Huā Mùlán 花木兰

Mulan Final collage

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.

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7 thoughts on “Huā Mùlán 花木兰

  1. 木兰辞是乐府当中最的一篇,也应该算是典型的乐府,利用诗词来抒发在战乱不熄平民百姓的痛苦。家里父亲兄弟们被逼上战场使到家里的女性不止得下田干活且忍受随时亲人在战场里阵亡死不见尸的可能性。

    乐府其实就像百科全书,最古老有些学者认为是周朝就开始被记录下来了。比起木兰辞更古老的,而且是乐府中最长的一篇就是"孔雀东南飞",讲述一位妻子如何离开丈夫的行程。非常值得一看,特别是如何在一个女性毫无地位的社会里这一篇诗词可以流传到现在。"碩鼠"虽短,但巧妙的用老鼠来代表贪官污吏,发表人民心中的怨恨。

    But it’s great you’ve tried to do justice for this poem. It is in a sense bleak, but tells a lot of what the people thought in the era where the warlords takes precedence and the poor man has to suffer. It is by poetry and stories that they can fight back and be remembered.

    Like

  2. 我也非常欣赏花木兰,中国古代在各方面都许多优秀的人物知道研究。
    历史与艺术的结合使其变得更动人,文化的融合更有“青出于蓝而胜于蓝”的成果。
    感谢世界的赐教~

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This was really nice to read, I know with talk of a live action film going round a lot of people are talking about Mulan. Though very few discuss the poem itself and more the historical context of the story and the real Mulan herself, so this is quite refreshing.

    Again, I really like your style of writing, you take care with detail and don’t leave the reader hanging with seemingly unfinished points and I look forward to reading more in the future. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for reading! I agree the timing was quite appropriate indeed. I’m glad you enjoyed the post as well as my style in general 😄 Hope to see you back soon~

      Like

  4. I really enjoyed reading your post 🙂
    Thank you for such a interesting piece , in fact Mulan was the first Disney movie I’ve seen as a child so it is kinda special for me as well, but now knowing the background of the story I appreciate it even more 😊

    Like

    • It’s my pleasure; thank you very much and I appreciate your engagement 太棒! I’m very glad to hear that my post allowed you to better appreciate the story, I may have to re-watch it soon myself and maybe watch the film versions that have already been made. Thanks for stopping by 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This version of mulan was cleverly depicted and beautifully explained. Im not surprised. It is amazing how you highlighted and kept the traditional elements of mulan throughout your review. It is clear that alot of thought was put in to it to create such a beautiful piece which depicts the classical vision of mulan.
    Thank you
    Dongsaeng Hwaiting ~

    Liked by 1 person

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