The Yuefu and the Ballad of Mùlán

The Ballad of Mùlán 木蘭辭 (Mùlán cí) is an anonymous poem of the 6th century that tells the story of a young woman whose elderly father is called to fight at the borders of the empire. The young woman, named Mùlán, decides to pass for a man and go to the army to replace her father.

The poem belongs to the genre Yuèfǔ 樂府, which flourished especially during the Han dynasty 漢朝. Yuèfǔ literally means "Department of Music", and was an institution that was established during the Qin dynasty 秦朝 with the aim of preparing the music used for the rituals and ceremonies of the court. During the Han Dynasty, the Yuèfǔ's functions expanded, including the collection of folk songs that were also named Yuèfǔ.

Among the main themes of this genre are the description and critique of the social reality of the time, war and fighting on the borders, love, and sometimes popular satires. The Ballad of Mùlán belongs to the second theme, that of the war on the borders.

The Yuèfǔ uses a simple language close to the people and his poems are usually narrative, where the pentasyllable verses predominate.

Next we reproduce the Ballad of Mùlán, first in Chinese characters; then we offer the phonetic transcription according to the pinyin system; and finally its translation into English.

木蘭辭
Mùlán cí
Ballad of Mùlán 

唧唧復唧唧,
Jījī fù jījī,
Chirp, chirp*; and again: chirp, chirp,
木蘭當戶織,
mùlán dāng hù zhī,
Mùlán is weaving by the door,
不聞機杼聲,
bù wén jīzhù shēng,
the shuttle does not make noise,
惟聞女歎息。
wéi wén nǚ tànxī.
only the girl's sighs can be heard.

問女何所思,
Wèn nǚ hé suǒ sī,
They ask the young woman what she thinks about,
問女何所憶,
wèn nǚ hé suǒ yì,
they ask her where she [her mind] is,
女亦無所思,
nǚ yì wú suǒ sī,
she does not think of anything,
女亦無所憶。
nǚ yì wú suǒ yì.
her mind is not found anywhere.

昨夜見軍帖,
Zuóyè jiàn jūn tiě,
Last night she saw a military edict,
可汗大點兵。
kè hán dà diǎn bīng.
the khan is recruiting a great army,
軍書十二卷,
Jūn shū shí'èr juǎn,
the edict occupies twelve rolls,
卷卷有爺名。
juǎn juàn yǒu yé míng.
and in all is written the name of her father.

阿爺無大兒,
Ā yé wú dà er,
The father has no grown son,
木蘭無長兄,
mùlán wú cháng xiōng,
Mùlán does not have an older brother,
願為市鞍馬,
yuàn wéi shì ānmǎ,
she decides to buy a mount,
從此替爺征。
cóngcǐ tì yé zhēng.
and take the place of his father in the campaign.

東市買駿馬,
Dōng shì mǎi jùnmǎ,
In the eastern market she buys a good horse,
西市買鞍韉,
xī shì mǎi ān jiān,
in the western market, a saddle,
南市買轡頭,
nán shì mǎi pèitóu,
in the southern market, she buys some bridles,
北市買長鞭。
běishì mǎi zhǎng biān.
in the north market, a good whip.

旦辭爺孃去,
Dàn cí yé niáng qù,
At dawn, she departs leaving her parents,
暮宿黃河邊。
mù sù huánghé biān.
at twilight she camps on the banks of the Yellow River,
不聞爺孃喚女聲,
Bù wén yé niáng huàn nǚshēng,
She no longer hears the loving voices of her parents,
但聞黃河流水鳴濺濺。
dàn wén huánghé liúshuǐ míng jiān jiān.
only the cries of the Yellow River current.

旦辭黃河去,
Dàn cí huánghé qù,
At dawn she leaves the Yellow River,
暮宿黑山頭。
mù sù hēishān tóu.
At nightfall, she camps on the Black Mountain.
不聞爺孃喚女聲,
Bù wén yé niáng huàn nǚshēng,
She no longer hears the loving voices of her parents,
但聞燕山胡騎鳴啾啾。
dàn wén yànshān hú qí míng jiūjiū.
only the neighing of horses on Mount Yànshān.

萬里赴戎機,
Wànlǐ fù róng jī,
She travels thousands of li** towards war,
關山度若飛。
guānshān dù ruò fēi.
Passing mountains and border crossings as if flying.
朔氣傳金柝,
Shuò qì chuán jīn tuò,
The north wind brings bells of war,
寒光照鐵衣。
hán guāngzhào tiě yī.
the armor shines in the pale light.

將軍百戰死,
Jiāngjūn bǎi zhàn sǐ,
The generals die in battle,
壯士十年歸。
zhuàngshì shí nián guī.
the warriors return after ten years.
歸來見天子,
Guīlái jiàn tiānzǐ,
Once back, they are received by the Son of Heaven,
天子坐明堂。
tiānzǐ zuò míngtáng.
sitting in the audience hall.

策勳十二轉,
Cè xūn shí'èr zhuǎn,
He praises their many merits,
賞賜百千強。
shǎngcì bǎi qiān qiáng.
and gives them great rewards.
可汗問所欲,
Kè hán wèn suǒ yù,
The khan asks her if she wants an official post,
木蘭不用尚書郎。
mùlán bùyòng shàngshū láng.
Mùlán does not need official titles.

願馳千里足,
Yuàn chí qiānlǐ zú,
Willing to travel a thousand lǐ,
送兒還故鄉。
sòng er huán gùxiāng.
she wants to be sent back to her village.
爺孃聞女來,
Yé niáng wén nǚ lái,
Her parents, aware of her return,
出郭相扶將。
chū guō xiāng fú jiāng.
go out to receive her, supported one on the other.

阿姊聞妹來,
Ā zǐ wén mèi lái,
Knowing of her return, the older sister
當戶理紅妝。
dāng hù lǐ hóngzhuāng.
primps next to the door.
小弟聞姊來,
Xiǎodì wén zǐ lái,
Knowing of her return, the little brother
磨刀霍霍向豬羊。
mó dāo huòhuò xiàng zhū yáng.
sharpens a knife to kill a sheep and a pig.

開我東閣門,
Kāi wǒ dōng gé mén,
"I open the door of the oriental pavilion,
坐我西閣床。
zuò wǒ xī gé chuáng.
I sit on the bed in the western room.
脫我戰時袍,
Tuō wǒ zhàn shí páo,
I take off my war suit,
著我舊時裳。
zhuó wǒ jiùshí shang.
and I put on my old skirt”.

當窗理雲鬢,
Dāng chuāng lǐ yúnbìn,
She arranges her hair next to the window,,
對鏡貼花黃。
duì jìng tiē huā huáng.
and groom before the mirror.
出門看伙伴,
Chūmén kàn huǒbàn,
She goes out to see her comrades,
伙伴皆驚惶。
huǒbàn jiē jīnghuáng.
they are all surprised.

同行十二年,
Tóngxíng shí'èr nián,
Traveling together for twelve years,
不知木蘭是女郎!
bùzhī mùlán shì nǚláng!
They did not know that Mùlán was a woman!
雄兔腳撲朔,
Xióng tù jiǎo pū shuò,
Male rabbits are distinguished by legs,
雌兔眼迷離。
cí tù yǎn mílí.
And females by their eyes.
雙兔傍地走,
Shuāng tù bàng de zǒu,
But if both run through the field,
安能辨我是雄雌。
ān néng biàn wǒ shì xióng cí.
one can not differentiate the male from the female.

It is completely unknown if Mùlán ever existed and the ballad is based on a historical character or if, on the contrary, it is pure fiction. It is unlikely that a woman could pass for a man for twelve years. It is possible that, without the story being totally true, it does have a real foundation, and the poet exaggerated it.

In any case, the Ballad of Mùlán supposes an exaltation of the Confucian virtues of filial piety, courage and loyalty to the emperor. The history of Mùlán is very popular and has long inspired the Chinese people, and raises some questions whose response is beyond the scope of this article. We left for another occasion to examine the role of women warriors in the history and fiction of China, and all that they represent.

Notes:

* The author uses onomatopoeia 唧唧, jījī, to imitate the sounds of insects during the night.

** A is a unit of length whose value has varied throughout history around 500 meters.

The Ballad of Mùlán recited in Chinese

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