Gilgamesh and Mulan
I have been fascinated by how ancient mythology and historical facts morph together. The more we discover about the myths, we find their historical basis. For example, Gilgamesh ruled a city-state in Sumer around 5,000 years ago. There is enough historical evidence for that as an actual historical event.
However, over a period of several centuries, Gilgamesh appeared in Mesopotamian mythology. He became a combination of a deity and a human. We have discovered this due to a scribe who blended various myths about Gilgamesh into The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Gilgamesh seemed to have been a strict ruler, but the epic was about his transformation into a wise and caring person. He went on a journey to find immortality and realized that immortality wasn’t possible. Therefore, Gilgamesh concluded, “Forget death and seek life.”
What historians face is the question of some missing parts. Why did a rule morph into an important role model? We have the beginning of Gilgamesh and the end of the story, but we lack what transpired in between. We may discover more about the missing parts of the actual cause of The Epic of Gilgamesh.
There is another legend, this time from ancient China. The legend of Hua Mulan. In Chinese, Huā means flower, and Mùlán means magnolia. Hence the name in English means Magnolia Flower. The legend of Mulan goes back to the Northern Wei Period, ca. 4th-6th century. In a Churchillian, “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.”
The first poetic appearance of Mulan was in The Poem of Mulan in the 6th century.
The sound of one sigh after another,
As Mulan weaves at the doorway.
No sound of the loom and shuttle,
Only that of the girl lamenting.
Ask her of whom she thinks,
Ask her for whom she longs.
“There is no one I think of,
There is no one I long for.
Last night I saw the army notice,
The Khan is calling a great draft –
A dozen volumes of battle rolls,
Each one with my father’s name.
My father has no grown-up son,
And I have no elder brother.
I’m willing to buy a horse and saddle,
To go to battle in my father’s place.”
She buys a fine steed at the east market;
A saddle and blanket at the west market;
A bridle at the south market;
And a long whip at the north market.
She takes leave of her parents at dawn,
To camp beside the Yellow River at dusk.
No sound of her parents hailing their girl,
Just the rumbling waters of the Yellow River.
She leaves the Yellow River at dawn,
To reach the Black Mountains by dusk.
No sound of her parents hailing their girl,
Just the cries of barbarian cavalry in the Yan hills.
Ten thousand miles she rode in war,
Crossing passes and mountains as if on a wing.
On the northern air comes the sentry’s gong,
Cold light shines on her coat of steel.
The general dead after a hundred battles,
The warriors return after ten years.
They return to see the Son of Heaven,
Who sits in the Hall of Brilliance.
The rolls of merit spin a dozen times,
Rewards in the hundreds and thousands.
The Khan asks her what she desires,
“I’ve no need for the post of a gentleman official,
I ask for the swiftest horse,
To carry me back to my hometown.”
Her parents hearing their girl returns,
Out to the suburbs to welcome her back.
Elder sister hearing her sister returns,
Adjusts her rouge by the doorway.
Little brother hearing his sister returns,
Sharpens his knife for pigs and lamb.
“I open my east chamber door,
And sit on my west chamber bed.
I take off my battle cloak,
And put on my old-time clothes.
I adjust my wispy hair at the window sill,
And apply my bisque makeup by the mirror.
I step out to see my comrades-in-arms,
They are all surprised and astounded:
‘We travelled twelve years together,
Yet didn’t realise Mulan was a lady!’”
The buck bounds here and there,
Whilst the doe has narrow eyes.
But when the two rabbits run side by side,
How can you tell the female from the male?
Over time, there were themes and variations of this poem. However, Mulan became well known in the West due to two animated versions, the first in 1998 and the sequel in 2004. In 2020, Disney moved away from animated versions.
Essentially, the storyline is quite to the point. The Rouran army, who lived in and around what is called Mongolia, invaded Northern Wei. The local emperor told his people to fight the invaders from the north; there had to be a draft or conscription. Since Mulan had no brothers, her father had to join the army even though he was elderly. Mulan willingly substituted for her father and dressed as a local soldier. No one knew about her impersonation. Off she went for a dozen years to fight the invaders from the north.
At the present time, all that exists of Mulan are several versions of the poem. It is similar to Gilgamesh in that there is a missing historical record of an actual person named Mulan. Both The Epic of Gilgamesh and various versions of the Mulan poem exist. What is missing is the real Mulan.
As Churchill said, “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.” Perhaps, we will find the actual historical Mulan. In the meantime, as for the key, it is obvious. Whether a real person or not, Mulan faced sexism either in poetry, in life, or a combination of both. Millennia and a half ago, Chinese women faced life as a second-class person.
From 1980-2015, the Chinese government enforced a one-child policy to control their population. Nevertheless, in practice, the policy was sexist. Since males like their dominance in China, male babies became dominant. Infanticide and abandonment resulted. There were sex-selective abortions performed.
Looking at our society in the 21st century, we need more than a movie if women wish for equality. Equality will not exist if men are in charge of dispensing it.
“But when the two rabbits run side by side,
How can you tell the female from the male?”
This is the trailer for the movie Mulan.