China became a matriarchal when the people revolted against the emperor and placed his first wife on the throne. She had always been an upstanding woman, and well respected. Men had their chance to rule China—emperors obsessed with war, power and money. But the empress’ realized what mattered most were the citizens of whom all of society was built. If the citizens were happy, productive, and safe, then what else mattered? Ego always took a backseat to humility and doing what was right.
Which is why men were rarely allowed in positions of power. Sure, they tended to be physically stronger—but without brains, what good were they? Most men couldn’t be trusted, especially in the military. The Empress’ army was female, with only a handful of exceptions, two of whom were General Li and his son, Shang. Both were exceptional strategists and excelled in various martial arts, with an impressive mastery of various weapons.
As a young man, Li’s skills as a strategist in school were noticed by the Empress and granted him a place in her army. It soon turned out his son showed the same skills and quickly followed in his father’s footsteps.
However, being in the army was a special honor. To let a man into the army was dangerous, and without approval from the Empress, was a death sentence
And in more than 36 years as Empress, she had only given two men that honor. She long ago lost count of the number of men put to death for defiling her majestic army with their power-mongering filth.
Ping and Mulan were identical twins, but as often the case, Mulan was held in higher regard. As the only daughter, she grew up knowing her family expected her to take over as the next head of the family. On the surface, Ping’s sister acted the perfect daughter, but hated the role expected of her. Mulan had once told him that she didn’t want to take over for their mother. A life of travel and adventure called to her, but she was bound by her duty.
Although women could do many things, taking to the road with no stable job or purpose was meant only for ruffians and men. She didn’t have a head for business or farming—in fact, she had no idea what she wanted, Mulan just knew that it wasn’t here, stuck ruling the farm.
Ping had slightly more freedom, becoming an actor in the local theatre. Of course, “freedom” was a relative term because technically it was Mulan who was the actress. Because only women could perform in the theatre.
So Ping made a deal with his sister—she would show up to public events and Ping would take her place on stage and behind the scenes. Mulan would often switch places with her brother or—as more often the case—run off to who knows where, letting the ‘wind take her where it may’ (in her words). Ping never asked, but he often caught her writing in her journal of her adventures.
Ping sometimes wondered if she would become some sort of traveling scholar or writer, had she the freedom she so often craved.
Now, Ping’s main talent lay in voice acting—he could imitate voices, accents and to a lesser degree, various animal noises. Ping’s overall build was definitely stockier than his sister’s, more masculine, but not by much. He was just lucky that he was effeminate enough to pass for his sister. Alone, it was obvious he was a man but with the right makeup and hair, even their parents couldn’t tell them apart.
The whole key to their masquerade was that it was kept a secret. No one knew, not even their parents.
Now, it should be said that Ping’s dream wasn’t to become an actor (or actress). It was mainly a way to pass the time, seeing as how acting was one of his seemingly natural talents. Ping was more interested in seeing his family honor upheld and, if he could, taking his sister’s place. He loved the farm, and dreamed of making his parents happy. But being a son, there wasn’t much he could do. It all came down to Mulan.
Of course, one of the obvious solutions was to ‘trade places’ but Ping wasn’t keen on becoming a woman full time and Mulan was less than thrilled at the prospect of pretending to be something she wasn’t (unless she had to).
Today, Mulan was in a worse mood than usual. In three days’, she was to meet with the matchmaker. She would be observed and matched with a series of bachelors, whom the matchmaker believed would suit her and her family’s place in society. The Fa family was well respected and as a woman, it fell to her to choose the best husband to carry on the family line with.
Mulan was not ready to settle down and while she apricated that she would be given a choice of whom to marry, it was still suffocating.
“I’ll go, if you want,” Ping said, in his sister’s voice.
Mulan merely shook her head. “You may sound like me, but they will notice who you are when they bath you and go to do your hair and makeup. They would not understand why I do not wish to go through with the matchmaking and we both know we can’t risk our secret coming out in this manner.”
Ping shook his head. “But I have a plan. Tomorrow, it’s imperative you get there early. Get ready as usual; let them do your hair and makeup. Before you leave, make up an excuse to take some time to yourself and meet me in the back.”
“How will—” Mulan began, but Ping intrupted her.
“You remember Hui from the theatre? He works there and will show you where I am. He’ll find out what you’ll be wearing and I know he’ll be able to get a replica made last minute. We’ll trade places then.”
“I don’t know…” Mulan hesitated. “The matchmaker is an observant woman. If anyone can see through your act, it’ll be her.”
Neither sibling had thought about what would come after, when Ping’s sister was expected to marry whom the matchmaker paired her with. As it was, they would metaphorically cross that bridge when it came.
“What choice do you have?” Ping asked softly. “As you are, we both know you won’t impress the matchmaker. The person our family wants you to be, who the matchmaker expects of you, it’s not who you are and I want more than anything to make our family happy. Honor is important, sure, but you’re my sister. I’d do anything for you, if it meant making you happy.”
Ping became an actor because of his sister. As far as anyone knew, he often watched “Mulan” during rehearsals. Mulan made a point of never leaving the house without makeup and layered clothing, which was the key to Ping’s success. Makeup wasn’t all too important to Mulan, but she kept up the ruse because the longer Ping spent at rehearsals, the more time Mulan had to herself to do as she pleased.
No one ever asked where “Ping” was or what he did when he went out. He was a man, so it wasn’t all that important. It wasn’t like Ping would ever bring the family honor—that’s what Mulan was for.
If the matchmaker found out Ping had taken Mulan’s place, the twins risked their family’s honor, but if Mulan didn’t pass for the “perfect bride” then all was lost.
Eventually, Mulan nodded. “Okay. I’ll teach you what I know. Are you sure you’ll be ready in time to trade places with me?”
“Yes. Hui is my best friend—he knows about us and knows a makeup artist who’ll help, no questions asked.”
Mulan grimaced. “And she’s trustworthy? This friend of his?”
“We’ve worked together before. Mei taught me how to do my makeup. Of course, this job requires a professional and she won’t have much time, but it’ll be enough. She’s being paid and is extremely loyal to her clients. She won’t betray us.”
“Okay, okay,” Mulan said. “I guess being in the theatre has its perks, right?”
“Of course!” Ping said. “You guessed correctly.”
Being a stagehand didn’t pay as well, so there were many people who would take odd jobs if it meant getting paid. Hui and Mei were two of them.
Ping had always been intentionally vague about the situation with his sister, but Hui never pressed. It started as just another job, but they soon because friends after Ping starting working at the theatre.
“Now let’s get started!” Mulan said, interrupting Ping’s thoughts. “Go talk to your friend and we’ll get started on your training when you get back!”
Everything was going as planned. The day of the matchmaking, Mulan arrived uncharacteristically early to the clothiers. The bath had just been poured, so it was pleasantly hot. Ping wished his own bath had been as warm, but because this was being done in secret (and they only had one water heater) Ping had a nearly ice-cold bath. He couldn’t stop shaking.
“We’ll make it quick.” Hui said.
Mulan had been able to soak in the bath for a few minutes before being washed up. Ping was envious of his sister.
Ping stood on a chair surrounded by a few full-length mirrors. Hui and Mei were tightening Ping’s waist with a corset Hui had picked up a few years ago while working for a traveling theater. They were lucky it fit Ping at all.
Hui shook his head. “It’s too bad you’re not built like her.”
“Who, my sister?”
“Exactly.” Hui said. “it’s be nice if you were more effeminate. Mulan has a tiny waist.”
Mei snickered. “And after we’re done, you’ll have one too!”
Getting dressed reminded Ping why women had it rough. They had to look good and oftentimes forsake comfort to do so.
“Just stay calm and you’ll be fine,” Hui said, giving the lacing a final checkup. “That’ll have to do. It’s not as small as I’d like but it should be enough.”
Ping looked down. “I don’t see how women can wear something like this.”
He glanced at Mei, who merely shrugged. “Hey, don’t look at me. I’ve never seen anything like this. How anyone could wear it is beyond me.”
“I’m told the corset is extremely popular in its country of origin,” Hui said. “At least, that’s what the salesman told me.”
Ping sighed. He hated crossdressing and if it weren’t for Mulan, he wouldn’t be parading around as a woman.
“-ing. Ping!” Hui said.
“Spacing out, I see,” Mei said. “Well, come back down to the ground because it’s time for your dress.”
She stepped aside and Hui held up a replica of Mulan’s outfit.
“For Mulan,” Ping said quietly. He closed his eyes, and let Mei and Hui get to work.
“This isn’t the first time I’ve done makeup for someone meeting with the matchmaker,” Mei said, “so don’t worry.”
Ping knew all this, but it helped hearing Mei say it out loud.
“I don’t know why you’re doing this, but I wish you luck. Impressing the matchmaker is not easy,” Mai continued. “I’ve never heard of a man impersonating a woman just to meet with a matchmaker but I’m not being paid to ask questions.”
Ping made an affirming sound.
Hui was keeping a lookout just outside the door, idly sweeping the hallways. He was basically just moving dirt from one side to another, but everyone was too busy with Mulan to care. As long as Hui kept out of the way, nobody was asking questions.
Just as Mei was putting on the finishing touches, Hui stuck his head in.
“Mulan’s coming,” he hissed. “Ready or not, it’s time.”
Mei grabbed a mirror and held it to Ping’s face. With the wig and makeup, the resemblance to Mulan was uncanny. Even though he was male, his face was almost identical to his sister’s.
“It’s perfect,” Ping said softly, in Mulan’s voice.
“You took the words out of my mouth,” Mulan said from the door.
“Damn,” Mei said in awe. “You sound exactly like her. I guess you may just have a chance to pull this charade off after all.”
Mulan pulled a small, delicate comb out of her hair. It was old, and decorated with a delicate white flower. She placed it gently in Ping’s hair. After few seconds, she wrapped her arms around her brother.
“You don’t know how much this means to me,” she said. “To our parents.”
Ping smiled, though it wasn’t reflected in his eyes.
“For our family,” he whispered in her ear.
Ping watched nervously as the matchmaker paced around him with a critical eye.
“Hmm. Not overweight, but not too skinny, either. Perfect for bearing daughters,” the matchmaker said and scribbled something on her clipboard.
“Now, recite the final admonition,” she demanded.
Ping nodded obediently and recited it perfectly. Being an actor, memorizing a few lines was child’s play.
After that, it was easy. A woman was to be poised, graceful and confident. She respected her female elders, but was smart and not easily intimidated. A woman was powerful and held a commanding presence.
It basically amounted to being comfortable in your own skin, which was something Ping had never really felt before. Not while this ruse with his sister still held up.
The matchmaker never looked all that happy, but she was apparently satisfied with what she saw in Ping’s version of Mulan because she let him go with a final word of encouragement and something about honoring their family.
Of course, this left the real Mulan with the prospect of meeting potential suitors, but Ping preferred not to think of that just yet. The meeting had gone well and that’s all that mattered.
The reason Ping so often took his sister’s place was mainly so she could get out of doing duties she hated. She didn’t want to run the farm or become head of the family. Ping did (or thought he did). When Mulan had to attend special lessons or check up on various business dealings, he would often go in her place. After all, Mulan was old enough to go by herself and fooling strangers was easier than immediate family.
Now, his sister never had particularly a strong sense of duty to her country, and had no aspirations to server in her Empress’ army. Mulan wasn’t too keen on dying for her country; they both knew military life wouldn’t suit her. Her rebellious streak always seemed to get her into trouble which Ping (as Mulan) would later end up smoothing over.
Right now, what mattered most was that Mulan was going to take on increased duties, which was making her feel more suffocated than before. For even though Ping took over many of Mulan’s duties, his sister still had to suffer through most of them. She was often watched by their mother, Fa Li.
While they fooled their parents before, that was from a distance. Upon close range, they knew their mother was the one person the twins knew they would be unable to deceive.
Ping met his sister in the garden. She was sitting on a bench overlooking their pond. Fish swam lazily in its waters.
It had been a few days since the meeting with the matchmaker.
“I’m to meet with my potential husbands in two weeks,” she said solemnly. “I don’t know if I can go through with it. I’m not ready to get married.”
For once, Ping didn’t have an easy solution. He sat next to her.
“What are you going to do?” Ping asked.
Mulan shook her head, and wiped the tears forming in the corner of her eyes.
“I don’t want to let mother down, but I don’t think I can go through with it. I can’t be what she wants.”
Ping didn’t know what to say. There wasn’t an easy solution—whatever Mulan was going to do, it probably wouldn’t bring honor to the family. She was being pressed into a corner with the ever-increasing duties and pending marriage.
“Mulan, I—” Ping began, but was intrupted by the beat of drums.
That day, Fa Mulan received a conscription notice: the Huns had invaded China and one woman from each family was expected to serve in her Empress’ army.
Mulan had taken the scroll dutifully and had cloistered herself in her room. No one could get her to come out.
The army was no place for Mulan, and Ping had doubts that she would actually go through with it.
Later that night, he snuck into her room and found Mulan packing her bags.
“You can’t stop me, Ping.” Mulan said determinedly. “I’m not going to war, but I refuse to stay here and lead a life I hate.”
“If not you, then our mother will have to go,” Ping replied. “Is that what you want?”
Mulan paused. “Of course not.”
Their mother had injured her knee during her own time in the army. If she were to take Mulan’s place, she wouldn’t be coming back. Mulan hadn’t thought of that, it seemed.
Tears streamed down his sister’s face.
“Then what am I supposed to do?” she cried, falling to the bed.
Ping hesitated. They had come this far, and he knew going to war would destroy his sister, change her irrevocably.
“I’ll go,” he said, walking over to her nightstand.
Ping took the conscription notice. “Hui is leaving tomorrow to join a theatre troupe for a series of performances overseas. He’ll be gone a few weeks. I’ll leave a note saying I’m joining Hui as a stage hand. I know that troupe and they are always looking for extra hands. He’ll help, I know he will.”
He pulled out a sheet of paper from Mulan’s desk and began writing Hui a note. Mulan walked over just as he finished. “Give this to him and he’ll help you. He owes me a favor.”
Mulan shook her head and pulled Ping into her arms.
“You would do this for me?” she asked him, tears running down her face.
He buried his head in her shoulder. “I love you, Mulan. You’re my sister. I’d do anything for you, if it meant keeping you happy. You know that.”
There was a chance Ping wouldn’t be coming back, but he couldn’t risk saying goodbye to his parents. They were proud that Mulan was going to war, to serve her country. They wouldn’t understand her decision to run away.
If this was going to happen, it would need to happen tonight.
Mulan didn’t belong in the army.
The army encampment loomed just down the hill, yet he couldn’t force himself to enter. Of all the ruses he’d put on as Mulan, never had he been expected to become his sister full time. For a few hours was easy, but this was different. There was far more at stake.
Ping double checked his armor. He was glad that the armor wasn’t gender specific. He didn’t need to take it off outside of the tent. Bathing might be a problem, but he’d face that situation when it came.
He was nervous and 100 percent stalling. He could do this. Ping lived in the room adjacent to his sister; they knew everything about each other.
“I can do this.” Ping said, psyching himself up.
From now on, he was Mulan.
Ping took a deep breath, gathered his horse’s reigns and mounted the saddle of his steed. It was time.