In the chapter of The Woman Warrior called “White Tigers,” we read a version of the legend of Fa Mu Lan. This retelling combines the tale the author’s (or narrator's) mother told her with her own imaginings of Fa Mu Lan’s experiences. In order to better understand why this legend is so important to Hong Kingston and her narrator, let us examine its origins.
“The Ballad of Fa Mu Lan” tells of a woman named Fa Mu Lan or Huā Mùlán, who might be historical or fictional. Like most “talk-stories,” it balances carefully between truth and fiction. The story was first written down in the 6th century, and it may be based on historical events from the 5th century. Being a folk ballad (in the style called yueh-fu), the legend had circulated in oral form for many years before a version of it was recorded. The original version of “The Ballad of Fa Mu Lan” appeared in an old text that was lost, but not before it was recommitted to the page in the 12th century. “The Ballad of Fa Mu Lan” tells the tale of a young woman who takes her father’s place in battle, disguised as a man.
Let us examine the ballad stanza by stanza, using a translation by Han H. Frankel. It begins not with words but with the sound of Fa Mu Lan’s worried pacing: “Tsiek tsiek and again tsiek tsiek.” She has seen her father’s name on every copy of the draft list. Because she has no older brother, she decides to serve in her father’s place. The second stanza describes how Fa Mu Lan buys her supplies for war: a horse, a saddle, a bridle, and a whip. Then she bids her family goodbye and camps on the banks of a river alone. The third stanza encapsulates twelve years of battle and ten thousand miles of travel. Fa Mu Lan travels alone to the mountains, where she rides and battles valiantly against the enemy.
In the fourth stanza, Fa Mu Lan meets the emperor, called “the Son of Heaven.” He is bestowing honors and gifts of compensation on the brave soldiers. She asks him for one thing only, a fast horse to take her home. In the fifth and final stanza, Fa Mu Lan returns to her family. She ceremonially removes her soldier’s clothing and changes into her civilian clothes. She fixes her “cloudlike,” or graying, hair and does her makeup. Then she goes to meet her fellow soldiers. They are shocked to discover that the valiant warrior they have fought beside for twelve years is a woman.
The ballad ends in Mu Lan’s voice. She sees two rabbits, one of each sex, running side by side on the ground. She wonders, “How can they tell if I am he or she?” In another translation of the poem, she wonders instead how anyone can tell the sexes of the rabbits apart. In both versions, the point is the same: Fa Mu Lan was able to fight as valiantly as a man, so why should anyone suspect she was a woman?
Maxine Hong Kingston and other authors have been inspired to flesh the story out. “The Ballad of Fa Mu Lan” clashes with the well-known stereotype of demure Chinese femininity. In the final stanza, Fa Mu Lan herself makes the point that society, not nature, separates the genders. Two rabbits of opposite sexes are still two rabbits. Because they have only nature to guide them, they can run side by side with nothing seeming strange. It is only human assumptions and traditions that prevent men and women from being on equal terms like the rabbits. In her version of the legend, Hong Kingston is careful to point out that Fa Mu Lan is a warrior and a woman, not one or the other. This assertion exists in the original text, when Fa Mu Lan prepares to reveal her identity. She grooms herself and puts on makeup. By becoming a war hero, Fa Mu Lan has not given up being a woman; she disguised herself as a man out of necessity and not because she was uninterested in being feminine. Hong Kingston takes this idea quite far when her Fa Mu Lan gives birth and then rides into the center of battle with her baby slung inside her armor.
The legend of Fa Mu Lan has been retold and reinterpreted by many authors and for many audiences. It is popular as a children’s story because it is a tale of empowerment and gender surprise. Most recently, Disney popularized a cartoon version of the legend with its Mulan. Although it is a commercialized children’s version, the film helps bring the legend of Fa Mu Lan to a broader audience.