A son’s birth means tragedy now.
—Du Fu, ‘Song of the War-Carts’
I rise from my pallet: it is still dark
and the men are asleep, their naked chests
inflating and collapsing like a smith’s bellows.
The moon hangs beneath the clouds: soon
autumn will arrive, winds rippling the fields.
Back in my village, the farmers are preparing
for the harvest. I press together strips of linen,
line it with moss I’d picked from the base of trees.
It is my time, and my secret. Tomorrow we advance
towards the border. The war carts are loaded,
the horses will be tethered to their burdens.
Here the quivers of arrows wait to be spent.
I carry a skin of water and squat in the grasses.
Now it is safe to loosen my robes. Carefully, I clean myself.
Even in the dark, my hands are sticky with blood.
* * *
My first kill was a chicken. It was the new year.
Father handed me his knife and gestured at our hen.
She strutted around the yard, cocking her head this way
then that, scratching and searching for worms.
In the bamboo coop her brood of chicks cried warning.
I pushed up my sleeves and advanced. No fear—
we’d done this before, her and I. This was betrayal.
I carried her to the back of the hut, her heartbeat
pulsing in my palm. Her feathers so alive against my skin.
* * *
My faithful horse bears me for many miles, carries me
into battle, comforts me with his touch. Between my legs,
the saddle creaks my name: Mu Lan, Mu Lan.
Not for me the embroidered magnolias of marriage;
I give birth to nothing but blades, arrows and death.
My sword is my husband, my brothers my men.
They think me one of them. I drink sweet wine
fermented from plums; I curse and spit and plot.
I kill without mercy. Beneath my armour, secreted
in a pouch: a carved jade favour from the King.
In the night I draw my fingers across the dragon
twisting around the sun. The morning dawns emerald.
* * *
A soldier unfurls a banner and I plant it deep
in the soil. Another day, another frontier.
Men are busy at the fires: they grind millet
and cook it into gruel. So many mouths to feed,
so many sons, fathers, brothers … How much longer
before I gaze upon the lined face of my own father?
Beyond us, the mountains rise in mockery.
Wei is surrounded, corralled on all sides:
Qin, Zhao, Yan, Qi, Chu, Han…
If I were a hawk I would take off, wing towards
the west and the setting sun. I would hunt only
to survive, I would feather a nest, I would fly.
This poem is based on a legendary character in Chinese history, Hua Mu Lan. This character was first recorded in ‘The Ballad of Mulan’, thought to have been transcribed around the sixth century AD in Musical Records of Old and New. While the original text has been lost, the tale has survived in an eleventh-century anthology, the Music Bureau Collection, which clearly attributes the source of the text.
Hua Mu Lan was a young woman who dressed as a man in order to take her father’s place in battle. She rose to become a general during the Northern Wei dynasty (386–536 AD). It is said that she served in battle for a total of 12 years before returning to her village.
I have taken poetic licence with the use of the seven Warring States, which were in existence during the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC) and not during the Northern Wei dynasty. The surname of the character, Hua, means ‘flower’, while Mu Lan translates as ‘wood orchid’, or the magnolia.