THE BALLAD OF MULAN

mulan_poster_4c_300

Creak creak, and again a creak.
It’s Mu-lan’s loom there, by the door.
But you don’t hear its shuttle speak.
A daughter’s sighs are all you hear.

You ask her, Who is in your heart?
You ask her, Who is on your mind?
“No one’s in my heart at all,
And there is no one on my mind.

Last night I read the posted draft.
The Khan is calling up his men,
The army list is twelve long scrolls,
My Father’s name on every one.

My Father has no grown-up son,
Mu-lan has no elder brother.
I will buy a furnished horse,
And serve the Khan in place of Father.”

In East Market picks a horse,
In West Market buys a saddle,
In North Market bids for a whip,
In South Market chooses a bridle.

Rides away from home at dawn,
Pitches camp as night is falling.
Cannot hear her Father calling,
Just the Yellow River’s moan.

Then at dawn Mu-lan moves on.
Cannot hear her Mother praying,
Nightfall finds her at Black Mountain.
Only hears its ponies neighing.

*

Then ten thousand miles of marching war,
The trade of soldier takes her over the passes.
Winds from the north bear the clank of army gear,
A cold light shines on blooded iron armour.

Generals die in those endless days of war,
Seasoned after twelve long years, her troops.
Claim victory. The Son of Heaven welcomes her,
Seated on a throne she’s made secure.

The twelve ranks muster. Medals and promotions
Get awarded, prizes in their thousands.
What will it be, Mu-lan, the great Khan asks her,
Will you be my courtier or my minister?

“The court’s an honour I would not presume.
Son of Heaven, Khan, give me a horse.
I wish to ride home to my Father’s house
Where a shuttle’s waiting and a loom.”

*

Mu-lan, Father, Mu-lan is arriving.
The General’s parents get themselves together,
Then they go outside the wall
To meet her, leaning on each other.

Elder Sister, Mu-lan is arriving.
Elder Sister fusses with her rig.
Little Brother, Mu-lan is arriving.
Quick, now, whet the knife, go kill the pig.

“I’ll open up my bedroom, then I’ll sit
Back on the couch that’s there in the west wing,
And I’ll remove my armour-plated kit
And put on that old frock if I still fit the thing.”

Finds a mirror, fixes cloud-like hair,
Powders nose with dust of yellow flower.
Goes outside and sees her men are there.
They take one look and then can only gape at her .

Twelve hard years they’ve bivouacked together,
No one guessing Mu-lan was a girl.
“The he-hare’s feet may hop and skip,
The she-hare’s nerve may sit her up.

When two hares run though, close to the ground,
And side by side, both he and she,
I’ll buy the round if you can tell
Which one is him and which is me.”

Version by Anthony Howell after a translation in The Flowering Plum and the Palace Lady: Interpretations of Chinese Poetry By Han H. Frankel, Yale University Press, 1976.

This poem was composed in the fifth or sixth century of the current era.  At the time, China was divided between north and south. The rulers of the northern dynasties were from non-Han ethnic groups, most of them from Turkic peoples such as the Toba (Tuoba, also known as Xianbei), whose Northern Wei dynasty ruled most of northern China from 386–534. This background explains why the character Mulan refers to the Son of Heaven as “Khan”— the title given to rulers among the pastoral nomadic people of the north, including the Xianbei — one of the many reasons why the images conveyed in the movie “Mulan” of a stereotypically Confucian Chinese civilization fighting against the barbaric “Huns” to the north are inaccurate.

Asia for Educators
Columbia University

About anthonyhowelljournal

Poet, essayist, dancer, performance artist....
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