"Mulan" is a masculine, non-Sinitic name

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There is much hullabaloo over the new "Mulan" trailer:

Question:  What does she say at 1:29?

After watching Mulan gallop across the horizon for a couple of seconds, the very first thing we see is something that really bothered me:  a mammoth Hakka (people [Han], language [Sinitic]) round house in mountainous, heavily wooded south China.  Called tǔlóu 土楼 ("earthen structures") and mostly dating from the second half of the second millennium AD, these houses are situated far away in time, space, and culture from the northern, scrubby borderlands whence came non-Sinitic Mulan a millennium earlier.

It seems that this movie is going to be much worse even than the previous animated film about the heroine, which was bad enough.  Chinese viewers are complaining that the current Mulan is full of Oriental stereotypes.  Westerners are upset that the film is pandering to PRC nationalism.  A small minority of scholars are disappointed that the heroine is untrue to ethnic and linguistic reality.

There's precious little historical evidence concerning Mulan upon which to base all the stories, plays, and now full-length films about her.  Fundamentally, what we know about Mulan comes from an anonymous, medium-length (65 lines in the translation of Arthur Waley [1889-1966]) ballad dating to around the 5th-6th century.  You can read the ballad here:  Victor H. Mair, ed., The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1994), pp. 474-476; quoted in its entirety below.  It is preceded by this note:

Mulan (old [Middle Sinitic / MS] pronunciation Muklan) was a member of the Särbi (Hsien-pei) people.  This celebrated ballad tells of her resolve to take her father's place in fending off the encroaching Jou-jan nomads.  She is often compared with Joan of Arc, although the two do not share much more in common than the fact that they were both women warriors.  The people and places in the ballad are all from the far northern borderlands of China, and it is likely that this remarkable work was first conceived in one of the languages of that land of nomads.

Mulan was supposed to have lived during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534), which was ruled over by the Tuoba (Tabgach) clan of the Xianbei, a people having nomadic origins on the Eurasian Steppe (more about the ethnolinguistics of the Xianbei below).  Groups of the Xianbei moved down into what we now know of as Northern China and, over a period of several centuries, founded a number of statelets, kingdoms, and dynasties there.

—————

What's all the dissension about?

"The Mulan trailer is a dismal sign Disney is bowing to China's nationalistic agenda:  Mulan has been transformed from life-affirming epic to patriotic saga, showing Hollywood is prioritising box office success",  Jingan Young, The Guardian (7/8/19)

VHM:  This is a good article.  Click on the title to read it if you have time and interest.

I hope that everyone reading this post realizes that Mulan was not even Chinese (Sinitic / Han).  She was of Xiānbēi (Wade-Giles Hsien-pei) 鮮卑 (*Särbi [this is a reconstruction; we really don't know exactly what the ethnonym of the Xianbei sounded like in their own language]) extraction —  for the etymology, see here.  Most scholars think that the Xianbei spoke a Proto-Turkic or Para-Mongolic language more or less closely related to Khitan (see here).

Louis Ligeti already wrote about this in 1970: "Le Tabghach, un dialect de la langue sien-pi" Mongolian Studies, ed. L. Ligeti (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1970): 265-308.  See now: Andrew Shimunek in Languages of Ancient Southern Mongolia and North China. A Historical-Comparative Study of the Serbi or Xianbei Branch of the Serbi-Mongolic Language Family, with an Analysis of Northeastern Frontier Chinese and Old Tibetan Phonology (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2017), with a just published review of it by András Róna-Tas in Archivum Eurasiae Medii Aevi 24 (2018): 315-335.  In any event, the Xianbei weren't "Chinese" and they didn't speak "Chinese" / Sinitic.

The world is so indoctrinated by Chinese propaganda — going back centuries before the PRC (but it's much worse now) — that everybody thinks Mulan is the Chinese version of Joan of Arc.  Even the kids at our local swim club put on an elaborate pageant glorifying the pseudo-Chinese heroine fighting against the evil northern barbarians!  And there must be hundreds of other similar fake history stories being written and plays being performed about Mulan each year all around the world.  It's as though Gavin Menzies' wild fantasies (e.g., 1421, 1434) of Chinese pre-Columbian maritime discovery were taken at face value (must read the Australian scholar Geoff Wade's thorough debunking):

The 1421 website has now gone offline, but a historical version can be found here.  See also here.

Thus responsible historians have called Menzies to account, despite the fact that he is alive and highly litigious.  If Mulan were still with us and had lawyers to speak on her behalf, I'm confident that she would welcome those scholars who are brave enough to set the record straight against those who distort her story.

Thinking of Mulan as "Chinese" (Sinitic / Han) is like considering everyone and everything in Eastern Central Asia (ECA) (Uyghurstan / Xinjiang) as "Chinese" (Sinitic / Han), when, before about 1,500 years ago, most people in ECA were Indo-European (Tocharians, Iranians, Indians) and, after that, until quite recently (indeed, even now), most people in ECA are not "Chinese" (Sinitic / Han), but rather Turkic.

Thinking of Mulan as an overtly feminine warrior is also off the mark.  Judging from the trailer, there will be plenty of fighting scenes where she looks very much like a woman.  But listen to the penultimate quatrain of the ballad, which describes her meeting with her fellow soldiers after she had returned home from the war:

Chūmén kàn huǒbàn,

Huǒbàn jiē jīnghuáng.

Tóngxíng shí'èr nián,

Bùzhī Mùlán shì nǚláng.

出門看火伴,

火伴皆驚惶。

同行十二年,

不知木蘭是女郎。

She left the house and met her messmates on the road;

Her messmates were startled out of their wits.

They had marched with her for twelve years of war

And never known that Mulan was a girl.

Thus, Mulan fought as a man, not as a woman.  Her fellow soldiers had no idea that she was a woman.  This is not so strange as you may think.  Indeed, it is a common trope in Chinese popular literature for a woman to assume the guise of a man in order to accomplish feats that her natural gender would have denied her, such as standing in as a conscripted soldier for her ailing or elderly father.  Even more interesting, women were not permitted to take the examinations to become scholars or officials, so some girls disguised themselves as men to study the classics and sit for the civil service exams.  There are quite a few funny scenes where the male fellow students of a girl disguised as one of them are perplexed by her toilet habits.  Naturally, there are also many touching love stories that develop out of such situations, but only after many years of gender ruse and "they triumphs".

Even more telling about Mulan's gender and ethnic identity is that, written in Sinographs, as it would have been when transcribed from Xianbei language, her name appears as Mùlán 木蘭, which means "Magnolia" (in particular, red or lily magnolia [Magnolia liliiflora]) and is conspicuously feminine.  Still today, Mùlán 木蘭 is a common given name for Chinese women.  Such a pretty, feminine name simply would not have worked for a dozen years of war among exclusively male soldiery.

This is where the outstanding historical research of Sanping Chen comes in.  In chapter 2, "From Mulan to Unicorn", of his Multicultural China in the Early Middle Ages (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), pp. 39-59, 197-201, Chen shows that Mulan's name in the eponymous ballad dedicated to her emerged from the same Turco-Mongol milieu as that described above for her Xianbei background, not from a "Chinese" (Sinitic / Han) linguistic environment.

In particular, Chen demonstrates that Mulan (MS Muklan) — together with its cognates — was a favored male name of military men of the Xianbei Tuoba (Tabgach) and other Turco-Mongol groups in the north.  Without going into all of the historical, philological, phonological, and other linguistic evidence that Chen adduces, I will only mention that he situates the probable source of the Xianbei word transcribed as Mulan in a group of Altaic words having to do with cervids, especially stags.

Chen states:

Indeed, in his excellent Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages, Sergei Starostin proposed an Altaic root *mulaI, "a kind of deer", with Tungusic *mul- and Proto-Mongolian *maral, "mountain deer", and Proto-Turkic *bulan, "elk."  This root, especially the Proto-Turkic form, would be a near perfect fit for the Tuoba name Mulan.

Chen separately devotes a considerable amount of attention to another Altaic word, bulān or buklān, meaning "elk", "stag", "moose", "deer", and, according to the great 11th century Turkic lexicographer,  Mahmud ibn Hussayn ibn Muhammed al-Kashgari, "unicorn"!

Note the Cantonese and Minnan pronunciations of mùlán 木蘭:

Source

We must remember that "The Ballad of Mulan" is the closest thing we get to a historical account of the heroine, and it not very historical at that.  All the other later versions of the tale, up to and including the two Disney movies, are legends and imaginative fiction that grow increasingly improbable with the passage of time.  They are embellishments and elaborations of a tale which from its very beginning had only a tenuous connection to history.  A strange phenomenon is that, the further removed from reality a given rendition is, the more strongly attached to the embroidered version are its devotees.

What we know about the history of "The Ballad of Mulan" ("Mùlán cí 木蘭辭") is summarized in this passage from Wikipedia:

The Ballad of Mulan was first transcribed in the Musical Records of Old and New (Chinese: 古今樂錄; pinyin: Gǔjīn Yuèlù [VHM:  this anthology itself has not survived, but parts of it are quoted in later texts]) in the 6th century. The earliest extant text of the poem comes from an 11th- or 12th-century anthology known as the Music Bureau Collection (Chinese: 樂府詩; pinyin: Yuèfǔshī). Its author, Guo Maoqian, explicitly mentions the Musical Records of Old and New as his source for the poem. As a ballad, the lines do not necessarily have equal numbers of syllables. The poem consists of 31 couplets, and is mostly composed of five-character phrases, with a few extending to seven or nine.

There was no treatment of the legend since the two 12th century poems, until in the late Ming, playwright Xu Wei (d. 1593) dramatized the tale as "The Female Mulan" (雌木蘭 or, more fully, "The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in Her Father's Place" (Chinese: 雌木蘭替父從軍; pinyin: Cí-Mùlán Tì Fù Cóngjūn), in two acts.

For additional later renditions of the legend, see Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend, with Related Texts, tr., ed., and intro. by Shiamin Kwa and Wilt L. Idema (Indianapolis and Cambridge:  Hackett, 2010).

Given what we know from Sanping Chen about the strongly masculine character of the Xianbei name Mulan (MS Muklan), it is ironic that Xu Wei emphasizes the femininity of the Sinographic form Mùlán 木蘭 by adding the prefix cí 雌 ("female").

Since the ballad is not too long, but is extremely important as the sole primary source of the legends about Mulan that grew up over the centuries, I offer it in its entirety here:

Click, click, forever click, click;

Mulan sits at the door and weaves.

Listen, and you will not hear the shuttle's sound,

But only hear a girl's sobs and sighs.

"Oh tell me, lady, are you thinking of your love,

Oh tell me, lady, are you longing for your dear?"

"Oh no, oh no, I am not thinking of my love,

Oh no, oh no, I am not longing for my dear.

But last night I read the battle-roll;

The Khan has ordered a great levy of men.

The battle-roll was written in twelve books,

And in each book stood my father's name.

My father's sons are not grown men,

And of all my brothers, none is older than me.

Oh let me to the market to buy saddle and horse,

And ride with the soldiers to take my father's place."

In the eastern market she's bought a gallant horse,

In the western market she's bought saddle and cloth.

In the southern market she's bought snaffle and reins,

In the northern market she's bought a long whip.

In the morning she stole from her father's and mother's house;

At night she was camping by the Yellow River's side.

She could not hear her father and mother calling to her by her name,

But only the song of the Yellow River as its hurrying waters hissed and swirled through the night.

At dawn they left the River and went on their way;

At dusk they came to the Black Mountain's side.

She could not hear her father and mother calling to her by her name,

She could only hear the muffled voices of foreign* horsemen riding on the hills of Yen.

A thousand tricents** she tramped on the errands of war,

Frontiers and hills she crossed like a bird in flight.

Through the northern air echoed the watchman's tap;

The wintry light gleamed on coats of mail.

The captain had fought a hundred fights, and died;

The warriors in ten years had won their rest.

They went home; they saw the Son of Heaven's face;

The Son of Heaven*** was seated in the Hall of Light.

Dispensing enfeoffments and accolades by the dozens;

And of prize money a hundred thousand strings.

Then spoke the Khan and asked Mulan what they wanted.

"Oh, Mulan asks not to be made

A Counsellor at the Khan's court;

I only wish to borrow a camel that can march

A thousand tricents a day,

To take me back to my home."

When her father and mother heard that she had come,

They went to the outer town wall and led her back to the house.

When her little sister heard that she had come,

She went to the door and rouged her face afresh.

When her little brother heard that his sister had come,

He sharpened his knife and darted like a flash

Towards the pigs and sheep.

She opened the gate that leads to the eastern tower,

She sat on her bed that stood in the western tower.

She cast aside her heavy soldier's cloak,

And wore again her old-time dress.

She stood at the window and bound her cloudy hair;

She went to the mirror and fastened her yellow combs.

She left the house and met her messmates on the road;

Her messmates were startled out of their wits.

They had marched with her for twelve years of war

And never known that Mulan was a girl.

For the male hare has a lilting, lolloping gate,

And the female hare has a wild and roving eye;

But set them both scampering side by side,

Who could distinguish between male and female?

(from the version in The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, with emendations by VHM)

*hú 胡, which Waley loosely translates at "Scythian"; in this instance it is likely referring to the Rouran, who incidentally were the first people to use the title Khan / Qaghan for their ruler.

**lǐ 里, which Waley renders as "league(s)", but a league is three statute miles; that's much too long.  A lǐ 里 is 300 paces, roughly a third of a mile (a thousand paces), hence my neologism, which is no longer so "neo-", since I've been using it for several decades.

***Here and in the preceding line, the ruler is referred to as tiānzǐ 天子 ("Son of Heaven"), not as huángdì 皇帝 ("august thearch"), which would have been suitable for an emperor in the Confucian order.

"The Ballad of Mulan" is also available in an English translation by Hans H. Frankel, from his The  Flowering  Plum  and  the  Palace  Lady:  Interpretations  of  Chinese  Poetry (New  Haven:  Yale  University Press, 1976), pp. 68-72, in this pdf from Columbia University (Asia for Educators).  It is preceded by this short, but richly informative and commendably cogent, introduction:

This poem was composed in the fifth or sixth century CE.  At the time, China was divided between north and south.  The rulers of the northern dynasties were from non-Han ethnic groups, most of them from Turkic peoples such as the Toba (Tuoba, also known as Xianbei), whose Northern Wei dynasty ruled most of northern China from 386–534. This background explains why the character Mulan refers to the Son of Heaven as "Khan" — the title given to rulers among the pastoral nomadic people of the north, including the Xianbei — one of the many reasons why the images conveyed in  the movie "Mulan" of a stereotypically Confucian Chinese civilization fighting against the barbaric "Huns" to the north are inaccurate.

Another English translation of "The Ballad of Mulan", this one by Jack Yuan, may be found here in Wikisource.

No matter which translation one consults, one cannot miss the repeated references to the ruler as the Khan / Qaghan (可汗 ["ruler; sovereign"]) and to Mulan's wish, after the fighting is over, to be rewarded with a camel to take her back home.  Such references are suitable for life among the Xianbei during the 5th-6th century.

Enough!  If people want to watch "Mulan" as some sort of wǔxiá / mou5-hap6 / bú-kiap / vú-hia̍p 武俠 ("martial hero / heroine") thriller, so be it, but please don't confuse this film with history.

Forgive me, but, judging from the trailer, this Disney film about Mulan is yītāhútú 一塌糊塗 ("one big mess").

Readings

[Thanks to Geoff Wade, Peter Golden, Alexander Vovin, and Juha Janhunen]



29 Comments

  1. Victor Mair said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 1:57 pm

    From Sanping Chen:

    Here is another case of Mulan being used as a male name during the Northern Dynasties:

    北京圖書館藏中國歷代石刻拓本彙編 vol.7, p.161:

    (An inscription dated 北齊天統元年 565AD)

    郡兼功曹柴木蘭

    VHM: Part of the rubbing (just the 7 characters transcribed above) is available upon request

  2. The Other Mark P said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 4:28 pm

    Glad to see the offendatrons are out in force.

    Hollywood does this to European history and legend, so it's not like we should expect any better just because it is set in China/not China. I recall watching the Costner "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" with appalled horror as they butchered historical realism without a care. And I couldn't bring myself to watch the trash that is "300".

  3. David Marjanović said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 5:10 pm

    And I couldn't bring myself to watch the trash that is "300".

    "300" becomes watchable, indeed hilarious, if you watch the parody "Meet the Spartans" first.

  4. ycx said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 5:31 pm

    As an ethnic Chinese who was forced as a child to memorise the ballad (alongside many other poems) by my parents, I always assumed Mulan was set in the Mongolian Yuan era (1200s-1300s) due to the "Khagan" mentioned.

    I'm totally surprised to learn that not only was this assumption seven centuries off the mark, but that Mulan was actually not even Han Chinese.

  5. Marlo said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 5:36 pm

    No proof that Mulan even ever existed. It's just a story, and a Chinese story at that, unless you can pull up a Central Asian / Turkic source for it. There's a reason Aladdin was set in the Middle East and not China.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 7:29 pm

    Sanping Chen's magnum opus is now available in Chinese translation:

    http://gusapublishing.blogspot.com/2019/04/sanping-chen.html

  7. Carl said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 8:28 pm

    Prof. Mair,

    I love your translations, but I can never get pass the ugliness of "tricent". I think "mile" is sufficient, particularly for round numbers like "1,000 li". If you have to give rough distances, just shove it in a footnote.

  8. ycx said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 8:54 pm

    Actually, on second thought, the fact that Mulan is now widely believed to be and advertised as Han Chinese (instead of her true Turkic heritage) is not really all that unusual when considered in the global context.

    Let's consider the British Isles, whose list of famous/legendary leaders include various ethnicities considered to be "barbarians" such as Boudica (Iceni/Celtic), King Arthur (Welsh/Celtic), Canute, Harald and Harold (Scandinavian ex-Vikings), William the Conqueror (Norman ex-Vikings).

    Similarly, the entire Rurikovich dynasty of what later became Russia was descended from the "barbaric" Viking Varangians, who in an interesting mirror of the Mongol Yuan and Manchu Qing dynasties of China eventually adopted the local Slavic customs and language, evolving into the tsardom of Russia.

    Ethnicities are surprisingly fluid when given millennia to evolve.

  9. chris said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 9:02 pm

    Still today, Mùlán 木蘭 is a common given name for Chinese women. Such a pretty, feminine name simply would not have worked for a dozen years of war among exclusively male soldiery.

    I don't know if you've seen the animated Disney version, but in that she enlists under a pseudonym, possibly acknowledging this issue. This trailer doesn't show enough to know whether that's still the case in this version.

    It's interesting though that if there was a historical Mulan at all, then her name might not have been the same as the feminine Mulan name used today, but something from another language that just happened to sound like Mulan. (Was the feminine name Mulan already in common use in Xu Wei's time?)

    Which then raises the question of whether Muklan, if that's the original form, was her childhood name or an alias she used to pass as male — certainly her messmates of 12 years would only have known the name she used in the army, whether or not that was an alias adopted to pass more effectively. Would it have been perceived as a gender-marked name in that culture?

    P.S. I've heard of a thousand-li horse before, but this is the first time I've heard of someone asking for a thousand-li camel! It seems like an impressive-to-exaggerated figure for any flesh and blood steed, though.

  10. Chris Button said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 9:09 pm

    Note the Cantonese and Minnan pronunciations of mùlán 木蘭

    For a brief moment I thought we were going to open up the discussion on 蘭 again: https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=42828 :)

    Indeed, in his excellent Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages, Sergei Starostin proposed an Altaic root *mulaI, "a kind of deer", with Tungusic *mul- and Proto-Mongolian *maral, "mountain deer", and Proto-Turkic *bulan, "elk." This root, especially the Proto-Turkic form, would be a near perfect fit for the Tuoba name Mulan.

    Interesting! Having quickly skim-read Chen's "From Mulan to Unicorn" (2005), I see he has already considered the problem of the earlier final -k in 木. Yet, while Pulleyblank's argument around consonant clusters and ru-sheng (stopped) syllables does seem convincing, I'm not sure if I'm convinced by Chen's extension of it beyond that. What would be the reason for such a practice? Looking at Chen's first example (there are admittedly many more that merit attention from others more versed in such material than me), he notes Sanskrit "Bhuṭa" (Tibet/Bod) as 僕吒 with -k at the end of 僕. Yet, I can't help but wonder if that -k is more associated with helping to better approximate the retroflex onset of the second syllable than anything else?

  11. Jonathan Smith said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 9:09 pm

    Fascinating. I know nothing about the problem but in a vacuum it doesn't seem very likely that "雌木蘭" involves cí 雌 'female'. Perhaps this trisyllabic form can be related to […]柴木蘭 from the inscription noted by Sanping Chen?

  12. Chas Belov said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 1:13 am

    I've only seen the Cantonese opera Fa Muklan, at the Great Star Theatre in San Francisco many years ago. Since I don't understand more than a smattering of Cantonese, I have no idea whether it presents Mulan as Han. However, it had plenty of action and I enjoy listening to Cantonese opera, so I had a good time.

  13. Thorin said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 1:19 am

    @chris from what I understand, the pseudonym she adopts in the upcoming movie is Hua Jun.

  14. rosie said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 1:23 am

    @The Other Mark P: I see no offence-taking, just criticism. And is criticism of something necessarily wrong if the thing has a precedent?

    @Mario: Why do you cite Aladdin? Though there is fiction about him, he was a real person (Ala'addin at-Tabrizi), a late-14th-century shatranj-player.

  15. Michael Watts said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 1:57 am

    Why do you cite Aladdin?

    The point Marlo was making was that we set Aladdin in the Middle East despite the original French story explicitly calling him Chinese. (Other than the explicit label "China", nothing about the setting is actually Chinese.)

    We do that because… the story was slipped into a French translation of the Arabian Nights. That muddles Marlo's point a little bit.

  16. R. Fenwick said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 3:41 am

    @Marlo:
    There's a reason Aladdin was set in the Middle East and not China.

    A touch tangential to the topic of the original post, but you're confusing origin with setting. Yes, Aladdin was composed by a person from the "Middle East" – almost certainly the Syrian Christian storyteller Anṭūn Yūsuf Ḥannā Diyāb, who was not credited by Antoine Galland – and its setting is Islamic, but that doesn't mean it must be "Middle Eastern". The Islamic setting isn't inconsistent with Galland's French explicitly placing Aladdin's origin "dans la capitale d'un royaume de la Chine" ["in the capital of one of the realms of China"]. Under the Mongols a large population of Muslims were transplanted into territories now claimed by China – as many as four million by one estimate – and the subsequent history of Xinjiang includes long periods of rule by Muslims (often in vassalage or swearing fealty to imperial China), with administrative capitals variously at Almaliq (near modern 伊宁 Yīníng), Kashgar (modern 喀什 Kāshí), and Yarkand (modern 莎车 Shāchē). Referring to any of these cities as "Middle Eastern" surely stretches the common semantics of that term to the breaking point.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 8:08 am

    "Netizens hail China's first female tank operators as today's Mulan"

    By Zhang Han (Global Times) 08:33, July 16, 2019

    http://english.people.com.cn/n3/2019/0716/c90000-9597476.html

  18. Rodger C said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 9:00 am

    Almaliq (near modern 伊宁 Yīníng), Kashgar (modern 喀什 Kāshí), and Yarkand (modern 莎车 Shāchē)

    By "modern" you seem to mean "Chinese." Surely Almaliq, Kashgar and Yarkand are also modern names?

  19. Mongol said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 9:28 am

    Hua Mulan does sound a bit like Huo'ai Malanle the ancestor of Genghis Khan.

    Original transcription of the Secret History of the Mongols has "Chengjisu Hahanna huzhawu'er, Die'elie Tenggeli'eche zhayatu tuolekexian Buo'ertai China azhuwu, ge'ergai yinu Huo'ai Malanle aji'ai".

    Mongolian: "Chingis Haanii uzuur, Deer Tengerees zayaat tursun Borte Chino ajuguu, gergei inu Gua Maral ajee".

    English: "Genghis Khan's origin, Supreme Tengri-from destiny-with born Borte Chino was, wife of-whom Gua Maral was".

    Borte Chino sounds a bit like Modu Chanyu of the Xiongnu. Gua Maral sounds like Hua Mulan of the Xianbei. Was this a secret way saying the Mongols were descended from the Xiongnu and the Xianbei?

  20. Ursa Major said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 9:36 am

    @The Other Mark P

    "I recall watching the Costner "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" with appalled horror as they butchered historical realism without a care."

    What a strange over-reaction to what is IMO the best Robin Hood film (other opinions are equally valid). Robin Hood has always been a historical fantasy set in a world constructed from the greatest hits of the past. Even the nominal period has never been settled, it is only in the last few decades that it has settled on the Richard I-John years. The very first literary reference to the character (Piers Plowman) treats him as a popular meme.

    From the Iliad on these kinds of stories, with a historical setting but retold over and over, have always been a combination of preserved elements from earlier versions and the ideas and expectations of the present authors and their audience. How closely do you think Gunther's world in Götterdämmerung reflects post-Roman Burgundy? Does that detract from the Ring Cycle at all?

    Mulan, with its oldest preserved version being a popular ballad, has some similarity to Robin Hood. It should be viewed as an action adventure set in an idealised version of the past. One should hope for an exploration of historical themes (in this case gender roles, or political and cultural relationships between East Asian ethnic groups, or whatever else the authors are interested in) but expecting historical realism is ridiculous.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 12:44 pm

    From Sanping Chen:

    Regarding the case of 柴木蘭, it is cited from a little-known clan-sponsored dedicatory inscription 造像記. Of several dozens of donors listed, most had the family name 柴. And of contemporary people named 木蘭, none had greater renown than the Western-Wei/Northern Zhou general 韓木蘭. Han's son 擒虎 was even more famous for his deeds in conquering the south and unifying China.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 12:50 pm

    The famous 韓擒虎 (538-592)! I've always called him "Catch Tiger Han". There's even a Dunhuang 敦煌 popular narrative about him, the so-called《韩擒虎话本》 (S2144). Here's the text. Han Qinhu played an important role in the unification of the north and south under the Sui Dynasty (see here).

  23. David Morris said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 5:29 pm

    Watching the trailer, I was struck by the (very slight) difference between the parents' accents: as far as I can judge accents, American for the mother, a slight Chinese tinge for the father and a definite Chinese sound for her. This may have more to do with the three actors rather than any policy decision.

  24. Chris Button said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 10:06 pm

    Chen separately devotes a considerable amount of attention to another Altaic word, bulān…

    I see he has already considered the problem of the earlier final -k in 木… What would be the reason for such a practice?

    I wonder if it comes down to vowel length? The shorter vowel being the one checked with the -k.

  25. AntC said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 12:49 am

    I know it's off-topic, but thank you for the links debunking Gavin Menzies; and particular thanks to Geoff Wade for detailing the nonsense.

    It must be the bane of historians' lives to have to constantly oppose junk history; as much as for linguists' to oppose junk language genealogy. There seems to be no end to such crackpottery, nor to the secondary commenters quick to jump on any bandwagon and weld the lot into some 'theory of all history/language'. I've even heard Graham Hancock lecture to the effect: even if not all of these theories are true, why are academics not trying to investigate such a suggestive body of evidence? Because a body of crackpots does not constitute even a scintilla of 'evidence'; and because historians'/linguists' work is hard science that keeps them busy producing proper evidence that will stand up to scrutiny.

  26. Philip Taylor said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 1:51 am

    For me, the singular "they" in "Then spoke the Khan and asked Mulan what they wanted" sticks out like a sore thumb. Should not the language of translation reflect the mores of the time rather than the mores of today ? I far prefer Victor's earlier rendering in The Shorter Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, where it appears as "Then spoke the Khan and asked her what she would take". It could, of course, be argued that at the time Mulan was still masquerading as a man, in which case it could equally well be cast as "Then spoke the Khan and asked Mulan what he would take", but to me at least, the "they" just does not ring true.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 6:14 am

    @Philip Taylor

    I'm glad you noticed that (singular "they") and politely raised it as an issue.

    Even more pointedly, and particularly for readers of Language Log, at the end of the paragraph beginning "Thus, Mulan fought as a man, not as a woman", I wrote "'they triumphs'". These are two of the last changes I made during the three days I was engaged in writing this post — also changing "li / leagues / miles" to "tricents" (it's more than enough to ask for a camel that can go around 300 miles in one day, but to request one that can go 1,000 miles or more than 3,000 miles is preposterous.

  28. Eidolon said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 5:27 pm

    Can we sensibly assign a historical identity to "Mulan" from what precious little we know of the author's actual intent? The folk ballad was anonymously written, and though clearly from a Northern Wei context, it does not indicate "Mulan" was a real person. There is similarly no record of any female warrior from the time that could've served as her inspiration. The author – or authors – must have had some concept of her identity in mind when coming up with the character. But I don't think there's enough to definitively say what they intended.

    But if she is fictional, then the identity of the original version of "Mulan" and the identities of the later versions of "Mulan" should not be conflated. The later instances of "Mulan" are either clearly Turkic, Chinese, or some other variation. Disney can then claim that their "Mulan" is as legitimate as any other – and better, that she's copy righted.

  29. Philip Anderson said,

    July 23, 2019 @ 7:35 am

    @Michael Watts
    In British pantomime, Aladdin always has a Chinese setting, albeit a China based more on the London Chinese community (complete with Chinese laundry) than the Far East:
    http://www.its-behind-you.com/storyaladdin.html

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