and other mystical gifts that allow her to defeat all of her opponents. They let her see her family in a water gourd and then they send her home to take her father's place in battle and avenge her family, creating a new dynasty ruled by a peasant.