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The Patterns Mulan Wove: History of Mulan Pt. II

Writer Po Chien continues his investigations into Mulan's history and discovers more than he'd expected. What does all this mean for us in Singapore, though?

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."

Ballad of Mulan, Translation from Wikipedia

Welcome back, dear readers, to our second and last part on the background of Mulan. In the last article, we established that Mulan was, in fact, not a Han Chinese but a lady from the Tuoba tribe. The Tuoba were closely related to the Turko-Mongolian nomadic tribes, which gained prominence at the end of the Jin Dynasty in China and established for themselves the Wei Kingdom.

Essentially, now, this is our problem: Mulan was a nomadic woman-soldier, but the Ballad speaks of her weaving at 'the doorway', which is very odd considering that nomadic people neither wove nor lived in houses and hence would find doorways and looms a strange sight.

Aha! So you were wrong in your last article! You might exclaim.

Not so fast, Mr. Strawman. Today we will look at the unusual era of the Northern Wei Kingdom, which will not only illuminate the outstanding issues concerning Mulan, but also raise some interesting insights on culture and identity that is worth considering two millennia away in today's world.


The rise of the Tuoba

The mystery of Mulan’s nomadic loom weaved together a story of alliance, cultural disruption and identity crisis. Toward the end of the Han dynasty, rebellions blossomed everywhere. Coupled with the incompetency of the child emperor and his power-hungry aides, Han China found herself constantly bombarded by pillaging. The Tuoba, who were sandwiched between the Han and the Monghols, found that their interests aligned with the Han Chinese, leading to a blossoming alliance between the two.

Han soldiers defeated in front of the Hun riders, Mulan (1998)

In the wake of the rampant pillaging, Tuoba leaders began to see value in the stability of the plains, calling for reforms. Thus began the wave of Sinicization (the process by which non-Chinese societies come under the influence of Chinese culture, norms and language) of the Tuoba people. There was resistance against accepting the agrarian ways of the Han, and the leaders of the Tuoba people struggled to convince their people of the benefits of making these drastic changes to their lifestyle.

As such, the legend of Mulan actually depicts a liminal era where the Tuoba people were not quite nomadic, but also not yet agrarian – hinted in details that many would miss at first glance.

(White)washing off her make-up

Reading all these small details made me realise just how culturally coloured this story really was. It’s a pity that it didn't take long for whitewashing to ensue. Over time, the Tuoba culture became more and more diluted, and the Mulan story became an increasingly shared myth throughout the rest of China as the many dynasties passed.

In the Tang dynasty, one of the most abundant kingdoms in any human civilisation, Mulan's story had a layer of filial piety and patriotism added to it, possibly thanks to the prevalence of Confucianism and rise in Tang influence in the region that lead to some type of proto-nationalism. In the Ming dynasty later on, Mulan became a daughter of a wealthy man, and had aides around her at her beck and call. The Ming storytellers also coined the Fa surname to Mulan, which, as we found out last time, was not historically correct, but fits her character if Mulan turned out to be what we would call a Tai Tai (a wealthy married woman who does not work) today.

At the end of dynastic China, the Qing dynasty exaggerated Mulan to even greater heights. Stories spoke of her unparalleled beauty that could divide countries, her unchallenged skills on the battlefield, and how she intellectually mastered the classics of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. In short, she was Captain Marvel. She was Supergirl. She could do everything... wait a second.

Oh my God.

Maybe the 2020 Mulan was indeed the natural evolution of the Mulan myth after all!

Breakfast congee for thought

This journey of looking through the history of Mulan has brought a lot of insights to me. Identity, it appears, is dynamic. As our vocabulary for describing people groups grows and shrinks, cultures and subcultures like the Tuoba fade in and out of existence. In practice, culture is less of a line and more of a gradient, every person a different shade of the ever-evolving culture they reside in.

To Singaporeans who are often caught in the culture of others, what shades of identity do we embody? Our Chinese are not quite Chinese, much like the Tuoba people of yore, yet undeniably we do reside on the spectrum of 'Chineseness' as a part of the fringes of the Chinese diaspora, and we have definitely used this cultural proximities and distances to our advantage when we do business with China today. But history could have played out in a different way. Racial politics could have taken the forefront of matters, Singapore could have swung into the embrace of the majoritarian culture, and hypotheticals aside, in what way are we whitewashing the minorities and subcultures within our own country? In our pursuit of stability and progress, have we too abandoned certain cultures in favour of others, dictated by the confines we drew for ourselves?

In the midst of researching on all this, Singapore is facing unprecedented changes to our lifestyle and society too. Much like the Tuoba’s transition to living in the plains, we find ourselves adjusting to lifestyles that we don’t like, with the administration doing all they can to convince us to wear masks and wash our hands. Tightening regulations right before Chinese New Year, really?

Nonetheless, in this liminal period of SafeEntries and resumed lectures, let the battles of Mulan’s story remind us that real lives are at stake. Only with wit, wisdom, and hard work can we emerge victorious.

With this complicated sentiment, I wish all Chinese readers a Happy Chinese New Year. In our groups of eight, broken Chinese, and well wishes filtered through government-issued masks, may we remember the eccentricities of Mulan’s culture and meditate on our own identity as well.

I wonder what was the pattern of the cloth weaved from Mulan's loom. How Tuoba was it and how Han was it? We can only speculate. As we weave our own story in our generation, what will we sigh about? What precious thing would we defend? That is the echoes of the Ballad that rings throughout history, a voice that a young nation will have to confront, sooner or later.


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