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Ode to Mu-lan 1

Anonymous (written between 430 and 535 CE)

They constantly heard "ji-ji" and again "ji-ji" 2.
It was because Mu-lan was weaving at home.
They wondered why the sound of the shuttle stopped;
All they could hear was a girl's sigh.
They asked her what she was contemplating,
And what she was recalling.
She was neither contemplating nor recalling anything
Except the draft notice she had seen the previous night.
The emperor had called the entire roll of soldiers;
The draft contained twelve pages;
Her father's name appeared on every one of them.
He was too old to fight,
But he had no grown son.
Mu-lan hoped that she could become a mounted soldier
To take her father's place.

She bought a noble steed in the eastern market
As well as a saddle and its cushion in the western market.
She also purchased a bridle in the northern market
And a long whip in the southern market.
She said farewell to her parents in the morning,
And camped beside the Yellow River in the evening.
She was unable to hear her parents call her;
She heard only the great Yellow River rushing by.
After leaving her camp the next morning,
She arrived at the peak of the Black Mountain in the evening.
She was unable to hear her parents call her;
She heard only the shrill neighing of the enemy horses on Yan Mountain.
When she carried out a secret mission a hundred miles away,
Her charger shot through mountain passes like an arrow.
The north wind delivered the night watchman's bell;
The cold moonlight shone on her armor.
Many generals died in a hundred battles;
Brave soldiers finally returned after ten years of war.

The emperor summoned Mu-lan to the palace,
Awarded her many medals for her meritorious service
And promoted her all the way to the high position of chancellor.
Mu-lan thanked the emperor,
But she graciously declined the position.
All she requested was the loan of a good camel
Whose strong feet could carry her the long way home.

Having heard of Mu-lan's return,
Her parents emerged from the city gate to welcome her,
Supporting each other.
Having heard of Mu-lan's return,
Her elder sister dressed herself finely in front of a mirror.
Having heard of Mu-lan's return,
Her younger brother sharpened his knife, swish, swish toward pigs and sheep.
Mu-lan opened the door of her boudoir and sat on her bed.
She took off her armor and put on her old gown.
After brushing her hair in front of her mirror,
She applied some makeup.
When she came out to see her comrades,
They were all startled.
Although they had accompanied her for twelve years,
They never knew that Mu-lan was a woman.

Mu-lan smiled and sang,
"A male rabbit jumps to show his strength;
A female enchants with her beautiful eyes.
When the two rabbits walk side by side,
Who can tell male from female?"


1 This folk style poem was written during the Northern dynasties. It is rich in romanticism. As nomadic people, the women in Northern China were sturdier and more independent than those in Southern China. This poem portrays a legendary young woman with a noble character. She was a heroine and a caring daughter, as well as a brave soldier and a charming girl. Her bravery, loyalty, kindness and her ardent love for a simple life have moved readers for more than a thousand years. The humorous metaphor at the end reaches readers with a lingering artistic appeal.
    Among the following three websites, the first provides a music score for this poem; the second provides a video of a woman dancing; the third and the fourth provide audio files. All these files have the same title, "Mu-lan":
    Official Chinese history recorded very little about Mu-lan Hua (412-502, a native of the Kingdom of Northern Wei). Some people even consider Mu-lan a fabricated character. However, shortly before the Northern dynasties there existed a true heroine in Northern China. In 303, Wan-cheng City (present day Nan-yang City in Henan Province) defended by Song Xun was besieged by the rebellion led by Zeng Du. Guan Xun, Song Xun's daughter, disguised herself as a boy, broke the enemy's encirclement, and in three days galloped to Xiang-yang City to request reinforcements. Lan Shi, the Mayor of Xiang-yang City, and Fang Zhou, the Mayor of Jing-zhou City, immediately united their forces to come to the rescue of the besieged Wan-cheng City. Guan Xun accomplished this difficult mission at the age of twelve. Later, Guan Xun married Fang Zhou's son through the matchmaker, General Kan Tao (259-334). Kan Tao was the great-grandfather of Yuan-ming Tao (365-427), the greatest poet in Chinese history.

2 "Ji-ji" was the weaving sound of a loom.