Chinese Poems – Song of Mulan 木兰诗

Alack, alas ! Alack, alas!

Mulan weaves and sees the shuttle pass.

You cannot hear the shuttle, why?

Its whir is drowned in her deep sigh.

“Oh, what are you thinking about?

Will you tell me? Will you speak out?

“l have no worry on my mind,

Nor have I grief of any kind.

I read the battle roll last night,

The Khan has ordered men to fight.

The roll is written in twelve books;

My father’s name is in twelve nooks.

My father has no grown-up son,

For elder brother ! have none.

I’ll buy a horse of hardy race,

And serve in my old father’s place.’’

She buys at the fairs east and west

A steed with saddle fitting best.

She buys a long whip north and south

And metal bit for the horse’s mouth.

At dawn she leaves her parents by the city wall;

At dusk she reaches Yellow River shore.

All night she listens for old folks’ familiar call,

But only hears the Yellow River’s roar.

At dawn she leaves the Yellow River shore;

At dusk to Mountain Black she goes her way.

All night she hears her old folk’s voice no more,

But only on north mountains Tartar horses neigh.

For miles and miles the army marches along,

And cross the mountain barriers as in flight.

The northern wind has chilled the watchmen’s gong,

Their coat of mail glistens in wintry light.

In ten years they’ve lost many captains strong,

But battle-hardened warriors come back in delight.

Back, they have audience with the Khan in the bright hall,

Honors and gifts are lavished on them with grace

The Khan asks her what she wants after all,

She wants to ride a camel to her native place.

Hearing that she has come,

Her parents hurry to meet her at city gate.

Her sister rouges her face at home,

Her younger brother kills pig and sheep to celebrate.

She opens the doors east and west

And sits on her bed for a rest.

She doffs her garb worn under fire,

And wears again female attire.

Before the window she arranges her hair

And in the mirror sees her image fair.

Then she comes out to see her former mates,

They are lost in amazement great.

“We’ve marched together for twelve years,

Not knowing you’re a lass among our compeers.”

“The wooing buck would stamp his feet;

The doe, wooed, blink bleary eyes sweet.

When side by side two rabbits go,

Who can tell the buck from the doe?”


This long narrative poem was composed on the basis of a folk story handed down  orally by the ancient Chinese people. The poem consists of seven parts.

The first part, from the beginning to ‘‘only the girl’s sigh is heard’’, depicts the heroine’s anxiety. These sentences tell the heroine’s name, gender, identity, surroundings and feelings.

The second part, from “what are you thinking about” to “henceforth i’ii join the army taking my father’s place,” tells us why Mulan heaved a sigh and how she settled the problem finally. The paragraph begins with a question-and-answer formula often used in folk songs, which seems vivid, fair and reasonable. Right after that comes the introduction of the whole course of the incident by means of flashback. It goes like this: there was going to be a war and the emperor ordered Mulan’s father to enlist in the army. As her father was old and weak and there wereno other male adults in the family, Mulan made up her mind to enlist in place of her father. With just a few words, the paragraph portrays Mulan’s love for and filial devotion to her parents, and her spirit and courage of defending her motherland.

The third part, from “buy a steed from the eastern market” to “at the foot of the Mount Yan the war-horses of the Mongols are neighing,” describes Mulan’s preparation for joining the army and the situation during her journey. The phrases ‘‘eastern market, western market, southern market and northern market” do not really mean going all around for the purchase of things needed; they are a kind of artistic expression, showing how busy and orderly the preparatory work is. The two groups of “say good bye to *.. in the morning, stay in … in the evening; not hear…, but hear …”are antitheses, telling the readers in details what had happened on Mulan’s journey after she bid farewell to her parents. They not only show us the route and the hardships she suffered during the day and the camping site in the night, but also convey Mulan’s longing for her parents and the grand scene of the billowing water and neighing war-horses, all of which serve indirectly as a foil to the heroine’s broad mind and amazing courage.

The fourth part, from “ten thousand li she tramped on the errand of war” to “the heroine returns after ten years,” describes Mulan’s heroic deeds in the battlefields. This stanza, which is the only part displaying Mulan’s performance in the army, should have been the core of “Mulan joining the army”, but the writer simplified it to only thirty characters. The condensation proved to be quite a success, depicting the journey of ten thousand li, the sounding of the night watches late at night, cold moonlight and armour, a narrow escape from death, and the triumphant return at last. Short as it is, it’s very moving, revealing the process in which Mulan had stood the war test and become a heroine.

The fifth part, from “return and have an audience with the emperor” to “send me to my hometown,” briefs the’situation in which Mulan was received by the emperor, highlighting Mulan’s brilliant military success and her fine qualities of not being arrogant and not being willing to receive awards for her outstanding service. This has fully demonstrated that the reason why Mulan joined the army and fought heroically is not for personal power and money, but for safeguarding and bringing peace to her country, and for the people to live a happy and peaceful life. This stanza has fully developed Mulan’s lofty image that she was not only filial and brave, but also had a pure mind. Regardless of personal gains or losses and not affected by vanity and fame, she had deep love for her hometown and the people, and enjoyed the pleasures of life. The description also deepens the meaning of the poem, indicating that people love peace and hate war, and that they fight a battle only to stop the war and restore peace.

The sixth part, from “her parents hear that Mulan’s coming home” to “not knowing Mulan is a young woman,” describes the situation after Mulan’s returning home and how her family welcomed her. The description of this stanza is detailed and specific, different people acting differently and Mulan being much relaxed at home after resuming her woman’s raiment. This description is exact and reasonable, adding cheerful and comedic colors to the entire poem. Particularly, the scene that her comrades-in-arms who had been in the war with her for twelve years were panic-stricken on the discovery that Mulan, a warrior in the battlefield, was a female, also serves as a foil to Mulan’s lofty image. Mulan was not a man but fought better than a man,which broke thoroughly the mode of thought of men being superior and women being inferior in the feudal society.

The seventh part is composed of the last four lines. With an analogy from male and female rabbits who act differently when lying quietly, but hard to differentiate one from the other in motion, it tries to prove the truthfulness of the story Mulan Joining the Army. The ending is reasonable and interesting, imbued with a distinctive of flavor folk song.

In brief, this poem sings the praises of the fine qualities of industriousness, virtuousness, bravery and pureness of ancient Chinese women, refiecting people’s virtue of loving life, opposing war and longing for peace. Breaking through the forbidden zone of the Confucian ethics which looked down on women in the feudal society, this poem has set the image of Mulan as a heroine, who has made a far-reaching influence on the people through the ages, encouraged the broad masses of women particularly. The song of Mulan, therefore, has become a treasure in the treasure-house of the ancient Chinese poetry, especially folk songs.

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