This story is dedicated to two grandmothers of mine that have shown me what courage can change and do. They were both brought up as stereotypical Chinese women; deliberately crippled to conform to male ideals of beauty; living and abiding as the underlings of patrilineal society. Both of them obediently wedded the man they didn't know, bore them sons, and lived in never-ending loyalty, servitude, and submission. Arranged marriage was considered a quaint cultural taste that no modern people, especially in the west, could ever fathom.
Despite their oppression, both of my grandmothers became the most aspirational women to many younger women in our family. To the outside world, my grandmother appeared to be a failure, a victim of filial piety and testimony of what women willingly do to satisfy the whims and fancies of men. But underneath their delicate features, dainty hands and fragile appearance laid a true warrior's heart and an iron soul. They were individuals who were capable of restraining their selfish wants and needs, putting their children's welfare and their husband's honor before themselves. Their lives might never have been a fairy-tale or fabled legend; or end happily like a Disney movie; but their sacrifice, ardor, and zeal for life live as a legacy to their descendants to be retold.
"And though she be but little, she is fierce." -Shakespeare
"Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible." - Maya Angelou
"Fearlessness may be a gift but perhaps more precious is the courage acquired through endeavour, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one's actions, courage that could be described as 'grace under pressure' – grace which is renewed repeatedly in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure." - Aung San Suu Kyi
The wind blew softly, disturbing the sweeping limbs of the ancient plum tree, creating a magnificent display of soft, pink petals dancing through the air. This was one of those fine spring days, where the air was filled with the sweet scent of blossoms and the pasture was dense with sprouting wildflowers. However, Mulan failed to cultivate any appreciation for the majestic display mother nature had brought her. Under the tree, she sat on the garden bench with deep melancholy wrapping her posture, her eyes stared dejectedly into space.
She heard a familiar raspy voice calling. Mulan lifted her face to meet the sympathetic gaze of her grandmother. She averted her gaze back to the ground, fixing her sight on the dust collecting under the sole of her foot while the old lady approached and took a seat next to her.
"I am sorry to disappoint you, Grandma," Mulan said, almost inaudible to her Grandmother's ailing ears. Tears began to form at the corner of her eyes.
Mulan thought that everyone in her family would be furious after the epic apocalypse she created in the Matchmaker's house. But instead, Grandma Fa chuckled softly while generously rubbing Mulan's shoulder, offering her wordless consolation.
"I understand how you feel, Mulan," She said breaking the momentary was nothing in her voice but patience and understanding. "I was once….a young lady too, just like you. Full of dreams...of ideals. Full of life!" A nostalgic smile appeared on her face while her mind settled back into the past,"And just like you, being a girl doesn't always agree with me."
Blinking through the tears that threatened to fall, Mulan looked at her grandmother's kind, lined face.
"You mean, you were… uhm…. ―" Mulan's mouth worked wordlessly to find an appropriate word.
"A little bit...klutzy? Yes. In fact, exceptionally klutzy!" The old woman laughed, low and throaty. "My parents had a hard time finding a man who would be willing to marry me."
The bitterness in Mulan's face vanished, leaving only sweetness behind. "Did you… create chaos at the Matchmaker's house too?" She asked gingerly, but she couldn't hide the hint of relief in her voice.
Grandma Fa's smile spread an inch wider,"Not exactly. It was in my father's house when I first met this young man, handsome, dark and tall. And I trip and fell over the door and managed to slam the candle holder on the process. Alas, the candle was lit... it rolled under the table and stopped next to this young man's feet, and then his expensive silk trousers was...-" she laughed. "You should have seen the mortified expression on my parents' faces. I nearly burned the house down! And incinerated my newly appointed fiance alive!" She narrated between her sporadic chuckles."I was so scared and nervous...I nearly wet myself!"
Mulan laughed. "Oh no! Is that the poor guy you ended up marrying?"
"No, not really," Grandma Fa chuckled, shaking her head into the memory. "But this has proven to us that we have to be open to the possibility of the universe when it comes to meeting the right spouses."
Mulan smiled, "Right you are, Grandma."
Seeing her granddaughter's mood lightened, the old lady inquired,"How about you tell me your story, hmm?"
Mulan eloquently accepted her offer.
Mulan's sudden downfall started when the Matchmaker, an imperious looking lady with an ample bosom, called her name. At first, she was just complaining of Mulan's lapse of grace and then criticizing her waist size because she deemed it was unfavorable for childbearing.
"Nonsense!" Grandma Fa grumbled with a disapproving tone."She was just jealous of your perfect waist size!" Mulan was sure the last bit was an exaggeration, but she couldn't help but laugh at her grandmother's astute, yet disparaging remark.
"Perhaps she thinks her phenomenal waist size would be perfect for bearing sons," Mulan said absently, attempting to be kind despite the situation.
"More like bearing an elephant, I should think," Grandma Fa added another pinch of her sarcasm for good measure. No one insulted her granddaughter and got away with it!
When the moment came to recite the final admonition, flicking her fan to mask her uneasiness, Mulan began to quote, 'Fulfill your duties calmly and res...pectfully, reflect before you snack― ' She spluttered,'―act! This shall bring you honor and glory.' She uttered while risking stealing a glance at the smudged inscription on her wrist.
"You mean that black blotch right there?" Grandma Fa interrupted and pointed to the black ink stain on Mulan's wrist. Mulan smothered an urge to cringe. She flashed an innocent smile to cover her discomfort, while her free hand fumbled to straighten her sleeve and cover the evidence of her crime. Grandma Fa smirked, inwardly congratulating her granddaughter for her cunning proclivity.
The next task seemed to be harmless enough. Pouring tea. What could possibly go wrong? It was something she had done every day of her life but, unfortunately for Mulan; she was unable to focus entirely on the trivial task. The Matchmaker's blackened palm (from despicably grabbing her wrist), had accidentally drawn two black lines on her face. Mulan ended up flooding the table.
She finally managed to locate the tea cup and fill it successfully. It was at that point that Mulan had wistfully thought the crisis was behind her. Then, her eyes discovered her lucky cricket relaxing blissfully inside the cup. With surprising grace, nearly impossible for a lady her size, the Matchmaker glided smoothly over to take a swig. It was awful coincidence indeed. With her good intention to avoid giving the copiously-bosomed lady an unhealthy protein intake, Mulan attempted to tug the cup away forcefully, but the Matchmaker was equally adamant. The battle of dominance broke off for a split second with an obvious winner, but then the cricket had slipped into the Matchmaker's bra.
"It was the lucky cricket you gave me, Grandma," Mulan glowered. She couldn't conceal the accusatory edge in her voice. Cri Kee snorted indignantly upon hearing this, flicking his eyes to the old lady as if asking for judicial review, but Grandma Fa registered none of it, only laughing loudly at Mulan's expense.
Realizing her lapse of grace, Mulan attempted to rectify her blunder. However, she ended up festering the Matchmaker's fleshy butt into flames with her silk fan. Mulan then chased her around the room to douse it. She threw the entire pot of tea in a perfect, wrongly-timed throw that ended up bathing the Matchmaker's face and causing her thick make-up to run into a drippy mess.
By then Grandma Fa was laughing so hard, she almost fell over before sobering into more ladylike giggles.
"The Matchmaker was right. I may look like a bride, but I will never bring honor to my family." Mulan let a resentful sigh escape her lips. She had thought it wouldn't take a genius to regale a Matchmaker lady, but she obviously had a talent for turning simple tea parties into absolute mayhem.
While Grandma Fa was aware of her granddaughter's catastrophic clumsiness, she still believed Mulan was more than capable of being a perfect wife. "Mulan, just because you are unlucky today, doesn't mean there won't be anyone who wants you as his wife."
Truthfully, Mulan was wondering whether she would ever be fit to be a wife should anyone want her.
Mulan felt there was a certain prejudice stamped against her. Other girls were a shade or two fairer than she was. Their feet were neatly bound, peeking daintily from the hem of their hanfu. They kept their long hair in intricate buns, painted their nails neatly, and covered their faces with make-up that would enhance their natural beauty.
Mulan, in contrast, had a healthy hint of tan in her complexion. She never shied away from the sun or bothered to hide under the shadow of a parasol. Her feet were nimble and fast, free from the boundage of tradition and restraint. Her straight hair was running slightly longer than shoulder length, which she found a lot more practical and less time consuming than keeping it long.
While other maidens her age busied themselves in perfecting their domestic competence and equipping themselves to reach their womanly potential, Mulan preferred spending her time exploring the dense coppice on the back of her black steed or teamed up with her younger brother to wield their blades against fictitious enemies.
She understood that her father brought her up differently. The retired Imperial Army General and great strategist, Fa Zhou, had decided to give his daughter the same opportunities as his son and equal freedom in her life choices. Mulan was free to pursue the things that she liked; such as riding horse and learning sword fight; the same as her younger brother, Fa Ping. But at her life stage at the moment Mulan didn't know; was she the ugly one, or the lucky one? Maybe she was just too naive of social rules and society's expectations.
"My Dear, you think you are not lucky today because you cannot see the future. Think of this," Grandma Fa explained gently,"if you meet someone you love, months even years from now, wouldn't you be lucky not to get betrothed to the wrong man today?"
For a second Mulan was stunned, intrigued at her Grandmother's wisdom.
Love? Mulan ruminated. How could one love someone he or she hardly knows? Her mind argued with skepticism. But, her sight roamed through the garden archway where she could see her parents. Her father's hand enfolded her mother's affectionately as they spoke. His eyes gleamed with tenderness and passion, wandering occasionally to observe his wife who was still absorbed in talking to him. A warm wave wrapped her heart, hoisting her hope. Perhaps there is such a thing as love…. even in an arranged marriage.
"And I can feel that tomorrow will be your lucky day!" Grandma Fa added throatily, breaking Mulan from her momentary trance. But before she could continue her lecture, a distinct growl came from down below, impolitely interrupting their conversation. Mulan smiled sheepishly.
"Mulan, you haven't eaten since morning!" Grandma Fa rose from her seat. Her deceptively fragile hand tugging Mulan's forearm and dragging her towards the house. Mulan opened her mouth, about to refute the words of allegation, but her stomach protested even louder.
"I think we better feed it before it causes an earthquake." Grandma Fa remarked teasingly.
This time Mulan nodded and followed her with obedience.
The next morning, with the dew still thick on the grass, Grandma Fa strode to the nearby temple to release Cri-Kee while taking a cauldron of soup for the monks. She serenaded a delightful tune as she walked, when a lady in a formal outfit walking in haste, accidentally barged into her. Both stumbled back from the impact of the collision, and were promptly covered in a soupy mess.
"Oh dear gods, my apology!" The lady hastily offered her hand, aiding Grandma Fa to stand up.
"No, don't worry dear. At least I smell delicious!" Grandma Fa waved her hand dismissively.
"Shame for the soup though." The lady commented, looking pointedly at the vegetables clumped on the ground.
"And how are you?" Grandma Fa raked her gaze up and down the lady's figure, evaluating the situation. The lady's make-up was now smudged by a mixture of sweat and broth. There were a few slices of carrot and onion trapped in her beautifully styled hair, her silk slippers were coated with grime and ginger, and her fine silk hanfu was beyond recognition. But even in her chaotic appearance, Grandma Fa didn't fail to appreciate her striking features. Her big, dark eyes glinted under the sun, her sharp-hewn face was decorated with fine lines, a perfect balance of age and former beauty. Under her ruqun, the evidence of her tight, feminine figure was still obvious from her elegant posture.
"It will take a few hours, but I can still go home to change." The lady replied, but Grandma Fa could sense exasperation in her voice. After a few minutes questioning her, Grandma Fa gathered the lady ―Mrs. Li, came to visit her sister who lived two villages down the road. She was on her way to her niece's wedding ceremony.
"Would you like to come to my home? I live only a few blocks away. I am sure my daughter-in-law has some spare clothes she could lend you." Grandma Fa proposed.
Mrs. Li contemplated for a moment. It was undeniably a hard offer to resist. After thanking Grandma Fa's benevolence incessantly, Mrs. Li walked alongside her.
Ceaseless conversation and harmless banter echoed from Grandma Fa's quarters. With Mulan and Ping in school, and their parents visiting a relative over the weekend, Grandma Fa had the house to herself.
"Thank you for opening your house for a stranger like me," Li Yue said, politely taking a sip of her tea. "And this ruqun... I shall...-"
"Don't worry about it, my daughter-in-law has plenty. I bet she hardly noticed one of them was missing," Grandma Fa replied, pouring more tea into her own cup. "I believe our fateful meeting is not merely an accident."
"Maybe not," Li Yue smiled.
Minutes into the conversation, it became obvious to Li Yue that the Fa matriarch was a talkative and friendly lady―even indulging a little too much on a piece of scandalous tale. Grandma Fa's mesmerizing eyes twinkled with enthusiasm when she explicated her own life story, including the dramatic escape as she ran away from home to marry her lover. Instead of feeling ashamed and curbing the temptation to spill more salacious story, Grandma Fa fed her with more juicy scandal by saying her son was conceived outside the wedlock―the story that had become so intimately familiar with Li Yue.
"My life with him was this great, big adventure. Our life was, by no means easy. Our village people shunned us, both our parents disowned us....and we have to live the rest of our lives knowing the burden of dishonouring them was our choice and doings. But... we did have each other and we promise to conquer every storm of life together," Grandma Fa said, smiling somberly as she closed her story.
A glimpse of anger and regret rose in Li Yue's chest, but she chose not to say anything. This was someone else's life, someone else's story who happened to mirrored her own... except that..―
"I should stop talking." Grandma Fa said. She must have noticed the swing of mood in the room.
Later on, Li Yue found out that Grandma Fa's son was none other than Fa Zhou, an illustrious soldier, and war strategist. She impressed Grandma Fa further with her knowledge of a few battle strategies Fa Zhou created during his time of duty before his injuries forced him to relinquish his position as Army General.
"I am honored to get to know an incredible lady like you, Aunt Fa," she flattered.
"You are quite knowledgeable yourself, Mrs. Li," Grandma Fa responded, "Not many women are well informed about what happens in the world of men, especially in the Army."
"Please, just call me Li Yue," she said with overwhelming sweetness in her voice. "My husband, Li Jiang used to work with your son. That's how I heard about how great he was." Grandma Fa's eyes glimmered with pride as Li Yue lavished a string of spontaneous adulations over Fa Zhou's previous exploits.
Their repartee drifted from their husbands and sons, to the betrothal. Of course, Grandma Fa didn't fail to mention Mulan's phenomenal performance at the Matchmaker's house, not that she considered it to be shameful, in fact quite the opposite.
"I actually have a son who is of a perfect age to marry. However, we haven't found a suitable bride yet," she articulated persuasively. Considering Mulan came from a desirable background of excellent nobility, Li Yue couldn't help but get ahead of herself to offer her son's hand in marriage.
"He is a Captain working under his father's regiment. A very hardworking and promising young man," she advertised eloquently while her idle hands gracefully located her purse to show a modest portrait of her son.
Li Yue's lips curled in a contented smile when Grandma Fa's eyes widened in astonishment, captivated at the likeness of a handsome young man with perfect posture, sharp facial features and firmly toned muscles.
Realizing victory was within her reach; Li Yue went to insinuate further."He is twenty-four years old," she took the liberty to add extra information," and his name is Li Shang."
Lowering her voice to a conspiratory whisper, as if she didn't want anyone to know, "I am sure he would love to come and stay for dinner," she added, closing her offer with an accommodating smile.
By then the spark of interest in Grandma Fa's eyes had turned into a blazing inferno.
I am sure I want him to stay forever. Grandma Fa replied in her thoughts.