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Saturday, September 26, 2020

Explained: Centuries after it was written, why the legend of Mulan is still popular

The Hua Mulan legend, highly popular in China, has over the years inspired numerous films, dramas, books, and television series.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: August 7, 2020 7:24:21 am
Mulan, Mulan release date, Mulan Disney+, story of mulan, legend of Mulan, mulan chinese legend, express explained, indian express A part of Chinese folklore, the Mulan character is celebrated for being a symbol of heroic behaviour and for defying gender norms. (Photo: Screengrab)

The live-action remake ‘Mulan’ will not have a major theatrical release, the Walt Disney Co said on Tuesday, but will debut on its subscription streaming service Disney+, on September 4. The movie is a remake of Disney’s 1998 classic of the same name, and is based on the legend of Hua Mulan – a heroic woman from Chinese literature dating back to the 5th century AD.

The Hua Mulan legend, highly popular in China, has over the years inspired numerous films, dramas, books, and television series.

Explained: The Ballad of Mulan

The poem, whose writer is unknown, is believed to have originated in China’s Northern Wei kingdom, which ruled the country’s north during the 4th-6th centuries AD. Throughout its history, the kingdom was engaged in wars against foreign invaders along its northern frontier.

The Ballad begins with the principal character, Mulan, worried about a draft that the Northern Wei king has ordered, in which each family is supposed to send a son or brother to join the army. Mulan has no elder brother, and her father, a war veteran, is too old to serve.

Mulan then goes on to buy military equipment, and disguises herself as a man to join the draft, taking her father’s place. She is then gone “ten thousand miles on the business of war”– a journey during which Mulan travels across mountains and passes and survives over a hundred battles, before finally returning to the king’s palace after 10 years.

As the jubilant king is handing out promotions and prizes, he asks Mulan what she desires – to which the warrior replies she has “no use for a minister’s post”, and only asks for a camel for completing the long journey back to her family.

When Mulan reaches home, she changes from military wear to her usual feminine clothes. Her comrades are left flabbergasted as they realise for the first time that Mulan is a woman.

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The cultural significance of Mulan

After it was first written, the Mulan legend was frequently popularised over the centuries, most notably in the 16th century by the Ming dynasty playwright Xu Wei, who dramatised the original poem as “The Female Mulan”.

The story first came to film in 1927, followed by several operas and plays. Its adaptation in 1998 by Disney introduced Mulan to Western audiences.

A part of Chinese folklore, the Mulan character is celebrated for being a symbol of heroic behaviour and for defying gender norms. Researchers Xue Keqiao and Angela Yiu write in the Review of Japanese Culture and Society (1996), “The narrative glorifies the heroine Mulan who joined the army in her father’s place and fought bravely. The theme of a woman in a man’s guise is one reason the story has been passed down for over a thousand years”.

Text of the Ballad (Translation by Han H. Frankel, 1976)

Tsiek tsiek and again tsiek tsiek,

Mu-lan weaves, facing the door.

You don’t hear the shuttle’s sound,

You only hear Daughter’s sighs.

They ask Daughter who’s in her heart,

They ask Daughter who’s on her mind.

“No one is on Daughter’s heart,

No one is on Daughter’s mind.

Last night I saw the draft posters,

The Khan is calling many troops,

The army list is in twelve scrolls,

On every scroll there’s Father’s name.

Father has no grown-up son,

Mu-lan has no elder brother.

I want to buy a saddle and horse,

And serve in the army in Father’s place.”

In the East Market she buys a spirited horse,

In the West Market she buys a saddle,

In the South Market she buys a bridle,

In the North Market she buys a long whip.

At dawn she takes leave of Father and Mother,

In the evening camps on the Yellow River’s bank.

She doesn’t hear the sound of Father and Mother calling,

She only hears the Yellow River’s flowing water cry tsien tsien.

At dawn she takes leave of the Yellow River,

In the evening she arrives at Black Mountain.

She doesn’t hear the sound of Father and Mother calling,

She only hears Mount Yen’s nomad horses cry tsiu tsiu.

She goes ten thousand miles on the business of war,

She crosses passes and mountains like flying.

Northern gusts carry the rattle of army pots,

Chilly light shines on iron armor.

Generals die in a hundred battles,

Stout soldiers return after ten years.

On her return she sees the Son of Heaven,

The Son of Heaven sits in the Splendid Hall.

He gives out promotions in twelve ranks

And prizes of a hundred thousand and more.

The Khan asks her what she desires.

“Mu-lan has no use for a minister’s post.

I wish to ride a swift mount

To take me back to my home.”

When Father and Mother hear Daughter is coming

They go outside the wall to meet her, leaning on each other.

When Elder Sister hears Younger Sister is coming

She fixes her rouge, facing the door.

When Little Brother hears Elder Sister is coming

He whets the knife, quick quick, for pig and sheep.

“I open the door to my east chamber,

I sit on my couch in the west room,

I take off my wartime gown

And put on my old-time clothes.”

Facing the window she fixes her cloudlike hair,

Hanging up a mirror she dabs on yellow flower powder

She goes out the door and sees her comrades.

Her comrades are all amazed and perplexed.

Traveling together for twelve years

They didn’t know Mu-lan was a girl.

“The he-hare’s feet go hop and skip,

The she-hare’s eyes are muddled and fuddled.

Two hares running side by side close to the ground,

How can they tell if I am he or she?”

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