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.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

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.

Original illustrations by Jean and Mou-Sien Tseng - book photo taken by me.

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.

Fa Mulan with her sister. The illustrations and the beautiful border-artwork are glorious.

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.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

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)

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

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.

PictureBook Challenge Update: 44 of 120

PoC Reading Challenge Update: 12 of 25

Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge Update: 9 of 12

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

18 comments on “Nonfiction Monday: Fa Mulan – Woman Warrior for All Ages

  1. Fats Suela

    I will always remember Mulan as the “girl worth fighting for.” What a fantastic choice for our bimonthly theme. Breaking gender and sociopolitical barriers during her time must have been dangerous, and I admire her for claiming responsibility in order to save her family. Nice review, my love. 🙂

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  2. Wow! This is an amazing find. I am always looking for more Asian women in history to share with my daughter. I love that he has brought the oral tales to the present as well. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. When was this one published, Myra? This is indeed a wonderful historical find, of a courageous asian woman way ahead of her time and culture! San Souci is truly a remarkable researcher and storyteller!

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    • Hi Joanna, this was published in 1998. What I was particularly happy to note was the reference to another powerful female figure, which goes beyond Fa Mulan’s time. I hope that something would be written about the Maiden of Yueh too.

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  5. Wonderful review, Myra! And, of course, this book reminds me of the Joan of Arc books that have been reviewed on Nonfiction Monday. I like the focus of the book — that she combined the yin and the yang in becoming a powerful female figure. And thanks for including the notes about the research behind the book — always interesting.

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    • Hi Jeanne, I thought that was pretty interesting too (the yin/yang and how to balance it). I love picture books that highlight historical female figures. Always very empowering and inspiring.

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  6. Great review. The story of Fa Mulan was such a influence on my daughter’s choice to learn Chinese. I think it is a great story for women and girls.

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  7. Inspiring review of an inspirational book – I can’t wait to get my hands on it!

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  8. I appreciated that you noted the issues surrounding folklore about authenticity. It feels like a mine field sometimes when selecting for the library.
    Thanks for the recommendation, Myra.
    Tammy
    Apples with Many Seeds

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    • Hi Tammy, I didn’t realize how polemical these issues are until I’ve read the edited book that I cited in this post. Really opened my eyes to so many things.

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