From Round to Square (and back)

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Thursday, May 3, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique (14)—Mulan Granet-e

[a] Outer-inner 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] Homeward looking RF

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. 

Reintegration and Domesticity
The domestic order is reintegrated as Mulan returns from war. It is not merely a picture of a tired soldier returning home, however. We are presented with a picture of a domestic configuration coming back together. We see greeting, adornment, victuals, and sacrifice. Father and mother first hear that Mulan has returned. As they would for an important guest—an outsider to the closed kin group—they go out to the outer wall of the estate, leading her back to her home…and ultimately toward the inner quarters.

          When her father and mother heard that she had come,
          They went out to the wall and led her back to the house.

[c] Reunited RF
It is almost a kind of rebirth. Having left the household, she is led back to it by both her father and her mother. The household is now complete again, with father, mother, and the eldest son—or, rather, daughter disguised as a son—who took very male responsibilities upon herself in order to assure the smooth functioning of the domestic order. 

Now the trio is reunited, and its completion assures far more than human happiness. It remakes the sacred domestic trinity of father, mother, and eldest (son). It remakes the order at the heart of social life.

Adding siblings to the mix (but not as many as had been hinted at early in the text), we have a further integration of the domestic order. Since Mulan is the oldest child, and she has reunited with the parents who gave life to the domestic order, it is now incumbent upon the siblings to perform the functions that give classificatory meaning to their genders and reorder the household. Mulan has been the quintessential eldest “son” in her travels and her responsibilities. 
[d] Domestic RF

She has also tipped the domestic order out of balance. It needs to be repaired and restored.

Reintegration is necessary, and that is done in gendered spheres of activity. The sister’s activities represent and remake the inner quarters. The brother's activities represent and remake the outer world—reasserting the responsibility of men to provide sustenance for the women in the family.

          When her little sister heard that she had come,
          She went to the door and rouged her face afresh.
          When her little brother heard that his sister had come,
          He sharpened his knife and darted like a flash
          Towards the pigs and sheep.[1]

Mulan, in spite of her superior slaying abilities (at least we presume them to be thus), does not head for the pigs and sheep (and not only because she is the newly welcomed prodigal “son”). Didi—little brother—assumes his role as heir apparent. Mulan has left the world of men and is about to recreate herself anew. Her little sister and little brother have pointed the way with their integrative, though gender-divided, domestic activities.

[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.
[e] Ordere RF
We wrap it up with the big finish from the Ballad of Mulan (and the full transition from marital).

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