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Friday, May 4, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique (15)—Mulan Granet-f

[a] Transition RF
This is the last in a series of posts in La Pensée Cyclique that 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).

I should not have to point this out, but I shall do so anyway (such is the climate in which we live). By maintaining that the Ballad of Mulan's narrative direction leads toward a restoration of the traditional patrilineal order...I am not advocating this as a way of orienting our lives today. This should be obvious, but I have been watching cable television lately, and suspected that misunderstanding might be burbling and frothing in our otherwise civil waters.

[b] En petit RF
Mulan has reentered the household, and the whirl of highly gendered activities around her has begun. As the protagonist in this ballad, she has a role as a miniature son of heaven-like figure. The universe (the domestic order) is integrating “on its own,” but it is imperative that she both mimic and regenerate the larger order. As any good student of Granet’s thought would note, she must proceed as though in a mingtang—a Hall of Light built for circumambulation of the realm…en petit—linking her activities with the directions that give shape to the calendar, as well as the rising and setting of the sun. The seeming impracticality of opening the gate leading to the eastern tower, only to sit on her bed in the western tower, matters not at all. The rising and setting of the gendered son/sun is all.

          She opened the gate that leads to the eastern tower,
          She sat on her bed that stood in the western tower.
          She cast aside her heavy soldier’s cloak,
          And wore again her old-time dress.
          She stood at the window and bound her cloudy hair;
          She went to the mirror and fastened her yellow combs.

[c] New day RF
From that directional foundation, she casts aside her male clothes (already heavy, something we doubt that she perceived for the past dozen years) and wears “again her old-time dress.”  Her activities become ever more gendered as she reenters the world of women, the world of the inner quarters. The language of female poetry emerges from the dusty clouds of the army carts. I cannot help but refer to poets who had not yet been born: Du Fu gives way to Li Qingzhao as Mulan reenters domestic life.

The ballad ends with the shock of gender transformation. She returns to meet her messmates on the road, startling them. This is not the kind of shock that comes with realizing that the tough young man they had known was, in fact, a beautiful young woman. This is post-transformation (the second transformation, of course) realization. She reentered the domestic order, became re-gendered, as it were, and reemerged to show a highly cultivated beauty of the inner quarters to her companions. It also reopens Mulan and her family to the social structural necessity of marriage.

          She left the house and met her messmates in the road;
          Her messmates were startled out of their wits.
          They had marched with her for twelve years of war
          And never known that Mulan was a girl.
          For the male hare has a lilting, lolloping gait,
          And the female hare has a wild and roving eye;
          But set them both scampering side by side,
          And who so wise could tell you “This is he”?[1] 

[d] Side-by-side RF
The last lines are among the most derivative and least useful in the ballad for the “imaginative ethnographer.”  Still, they reflect the steppe culture from which this ballad emerged. The “lesson,” as I have tried to show in my cursory analysis of the ballad, goes far beyond the mundane “women are capable, too” message that many have gotten from it. There is a gendering power released in this ballad, and its power emerges from (and gives power to) the domestic order. Mulan’s selfless act of taking the place of her father on the battlefield pales in comparison to the act required of every young woman in a traditional Chinese family—to leave the social unit into which she was born precisely in order to bring new life to a new family. Mulan was exceptional in the Ballad for ultimately would bring renewal to two families. 

[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.

1 comment:

  1. I had not considered Mulan's ability to serve her family this way as resulting from a "dispensible" role in her parents' home before. Interesting.

    In defense of the Disney movie, while it may not delve deeply into the matter of social renewal and kinship structures, it does at least bring up concern with matrimony and social reintegration and regeneration. After Mulan returns home and "wears again her old-time dress," General Li comes to visit, and Mulan's "Would you like to stay for dinner?" is followed by Granny's "Would you like to stay forever?"

    I know, I know, this ignores the fact that it should be Mulan moving in with her husband's family, unless we really want to stretch the limits and consider the possibility of the General becoming a "上门女婿". Still, at least the movie ends by bringing attention back to matters of matrimony and social renewal.