Folktale of Mulan

Updated: 2011-10-21 09:10

By Sam Kestenbaum (China Daily)

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 Folktale of Mulan

Director Jingle Ma's version of film Mulan evokes the timeless themes of a Chinese ancient folktale. [Provided to China Daily]

Mulan's world, like ours, is full of conflict, war and strife. It is an old story, but somehow it is still current; we can see our own reflection in it.


The folktale of Mulan has been told for centuries - loved because it has it all: action, romance, betrayal, morality and cross-dressing. In retelling the ancient folktale Mulan, director Jingle Ma has evoked the story's timeless themes: womanhood, manhood, sacrifice and homeland.

Established actress and pop singer Zhao Wei (of Red Cliff and Shaolin Soccer) plays Hua Mulan, the daughter who takes her sick father's place in the Northern Wei army. In a not-so-believable man-disguise, she joins the battle against the invading Rouran tribes.

Mulan's boyhood friend spots her in the army's ranks and tries to dissuade her from going to war - this isn't a woman's place, he says.

Tiger: (You have to) talk less, laugh less.

Folktale of Mulan

Shǎo shuōhuà,shǎoxiào.


Mulan: Why?

Wèi shénme?


Tiger: You laugh like this: Hi hi hi. We laugh like this: Ha ha ha.

Nǐ xiào shì:xī xī xī。Wǒmen xiào shì:hā hā hā 。


Also, don't open your eyes so wide.

Háiyǒu,yǎnjing búyào zhēng nàme dà。


Mulan: Why not?

Wèi shénme?


Tiger: Our eyes are not that big.

Wǒmen yǎnjing nǎyǒu nàme dà。


Mulan: You mean, your eyes are too small.

Shì nǐ yǎnjing tàixiǎo le。


Like other cross-dressing women soldiers - Joan of Arc, Catalina de Euraso, or the two pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read - Mulan defies expectations about a woman's role; she is stronger, faster and smarter than the men she fights with. Mulan proves herself a skilled kungfu fighter and an adept soldier on the battlefield. She quickly rises through the ranks and becomes a senior general in the Northern Wei army.

But even as she leads a successful war campaign, Mulan grapples with her conscience. She questions whether she is strong enough to lead her army and brutal enough to sacrifice her fellow soldiers. She didn't understand when she was a young girl in her village, but she comes to learn that war is ugly.

A complex love grows between Mulan and fellow general Wentai. Wentai learns of Mulan's true identity, but swears to keep her secret.

After losing a whole battalion of soldiers to a Rouran ambush, Mulan confides in him:

Mulan: I don't want to fight anymore. I don't want to be a general. I want to be a normal person.

Wǒ bùxiǎng zài dǎzhàng,wǒ bùxiǎng dāng jiāngjūn,wǒ yào zuò yígè pǔtōng rén.


Wentai: Who wants to fight! I also don't want to fight anymore!

Sheí xiǎng dǎzhàng!Wǒ yě bùxiǎng zài dǎzhàng le!


If I could use my life to stop this battle, I would have done it long ago!

Rúguǒ néng yòng wǒde shēngmìng qù tíngzhǐ zhèchǎng zhànzhēng, wǒ zǎo jiù zuòle 。


The problem is we cannot choose!

Kě wèntí shì,wǒmen méi dé xuǎnzé!


Once you put on a general's armor, your life is no longer yours. This is what war is about!

Nǐ chuānshàng le jiāngjūn de zhànjiǎ,nǐ jiù búzài shǔyú nǐ。Zhè jiùshì zhànzhēng!


Mulan and General Wentai's love never comes to fruition. But there are tender moments, like when Wentai nurses Mulan back to life after she is wounded in a particularly bloody battle. There are so few supplies in their war camp that, in lieu of water, Wentai cuts his arm and squeezes his own blood into Mulan's mouth, reviving her. It is the closest that they ever come to kissing.

Mulan: I dreamed that I died. You all left me. There was no one around me.

Wǒ mèngdào wǒ sǐle,nǐmen dōu zǒule,zhōuwéi yígè rén yě méiyǒu 。


Wentai: I count the stars every night and have not counted an extra one. So you won't die.

Wǒ měitiān wǎnshang dōu shù xīngxing,yígè dōu méiyǒu duō,suǒyǐ nǐ yídìng búhuì sǐ。


Mulan: You're so good to me.

Nǐ zhēnhǎo。


Ma's version of Mulan is a war epic, propelled by the unrequited love between Mulan and Wentai. Their emotions and their moral dilemmas feel like problems that we might also have, or like those that face our contemporary world leaders. Mulan's world - and ours - is full of conflict, war and strife.

Though an old story, it's somehow still current; we can still see ourselves reflected in it. Fables have the ability to do that, to continue to speak to us no matter how ancient they are.

Courtesy of The World of Chinese,