The first section of "White Tigers" is Kingston's childhood fantasy of living the life of Fa Mu Lan, the woman warrior—a story that derives from one of Brave Orchid's talk-stories. (Note that the fantasy is written in the first-person, in the present tense. For convenience, this summary uses "Kingston" to stand for what might be more accurately described as "the narrator," "the girl," or even "Fa Mu Lan.")

In the fantasy, Kingston follows a bird up into the mountains until she comes to the hut of an old couple, who want to train her to become a great warrior. As part of her training she spends years alone on the mountain of the white tigers, fasting for days and then eating only roots and vegetables and drinking only melted snow. At Kingston's hungriest moment, a rabbit jumps into the fire to sacrifice himself to appease her hunger. Kingston's self-imposed starvation causes her to have hallucinations and revelations about the world.

When Kingston returns from the mountain, at the age of fourteen, her mentors teach her to fight. They also show her images of her family in a gourd of water. In the first scene her parents are arranging, in her absence, her marriage to a childhood friend. In the next scene Kingston watches her husband and younger brother being conscripted and taken away by soldiers belonging to a Chinese baron. The girl yearns to save her husband and brother, but her mentors tell her she is not ready, that she must wait until she is twenty-two.

When Kingston is ready to leave the mountain—when she has learned how to use the magical "sky sword" and is given powerful beads by the old couple—she returns to her parents and vows to go and fight the baron's army. In preparation, her parents tattoo a list of grievances all over her back, symbolizing revenge. A white horse appears to carry her, and she dons a man's armor and prepares to lead. The villagers bring what sons they have left to join her army.

Pretending to be a man, Kingston becomes a great warrior at the head of a huge army of peasants. In one of her first conquests, she defeats and then wins over the army of a powerful giant. Her husband joins her, and before long she is carrying a newborn baby in a sling under her armor. Though she is nearly defeated by a powerful genie—she becomes distracted when her husband takes the baby home—she eventually leads the entire population of China to overthrow the corrupt emperor and put a peasant in his place. Finally, she confronts and beheads the baron who had robbed her village of its sons.

The second section of "White Tigers" contrasts Kingston's life in America with her fantasy as Fa Mu Lan. Kingston describes how the Chinese emigrants in America continued to treat women as worthless, how sayings like "better to raise geese than girls" were commonplace. Kingston's own family largely dismisses her accomplishments, such getting straight A's in school. Kingston cannot even stand up to a series of racist bosses and businessmen, must less save the people in China, many of whom are dying at the hands of the Communists. In the end, she learns that her weapons are her words, and that she could use them to unite her people—the Chinese-Americans—behind her.