So, I… translated a Chinese ballad for no particular reason! A bit of a change from the usual anime reviews.
I don’t know how common this knowledge is, but Disney’s movie Mulan (1998) was based on an anonymously written Chinese ballad from the North Wei Dynasty (386-534 CE). The Disney movie is fairly faithful to the original work, but surprise, surprise, a love interest wasn’t even a part of the North Wei ballad! The original Mulan needed no man in order to shine (although Li Shang is pretty cool).
Here’s what I spent my time doing this afternoon:
“Clank” after “clank,” <1>
Mulan weaves by the door.
The sound from the loom can’t be heard
Over the sighs of the maiden.
Let’s ask her what she’s thinking,
Let’s ask her what she’s concerned about. <2>
She’s “not thinking about anything”
She’s “not concerned about anything” <3>
“Last night, I saw the military draft orders,
The Khan is rounding up his grand troops. <4>
There are twelve scrolls of names,
And every one of them has Father’s name in it.
Father has no grown-up son;
Mulan has no elder brother.
I am willing to buy horse and saddle,
To fight in my father’s place henceforth.”
From the East Market she buys a handsome horse,
From the West Market a saddle;
From the South Market a bridle,
From the North Market a long whip.
She parts with her parents at twilight,
And camps by the Yellow River by dawn. <5>
She doesn’t hear her parents calling their girl,
But hears the cries of the Yellow River’s rapid waters.
She departs from the Yellow River at twilight,
And arrives at Black Mountain by dawn.
She doesn’t hear her parents calling their girl,
But hears the cries of the Nomads’ horses from Swallow Mountain. <6>
Galloping ten thousand miles for the battlefield,
Passing through mountains as if on rapid wings.
Northern winds carry the rattle of the army’s pots, <7>
Chilly light shines on suits of chain mail.
Generals die in a hundred battles,
Stalwart soldiers take ten years to return.
She sees the Son of Heaven upon her return;
The Emperor sits in the Bright Hall.
He gives out noble titles in twelve ranks,
And rewards in hundreds, thousands and beyond.
The Khan asks her what she desires.
“Mulan doesn’t care to be the Emperor’s minister.
I wish for a swift horse that runs a thousand miles,
To take me back home.”
Hearing that their daughter is coming, the parents
Wait outside the city walls, leaning on each other for support.
Hearing that her younger sister is coming, the elder sister
Adjusts her make-up by the door.
Hearing that his elder sister is coming, the little brother
Sharpens his blade and makes his way to the pigs and sheep.
“I open the door to my east chamber,
I sit on my west chamber bed.
I take off my robes of war,
And put on the clothes from my past.
I tidy my cloud-like hair by the window,
And dab on a yellow, flower-shaped mark on my forehead.
I go out the door to greet my comrades;
They are all in shock and perplexity–
Twelve years as traveling companions,
And nobody knew that Mulan was a girl!
The male hare has legs that twitch;
The female hare has squinted eyes.
When both race along close to the ground…
Who can tell if I’m a he or she?” <8>
I referenced this translation and this Chinese source for help sometimes, although we did disagree with who the speaker is at a few points. The ballad was written in surprisingly plain Chinese, so I didn’t have a lot of trouble with it despite my lack of training when it comes to deciphering archaic Chinese.
<1> There’s been a lot of debate over whether “唧唧” (“ji-ji,” which I translated as “clank clank”) is really the sound of a loom, especially since the next lines clearly state that the loom’s noises can’t be heard over Mulan’s sighs. Some say it’s the cries of bugs (possibly cicadas), used to set the scene, while others believe it’s the sound of Mulan’s very sighs, and raise examples from classical literature to back this up. I personally can’t imagine someone going “ji-ji” when they sigh, and happen to like the loom interpretation more. I like the blatant contradiction it creates, coupled with the next few lines.
<2> As the original ballad was unpunctuated, and the structure of the Chinese language allows for ambiguity when it comes to who’s speaking, I freely interpreted at many points. I used “let’s” because it feels more intimate – the author is allowing their audience to peek right into Mulan’s life after all.
<3> Again, it’s hard to know if these phrases are spoken by Mulan, but most critics agree that it is, so I put the lines in partial quotations.
<4> The Emperor is referred to as both “Khan” and “Son of Heaven” in the ballad. It would have been common knowledge that this is in reference to the same Emperor.
<5> I translated all location names literally rather than phonetically. They are all actual places in China. Yellow River is also called “Huang He,” and is the most important river in China both geographically and symbolically.
<6> “Nomads” (胡人) is an umbrella term for anyone not of Han descent. *Edit: the Northern Wei people were technically not Han themselves, but they certainly seemed to have been assimilating their identity with the “more civilized” Han Chinese.
<7> Rattling the army’s pots is the signal for lunch break.
<8> I let Mulan narrate the entire ending because “I”/”my” is explicitly used several times throughout this section, especially when claiming possession over items. “My east chamber,” “my bed” – this girl owns it!
Translating this ballad in its entirety just made my love for it swell even more! I could see Mulan’s evolution from a girl afraid of speaking her views (I’m “not thinking about anything,” I’m “not worried about anything”) to someone who is confident and playfully charismatic.
This ballad’s deviation from gender conventions is bold and impressively casual. First off, “Mulan” (木蘭) is a highly feminine name that means “magnolia.” Her surname “Fa”/”Hua” (花) (which I’m not sure if Disney made up), literally means “flower.” The narrator presents Mulan to the readers/audience as a woman with complex thoughts and concerns by directly asking her about them, therefore, giving her agency over her own narrative. Within one action-packed stanza (which describes 12 years of time), she goes on to fight better than anyone else, which allows her to earn the Khan’s favour and return home gloriously. In the end, she gets to wrap up the story in her own voice again. The transition between the narrator and Mulan (marked by when the first “my” appears, imo) is very abrupt – Mulan definitely forced her way in there!
Some critics believe the ballad could have ended with “And nobody knew that Mulan was a girl!”, that is, without the final stanza. When I came across the ballad years ago, I did also agree that the line has a better ring to it in Chinese than the line the ballad actually ended on. I do think, now, that it’s significant that the ballad ended on this playfully ambiguous note: “Who can tell if I’m a he or she?” I love how the author chose to challenge notions of gender preconceptions in such a way. If the ballad ends without that bit, it would only be a wild tale that restores a culturally familiar gender order by the end, with Mulan returning to her female form, back home with her fairly standard Chinese family. With this final stanza, the author seems to emphasize that all that distinguishes Mulan’s gender, listed in previous stanzas, are wholly superficial: hair, make-up, clothes.
Several virtues are celebrated by this ballad: bravery, patriotism, duty to one’s parents (“孝” – a word I still cannot find a good English equivalent for), and modesty. The first two, traditionally associated to masculinity in many cultures, are not presented as particularly masculine concepts in the ballad. Neither is Mulan ever depicted as particularly tomboyish throughout the ballad (she starts out as a sighing weaver), as she is in the Disney movie, which is quite interesting.
Thoughts on Live Action Mulan
Because Moya wants to keep procrastinating, you get to see my thoughts on this too. I am fairly skeptical about the live action movie’s ability to keep the magic alive, but hey, I did like live action Beauty and the Beast, so who knows?
One thing though: Liu Yifei would not be my Mulan of choice. Having seen her in a few historical/wuxia series, I feel like she’s just more pretty than badass even in roles where she should be the latter. She always has that dreamy, head-in-the-clouds vibe. Fingers crossed that it’ll work out anyways!