Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
So Disney is filming a live-action remake of the 1998 animated Mulan, actually casting an Asian woman in the role of an Asian woman (because you never know with Hollywood).
This news prompts me to revisit the ancient source of the story of Mulan. Certain aspects of the source material now seem surprising in light of departures made in the Disney version, and I don’t just mean the little dragon Mushu that works as a cartoon character but in fact does not exist in the original.
The 1998 film sets the action during the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), and the invading enemies are said to be the Huns. The Han Dynasty did fight protracted wars against the Huns. But these battles took place centuries before the figure of Mulan first appeared in Chinese literature.
An anonymous author composed “The Poem of Mulan,” probably about a real woman, during the Northern Wei kingdom (386-534AD). The Northern Wei was one of the governments that formed the so-called North-and-South Dynasties, a period of chaos, division, relatively frequent regime changes, and the migration of numerous ethnic groups into China. The rulers of Northern Wei itself were not ethnically Chinese. The poem makes this clear (all translations are mine):
What does the girl think of?
Notice that it is not the emperor summoning the troops, but the khan, clearly indicating the non-Chinese nature of this government.
Mulan proceeds to spend twelve years in the army. When she returns as a war hero, the khan invites her to his palace and asks her what she wants as a reward. She declines the offer of a cabinet position (interestingly, the 1998 film does include this detail of Mulan turning down an offer to be the emperor’s advisor). And, in another hint at the story’s geography and therefore likely cultural ecology, she asks only for a fast camel, not a horse, to take her home.
And when she gets home, the poem implicitly underlines how much it was a matter of Mulan’s personal choice to go to war in the first place. The poem earlier says that she has no older brother and that her father has no adult son, implying that she is the oldest child of a father of daughters. Now we find out that this is not true:
When mother and father hear that their daughter is coming home,
So the older sister could have taken her father’s place, but she didn’t. (Actually we get a striking image of the older sister, whose first instinct is to put on makeup.) The younger brother, depending how old he was, perhaps could have lied about his age to take his father’s place, but he didn’t. It was only Mulan who chose to serve.
Finally Mulan arrives with her buddies from her combat unit. She goes inside and changes into her old clothes and then returns to shock her army friends: they had no idea that she’s a woman.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."