Saturday, 2 May 2015

Chinese Culture [2]: Mulan

Chinese Culture Appreciation is a blog series that aims at explaining tidbits of, well, the Chinese culture. As a girl from Hong Kong, I really hope to share more of my amazing, historically rich world with you.

I'm sure everyone has heard of Mulan, if only because of the Disney animation. And Disney's even announcing a live-action remake in the vein of Cinderella 2015.
Therefore, this is the perfect time to introduce the original to all you grasshoppers: please welcome The Ballad of Mulan.

Even I'm not sure what it says. (x)

Recap of the original ballad:


Mulan is weaving at her window, worried about the fact that every family has to send a boy to join the country's army. Her father, who is pretty old, asks her what she's thinking about. "I'm fine," she answers, just like any other teenager. Then she goes to buy a horse and a saddle. And rides off to replace her father. (No marriage attempts so far!)

They fight in wars, almost everyone dies, and this is heartbreaking in the original but I can't translate it, so there. Needless to say, Mulan not only lives, but distinguishes herself in battle. (No grandiose saving-the-country, though.)

The emperor rewards Mulan with gold and a really important political position. In ancient China, all anyone cared about was getting damn political positions. Mulan turns it down and asks for a horse that travels a thousand miles per day. (This is also another biggie in ancient Chinese texts.) And of course, she goes home. CMOH.

Her parents and older sister come out to meet her, and she goes into her room and gets back in girls' clothes. Her army companions, who apparently escorted her home, are henceforth shocked. You mean we fought beside a girl for twelve friggin' years?

Yeah. That's literally it.

Why I desperately love it:

  • It sounds beautiful. It can't be translated perfectly, but seriously, it flows in Chinese.
  • Mulan survives a war that kills 99.9% of the army. That is kickass.
  • Literally zero romance. Marriage woes? Nope. Hot warrior prince? Nope. Mulan just goes home.
  • Amazing representation of Chinese values. Filial piety. Bravery. Patriotism. Loyalty. 
I love it so much that in my novel set in pseudo-China, Mulan still exists, albeit under a slightly different name. Hell, one of my MCs' storylines is an adaptation of this ballad.

The live-action adaptation, I'm guessing, will still be adapting from the animation. And I fully acknowledge that it's impossible to make a two-hour movie just out of two pages of ancient Chinese text, but the starkness of this folk tale is what makes it beautiful. The animation doesn't quite do it justice.

What I'm really saying is: appreciate the storyline that's not dramatised for Disney. Mulan is, very simply, the story of a girl who left home and made it back. (Tweet this!)

What are your prerequisites for a translation or adaptation? Thoughts on Mulan and its film versions?


ETA: I've written a direct Chinese-to-English Mulan translation in iambic tetrameter. Join my takeout army and start reading right away!


39 comments:

  1. The stpry of Mulan's quite intriguing. Before I read this, all I could remember about Mulan was that she was in a Disney animation (with a love interest, I think). That's pretty awesome how she survived when a lot of the army didn't. I can't wait to watch the adapation if it comes, although I didn't enjoy Cinderella very much. :')

    (To answer your question, I'd like to see the survey results!)

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    1. It is, isn't it? We call it folklore, but it might easily be a fairytale in its own right. (No one really knows whether it happened, I mean.) And yes, Disney-Mulan did have a love interest, which I don't mind, but it sort of overcomplicated the plot. Still, I'm looking forward to watching the live-action version!

      Noted! I'll see if I can slip them in my schedule.

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  2. I'll be the bad guy and say that I LOVE THE DISNEY DRAMATIZED VERSION AND THAT'S ALL THERE IS TO IT. It's not as flowy and is probably super inaccurate historically and culturally, but at the same time, I also can't imagine the original ballad with the same kind of humor that brings joy to my screen. <3 Also, Eddie Murphy, Donny Osmond, Lea Solonga... Like, really, how much better can you get? LEA SOLONGA IS AWESOME.

    Of course, it doesn't mean the original isn't still awesome; I can't imagine hiding your gender for 12 years though... Like, peeing in front of other dudes is totally a thing, and they get super suspicious of you when you don't. (That's something else I learned from TV, I think. Lol.)

    I think probably the discrepancy between our opinions may come in something you mentioned—our values. "Filial piety. Bravery. Patriotism. Loyalty." I know that bravery, patriotism, and loyalty are just as big where I live, but that first one—filial piety. Doing the duty of a son or daughter on behalf of your parents, right? I'm not saying we don't have that, because we do like our parents quite a bit, but I don't think we value doing things with those parental ties. For us, the future is about building a future for yourself, leaving behind the things that you grew up with and constructing a legacy of your own making, without any interference from an older generation. And part of that is love—love isn't something that your parents can dictate or choose for you, it's something you have to work for by yourself.

    So... yeah. I don't know. From what I generally perceive here, I feel like if we wrote a story where Mulan just went home, then it would be kind of like she was giving up, because she built so much for herself and sacrificed it all for no reason. Whereas within the original tradition, going home kind of was a victory, because filial duty is more highly valued than individual gain. I don't think either one is better or worse, but I do think it says a lot about the differences in values between China and America (or at the very least, Hollywood). I think there's value in both, and it's worth thinking about a lot more.

    There is my cultural speculation based on reading this post twice and watching the animated Disney version 15 times. It could be right. It could be wrong. But it is a speculation, and I tried. That is all.

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    1. Correction: 400 words of speculation.

      Sorry. *headdesk* That was a lot.

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    2. That is totally fine and I am really touched you left such a detailed comment. And therefore I shall now leave a detailed response instead of, I don't know, revising my novel.

      Okay, I will admit the Disney version was pretty nice. The dishonor on your cow gif is just too awesome. And no, it's not very humorous, so yeah, I can see why you might prefer your Westernised imperialistic bourgeoise -- oh wait, got a little carried off there.

      Yes. YES. That is totally correct. I mean, if you have to wrap your tongue around "filial piety" to express that sentiment, I'm guessing you guys don't really put much emphasis on it. BUT IT IS SO IMPORTANT HERE. EXTREMELY IMPORTANT. We just sort of expect you to turn around and give the same care and love you received in childhood to your parents, and make them proud with your achievements. Not necessarily that your achievements aren't recognised for you as an individual, but that they do reflect on your upbringing and family.

      ... and basically that paragraph sums up why Talisa is such a bad, bad Mulan.

      15 is a lot. But I appreciate the effort, and please don't ever apologise for leaving a long comment. They make my day.

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  3. I just watched Mulan last year, and I LOVED it. I realize it's not true to the original, but the love story in that movie is one of the few that doesn't annoy me. I'd love to be able to experience the flow of the original (or, you know, read it) you're describing, but I'll have to take your word for it! Mulan is pretty badass overall - I love the story, love interest or not. :)

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    1. It's better than most other Disney love stories, but it just sort of ruins the idea that Mulan is a story about family, about going home. Because not that marriage isn't a thing here, it IS, but it overcomplicates stuff.

      I'll be reading a bit of Mulan on the next newsletter, so you can experience it. Or, you know, just Google Mulan reading. And true, Mulan is just too badass to be passed over.

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    2. I feel like it's kind of similar to book to movie adaptions though - if you know the original that is (from what you say) about family and that's what you love about it, then the movie adaption might not be the thing for you, but if you don't know the original, then the love story is actually quite good. I feel like Disney movies are almost always only based on something rather than a direct adaption, so it's different from a movie adaption of The Fault in Our Stars or something (though even then you usually have to make a lot of allowances if you know both). As long as they keep the badassery, I'm happy. (Though a story mainly about family would be awesomesauce too!)

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    3. You make a fair point there, Disney does have to consider its Western audience might be less attuned to Chinese audiences. I'm personally biased against love stories anyways, so that's part of the equation, and I'm something of an adaptation purist XD Badassery is definitely important!

      Still, with all the fuss the Internet's kicking up about the race of the actress (good fuss, of course), I think it's worth discussing how much of the cultural values translate across as well.

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  4. I LOVE Mulan! She's my favorite Disney (princess?), and I'd always wondered how much the movie differed from the original tale. Regardless of their differences, I think that both versions have their own merit. The Disney version is first and foremost meant for entertainment, so it's only obvious that they would include some humor and romance. On the other hand, the original story is probably meant to be simple with a complex meaning. I think I'm going to learn Chinese now, just so that I can read the story :D

    And I would love to see the survey results.

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    1. ... canonically speaking not a princess. Not really. It differs quite a bit, especially the whole reveal and saving-China thing. Yep, true, the humour and the romance are there for entertainment, and don't get me wrong, I do like the humour! I just think the romance overcomplicates what was supposed to be a sweet and simple tale. It's like introducing a love triangle to Cinderella.

      Ohhh, learn Chinese? An ambitious task. Good luck :)

      Noted! I'll slip it in sometime :)

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  5. The Disney Mulan movie is my favourite Disney movie for the pure fact that Mulan kicks ass. I love that she doesn't wait around for a prince to save her like some other Disney movies - although, there is kind of a love interest at the end, but it isn't a main focus. I didn't know that it was inspired by The Ballad of Mulan; it is great to know that what I love about the Disney movie is actually from the Ballad.

    Love this post! :)

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    1. AGREED. MULAN KICKS ASS. The love interest is indeed not the main focus, and I am glad they didn't marry, but it still irks me somewhat. I'm sort of like those book purists in book-to-movie adaptations.

      The best parts are from ancient China. We're awesome. Come here and leave your eagles behind. XD

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  6. This is a really interesting post Alyssa. To be quite frank, I actually had no idea that there was an original version to the Mulan story - I always thought it was something that Disney created. (I know, I know, I'm such an ignorant American).

    But the way you've described it, I can definitely see where you're coming from. It must be extremely annoying to have a romance added to the animation adaption when that isn't even one of the themes in the original story. I think that actually goes with books a lot too; sometimes authors seem to add romance even when it's not needed because they think that having a romance will make the story appeal more to a YA audience. *shrugs*

    Thank you for sharing this informative post - I learned quite a lot here! ♥

    ~ Zoe @ Stories on Stage

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    1. Nope, it's all OURS. OURRSSSSSS. *turns into Gollum*

      YES. EXACTLY. I wouldn't really mind the romance, but it contradicts the main theme of going home to family when romance implies leaving home to make your own life! I definitely think it's due in part to audience, but I would attribute it more to Americans, Hollywood, etc., because you guys seem to place more emphasis on the individual over family.

      I'm glad you did! I had a lot of fun writing this post too :)

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  7. Woah, the original is pretty different, but theeeeen...aren't all retellings different?! XD I don't mind! I think it makes things fresh (although I love knowing the originals!) It's like Grimm's fairy tales are totally different to what Disney churns out these days. And I'm ike 940174190% excited for the live-action Mulan!! YAAAAAAY. I wasn't keen on Cinderella, but omg, you can bet on onboard for Mulan.

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    1. TRUE. All retellings are different, but I always saw Disney's as an adaptation. It's like introducing the subplot of Primrose's romance into Catching Fire or something. That would just be weird.

      Well, yes. I do prefer the original Grimm's fairytales. BUT YES, BE EXCITED. I AM EXCITED. WE CAN YELL AT DISNEY AFTERWARDS, BUT THERE MUST BE EXCITEMENT.

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  8. *whispers* I've never actually seen Mulan.

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    1. WHAT BLASPHEMY IS THIS.

      *coughs* Well, at least you've learned more today. And I'll probably blog more about Mulan, so. *narrows eyes*

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  9. Mulan is kickass and gorgeous - both the Disney version and the original character - and it is 200% imperative that they use a Chinese actress for the live-action interpretation. (Seriously, I can't believe there's even debate about this. I had hoped it would be a given.)

    You're right, though, on the stark loveliness of the original folktale - it's far less dramatic and superhero-ish, but the simplicity makes it poignant, I think. Great post, Alyssa. x

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    1. Well, I love the original more. Like you say, simplicity has its own beauty. :)

      Ooh, on the subject of a Chinese actress, I'm sort of not so sure. Obviously I will murder Disney if they try to cast someone obviously not Chinese, but the borderline cases ... Well, I don't think a border can be drawn. A blog post on that is forthcoming!

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  10. I kind of love Mulan! I am not into Disney movies EVER, but I could not turn away from Mulan, I loved it! And the original story is amazing too, probably more so. I think I would see the live-action version too, hopefully it will be done well!

    Shannon @ It Starts At Midnight

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    1. I do enjoy Disney movies, even if I'm not a huge fan. Of course Mulan is one of my favourites, and OF COURSE the original is better. (Aren't they always?) I'm looking forward to the live-action one too!

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  11. Mulan has always fascinated me. I knew it was based on a poem, but the movie (and the 2nd movie, which is just dumb) are really disneyfied and I don't really think the ending was that realistic or anything. They did Mulan at my school a few years ago and my friend (who is a red head) was Mulan. Anyway, I'd be interested in the results of the survey and the live action movie sounds really great. :D

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    1. ... there was a second movie? I did not know that. (Way to overcomplicate things, Disney.) Wow, a redhead as Mulan ... I suppose school productions are limited. I'll try to fit them in sometime, and I'm looking forward to the live action one too!

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  12. Mulan is one of my favorite Disney movies,and even though I knew that the actual Ballad of Mulan is pretty different (I think I read a picture book adaptation of it at some point) I still tend to think about the Disney movie when someone mentions Mulan. Do you know if they're any good English translations of the actual ballad?

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    1. It is definitely one of the favourites, even with all the Frozen fever :D I've never read any adaptations other than the original, I think, which was a pain to go through :/ I certainly haven't seen one online, but I might try my own hand at it sometime. (Not the best at poetry, though.)

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  13. I've never heard the original story of Mulan, but now I think I like it way better than the Disney adaptation, and that's one of my favourite Disney movies, coming in behind Beauty and the Beast of course. But I read correctly that there is to be a live action version made now? How exciting!

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    1. Ooh yes, Beauty and the Beast was quite nicely done. Especially loved the teapots and such. The original story is more poignant than the Disney, although I am looking forward to watching the live action film!

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  14. Ahh, I totally didn't know that they were going to do a live action for it! I'm extremely excited, being Chinese as well. (And of course because I loved the Disney animation.)

    I love the original story as much as the animation (despite the lack of romance... heh), and I never knew that her comrades didn't find out that she was actually a girl!

    Thanks for sharing, Alyssa! :)

    Aimee @ Deadly Darlings

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    1. *high-fives* Yay for Chinese solidarity! I do actually like the original more than the animation due to the lack of romance, but I suppose we all have our own penchants :) The live action should be fabulous, despite the controversy over the race of the actress :)

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  15. Thanks for sharing this. It is super interesting to see the different values of the cultures as reflected in the differences between the traditional Mulan and the disney version. Disney catered to the modern feminism movement and to our obsession with love (there always has to be a guy...don't know why, but there always has to be one). The original tale seems to reflect on the values of that time period. They are both beautiful and inspiring in their own ways, I just think it is really neat to compare them. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed reading about the differing values! Disney does have to consider modern western viewpoints, not just traditional Chinese values, and I don't fault them for it. Not too much, at least. These values are still important in Chinese life nowadays though, so I think it would be nice for them to take slightly more importance in the live action film.

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  16. Well, basically this ballad is the origin of my name... I'm called Mulan. My mother is Chinese and my father liked the movie... also they wanted a Chinese name, that Germans could pronounce, so I was called Mulan...
    I personally think it's okay to make long movies out of short ballads, because basically, the other fairytales they make their movies out of, are often of the same length and yet it isn't bad that they made them.
    But on the other hand I don't speak almost no Chinese (yes, I'm a poor person) despite of my Chinese mother and I don't exactly know, how the ballad is originally (I mean, I've been told of it when I was little, but that's too long ago...)

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    1. Really, how fascinating! Cross-cultural melding is always amazing :D

      Yep, although I have to admit some of the Disney adaptations were ... awkward. The animation was always wonderful, it's just that there are some plot and character issues.

      You could ask your mother to roughly translate some of it! I might write and post a translation on the blog someday :P

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  17. I have always loved the Disney version of Mulan because she's just so badass, and the movie was about her protecting her dad, and the romance wasn't all "my kiss and love will save your life, woman". I mean, they weren't even in a relationship. So super plus points.

    I think because Disney makes movies aimed at children, and also add aspects that parents can enjoy when watching with their children, they add and change elements to every story they adapt. I mean ... the little mermaid dies in the original tale. Cinderella's stepsisters cut off pieces of their feet and then get their eyes pecked out by ravens and whatnot.

    I like the original story you have here, though. Twelve years is a SUPER long time for Mulan to have hidden her true identity, and that's amazing.

    Also, I really want the Disney live action film to cast Chinese actors, and keep far far away from whitewashing it. I want it to be as amazing as the animation!

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    1. Badass princesses are the best type of princesses. ... not that Mulan was even a princess. Yes! The fact that she was protecting her family was just akljsjkl *hugs Mulan despite sword*

      Yep, originals do get twisted, although I'm more bemoaning the eradication of Chinese cultural values more than the actual details. It's not like we support torture as a culture (except foot-binding, but that's another issue in itself.)

      The original story is indeed interesting! I've actually written a post for July on the casting, which differs slightly from your opinion -- hope you enjoy reading it :)

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  18. Have you have ever watched Mulan: Rise of a Warrior? I hadn't actually seen the Disney version, but I started watching this thinking they made a Disney movie off it, right? It has to have a happy ending... Heh. Enter my initiation into another culture...XD
    I'd be curious to know what you thought of it, though, because it added romance also, though certainly not the romance I was expecting. I can't see a Disney live action doing that, which is sad, because yeah, it seems to defeat the whole point of telling a story from another culture when you change major character arcs just because they don't make sense to your audience. Explain 'em so they do make sense and don't rewrite the characters' entire worldview. :P

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    1. I have not, actually! I've seen bits and pieces and I sort of know the plot. I didn't love-LOVE it, but I think that was more of an issue with cinematography and stuff more than the plot. I really liked how they integrated the ideas of integrity and family reputation and such into it. The most important thing here, I mean, isn't getting rid of the romance. It's making sure the romance fits the culture.

      Thanks for dropping by, Katherine!

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