I sit at the loom, my fingers trembling ever so slightly as the shuttle passes quietly back and forth. The task usually soothes me, the gentle monotony of the bobbing shuttle, but tonight it does nothing to dispel the worry rising in my chest. It must be clear on my face, because when one of my mother’s friends passes by the door she looks in and gives me a sorry smile.
“Are you alright, Hua Mulan? I can hear your sighs from all the way out here. Is there someone on your mind?” I shake my head, offering her a pained grimace in return. If only the thing that troubles me now were just a suitor! If only.
“No, ma’am, it’s just that I saw the draft posters in the square last night.”
“Ah, yes, the ones with the orders from the Emperor. But surely…” She leans against the doorway as I duck my head. I almost cannot bear to say the words out loud, as if that will somehow make them all the more real.
“My father’s name was on every scroll.”
The woman makes a soft clucking sound of apology, but I pay her no mind. Just thinking of it — my old, frail father, with his sweet smile and his trembling fingers — overwhelms me. Before I even realise it hot tears are rolling down my cheeks, burning a path through the pale makeup on my face.
“Father can’t go,” I murmur. “He can’t. He’s old, and weak, and he’ll never —” My voice cracks. My visitor shifts uncomfortably, well aware that this show of grief is not meant for her.
“I’m sorry for your family,” she says quietly, turning to go. “At least he will die defending our land in service of the Son of Heaven.” I have already buried my head in my hands, but I cannot hold back the tears.
Mother’s response is stiff. She does not shed a single tear, nor does she show any outward sign of grief, but I know her well enough to realise that this is just her trying her hardest to stay composed. She cannot fall apart, not in front of me and Yao’er, who is sitting on the kitchen floor playing with his toys. Father simply sits in his chair, gripping the head of his old walking stick. He accepts the news of the draft with a straight face. He is loyal to the emperor, and will do what he must. I sit amongst them, staring at my feet. My face is still puffy and red from crying earlier.
“You can’t go,” I protest weakly. “You’re too old. How do they expect you to be a proper soldier?” Father sighs.
“And what would you suggest I do, daughter? If I were to dodge the draft I would bring shame upon all our heads.”
Mother’s eyes cut to Yao’er, who has begun to chew on a wooden carving of a tiger. He gazes up at us, innocent and oblivious to the strife surrounding him.
“If only we had an older son,” she mutters. “I would be proud to send him off to fight in the name of the emperor.”
“If only I had been born a boy,” I reply, voicing the sentiment she dared not express. My hands grip the edge of the table, and we all stare silently at the kitchen floor.
That night, as I prepare myself to sleep, I have a revelation. Propped up against my wall is the old sparring staff I used to practise with as a child, when my father was well enough to play games with me and even to teach me some of the basics of the martial arts he had trained in in his youth. I am by no means a warrior, but I have always had a knack for sparring, and my father had often joked that if I were born a boy I would be the finest fighter in the emperor’s army. Such memories always bring a strange pang in my heart, which must be from recalling the way my father used to be before sickness made him into the trembling bag of bones he is now. I go over to the staff and pick it up, comforted by the smooth bamboo under my hand. My muscles still remember the moves, and I do an experimental twirl. The blood inside me surges as I fall back into my ten year old body, falling back into the dirt as my father stands over me, broad face beaming.
“You would have made a wonderful son,” he says, helping me to my feet, and my chest tightens. I would do anything to be that son that he wanted. Anything to make him smile like he does when he teaches me how to wield a staff, how to parry and jab and thrust. In that moment when I swing my bamboo blade I am the boy that he so clearly sees in me.I come to my senses when some stray splinter snags on my palm and sends a prick of pain into my hand. Tossing the staff to one side, I go over to the bronze mirror that sits beside my mat. My reflection has always bothered me somewhat — no matter how many times I gaze into the shiny metal surface, there is always something unfamiliar about the face looking back at me, as if there is some subtle distortion that I cannot quite place my finger on. Mother has told me that every young girl feels discontent with her reflection, that even the most beautiful of girls longs to someday see someone else in the mirror. What I see in it now, however, gives me a new spark of hope.
I have always strongly resembled my father, but the features that are striking and handsome on him are rough and unappealing on a girl. Perhaps this is part of why he was so willing to share his warrior’s knowledge with me, with it so easy to see himself in me. Mother would never say it to my face, but I know she fears my lack of delicacy and the untraditional skills I had learned from my father will harm my chances at a good marriage. I have feared the same thing, but the thought of marriage itself as also scared me enough that I try not to contemplate it. My elder sister has been married for many years now, and I cannot imagine living the life of quiet servitude she does.
Looking at myself now, and recalling the feeling of the staff in my hand, a devious plan springs to mind. I pull my hair back, turning my face from side to side. Indeed, if I perhaps darken my brows a bit and find a way to conceal my breasts, I would make a rather convincing man. My parents may not have the eldest son they wish for, but the bureaucrats and officials overseeing the draft don’t know that. As long as there is a man from my family that goes to fight for the emperor my father will be spared, and I will be that man if I must.
When I propose my idea to my parents, they stare at me as if I had just told them I had decided to become a monk and spend the rest of my days on a lonely mountaintop, eating snow and grasshoppers.
“But Mulan!” my mother protests, clutching my father’s hand. “You’d be going off to war. You could die! And what if they find out you’re not a man? What if they had you executed? You’re really not thinking this through!”
“I have thought it through,” I reply, raising my chin. “And I have decided that I am not afraid to die, not in the service of the emperor. If Father goes there is no chance he’ll be coming back, while I have at least some chance of survival. Father taught me well. Who knows, perhaps I will even bring honour upon our family.” I look over to my father, who sits staring in consideration. There is a light in his eyes, the same old one that used to burn when he would play with me out in the yard.
“Hua Mulan,” he says. “Woman though you may be, you are braver than any son I could’ve hoped for.” My heart sings with the praise, just as when I was ten years old. "You are right that if I go off to war it is a sure death sentence. I am too sick, too old, and I could not fight even if I wanted to. While I will go if I must, I would much rather die with dignity in my own home than in some nameless ditch. If you are truly willing to fight for this cause, then I will bestow you with my blessing.” I bow deeply to him. It is a genuine bow, filled with gratitude for his understanding. Of course part of me is afraid of what is ahead of me, but most of me is thrumming with anticipation. I am going to be a soldier. My father is not going to die.
I go out to the markets, and there I purchase all I need: a horse, a fine saddle, a powerful whip, and supplies to last me two weeks. When I return Mother and Father are standing in the doorway with my brother, and I am surprised to see my elder sister there as well.
“I cannot believe you are doing this!” she cries into my shoulder. “You were always such a brave and foolish little girl, Mulan.” I hug her tightly before kissing Mother and Father goodbye. Father gives me a teary smile as he hands me his old armour, worn and dusty but still functional.
“I’m excited to hear what tales of war you’ll have to tell when you return,” he murmurs.
“Father —” I falter, clutching his frail body which was once brimming with vitality. As he pulls away his eyes are shining.
“I have something else for you.” He pulls from behind his back a great sword, the same blade that usually hangs in a place of honour in my parent’s chambers. The sword my father carried into battle, and his father before him, on back many generations to when our ancestors first forged the great thing. I have no words, so I take it with a bow. One last look at my family and I turn back to my horse, heaving myself on with the sword clutched in my hand. Yao’er gives me a little wave and I wave back. A smile creeps onto my face even as I consider that this may be the last time I ever see him. Then, with a squeeze to my mount’s sides, I am off.
The bells on the saddles jiggle merrily as my horse trots along. Despite my destination, I still find myself enjoying my ride out of the village. My new clothes, far more comfortable and functional than any of my dresses at home, seem to safely disguise me from the traveling merchants and dusty wanderers I come across. I have yet to address the issue of my chest, but the loose fabric of my tunic serves me well enough at the moment. The whole time I half except some vagrant to point an accusatory finger at me and cry, “What do you think you’re doing, little girl?” but no such thing happens. Instead I am greeted with nods of respect, carts shifting to the side as I pass by. This newfound freedom is beyond anything I could imagine. Before long I am out of town and deep into the countryside, fields and green hills to either side.
I am admiring the landscape when a voice from behind me calls, “Hail, soldier!” I turn to see a young man riding up beside me, his frisky black mare tossing her head as he slows her to a trot. He has a wide, happy face, his skin glowing golden in the afternoon sun. “At least, I assume you’re a soldier, what with all that heavy armour strapped to your horse.”
“Good afternoon,” I reply cautiously.
“I’m Zhang Wei. And might I ask your name?”
“Hua…” I search desperately for a name. If I’m seen through so soon, before I’ve even registered myself in my father’s stead — “Ping!” The man raises his eyebrows.
“Hua Ping? What, spelled like ‘Flower Vase’? Am I supposed to read into that?” I flush. I’ll never make it through at this rate. My parents will have to accept me back, and I’ll have to deal with the shame I’ve brought upon my household.
“Uh...yes. I guess so.”
“You guess.” He gives me a mischievous smile and I duck my head. “So, Hua Ping, I suppose we are both headed to the same place.”
“Yes.” I keep my voice as low as I can, though it’s still probably best to avoid talking as much as possible. This appears to vex my uninvited companion somewhat, but at least his knotted eyebrows seem to stem from confusion rather than suspicion. He starts up a steady chatter of commentary about the weather, the birds passing overhead, the way his mare keeps chomping at her bit. I listen halfheartedly, his presence stirring up all the fears and unpleasant thoughts that I had previously been able to drown in the pleasant sunshine.
In the evening we stop on the banks of the Yellow River, and I pull out the fresh food that my mother packs for me. Steamed buns (now cold) thick-cut noodles, a myriad of pickled cabbage and vegetables, even a few candied hawthorn berries. To my partial dismay, Mr. Zhang stops his horse right beside mine. It is not that he bothers me so much as having him near me just means I have to spend more time maintaining this charade. Be optimistic about it, I tell myself. This could be good practise. You need to learn how to speak to a man as his equal. I offer him my food and in return he lends me a sip of the liquor he carries with him. It is too strong for my tastes and I return it to him with a grimace. We eat peacefully together, watching the muddy river tumble past as the sun sets on the horizon with a tiny campfire crackling before us. It is rather nice being able to sit with a man like this. Zhang Wei shows no hesitation when he pats me on the shoulder, uses no patronising euphemisms when he describes his prior experience with fighting in order to spare my ‘tender feminine sensibilities,’ and makes no subtle comments about how I should hurry before my time runs out on a decent marriage. It is almost like the freedom I felt when I used to spar with my father, but even then we were not equals. Here we are just two soldiers, and he knows nothing of my father’s status as an honoured war hero, nor that I hunch my shoulders to conceal my breasts from him.
“Alright,” I say at last. “I would like to get to sleep.” Zhang wipes the last traces of the candied hawthorn from his lips.
“Good idea. We’ve both spent a long day riding.”
We both lay our mats out under the stars, but as he settles down I make up some excuse about going to relieve myself and step away from our campfire. Once I’m sure I’m out of his sight, I slip out of my tunic. The piece of cloth that I’ve pulled out is rough, but it is the only bit that I am sure will hold strong against the strain I am about to put it through. Binding my chest is not a particularly difficult task, but as soon as it is done and I try to draw a deep breath I find myself in pain. I cannot breathe properly, and the harder I try the more my chest strains. Frustrated, I almost tear the cloth away before I remind myself that with Mr. Zhang trailing after me I won’t find many other chances to attempt this. After I pull my tunic back on I run my hands down my front, perhaps overly satisfied at the new sensation. For now, at least, I’m safe.
It takes us two weeks to head north to the training grounds, walking our horses side by side as we take in our surroundings and sleeping under the open stars. Zhang Wei proves himself to be a hearty traveling companion, and it does not take long for me to become accustomed to talking to him as a fellow man. I have never had such an easy friendship, not even with a woman. Most of the girls my mother invited over were far too caught up in the constraints of their tedious little lives, gossiping about hair and boys and what the fortune teller had told them was in their stars. I do not fault them for it — they were only doing as was expected of them, filling the mold hey had been forced into in the first place. All the same I am endlessly glad to be free of such things, to instead spend my time sparring with Zhang and practising martial arts at the crack of dawn, free of scrutiny. I still have to be careful around him, of course. Relieving myself in private can be a challenge out on the open road, and once or twice Zhang takes me by surprise as I crouch. This results in me falling over clumsily and generally making a fool of myself as Zhang scratches his head, wondering why a man would react so strongly for just being caught with his pants down. Every night I loosen the bindings on my chest but my ribs ache perpetually.
At the first sight of my bloods I panic and rush to a nearby village. This was something I had briefly considered before I set off, of how I would hide such a thing when I was on the front and had no time to cut cloth and bathe myself, but had put it off with embarrassment. In the village I find an old wise woman and beg her for anything that will purge the pollution from my body. She gives me the concoction reluctantly, warning me that it will leave me barren. I am too out of sorts to care, caught up in images of me waking up in my tent or in some battlements to find my uniform soaked. I cannot risk it. Afterwards, when the mixture has done its work and the searing pain of it has faded from my abdomen, I realise that this means I can never fully return back to my old woman’s life. I’ve just ruined any marriage I might have by destroying my ability to produce an heir. But the more I think about it, the less concerned I am. Good riddance, I am glad to be relieved of it.
The squat little man who I am directed to barely looks at me as I tell him that I am here in place of my father.
“So long as there is one man from each family,” he says dismissively. “It does not particularly matter which man.”
If only he knew. He asks me to demonstrate my skill with a weapon, so I draw my ancestors’ sword and show him some forms, slicing at an invisible opponent. Next he asks for kung fu, and I move with the dedication of a shaolin monk. I have practised long and hard on my journey here. The small nod he gives as he takes down notes tells me that that work has paid off. I leave the building with a pounding heart, thrilled that I have yet again proved myself a man.
Zhang Wei and I are eating together when we receive the news that we have been assigned to the same team. We lean over the scroll, Zhang dropping his rice on it as we stare.
“Captain Li Shang,” he notes. “So he’s General Shang’s son. Yikes.” I raise an eyebrow at him. Being his comrade grants me the right to question him, something I would not have were I his wife.
“Why is that yikes?”
“Oh, officers’ sons, you know. They feel like they have so much more to prove than the rest of us.” He rolls his eyes. “But hey, at least these busy body bureaucrats realise we have some talent. Look.” He gestures to the part on the scroll where it specifies we have ‘prior martial arts training.’ Distinguished. I wonder what Father would think of that.
“I’ll bet you Captain Li is a perfectly decent guy,” I tell Zhang, sticking out my tongue. He smirks.
“You bet? Really?”
“My whole dinner on it, yes.”
We laugh at our childishness, and I dare to sling a brotherly arm around Zhang’s shoulders as we walk down the street. He grins at me and I grin back, comforted by his closeness and the easy way we can walk together. Becoming a man might’ve been the best decision I’ve ever made.
Captain Li, of course, does not prove to be a perfectly decent man. When I first see him, standing tall before us on the training ground, I am struck by how handsome he is. Full lips, sculpted brows, a strong jaw. His chest is broad and underneath his uniform I can tell he is quite muscular. I blush at such an unmanly thought. You fool! I chide myself. Turning back into a woman the moment you catch sight of a handsome man. If you were taking this seriously you would not allow yourself to think in such ways. You are a soldier, remember! Soldiers don’t blush like little girls. I clench my teeth. As hard as I try to look like a man, I still have the heart of a woman. This brings a sense of unease that makes me want to hide my face. Maybe I tied my bindings too tight. Our commander surveys us, a motley crew of soft-faced boys like Zhang mixed with scarred veterans whose muscles have slacked into fat. Most of us must seem greener than a bamboo shoot in springtime to someone like him, a general’s son who has spent half his life in an academy training for this very occasion — though some say that he owes his captaincy only to the good will of his father. Beside Captain Li is the vile little bureaucrat I know to be Chi Fu, likely the same man that wrote the conscription order for my father. He taps Li on the shoulder, and for a moment they turn away towards the commanders’ tents on the far side of the grounds. to discuss something. Apparently a moment is all this uneasy group needs to devolve into animals.
A man shoves roughly past me, knocking me into Zhang.
“Ow,” I cry, more out of reflex than any actual pain. The man turns back to sneer at me.
“What, a little nudge like that too rough for you, pretty boy? Don’t see how a little thing like you thinks he’s going to survive training, much less a battlefield.”
Every part of my womanly upbringing is telling me to hang my head and apologise, to do anything I can to draw attention away from myself. My mother has always complimented me on how quiet and demure I am. Looking into those gleaming piggy eyes, however, I can’t help but wonder if that was nurture, not nature. It’s certainly not what the men around me are expecting of me. Many of them have turned to look at us now, their anticipation almost palpable. Even as my brain gives into its conditioning, I know what I must do. I must defend my honour. So, with one glance back at Zhang, who raises his eyebrows significantly, I take a step forward and crack the man across the face with a punch. I’ve never hit someone square on before. All the martial arts training with my father was always carefully poised and choreographed, with half the effort going towards halting ones’ blows at the last second. Before he even has time to strike back I’m reeling away in pain. My entire hand throbs, knuckles bloodied from where they connected with his cheekbone.
“You little harlot,” he snarls, and he is on me. I’m too giddy to respond. The adrenaline already pumping through my veins is making it impossible to see clearly. All the moves I spent hours practising are gone in an instance, and all I can think about is the pain in my knuckles. As he lunges at me all I can do is squawk in shock and throw myself out of the way, onto the feet of the onlookers. Our audience roars with excitement, and suddenly fights are breaking out all throughout the crowd. Apparently the fact we were recognised for our fighting experience suggests nothing about our maturity. I’m too busy dodging blows to notice much of this, though. I slip and land on my back in the mud of the training ground, and the huge man comes down on top of me. He yanks me up by the collar of my new training tunic and aims a powerful vengeance punch right at me, but the muddy ground lends me just enough lubrication to twist away. The move only saves me the one time, for he’s still on top of me and pinning me down with his weight. I’m too small — Too frail — I was delusional to think I’d survive a minute among these men — The blow catches me on the mouth, my upper lip breaking against my teeth. I let out a gasp of pain, everything around me mud and blood and suffering and that huge, huge man, bearing down on me with his massive fists.
The man leaps off me and the fighting around me comes to a halt. I looking up dizzily to see Captain Li standing before us, his face tight with anger and disgust. His dark eyes burn as he glares at all of us. “What is the meaning of all this?” he asks. His voice is icy.
“I-It was his fault!” says the man who shoved me, pointing down at me. “He started it!”
The other recruits stare at me and back away, water retreating from floodlands, leaving me high and dry. I sit up clumsily, my mind still whirling from the adrenaline and pain. Li stalks towards me. For a second I think he’s going to help me to my feet, but instead he yanks me up forcefully by my collar just as my attacker did.
“Is this true? I don’t need delinquents stirring up trouble in my camp.”
My mind falters. Up close, his face is just as lovely as it appeared when I first glimpsed him from across the field. Long lashes frame his delicately curved eyes, and his full lips, prominent before, are positively distracting now. I would never had such bold thoughts before all this. Why is it that the moment I begin to dress and act as a man my brain decides to supply such girlish thoughts? Then again, if I were in a dress and painted face right now as opposed to this rough uniform with a bound chest, I doubt he would draw me so close. To my horror he must notice some sign of my attraction on my face, for something unreadable flickers in his eyes for a moment and he lets go of me slightly.
My whole face is burning. What a wit I am!
“S--sorry, sir! It’s just that I —” My voice cracks painfully. I turn my face away from him and lock eyes with an animated Zhang, who is nodding his head as he pantomimes something. I narrow my eyes in confusion but attempt to follow his cue. “I was...Well, you know how it gets with men sometimes! Especially us soldiers. Blood’s just always boilin’. Out under the sun, I just started itching for a bit of a scrap, yuhnno? Killing things, uh, being outdoors. All that yang just building up in me, haha!” I have never been so ineloquent since my first few days with Zhang, and then I had had the option of remaining silent.
Li presses his lips together, and part of me almost laughs at how seriously he seems to be considering the bullshit that just came out of my mouth. Thankfully my tongue does not have quite that much of a deathwish and keeps quiet.
“What’s your name?”
“Wha?” I reply intelligently.
“Your name, soldier! Answer your superior!”
“My name…Of course.” By the gods, my head still hasn’t settled. Zhang has been referring to me by it the past few weeks, you damned idiot! At this rate I wouldn’t be surprised if I don’t even respond to Mulan. “My name is Hua…” I suddenly remember the look on Zhang’s face when I had first spluttered the ridiculous lie. What, like flower vase? “Ping! I’m Hua Ping.”
Li furrows his brows even further in bemusement.
“Alright, man. Let me see your papers.”
All I have is my father’s original conscription notice, waved away by the little bureaucrat who assessed me at the headquarters the other day. I have kept it tucked into my sash, just in case someone comes by and decides to conduct a more thorough investigation than he did. Obviously the only thing that mattered to him was that I was another fresh body. I show these to my captain. His eyes light up as he reads my father’s name and I know he’s recognised it.
“Look at this,” he says to his supervisor lurking nearby. “This lad here’s the son of a war hero!” Chi Fu regards me with a sour expression. My heart thuds, no longer in connection to my fight, though there is still blood trickling down from my lip.
“I do not recall old Hua Zhou having a son. I certainly did not notice one when I was looking through family registers to draw up conscription notices.”
“Yeah,” I falter, terrified that this rat of a man will see by means of a slip of paper what my body has not yet betrayed. “My father and I… Never on great terms. I would not be surprised if he did not speak of me much. Sometimes I swear he would’ve preferred a girl over me.” My smile is the best I can muster, yet still it feels weak and shaky. Chi Fu curls his lips at me. “
Tragic. Though with a little creature like you I’m sure it wouldn’t be much of a stretch for you to serve as a daughter.”
Captain Li looks up from the paper at last. He glances at me briefly, his brown eyes shining with a new light. If I didn’t know better I might even say he looks intrigued, but with blood running down my chin and my uniform covered in mud it’s probably just amusement at my expense. “
Very well, then. Hua Ping, son of Hua Zhou you may be, but I’m afraid I still must punish you. The rest of these rotten troublemakers as well.”
He looks out over the troop, which has been watching the proceedings with surprising patience.
“You all are sentenced to count every last grain of rice in our storehouse. Work quickly and perhaps you’ll be able to go to bed at a decent time tonight. If I were you I’d try to get as much sleep as possible — your first real training starts tomorrow. And you,” he says, turning back to me. “Go to the healer’s tent and see if they can do anything about that lip, okay?”