Mu Lan, the Woman Warrior

with evaluations of her use by Maxine Hong Kingston and by Walt Disney
by George Leonard and Amy Ling.

Mu Lan is China's legendary "woman warrior," heroine of a folk ballad in which a brave girl takes her aged father's place in the army by disguising herself as a man. (See Chapter 43 for Maxine Hong Kingston's use in The Woman Warrior.)

Her story was little known in the West until 1998, when the Walt Disney company put its awesome cultural might behind a "summer blockbuster," the feature-length cartoon, Mu Lan-- with Lea Salonga and Donny Osmond singing songs about Mu Lan by Stevie Wonder, and Eddie Murphy doing the voice of a comic dragon sidekick, "Mushu." When the movie opened, there were Mu Lan Happy Meals at McDonald's, Nancy Kwan ice-skating on TV in a Mu Lan special, and three pages of Mu Lan stuffed toys and pajamas in the Disney catalog. Until this apotheosis, Mu Lan's ballad, "Mu Lan's Farewell," was so little studied, that we have done a new translation (below) for the scholar's convenience.

Amy Ling, who researched Mu Lan for her work on Kingston, writes: "Mu Lan (variously known as Fa Mu Lan or Hua Mu Lan--Hua/Fa means flower and Mu Lan means magnolia) is the heroine of a folk ballad that mothers traditionally sang to their children in China. When the Emperor goes to war against Northern invaders, the Hu, he drafts a son from each family. Mu Lan's family has no son old enough to fight, so her elderly father gets drafted. Mu Lan disguises herself as a man and takes his place.

"The new army takes the attack to the Hu, high up in their snowy Yen Mountain strongholds. Mu Lan fights for over a decade without being discovered, and so valiantly, that the Emperor himself, bestowing medals, titles and land grants after the War, offers to make her a Minister of State. She asks only to go home. There, she reopens the wing of her house that has been sealed for ten years, puts on her woman's dress again, and emerges, to the amazement of her old comrades-at-arms.

"Westerners perhaps too automatically compare Hua Mu Lan to Joan of Arc-- although in the deepest sense, her actions are as pious as Joan's. But Mu Lan's religion is Confucianism: she doesn't hear the voice of God, but of her conscience, commanding this loving duty to her father. Nor is it possible to imagine the ballad's Mu Lan, so eager to regain her womanhood and already the model of family duty, not proceeding on to marriage and motherhood. Indeed, the poem dwells on her rather amazing ability to effortlessly return to femininity, fashionable 'beauty patches' and all. Joan of Arc revels in the battlefield, and it is impossible to imagine her wishing to return to village life; Mu Lan, offered a government Ministry, asks only for a camel to take her home. Though modern accounts, even Disney's, tend to present Mu Lan's army service as a feminist achievement, in the Chinese ballad war seems (realistically) a catastrophe for everyone, men and women, soldiers and generals alike. Mu Lan's long years in the army are presented only as a terrible sacrifice to spare her father from going through them, and she resumes her peaceful former life with relief.

"A few historical reports exist of women disguising themselves as men, in order to fight. Women, however, were not commonly trained in martial arts-- nor educated for any profession, in fact. There are stories of women disguising themselves as men in order to be educated (for instance, 'The Butterfly Lovers'). The poem is potent myth, not history."

The following translation, by George and Simei Leonard was made from the Chinese text in Selected Chinese Poems, ed. Ch'en Hui-Wen (Taibei, Hua Lien Publishing Co. 1968) which Prof. Ling furnished. They write, "This is the best known of many versions of the Mu Lan story, dating back at least to the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD). Even in anti-Confucian Maoist times, PRC children like Simei had to learn it by heart from their fifth grade readers, and recite it in class together.

"How old is 'Mu Lan's Farewell?' The poem refers to the Emperor sitting in the 'Ming tang,' or 'Ming Hall' but the term, our sources tell us, is no reference to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD). The word 'Ming' means 'Brilliant' or even 'Splendid' and the term 'Ming tang' for some Hall of Splendour in which imperial rituals are conducted, can be found all the way back to the Zhou Dynasty (founded, 1111 BC).

"Nor is the Hu invasion a clue. They're described as a tribe of Northern horsemen, and such tribes perpetually menaced China. The Great Wall, stretching across the tops of China's mountains from East to West, was built as a bulwark against such Northern tribes in the 200's BC. The Disney movie calls the Hu people the 'Huns,' but without foundation. Rather, 'Hu people' is a catchall term much like the Greek 'Barbarian.' China called any menacing northern barbarian tribes the 'Hu' and each dynasty since the Han (206 BC-265 AD) used 'Hu' for whomever its northern barbarian opponent happened to be.

"Our best clue to this poem's age is that while this version refers to the Emperor as 'the Son of Heaven,' --a standard designation-- it also calls him, twice, 'the Khan.' Since no-one but the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty (c. 1206 1368 AD) would have used that term for the emperor, this version could not be older than 1206, and was most likely written in those years. (Or less likely, set in those years.) Mu Lan's Farewell, then, is probably a folk ballad from the 1200-1300s AD, nearly 800 years old.

Our translation, while faithful to sense, and even usually to word order, attempts to capture the folk ballad quality of the original. Language of homely simplicity-- far too concise for English to capture-- alternates with flights of Homeric fancy. You don't have an 'audience' with the Emperor, you simply 'meet' him, as you would anyone; but a camel who could last out a long trip draws the fanciful epithet 'thousand-mile-footed.'

The original is unrhymed, but strongly rhythmic. 'Folk poetry' does not mean 'amateur poetry.' Notice the poet's sophisticated parallel constructions, in which Line B will repeat the pattern of Line A, but contrast it: the cries of Mu Lan's parents are replaced by the terrifying sound of the enemy's horses. The poet (in that society, almost certainly a man) moves the story quickly, with startling jump cuts, and an impressionistic appeal to many senses. He dares to start with a sound effect, then, as his first shot, positions you outside Mu Lan's door, watching her. As you dolly in, Mu Lan's sighs drown out the noise of the loom. At poem's end, as she returns in victory, you stand outside the door again, watching her older sister put on 'red makeup' in Mu Lan's honor. The poet sketches years of battle in the mountains with a few sharp details uniting sound, sight, and touch-- the feel of the cold mountain wind. The poet spends no time on patriotic fervor or moral outrage against the enemy, merely accepting that war is a job which someone has to do. Lots of people die; if you can make it back alive you'll be rewarded; but what you want most is to get it over with, and pick up life where you left off.

'The parable of the rabbits at the end draws the moral. In ordinary times (it claims) you can tell a male rabbit from a female by its behavior. But in a crisis, when they're running, you can't tell which is which. The female runs just as well as the male. Hua Mu Lan's popular ballad does not so much reflect historical reality, as the reality of women's dreams and aspirations-- not an aspiration to shed blood, but an aspiration to be recognized as people who, when the need arises, can do deeds as valiant as can any man. That the author of this modern-sounding moral was very likely a man, and a medieval man; that this story has been popular among the Chinese people for a millennium, and is even memorized in school--all this should be taken into account before anyone summarizes traditional Chinese culture's attitude to women."

Mu Lan's Farewell

Through the open door, you can see Mu Lan weaving.
But no sound can you hear of her loom
The only sounds you can hear are her sighs.

Ask the girl, "What is on your mind?"
Ask the girl, "What is it you can't forget?"
The girl says, "Nothing is on my mind."
The girl says, "Nothing I can't forget."

Last night she saw the army scrolls
The Khan is calling up his men
From the army has come 12 separate scrolls
And every scroll has her father's name. The father has no grownup son
Mu Lan has no older brother
She'll go to the market for horse and saddle
She'll take to the road in place of her father.

She goes to East Market to buy her a charger
She goes to West Market to buy her a saddle
She goes to South Market to buy the bridle
She goes to North Market to buy the long whip.

In the morning, farewell to Father and Mother
At night, she sleeps by the Yellow River
Hearing no longer the cries of her parents
Hearing the rushing of the Yellow River.

In the morning, farewell to the Yellow River
In the dark, to the Black River's source she comes
No sound of the parents
Crying for their daughter
Just the Yen Mountain Hu tribe's
Warhorses snorting. ["singing 'Cheu! Cheu!'"]

Ten thousand leagues she marches to the battles
Through the mountain strongholds the warriors fly
On the cold north air blows the sound of metal clashing,
Flashing cold light off the chain link mail.

Generals and soldiers die in a hundred battles
The heroes who live come back in ten years.

Those still alive will meet the Son of Heaven
In the Hall of Splendour, the Son of Heaven sits.
Awarded-- the medals
To all the twelve ranks
Granted-- a hundred thousand acres of land.

The Khan asks, "What is your desire?"
Mu Lan doesn't need to be a High Official
Wishes only to borrow a sharp-eyed camel--
To send the son back to his home village.

When Father and Mother hear Daughter is coming
They help each other hobble outside the city wall
When Older Sister hears Younger Sister is coming
Through the door you can see her putting on red makeup
When Little Brother hears that Sister is coming
He whets his knife--"Snick!"-- chases pig and lamb.

"I open the door to my eastern pavilion.
I sit on my bed in the western room.
I take off
My chain link armor.
I put on
My dress of old."

Through the window
you can see her let down the clouds of hair
At her mirror
She stands, putting on her adornments ('beauty patches')
Out the door
She comes, to see her fighting comrades
And all her fighting comrades are amazed.
For twelve years they marched together
And never knew Mu Lan was a girl.

A male rabbit restlessly thumps the ground
A female rabbit shyly looks away
But when they run, how can you tell me,
Which is the male, which is the female?