More Hun than Han: Reading the Tabghach “Ballad of Mulan” in 2020

By James Millward

“Lady (Mulan).” 18th century, British Museum. Public domain image via Wikimedia.

Mulan is not originally a story about a patriotic Chinese woman. It is not a story about self-sacrifice to defend one’s country. It is not a thrilling tale of martial valor. It is, rather, a commentary on the fruitlessness of war against people who are more like oneself than different, delivered in the voice of a woman who does her familial duty out of necessity and then chucks her medals and goes home—a war-weary expression of truth to power.  

Perhaps because of the barriers to actually seeing the new Mulan remake (thanks to the pandemic and Disney’s steep charge of $30 plus a subscription fee to its streaming service), commentary about the new film has been trickling out over a few weeks. The most recent controversy, first on Twitter and then in the New York Times and other publications, is over the credits: Disney thanks security and political authorities in Turfan (Turpan), Xinjiang, for facilitating their filming in the Uyghur Autonomous Region. Disney filmed part of Mulan amidst Turfan’s desert scenery well after it was clear that just around the corner were multiple concentration camps inflicting “transformation through education” upon Uyghurs and other Xinjiang indigenous peoples. Hundreds of such camps have been built across the Uyghur region starting in 2017 and were well-reported by the time Disney started filming in 2018. Had Disney staff consulted Baidu Maps while scouting film sites, they might have seen grey tiles blacking out certain places from view: blank spaces that we now know mark the sites of camps. Having now just seen the film, I’ve been thinking about the Mulan tradition in light of Xi Jinping’s assimilationist policies and trends in China today: the atrocities in Xinjiang; CCP efforts to limit Mongolian language in schools in the Mongolian Autonomous Region, just as it has restricted Uyghur in the Uyghur Autonomous Region and Tibetan in the Tibetan Autonomous Region; pressure to reduce Cantonese use in Guangdong and denigrate it in Hong Kong; the further repression of Hong Kong democracy and near elimination of promised autonomy, accompanied by egregious police violence which the Disney Mulan actress Yifei Crystal Liu publicly supported on Weibo a year ago. 

Many recent media articles have recounted the shifts of meaning in the Mulan tradition from its earliest poem version, the “Ballad of Mulan” (Mulan ci  木蘭辭, written in the Northern Wei period [386-535], compiled in the 6th century and anthologized in the 11th-12th century 樂府詩集), through various 20th century Chinese stage, opera, and film treatments. However, the original poem differs strikingly from these, and especially from the Disney versions (an animated film in 1998 and the live-action one just released), in its tone and themes.  

In particular, there’s no “let’s get down to business to defeat the Huns!”  The poem is set during the Northern Wei (386-534), a state founded by the Tabghach (Tuoba) clan of the Xianbei people from the north who spoke an Altaic language, a likely descendent of Xiongnu (whom Disney called Huns) and ancestor of modern Mongolian languages. Today’s Han ethnicity bears the name of the Han empire, which in its heyday (ca. 2nd century BCE through 2nd century CE) had consolidated much of what would become Chinese tradition and controlled a large swath of the east Asian continent. However, the Han collapsed in 220 CE, centuries before Mulan’s time—an event similar in its impact on continental east Asia to the fall of Rome in Europe. After the Han, a succession of smaller states ruled by a variety of peoples rose and fell in what was once Han territory, again, like post-Roman western Europe. The Tabghach state, known as Beiwei 北 魏 or Tuoba Wei 拓跋魏 in Chinese, was one of the most extensive and long-lived of these culturally and demographically hybrid polities.  

McDonalds Happy Meal Toy figurine (1998) of the Shan Yu character from Disney’s animated Mulan. A button on the back flaps the eagle’s wings. This commercial caricature of Inner Asian steppe peoples is as racist as Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben.

A Uyghur friend and former student once told me about her own relationship to Disney’s East Asian princess. As a girl, my student had loved and identified with the spunky heroine of the first Disney Mulan, until her mother told her “our ancestors aren’t Mulan—our ancestors are the Huns!” Given the atavistic Disney portrayal of the Hun ruler, Shan Yu, as squat, ugly, and evil, leading his hordes in a swarm over the passes to imperil Mulan and her people, this revelation came as a shock to my student. In portraying Shan Yu this way, and transferring the same imagery and Fu Manchu mustache to the swarthy Rouran commander and his black-clad myrmidons in the live-action movie, Disney resurrects standard racist tropes by which European sources have portrayed Inner Asian steppe nomads (“Tartars”) since Roman times. It’s no wonder my Uyghur student was upset.

In fact, though, if Mulan came from a Tuoba Wei elite family, she was likely more Hun than Han: both Inner Asian and a member of the post-Han Chinese cultural milieu. I say Mulan lived within a “Chinese cultural milieu” rather than “she was Chinese” because China in that era was not a single country or national identity. The Disney movies feature “the Chinese emperor,” but that term could refer just as well to rulers of the contemporaneous Eastern Jin or Liu Song states as to the Northern Wei monarch. All three kingdoms have been posthumously designated “China.” (The “one China policy” is a late 20th century conceit, selectively deployed: Chinese nationalists have no problem allowing multiple Chinas to coexist in the past, while claiming them all as the “paternal ancestor country,” or zuguo 祖國.)  

The Tabghach state does have one special claim to Chineseness, however: It gave its name to China—for a few centuries at least. In languages from the north and west of Mulan’s home, Tabghach became the name for “China” for centuries—until later replaced by “Khitai” (the name of the Khitan people, which in the same fashion came to mean China and gave us the name “Cathay”). The 8th century Orkhon inscriptions found in Mongolia were carved on steles in old Turkic (ancestor of modern Uyghur) to commemorate the exploits of the early Turkic khaghans. They warn future Turks not to get co-opted by the sweet words and soft silks of the “cunning” Chinese, but the Orkhon Inscriptions refer to Chinese as “Tabghach,” as do other Central Asian and Islamic texts. Even the early seventh century Byzantine history by Theophylact Simocatta mentions a city called Tαυγαστ (Taugast)—i.e. Tabghach—located beyond the Turks. 

Despite the non-Han identity of its ruling elite, Mulan’s country of Tabghach was eponymous with China for Turks, Muslims, and Byzantines. But exactly how “Chinese” were Mulan, the place where her story is set, and the author of the Chinese language poem that started it all?  That may seem a crazy question to ask, since Disney has now twice chosen to promote her as the epitome of Chinese princesshood, bravely battling for family and country. But let’s look at the poem. (I admit that I am neither historian of this period nor an expert on Chinese poetry of any era, so I welcome corrections from those who are. I can read the old poem in Chinese, though—it is quite simple and beautiful.)  

Just a few lines into “Mulan ci” is one of the poem’s biggest surprises: 昨夜見軍帖,可汗大點兵 “Last night (I/she) saw the military notice: the Kaghan’s great draft of soldiers.” Not “emperor”—it was the khaghan (kehan 可汗), or khan, who proclaimed the military call-up. Khaghan is the Central Asian, Turco-Mongolian word for an emperor. It appears twice in the poem referring to Mulan’s ruler. The word tianzi 天子, “son of Heaven,” also occurs, twice, speaking of the same man. Note this casual transcription of a non-Chinese word into the poem, and the easy substitution of the ideologically weighty term “son of heaven.” Unless there are some unusual rules of prosody functioning here, this suggests that the terms were mutually exchangeable in the post-Han northern environment. If “Ballad of Mulan” concerns a patriotic war against an existential threat from barbarian invaders, that synonymous use of kehan/tianzi would be like referring here and there to an American president at war as führer. But khaghan here clearly doesn’t have that connotation. Khaghan is just one way to refer to the emperor in the Tabghach realm, maybe the most common way. In fact, Disney gets it backwards in the new film when it names Mulan’s enemy, the Rouran leader, Bori Khan. Mulan’s ruler was also a khan. 

A few lines down, in the line 但聞燕山胡騎声啾啾, we learn that in the Yanshan area (in today’s Hebei province) one hears only the whinneys of “Hu” riders’ mounts. Hu 胡, like most Chinese words that get translated as “barbarian,” is complex and polysemic. In some eras and contexts it was derogatory, but often it neutrally indicates specific kinds of foreigners. In the Qin and Han eras it referred to horse nomads of Mongolia, such as the Xiongnu. It could also indicate the Xianbei, of whom the Tabghach were a component tribe. By Tang times (7th-10th century), Hu specifically meant western Central Asians—those with beards, colored eyes, and high noses: Soghdians and other Iranian language speakers, not Turkic people. But in poetry Hu can convey an ahistorical, generic, romantic sense—perhaps something like “outlander” or simply “nomadic pastoralist.” It makes sense to read it that way here, given that the poet or narrator is referring to her monarch himself with a Hu word as well as a Chinese term.  

When Mulan finally arrives home, her brother sharpens a knife to slaughter a pig and a sheep. In China today, mutton is not uncommonly eaten in North China, but it is still culturally associated with northern and western peoples. Notably, Muslims, Mongols, and Uyghurs eat mutton, and their dishes have prominently entered Chinese cuisine: Mongolian hot-pot 刷羊肉, cumin lamb 孜然羊肉, lamb kebabs 羊肉串兒, and yangrou paomo stew 羊肉泡饃  all retain their non-Han ethnic or northern associations. Pork is the quintessential meat of most Han meat dishes. There are environmental as well as cultural reasons for this: goats and sheep flourish in cooler grasslands and hill country, whereas pigs can be raised almost anywhere but do not do well if asked to walk miles on the prairie and survive on grass. The fact that Mulan’s household raises both pigs and sheep, then, is another indication that the poem takes place in a middle ground—a culturally diverse, hybridized environment where Hu and Han words and animals mingle, not a bastion of essentialized Han culture.  

We should not be surprised by these mixed cultural elements. Modern treatments of the Mulan story have progressively stressed war against an alien enemy, turning Mulan’s into a nationalistic tale. Disney has used it to project a clichéd  Orientalist version of “China” (Qi 氣? Check. Family honor? Check. Repression of women? Check). It is only because of the Sinification and nationalization of Mulan that raising pigs and sheep together in the land of the Tabghach Khaghan seems incongruously un-Chinese today—and thus gets glossed over by film-makers. Such juxtapositions would not have been incongruous to the author/creator of the Mulan poem, but rather commonplace. 

Which brings us to the battles and martial arts—or lack thereof—in the poem. Mulan tours the city compass points to buy horse and tack, with no mention of weapons. Later we read of the cold light flashing on “clothes of iron” which might be her armor, but there are no swords slashing or arrows leaping in these lines, no fetishization of weapons or training or combat that makes up the bulk of modern treatments. To the contrary, the poem skips all that entirely and transports us in a single couplet from the pain of parting from her family (不聞爹娘喚女聲 “she doesn’t hear the sound of her father and mother crying out to her,” a phrase repeated twice) to her return home. It offers a brisk summation of the pointlessness of her years away:  將軍百戰死,壯士十年歸 “the general dies after a hundred battles, the warriors go home after ten years.” This may lack the bitter irony of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est,” but the deep fatigue with which the author, in just ten characters, dismisses the whole military endeavor is no less devastating.  

The Khaghan asks Mulan what she wants. Why does Mulan refuse his offer? Is it to go home, put on women’s clothes again and get married? Or is it a principled refusal to take part in public affairs and instead to retreat from public life, a gesture commonly made by upright Confucians to reject illegitimate authority? Mulan declines the Khaghan’s offer of high official position. She only wants to borrow a “thousand league camel” to take her home (可汗問所欲,木蘭不用尚書郎,愿借明駝千里足,送兒還故鄉). The original “Ballad of Mulan” is an anti-war poem. 

A scholar of medieval Chinese poetry and the Mulan tradition, Jinghua Wangling, has wondered if “Mulan ci” was written by a woman. Besides the famous concluding couplet about how one cannot differentiate male and female rabbits running side by side (雙兔傍地走,安能變我是雄雌), perhaps this poem’s air of war-weariness also reflects, or is meant to affect, a female sensibility? If so, this ur-Mulan is arguably more courageous even than the modern cinematographic Mulan, her kung fu skills (or support for the police) notwithstanding.  

But while the first Mulan poem’s gender commentary is unmistakable, most readers have missed its ecumenical ethnic message, whether it is intentional or, as I think, an unintentional reflection of the diverse reality of its setting. The medieval Chinese world, like the People’s Republic of China today, was ethnically and culturally diverse, a place where pigs and sheep lay down together in the same pen, where the son-of-heaven was also a khan, and where Chinese was not a homogeneous nationality but a language and a cultural milieu, like the Latin legacy of Rome in Europe, a legacy inherited and utilized in common by many peoples and states. To claim that “Chinese” eat pork and not mutton makes no historical sense. Likewise, to claim today that people who eat mutton and not pork, or speak native languages related to Tabghach or Turkic rather than Han, are not proper “Chinese” and should change their ways, is equally at odds with the past. The original Mulan might not recognize such a world as her own. 

James Millward is Professor of Inter-societal History at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University and author of, most recently, The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @JimMillward.