Hua Mulan in English

I love retold fairy tales. They’re like my literary equivalent of comfort food. Of course, the story of Hua Mulan is not a fairy tale (there are no fairies or other supernatural elements) but a folk tale. Still for the purposes of this discussion we’ll lump folk tales along with fairy tales, legends and myths.

Every girl, not just those of Chinese heritage, should love Hua Mulan. She’s the ultimate girl power figure, saving not only her family but the whole country, by being brave, skilled and simply better than any boy. To share the story with my anglophone kids, I need an English source (I get by with Mandarin movies, but alas I read Chinese slowly and painfully with a dictionary in my hand). The oldest existing source of the story is a (non-epic) poem meaning that there are relatively few details to get right in derived works.

I try to pre-screen books for my kids, especially if it’s a new series and so I’m currently reading Wild Orchid: A Retelling of “The Ballad of Mulan” by Cameron Dokey and 12 pages in already there are several problems.

First, Ms. Dokey has translated the name character for character as “wild orchid” as opposed to the proper translation of the characters together as “magnolia tree blossom”. Then she had Mulan’s parents marry for love (sure, whatever) except that she also makes Mulan’s mother die in childbirth after a whirlwind marriage which means no big sister, no baby brother. Lastly, she’s not going to meet her father until she’s nearly grown. Her skills will not be taught to her by her famous general father. I have a horrible suspicion that she’s going to learn from the neighbour boy. C’mon people! There aren’t that many details to get right to honour the source material!

In contrast, Disney’s Mulan keeps mom and dad and adds in a grandmother. The older sister is gone and the brother is replaced by a dog. There’s also the almost completely inaccurate (culturally) dragon. I forgive Disney many things because the needs of animation and juggernaut marketing machines are different. Extra characters need more animators and cute animal characters sell better than human ones.

What I don’t forgive is that Mulan’s signature skill, firing 3 arrows at once, is taught to her by the lame-ish love interest. Worse, her well-earned rise through the ranks to general by skill and merit is completely short circuited by an unnecessary rescue of the emperor.

I’ve got the bilingual version of the story but it’s “lost” in one of the many boxes we still haven’t unpacked since we moved. sigh

I hear there’s a Hua Mulan movie planned with Michelle Yeoh involved (I thought she was going to star, but apparently not).

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