From Round to Square (and back)

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Monday, April 30, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique (12)—Mulan Granet-c

[a] Looming change 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] Domestic, order RF
Marcel Granet’s focus on the rural Chinese village presents us with the picture of a closed domestic order that must be “opened” periodically (and systematically) in order to sustain itself. This was done, to use terms from Chinese cosmology, by exchanging yin (the “female” principle in the universe) while keeping yang forever in place. 

To make the point more starkly, women were raised in order to leave the family. Their role in their birth families was temporary. Inspired by a “Granetian” reading of social structure in the Mulan ci, we can begin to see the ballad as more than the story of a brave young girl who crosses her society’s gender lines to serve her family and her ruler. Indeed, it seems to me that the greatest misinterpretation takes place at the outset. Many popular readings of the ballad stress the “masculine” role of Mulan, or the theme of gender reversal as merely a play on male and female physical strength. They are less inaccurate than incomplete. There is much more to the tale.

While Mulan is a strong young woman in the text of the ballad, she plays her female role within the agnatic kinship network to its social structural conclusion. In (yin) essence, the Mulan at the end of the ballad will leave her family twice in order to revive it—first surreptitiously and selflessly, and second in the manner of all marriageable women in her society. In the first instance, she leaves her family to serve her ruler; in the second, she will leave them in order to serve a new mother-in-law. The Mulan ci, then, can be read as the story of an extraordinary woman going to enormous lengths to perpetuate the traditional domestic order. This reading links the martial and the marital in a tale of a strong young woman in a traditional social order.
[c] Click, click RF

Weaving Maiden, Inner Quarters
We begin with a picture of traditional woman’s work—work that is, indeed, never done (“click, click, forever click, click”). We are presented with a picture of the inner quarters of the household and the young woman weaving within it. In a mere two lines the sexual division of labor—as well as the dramatic backdrop—of the narrative is announced. Mulan sits and weaves (the traditional, and even stereotypical, occupation of women in early China). She is separated even from the men in her family, much less those in the wider world beyond her home.

          Click, click, forever click, click;
          Mulan sits at the door and weaves.
          Listen, and you will not hear the shuttle’s sound,
          But only hear a girl’s sobs and sighs.

When the narrator states that the shuttle’s whir cannot be heard—only the crying of a young woman—it is hard for the experienced reader of Chinese poetry not to assume that she is pining for someone, since the theme of a woman missing her love even as she halfheartedly attempts her spinning is one of the most common images in all of Chinese literature.

          "Oh tell me, lady, are you thinking of your love,
          Oh tell me, lady, are you longing for your dear?”

[d] Abrupt change RF
The tone of the ballad changes abruptly at this point, breaking with the image of the pining lover missing her departed man. The men for whom she weeps are her agnatic kin, and she is fully devoted to the care of her father and her brothers. She takes her role in the domestic order as an elder sibling and moral force very seriously.

          "Oh no, oh no, I am not thinking of my love,
          Oh no, oh no, I am not longing for my dear.
          But last night I read the battle-roll;
          The khan has ordered a great levy of men.
          The battle-roll was written in twelve books,
          And in each book stood my father’s name.
          My father’s sons are not grown men,
          And of all my brothers, none is older than me.
          Oh let me to the market to buy saddle and horse,
          And ride with the soldiers to take my father’s place.”[1] 

It is not difficult to guess what the answer to such a request would be in a tradition in which even appearing unaccompanied in public areas of the household could be scandalous for an unmarried woman. Moving from work that sustains the family to subversive action that could ensure its survival, Mulan is the protector of the domestic order par excellence. From silk to leather—worms to horses—she thinks only of her male kin. Despite her structural position as a temporary member of the family, she is in a position to restore the family’s order precisely because she is dispensable in the larger kinship structure. Without asking for permission, she creates the groundwork for structural change that possessed the possibility of destroying the domestic order, even as it sought to restore it.
[e] On the move RF
[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.

Mulan Hits the Road
The savior of the domestic order notes the cardinal directions and yin-yang flows as she heads off to represent (and transform) her family.

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