Do You Believe the Legend?

Mulan's story, from the literature of ancient China, has been accepted as true. Even the Disney Studio immortalised her in digital cartoon, so it must be true! Actually, it's a bit far back, with too little evidence to be certain. It does make a great story though, real or not. First let's have a look at the poem from which we take our heroine.

The Ballad of Hua Mulan

An old wall hanging depicting Hua Mulan.
Alt Text--Hua Mulan wall hanging

Translated by "Fireball" of the China History Forum

Anonymous (c.5 A.D.)
Form: Yuefu

Tsiek tsiek and again tsiek tsiek,
Mulan weaves, facing the door.
You don't hear the shuttle's sound,
You only hear Daughter's sighs.
They ask Daughter who's in her heart,
They ask Daughter who's on her mind.
"No one is on Daughter's heart,
No one is on Daughter's mind.
Last night I saw the draft posters,
The Khan is calling many troops,
The army list is in twelve scrolls,
On every scroll there's Father's name.
Father has no grown-up son,
Mulan has no elder brother.
I want to buy a saddle and horse,
And serve in the army in Father's place.

In the East Market she buys a spirited horse,
In the West Market she buys a saddle,
In the South Market she buys a bridle,
In the North Market she buys a long whip.
At dawn she takes leave of Father and Mother,
In the evening camps on the Yellow River's bank.
She doesn't hear the sound of Father and Mother calling,
She only hears the Yellow River's flowing water cry tsien tsien.

At dawn she takes leave of the Yellow River,
In the evening she arrives at Black Mountain.
She doesn't hear the sound of Father and Mother calling,
She only hears Mount Yen's nomad horses cry tsiu tsiu.
She goes ten thousand miles on the business of war,
She crosses passes and mountains like flying.
Northern gusts carry the rattle of army pots,
Chilly light shines on iron armor.
Generals die in a hundred battles,
Stout soldiers return after ten years.

On her return she sees the Son of Heaven,
The Son of Heaven sits in the Splendid Hall.
He gives out promotions in twelve ranks
And prizes of a hundred thousand and more.
The Khan asks her what she desires.
"Mulan has no use for a minister's post.
I wish to ride a swift mount
To take me back to my home."

When Father and Mother hear Daughter is coming
They go outside the wall to meet her, leaning on each other.
When Elder Sister hears Younger Sister is coming
She fixes her rouge, facing the door.
When Little Brother hears Elder Sister is coming
He whets the knife, quick quick, for pig and sheep.
"I open the door to my east chamber,
I sit on my couch in the west room,
I take off my wartime gown
And put on my old-time clothes."
Facing the window she fixes her cloudlike hair,
Hanging up a mirror she dabs on yellow flower powder
She goes out the door and sees her comrades.
Her comrades are all amazed and perplexed.
Traveling together for twelve years
They didn't know Mulan was a girl.
"The he-hare's feet go hop and skip,
The she-hare's eyes are muddled and fuddled.
Two hares running side by side close to the ground,
How can they tell if I am he or she?"

From: The Flowering Plum and the Palace Lady: Interpretations of Chinese Poetry
By Han H. Frankel, Yale University Press, 1976

The earliest record of this poem is from Guo Maoquin's 12th century collection of songs and poems. He is reputed to have taken this one from a much earlier copy. The original, no longer in existence, was from the 6th century.

The story was expanded into a novel during the late Ming dynasty, and we have been making plays, musicals and movies about her ever since.

Summary of Hua Mulan's Story

Hua Mulan.
Alt Text--Hua Mulan female warrior

Long ago, in the Wei, Sui or Tang, depending on who tells it, there was an invasion on the borders of Mulan's homeland. The barbarious Tujie decided they weren't happy with what they had and the easiest way to rectify this state of affairs, was to take it from someone else. Quite understandably, the emporer was furious. He demanded that every family provide a soldier for his army. Mulan's people had already been trained to fight. Sensibly, they had put the work in during peace time, so that when the borderlanders attacked, it was simply a matter of drafting trained soldiers.

Mulan's father had been a soldier before. He was well trained and had passed his skills on to his daughter. He was retired now and too frail to fight. Her brother was too young. Nevertheless, the emporer must be obeyed, so the old man was called to swell the ranks. His daughter knew he would be killed, so she offered to go in his place. Neither of her parents thought this an acceptable alternative, so our Tang dynasty maiden decided to prove she was able.

One day, a young man challenged Mulan's father to a bout. The older man was soundly beaten, and amazed to discover, the young challenger was his own daughter. He was convinced. Women with swords were not the done thing in the Tang dynasty army, so Hua Mulan dressed as a male and went anyway.

She bought a horse and riding gear, and trotted off to oust the barbarians. They proved more tenacious than expected and the war lasted twelve years. Mulan was such a good fighter, she rose through the ranks to the level of general. How she hid the fact she was a woman, for such a long time, is the subject of much debate. While in the army, she made friends with General Li and even he didn't guess.

Finally, an ambush succeeded. With the capture of the enemy king. The war was over. Money was offered to every soldier but our heroine only wanted a camel to get back to her family as quickly as possible. It was over and so was her game of playing the part of a man. She officially resigned and took off. This was mostly because the commanding general had decided she would make a perfect husband for his daughter. She pretended injury from the battle, evaded him and left on her fast camel.

Not to be put off, the commander sent his friend General Li, to her home, with wedding gifts. he was to arrange the marriage. When General Li arrived, the young male general had turned into a woman.

This was a big shock. He did two things about the situation - explained the circumstances to the hopeful commanding general, and claimed the woman's hand in marriage for himself.

So there we have it. Three provinces claim her birth. Three dynasties vie for her lifetime. There are lots of versions of the story, especially the ending. Even her name is much in dispute. Legend or history - you decide. She is known as one of ancient China's greatest women with swords.

Leave Mulan and return to Women with Swords.

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