Our Nonfiction Monday contribution (hosted this week by Rasco from RIF) is a historical figure who is familiar to a lot of children, thanks to Disney’s adaptation of this story. Fa Mulan: The Story of a Woman Warrior.
Historical Notes and Author’s Research. Ever since I have read the book Stories Matter: The Complexity of Cultural Authenticity in Children’s Literature edited by Dana Fox and Kathy Short, I have been more conscious and deliberate in reading through authors’ elaborations on the research work that they have done to ensure a measure of authenticity in their retelling of a historical narrative. I am aware of the increasingly-complex and polemical issues that surround the notion of ‘multicultural’ literature as well as what counts for ‘authenticity’ in children’s literature, and so I would not even go into that (since that deserves a more collected vantage and a comprehensive synthesis of competing viewpoints). For this particular book, San Souci shared his process:
For my retelling, I go back to the earliest versions of The Song of Mulan. Probably composed during the Northern and Southern Dynasties (A. D. 420- A. D. 589), the ballad was included in imperial court anthologies of the Tang Dynasty (618 A.D. – 907 A.D.). I followed the traditional sequence of events; but retelling (as opposed to translating) allows me to fill out briefly sketched scenes and to ‘read between the lines,’ by drawing on my study of the poem in its historical and cultural context.
San Souci also noted that the The Song of Mulan was created during a period of unrest as the Chinese and the Tartars (or Tatars) who lived beyond the northern border in what is now known to be Mongolia and Manchuria continued to strive for dominance and power.
The story line is familiar to us with Fa Mulan taking the place of her father who was enlisted to serve in the Khan’s army:
The next day as Mulan sat at her loom, she formed a brave plan. At last she went to her parents. They saw her troubled look and heard her anxious sigh. “What is on our daughter’s mind?” they asked gently. “What is in her heart?”
“The Khan is drafting many men, and Father’s name is on the list,” Mulan explained. “Little Brother is too young. I am strong. Elder Sister says I act like a man. Let me serve in Father’s name.”
“It is too dangerous!” her father protested. “And the Khan does not let women serve as soldiers.”
In the end her parents agreed, because Mulan’s plan was the only way to save the family.
What Makes Fa Mulan such an Inspiration? I believe that what makes this a timeless narrative is Fa Mulan’s inner courage – in addition to her steadfast and decisive nature. It is not measured by physical strength, but grace in accepting one’s duty and destiny. She is already taking a huge risk standing in her father’s stead being with the Khan army – the risk of bringing shame and dishonor to her family if she is found out and discovered for who she is: a female warrior pretending to be a male. As she consciously conceals her true nature, she also needs to be sharp and incisive in making sure that she remains alive and that she serves her country to the best of her ability:
In the months that followed, Mulan increased her strength and improved her swordplay. “You excel because you balance female and male energies,” one veteran told her. “A good swordsman should appear as calm as a fine lady, but he must be capable of quick action like a surprised tiger.”
Mulan studied the art of war to learn how great generals planned and carried out battles. Her courage and skill with a sword were praised by soldiers, officers, and even officials sent by Khan.
The Maiden of Yueh. In the narrative, Fa Mulan consistently makes mention of the Maiden of Yueh whom she referred to as ‘the greatest swordswoman’ -who proved to be her inspiration. While initially shocked and unsettled at the reality of war (rushing steeds and clashing spears) and the need to kill or be killed, she would imagine how the Maiden of Yueh would react given the same circumstance and she would find a place to center her thoughts and do what needs to be done. In the Author’s Note, the Maiden of Yueh is described by San Souci in this fashion:
The Maiden’s story preceded Mulan’s own by several centuries, and she was widely known and admired. The first of many warrior women in Chinese stories, poems, folksongs, and operas, the Maiden was a matchless, self-taught swordswoman in the kingdom of Yueh. She reportedly said that the best swordsperson melds yin (female, passive) and yang (masculine, active) energies: outwardly calm, but inwardly poised for action.
I am not sure if a picture book has been made based on the Maiden of Yueh’s life, but that is one I would also gladly read.
Symbolic Artwork. In the “Illustrators’ Note”, Jean and Mou-Sien Tseng explained how the scroll is perceived to be a unique art form in Chinese art. It is usually tied with string and wrapped in rice paper. They explained that the format of this particular book is done according to the Chinese scroll tradition:
When people wish to see the scroll, they just untie the string and unroll the scroll from left to right. They sit around a table to enjoy it. This method is known as “reading the painting” because it is read like a book. Sitting close to the art allows the reader to become involved with it.
About the Author and Illustrators. (taken from the jacketflap of the book)
Robert D. San Souci is one of the most esteemed names in children’s literature. Widely respected for his impeccable research and his ability to retell classic stories and legends for contemporary children, Mr. San Souci is an ALA Notable Author whose work has been recognized by American Bookseller and the International Reading ASsociation. His books have won such prestigious awards as the Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Honor. Mr. San Souci lives in California, but he spends much of his time traveling nationwide, meeting with children, teachers, and librarians to discuss his work.
Jean and Mou-Sien Tseng are a Chinese husband-and-wife team who have illustrated several books that have received high praise, including an ALA Notable. The Tsengs each fondly remember their own parents telling them the legend of Fa Mulan – a story-telling tradition that has been passed down in China for centuries. In their enthusiasm to work on a project so close to their hearts, the Tsengs undertook a great deal of research, making sure that the costumes, armor, weaponry, and depiction of daily life were as historically accurate as possible. They also checked maps and documents that would assist them in portraying an authentic image of Imperial China. The Tsengs live in New York.
Fa Mulan: The Story of a Woman Warrior by Robert D. San Souci and Illustrated by Jean & Mou-Sien Tseng. Hyperion Books for Children, New York, 1998. Book borrowed from the community library.
PoC Reading Challenge Update: 12 of 25
Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge Update: 9 of 12