From Round to Square (and back)

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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique (13)—Mulan Granet-d

[a] Engendered RF
The next few posts in La Pensée Cyclique take a detour into territory that Marcel Granet would not have envisioned. It was, quite simply, inspired by him. One of the things that has startled me in my ongoing intellectual biography of Marcel Granet is the fuel created by reading his work—and even his personal history—often leads me to think of new avenues in my own writing. For years—and especially since Disney's release of the Mulan movie in 1998—I have thought about ways to explain not only how badly Disney got it wrong, but things in the Mulan tale that I feel have been missed precisely because the Joan of Arc mythos absolutely dominates Western cultural interpretations of strong women. What follows is a retelling and re-analyzing of the Ballad of Mulan...inspired by my reading of Marcel Granet. I call it Mulan Granet (but Marcel Mulan sounds pretty good, too).

[b] Back in the saddle RF
Directions Outward
The action in the Ballad of Mulan proceeds quickly from “hoping” to help her family—as she sat spinning in the inner quarters—to action in the marketplace. There she begins to put her plans into effect. Note the directional symbolism which, to my mind, creates an image of all under heaven (天下) as a backdrop for the story of bonds broken, healed, and strengthened.

Echoing powerful themes of cosmic and imperial integration, Mulan’s is a circumambulation of the realm in defense of the domestic order. This theme is as old as China's sacred mountains, and the early sage kings were said to travel to each of the mountains (set according to the cardinal directions) in order to unify the realm and make time complete. It is fair to say that Marcel Granet—as well as his teacher, Edouard Chavannes, and student, Rolf Stein—was preoccupied by the practical and intellectual implications of such circuits linking round and square. Much of Granet's research deals with this theme, as do major works by both Chavannes and Stein.

          In the eastern market she’s bought a gallant horse,
          In the western market she’s bought a saddle and cloth.
          In the southern market she’s bought snaffle and reins
          In the northern market she’s bought a tall whip.

After making her circuit of markets and purchasing the practical necessities for life in the saddle, she leaves her home to join the military forces. The images that follow paint a picture of the realm rather more in the style of the Classic of Mountains and Seas than of a straight narrative reporting her actions. Indeed, the echoing of early legend continues as images of the sage king Yu—he who ignored the cries of his own family in early legends in order to serve the greater good—are invoked as her family calls out to her. Mulan notices nothing but the swirling water and the need for service.

[c] Circuit RF
In the passages that follow, classical images of early Chinese civilization dominate, and a young woman’s wanderings call to mind tales of sage kings traveling the realm in their quest to unite the Chinese cultural world.

          In the morning she stole from her father’s and mother’s house;
          At night she was camping by the Yellow River’s side.
          She could not hear her father and mother calling to her by her name,
          But only the song of the Yellow River as its hurrying waters hissed and 
               swirled through the night.
          At dawn they left the River and went on their way;
          At dusk they came to the Black Water’s side.
          She could not hear her father and mother calling to her by her name,
          She could only hear the muffled voices of Scythian horsemen riding on 
               the hills of Yan.

Devoted and single-minded, the dutiful daughter makes her way to the horsemen, breaking ties of kinship and, indeed, propriety—all for a greater good.

[d] Thousand leagues RF
A Hundred Battles
The direction of the ballad shifts at this point to the “battles” themselves and the courts of Emperor and Khan. In keeping with Chinese battle descriptions (and this one is stretched over more than a decade), the buildup and imagery is most important, while the battles themselves are of rather small, or no, account. On the other hand, her effortless travels are as though out of the Chuci (楚辭)—an early Chinese dream text. She seems to be, at least when removed from the domestic order, beyond the realm of human actions, like a bird in flight.

          A thousand leagues she tramped on the errands of war,
          Frontiers and hills she crossed like a bird in flight.

The coldness and harshness of war are told, not shown. The only death of which we hear is that of the captain, who died after “a hundred fights.”  The scene then abruptly changes to the warriors, who had won their rest. Ten years, a hundred battles—even the numbers used are richly symbolic.

          Through the northern air echoed the watchman’s tap;
          The wintry light gleamed on coats of mail.
          The captain had fought a hundred fights, and died;
          The warriors in ten years had won their rest.

[e] Arrival RF
The drama increases with the “arrival” of the emperor and the khan. Prize money and worldly rewards come to the fore, even as Mulan longs for home.

          They went home; they saw the Emperor’s face;
          The Son of Heaven was seated in the Hall of Light.
          To the strong in battle lordships and lands he gave;
          And to prize money a hundred thousand strings.
          Then spoke the Khan and asked (her) what (she) would take.
          “Oh, Mulan asks not to be made
          A counselor at the Khan’s court;
          She only begs for a camel that can march
          A thousand leagues a day,
          To take her back to her home."[1]

Mulan broke the bonds of the domestic order precisely in order to return again. Successful in the outer world, it is hinted that she longs for the inner quarters, where she sat sobbing as the ballad began. Students of Granet know better. She is compelled—driven forward by social powers mixing with her own volition in a Durkheimian momentum—to return to the agnatic fold and strengthen the weave of social solidarity in the patriarchy.

[1] Victor Mair, editor, The Columbia Traditional Chinese Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 474-476. In the interests of consistency and with an eye to the kind of audience that first read the Ballad of Mulan, I have used the Arthur Waley translation for this treatment. Further posts (down the road, as it were) will explore other ways to look at individual lines and terms. My concern for now is the flow of events from household to war camps and back again. Arthur Waley (1889-1966), being a relative contemporary of Marcel Granet (1884-1940), seems perfect for this particular exercise.  

Mair, Victor. The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
[f] Triumphant RF
Homeward Bound
Mulan and her fellow troops experience toil, loss, victory, and reward. Her gaze turns homeward to the agnates she will embrace before preparing to leave again. 

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