Helen Luo

Read “The Fallen Sakura: a Retelling of the Ballad of Fa Mulan

Have you ever wondered what prompted Little Red Riding Hood’s mother to send her out into the woods by her lonesome to visit her grandmother? Why the wolf chose to disguise himself as her grandmother before gobbling her up? Have you ever wondered about Maleficent’s story in Sleeping Beauty? Fairy tales often omit the perspective, the voices, of minor characters because it could take away from the author’s original intention of the tale. Yet, what’s to say that Little Red Riding Hood didn’t lie about her tale? Much as “History is written by the victors” (Winston Churchill), most classic fairytales are written by the hero or heroine. The emphasis is placed on the hero or heroine as they accomplish impossible tasks, come to transformational realizations, or defeat evil villains. Similarly, while the author introduces minor characters in The Ballad of Fa Mulan such as Mulan’s family members, the poem mainly centers on the main character, Mulan, and her struggles. In most retellings, plays, and motion pictures based on Mulan, the story portrays plot lines similar to the original. The elements always present are Mulan taking her father’s place in the army enlistment, her struggles during her time in the army, and her warm welcome home. After reading many different retellings of other fairy tales in class, such as “The Wolf’s Postscript to Little Red Riding Hood,” I began to wonder why there wasn’t a version of this story told from the perspective of one of Mulan’s family members. What happened to them? How did Mulan’s choices affect them? Did the story really have a happy ending? The Fallen Sakura attempts to answer these questions by using the perspective of Mulan’s younger sister, Mu-Ying, to tell her side of the story—of what happened on the home front while Mulan fought on the warfront. Mulan left because she believed it was the right thing to do, because she believed it could save her family. The Fallen Sakura, however, presents a counterargument that all choices have both consequences, and that one person cannot save everyone.

The Ballad of Mulan (sometimes also known as The Ballad of Fa Mulan or The Ballad of Hua Mulan) is a Chinese poem of anonymous origin. The poem is believed to have originated as a folk song in the fifth or sixth century CE during a period of foreign domination when China was divided between the north and south (“Ode”). The Xianbei, a non-Han ethnic group, were the rulers of the northern dynasties whilst the Southern Dynasties had stronger, more cultural ties, to the Han Dynasty (Kwa xiii). In summary, the legend of Mulan is of a maiden who performs heroic deeds in battle while dressed as a male soldier. According to Lan Dong, “Certain elements of the story are consistent in its many retellings: a young woman takes the place of her elderly father in war, serves her country valiantly in disguise as a man, and returns home with triumph and honor to resume her womanly life” (1). Most of these elements can be seen in The Fallen Sakura. Only, even though Mulan returns home, triumphant and ready to resume her “womanly life” (Dong 1), her life has already changed so much so that her role as a woman before she left has changed dramatically. She can no longer easily slip back into her old roles as a daughter and an older sister—in fact, The Fallen Sakura reveals that even though she sacrificed herself for her family to fight in the war, Mulan also gave up her responsibilities as a woman and a daughter: she was not there upon her father’s passing. She did not care for her heart-broken mother or her ill-stricken father. She could not protect her younger sister or brother as they were bought as servants. By leaving and taking on the responsibilities of a man, Mulan neglected her responsibilities as a woman.

While plot elements of my retelling are consistent with most versions of the tale, I had to make a choice about what set of cultural values to emphasize. Dong points out that depending on the “historical and cultural context in which it is retold… its plot and moral import are reshaped” (1). Regardless, each rendition of the tale “evolve[s] [Mulan] into an ideal heroine during a lengthy process of storytelling and retelling” (Dong 2). For example, in Disney’s adaptation, Mulan leaves in order to be true to herself “even in the face of persecution” (Hale), discovering herself and finding independence while at the same time saving her father. Disney’s values differ from those in the ballad and many historical retellings, where what prompts Mulan to leave is filial piety. It is a story about a daughter sacrificing and risking death in order to save her father—her family. Thus upon winning the war, she chooses to take as her reward a “swift mount/To take [her] back to [her] home” (Frankle), whereupon she settles back into her role as being a woman. Similarly, in a 2009 movie adaptation of the tale, the director adds a romantic subplot as Mulan falls in love with Sub-Commander Wentai; however, Mulan essentially gives up her pursuit of her love for her country. She returns home to take care of her ill father, while her lover Wentai will wed the Rouran Princess by command of the emperor in order to bring peace at last (Ma). Disney’s adaptation focuses on the moral of staying true to oneself because that is a value American culture holds dear. Both the original ballad and the Chinese film adaptation, however, emphasize the values of filial piety and loyalty to the country, because those are values Chinese culture holds dear. Thus, in The Fallen Sakura, I chose to stick with those values as a reason for Mulan’s departure.

Yet, while the values and certain details surrounding the plot were often changed in retellings, the conclusion was almost always the same—it ended happily. This made me wonder, what if the story didn’t have a happy ending? What if Mulan didn’t come back home to a celebration and warm-hearted welcome by both her family members and villagers? What if, after leaving, the repercussions actually caused her family to fall apart? Even though Mulan sacrifices herself by leaving for war and disguising herself as a man, the repercussions of her actions if caught prior to winning the war could still be great—it could lead to an execution and bring dishonor to her family name. Historically, Mulan’s actions can still be seen as treason, even if her motives are far from it. By choosing to leave, she saves her father from possibly dying were he to serve in the war; however, she also left the burden of being the oldest onto her younger sister. Leaving the household also meant one less pair of hands to help around the house to earn income. It meant the responsibilities of being the oldest would fall upon someone else – in this case, Mu-Ying, Mulan’s younger sister. Furthermore, Mulan leaving for war in place of her father only solved one problem—but during the time of her absence, no doubt other problems would arise that she wouldn’t be able to solve. Thus, in The Fallen Sakura, I explore these problems and repercussions: after Mulan leaves, her parents fall ill and die. The family becomes bankrupt, and both Mu-Ying and Little Lee are taken in as servants by the wealthy Wons. In hopes of giving Little Lee a better future, Mu-Ying reluctantly agrees to Yuan, the eldest Won’s, proposal—even though it places her in the position of being the lowly third wife and unable to ever find true love. The Fallen Sakura emphasizes the idea that the decision one might think is the best also has negative repercussions.

In order to highlight the toll Mulan’s absence took on the family, The Fallen Sakura mimics the original ballad by asking a question that is then answered by a character via dialogue. Inspired by retellings such as Agha Shahid Ali’s “The Wolf’s Postscript to ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’” I used a minor character as the main character and narrator in The Fallen Sakura. Thus, the retelling is told from Mulan’s younger sister Mu-Ying’s eyes. In order to keep the story closely tied to the ballad, I kept most of the main elements. Mulan still leaves for war—but the focus of the tale centers on the obstacles faced by Mu-Ying and her family rather than Mulan’s struggles in war. Understanding the structure of the tale is essential to understanding the retelling. Essentially, The Fallen Sakura reveals the thoughts of the mother, father, Mu-Ying, and Mulan, in different sections. Separated by the phrases “[blank] years have passed,” the tale foreshadows the changes surrounding the family throughout time via the eyes of the individual family members themselves (Luo).

Furthermore, in order to keep the poetic aspect of the ballad, I mimicked the sentence structure from The Ballad of Fa Mulan and kept select phrases from the poem, such as “Tsiek Tsiek and again Tsiek Tsiek,” in order to create a correlation (Luo). The structures set off by these onomatopoetic sounds symbolize the different roles of man and woman. “Tsiek Tsiek and again Tsiek Tsiek,” the sound made when weaving, is a representation of the domestic aspect of life and the role of a woman. “Qing Clang and again Qing Clang” is a representation of war and the role of a man. Each of these lines separate a stanza and a different perspective, revealing how Mulan’s absence has affected the lives of each individual family member. Moreover, The Fallen Sakura uses carefully chosen imagery, symbols, and figurative language in place of exposition, a stylistic choice that admittedly can obscure details and potentially make the story confusing for the reader. For one, readers might not understand that during Mulan’s absence, her parents both passed away: her father from illness, and her mother from depression and grief. Since their parents died with a large debt, leaving the family bankrupt, Mu-Ying and her younger brother became servants to the rich Wons. There, Mu-Ying catches the eye of the Eldest Son Yuan, and is pursued romantically against her will—eventually, she marries him in hopes of giving her younger brother a brighter future. In both cases, the heroines sacrifice themselves on behalf of the family: Mulan on behalf of her father, Mu-Ying on behalf of her younger brother. But the difference is, Mu-Ying’s wartime gown, her marriage gown, traps her for life, which is why she describes it as “less heavy, more red, donning a flair of fake merriness as it imprisons me for life”—while Mulan has returned home, free to an extent (Luo).

The twist at the end, with Mu-Ying remarking “Mulan, oh Mulan, you saved the country. But why, oh why, couldn’t you save me?” emphasizes the fact that one person cannot save everyone. Even the most valiant heroes or heroines have a story of having failed someone, having not been able to save a person dear to them—because when you try to save the world, when you sacrifice yourself, you’re also giving up something else too. Everything has an opportunity cost; life is a constant battle of weighing those costs and making a decision. In The Fallen Sakura, I wanted to make readers think, what if the heroine, in her haste to fulfill one obligation, left another role unfilled? What if Mulan couldn’t save everyone? 

Works Cited

Ali, Agha Shahid. “The Wolf’s Postscript to ‘Little Red Riding Hood’.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.

Dong, L. Mulan’s Legend and Legacy in China and the United States. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011. Project MUSE. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.

Hale, Paul J. “Disney Story Origins #1: Mulan.” The DisGeek Podcast, 19 Oct. 2012. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.

Kwa, Shiamin and Wilt L. Idema. Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend, with Related Texts. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2010. Ebook Library. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.

Luo, Helen. “The Fallen Sakura.” The Story Behind the Ballad of Fa Mulan. Digication. Web. 23 Mar. 2016. <https://bu.digication.com/the_story_behind_the_ballad_of_fa_mulan/Retelling>

Ma, Chucheng, dir. Mulan: Rise of a Warrior. Perf. Zhao Wei and Chen Kun. Starlight, 2009. Film.

“Ode of Mulan/The Ballad of Mulan (Primary Source Document with Questions).” Asia for Educators. Columbia University. Web. 16 Feb. 2016. <http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/china/mulan.pdf>