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When the wild wood orchids bloom in the spring, pushing their brave faces from beneath the fallen leaves of winter, that is when mothers like to take their daughters on their knees and sing to them "The Ballad of Mulan," the story of the girl who saved all of China. For if you listen closely to the syllables of that name, this is what you'll hear there: mu -- "wood"; lan -- "orchid."
Listening is a good habit to learn for its own sake, as is the art of looking closely. All of us show many faces to the world. No one shows her true face all the time. To do that would be dangerous, for what is seen can also be known. And what is known can be outmaneuvered, outguessed. Lifted up, or hunted down. Uncovering that which is hidden is a fine and delicate skill, as great a weapon for a warrior to possess as a bow or a sword.
I sound very wise and knowledgeable for someone not yet twenty, don't I?
I certainly didn't sound that way at the beginning of my adventure. And there are plenty of times even now when wise and knowledgeable is not the way I sound, or feel. So what do I feel? A reasonable question, which deserves an honest answer.
I have not led an ordinary life, nor a life that would suit everyone. I took great risks, but because I did, I also earned great rewards. I found the way to show my true face freely, without fear. Because of this, I found true love.
Oh, yes. And I did save China.
But I am getting very far ahead of myself.
I was born in the year of the monkey, and I showed the monkey's quick and agile mind from the start, or so Min Xian, my nanny, always told me. I shared the monkey's delight in solving puzzles, its ability to improvise. Generally this took the form of escaping from places where I was supposed to stay put, and getting into places I wasn't supposed to go. My growing up was definitely a series of adventures, followed by bumps, bruises, and many scoldings.
There was the time I climbed the largest plum tree on our grounds, for instance. When the plum trees were in bloom, you could smell their sweetness from a distance so great I never could figure out quite how far it was. One year, the year I turned seven, I set myself a goal: to watch the highest bud on the tallest tree become a blossom. The tallest tree was my favorite. Ancient and gnarled, it stood with its feet in a stream that marked the boundary between my family's property and that of my closet friend -- my only friend, in fact -- a boy named Li Po.
Seven is considered an important age in China. In our seventh year, childhood comes to an end. Girls begin the lessons that will one day make them proper young women, and boys begin the lessons that will make them proper young men.
Li Po was several months older than me. He had already begun the first of his lessons, learning to read and write. My own would be much less interesting -- as far as I was concerned, anyway. I would be taught to weave, to sew, and to embroider. Worst of all was the fact that all these lessons would occur in the very last place I wanted to be: indoors.
So in a gesture of defiance, on the morning of my seventh birthday, I woke up early, determined to climb the ancient plum tree and not come down until the bud I had my eye on blossomed. You can probably guess what happened next. I climbed higher than I should have, into branches that would not hold my weight, and, as a result, I fell. Old Lao, who looked after any part of the Hua family compound that Min Xian did not, claimed it was a wonder I didn't break any bones. I had plummeted from the top of the tree to the bottom, with only the freshly turned earth of the orchard to break my fall. The second wonder was that I hit the ground at all, and did not fall into the stream, which was shallow and full of stones.
Broken bones I may have been spared, but I still hit the earth with enough force to knock even the thought of breath right out of my lungs. For many moments all I could do was lie on my back, waiting for my breath to return, and gaze up through the dark branches of the tree at the blue spring sky beyond. And in this way I saw the first bud unfurl. So I suppose you could say that I accomplished what I'd set out to, after all.
Another child might have decided it was better, or at least just as good, to keep her feet firmly on the ground from then on. Had I not accomplished what I'd wanted? Could I not have done so standing beneath the tree and gazing upward, thereby saving myself the pain and trouble of a fall?
I, of course, derived another lesson entirely: I should practice climbing more.
This I did, escaping from my endless lessons whenever I could to climb any vertical surface I could get my unladylike hands on. I learned to climb, and to cling, like a monkey, living up to the first promise of my horoscope, and I never fell again, save once. The exception is a story in and of itself, which I will tell you in its own good time.
But in my determination not to let gravity defeat me I revealed more than just a monkey's heart. For it is not only the animal of the year of our births that helps to shape who we are. There are also the months and the hours of our births to consider. These contribute animals, and attributes, to our personalities as well. It's important to pay attention to these creatures because, if you watch them closely, you will discover that they are the ones who best reveal who we truly are.
I was born in the month of the dog.
From the dog I derive these qualities: I am a seeker of justice, honest and loyal. But I am also persistent, willing to perform a task over and over until I get it right. I am, in other words, dogged. Once I've set my heart on something, there's no use trying to convince me to give it up -- and certainly not without a fight.
But there is still one animal more. The creature I am in my innermost heart of hearts, the one who claimed me for its own in the hour in which I was born. This is my secret animal, the most important one of all.
If the traits I acquired in the year of my birth are the flesh, and the month of my birth are the sinews of who I am, then the traits that became mine at the hour of my birth are my spine, my backbone. More difficult to see but forming the structure on which all the rest depends.
And in my spine, at the very core of me, I am a tiger. Passionate and daring, impetuous, longing to rebel. Unpredictable and quick-tempered. But also determined and as obstinate as a solid wall of shidan -- stone.
Min Xian, who even in her old age possessed the best eyesight of anyone I ever knew, claims she saw and understood these things about me from the first moment she saw me, from the first time she heard me cry. Never had she heard a baby shriek so loudly, or so she claimed, particularly not a girl.
It was as if I were announcing that I was going to be different right from the start. This was only fitting, Min Xian said, for different is precisely what I was. Different from even before I drew that first breath; different from the moment I had been conceived. Different in my very blood, a direct bequest from both my parents. It was this that made my uniqueness so strong.
I had to take Min Xian's word for all of this, for I did not know my parents when I was growing up. My father was the great soldier Hua Wei. Throughout my childhood, and for many years before that, my father fought bravely in China's cause. Though it would be many years before I saw him face-to-face, I heard tales of my father's courage, discipline, and bravery from the moment my ears first were taught to listen.
My mother's name I never heard at all, just as I never saw her face nor heard her voice, for she died the day that I was born.
But the tale of how my parents came to marry I did hear. It was famous, repeated not just in our household but throughout all China. In a time when marriages were carefully arranged for the sake of family honor and social standing, when a bride and groom might meet in the morning and be married that same afternoon, my parents had done the unthinkable.
They had married for love.
It was all the emperor's doing, of course. Without the blessing of the Son of Heaven, my parents' union would never have been possible. My father, Hua Wei, was a soldier, as I have said. He had fought and won many battles for China's cause. In the years before I was born and for many years thereafter, our northern borders were often under attack by a fierce, proud people whom we called the Huns. There were many in our land who also called them barbarians. My father was not among them.
"You must never call your enemy by a name you choose for him, Mulan," he told me when we finally met, when I was all but grown. "Instead you must call him by the name he calls himself. What he chooses will reflect his pride; it will reveal his desires. But what you choose to call him will reveal your fears, which should be kept to yourself, lest your enemy find the way to exploit them."
There was a reason he had been so successful against the Huns, according to my father. Actually, there was more than one: My father never underestimated them, and he recognized that, as foreign as they seemed, they were also men, just as he was a man. Capable of coveting what other men possessed. Willing to fight to claim it for themselves. And what the Huns desired most, or so it seemed, was China.
To this end, one day more than a year before I was born, the Son of Heaven's best-loved son was snatched away by a Hun raiding party. My father rescued him and returned him to the safety of his father's arms. In gratitude the Son of Heaven promoted Hua Wei to general. But he did not stop there. He also granted my father an astonishing reward.
"You have given me back the child who holds the first place in my heart," the emperor told my father. "In return, I will grant the first wish your heart holds."
My father was already on his knees, but at the Son of Heaven's words he bowed even lower, and pressed his forehead to the ground. Not only was this the fitting way to show his thanks, it was also the perfect way for my father to cover his astonishment and give himself time to think. The boy that he had rescued, Prince Jian, was not yet ten years old and was not the emperor's only son. There were two older boys who might, as time went on, grow to become jealous of the fact that their younger brother held the greatest share of the Son of Heaven's heart.
At this prince's birth the soothsayers had proclaimed many omens, none of them understood in their entirety, for that is the way of such prophecies. One thing, however, seemed as clear as glass: It was Prince Jian's destiny to help determine the fate of China.
"My heart has what it desires, Majesty," my father finally said. "For it wants nothing more than to serve you."
It was a safe and diplomatic answer, at which it is said that the Son of Heaven smiled.
"You are doing that already," he replied. "And I hope you will continue to do so for many years to come. But listen to me closely: I command you now to choose one thing more. Do so quickly or you will make me angry. And do not speak with a courtier's tongue. I would have your heart speak -- it is strong, and you have shown me that it can be trusted."
"As the Son of Heaven commands, so I shall obey," my father promised.
"Excellent," the emperor said. "Now let me see your face."
And so, though he remained on his knees, my father looked into the Son of Heaven's face when he spoke the first wish of his heart.
"It is long past time for me to marry," Hua Wei said. "If it pleases you, I ask that I be allowed to choose my own bride. Long has my heart known the lady it desires, for we grew up together. I have given the strength of my mind and body to your service gladly, but now let my heart serve itself. Let it choose love."
The Son of Heaven was greatly moved by my father's words, as were all who stood within earshot. The emperor agreed to my father's request at once. He gave him permission to return to his home in the countryside. My parents were married before the week was out. They then spent several happy months together, far away from the bustle of the court and the city, in the house where my father had grown up. But all the time the threat of war hung over their happiness. In the autumn my father was called back to the emperor's service to fight the Huns once more.
My father knew a baby was on the way when he departed. Of course, both my parents hoped that I would be a boy. I cannot fault them for this. Their thinking on the subject was no different from anyone else's. It is a son who carries on the family name, who cares for his parents when they grow old. Girls are gifts to be given in marriage to other families, to provide them with sons.
My young mother went into labor while her beloved husband was far away from home. If he had stayed by her side, might she have lived? Might she have proved strong enough to bring me into the world and still survive? There's not much point in asking such questions. I know this, but even so...I cannot help but wonder, sometimes, what my life would have been like if my mother had lived. Would I have learned to be more like other girls, or would the parts of me that made me so different still have made their presence felt?
If my mother had lived, might my father have come home sooner? Did he delay his return, not wishing to see the child who had taken away his only love, the first wish of his innermost heart?
When word reached him of my mother's death, it is said my father's strong heart cracked clean in two, and that the sound could be heard for miles around, even over the noise of war. For the one and only time in his life, the great general Hua Wei wept. And from that moment forward he forbade anyone to speak my mother's name aloud. The very syllables of her name were like fresh wounds, further scarring his already maimed and broken heart.
My mother had loved the tiny orchids that grow in the woods near our home. Those flowers are the true definition of "wild" -- not just unwilling but unable to be tamed. A tidy garden bed, careful tending and watering -- these things do not suit them at all. They cannot be transplanted. They must be as they are, or not at all.
With tears streaming down his cheeks my father named me for those wild plants -- those yesheng zhiwu, wild wood orchids. In so doing he helped to set my feet upon a path unlike that of any other girl in China.
Even in his grief my father named me well, for the name he gave me was Mulan.
Copyright © 2009 by Cameron Dokey