Mulan, a nation's historic heroine

Peter Zhang
IN China, there were also a number of women warriors in its history, no more so than Hua Mulan...
Peter Zhang

Most people outside of China learned about the nation’s historic heroine, Hua Mulan,through the animated feature film “Mulan,” produced by Walt Disney in 1998. The femalewarrior disguised herself as a man to fight in place of her aged father.

IN the world’s history, there were many women warriors, such as Joan of Arc of France, Caterina Segurana of Italy, Deborah Sampson Gannett of America, and Agustina of Aragón of Spain. Most of them went into wars in order to defend their homelands, fight invaders or achieve other noble goals.

In China, there were also a number of women warriors in its history, no more so than Hua Mulan, who disguised herself as a man to serve in the imperial army to take the place of her aged father.

There are no historical records to indicate whether Hua Mulan really existed, but many Chinese legends and folklores claim that she lived during the Northern Wei Dynasty (AD 386-534). She has also been described as a beautiful woman who was skilled in martial arts.

To save her father from being conscripted to fight in the battlefields against invaders near the country’s northern borders, Hua Mulan served in the army for 12 years and fought numerous battles. Miraculously, she was able to survive all the hardships and killings without her identity as a woman being uncovered.

Eventually, she was honorably discharged.

Many people in other parts of the world learned about the Chinese heroine through the homonymous animated feature film “Mulan,” which was produced by Walt Disney, based on the Chinese legend, and directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook. The film was released in 1998.

In China, however, nearly everyone has learnt about this heroine from the “Ode of Mulan,” an extremely popular ballad which first appeared in the country during the Southern and Northern Dynasties period (AD 420-589). It was then subsequently revised and embellished a few times in the following dynasties until the Song Dynasty (960-1279), when it became the 330 Chinese-character poem as we know today.

It is now included in the textbooks of nearly all Chinese schools and students, who are often required to recite the melodious ballad, the source of all other forms of art about Hua Mulan, such as paintings, poems, novels, plays, musicals, songs and dances.

Here, let’s read parts of the beautiful “Ode of Mulan.”

The ballad begins with a vivid description of a situation:

The art rendition of Hua Mulan in the “Glory of the King,” the hottest mobile phone game currently in China. All players of the game get to choose one of the nation’s most popular heroes, heroines or legends in Chinese history.

Creaking, again creaking,

Mulan is weaving, facing the door;

Then, there’s no sound of the shuttles,

Only the repeated sighs of the girl.

When asked what’s on her mind,

And what’s she’s yearning for;

“No, there’s nothing really on my mind,

And nothing I’m yearning for.

“But, last night I saw an army notice,

Saying the Khan issued a call to the colors;

And the army draft register has 12 scrolls,

Father’s name is on every one of the rolls.

“Father has no adult son,

And Mulan no elder brother;

So, I’m going to buy horse and saddle,

And begin to serve the army in place of Father.”

Then, the ballad describes how Mulan purchases all the things she needs in the market and next morning bids farewell to her father and mother.

In depicting her life in army, the poem reads:

In the war, Mulan travels thousands of miles,

Dashing across numerous mountains and passes;

At night, watchmen’s rattle clanging in chilly air,

The frosty moonlight shines on cold iron armors.

Generals and soldiers die in countless battles,

Many years later, only the surviving warriors return;

On her return, Mulan is received by the Khan,

Sitting in a great hall in his grandiose palace.

While giving out promotions and rewards, the Khan asks Mulan what she desires, the heroine replies:

Stamps with paper cuts and the lines from the “Ode of Mulan”

“Mulan has no desire for a high official’s post,

I just wish to borrow a top fast steed,

To take me back home in no time.”

Mulan’s parents are overjoyed to see their daughter back home after so many years serving in the army, and neighbors all come to celebrate. But Mulan can’t waste one minute to do just one thing:

“I open the door of my east chamber,

And sit down on the bed in my west room;

Taking off the armors worn in battles,

I put on my dresses of former times.

“By the window, I comb my cloud-like hair, and

Looking into the mirror, I put on yellow flower makeup.”

When she comes out to meet her army comrades,

They are shocked and bewildered;

Shoulder to shoulder, they fought together for 12 years,

Yet none had ever found out Mulan is actually a girl.

The ballad concludes with a rather philosophical question:

“People say male rabbit kicks its feet in scampering,

And female rabbit tends to squint in skipping;

But when the two run side by side on the ground,

Who can tell a doe from a buck?”

Thanks to her firm determination, bravery, perseverance and the traditional filial piety, Mulan remains today a role model for many Chinese women.

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