Ballad of Mulan: Translation and Interpretation

So, I… translated an entire Chinese ballad for no particular reason! A bit of a change from the usual anime reviews.

mulan

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).

mulan ballad weaving art

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 to 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>

Notes:

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. The word is generally synonymous to “enemy” in classical literature. *Edit: the Northern Wei people were technically not Han themselves, but they certainly seemed to have been reconstructing their identity as 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!

mulan ballad art
Google refuses to tell me where the art came from…

Thoughts

Translating this ballad in its entirety just made my love for it swell even more! I could really 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 is just so ahead of its time with its portrayal of its heroine (and the choice of topic of featuring a badass woman fighter too, of course). 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: braveness, 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 more than one culture, are not presented as particularly masculine concepts in the ballad. Neither is Mulan ever depicted as tomboyish throughout the ballad (she starts out as a sighing weaver). Perhaps the ballad sets out to make these virtues seem accessible to women as well, but with the little background information I can find on it, I don’t want to be making too many assumptions on its context.

The Ballad of Mulan” is a canonical piece of literature that every student of Chinese ought to study at some point. Unfortunately, I left Taiwan before I was able to learn about it in school, but fortunately, my mom always printed out notable works in Chinese literature for me to read even after I came to Canada, so I was still able to study it on my own. Translating it properly today made me realize how many details I missed out on or misunderstood. An afternoon well spent, I’d say!

Thoughts on Live Action Mulan

Crystal-Liu-Mulan

Because Moya wants to keep procrastinating, you get to see her thoughts on this too. I am fairly skeptical about the live action movie’s ability to keep the magic alive, but hey, I did love live action Beauty and the Beast, so who knows?

One thing though: I really don’t think Liu Yifei would make a good Mulan. Having seen her in a few historical/swordsmen series (as the damsel-in-distress, usually), I feel like she lacks the rough and badass look of Mulan. Liu Yifei feels like more of a dreamy, head-in-the-clouds type of heroine. Fingers crossed that it will work out anyways!

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29 thoughts on “Ballad of Mulan: Translation and Interpretation

  1. Always felt Mulan was the best female character Disney ever had, and severely underrated I feel. It was nice reading the actual ballad. Gives me a lot more appreciation to the Disney movie, and the character herself. Learned a lot more than I thought I would.

    The live action Disney movie I’m skeptical about,but hey, wouldn’t mind seeing Donnie Yen, and Jet Li in the same movie again. That’ll be quite a sight for me if they share a scene together in like what over a decade. Even if the movie sucks, if it could do that much, or have Donnie Yen do something cool that’ll be worth the price of admission for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! It’s one of my favourite Chinese ballads. Perhaps I’ll do more of these translations in the future, but I’m not sure if people would be as eager as you to read them. 😂

      Liked by 1 person

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  3. “Who can tell if I’m a he or she?” is better than the other translation. It chooses not to ascribe gender to professions or actions and how amazing is it that the ballad is from very, very long ago. They were more progressive then than we are today, lol.

    Your translation is breathtaking, I had literal goosebumps. I haven’t watched Mulan before and if I’m going to watch a Disney film in the near future, after this, it will have to be Mulan. Also, I love how She’s the Man incorporates both Twelfth Night and Mulan (but with sports instead of joining the army).

    I loved learning more about Chinese history, it was really intriguing and eye-opening. Amazing post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the kind words! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m surprised you’ve never seen Mulan, but then I also haven’t seen She’s the Man, which appears to be quite famous! Twelfth Night is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, so that’s definitely something I’d be interested in.
      As you say, it’s surprising that the ballad came from so long ago, with all its feminist ideas. I remember reading that it may be a regional thing (China had been very divided after all) – women from the north had the reputation of being tougher, and had relatively more flexible societal roles as well.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I haven’t read Twelfth Night, so I guess we are at opposites there. I think you’ll like She’s the Man, Amanda Bynes did a great job, she was very funny. 🙂

        That’s interesting! I will need to do further research on this one day, but it’s touching to know that even centuries ago, there was a recognition in oppressive social gender constructs.

        Liked by 1 person

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  5. BOO yeh GURL this was a bad ass post my dear. I’ve never heard of this Mulan Ballad piece but this was a fascinating read. I can’t translate anything for the life of me so good job !!!

    Liked by 1 person

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