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, 木蘭無長胸, 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

A Fatal “Expertise”

The Letters of Emily Dickinson Edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, Dover Publications, Mineola, New York, 2003

Have you read any T.W. Higginson poems lately? Didn’t think so. Don’t feel bad. I’ve never met anyone who has. There’s a very profound and compelling reason for that: he didn’t write any poems worth reading.

Not that I should disparage him for that; he had his share of redeeming qualities: a faithful soldier for the Northern cause; a passionate abolitionist; manned a few ‘stations’ of the Underground Railway: all of that much to his credit. He was also an author and a publisher. He styled himself a “literary expert”.

But…poet? Nah!

Need a sample? How about these lines from what he surely considered one of his ‘best’:

Over the field where the brown quails whistle,
Over the ferns where the rabbits lie, 
Floats the tremulous down of a thistle
Is it the soul of a butterfly?

The rest of his repertoire goes downhill from there.

So someone–please!–tell me how Thomas Wentworth Higginson became Emily Dickinson’s “literary mentor”–her “expert” adviser on all things poetic! For 24 years, he enjoyed that role–uncontested–and never gave her the slightest encouragement; never helped her publish even one of her many masterpieces! As a matter of fact, all her life, he repeatedly discouraged her from doing so.

Emily Dickinson was 31 years old when she read an article by Higginson in the Atantic Monthly, advising young writers on how to break into publishing. Well, she had already written 300 poems by then. She tucked four of her favorites into an envelope and sent them off to the Master. “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” she timidly asked. And that was the beginning of a long correspondence.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson: Emily
Dickinson’s lifelong literary ‘advisor’.

Of course, his answer was ‘no’ on both counts: no, he was not too deeply occupied; and no her verse was not “alive”. Isn’t that what literary “experts” and agents are for? I’m paraphrasing actually; we don’t have his letter of reply; but from her subsequent correspondence with him, it is not at all hard to glean what he had written to her. She thanks him, for example, for “the painful surgery” of his initial rejection (Letter 261). She quotes his complaint that she is “uncontrolled”, that she is afflicted with a “spasmodic gait” (meter). And when he urges her “not to publish” (Letter 265) she sadly dismisses the idea as being “as foreign to my thought as Firmament to fin.” (There she goes! Don’t you love it? We would have written: “as far from my thoughts as heaven is from the deep blue sea”, but when would she ever be so mundane?)

Sometimes “experts” aren’t what they’re hyped up to be; have you noticed? And it has always been that way. Thomas Edison had Mr. Engle. Rachmaninoff had Cesar Cui. The Wright Brothers had Samuel Langley who, with all the powers that be, belittled them and their humble contraption…until the humble contraption flew! Then all of a sudden, people were asking: “what precisely do ‘experts’ do?”

And Emily Dickinson had Thomas Higginson. Her correspondence with him went on for many years, but after just a few of them, Emily gave up all thought of being a “published” poet. Sadly, she rarely mentioned it again.

But she didn’t give up writing! Oh, no! This ‘contraption’ was going to fly too! (And here’s a lesson dear aspiring writer!) Within just a year of that first rejection, she finished her 600th poem, and that was just the beginning.

After her death in 1886, Emily’s sister, Lavinia found an old box in the back of her closet upstairs. The box contained dozens of packets, neatly tied with twine and safely tucked away. The packets contained almost all of her writings–1775 poems–a great majority of which were exquisite masterpieces.

Need an example? Oh, where to begin? Let’s try this profound thing (#318), which was among the very first to be rejected by our “expert”, Mr. Higginson:

I'll tell you how the Sun rose--
A Ribbon at a time--
The Steeples swam in Amethyst--
The news like squirrels ran--
The Hills untied their bonnets--
The Bobolinks--begun--
Then I said softly to myself--
"That must have been the Sun"!

But how he set--I know not--
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while--
Till when they reached the other side, 
A Dominie in Gray--
Put gently up the evening Bars--
And led the flock away.

Sharilyn and I had a fun conversation about this one once. I had shared it with her as one of my favorites; but she didn’t seem too impressed with it. “Sorry, I don’t really get it,” she handed it back to me. “Well, that’s probably because you’ve never seen a sunrise.” Don’t worry, it brought a laugh, and I knew it would. In all the years I’ve known her, she’s never been the slightest bit ashamed of that fact. “If the sun wants to come up at 8:00 some time, I’ll be perfectly happy to watch it,” she replied. “Now just explain the poem.”

“Well, I’ve seen the sun do this in the morning in the Sierras: illuminate the ground, piece-by-piece, a ribbon at a time, as the light advances over the peak. And I’ve seen the light ‘run’ too, across the canyon floor, starting and stopping as it goes: exactly the way “squirrels run”. And I think it’s brilliant what she does! And as for “the hills untied their bonnets“? Suddenly flashing brilliant blonde, as soon as the sunlight hits.

“But now, the last half, about the sunset: well if you don’t quite get that part yet, it’s because it isn’t talking about a sunset anymore, but something much more profound.”

How about this marvelous piece (#67): which surely was a product of her sad longing to succeed at publishing her work:

Success is counted sweetest 
By those who ne'er succeed. 
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need. 

Not one of all the purple Host 
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition 
So clear of victory 

As he defeated--dying--
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

When her sister Lavinia found those ‘packets’, she knew she’d uncovered a treasure! And she knew they had to be published! She brought them to her best friend, Mabel Loomis Todd, a professor’s wife at Amherst College. “Oh yes,” Mrs. Todd agreed, “these must be published.” And she knew the perfect man for the job, too. Why, the literary “expert” Mr. Higginson, of course. Together Todd and Higgison worked through the packets, picking out 115 of the very best, and…

…and then Thomas Wentworth Higginson went to work; changing every poem; re-writing almost every one; smoothing out the “awkward” rhymes; correcting the “spasmodic” rhythms and–oh!–those obnoxious odd metaphors of hers! Surely they had to go. Oh, it was hard work, refining and perfecting this poor girl’s primitive stuff!

Today, Higginson’s “expertise” is the laughingstock of the literary world. No one wants his versions any more. Subsequent publishers threw them away and dove back into those packets as if they were mining for gold. They dug out the priceless originals that we all enjoy today.

And doesn’t that all speak volumes about the “experts” in our world today, which seem to be multiplying year after year?

The Footprint

Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, Illustrated by N.C. Wyeth, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1983

One of the greatest narrative ‘finesses’ in literature, if you ask my opinion, is that footprint in the sand on Robinson Crusoe’s island. Just one. No need for more. Daniel Defoe stretched his credibility a bit, leaving only one print there on the beach like that. What had happened to the rest of the tracks? But no! The author specifically wanted only one!

“The Footprint” from
N. C. Wyeth’s beautifully
illustrated edition.

Later his man would see even more disturbing things but, right now, this was enough to completely eradicate the peace, contentment and sense of well-being that he had been enjoying for eleven years already. Isn’t it incredible?

The print of a beast would be disturbing as well; but never to this degree!

Several days after his initial flight from the scene, Crusoe races back to it with an afterthought: perhaps the print is his own! Of course! What was he thinking? Why hadn’t he thought of that before?

Oh, but he already knows that that’s not the case! He had already noticed that the footprint was larger; and yet–wouldn’t you know?–he places his foot into the print anyway! Wouldn’t you? Just…out of sheer desperation? Hoping somehow to find some assurance!

What a marvelous touch! The presence of Another, and the fear it engenders! How fraught with the Fall of Man is this passage!

And how typical of this marvelous classic!

It happens some 200 pages into the narrative and, immediately, everything has changed! The tone of the narrative is now frantic with dread and suspicion. For the rest of the book, we will never be far from a constant, repetitive rehearsing of perils, uncertainties and dangerous contingencies. At one point, Robinson actually considers destroying everything he has built; everything he has enjoyed all these years: his two homes, his crops, his flocks and their pens, his boat—every vestige of his existence must now be removed from the possibility of detection. And all because of a single footprint!

It is precisely at this point that our castaway gives us yet another of his priceless reflections:

“O what ridiculous resolutions men take when possessed with fear…Thus fear of danger is ten thousand times more terrifying than danger itself…and we find the burden of anxiety greater, by much, than the evil which we are anxious about…”

Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY 1983, p. 210

Spoken like Winston Churchill himself! In fact, I’m sure Churchill grew up with this treasure! And loved every page!

What makes this such a marvelous work is how, over and over again, on almost every page, we keep sensing that this is more than the tale of just… one…castaway!


We Need A Monster-Slayer

Why Beowulf still thrills us.

Beowulf: A new verse translation by Seamus Heaney, bilingual edition. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2000

I am trying to figure out just how, on earth, this most ancient relic of English literature still manages to thrill me every time I open its pages. A few months back I bought a copy for my 12-year old granddaughter, and I must confess she gave me a rather puzzled look when she opened it up.

I gave her sheepish.

Yeah, not exactly the trendiest thing I could give her; and maybe a bit too early too. But, she’ll get it one day and when she does, she’ll love it, or I don’t know my granddaughter!

Maybe it’s the translation. Seamus Heaney’s is wonderful and I don’t remember the older versions being so forceful and readable and…well…alive. I do love playing with the bilingual page, too. It’s just perfect for a poser like myself, who likes to think he can read some of the Old English anyway.

But, no, the real reason why this ancient epic poem still thrills…is the man! If Beowulf (the man) doesn’t strike a chord in you, then…well…you might need some kind of transplant!

The story begins with Heorot—the great and glorious royal hall of the King of the Danes—now empty, abandoned, and falling into ruin. No man goes there anymore. They used to. It used to be a wonderful place, full of joy and excitement, where all the king’s warriors would gather and celebrate their victories, share their treasures, and have fellowship together. 

But not now; those days are over. Ever since…

“…a fiend out of hell began to work his evil in the world. Grendel was the name of this grim demon haunting the marshes, marauding round the heath and the desolate fens…”

Beowulf, Trans. Seamus Heaney, p. 9, lines 100-104

Every night, in the middle of the night, this horrible creature has been coming up from the marsh. Swiftly, viciously he rips the massive doors from their hinges and “grabs thirty men from their resting places and rushes to his lair…blundering back with their butchered corpses.” Night after night it keeps happening until the King’s forces are just decimated. The bravest and the best in the land have been devoured and are gone. And everyone else has just fled, so that, now, the once-glorious Heorot Hall is just an abandoned ruin. 

But that’s when a young soldier named Beowulf shows up. He comes from the faraway land of the Geats (southern Sweden). He’s heard about the problem. In fact, he’s been somewhat intrigued by the challenge of it all; and now, with his band of mighty men in tow, he has come to solve it.

Well, everyone warns him that it can’t be done: No man fights Grendel and lives, they say. He’s a God-cursed brute; a descendant of Cain. No one has even yet harmed him. Why, his skin is so tough that no sword will even pierce him

“Then I won’t use a sword,” Beowulf calmly announces.

And instantly you love this man!  

That night, Beowulf and fourteen of his men move into Heorot Hall and everyone settles down for the night. Before too long, the whole place is asleep. Except, that is, for one. One of them is pretending to sleep. Finally, late in the depths of the night, as the hall resounds with the dreadful noise of the front doors being ripped from their hinges again, young Beowulf is ready…and waiting!

Well, of course I’m not going to spoil it for you. You need to read it on your own. Let’s just call it “problem solved”. The next morning, the King of the Danes and his handful of surviving warriors come timorously back to Heorot Hall. They’re expecting the worst, of course. But—oh!—the sun is shining; it’s a beautiful day and Beowulf’s men have had a great night’s sleep. Everything’s fine. Everyone’s safe; and our “God-cursed brute” is not coming back. How do we know? Well…let’s just say there’s a ‘piece’ of evidence, now nailed to one of the rafters in the Royal Hall!

I love it! I love the clarity of good vs. evil. I love the virtue and the moral strength of the monster-slayer; and the hero’s ‘calm’; his unshakable resolve to go ‘hand-to-hand’. With all due respect to Harry Potter and his wand, give me Beowulf and his two bare hands any day.

This world will always need a monster-slayer. Where do you find a people that doesn’t feel overwhelmed when the crisis looms large and the problem can’t be pierced? This world needs a monster-slayer. That’s why, after more than a thousand years, the book still resounds. That’s why the author of this marvelous thing, whoever he was, spoke of our Savior on almost every page. He saw the parallels in this ancient legend.

Oh, that reminds me. I love the realism too! Oh, yes—didn’t you know?—this ancient relic of an epic poem is brutally realistic; there’ll be no simplistic happily ever after formula at the end of this thing! Which makes it just as relevant as can be for us, as we fight the battles of our day and age. Because—you see?—this story is not over. One battle doesn’t win the war! As soon as the problem of Grendel is solved…

…we discover that he has a mother! And she is not pleased…

Old Volumes

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson Ed. Thomas H. Johnson, Little, Brown and Co., New York, 1960

Of all the books that fill all the shelves, only one I believe, has to be hard-bound. I mean: must be–as by law. A paperback edition of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson is an affront to…well…many people, really, but certainly its author. I have one of those and it’s an affront to me. The last time I took it down from the shelf, it spilled forth forty pages all over my study floor.

Those were good pages too.

I picked them up and tucked them back in with a shake of the head: Published in the ’60’s, what did you expect? Who did this thing? Oh! Et tu, Little, Brown. I am certain that, if she had been there with me, she would have been shaking her head as well:

“What possessed you to purchase such a thing?”

“A college budget. C’mon!”

No, for Emily Dickinson, let it be hard-bound. In fact, ‘vellum’ would be nice; with a certain fragrance of ‘must’; and pages gracefully yellowed. For…

“A precious–mouldering pleasure–’tis–

To meet an Antique Book–

In just the dress His Century wore–

A privilege–I think…

…His presence is enchantment–

You beg him not to go–

Old volumes shake their Vellum Heads

And tantalize us so.”


%d bloggers like this: