Reading the Original Ballad of Mulan

I had lots of fun reading through Bai Juyi’s 9th century ‘Long Song of Sorrows’ recently, and thought I could do with some lighter fare – ie. no dying concubines. I decided to read the Ballad of Mulan, something many outside of China have actually heard of and the source material for an array of modern media. This idea couldn’t have come at a better time: Disney’s live-action reboot of their ’90s animated Mulan film is coming out now, in the wake of multiple controversies, and I would love nothing better than the knowledge needed to point out every single thing they did wrong. I also love the intimate, relatable view of history obtainable by reading ancient poetry in the original and thought this level of proximity to an interesting and subversive cultural figure would be a really cool thing to have.

The ‘ballad’ in question here is known in Chinese as ‘木兰辞’ (Mùlán Cí). It probably has folk origins and was first transcribed in the 6th century, but is set in the Northern Wei (386-535AD). There have obviously been many film adaptations in China and overseas, with the Disney animation well-known in Western countries.

I technically study the Beijing dialect of Modern Standard Mandarin but I’ve been taking a Classical Chinese class for the last academic term and reading lots of Tang poetry on the side along with bits of Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber (prototypic Mandarin mixed with Classical Chinese grammar and vocabulary), so I’m familiar with most of the grammatical structures I can see here. So far, I have found it much easier to understand archaic Chinese poetry – with its largely unchanging capsules of meaning – than poetry written in Latin, my first ancient language, and what does confuse me is usually down to genuine omission or ambiguosity (although there is lots of this in philosophical texts) rather than grammatical complexity. The vocabulary is another story, as always, and I’ll be researching as I go along – although I did go on an ‘obscure equestrian words’ segue a few weeks ago and am excited that I initially recognised 骏马 (a fine thoroughbred horse). Although the original poem rhymes, rather delightfully at that, I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to convey that at all. In the end, my translation is mostly prose with some rhythmic elements kept for accuracy.

My prose translation

Sighing, sighing yet again, Mulan weaves at home. One cannot hear the sound of the loom, only her womanly sighs – when you ask her, ‘What are you thinking?’, when you ask her ‘What do you remember?’, she thinks of nothing, that is for sure, she remembers nothing.

The night before she had seen a call for soldiers, from which Khan would choose, a military register in twelve volumes, books upon books held the name of her father. Dearest father without a single son – Mulan, without a big brother, wanted to go to market for a horse and bridle. From now on, she would assume her old man’s status.

At the Eastern market she buys a fine steed, at the Western market a saddle and cloth, in the South she buys a bridle, and in the North a long whip.

When the sun rises, she bids her mother and father adieu and leaves, as it sets, she settles down to sleep by the Yellow River. There are no calls made here by parents to their daughters, just the shallow splashing of the flowing river.

When the sun rises, she bids the river adieu and leaves, as it sets, she reaches the peak of the Black Mountain. There are no calls here made by parents to their daughters, just the crude cries of riders in the Yan peaks.

Ten thousand li to carry out the mission: as if in flight, she scales the mountain pass. The Northern wind calls of clanging gold1, the winter light gleams from her armour. The general dies a hundred battles later; ten years on, the soldiers return.

On return, they come to see the divine ruler, the divine ruler who sits in halls that shine. He grants her rewards that spill into the hundreds and thousands.

The khan asks what she wants, but Mulan has no use for a grand title: she wants to gallop a thousand li to return to her hometown.

The grandmother hears the woman return, and embraces her as she comes in through the city walls.

The aunt hears her sister return, and decks out the door in red;

Her little brother hears his sister return and, sharpening his knife, advances on the pig and sheep.

Having opened the door of my eastern quarters, I sit on the bed in my west-facing room.

Having taken off my wartime clothes, I wear my old skirts again.

I arrange my hair in the window and, looking into the mirror, I fasten my yellow patch.

Coming out of the door, I see my companions – my companions are all amazed:

“We travelled together for twelve years – I didn’t know Mulan was a girl”.

The male rabbit’s feet are easily bewildering2, the female’s eyes full of mysteries.

When the two rabbits walk together, who can distinguish whether I am male or female?


1 could not think of a clear way to translate this – a gold rattle’s noise is echoed on the wind

2 This phrase is easily bewildering! I thought it might mean that the rabbit runs so quickly that it’s hard to make out its feet. The translations on the Chinese websites I used confirmed this.

I was really charmed by the mirrored structures in this poem, and I think they give Mulan’s character an extra dimension. Particularly successful were the lines describing her farewells and first ventures – they make explicit her displacement from her comforting parents as she reaches the Yellow River, then her father’s calls are replaced by barbarian cries.

The most surprising thing was the assertion at the emperor’s palace that she had 不用 (no use) for an honorary role, and wished to return home to her family – this definitely undermines popular Western interpretations (assumptions) of the poem as a tale reusable for neoliberal means. Mulan is fighting not for personal distinction and honour but to save her father’s life, in an ultimate genderbent sacrifice of Confucian piety. Confucius himself barely acknowledged the existence of women in a moral capacity, and there is clearly an unusually progressive tilt to the poem, especially its last line, but something still feels off about its use to propel liberal feminist ideals of personal fulfilment.

Souped up with delirium at 3am, I attempted to write a translation in verse. This only covers about three quarters of the ballad, missing out Mulan’s return home and the rabbit allegory – at that point I had probably passed out. I fully acknowledge that my attempt was terrible as a standalone literary work, but I also think I came closer to the original tone of the poem than in my prose translation.

My verse translation

There’s the loom again, our Mulan is weaving.

No – not the loom, the sound of her grieving.

When asked why those thoughts – when asked why those woes –

she tells us of nothing and of nothing she shows.

Last night on the board, Khan made a list –

Among his many names was her father, dearly missed.

The man had no son, Mulan had no brother –

she planned to exchange herself for the other.

She buys a horse in the east, a saddle in the west,

A bridle in the south – at north, the whip’s best;

She greets her father by dawn, by night is by the river,

the water sounds out softly and the silence makes her shiver.

She bids the river adieu and by night is at the cliff,

the mountain-folk cries carry and the atmosphere is stiff.

Ten-thousand li before her, and she travels like a bird,

Her armour coldly glints and on the wind, a rattle’s heard.

(A hundred die in battle in a decade – it’s absurd.)

On return she sees the emperor, sitting in his hall,

A multitude of honours, and she deserved them all.

Khan asks what she wants: “A title for her strife?

She wants to gallop many li and see her former life.”


I remember reading Douglas Hofstatder’s Le ton beau de Marot and being excited by the comparison of translation to photography as a means of experiencing ‘the real thing’: although you might have a skewed conception of someone’s appearance if you’ve only seen them photographed from one angle, you’ll gradually develop a fuller understanding of how they look in the real world once more and more pictures are available. Similarly, a translation of one poem only reflects the insights and reactions of one translator, working in one style at one time: if you read several translations and start to see enduring patterns and turns of phrase, you will come a step closer to the poem as it exists in its original language. I hope my inclusion of an odd attempt at verse translation somewhat has this effect. It would be very interesting to compile ‘folk’ translations of the ballad from bilingual people across China to see what stands out as a constant- it has been adapted for entertainment and used for political purposes so often.

To summarise, this was really interesting!

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