The Ballad of Mulan is an ancient Chinese poem about the now legendary figure of Huā Mùlán花木兰. It does not feature a talking dragon or a romantic sub-plot, but focuses solely on a young woman taking her aged father’s place in the army, and then declining the merit she receives for her exceptional performance in the twelve year long battle, simply to return home to her family.
Of course Mulan is a story many people know because of the animated film by [i]Disney in 1998, however the film was in fact based on the ancient Chinese Ballad of Mulan. The Disney film does not offer an accurate representation of the narrative from the original poem, which is understandable given their target audience, yet this sway has angered some as it provides a false perception of the figure of Hua Mulan. 所以 today I will be sharing with you the original story, The Ballad of Mulan.
The ballad is roughly two pages long, and the basic summary is what you read at the start of this post. It was written by an anonymous poet and was found in an ancient collection of Chinese folk songs and ballads called Yue-fu（乐府）. Although the historical context of the ballad is uncertain, it is estimated to have been composed during the 5th or 6th century CE, during the Northern Wei Dynasty when nomadic invaders ruled northern China. Therefore unlike the Disney animation, China was likely to have been fighting the Nomadic/Mongolians and not the Huns. The context also explains why ‘The Son of Heaven’ in the poem is referred to as “Khan” as it was a title given to rulers of the Nomadic people from the North. We know that the Son of Heaven refers to the Emperor of the time because of the ancient Chinese concept of the Mandate of Heaven. This links the Emperor to nature in order to justify their authority in the dynasty; similar to the Victorian concept of the Divine Right of Kings.
The poem is written in continuous prose, which allows a swift transition of events that are of course more elegantly conveyed in the original Chinese text. I have written a detailed summary of the poem that you can read below:
The ballad begins with Mulan sighing whilst weaving. She is asked who occupies her mind and her heart to which she replies that there is no one. Mulan explains that she saw draft posters of the Khan recruiting troops to join the army to defend the country from invaders, and that she saw her father’s name on each of the twelve scrolls. She feels conflicted because her father is too old to fight, but her family has no other male who is eligible to take his stead as her only brother is too young to join the troops. Mulan decides to travel to four markets of the East, West, South and North where she will buy a horse and its accessories as she plans to take her father’s place in the army by disguising herself as a man. At dawn she leaves her house and passes the Yellow River. When she reaches the Black Mountain by the evening she can no longer hear the calls of her parents and only hears the sounds of the mountain horses. The poem describes the unruly weather as Mulan advances on her journey through the mountains. Time is elapsed and within a few lines we learn that many soldiers have died in battle, but she returns alongside her comrades. Upon her return she meets the Son of Heaven (Khan) who sits on his ‘Splendid Hall’ throne as he distributes promotions in twelve ranks. The Khan asks Mulan what she desires from him, to which she replies that she does not require a Minister’s position and would rather be given a swift horse that she can ride to return home. Mulan’s parents hear her as she returns home and so they go outside the wall to meet her. Her sister puts on some rouge before facing the door, and her brother draws a knife to slaughter a pig and a sheep. Mulan enters her home and enters her chamber to undress from her war costume and instead wear her old dress. She fixes her hair and dabs some yellow powder on her face, which surprises her comrades who accompanied her. They are astonished not to have noticed that Mulan is actually a woman during the twelve years of battle. The poem ends with her rhetorical explanation that even a female and male hare cannot be distinguished when running alongside each other.
I chose not to include the actual poem because I haven’t translated it myself (although most translations I’ve read are almost identical and the summary I gave is quite similar to the poem anyway), but I found a really great source that includes English Chinese and Pinyin translation, which you can read here.
The family values of ancient China are subtly enforced from the start of the ballad, particularly that of filial piety. Filial piety/孝顺 ‘xiào shùn’ in Chinese, is the Confucian virtue of respecting and showing obedience to one’s parents. We see that Mulan observes孝顺by fighting in the army for the sake of her father’s health. Among other values of courage and independence, the ballad also evokes a sense of patriotism as it conveys how Mulan fought alongside her comrades for her country against what certain films depict as the barbaric Nomadic inavaders.
Writing this post reminded me of something I recently found on a similar theme; click here to see a collection of pictures of Disney Princesses which have been edited to resemble authentic Korean Princesses 真的很漂亮. Also, if you have not seen the Disney Mulan 虽然 you now know the main plot 但是I have found a short summary also made by the company if you want to have a look here. To even it out I did find an animated retelling of the original story that quotes the English translation of the original poem, which you can see here.
Additionally there have been rumours speculating that Disney plans to film a live action movie for the story of Mulan. Inevitably, this has been met with debate amongst fans who are curious to see if the film will follow the plot from the animated Disney production, or the traditional Chinese poem. Which do you think the film should be based on? Someone pointed out that it would be difficult to create a film based on two pages of ancient Chinese text, however I hope the movie (if created) is not heavily focused on romance and marriage, (afterall the Disney animation did begin with a scene of Mulan being trialed for an arranged marriage and then end with her courtship to Shang) but on the ancient Chinese values that the ballad represents.
It’s interesting to note that there are many narratives in popular culture (including a majority of the other Disney animations) that are based on lesser-known ancient stories such as Mulan. Also perhaps it’s due to the [ii]fasting or that these posts tend to be quite lengthy that I found myself procrastinating a lot whilst creating this post. Now I will resume the other creative projects I have been engaged in~
If you decide to look into the origin of a modern story, good luck世界.
从欣妍 – From Xinyan.
[i] For those who recall, in my earliest posts I substituted the name of the Disney company, however I have henceforth decided to stick with its actual name because of the continuous run ins. It should be fine, just wish me luck 😉
[ii] It is currently the Islamic month of Ramadan where Muslims abstain from eating food or drinking drinks from sunrise till sunset.