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.


The Boat to Redemption

‘The Boat to Redemption’ is a novel by the author Su Tong, who explores grey areas during the time of the Chinese Cultural Revolution of disloyalty, shame and self repression (to list a few). It was one of the novels that I was required to read as part of the Chinese course that I am currently taking and so I took it upon myself to read it during summer to prepare me for the work to come. We were set a task to summarise the plot in a minimum of 300 words, but I’m not sure if anyone else go the memo (quite literally since we have a new teacher in charge of languages at my college). I made sure that I wrote a summary anyway, so I invite you to take a read and see what you think of the story.

E_book*THIS WILL CONTAIN ‘SPOILERS’ (it’s quite a thorough summary)*

The novel focuses on the stages of childhood to adulthood of the central character, Ku Dongliang in narrative a style that is similar to The Catcher in the Rye. He goes through life with a careless attitude, which results in him being nicknamed ‘Kongpi’ which can be translated into ‘empty’. The novel is centered on how Dongliang faces his ordeals of living with his controlling father, living a mundane life on the barges, and creating chaos whenever he visits land. The male protagonist narrates in a Romantic style, particularly when describing Huixian who he calls his ‘Sunflower’, which is similar to the narrative voice of Nick Carraway from the Great Gatsby. Their personalities also share similar traits as they both lack confidence and have voyeuristic tendencies that they develop in different ways.

After an investigation concluding that Dongliang’s father was not the son of the revolutionary Martyr Deng Shaoxiang, the Ku family bloodline is tainted and Secretary Ku (Dongliang’s father) is banished from the political party to live at sea. Dongliang chooses to go with his father to live on the barges and leaves his mother on land, where she often sends him letters that he chooses not to reply to.

He later meets the central female character of the novel Huixian as she is abandoned on the ship in her infancy. From then on, members of the barges who had competed to become her surrogate parents bring her up, and Dongliang keeps a diary to record her developments. Dongliang becomes engrossed in compiling the diary with rumours related to Huixian, who she has talked to, what she has worn, as well as some fabricated truths. Eventually Huixian leaves the barges and becomes the lead in a parade with the role of ‘Little Tiemei’, and subsequently gains the affection and attention of people across China. As a result of this, Huixian is taken in by high-ranking officials and is on the path to a secure future and a promising life. However Huixian cannot maintain the image she was once known for of being Little Tiemei and distinguishes herself from her role by changing her appearance and becoming more liberal in her personality. This does not bode well with the officials taking her under their wing and after a few arguments; Huixian is ‘hung out’ and takes refuge in a Barbershop where she becomes an employee. After hearing news of Huixian’s demise, Dongliang makes frequent visits to the barbershop where she works so that he can gain the courage to talk to her, and see if the ‘sunflower’ can reciprocate the love felt by the ‘gourd’ (creative metaphor employed towards the end of Dongliang’s diary compilation). Towards the end of the novel there are new findings in the investigation into the Ku family line, which cause more problems for Dongliang and his now ill father. Dongliang goes to great measures to save his father’s pride in a bid to rescue him from imminent death; however at the end of the story his father commits suicide by drowning with the memorial plaque of Dengshaoxiang held to his chest. The novel then ends with Dongliang being banned from returning to land.

Now that you’ve read the summary what did you think? Another book that I have read is ‘Wild Swans’ by Jung Chang which I personally found more enjoyable (I can try and discuss that another time).

If you ever need to read a novel that isn’t particularly to your taste and then write a summary; good luck 世界!!

从欣妍 – From Xinyan.

29th May 15: Re-reading the summary I wrote again makes me feel quite proud of what I produced in a short space of time 哈哈你同意呢 The novel was a struggle to complete due to the central theme of the narrative, but after reading it a second time and conducting some research I was able to consider deeper meanings of certain episodes I had initially dismissed as absurd. I have already sat my cultural exam (which includes the Literature paper) so hopefully my script is reflective of my efforts, 祝我好运.