One of the reasons why the Ballad of Mulan (often translated as the Poem of Mullah) is being commonly referred to, as such, that represents a high literary value, is that the themes and motifs, contained in it, are discursively universal. That is, they are capable of appealing to just about any person, regardless of what happened to be his or her ethno-cultural affiliation. In its turn, this creates the objective preconditions for the poem’s significance to be reinterpreted in a variety of different formats, such as a motion picture, for example. The 1964 film-opera Lady General Hua Mu-lan illustrates that this indeed happened to be the case. In my paper, I will explore the validity of the mentioned suggestion at length, while outlining what can be considered the main differences/similarities between the poem and the film.
Body of the paper
Probably the main similarity, between the poem, on one hand, and the film, on the other, is that they both promote the idea that one’s willingness to sacrifice for the sake of his or her country’s well-being should be discussed in terms of the greatest virtue ever. There is a memorable remark in the poem, which accentuates the sheer intensity of Mulan’s sense of patriotism: “She (Mulan) did not hear her parents’ voices, calling for their daughter. She only heard the whinnying of Crimson Mountain’s Hunnish horsemen.” (27-28). The semiotic significance of these lines is quite apparent – in a time when her country became the subject of a foreign invasion, Mulan effectively ceased paying much attention to what used to be her pre-war agenda in life, while becoming preoccupied with the thoughts of how this invasion could be stopped. The quoted lines contain another interesting insight into the Poem of Mulan, as such, that reflects the workings of one’s ‘Oriental’ (Chinese) mentality. It is being concerned with the fact that, as the poem implies, it is thoroughly natural for the Chinese to pursue the highly ‘holistic’ (communally integrated) lifestyle, which in turn causes them to experience with the sensation of oneness with the surrounding social/natural environment. Apparently, after having heard the news about the Mongol invasion, Mulan was naturally prompted to refer to it in terms of a personal insult. The reason for this is that Mulan could never think of her self-identity outside of that of the country, in which she was born and raised.
The theme of patriotism defines the discursive sounding of the film Lady General Hua Mu-lan, as well. To illustrate the validity of this claim, we can refer to the film’s scene, in which Mu-lan declares that she would be willing to join the army instead of her ill father: “I’ve no older brother, and my younger brother is small. It’s only appropriate that I go in my father’s place” (00.05.28). This suggestion, on the part of Mu-lan, exposes yet another qualitative feature of how the Chinese tend to perceive the surrounding reality and their place in it. After all, it is namely the hypothetical prospect for her family to end up dishonored (because nobody from it would join the army), which prompted Mu-lan to decide in favor of disguising herself as a man, so that she would qualify for becoming a soldier. What it means is that, along with willing to sacrifice for China, Mu-lan never ceased experiencing the sensation of an utter commitment towards her family, while considering herself the integral part of it.
Another apparent similarity between the poem and the film is that they both radiate the strong spirit of militarism. The most illustrative of this statement’s validity are the poem’s lines: “Myriads of miles: she (Mulan) joined the thick of battle… Winds from the north transmitted metal rattles. A freezing light shone on her iron armor” (29-32). It is quite apparent that they were meant to encourage readers to think of war, as something utterly romantic and aesthetically pleasing. This, of course, suggests that the philosophical connotations of the Poem of Mulan, cannot be discussed outside of the conceptual framework of the so-called ‘masculine values’, the main of which has traditionally been considered one’s emotional comfortableness with the glorification of war.
The film Lady General Hua Mu-lan also contains a fair of amount of the clearly militaristic overtones – something that does not quite correlate with the fact that the film’s main character is a woman. To exemplify this, we can refer to the scene, in which Mu-lan’s father gives his daughter advice, as to how she should deal with the enemies: “Kill one when you see one. Kill two when you see two” (00.21.00). After all, despite the mentioned advice’s bloodthirstiness, Mu-lan did not exhibit any signs of being in contempt with it. Quite on the contrary – the poem’s main character appears to have taken it as the most valuable of all. Thus, if anything, the film Lady General Hua Mu-lan can be the least referred to as being even slightly pacifist.
Nevertheless, there are also a few notable differences between the poem and the film. The most logical explanation to this is that, whereas the poem’s actual origins date back to the ancient history of China, the film was produced during the course of the 1960s, which in turn caused it to resonate with the socio-cultural discourse of the 20th century. To exemplify the legitimacy of this suggestion, we can refer to the following lines from the poem, which implicitly endorse the patriarchal outlook on how the society actually functions: “Merits are recorded in twelve ranks. And grants a hundred thousand strong” (37-38). As it can be inferred from them, the notion of ‘merit’ is closely related to the notion of ‘hierarchy’. In its turn, the latter invokes that the idea that it is specifically men (soldiers), who are being endowed with the ‘natural right’ to impose their dominance upon everybody else within the society. It is understood, of course, that this idea is rather male-chauvinistic, which in turn explains why, even though the poem refers to the character of Mulan as a highly virtuous woman, she is being treated as an ‘exemption from the rule’.
In this respect, the film Lady General Hua Mu-lan is different – it does not only advocate the idea that, as soldiers, women are not inferior to men, but also brings viewers’ attention to the fact that the contribution towards the ongoing war-effort, on the part of ordinary women (housewives), is no lesser than that of fighting men. There is the memorable scene in the film, where Mu-lan expounds on this idea at length: “Husbands join the army, wives stay at home to do the housework. They give up their harvest to the army; they weave the army’s uniforms. The army relies on women too” (00.34.35). Thus, it will not be much of an exaggeration to suggest the film in question has a clearly defined feminist overtone to it, because the idea of gender-egalitarianism resurfaces throughout this film’s entirety.
Nevertheless, it would be rather inappropriate to suggest that the gender-egalitarian motifs are absent in the poem altogether. The poem’s concluding lines are the best proof of this statement’s validity: “Two rabbits (male and female) running close to the ground. How can they tell if I am male or female?” (58-60). We can speculate that by coming up with them, the poem’s anonymous author wanted to popularize the idea that one’s true worth in life is being reflective of the concerned person’s deeds, rather than of what happened to be his or gender-affiliation. It is understood, of course, that this contributed rather significantly towards increasing the poem’s likelihood to be considered the subject of a cinematographic adaptation.
I believe that the deployed earlier line of argumentation, in regards to the discussed subject matter, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, there is indeed a good reason to think of the main similarities/differences between the poem and the film, as such that have been predetermined historically. At the same time, however, there can be only a few doubts that, as far as the film’s main message is being concerned, it does correlate with that of the poem perfectly well. This once again suggests that, just as it happened to be the case with the Poem of Mulan, its cinematographic adaptation from 1964 does contain a number of insights into what one’s ‘Oriental’ mentality is all about.
Chin, Francis. “Lady General Hua Mu-lan.” Online video clip. YouTube. 2011. Web.
“Poem of Mulan.” Chapter 5 – MUSIC BUREAU POETRY