Mu-Lan, the Chinese Woman Warrior
By Elisabetta LeJeune
Image of Mulan in this document is obtained from the
cover of the children's book The Legend of Mulan by Charlie Chin,
Tomei Arai, The Children's Book Press, Emeryville, California,
Thesis statement: "The Ballad of Mulan"
has inspired many Chinese women to defy traditional gender roles.
I. "The Ballad of Mulan" has experienced a resurgence
of popularity as Disney is making it the story of his latest animated feature.
In the last five years the traditional Chinese poem has been published
in various versions of children books.
II. Summary of the poem
III. Yueh Fu poetry
IV. Historical background
V. Significance of the poem in the context of
The recently released Disney
movie Mulan portrays the Chinese heroine Mu Lan who disguised herself
as a man to serve in the imperial army in place of her father. The
movie is based on an ancient popular Chinese ballad which dates to the
fifth century A.D. and which has been popular throughout the centuries.
In 1993 China's Bravest Girl: the Legend of Hua Mu Lan told by Charlie
Chin was published by the Children' Book Press followed in 1995 by The
Song of Mu Lan by Jeanne M. Lee. In these two versions, the original
poem is published alongside in the original Chinese (Kuo).
Weekly reviewed both books and pointed out that "a simple rhyming text
keeps the pace brisk in this adaptation of a fifth-century Chinese legend
about a young woman who goes to war to save her family's honor" (73).
Several other books were published in 1998, the year the Disney's movie
was released. Fa Mulan: The Story of a Woman Warrior, written by
Robert San Souci, is the retelling of the original Chinese poem that inspired
the Disney movie. "Children's book author Robert San Souci, a frequent
Disney consultant, had suggested that a Chinese poem called 'The Song of
Fa Mu Lan' might make good movie," report Brown, Corie and Laura Shapiro
The original poem was
written in the form of "yueh-fu" poetry by a woman named Tzu-Yeh.
A translation of the Chinese poem appears in Han Frankel's book The
Flowering Plum and the Palace Lady: Interpretations of Chinese Poetry,
which was published in 1976. In the poem Mu-lan seems disinterested
in women's chores and not ready to be married. She is rather
worried about the draft which calls for each family to send a son or brother
to serve the army. Quickly Mulan purchases the required equipment:
a horse, a saddle, a bridle, and a long whip. She then joins the
evening camps and leaves for the long journey. The refrain of the
song repeats that, "She does not hear the sound of Father and Mother calling."
Ten years she is gone on a journey of ten thousand miles. Then she
sees the Son of Heaven, the Khan, and when he asks her what she desires
as reward for those years of service, she just asks to go home. She
is welcome by all her family with the addition of a Little Brother.
It does not take long for Mu-lan to get back her true identity; she finds
her rooms and her old clothes and resumes her feminine appearance.
She attends to her appearance by fixing her hair, by now cloudlike, maybe
white after those years of hard work and sacrifice. She also puts
powder on her face and then goes out to see her comrades who had shared
all those years on the battlefield with her. They are "amazed and
perplexed" to find out that Mu-lan is a woman. The last four lines
of the poem quote a reference to a male and a female hare pointing out
how it is impossible to tell the sex difference when they are "running
side by side close to the ground."
The poem is composed
in the song form of "Yueh-fu." This style was derived from folk songs,
often narrative poems accompanied by music. In 120 B.C. Emperor Wu
set a Bureau of Music to provide musical entertainment during sacrifices.
The officials of the bureau would collect folk songs from various parts
of the country to provide inspiration for their work. Many songs
in this style were imitations of those popular ballads. They were
characterized by "formulaic expressions, free rhythmic patterns,
often in lines of irregular length" (Chang 211). This style flourished
during the Han Dynasty from 120 A.D. until 580 A.D. Many anonymous ballads
are recorded in later works said to date from Han times, a dynasty which
spans over 400 years (Watson 289). The Yueh-fu songs were later replaced
by the tz'u form when literate poets composed new music to replace the
popular music. Chang presents an example of the unclear transition
between the two forms:
While it is difficult to say whether
any of these folk songs survive, certainly the ballad of Mulan has
a long story of popularity. The legend of Mulan was the subject of subsequent
literary works. It was developed into a novel during the late Ming
(A.D. 1368-1644) Dynasty (Kuo). Mulan also became the heroine of a play
by Xu Wei, who called her Hua Mulan.
It can be imagined that there must have been some
generic confusion between tz'u and yueh-fu at this time, especially because
tz'u tunes were at first seen as new yueh-fu tunes. A telling case
is Wen T'ing-yun's Yueh-fu poem Ch'un-hsiao ch'u. which also appears in
his tz'u collection under the title Mu-lan hua. (12)
The name Mu-lan appears in different spelling
versions. Some sources spell her name with a hyphen and others without.
In the poem the name is simply Mu-lan, but it has also been spelled as
Hua Mu-lan in a collection of tzu' poems (Chang 12). The translation
of "Mulan" is magnolia. "Mu" means "wood" and "Lan" means "orchid," while
Hua means flower. In Chinese last names come first. Therefore, the
word Hua can be considered a last name. In other sources the surname
is Fa, as in Fa Mu Lan.
In China Hua Mulan is a symbol
of heroic behavior. There is no certain evidence to support whether
she really existed. The place of origin or the period when she lived are
also not agreed upon. According to an article devoted to Mulan
and part of a web site that celebrates 100 Chinese women:
The legend of Mulan is an example
of stories of women characters who take the non traditional role
of warrior. This figure that defies traditional role models had been
a source of inspiration for young Chinese girls. Maxine Hong
Kingston narrates the powerful memories that she recalls of growing up
in a Chinese-American family. In her book The Warrior Woman: Memoirs
of a Girlhood among Ghosts she tells how the story of Fa Mu Lan has
symbolized the power of warrior women:
One thing seems certain though. Hua Mulan was
from the region known as the Central Plains. Cheng Dachang of the
Song Dynasty recorded that Hua Mulan lived during the Sui and the Tang
Dynasties. Song Xiangfeng of the Qing Dynasty asserted that she was of
Sui origins (AD 581-618) while Yao Ying, also of the Qing Dynasty, believed
she was from the time of the Six Dynasties. No record of her achievements
appears in official history books prior to the Song times. Stories circulated
in China's Central Plains indicate that she must have lived before the
Tang Dynasty. ("100 Celebrated Asian Women")
At last I saw that I too had been in the presence
of great power, my mother talking-story. After I grew up, I heard the chant
of Fa Mu Lan, the girl who took her father's place in battle. Instantly
, I remembered that as a child I had followed my mother about the house,
the two of us singing about how Fa Mu Lan fought gloriously and returned
alive from war to settle in the village. I had forgotten this chant that
was once mine, giving me by my mother, who may not have known its power
to remind. She said I would grow up to be a wife and a slave, but
she taught me the song of the warrior woman, Fa Mu Lan. I would have to
grow up a warrior woman. (24)
"100 Celebrated Asian Women." 1997.
6 July 1998 <http://www.span.com.au/100women/55.html>
Brown, Corie and Laura Shapiro. "Woman Warrior."
Newsweek 8 June 1998: 64.
Chang, Kang-i Sun. The Evolution of Chinese
tz'u Poetry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.
"China's Bravest Girl: The legend of Hua Mu Lan."
Publishers Weekly Oct 18, 1993:73.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Warrior Woman: Memoirs
of a Girlhood among Ghosts. New
Vintage Books, 1977.
Kuo, Angela. "Books about Mulan." 1998.
6 July 1998 <http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/5082/books.html>
Watson, Burton. Early Chinese Literature.
New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1962.