An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Hua Mulan 花木蘭

Aug 27, 2019 © Ulrich Theobald

Hua Mulan 花木蘭, in the West better known with her personal name Mulan, is a figure of popular literature. She is one of the most prominent female protagonists in Chinese writings and appears in many theatre plays. In the twentieth century, the story of Mulan was many times picturized, both in China and the West.

The character Mulan figures in the ballad Mulan shi 木蘭詩, occasionally called Mulan ci 木蘭辭 or Mulan ge 木蘭歌, which was written by an anonymous person during the 6th century CE. It was composed in north China, a region which usually experienced raids by nomad warriors.

The encyclopaedic anthology Wenyuan yinghua 文苑英華 from the Song period 宋 (960-1279) holds that the author was Wei Yuanfu 韋元甫 (d. 771), who lived during the mid-Tang period 唐 (618-907). The anonymous compiler of the anthology Guwenyuan 古文苑 also believed that it was a Tang-period product. The scholars Cheng Dachang 程大昌 (1123-1195), author of the essay collection Yanfanlu 演繁露, and Yan Yu 嚴羽 (mid-13th cent.), author of the poetry critique Canglang shihua 滄浪詩話, hardened the theory of the Tang-period origin. Huang Tingjian 黃庭堅 (1045-1105) was the first scholar who was convinced that the ballad was of popular origin, and not written by a literatus.

In some old texts, the ballad was attributed to Cao Zijian 曹子建 (Cao Zhi 曹植, 192-232), but Wei Tai 魏泰 (late 11th cent.) argued in his poetry critique Linhan yinju shihua 臨漢隱居詩話 that the word "khan" (kehan 可汗) did not yet exist at that time.

In the anthology Yuefu shiji 樂府詩集 the ballad of Mulan is found in the category Liang gujiao hengchui qu 梁鼓角橫吹曲, meaning that it was a court song accompanied by drums and pipes (because of its military character) and performed during the Liang period 梁 (502-557). A comment calls it an "old ballad" (guci 古辭) and remarks, quoting from the book Gujin yulu 古今樂錄 of the monk Zhijiang 智匠 (6th cent.), who admitted that nothing was known of Mulan's person, not even her full name (Mulan, bu zhi ming 木蘭不知名).

The chapter on music (28-31 Yinyue zhi 音樂志) in the official dynastic history Jiutangshu 舊唐書 explains that at the court of the Liang and the Northern Dynasties 北朝 (386~581), songs from the north were played that originated from the proto-Turkic people of the Xianbei 鮮卑. They were called "songs of the khan" (kehan zhi ci 可汗之辭). Because the Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534) was of Xianbei origin, the audience understood the songs in Xianbei language, yet when the song came to southern China, it was translated into Chinese, and became part of the yuefu 樂府 corpus ("songs of the music bureau") of the Liang dynasty. In the course of time, the song perhaps spread to the common folks and gained popularity. It is probable that Wei Yuanfu re-discovered it during the Tang period (de yu minjian 得于民間 "he obtained it from among the people") and gave the ballad a more refined shape, which found entrance into the anthology Wenyuan yinghua.

The question of composition is still not solved today. Mulan ci was first mentioned in Zhijiang's Gujin yuelu from 568, written during the reign of the Chen dynasty 陳 (557-589) in the south. From the language, it appears to have been compiled in the north, as the ductus of the text is similar to ballads like Zhe yang-liu zhi ge 折楊柳枝歌 "Breaking willow twigs" or Qu yang ru gu 驅羊入谷 "Driving goats into the valley". The personal name Mulan, meaning "magnolia" was popular in north China, for both males and females. The term "khan" might refer to the emperor of the Northern Wei (as rulers of the Turkic Xianbei people), and not to the emperor of the Tang dynasty (who adapted the title from the Gök Türks). On the other hand, there are terms only used during the Tang period, for instance, 12 ranks of officials, the post of secretarial court gentleman (shangshu lang 尚書郎) offered to Mulan, or descriptions of recruitment which point at the garrison militia system (fubing 府兵) of the Tang, or issues of style and vocabulary which suggest that the Tang period was the time of composition.

The ballad has a length of 330 characters and is written with mixed rhymes and verse length (zayan ti 雜言體). The language is simple and natural, sometimes with a little humour—particularly at the end of the ballad, and consists of many pairs of phrases (dui'ou ju 對偶句) and repetitions which is typical for chanted poems. Even if the melody of the ballad is long lost (if it had ever been preserved in written form), the language reflects the melodic character of the composition.

The story of the ballad narrates how Mulan, disguised as a man, took over the duty of her father to serve the army (see corvée). She pities him because her brothers are younger and not able to take over military service for him. So she decides to do (vv. 1-16). On the battlefield she stands her ground (vv. 17-34), yet being offered an appointment as a high state official, she refuses and returnes to her home village (vv. 35-42). Back home and having fulfilled her duty to the khan (who is only once called tianzi 天子 "Son of Heaven") she changes back into a female—and so surprises her comrades (huoban 伙伴) from the army (vv. 53-58). The coda (vv. 59-62) explains, using the example of a pair of hares, that it is sometimes difficult to keep apart male from female. Tongue-in-cheek the last verse might be interpreted in a modern sense, the listener (or Mulan) asking him-/herself "am I a man or a woman" (wo shi xiong zi 我是雄雌)?

The song praises the morale and efforts of this "marvellous girl" (qinü 奇女), and appeals (in modern, ideological reading) to the 'patriotic' spirit of defending the homeland against the enemy, or (in conservative, and perhaps correct reading) the boundless love for the family and preference for them instead of for service to the Khan.

As a product from north China, the ballad displays a certain rude atmosphere (not the least an influence of the "folk song" character) which reflects the permanent warfare that inflicted the northern lands, but also contains the aspiration for peace in the villages. Another difference to the more peaceful lands of the south is the social role of females which was more liberal in the north. In the coda of the ballad one might identify a direct critique of the traditional Confucian proposition of males as more valuable than females (nan zun nü bei 男尊女卑).

How popular the story was can be seen in Yue Shi's 樂史 (930-1007) geographical book Taiping huanyu ji 太平寰宇記, where places like Mt. Mulan 木蘭山, Mulan Village, 木蘭鄉 or a Mulan Temple 木蘭廟 are mentioned, all being located in Huanggang 黃岡 in the prefecture of Huangzhou 黃州 (today in Hubei). Shrines of Mulan are also found in Boxian 亳縣, Anhui, Shangqiu 商丘, Henan, and Wanxian 完縣, Hebei.

The shrine of Boxian has its own version of the historical person. A stele is engraved with words explaining that her original name was Wei Mulan 魏木欒, that of her father Wei Ying 魏應. They lived in the early Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE), when Emperor Wen 漢文帝 (r. 180-157 BCE) fought against the steppe people of the Xiongnu 匈奴. Mulan decided to fight against the invader, but died on the battlefield. She was posthumously given the title Xiaolie 孝烈 "Exemplary filial". The shrine itself was built in the 14th century.

Yet another version is found in Huangpi 黃陂, Hubei, where her family name is called Zhu 朱, and the name of her father Zhu Shoufu 朱壽甫. The Mulan Hall 木蘭殿 of the temple on Mt. Mulan houses a statue of the female hero. The village Zhouzhuangcun 周莊村 near Yucheng 虞城, Henan, claims to be the home of Mulan. In 1943, the existence was documented of a stone slab with an inscription of her story. Here, too, her family name was called Wei, and she was said to have lived during the Sui period 隋 (581-618). A Mulan Park 木蘭陵園 was built in 1985 in Shangyicun 尚義村 close to Yan'an 延安, Shaanxi. The area is believed to enclose her grave.

The literary topoi of the Ballad of Mulan are seen in Du Fu's 杜甫 (712-770) poem Ti Mulan Miao 題木蘭廟, Yuan Zhen's 元稹 (779-831) poem Gukeyue 估客樂, or Bai Juyi's 白居易 (772-846) essay Xi ti mulan hua 戲題木蘭花, where he plays with the words mulan hua 木蘭花 "magnolia flower" and the name of the heroine, Hua Mulan 花木蘭. It can be seen that Hua became the putative family name of Mulan as early as the Tang period. Hua is an extremely rare family name.

The story provided the plot for many theatre plays, like Xu Wei's 徐渭 (1521-1593) Zi Mulan dai fu cong jun 雌木蘭替父從軍 "Female Mulan goes to war in lieu of her father" from the Ming period 明 (1368-1644), or the many local theatre plays from all over China, like Mulan congjun 木蘭從軍 "Mulan goes to war", Hua Mulan 花木蘭 or Daifuji 代父記 "Substituting her father". There is a famous Henan Opera (Yuju 豫劇) called Hua Mulan (Wang 1997). Even the less known repertoire of the Heilongjiang opera (Longjiang ju 龍江劇) included the play Mulan chuanqi 木蘭傳奇 "Marvellous story of Mulan", written by Zhang Xinghua 張興華 and Yang Baolin 楊寶林 and performed first in 1994.

A Qing-period 清 (1644-1911) author called Yingyuan Jiuzhu 瀛園舊主 wrote a romance of 32 chapters called Mulan qinü zhuan 木蘭奇女傳 "The story of marvellous girl Mulan". It is also known with the titles Zhongxiao yongle qinü zhuan 忠孝勇烈奇女傳 "The story of the loyal-filial and heroic girl", Mulan qinü quanzhuan 木蘭奇女全傳 "The complete story of marvellous girl Mulan" or Mulan qizhuan 木蘭奇傳 "The marvellous story of Mulan".

Chen Xu 陳栩 (Tianxu Wosheng 天虛我生, ?1879-1940) wrote a play called Hua Mulan (Deng 2004). Zheng Wenwei 鄭文蔚 published in 1931 the play Hua Mulan of three acts (Zhou 2003). During the Anti-Japanese War, several patriotic plays called Hua Mulan were written, like Zhou Yibai's 周貽白 four-act Mua Mulan in 1941 (Shao 2003), and Zhao Qingge's 趙清閣 five-act play Hua Mulan was published in 1943 in the then-capital Chongqing 重慶 (Sun 2003). In 1939, the Huacheng Film Company (Zhongguo Lianhe Yingye Gongsi Huacheng Zhipianchang 中國聯合影業公司華成制片厰) produced Bu Wancang's 卜萬蒼 (1903-1974) film Mulan congjun 木蘭從軍, screenplay by Ouyang Yuqian 歐陽予倩 (1889-1962).

The renowned ballet, film and model opera Hongse niangzi jun 紅色娘子軍 "Red Detachment of Women" from 1964 features the blockbuster song Xiang qian jin 向前進 "Forward", which includes the verse Gu you Hua Mulan ti fu qu cong jun 古有花木蘭替父去從軍 "In the olden days, Hua Mulan went to war in lieu of her father". The song dates from 1959.

In 1950, the play Hua Mulan by Chen Xianzhang 陳憲章 and Zhang Jingzhong 王景中 was performed for the first time (Ma 1998). The play Hua Mulan xuan xu 花木蘭選婿 "Mulan selects a husband" was written by Li Dongmei 李冬梅 and Li Wei 李蔚 and published in 1989 (Ma 1998).

Quotation 1. From Mulan shi 木蘭詩
Click, click, forever click, click;
Mulan sits at the door and weaves.
Listen, and you will not hear the shuttle's sound,
But only hear a girl's sobs and sighs.
"O tell me, lady, are you thinking of your love,
Oh tell me, lady, are you longing for your dear?"
"Oh no, oh no, I am not thinking of my love,
Oh no, oh no, I am not longing for my dear.
But last night I read the battle-roll;
the Khan has ordered a great levy of men.
The battle-roll was written in twelve books,
And in each book stood my father's name.
My father's sons are not grown men, And of all my brothers, none is older than me. Oh let me do the market to buy saddle and horse, And ride with the soldiers to make my father's place."
Then spoke the Khan and asked her what she would take.
"Oh, Mulan asks not to be made a Counsellor at the Khan's court;
She only begs for a camel that can march a thousand leagues a day,
To take her back to her home."
She opened the gate that leads to the eastern tower,
She sat on her bed that stood in the western tower.
She cast aside her heavy soldier's cloak,
And wore again her old-time dress.
She stood at the window and bound her cloudy hair;
She went to the mirror and fastened her yellow combs.
She left the house and met her messmates in the road;
He messmates were startled out of their wits.
They had marched with her for twelve years of war
And never known that Mulan was a girl.
For the male hare has a lilting, lolloping gait,
And the female hare has a wild and roving eye;
But set them both scampering side by side,
And who so wise could tell you "This is he"?
Translation by Waley (1994).
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Further reading:
Altenburger, Roland (2005). "Is it Clothes that Make the Man? Cross-Dressing, Gender, and Sex in Pre-Twentieth-Century Zhu Yingtai Lore", Asian Folklore Studies, 64/2: 165-205.
Bohnenkamp, Max L., & Na Xin (2011). "An Anonymous Work from the Tune Book of the Manor House of Lord Che", in Victor H. Mair, Mark Bender, eds. The Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature (New York/Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press), 326-352.
Chen Sanping (2005). "From Mulan to Unicorn", Journal of Asian History, 39/1: 23-43.
Edwards, Louise (1995). "Women Warriors and Amazons of the Mid Qing Texts Jinghua Yuan and Honglou Meng", Modern Asian Studies, 29/2: 225-255.
Faurot, Jeannette L. (1995). "The Ballad of Mulan", in Jeannette L. Faurot, ed. Asian-Pacific Folktales and Legends (New York: Simon & Schuster), 95-98.
Fitzgerald, Carolyn (2010). "Mandarin Ducks at the Battlefield: Ouyang Yuqian's Shifting Reconfigurations of Nora and Mulan", CHINOPERL Papers, 29: 45-104.
Giunta, Joseph V. Sare (2018). "'A Girl Worth Fighting For': Transculturation, Remediation, and Cultural Authenticity in Adaptations of the 'Ballad of Mulan'", Southeast Asian Review of English, 55/2: 154-172.
Guo Jie (2014). "Mulan Comes Home from the War: The Meaning of Homecoming in Late Imperial Chinese Literature", in Hunter Gardner, Sheila Murnaghan, eds. (Columbus: Ohio State University Press), 19-43.
Hsiung, Ann-Marie (1998). "A Feminist Re-vision of Xu Wei's Ci Mulan and Nü zhuangyuan", in Zhang Yingjin, ed. (Stanford: Stanford University Press), 73-89.
Hung Chang-Tai (1989). "Female Symbols of Resistance in Chinese Wartime Spoken Drama", Modern China, 15/2: 149-177.
Julien, Stanislas (2016). "Eine chinesische Romanze: Mulan", in Hartmut Walravens, ed. Chinesische Singspiele, Novellen, Essays und Gedichte in deutscher Sprache im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert: Zur frühen Kenntnis chinesischer Literatur in Deutschland (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag), 147-152.
Knapp, Quincy; Bobb, Megan (2012). "Qiu Jin and Mulan: Challenging the wenwu Paradigm", Wittenberg University East Asian Studies Journal, 37: 19-24.
Laing, Ellen Johnston (2015). "Depictions of Mulan with Her Family and with Her Horse in Chinese Prints", Nan Nü: Men, Women and Gender in China, 17/2: 181-213.
Lan Feng (2003). "The Female Individual and the Empire: A Historicist Approach to Mulan and Kingston's Woman Warrior", Comparative Literature, 55/3: 229-245.
Li Jing (2018). "Retelling the Story of a Woman Warrior in Hua Mulan (花木兰, 2009): Constructed Chineseness and the Female Voice", Marvels and Tales, 32/2: 362-387.
Mann, Susan (2000). "Presidential Address: Myths of Asian Womanhood", Journal of Asian Studies, 59/4: 835-862.
Ouyang Yuqian 歐陽予倩 (1939). "Mulan congjun 木蘭從軍", Wenxian 文獻 6: 1-31.
Qian Kun (2014). "Gendering National Imagination: Heroines and the Return of the Foundational Family in Shanghai During the War of Resistance to Japan", Frontiers of Literary Studies in China, 8/1: 78-100.
Waley, Arthur (2003). "The Ballad of Mulan (Mulan ci)", in Robin R. Wang, ed. Images of Women in Chinese Thought and Culture: Writings from the Pre-Qin Period Through the Song Dynasty (Indianapolis: Hackett), 250-254.
Xu Wei & Ma Qian (2005). "Mulan (Ci Mulan)", in Ma Qian, ed. Women in Traditional Chinese Theater (Lanham, MD/Boulder, CO: University Press of America), 129-151.
Zhang Renjie (1999). "Ode to Mulan: Seeing the Animated Film Mulan", Chinese Sociology and Anthropology, 32/2: 30-32.
Zhong Shuzhi (1994). "The Legendary Heroine in The Song of Mulan; tr. by Li Ziliang", Chinese Literature, 1: 183-185.