Nonfiction Monday: Beautiful Warrior – Of Plum Poles, Water, and Bamboo

Last week, we shared about a famous female warrior, Fa Mulan. This week, we share yet another as retold in Beautiful Warrior: The Legend of the Nun’s Kung Fu with story and pictures by Emily Arnold McCully. This is in keeping with our theme on Girl Power and Women’s Wiles until the first week of May. Nonfiction Monday this week is hosted by Ana’s NonFiction Blog.

Layered Narratives of Wu Mei and Mingyi. I love how this picture book manages to weave together not just one but two narratives of young ladies and the strange circumstances that led them to be who they are: beautiful warriors.

The reader is initially introduced to a baby girl whose steady gaze made her father name her Jingyong – which means Quiet Courage. For some reason Jingyong’s father believed that she would follow an exceptional path in life and thus, instead of sending her to learn from the ladies-in-waiting as is the custom for girls born at court, she was sent to tutors and mentors “as if she were a son.”

She studied the five pillars of learning: art, literature, music, medicine, and martial arts. Jingyong was a prodigy, excelling especially at martial arts. Kung fu taught her to use her qi, or vital energy. With qi, softness could prevail over hardness, a yielding force master a brute one.

The young Jingyong who would later on be called Wu Mei.

Unlike most picture books that follow a formula of less than 300 words or so, this book is not only richly illustrated with soft watercolor paints (I shall leave it to the experts to debate about the authenticity and accuracy of the images), it is also filled with lyrical and flowing text that children would be compelled to read. While Jingyong’s mother despaired about her finding a suitable partner later on in life:

“Who will want to marry an educated woman?” Jingyong’s mother wailed. “And one adept at kung fu, too!”

Jingyong’s father remained confident that she will find her path in life. Things changed drastically however when the Manchu warriors conquered the Forbidden city, changing Jingyong’s life forever. This led her to search for the Shaolin Monastery where Buddhist monks practiced kung fu for a thousand years. Unmindful of whether the monks would accept a female in the monastery, she showed the monks all that she has learned about kung fu, and they invited her to be one of them and she was renamed Wu Mei, beautiful warrior.

Of Plum Poles, Water, and Bamboo. The story does not end there however, as the reader is introduced to Wang Mingyi, an impoverished girl whose family earned a modest living selling bean curd. The pivotal moment in her life came when she was attacked by two bandits as she was on her way home after being paid a small sum by the magistrate for a cart load of bean cakes that she has just delivered. Helpless and alone, she handed her little treasure over to the two bandits – only to be saved by a tiny little nun – Wu Mei from Shaolin.

The lives of these two women became even more intertwined when young Mingyi discovered that she had to marry an atrocious brigand if she wanted to save her family’s livelihood. Mingyi sought the help of Wu Mei once again. However, instead of a savior, Mingyi gained a mentor in Wu Mei who offered to teach her kung fu:

“You must save yourself,” Wu Mei said. 

Something about the innocence of this scatterbrained girl touched Wu Mei. Could the bean curd seller learn to be calm, to concentrate, and use her qi? Could she find her own way if she were given the tools? It would be a challenge to try to teach her!

“Do this,” Wu Mei said, “tell Soong Ling that he must win you. Tell him you will marry him if he can best you at kung fu.”

And the challenge begins. Wu Mei taught the young girl some of the familiar phrases and kung fu moves that we have learned through Hollywood:

“Concentrate. Flow like water, yield like bamboo.”

In one year’s time, Mingyi has to learn how to make her mind perfectly calm like the pool, how to emulate the stately crane who never loses its balance, and how to navigate her way around the plum poles which teach balance and quick reflexes. Whether or not Mingyi discovered her inner strength and the art of letting go and transcendence – I shall leave for you to discover.

The Art and Science of Kung Fu. Most of us are not unfamiliar with kung fu. Depending on which generation we came from, our knowledge could have been obtained from Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Ralph Macchio (read: Karate Kid 1, 2, 3 – who wouldn’t know Mr. Miyagi?) or in my daughter’s case Jaden Smith and Kung Fu Panda.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Finding this picture book has opened my mind’s eye to various phrases often attributed to males (popularized by Bruce Lee in particular) which actually came from highly-respected female warriors. In the Author’s Note, McCully has provided the readers an overview of what kung fu really is:

The literal meaning of kung fu is “human effort.” It denotes lifelong study, not only of combat techniques and exercise, but also of Chinese history, philosophy, science, and art. Recently, TV shows and movies have popularized the term kung fu in the West and made it synonymous with martial and performance arts. However, kung fu is primarily a means to physical and mental health and well-being through the development of a vital energy called “qi.” It is first and foremost an effort of the mind, not requiring bravery or force.

Having practiced Sivananda Yoga for nearly a year now, I appreciate this harnessing of energy or “qi” or “the force” in Star Wars parlance. McCully went on to share in her author’s note that one tradition attributes the beginnings of kung fu to an Indian monk, Bodhidharma who practiced Chan (Zen) Buddhism around the year 600.

Bodhidharma. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Bodhidharma is said to have develop a system of exercises to keep the monks for dozing off during their long periods of meditation – which eventually became useful in defense against bandits. The Shaolin monks eventually became renowned for their talents in martial arts.

What I loved most about the book is how martial arts, often associated with men, is seen to be mastered by beautiful female warriors who had faith in themselves and who, by letting go, gained everything – themselves, included.

About the Author (taken from the jacketflap of the book).

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Emily Arnold McCully‘s books have received many of the highest awards given to children’s literature, including the Caldecott Medal, for Mirette on the High Wire, the Christopher Medal, and the National Book Award.

Every book for her is an adventure and an exploration: for Beautiful Warrior, she spent months poring over dozens of books on Chinese art and illustrated novels of the Ming dynasty. She interviewed masters of kung fu and visited the schools at which they teach. She also explored the philosophy and teachings of Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching, as well as the principles of Tai Chi, considered by many to be the first martial art.

The result is an original tale with the feeling of traditional Chinese popular narrative.

Emily McCully lives in Chatham, New York, and Manhattan. Click here to be taken to her website.

Beautiful Warrior: The Legend of the Nun’s Kung Fu. Story and PIctures by Emily Arnold McCully. Arthur A. Levine Books: An Imprint of Scholastic Press, New York, 1998. Book borrowed from the NIE Library. Book photos were taken by me.

PictureBook Challenge Update: 46 of 120

PoC Reading Challenge Update: 13 of 25

Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge Update: 10 of 12

14 Comments on Nonfiction Monday: Beautiful Warrior – Of Plum Poles, Water, and Bamboo

  1. This sounds like a great book! I train Taekwon Do and I think I’d really like to read it! I really like the illlustrations you show.

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  2. What a fabulous-looking book, and a great companion to last week’s book to boot. I love the sense of movement in the illustrations you’ve shared.

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  3. I reviewed this one right at the beginning of my blogging last year. I too love the unusual marriage of martial arts with a woman. The illustrations are fabulous and I liek the wisdom of the old master.

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  4. I, too, enjoyed this book but wonder about the ‘authentic voice’ aspect. I know the author did lots of research but I’m still left wondering.
    Thanks for this, Myra.
    Tammy
    Apples with Many Seeds

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  5. You always write such detailed and beautiful reviews. I want to be you when I grow up! 🙂

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  6. Love this book…and this line: “Flow like water, yield like bamboo.” This is my new motto, Myra! And Emily Arnold McCully is just such a pro-strong women author, someone to introduce our students to very early on.

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