The Real Mulan

木蘭辭。宋: 樂府詩集。 郭茂倩編 The Ballad of MuLan, Collected Yue-fu Poems edited by Guo Mao Qian

Now that the virus has put the Disney production on hold for a while, it’s probably time to just read the real story of Mulan. I’m talking about the primary source; which I always recommend, especially when it comes to Disney. Goodness!–the historical revisionism in Disney’s Pocahontas is just flagrant to anyone who knows the real story; as in Captain John Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia (1624) and a few other primary sources. Oh the movie is fun; I don’t want to spoil it. I like the songs, and I like artistic embellishment just as much as the next guy, but don’t our kids need to know the truth of our history? Isn’t the historical record important any more? Because Disney’s version of Pocahontas is…well...”as foreign to the truth as firmament to fin”.

Perhaps they’ll do a little better with Mulan.

The story of the girl who dressed up as a soldier and went to war in her father’s place is well-known and greatly loved by everyone in China; anyone who has studied beyond elementary school at least. For decades now, it has been a favorite classroom assignment: to be memorized and recited before all of their classmates.

The poem shows up in an old Song Dynasty collection (Collected Yue-fu Poems, edited by Guō Màoqiàn 樂府詩集。 郭茂倩); but it is much older than that, going back at least to the sixth century.

Our heroine lived in the Kingdom of Wei during one of the most tumultuous and chaotic periods of Chinese history. The great Han Dynasty had fallen apart; the various states were all devouring each other; enemy invaders were pouring in from the west. In fact, the emperor of Wei, mentioned in our story, is actually a foreigner himself, a member of the conquering Tuo-ba clan. He prefers the title ‘Khan’. The title is used interchangeably with ’emperor’ in the poem. But as our story begins, another invading tribe, the Rouran (a Mongol clan), are threatening now.

The ‘Khan’s great military draft’, mentioned early in the poem, was a brutal affair. It demanded that every household send a male to the western regions to fight the invading forces and, apparently, there were no exceptions granted. Mulan’s father is way too old; her little brother way too young. But the law is the law and father must go, and so Mulan armors up! Don’t you love it? In the predawn hours, before the household is awake, she heads off to war in her father’s place, fully disguised as a young man now.

You can see why it’s a favorite.

The story is told in ballad form and it has the distinction of being truly ‘folk’. That means it is free from much of the stodgy baggage of the gentry-class poetry that would later be so highly revered. The structure of this one is simple and free and irregular. The wording is vernacular; the common people sang this. The story is just plain fun. You might bear in mind that the story is supposed to be sung to a drum-beat and some instruments, but any notation of that is now lost.

Mulan’s story has been revised and embellished and retold ever since; and with just about as much liberty as Disney might employ. In the late 16th Century, there was Xu Wei’s (徐渭) two-act play The Female Mulan Goes to War in Her Father’s Place (雌木蘭替父從軍). She shows up again, in the late 17th Century, in Zhu Ren-huo’s historical novel (褚人獲) Heroes of the Sui and Tang (隋唐演義); plus operas, a ballet, two Chinese silent movies, five more modern movies, one Chinese animation, a Hong Kong songbook, a Hong Kong TV series, children’s books, video games, the list goes on. Long before Disney ever picked it up, Mulan was all the rage.

But what you’re about to read, the ancient Yue-fu: The Ballad of Mulan, is the very source of it all. It is simple, unadorned and the only real facts we have. It’s kind of nice to go all the way back to the source, don’t you think?

The translation of Chinese poetry always demands some sacrifice, and the reason for that is simple: Chinese poets can pack an incredible amount of message into just five little words! And always, when they do, it sounds pleasing and perfectly ‘right’.

Statue of Mulan returning to her father, in downtown XinXiang, China

If you look at the original text below, every punctuation mark is the end of a line. I strung the lines together just to make room on my page. Most of the lines are just five words long, sometimes seven or nine for variety’s sake, but always–always–just as concise as can be; and full of meaning.

On the other hand, my English lines are just all over the place. To make them fit your iPhone format, I’ve had to break each English line into two. So two of my lines often represent just five words of the original! Isn’t it amazing? But–hey!–we have to have our articles and conjunctions and prepositions and auxiliary verbs, don’t we? After all, this is the English language, for goodness’ sake!

None of which the Chinese poet needs at all! It is almost impossible to stay true to the form of a Chinese poem and still produce something that ‘works’ in English. And make no mistake about it: this isn’t the stuff of Haiku. There is a story here; a legend; a tale being told; and the subjective impressionism of Haiku (which simply tries to capture a sensation) is not being implemented. If I strictly adhered to the Chinese form of just five words per line, my English rendition would read like some kind of psychological “word-association” test. It is absolutely fascinating how this brevity and precision can work so well in one language, and not at all in the other!

Still, I’ve tried hard to ‘capture’ the important words and be literal with them; and the important ideas within every line and certainly all the story. The story, after all, is the important thing here and I’m not really pretending that this English rendition is a good piece of poetry.

I hope you enjoy it though…


無名著。樂府詩。 郭茂倩

唧唧復唧唧, 木蘭當戶織。 不聞機杼聲, 惟聞女嘆息。
問女何所思, 問女何所憶。女亦無所思,女亦無所憶。
昨夜見軍帖, 可汗大點兵,軍書十二卷, 卷卷有爺名。
啊爺無大兒, 木蘭無長兄, 願為市鞍馬, 從此替爺政。

東市買鵔馬, 西市買鞍鞬, 南市買轡頭, 北市買長鞭。
旦辭爺娘去, 暮宿黃河邊,不聞爺娘嘆女聲,

萬里赴戎機, 關山度若飛。 朔氣傳金柝, 寒光照鐵衣。
將軍百戰死, 狀士十年歸。

歸來見天子, 天子坐明堂。測勛十二轉,賞賜百千強。
可汗問所欲, 木蘭不用尚書郎,願馳千里足,送兒還故鄉。

爺娘聞女來, 出郭相扶將,啊妹聞姊來,當戶理紅妝。
小弟聞姊來, 磨刀霍霍向豬羊。


The Ballad of Mulan

Translated by Robert Schorr (© copyright 2020)

Anonymous Northern Kingdom folk ballad. From Collected YueFu Poems edited by Guō Màoqiàn, but of much earlier origin; probably 6th Century.

With the whirring and the whirring 
and the whirring of the loom
Mulan is busy with the household weaving. 
But no one pays attention 
to the sound of the machine, 
They only hear the sighs 
of a young girl grieving.
If you ask this girl what she is thinking, 
if you ask her why she grieves, 
she’ll find no words to express those thoughts; 
she’ll not be able to explain that grief. 
A government notice was posted last night, 
announcing the Khan’s great military draft.
Page after page of stern decree, 
and her dear father’s name on every one! 
Her father is old with no son to enlist. 
Mulan has no older brother. 
So she sets out to purchase a saddle and horse; 
she will go to the war in her father’s place! 
East of town, she buys a war horse. 
West of town: a saddle and blanket.
South of town: a bridle and bit. 
North of town: a good horse-whip. 

At daybreak she leaves her folks behind. 
Come nightfall she camps by the Yellow River.  
Too far away to hear her parents, 
crying for their daughter,  
She only hears the murmur 
of the river’s mournful flow.  
At daybreak she leaves the river behind. 
By nightfall it’s Black Mountain Pass. 
Too far away to hear her parents, 
crying for their daughter,   
She only hears the dreadful neigh 
of enemy steeds on Swallow Mountain.
For thousands of miles, over steep mountain passes, 
they’ve all come to throw themselves into the fray! 
And now, in the icy northern air, 
pierced by the sound of the watchman’s clacker, 
The warriors wait, their armor agleam, 
under the wintry lights of the night.

Through a hundred battles they fought 
and they died: soldiers and officers alike.
After ten long years, as heroes now, 
the survivors make the long journey home.
They stand before the Emperor's throne, 
in the great Ceremonial Hall,
where awards and appointments 
and thousands of treasures 
are offered to them all. 
But when the great Khan asks her what she desires, 
Mulan has no need of reward,
“But--oh for a thousand-mile steed that can speed 
me back to my old home town.” 

When her dear parents finally hear the news: 
“Your daughter has come back!” 
they hobble out, supporting each other, 
to the city gate to meet her.
When big sister hears that her little sis is home, 
she decorates the door in brilliant red. 
When little brother hears that his big sis is home, 
he hurries to sharpen the blade for a feast.
“Open that door in the East Pavilion. 
Let me sit on that West Chamber couch. 
Help me take off this military gear, 
and--oh!--bring me the skirts that I used to wear.”
And there by the window, as in the old days, 
she lets down that beautiful cloud of hair.
Looks in the mirror, puts on some makeup, 
then heads back out to her fellow warriors. 
And the fellow warriors are shocked to discover: 
“This one fought with us twelve long years
and we never knew that our ‘Mulan’ was a woman!”  

“The male rabbit’s steps are impossible to follow; 
the female has those mysterious eyes. 
But when male and female travel side-by-side, 
who can tell? Which one am I?” 

Well, whenever our “Plague Year” draws to a close and the movie Mulan finally screens, at least you can say to your friends when it’s over: “That was pretty good, but have you read the original?” RAS

Categories: Books and Literature, Literary Treasures, poetry

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2 replies

  1. I loved this and the rhythm of the poetry still shined through as if It were too big to be contained by a single language! The refrain, “Too far away to hear her parents,
    crying for their daughter,” touched the depths of my heart and I could feel Milan’s innate courage and dignity. After this epic experience, all she wanted was to go home, to be herself again, in the home of the parents who loved and cried for her. Isn’t that the deepest longing of us all, more than all of the emperor’s riches? At heart, she was just a simple but very brave little girl who laid down her life for those she loved and wanted nothing more. No wonder we are still in awe of her and her willingness to give all for love and sacred duty.

    Liked by 1 person

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