The sound of one sigh after another,
As Mulan weaves at the doorway.
No sound of the loom and shuttle,
Only that of the girl lamenting.
Ask her of whom she thinks,
Ask her for whom she longs.
"There is no one I think of,
There is no one I long for.
Last night I saw the army notice,
The Khan is calling a great draft –
A dozen volumes of battle rolls,
Each one with my father's name.
My father has no grown-up son,
And I have no elder brother.
I'm willing to buy a horse and saddle,
To go to battle in my father's place."
As Mulan marched to the front lines, the men around her spoke of their sweethearts, or at least their hopes for one. It was a relief to have something else to think of than what they were marching towards, and that knot of impatience, nervousness, and anticipation finally loosened in her belly. “A girl worth fighting for,” they sighed about, and as they good-naturedly teased each other about their hopes, dreams, and lack of successes, Mulan was reminded of the debacle with the matchmaker, just before she left for the army. It hadn’t occurred to her that the men that she and the other women of her village were preparing to meet were as floundering and inexperienced as they were, or perhaps even more so judging from the stories.
“Bet the local girls thought you were quite the charmer,” prompted Yao, no doubt hoping that “Ping” would have some stories of his own to share.
“Unfortunately, the less said about it the better. I never did fit in very well back in my home village,” equivocated Mulan.
“Yeah, I can believe that,” sniggered Yao. “No offense, but when we first met you, everyone thought you were an absolute lunatic.”
“You have matured into a good soldier and friend since then,” said Chien-Po.
“And I bet the ladies love a man in armor,” added Ling. “They’ll be lining up at your doorstep when you return, for sure.”
Somewhat guilty that her friends were trying to encourage her based on a deception, Mulan answered honestly, “I just hope my parents are well when I return. That’s why I joined the army. I had always felt like something of a disappointment, and though I could never be a perfect child, I thought that the least I could do was to take his place.”
“Me too,” admitted Yao, and he was joined by a chorus of others around them agreeing. Mulan was surprised, but then realized that of course others might be going through similar things, inexperienced recruits them all, left behind for training while the veterans went ahead.
As the conversation shifted to embarrassing childhood mishaps, Mulan felt a greater sense of kinship with her fellow soldiers. No matter how different they might appear in a mirror, inside, they were not so different after all.
She buys a fine steed at the east market;
A saddle and blanket at the west market;
A bridle at the south market;
And a long whip at the north market.
She takes leave of her parents at dawn,
To camp beside the Yellow River at dusk.
No sound of her parents hailing their girl,
Just the rumbling waters of the Yellow River.
She leaves the Yellow River at dawn,
To reach the Black Mountains by dusk.
No sound of her parents hailing their girl,
Just the cries of barbarian cavalry in the Yan hills.
Just as the first day in the army had been nothing like she expected when she rode away from her village, her first brush with war was nothing like she expected in the training camp. From the sudden silence of her fellow soldiers at the sight of the charred village, she guessed that they were unprepared as well. When she glimpsed the remains of China’s army, scattered as far as the eye could see, she realized that this war was not only terrible, but that they, woefully inexperienced and undermanned, were the only pitiful hope of stopping its spread to engulf the rest of her country.
The general, Shang’s father, lay dead as well, and Mulan wanted to comfort him. Had she not taken her father’s place, veteran swordsman as he was, he would have been lying somewhere in that vast battlefield as well, unmourned and unburied.
She remembered this at the Tung Show Pass, as Shan Yu and his cavalry charged towards her. As she fumbled with the cannon, he drew close enough that she could see the hatred pooled in his eyes. Through her fear, she recalled her father’s words so long ago and whispered, “It is an honor to protect my country and my family,” and lit the cannon.
She heard it explode into the snowy mountainside. Shan Yu raised his blade in rage and anger, and in that moment, she knew that she would die doing what was right, and it was enough.
Miraculously, Shan Yu stumbled back, clenching at his eye. Mulan heard Cri-Kee chitter and glimpsed a blur dart away from Shan Yu’s face before he was swallowed by the wave of snow.
After the avalanche, the remainder of their army gathered together, full of excitement and hope. Mulan heard them exulting:
“I bet they’ll throw us a parade.”
“Medals for all.”
She even heard her friends start harmonizing: “Noodles,” “Pork buns,” “Roast duck!”
“Wait,” Shang commanded, interrupting the mood. “Search for survivors. If Ping and I survived, so could more.”
Their handful of remaining soldiers doubled as some pulled out their comrades from the snow, while others lit fires for the chilled survivors, tended to the wounded, and organized the supplies. Mulan wandered away from their makeshift camp, looking for signs that her comrades were buried beneath the snow, when she heard a hawk’s shriek, followed by a roar full of rage and bitterness. As she spied on them behind a rock, Mulan watched Shan Yu’s army emerge from the snow.
Mulan ran back to the camp. “The Huns are alive,” she gasped out, and soon after, other searchers brought back the same news, that a multitude was rising from the snow like vengeful spirits.
Ten thousand miles she rode in war,
Crossing passes and mountains as if on a wing.
On the northern air comes the sentry's gong,
Cold light shines on her coat of steel.
The general dead after a hundred battles,
The warriors return after ten years.
Mulan dismounted when she reached the war camp, handing off Khan’s reins to a horse groom. She ducked into Shang’s tent, where he was looking over the ever-present map of troop and enemy movements.
“Sorry I’m late. We ran into one of Shan Yu’s scouting parties on the way back from the last village,” said Mulan. She handed Shang an enemy messenger bag and added, “I hope you have more figures to add to that map.”
“It is good to see you,” said Shang, “Unfortunately, I need to send you off again.” He was tired, she could see, overburdened with leading an army with too little support.
“Where do you need me?”
Mulan and the remaining soldiers had pursued Shan Yu’s army since that first skirmish at the pass. Thanks to some brilliant strategizing, they managed to harry them and block them from the Imperial city. Though for a long while, Mulan and the rest of the soldiers grew more tired, ragged, and fewer in number at every encounter, they managed to hold of Shan Yu for weeks, then months, then years.
Mulan and the men under her command resupplied and left the war camp. She had ridden thousands of miles during the war, crossed mountains and rivers, and fought countless battles. Yet, she thought that the greatest work against Shan Yu being done was in the villages. When Shan Yu first reemerged, they had sent messages to the Imperial City and neighboring villages, so wherever Shan Yu fled, he would be met with resistance when he hoped to rebuild his strength. Slowly, as open war morphed into one of attrition, Mulan made it her own personal mission to rally the villages she rode by to their cause.
Whenever she entered a village, there would be families lining the street, much like her own had been when Chi Fu had announced the conscription notice so long ago. She could guess what mix of emotions they were feeling - pride, fear, curiosity - because those had been her own when she stood in the street so long ago.
Early on, when she saw the gaps in the families that stood there, missing fathers and sons and brothers, she felt guilty and expected to find resentment. However, when she spoke to the villagers, there was surprisingly little of it, only an eagerness for news and to help in however little they could. Mulan looked at the faces of those she met, women and children and elderly, and thought about how she was supposed to be one of them, left behind and unable to contribute.
“What can you tell me about the surrounding area? Where might troops hide and find shelter?” she asked an old woman who reminded her of Granny. The woman was startled at first, but sketched out a map displaying her insight and long experience with the land.
“How can we help you,” Mulan asked the young women in the rice fields, whose husbands were off fighting the war. She and her men helped with the heavy farm tasks, long left undone for lack of help, and in gratitude the village paid them back with food and mended clothes.
“What are you playing?” she asked the children running around the village outskirts. She lost some minutes laughing and chasing them, but gained in memories to sustain her through the long marches to come.
The only way they could win against Shan Yu’s superior numbers, weapons, and experience was with the support of the people. For an army needed scouts and messengers, armor and weapons repaired, food and supplies, and places to heal and recover, and those people left behind were no less eager to serve their country than the young men who enlisted.
They return to see the Son of Heaven,
Who sits in the Hall of Brilliance.
The rolls of merit spin a dozen times,
Rewards in the hundreds and thousands.
The Khan asks her what she desires,
"I've no need for the post of a gentleman official,
I ask to borrow a camel fleet of foot,
To carry me back to my hometown."
After twelve long years of war, it was finally over. Shan Yu was dead, his army driven back beyond the borders, and the country was rebuilding. Finally, there were the parades, medals, and banquets her comrades had dreamed of long ago.
The Imperial city was beautiful, full of wood painted red and gold and sweeping roofs. At night, brilliant fireworks lit up the skies and lanterns hung from ropes like stars. It was crowded and lively as well, the normal populace swollen by people from around the country wanting to take part in the festivities.
Ling, Yao, and Chien-Po rejoiced to be in the city after so long in the field, and every time she saw them they excitedly told her about the lion dance thrown in their honor or the food they bought from the night market. Unlike her comrades though, she yearned to leave the city. After fighting an enemy as cunning and deadly as Shan Yu, it was hard to believe he was truly defeated, even though she had been the one to cut him down when the Emperor was betrayed at that disastrous false peace treaty, and the shifting crowds and clamor of the city put her on an edge.
Difficult too were the snatches of conversation that seemed to waft around Mulan whenever she entered a room. They spoke of Fa Ping as if he were a folk hero of old, with one hand bringing Shan Yu’s army to its knees and the other hand blessing the land with prosperity. It wasn’t her though. She was the one who had been blessed with a great commander and great comrades, and it was only because of them that the miraculous had been pulled off. Without them, she would have been stumbling fruitlessly, as indeed she fumbled her way through the city now alone.
When Mulan left home, she was little more than a girl, fleeing in the night, unsure of her place and purpose. Now, she stood before the Emperor in the Imperial city, had been a commander of men and held up as an example for others to follow, and she still felt that insecurity within her.
“Fa Ping, hero of China. You have saved us all,” the Emperor said simply. “Ask of me anything that you wish.”
Caught off guard, Mulan babbled. “I’m not worthy. They have me confused with a legend. I’m not.”
“Virtue and discernment, benevolence and prudence, these are the marks of a great leader. I would be honored to have you as my councillor,” responded the Emperor as Chi Fu sputtered in the background.
“With all due respect, your Excellency, I think I've been away from home long enough.”
Her parents hearing their girl returns,
Out to the suburbs to welcome her back.
Elder sister hearing her sister returns,
Adjusts her rouge by the doorway.
Little brother hearing his sister returns,
Sharpens his knife for pigs and lamb.
"I open my east chamber door,
And sit on my west chamber bed.
I take off my battle cloak,
And put on my old-time clothes.
I adjust my wispy hair at the window sill,
And apply my bisque makeup by the mirror.
I step out to see my comrades-in-arms,
They are all surprised and astounded:
'We travelled twelve years together,
Yet didn't realise Mulan was a lady!'"
Mulan had risen early, too excited and anxious to return to sleep. After a week of feasts to celebrate her departure, it was finally time to return home. There had been goodbyes aplenty, especially the previous night, sometimes tearily on the part of Yao, and coupled with the early hour and the number of cups of wine imbibed the night before, Mulan did not expect anyone to see her off.
She was surprised, then, to see Shang waiting for her at the gate, his own horse laden with travelling packs.
“What are you doing here?” asked Mulan.
“I thought I might accompany you,” replied Shang. He flushed slightly. “If you would allow me to,” he added, realizing anew that he was no longer her commanding officer to give orders to her.
“Of course you can,” replied Mulan. “But why? It is a long journey back to my hometown, and surely you have other things to do.”
“Well, given that the country is at peace, not really. Everyone is returning to their homes, and I am finding myself a bit redundant. This is mostly your fault, I hope you realize.”
“Ah, I get it. You’re sick of the opulence and the speeches and blaming me. Well, come along then,” teased Mulan. His father was dead, she recalled, and she’d never heard him speak of his mother. Perhaps she was not the only one to view this long awaited peace and return to their old life with uncertainty.
The ride back was a quiet one. For Mulan, after a decade of close quarters, stress, and constant demands on her time and attention, it was nice to relax and try to readjust. Shang had always been quiet and projected the image of the stoic leader unless caught off guard, but he seemed more troubled than he had even when they were losing the war.
It was springtime, and as they rode, Mulan was reminded of the cherry blossoms around her home. It had been spring when she had left, all those years before, and Mulan remembered that last conversation with her father before the conscription notice came and her life changed. Her mother and father would be old now, her Granny older still, but she was glad that finally they would be able to see her bloom.
Perhaps sensing her thoughts, Shang said, “I hope I can meet your honored father. His son is more than worthy of his family name.”
“My father would be happy to meet you too. I remember him speaking highly of the general when he served in the wars,” replied Mulan. “What was the general like? You don’t speak of him much.” She assumed that it had been grief at first, and then the distance his rank put him from the other soldiers, but now that the war was over, she was curious to know more about the man she had known for so long.
Shang hesitated at first, but then slowly told Mulan about his childhood and his father’s hopes and dreams for him. She shared in return what anecdotes she could about her own father, of playing elephant chess with him in the evenings and learning to ride.
“Have you thought about what you will be doing after you return?” asked Shang.
“Before I left, my parents wanted me to get married. That’s all my parents had ever asked of me, really. But now, I’m not sure.”
Shang seemed surprised at her response, almost hopeful, his horse reacting to his owner’s feelings by stopping in the middle of the road.
Mulan walked Khan back towards Shang. “What about you?” she added.
“I don’t know either.” Shang fell silent but did not resume moving, so Mulan waited next to him as well. He reached out a hand towards her. “I --,” he started to say, then dropped his hand and looked down. “I will miss you deeply when we part.”
“I will miss you as well,” replied Mulan, and she waited for him to explain more, but he merely started his horse again along the road.
As they drew near to her family’s home, Mulan saw three figures waiting for them. “Father! Mother! Granny!” she exclaimed, and Khan broke out in a run towards them.
She leapt down into their arms and murmured how much she had longed for them, all her insecurities dissolving as they responded in kind and told her how proud of her they were. Shang drew up to them, but stopped a respectful distance away. Mulan motion for him to come closer.
Mulan faced her family. “This is General Shang. He has been my superior and good friend throughout the war.” Granny’s mouth gaped open when she saw him, but he had the courtesy not to react. “Shang, meet my father, my mother, and my grandmother.”
Shang bowed in respect. “It is an honor to meet you. Your son is the greatest hero of our generation.”
Mulan’s father motioned them towards their home. “Go in and rest. You have had a long journey.”
“I’ll show you where you can wash up and set your things down,” said Mulan’s mother, leading Shang inside.
Granny elbowed Mulan. “So when are you planning on telling him?”
“What a waste! Honey, follow me and I’ll have you married in no time.” Granny grabbed Mulan’s elbow and dragged her along as Mulan protested fruitlessly.
Hair fussed over by Granny, and in her old clothes, Mulan had a hard time recognizing herself in the mirror. She walked into the room where Shang was talking with her father.
“You must be Ping’s --” Shang started to say, then stood there blinking. “Ping?”
Mulan nodded. “My parents call me Mulan.”
For a moment Shang was frozen, then smiled. “'We travelled twelve years together, and I never realized you were a woman.”
“Does it matter?”
“No, I guess it doesn’t.”
The buck bounds here and there,
Whilst the doe has narrow eyes.
But when the two rabbits run side by side,
How can you tell the female from the male?